Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Power of the Summer Holiday

In my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m reflecting on the restorative powers of the summer holiday – mine was just drawing to an end when I wrote the copy

Scenic view overlooking bay with islands
The restorative power of a great view: early morning photo taken from the window of our camper van in Oban, the busiest departure point from mainland Scotland for the Inner and Outer Hebrides

On holiday in our camper van this summer, we had the usual struggle to recharge all the family’s electronic gadgets from a single cigarette lighter socket. Not that we’re hooked on our gadgets – in fact, we were trying to have an internet-free break. (Not difficult in Scotland, because the mountains block the signals.) But we still wanted to use our phones to take photographs and to text home, and I wanted to keep my Fitbit topped up. Continue reading “The Power of the Summer Holiday”

Posted in Travel, Writing

Expecting the Unexpected

A post about chance encounters on our most recent holiday in our camper van
(Originally written for the May 2016 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser)

Giant Dutch Master painting reproduction with flower arrangements in front
We knew the Dutch had mastered tulips, but the displays at Keukenhof Flower Gardens near Leiden took our breath away, both figuratively and literally (that’ll be my hay fever kicking in)

As always, the highlights of our Easter holiday are the things we do not plan. The chances of being surprised on our travels are always high, because we are notoriously bad at planning our itinerary before we set off. We once embarked on a month-long tour of France with neither a country map nor a guidebook. Continue reading “Expecting the Unexpected”

Posted in Travel

The Green Hills of Home

From the May issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, a post about coming home from holiday to our Gloucestershire village

Panoramic photo of hills around Hawkesbury
The Somerset Monument that towers above my village, Hawkesbury Upton

It’s always good to come back to Hawkesbury after any holiday, no matter how enjoyable. This Easter was no exception.

Gordon and Laura on path by Baltic
Somehow wed expected our first sight of the Baltic to be cold, grey and wet

We’d just spent two weeks in our camper van, touring the flatter parts of northern Europe. It was unnerving to know we were often driving below sea level, but the flip side was it made cycling a joy. Taking our bikes off the back of the van to go for a family cycle, we didn’t so much pedal as glide. The level roadways provided the perfect surface for lazy, unmuscled cyclists like me. Continue reading “The Green Hills of Home”

Posted in Family, Travel

Travelling Light, Laura’s Way

A post about our latest trip in our camper van Debbie and her husband on their walk in Wales

 

Over a decade after buying our first camper van, I like to think we’ve mastered the art of travelling light. We’ve acquired all sorts of tips and tricks that I’m compiling into a little book, along with some anecdotes about our adventures, to be called Travels With My Camper Van. (I’m a bit of a one for obvious book titles, me.)

One of my top tips is not to pack bags at all. You can load some stuff straight into the cupboards before you set off – food, toiletries, books, games. Clothes can be easily transferred on their hangers from your wardrobe at home to the van’s slim wardrobe. Non-hanging items, such as pyjamas and underwear, are best stashed into cheap Ikea laundry baskets – one per person, plus a spare. During our travels, we gradually transfer clothes, as we use them, from the clean baskets to the laundry one – and that gets unpacked straight into the utility room on our return home. Laura crossing a stile

 

Or so the theory goes. We have had a few hiccups along the way. For example, we once carefully packed a weekend basket for the three of us and didn’t realise till we reached our destination, Ross-on-Wye, that we’d left the basked tidily on the bed at home. Fortunately Ross-on-Wye is well equipped with cheap clothes shops and charity shops, so we bought what we needed to remain clothed and hygienic until we returned home. (We always manage to boost the local economy wherever we go.)

Earlier this week, as it’s the half-term holiday (which means a week off school in this country), we were packing for three days and four nights away to walk the next stage of the Offa’s Dyke Path. That’s an ancient and historic footpath that traverses Wales. We’ve done about half of it so far. Laura had turned 11 a few days before, and in her enthusiasm to embark on this trip had packed her own basket before I had to ask her. This ability, like her new-found enthusiasm for making a cup of tea, is a welcome bonus of growing up.

Laura and Gordon on the path ahead

 

Only when I took out her basket on the first day of the holiday did I realise my confidence in her efficiency had been misplaced. She had packed precisely one pair of leggings, one t-shirt and a party dress. She was clearly expecting this walking holiday to be more fun than we were. Her constant companion, Heather the rabbit, who serves as ventriloquist’s dummy rather than cuddly toy these days, had packed her roller skates. WP_20140527_001

 

Still, I could hardly take either of them to task for bad packing: I had only one walking boot. Fortunately I wear the same size shoes as my husband, and he never travels with fewer than three pairs. Half term May 2014 Offa's Dyke Path - Copy

 

As he’d be the first to remind me, travelling light is all very well, but it’s possible to go too far.

