A starling murmuration is the Blackpool headliner

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The murmuration of starlings over Blackpool’s North Pier

Continuing the theme of a winter that is full of sunshine [yes I know we’ve just had a very wintry week] we have managed to get away in our blue campervan at various times this last few months in the sunshine.  In truth walking through the carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall in Bretherton near Preston you don’t need the sunshine to make you feel good; the bright white snowdrops bring their own light and it is impossible to be unhappy surrounded by flowers that mean spring is just around the corner.  We chose another sunny day to visit the wonderful Cobble Hey Farm on the slopes of the Bowland Fells looking over Garstang.  Here a beautiful woodland garden has been created that shows the full range of different varieties of snowdrops; snowdrops with yellow stems, tall snowdrops and early flowering snowdrops are all here.  In the barn we also met our first spring lamb.

Before Storm Emma arrived we spent a couple of sunny days around Blackpool.  It was cold in the clear weather and we had a much better time than we expected.  The Fylde coast around Blackpool is brimming with attractions from trams to public art, from history to the pleasure beach.  We walked along the front taking in all the old and the new, munching freshly-made doughnuts from a seafront stall.  Despite all Blackpool’s sights, the best show by far was the evening spectacular of the murmuration of starlings over the North Pier.  Thousands of starlings swooped in unison around the pier and the Irish Sea creating black clouds in the sky before roosting.  The starling’s captivating display was even more impressive than the stunning sunset that had hundreds of cameras clicking.

Away from the brashness of Blackpool we visited Fleetwood, a traditional seaside resort that I remember from childhood visits.  I have always loved the Knott End Ferry, The Mount and the sense of a bygone age that Fleetwood has.  I had relatives who lived in Rossall near Fleetwood and my family would house-swap with them for a week in the summer; they got a chance to meet up with relatives still living in north Staffordshire, we got a cheap week by the seaside.  In 1969 I also stayed there for a week with my Grandmother while she house and dog sat.  I treasured time with my Grandmother but this was a memorable trip for two particular reasons; firstly my Grandmother allowed me to stay up and watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and secondly I found a wallet stuffed with money on the wide and generally empty Rossall Beach.  My Grandmother took me and the wallet to Fleetwood Police Station where the Police Officer emptied the sandy and wet notes on to a sheet of newspaper laid across his counter so they could dry out.  A few weeks later the grateful owner sent me ten shillings [a small fortune for a nine-year old] as a reward.

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Carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall

Camping comfort food: dhal or lentil curry

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Dhal simmering in the pan

While the weather is below freezing I want to eat warming comfort food that is quick to make and delicious to eat.  My go-to recipe in these circumstances is lentil curry.  The recipe is below but it is a versatile dish that you can make your own and add to as suits you.  This is made from ingredients we always have in the store cupboard either at home or in the campervan and for me lentil curry is the ultimate comfort food, you can eat it from a bowl with just a fork [or even a spoon], it is warming and spicy and tasty and memories of all those other lentil curries from the past linger around it.

Dhal / lentil curry for two

Boil a pan of water with a pinch of salt and add two good handfuls (maybe 200 grams) of dried red lentils and a couple of bay leaves.  Boil and skim off any white scum as they boil and top up the water if necessary until the lentils are soft [about 20 minutes].  For this recipe you don’t have to boil the lentils dry.

Remove the bay leaves and put the lentils to one side [I put them in a bowl in the campervan and reuse the same pan for the next stage].

Fry a finely chopped onion in vegetable oil until it starts to catch and brown slightly and then add spices to suit you.  At home I use a teaspoon each of ground tumeric, ground cumin and ground coriander, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a pinch of chili flakes or a fresh chili chopped and maybe a little fresh ginger if I have some in.  In the campervan I usually only have a garam masala mix and fresh garlic to hand.  Fry these for a minute or two and then add the lentils to the pan.  You are now more or less finished but you can garnish the curry with fresh coriander if you have this available.

For variety I sometimes add a couple of chopped tomatoes to the onion or a chopped courgette.  Sometimes I add some finely chopped spinach at the end and this adds some colour.

I serve this wonderful simple food with either plain boiled rice or naan bread or home-made chapattis, the choice is yours.  Not only is this quick to make it is also a cheap eat.  In the campervan naan bread keeps the washing up to just one pan which is a win-win.  Enjoy!

