Towpath Tales [part 3]

We were down to our last two days of cycling before we’d need to trek back up to Caen for the ferry.

There was a convenient parking spot at Pont d’Oust, where a bend in the canal is host to a few houseboats, a picnic place and a mooring for leisure boats or smaller craft.

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We lunched, squeezed into paddy-pants [essential cycling gear], applied sun block, applied insect repellent and set off towards Redon. It was a busier day on the cycle path, being a Sunday, especially in an area where the canal and river merge and there is a gorge with steep cliffs, popular with climbers, leisure boats, picnickers and the rest.

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On our arrival to Redon we were treated to the surreal sight of a parade of amphibious vehicles around the town, followed by their launch [as we set off back] into the canal. We’ve seen collections of Citroen 2CVs and various other vehicles in France before but never a sight such as this.

The municipal site at Saint Martin d’Oust is immaculate, with sparkling new showers and a quiet, canal-side location. Better still, a busy, picturesque bar-restaurant by the flower adorned bridge serves delicious Breton cider. As often the case, reception was closed when we arrived but we followed the instructions to choose a pitch and pay later. We parked, made a meal and went for pre-dinner drinks.

Next morning, having visited the boulangerie, we left the site and breakfasted at the canal-side.

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Then it was off back to Le Roc St Andre for our very last cycle of the trip, short, breezy and not too difficult.

We’d come to the end of our trip. When I reflected on it I realised that one of the aspects I’d enjoyed was seeing the numbers of entire families out on their bikes, carrying or pulling all their camping gear and cycling together; trailers with small children or a dog, paniers loaded, heaped up cycle carriers. Sometimes there were young children riding bikes piled high with sleeping bags and mats. They would arrive at a site, the parents unloading and putting up dinky tents and their children still with energy to burn, cartwheeling over the grass, racing to the play park or cycling round and round as if they’d only just risen from bed. The parents made meals using rudimentary cooking equipment, sitting at a site picnic table or setting up lightweight, fold-up chairs-or simply sitting on a blanket.

I was in awe of these parents, who were confident and competent to undertake travel this way with their kids.Those children made no complaints. They played, ate and slept. Next morning they were up, packing, ready for the new day. When they return to school they will have towpath tales of their own to tell-and memories to last them into adulthood.

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Scotland is another Country

My early holidays as a young child were camping trips taken with my parents and my two brothers to locations around the British Isles, staying at farms-there was no such facility as a camp site-and pitching tents in a corner of a field.

We travelled, all five squeezed into one of the various small vehicles my father procured-starting with a little, old black Ford. Packing was an art form in which only my father amongst us was skilled [apparently]. The tents [ex-army acquisitions] went on to a roof rack together with our ex-army kapok sleeping bags [camouflage design] which had been cut down to child size by my mother on her treadle sewing machine. Then there was a ‘Bluet’ cooking stove in a tin box plus all our enamel plates, cups and dishes. Any leftover space housed our clothing-shorts and T shirts plus one jumper-oh and pyjamas of course.

We would have to get up in the dark, small hours to undertake the journey, since motorways had not been conceived and stop in lay-bys where my father would get out and set up the Bluet to make tea. My mother struggled with the stove, pumping to get the spirit fuel going and famously throwing it over a fence when the flame shot forth terrifyingly. Much later, having reached the destination he had selected [Wales, Devon, The Peak District, The Lake District] we would stop at a likely farm and request a space for our very basic tents-an arctic ‘bell’ tent and a home-made construction from poles and sackcloth he’d cobbled together to be our ‘toilet’ tent. He would dig a neat, square hole and erect a seat made from 4 struts and a timber frame-to sit on and carefully backfill and replace the turf after use.

Once we travelled to Scotland, an intrepid adventure for the time. My memories are dominated by the mist and drizzle that masked every view, the night we slept in a milking parlour due to the inclement weather [I could feel the drainage channels through the thick kapok of my sleeping bag] and the eyrie, plaintive bagpipe melody drifting through the fog over Culloden Field, where a brutal and bloody battle was fought.

We camped in the Highlands with a view of Ben Nevis. My father fulfilled his burning desire to bathe in a mountain stream by moonlight, an event which, for some inexplicable reason we were all taken along to witness but had no appetite to share; the Scottish weather not lending itself to this kind of romance.