Still, a good time was had by all – and the fact that we’d packed so little made the task of unpacking afterwards even less irksome. Like mother, like daughter – ever the optimists.

sheep in the fields

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll like this one about Laura’s earlier packing triumph: How to Pack for the Summer Holidays

And this one about my husband’s attitude to packing for a scientific field study course: Travelling Light

Plus another cautionary tale for travellers – be careful who you sit next to on the plane: Flight of Fancy

Posted in Travel

En Panne in De Panne – The Tale of our Belgian Breakdown

Debbie and Laura about to buy Sancerre at source
“Have red shoes, will travel” – outside a wine shop in Sancerre in our 2011 French tour

A post about the night our camper van blew a tyre on a Belgian motorway, near the coastal resort of De Panne, Belgium

When travelling, I try to go native, as far as my natural English reserve will allow. The very least I do is to try to eat and drink what the locals are having. Bath buns in Bath, drinking Sancerre in Sancerre – what’s not to love about those destinations?

But in some cases I’d prefer to make an exception, as in our February 2014 trip in our small motorhome to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

We’d just spent a lovely afternoon at Plopsaland (yes, it is a real place – see this earlier post), in the pleasant Belgian coastal town of De Panne. If you’re wondering why the name De Panne sounds familiar, it’s because of its similarity to the French phrase for being in the state of automotive breakdown: en panne.

Camper Van Crisis

We’re bowling away from De Panne in the direction of Antwerp when my husband, at the steering wheel, starts emitting anguished noises nearly as loud as the sounds emanating from our back axle.  When the rear right wheel starts to sound like a tank crossing cobblestones, Gordon pulls over onto the hard shoulder.

“We’ve got a flat tyre,” he surmises, stony-faced.

Cars and lorries are hurtling past us in the pitch black, terrifyingly close. It begins to rain.

My heart sinks. As Gordon scrabbles in his wallet for his rescue service membership card, I search for the paraphernalia that drivers are required to carry on the continent.

Don't drive through France without it (photo via Amazon)
Don’t drive through France without it (photo via Amazon)

I’m astonished and relieved to discover that we do have on board the reflective triangle which must be placed 50-100m behind any vehicle in case of breakdown, plus the requisite dayglo waistcoat, which Gordon dons before marching into oncoming traffic to set up the triangle.

While he does so, I unearth the spare set of bulbs, the headlight adapters and the breathalyser, in the absence of which we would face a police charge. I’m impressed. We’re not normally this organised (and yes, I do realise that strictly speaking the headlight adapters ought to be on the headlights, not in a cupboard).

A Tale of Previous Panic

The Young family does Fontainebleau
Innocents abroad – spot the tourists in Fontainebleau, summer 2011

Gordon is keen to avoid a recurrence of our previous near-arrest by French traffic police on an earlier trip.

They pulled us over in a small town on a sleepy summer Saturday afternoon, after we’d gone twice round a roundabout trying to find the local swimming pool to cool off. They asked to see our papers for the van. The papers were still in England.

While apologising profusely for their absence in my best schoolgirl French, I glanced over my shoulder to check that Laura, then aged 7, was not frightened at this turn of events. She flashed her sweetest smile at the policemen from where she sat surrounded by cuddly toys, and the gendarmes‘ hearts melted.

A swift discussion ensued between the policemenin which I detected that they were going to change their incident notes. They’d skip the bit about the missing papers and say they’d stopped us to check the child in the back was wearing a seatbelt. She was. We were off the hook – and they even told us how to get to the swimming pool.

Back in De Panne in de present, I’m relieved to realise that our overseas rescue membership must still be valid, as it’s less than a year since we called them out in Luxembourg, when we renewed our card.

International Rescue

The rescue vehicle with the sign "depannage" on the side
Our knight of the road

I keep to myself the knowledge that, in the UK at least, for safety reasons it’s deemed best practice to leave the distressed vehicle and sit on the hard shoulder until the rescue vehicle arrives. We might in theory be safer perched on a precipitous grassy bank in the dark and in the rain, but I feel more secure remaining in the van, with the lights on, rustling up a cup of tea and a meal on the gas stove.

We are not waiting long. A Belgian rescue mechanic arrives within the hour, cheerful, friendly and efficient. Ten minutes later, he’s replaced the burst tyre with the spare wheel. He advises us to drive slowly to the next aire (motorway services), conveniently just 700m ahead, to inflate the spare tyre to the legal standard. To make sure we arrive intact, he leads the way in his bright yellow van and helps us find the air hose, parking his van protectively alongside us, like a mother hen on wheels.

It’s only then that I notice on the side of his vehicle the declaration of the service that he offers: “Dépannage”. So, we have been dépanné in De Panne. That’s rather pleasing.

Cover of 1974 single, Shanghai'd in Shanghai by Nazareth
(Cover of 1974 single – image via Amazon.co.uk)

All the same, as he pulls away into the night, I make a mental note never to visit Shanghai.

Read more about another incident of depannage and other vehicle-related misadventures here