Posted in Travel

Do Traffic Signs Drive You To Distraction?

Old-fashioned road sign from Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
Road signs from the early days of motoring had so much more charm

The 380-mile drive home in our camper van from Stirling, Scotland, does nothing  to diminish my aversion to electronic motorway message boards. These huge signs have popped up alongside many British motorways lately. They must be costing the Ministry of Transport a fortune, as well as causing chaos through necessary lane closures and traffic disruption.

You know the sort I mean: ominous big black boards displaying a grid of light bulbs, selectively  illuminated to spell out the message of the moment. They’re sinister, unattractive and dull, a far cry from the carefully designed road signs from the early days of motoring. Those had a real charm about them; it must have been a pleasure to observe them and obey. Their messages were much more considered too. They had to be, given the long hours required to construct a sturdy metal sign.

Old fashioned road sign frequently seen in the Scottish Highlands
For ships in the night

I suppose I should be grateful that modern technology makes it possible for today’s driver to receive up-to-the-minute motoring news. But I seldom see any useful messages on these boards. The first one we pass today is a case in point: “Please drive safely.” Oh, and there was I planning to slalom all the way to Gretna with my eyes closed!

And, Ministry of Transport, please note: it doesn’t calm any driver’s road rage to be told “Queues Ahead” when you’re already stuck in the middle of one.

But as the nation has invested in these message boards, I suppose we must make the best of them. To this end, I’d like to suggest some more  constructive uses:

  • To convey calming, philosophical thoughts at times of peak traffic, such as rush hour: “This too will pass” or   “There’s a cup of tea/glass of wine/cold beer at home with your name on it”
  • To lift the weary driver’s spirits and take their mind off the traffic: “You’re looking well today”; “You look so much younger than your years”; “That colour really suits you”
  • To divert restless young passengers with travel game ideas: “Let’s play I-Spy!”, “I went to the market and I bought…”, “Who will spot the first yellow car?”; “And now it’s time for a keeping quiet competition!”
  • To answer the children’s repetitive question: “No, we are NOT nearly there yet!”
  • For a more subtle approach, a series of messages on that theme: “We’re nearer than we were the last time you asked” or “Not much further now” or “For every time you ask, it will add five minutes to the journey”

Alternatively, the boards could try to replicate pleasing road signs from the golden age of motoring – or those from other countries that have made you smile. (Any suggestions, anyone?) To end on a more cheerful note, here’s one that we spotted last week in Applecross, in the north west of Scotland. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

Road sign seen in Applecross, Scotland, cautioning "Men In Kilts Walking"
You have been warned…

And if that rant wasn’t enough for you, here’s my post from last summer on the same theme:

Rage Against The Road Signs

Or on a lighter note, a mystery solved about French lay-bys:

A Layby By Any Other Name

Posted in Family, Travel

A Day At The Beach On The Isle Of Skye

On the beach at Glenbrittle, Skye
The ambitious new sand palace begins to take shape

I’m concentrating on turning out the perfect sandcastle from Laura’s small pink bucket when I feel a sudden, unaccountable cold sensation at the back of my skirt.

Only when I realise that it’s also a very wet sensation do I swivel round to check the advancing line of the tide. In best pantomime tradition, it’s behind me. It’s taken me by complete surprise, as if playing an oceanic version of Grandmother’s Footsteps.

Building a river as the tide comes in at Glenbrittle beach, Skye
Building a river

Our planned sand palace for Laura’s toy dog, Candyfloss, is fast segueing into a water park. But are we downhearted? No, we are turncoats. We immediately set to work making a river, digging a trench from the water’s edge to the rocks a few yards further up beach. We are the antidote to King Canute.

“Come on, sea!” Laura coaxes. “You can do it!”

On this broad, shallow beach on Skye, we’re on to a winner. Our labours are soon rewarded. Laura is disproportionately joyful; I do not reveal how startled I am by how quickly the tide has encroached.

It is a sobering reminder of man’s powerlessness against the forces of nature. Against the almost primeval setting of the vast, bleak landscapes of the Cuillin hills, it’s not hard to feel small and insignificant – but it’s also exhilarating.

Laura beachcombing at Glenbrittle,Skye
“Anyone seen Sponge Bob about?”

