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.
With a few days winter camping planned I thought we needed some wholesome sustenance to ward off the winter chill. This delicious fruit cake is easy to make [although it does take a bit of pre-planning] and keeps well for around five days. I first made this cake by soaking the fruit in tea but starting using whisky to use up some we had in the cupboard. I found that the whisky gives the cake a real flavourful punch and it is going to be hard to go back to cold tea when the surplus whisky has gone. Having a cake in the campervan is comforting and helps us to save money as it encourages us to have tea and cake in the ‘van rather than stopping at a tea shop [too often].
So here is my recipe for a vegan tea or whisky fruit cake
225 grams of flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
70 grams of sugar
1/2 mashed banana [60 grams] or you can use one egg if having a vegan cake isn’t important to you
250 mls whisky or brewed black tea
300 grams of your favourite mixed dried fruit [I like a mixture of cranberries and sultanas]
60 mls of soya milk [you can use cow’s milk]
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
Pinch of salt
The day before, put the dried fruit in a bowl, pour over the whisky or brewed black tea and leave overnight to soak.
The next day preheat the oven to 180C [gas mark 4] and line a baking loaf tin [the recipe has no oil so it needs the paper to stop it sticking].
In a mixing bowl sift in the flour, salt, baking powder and mixed spice. Add the sugar and mix well, breaking any lumps. Make a well in the centre and add the mashed banana and the milk. Add the dried fruit and any remaining liquid. Mix well. You should have a soft mixture, add a little more milk if it feels too dry.
Pour the mixture in to the loaf tin and bake for 40 minutes to one hour and a skewer comes out clean. Cool and leave a day before you eat it if you can. The cake keeps well in a tin.
I don’t just write travel articles, I am also an enthusiastic reader of travel books. As I read I am in awe of travel writers who can string together more than the 2,000 word limit of my articles and still hold my attention, be well-written, informative and entertaining; what stamina and discipline that must take. I immerse myself in these armchair journeys to the familiar and the exotic through the pages of a good travel book and I have many favourites. For me, good travel writing is not a guidebook [although I read these too] or a series of facts about a place; good travel writing is about stories and experiences, it is about how a place made someone feel, it is about tales told honestly and it is about personal journeys. In the hands of a good travel writing I feel I am sitting on the author’s shoulder and I am along for ‘The glory of the ride.’
My reading of travel writing started as a young teenager. With a passion for reading I soon exhausted the children’s section of the small town library near to my home and so [with some hesitation as I wasn’t sure if it was allowed] I furtively moved across the room to the adult books. At the end of two tall rows of books by a large warm radiator I found a little-visited corner where I could browse unnoticed and here was the library’s small travel section. Amazingly there were gems here and in particular I discovered two Ethel Mannin books; An Italian Journey from 1974 about her travels around northern Italy that captivated my imagination and started my love affair with Italy and her 1960s American Journey, telling tales from her travels by Greyhound around an America that was far from the glitzy American dream I saw on the TV. I am sure I missed much of the subtlety of her writing, I knew nothing of Ethel Mannin and her politics and little of the world beyond Staffordshire and yet the travellers tales and adventures of a lone woman both touched me and inspired me. It was some years later that I discovered Dervla Murphy and her individual style of travel writing and I have followed her on her numerous and exciting journeys ever since. Dervla Murphy has an honest style that is never sentimental. She is such a fantastic listener and gatherer of individual stories and she weaves historical information and personal narratives so well I feel I have been there with her every step of the way.
Some time ago World Hum compiled a list of their top 30 favourite travel books and I took a look to see if any of my own ‘must read’ books were on there and to look for ideas for new travel books to read. Paul Theroux, Norman Lewis, Bill Bryson, Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor all make the list and are excellent choices that I have loved reading. Others such as Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck are writers I enjoy reading but think of as novelists rather than travel writers, so I added their books to my list. There are other titles and authors I’ve not come across and I have been looking at these; up to now I have added Europe, Europe by Hans Magnus Enzensberger to my wish list.
That young teenager had ambitions to be a writer but, despite my reading, I only thought of novels as the way to earn money as a writer and I lacked the imagination for such an undertaking. Forty-years later in my 50s I realised that ambition and became a published writer. My first travel article was published in 2013 and the thrill each time I see my writing and photographs in print has never faded. That said, there may be travel writers with glamorous lives but for me it is less razzle-dazzle and more about typing. The time I spend travelling versus the time sat behind a desk researching, writing and editing [words and photographs] is about 1:10.
I will never be as accomplished a writer as my heroes but I try to tell readers a story that every motorhomer can relate to. This narrative combined with the 2,000 word limit excludes many of my travel experiences and anecdotes and the editing process takes many hours. In these articles I am balancing practical information with my desire to paint a comprehensive pictures of the places we visit by describing the sights, smells and sounds I have experienced.
These ten tips for writing travel articles are a good and useful start for anyone who is thinking of writing their own travel articles but firstly check out this article 15 signs you are born for travel writing to see if travel writing is for you. The tips made me aware that I rarely include any direct dialogue in my travel articles. I can see how this can strengthen the intimacy of my stories and my current resolution is to try and bring this in to as many future articles as I can!
I am not sure if technically Gnome Island is in Salford or Trafford. It is in the middle of the Ship Canal but it seems to me it is on the Salford side of the canal so I’ve claimed it and included it in my surprising Salford series. I got a superb view of Gnome Island on one of my birthday treats, a Waxi [Water Taxi] trip from Salford Quays to Spinningfields. These cute yellow boats trundle the waterways from the city centre to Media City and to the Trafford Centre. The Christmas Market was in town at the time and Gnome Island had its own festive Santa Claus visiting for a month or so.
Riding by on the water you get an uninterrupted view of the jolly gnomes waving and smiling and these diminutive figurines must brighten up the day of those commuters who use the Waxi on our dark winter mornings to get to work. The gathering of gnomes appear to be both male and female and there are some child-gnomes on the island too, so who is to say their number won’t increase over time.
If you want to find Gnome Island yourself, it is now on Google Maps. It is just before the Trafford Road bridge on the Salford side of the quays.
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.
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!
If you have time to wander around the Frederick Road Campus of Salford University or as you drive along the A6 you might come across these sculptures. The three unusual sculptures are Grade II listed by Historic England. Totem-like, these sculptures were built in 1966 by William Mitchell and stand in a courtyard in front of Allerton Building at what was then Salford Technical College and is now University of Salford.
These are bold concrete public art pieces, typical of the 1960s that make reference to engineering and to Central American art. I dare anyone not to want to touch these tactile pieces as you walk around the three giant figures. The sculptures change with the light and every time I visit I see new details I had missed before. Almost six metres high these are imposing works, each made from four concrete blocks.
English Heritage note:
‘William Mitchell was a leading public artist in the post-war period who designed many pieces of art in the public realm, working to a high artistic quality in various materials but most notably concrete, a material in which he was highly skilled, using innovative and unusual casting techniques, as seen in this sculptural group. He has a number of listed pieces to his name, both individual designs and components of larger architectural commissions by leading architects of the day.’
Salford University has other public art, including ‘Engels’ Beard’ [below] positioned by the Adelphi Building. This five metre high fibreglass sculpture doubles as a climbing wall. Greater Manchester now has two statues to Engels who spent more than twenty years here. The poverty he observed influenced his writing of The Condition of the Working Class in England.