How can you afford holidays when you live on a low budget

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Verona in 1991

We all prioritise what we spend our money on to have the life we want.  You won’t be surprised to read that I have always prioritised holidays over pretty much all discretionary spending.  Despite living on an average or low income for 40-years we have always travelled.  Firstly, some background … when I first started work and living alone I had little money to spare so marriage to Mr BOTRA was a big plus financially [and in many other ways].  Even with below average salaries we were much better off living as a couple.  We had our son in the Thatcher years and so received only a few weeks maternity pay, had to fight for one week of paternity leave, received no Family Tax Credits and the only state help we received was Family Allowance that was frozen in the late 1980s.  And yet we managed to afford holidays, how did we do this?

Through all those years we prioritised holidays over living in expensive houses, buying new furniture and cars and posh frocks.  This was our choice and whereas we would probably be better off now if we had made different decisions no one can ever take all those holiday memories away from us.  We had a ‘big’ holiday every year and these were often adventurous holidays abroad.  After paying the mortgage and the utilities, holidays were our next priority and we saved a set amount every month that was earmarked specifically for holidays.  This amount was put in to a dedicated savings account and such was our determination to explore foreign places that we never dipped in to this money for other financial emergencies.

Our holidays were never expensive and luxurious trips, it was always the travelling that we were interested in.  We enjoyed camping and before our baby was born we bought a high quality tent and acclimatised him to camping from being a toddler.  We chose wisely, buying a Saunders Spacepacker lightweight back-packing tent, widely recognised as the best available in the 1980s and beyond.  We could carry this and our ‘gear’ for our trip in two big rucksacks.  When our son outgrew our shared Spacepacker we bought him his own.

Travelling and seeing new places was what mattered to us, taking walks costs nothing and our holidays were about hiking in the mountains and enjoying fresh air and new experiences.  The budget rarely ran to eating out; the exception was our trip to what was then Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.  Back then eating out was so cheap in those countries we could indulge.  We slipped up when we visited the Black Forest in Germany the following year, assuming the same budget as we had spent in Czechoslovakia and finding out that Germany was much more expensive than eastern Europe!  With no credit card to prop us up we had to stay within budget and it was a tight fortnight.  We discovered Germany’s budget supermarkets, spent the days walking, playing in the parks and visiting free museums and pitched up on a scruffy, anarchic and most importantly cheap campsite; it was an interesting trip.

It was 1991 when we first went abroad to Italy [see the photograph above] and this trip set the pattern.  We took the train to Verona, which had been on my list for many years and I thought I had arrived in heaven.  Camping Castel San Pietro above the town turned out to be the perfect place for two young parents and their five-year old child.  Set inside ancient walls this was a relaxed, welcoming and slightly quirky campsite.  From here we made our way on public transport to the Dolomites and spent our days walking in the dramatic and unbeatable mountain scenery.

As well as these train and backpacking holidays we would visit Scotland every Easter, sharing the cost of a large self-catering house with friends made it affordable and we would have numerous weekends away with the tent in the UK.  These were the days before Facebook but if we had been able to post about our holiday activity you would have thought we had loads of money!

These adventures and trips to all corners of Europe would not have been possible without that discipline of regular saving over twelve months.  We didn’t consider ourselves natural savers and we certainly didn’t save for anything else at this time, there was very little spare.  Our desire to travel gave us the motivation and we continued this monthly saving plan even as we became more financially comfortable.

Think Save Retire recently blogged about earmarking your money a well-timed post as I was drafting this.  Completing Steve’s statement clarified for me that holidays have always been our priority and made me realise how we continue to make sure that our money supports that priority.





You can’t get too much winter in the winter

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Lowther Castle in Cumbria is a stunning ruin

Retirement has completely changed my experience of winter and given the season a different character that is new and refreshing.  I have always dreaded the winter and would become quite low in November as the days got shorter and colder.  But now we are retired and no longer tied to just two days of freedom we can take off for a day trip or camping tour as soon as sunshine is forecast.  This flexibility means that winter starts to feel like a succession of fantastic frosty and sunny days and is suddenly much more enjoyable and fun.  Last week we spotted another window of opportunity to make the most of the blue skies and we headed north.  After some mooching around the border city of Carlisle with its red sandstone castle and marvellous museum, we visited the dramatic ruin of Lowther Castle whose roof was removed in the 1950s to save the estate from crippling taxation.  The castle and gardens have been recently opened up and are a fantastic place for a day out at any time of year.