What’s more, it’s a useful educational experience for Laura. I’m hoping an hour or two on the beach will counteract the hours misspent watching her favourite television programme, Sponge Bob Square Pants, set at the bottom of the ocean and defying all laws of nature. In Bikini Bottom, life carries on much as on dry land – only sillier. Repeated exposure colours your perception of reality.

Even I find myself pleased to spot a starfish (as in Sponge Bob’s best friend, Patrick Star) when we take a glass-bottomed boat ride a couple of days before. On the kelp beds beneath the Skye Bridge, there  are numerous sea urchins – beautiful, fragile, spiny domes in ethereal shades of mauve, pink and flesh. “So why are there no sea urchins in Sponge Bob?” I wonder, before I can stop myself.

Paddling in the warm shallows at Glenbrittle, I scoop up a tiny crab in one of Laura’s plastic spades. What’s the first thing I think of? Mr Crabs, the miserly fast-food entrepreneur who is Sponge Bob’s employer. I really need to get out more.

Finally, Queen Anticanute’s work is done.

Laura's river is a success
We did it!

“I’ve made a rock pool!” she rejoices, waving her spade.

Promptly abandoning her post to let the tide demolish her sandcastles, she skips off to romp through the shallows with the energy and enthusiasm of a puppy, kicking and jumping about until she’s dappled with saltwater splashes.

Picking up her abandoned turquoise fleece to save it from the encroaching tide, I take shadowy snapshots against the westerly sun, vicariously enjoying her childlike pleasure in the sea.

Little girl in a big sea at Glenbrittle, Skye
Little girl in a big sea

She’s not really dressed for a dip, but in budding rock-chick style is wearing scarlet pedal-pushers beneath her new black “Stonehenge Rocks!” t-shirt. Her thick dark blonde hair has been dragged into a plait down her back to guard against the tangling effect of today’s strong winds, currently buffeting her daddy along the top of the Cuillin hills behind us. I wonder how long it will be before she’s a rock-chick in earnest, jaunting off to Glastonbury with her boyfriend. But for now I capture these moments in my camera in hope of freezing the passage of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I espy four young German boys clambering over the black rocks that line the bay. I hope they have an eye on the tide and will not be cut off from a safe return.

Time and tide, my friends, time and tide.

Looking out to sea at Glenbrittle beach, Skye

Posted in Travel

Foreign Holidays: Who Needs Them?

Looking up Water Street from the Brook - Castl...
Castle Combe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Preparing for a two-week stay by an American teenager on her first trip to England, our list of “must-sees” soon fill a page. When we try to slot them in to the available fortnight’s calendar, we find there are simply not enough days.

Most of the destinations on our roster are less than an hour’s drive from home (and I don’t drive very fast). The Roman Baths, the Cotswold Way, Berkeley Castle, Slimbridge, Castle Combe, Bristol Zoo… we are spoiled for choice. Foreign vacations: who needs them, when we have such a wealth of tourist attractions on our doorstep?

English: Nonsuch Palace by Flemish School
Nonsuch Palace, Cheam

Here is further confirmation (not that I need it) that I’ve chosen to live in an idyllic part of England. But when I think about it, I could say much the same about the other places I’ve lived.

Even in the duller bits of suburban London, (Sutton and Cheam, anyone?) unexciting in themselves, have been a stone’s throw from astonishing places of historic and cultural richness – and I don’t just mean the obvious suspects in central London. Tucked away in Cheam, for example, was the site of the former Nonsuch Palace, Henry VIII’s grandest project –  enough to set any historical novelist’s imagination on fire and a far cry from the suburb’s more famous resident, Tony Hancock of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam. Similarly my home town of Sidcup, in south east London, has a wealth of historical associations including the nearby Eltham Palace, now owned (and treasured by) English Heritage. This was the childhood home of Henry VIII (he got about a bit, you know).

English: Frontage of Heslington Hall, York, th...
Heslington Hall, the administrative centre of the University of York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My three years at university in York were like living in a museum, though the campus itself, a couple of miles beyond the medieval walled city, has dubious architectural value, other than in the Elizabethan manor house, Heslington Hall, reserved for admin staff rather than lowly students.  (Think of the film set of  “A Clockwork Orange” and you’ll be along the right lines.)