We know the outcome of Scotland’s attempt to sever the umbilical. Scotland seemed foreign enough to me then, without the need for independence and still does, in the same way that the USA feels foreign. There is more to unfamiliarity, to foreigness, than a different language.

Going to the Dogs

                I don’t know what prompted us to accept our neighbours’ invitation to go to the dog track, but perhaps it was the aftermath of incarceration at Cahersiveen, where squalls had kept us banged up for an entire day and even a soaking walk to the nearest bar was scant relief. Admittedly, the proprietor of Mannix Point, award-winning site, one Mortimer Moriarti, mindful of the weather has done what he can to mitigate it for hapless tent campers. He has provided classical music ‘piped’ in the showers [!], a well equipped kitchen, washers and dryers and a comfortable sitting room with a peat log fire, squashy sofas, a piano, piles of magazines, card and board games and two, enormous, sleepy marmalade cats. Many had availed themselves of this facility, sprawling across the sofas, wet trekking boots abandoned on the wooden floor. Sadly, the site cannot win awards for weather. After a second damp and windy night we set off to see the Ring of Kerry.

                The morning was at last dry with some promise of blue sky. We followed the convoy of cars, motorhomes and coaches around the ‘Ring’, taking in Skellig Rocks, Ladies’ View and Moll’s Gap, then on to Tralee. Here in the West of Ireland tourism has drenched the countryside in a glow of affluence; the homes bearing the mark of architect’s pen, the hotels upmarket. We were persuaded to spend a second night in Tralee and take in the sights of the Dingle peninsula, allegedly more rugged and less tourist trodden. In the event, the road was just as clogged with sightseers as the Ring of Kerry, the lay-bys and viewpoints as crowded, the fellow travellers as irritating-as I’m sure we are to them. Here on Dingle we climbed to see the most westerly point of Europe, and yes, the scenery was spectacular.

                Foregoing the ‘dining package’ at the dog track we opted instead for fish and chips at Quinlan’s in the town, a happy choice,  then to the stadium, where we mingled with the hardcore regulars in the bar and attempted to make sense of the informative brochure. Groups of men clustered around the screens clutching race newspapers. I pushed what I knew of greyhound racing and its sharp practices firmly into a cupboard in my brain, having recently read a Roald Dahl story on the subject. I studied the names of the dogs, the ‘form’-all written in a mysterious code that may just as well have been the Gaelic that is widely spoken in the area as anything else. For Race 1 I selected ‘Christie’s Ashes’. I went to the desk with my 2 euros clutched in my hot hand, returning with a slip of paper. Outside the dogs were having a pre race stroll, some padding sedately, others prancing skittishly. My selected runner differed from the other five only in his wearing of a blue jacket, but had, by now become the favourite. The dogs seemed happy enough-enthusiastic, even. They were put into the starting boxes, there was a mechanical hum as the ‘hare’ started around then as it came level the dogs burst out in a tumbling blur, flashing past us and on around the track. A portly, florid gent brandished his programme and yelled encouragement, “Gaan, gaan!”

It was over in seconds. Christie’s Ashes had won. I went to the desk with my slip to claim my winnings and returned to our table flushed with success.  A whole 7 euros!

                The result of race one, however was beginners luck. I was to win nothing more-worse I was significantly lighter in the pocket by the end of the evening. This, of course is how the addicted become so in gambling. For us it was an experience and a fun evening though I doubt it will embed into my social life as a regular feature.

A Heady Romp in the Fields of Yesteryear

                When I was a young child my family undertook intrepid camping excursions into the extremities of the UK. I don’t recall there being any such luxury as a camp site or a holiday park, or if there were we didn’t venture into any. We camped at farms. We’d meander along the lanes in my father’s old ‘Commer’ or whatever vehicle he had, until he spotted a likely farm, then he’d knock on the door and request a corner of a field for us. Whether we were ever refused entry I don’t know, but we always found somewhere to pitch up. We all had to help out with the tents, old ex-army structures, notably a bell tent in which we all slept, two adults and three children, around the central pole. This bell tent was reversible-snowy white on the inside and camouflage green and brown splodges on the outside. It was accessed via low tunnels-easy for small children but presumably less so for my parents.

                My father was a little like Allie Fox in Paul Theroux’s ‘Mosquito Coast’, in that he hatched the ideas and liked to ‘go native’, pulling us all along with him. Once the tent was erected he’d take the spade he’d brought along and dig a pit for the toilet tent he’d specially constructed from four poles and some sacking. We slept on ex-army, canvas camp beds, the assembly of which was an acquired skill, and in ex-army, camouflage, kapok sleeping bags that my mother had cut down to size for us on her treadle sewing machine.

