Aires-and Grace’s Guide…

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Nowhere in Europe has motor-homing taken off more than in France and while just about every nation has its devotees, the French have thrown themselves with gusto into holiday-homes-on-wheels, the bigger the better.

You can generally guess the nationality of motorhome owners without glancing at the coded number plate. A German will drive a camper-van fabricated from a vehicle that had a former life as a fire engine/horse box/burger van/security van/army lorry and will have been furnished with a wood-burning stove and decorated with artistic graffiti. The French will drive white, shiny, gargantuan gas-guzzlers furnished with their beloved net curtains crocheted with images of kittens, roses or boats.

In response to the explosion in French motor-homes businesses and councils of almost every community have capitalised on these tourist convoys by providing overnight parking with or without services, sometimes for a few euros-sometimes with no charge at all. The idea is that by attracting camper-vans [‘camping cars’ as the French call them] to their town the owners will spend money in shops, bars and restaurants.

Aires vary. Some are landscaped with trees and verges. Most are basic car parks with marked spaces and the addition of a machine selling water [typically 2 euros to fill the vehicle’s fresh water tank] and providing an emptying slot, a ‘vidange’ for the toilet cartridge. You have to hope that your fellow motor-homers are conscientious about keeping loo and water hose outlets separate [hence my regular disinfection of our hosepipe!].

Many aires are part of a larger, town car park. For a large proportion entry is gained by way of a ticket machine-and there are various types with vastly different operating systems for entry and exit. Heaven help those who mislay their exit ticket or number!

The French are cunning about their use of aires and over-night their motor-homes just about anywhere, on pieces of scrub land, beside canals, in lay-bys or in town car parks. They’ll choose any spot with a view or that is convenient then come into an aire to use the services [especially if free of charge]. The powers-that-be are as laisser-faire about parking as the owners are gung-ho but we, the timorous foreigners tend towards towing the line and we park up carefully in a marked bay, whereupon subsequent travellers enter and take up any available spot as long as it isn’t next to us. We’ve grown used to this now-nobody wishing to have the Anglais for neighbours. Perhaps post-2019 we’ll be banned altogether?

In the morning there will often be a queue to empty and refill the vans-an opportunity to observe and to indulge in ‘compare and contrast’. You have to beware of ‘services rage’ or those who take a studied, unhurried approach to the task.

Of course other European countries provide stopover sites [although not the UK] but they are never so widespread as in France. Once we got the hang of using aires we never looked back. You wouldn’t want to use them all the time-although I suspect many French do; we use them for night stops and sometimes 2 nights if we want to visit a city. They are not to be confused with motorway ‘aires’-those landscaped picnic areas along the roadsides which are useful lunch stops but must never, never be used for overnight sleeping!

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TMTE than TOWIE…

               Here in the UK where get our share of reality TV the creative whizzes behind the shows display no signs at all that they are running out of ideas. One such programme is a day-to-day look at life in the county of Essex, a county that has gained itself quite a reputation during the last fifteen years or so, for its characterful populace and their antics.

                I must confess I am not a follower of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and that all of my knowledge of said show has been gleaned from reading reviews or catching glimpses of the ‘slebs’ in glossy magazines whilst waiting for appointments [as explained in previous posts], but I’m guessing that fans of the programme could be forgiven for thinking that all there is to Essex is London overspill towns, spray tans, vajazzles and estuary vowels [for the uninitiated-Essex edges itself around the mouth of the Thames as it joins the North Sea and the inhabitants speak in a distinctive, unmistakeable accent]. It is easy to gain a preconceived idea of a place.

                I consider myself, as far as the UK is concerned, to be a South Wester-that is to say I was born in the South West I’ve spent most of my life living there, however I did spend some significant periods of my childhood living in both East Anglia [North Norfolk] and Kent, and although I know and recall both of these areas well I knew nothing of Essex until this week, when we journeyed Eastwards to rectify this gaping void of ignorance.

                Of course I was well aware that besides the sprawling conurbations of Basildon and Romford there were whole tracts of beautiful countryside, swathes of marshes teeming with wildlife, charming coastal towns and quaint villages and I have not been disappointed. We made first for Mersea Island in the south-an island only in that a wide, muddy causeway separates it from the ‘mainland’, given over largely to holiday parks, but also home to manicured villages with black, clapperboard houses with voluptuous gardens, village duck-ponds and wonderful pubs. We visited the Oyster Bar, indulging in an enormous sharing platter of crab, prawns, mussels, cockles, smoked salmon, smoked haddock and of course, oysters-accompanied by a Guiness [Husband] and a chilled white wine [me].

                Colchester, towards the East boasts the reputation of being the earliest recorded town in the country, although here my expectations were a little dashed. It is a handsome town, with some fine buildings but not spectacular. It has a modest, well-tended castle but I suspect all vestiges of antiquity were thrashed out of it long ago to make way for the ubiquitous likes of H&M, Marks and Spencer, Greggs and Tesco Express.             

                On again then to the East coast beyond Colchester, where were truly in the depths of the countryside, but near to the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe [across the water to the North in Suffolk]. It is an exemplary scene of rural England. So much for preconceptions-and all about three hours away!