We returned south via another ruin, Shap Abbey.  Set in an idyllic and peaceful valley the remains of this ancient abbey are open to the public, although only one tower remains from the original buildings.  From the village of Shap we had views to the Lake District fells dusted in snow and in the sunshine the north-west of England showed off its most beautiful side.

We popped in to Preston for old times sake and were pleased to see the hot potato and parched peas stall [the original street food] was still doing business in the Flag Square.  Continuing south to the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire we had a great day walking in more sunshine.  Then the weekend arrived and with it the drizzle.  We met friends for a pub lunch and a walk and had a lovely afternoon thanks to excellent waterproofs but it would have been better if the fine weather had blessed those working folk too.

PS the quote is from Robert Frost.



Winter sunshine & walking in the Peak District

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Near Birchen Edge above Baslow in Derbyshire

The forecast was for a cold and sunny few days and so with nothing in the diary we were able to hop in to the ‘van and take a couple of nights in the Peak District to make the most of the fine weather.  We stayed at the Caravan and Motorhome Club Chatsworth campsite which is in a peaceful walled area in Chatsworth Park.  We gave the stately home a miss and walked through the glorious countryside but if you did want to visit it is very near to the site.

On a sunny and frosty morning we walked out of Chatsworth Estate to Baslow, where after a coffee, we climbed through woodland and out on to the open moorland behind the Robin Hood Pub on to Birchen Edge.  These Peak District edges are glorious places to walk, with views over the crags in to the valleys below, I always enjoy the lofty feeling of walking along these distinctive features.  On Birchen Edge we passed Nelson’s monument, a tall thin stone pillar on the rocks.  This was erected by a local business man thirty years before the more famous monument to Nelson in Trafalgar Square.  Our walk took in not one but two of these stunning Derbyshire edges.  After a boggy section of moorland we followed the track towards Baslow Edge, finding the Wellington Monument that celebrates the 1815 Waterloo victory.  We walked along the top of Baslow Edge and as the sun started to set we returned to our pitch via one of the many paths under the crags.

We also took in a lovely walk around Longstone Moor, a beautiful limestone ridge that is criss-crossed by paths.  This area was once a thriving lead mining area but is now a quiet and less visited spot among the bustle of the Peak District.  The area around Baslow is lovely but it does get plenty of visitors and finding space to yourself is near to impossible on a fine day.  On Longstone Moor we met no other walkers and we had a sense that the space and fresh air was just ours to enjoy.  We did find the crowds when we popped in to the Packhorse Inn for a swift half.  This charming pub in Little Longstone had welcoming warm fires and is happy to serve walkers with muddy boots.


Top tips for campsites and stop overs when you are abroad

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Idyllic Portuguese campsite

Prompted by a fellow Devon ‘van owner I have given some thought to the baffling array of guides out there for motorhomers to use, buy or download to help you find a campsite in mainland Europe.  Very few motorhomers have unlimited amounts of space to store numerous guides and unlimited amounts of money to purchase them so how do you choose what to spend your hard-earned on?  When travelling we generally plan on a day-by-day basis and out-of-season and in more remote areas you can’t always rely on just coming across somewhere suitable to stay [either a campsite or wild camping pitch] without a bit of planning.  Below is a guide to the resources we have found most useful when we travel abroad.  Each guide or app has its plus points as well as its limitations.

Guides, apps and websites

ACSI card scheme – This is great value for out-of-season touring (from September to June) and this is our first port of call when we are looking for a campsite so that we can get maximum value from it.  You pay for the card and books and campsites in the scheme charge either €11, €13, €15, €17 or €19 per night for two adults with electric.  The card scheme has 1,541 campsites in France in 2018 and just 26 in Portugal, so its usefulness will depend where you are going.  In France municipal sites [see below] can be cheaper than the ACSI sites but in Italy [331 campsites], where campsites are expensive, the ACSI card can contribute a significant saving to your holiday.

Caravan and Motorhome Club Guides – We have these guides for all of Europe and they are sold with a good discount for members.  The entries and campsite reviews are from members and can be quirky and brief.  We like to read between the lines of these reviews and do find these books of assistance, even though the information is not always up-to-date.