                Cooking was executed on two primus stoves housed in biscuit tins-always outside, even in a howling gale. We ate and drank from enamel plates and mugs. Whenever it was deemed necessary for us to bathe we made excursions to local towns where we would find a public bathing house. You would be shown to a steamy cubicle and handed a towel and a small wafer of soap.

                There were, of course, times when the weather was inclement [even in the summers of childhood]. Most farmers would take pity on us, allowing us to sleep in a hayloft or a barn or once, as I recall on the floor of a milking shed, where the concave channels for drainage made for an uncomfortable night. During periods of sustained rain we’d sometimes go to the cinema, a treat that would be followed up by fish and chips in a newspaper wrapper, consumed whilst sitting, all five of us squashed into a car with steamy windows. Occasionally the parents felt the need to visit the local pub and we’d be brought out bottles of lemonade and packets of crisps, since in those days children did not enter such establishments.

                We travelled to Scotland, Wales, the Lake District, the Peak District, camped within sight of Ben Nevis, on the moors, next to pubs, next to rocky streams.

                What a contrast the modern equivalent of camping is! These days I feel grumpy if there is no internet access, the water in the showers is less than piping hot or the electric hook-up fails. Even UK camp sites have managed to acquire the sophisticated facilities offered by continental sites. Some would say it isn’t ‘real’ camping if you don’t build an open fire or catch your own food but I’ll stick with the comforts the van provides, miniature though they may be!

It’s good to know your place.

People can be sniffy about camping, sometimes recoiling at the very idea. I assume they’ve either had a cold, wet, unpleasant, childhood experience of it in the UK or have never tried it at all. Whilst I’ve done all kinds of trips and travel and enjoyed [occasionally] the pampering that a luxury hotel can provide, there have been few years in my life when I haven’t undertaken some kind of camping trip. But amongst all our friends and family members we are alone in pursuing such an eccentric activity.

Until about three years ago we used tents. We undertook some monumental excursions lasting several weeks and sometimes covering several countries. The last tent holiday was to Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, a six week duration. The trips were a success because we took them during the summer months and to places where the weather is reliably warm and sunny; although tent technology now is such that the structures can withstand the worst deluges. We never got wet.

Then we became ‘time-rich’. Holidays could be taken whenever, and for as long as we wanted. Now the tent was less useful, because of the constraints of weather [no fun in the cold]-hence the purchase of a miniscule camper van which houses and transports us for many weeks of each year. However, while the van is a marginal step from tents in sophistication, we are at the bottom of the heap in motorhome terms. The average motorhome is a lumbering giant of a vehicle providing accommodation akin to a modest bungalow, including flat screen TV and satellite dish, shower and toilet cubicle, fully fitted kitchen with accompanying gadgets.

Our van is dwarfed by these other, giant vehicles. The space inside, once we’ve pushed up the ‘rock and roll’ bed [yes-it really is called that] is very cosy-intimate, you might say. If one were to fall out with one’s fellow traveller there would be nowhere to stomp off to and sulk, like a spare room. It is both necessary and desirable to get along-and to know one’s companion very well. There is no space to be coy on delicate matters such as ‘facilities’ [the porta-potty]. It occupies a night time position squeezed in between the bed and the front seat. The bed, though comfortable, is narrow, so that when one wakes to pee the other follows suit.

In financial terms it makes perfect sense to be using such a tiny home on wheels. Fuel goes further and we are classed as a ‘car’ on the ferry to Europe, saving us a lot. But there are other advantages to being so small. We fit into a car space in supermarket car parks and can manoeuvre along narrow streets. It takes very little time for us to set up, having not a lot in the way of gadgetry and we fit into any ‘emplacement’, which is more than you could have said for the tent. During frequent lazy spells there is nothing that cannot be accessed by stretching one’s arm a little, from the wine bottle to the corkscrew. What’s not to like?

Why do we do it? Because it is the most relaxing, flexible, enjoyable type of travel you can get. If you like somewhere-stay. If you don’t-move on. Weather nasty? Look at the forecast and move somewhere better. Cook-or eat out. No timetable, schedule, booking. No socialising unless you want it. Choose your location, your position, your view, [and some of the best views you can get anywhere]. Then there are the sites-!