The ACSI App – In addition to the ACSI card book we have this app on our phones.  This has a wider selection of campsites than those in the discount card scheme as it contains all campsites inspected by ACSI and is regularly updated.  If you have WiFi or data the ACSI website is also a great resource particularly for the camper’s reviews as well as the information about sites.

All the Aires – We carry this if we are travelling in a country it is available for; the books are fairly comprehensive and kept as up-to-date as a book can be and give an honest review of each aire, its facilities, its outlook and how comfortable it is.

Camperstop App – It is worth paying the €5.49 / year for this app which is invaluable for both campsites and aires / stop overs.  The app has photographs and reviews of sites which can really help in deciding where to go. The app knows your location and this is handy when we arrive at a campsite or stop over that we don’t like the look of as it can tell us where our nearest options are.

In France we will look for municipal campsites in small towns as these are generally good value and near to the town centre for [the essential] bakeries and bars.

Others have recommended Search for Sites and I’ve tried it out and it looks helpful but this isn’t something we have used much.

Home-based research & recommendations

In addition to the above we will research areas we are fairly certain we will be going to, particularly national parks and mountain areas where there are often few campsites and we are looking for the best situation for walking.  This might be Google searches, Rough Guide / Lonely Planet information, some Cicerone Guides include campsites and we sometimes ask a question about an area on a motorhome forum or Facebook page where there are generous well-travelled people with a wide range of knowledge.

You also can’t beat personal recommendations from other campers you meet on the way and these have sometimes taken us to interesting places that we never expected to visit when we set off.

To book or not & the one house rule

We generally travel with only a rough plan and are not interested in tying ourselves down by booking campsites when we are abroad.  We have never found this necessary, even when we have been away in July and August so long as we are flexible enough to move on if a site is full [see the house rule below].

Our house rule is to start looking for somewhere for the night by around 17.00.  This is just because we did get caught out in Mecklenburg in northern Germany on one trip.  There were plenty of campsites around the Mecklenburg lakes and none of them were full as it was only June.  The mistake we made was to be too busy enjoying a lovely sunny evening and leaving looking for a campsite until after 18.00 and German campsites don’t keep the evening hours that are common in southern Europe [and even Poland where we had just come from].  At each campsite we arrived at reception was closed and the barriers were down.  We eventually got a pitch on a site that we could drive in to but we didn’t have the key for the toilets and had to hang around for another camper to show up to use them, which was somewhat disconcerting for other campers!


Discovering the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Lake District

Beautiful Blackwell Arts and Crafts House above Windermere

In retirement our winter trips are being dictated by the weather forecast rather than the weekend and this freedom is liberating.  With some cold sunny weather forecast last week we baked a cake, packed some warm clothing and set off for the Lake District.  Windermere is easy to get to from Salford and we were soon soaking up the views along the lake from Orrest Head, pottered by the Windermere and seeking a cosy pub to warm up in.

In the afternoon we visited the lovely Blackwell Arts and Crafts House.  We had been here before many years ago and since then the staff and volunteers have been busy and many improvements have been made.  Built by M H Bailie Scott as a holiday home for Edward Holt, this is a beautiful example of an Arts and Crafts house that retains many of its original features that, in keeping with the movement, are both decorative and practical.  The door handles are leaf-shaped, the window catches are interesting.  There is attractive stained glass and plaster work too but just as important, the atmosphere is relaxed, rather than stuffy and visitors are encouraged to linger.

After being a holiday home the house became a school and then offices before being bought by a Trust in 1999 and it opened to the public in 2001.  The White Drawing Room has slender columns with decorative capitals, a sunny aspect over the lake and is a room where the sunlight dances around the room.

The Arts and Crafts Movement began in Britain in the 1880s and spread across Europe and America.  As the V&A writes:

‘It was a movement born of ideals. It grew out of a concern for the effects of industrialisation: on design, on traditional skills and on the lives of ordinary people. In response, it established a new set of principles for living and working. It advocated the reform of art at every level and across a broad social spectrum, and it turned the home into a work of art.’

The Arts and Crafts Movement has strong links with the Lake District.  The three founder members, William Morris, Edward Burne Jones and Phillip Webb were supported by  George Howard from Naworth Castle near Carlisle and he used William Morris’ wallpapers in many of his properties.  John Ruskin, a Lake District resident, strongly influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement.  He considered machine-made items to be dishonest and that craftmanship was linked to dignity.

Tile detail from a fireplace at Blackwell