Walter Rothschild and zebra-drawn carriage
Walter Rothschild and zebra-drawn carriage – not yet stuffed (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post-university, I discovered that Tring, though not renowned as a tourist attraction, had a great deal to offer the discerning visitor. Not least was the wonderful Rothschilds’ Natural History Museum, which I discovered a couple of hundred yards from my front door at 10 Frogmore Street. Its bizarre legions of stuffed zebras on shelves, once seen, justify a special trip to this small Hertfordshire town. For years, my husband or I had only to say “zebras on shelves” to each other and we’d be transported back, smiling, to many a pleasant afternoon. When, after a few years, we announced to my young nephews, frequent visitors to our home in Tring, that we were moving to Gloucestershire, their response was an anguished cry of “But when will we get to go to Tring?”

I admit that I’ve lived largely in middle-class, middle-England rather than in any gritty industrial regions, but even so, I think tourism is a state of mind rather than a consequence of postcode. There can’t be many people living in Britain who couldn’t reach somewhere spectacular and interesting within a 30 minute drive/bus ride/walk.

Cotswold Way in the setting sun...

But actually, even without that much effort, I think I could have a pretty good summer holiday just in my back garden, especially if we had the luxury of a bit of sunshine. A week ago, my daughter and I spent a lovely afternoon out there, giving our tiny pond a belated spring clean, playing badminton (very badly), and having our own mini-Olympics. We picked some raspberries. We built a bug hotel (a great way to clear the garden of sticks and stones and broken bamboo canes: another fine example of  Janet’s theory of how to get something done by doing something else). As we went  indoors for tea, I found myself looking forward to our summer holidays, not to planned trips to the Zoo or Slimbridge or National Trust stately homes, but simply to spending more time in our back garden. There’s a whole world of adventure to be found out there. All you need is the right route map.

Still prefer foreign destinations? Then you might like to read a bit about my trip to France last year! (Hypocrite? Moi?!)

Lost In France

Or Scotland:

Dorothy Was Right – There’s No Place Like Home

Posted in Writing

The Importance of Lying Fallow

Ionic order 1 - entrablature 2 - column 3 - co...
It's Ionic, if you must know... (Image via Wikipedia)

Sometimes there’s an inverse relationship between how well you remember facts from school and how helpful they will be in your adult life. I have yet to find a use for my unerring ability to differentiate between Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. My skill in drawing the cross-section of an oil derrick has sadly never helped me earn my keep.

Even in my geography class that particular talent was not appreciated once I’d added boys’ names to each of the structures on the page.  (Well, I didn’t want Derrick to get lonely.)  I can vividly picture those diagrams, and so can Elizabeth, the girl who became my best friend the day we started secondary school, sharing the bond of equally awful short haircuts and new school shoes, disdainfully referred to as our “Noddy boots”.

“Why are you and Eliz. being so slow?” wrote the geography teacher underneath Derrick and his chums, as if she didn’t know.

Another diagram lodged in my mind with photographic clarity is that of a mediaeval farmer’s field.  We had to illustrate the principle of crop rotation.  The concept of lying fallow made a big impression on my early teenage brain: at that age I’d have embraced anything that transformed sloth into a virtue.

As I’ve got older, I’ve often thought back to this picture, not because I’ve taken up farming – though my back garden is unusually lying fallow this year.  (I cheered when I heard a radio report that “the natural look” was in fashion for gardens this year: gardens don’t get much more natural than mine.) I’m comforting myself that I should get a much better harvest next year as a result.

When I most appreciate the concept of lying fallow is when I’m recovering from an illness. It’s extraordinary how a few days of sloth recharges the brain. It’s a given in any period of convalesence.  The first stage of my recovery is always when, in a lightbulb moment, I realise that the daytime television I’ve been watching is utter trash.  Then something deep within my subconscious starts to stir – and I  leap out of bed, grab a notebook and pen, and start to scribble.  Before I know it, there’s a surge of creativity and insight, and my brain feels positively reborn.

It’s not just illness that yields this regeneration: equally powerful is a trip away from home.  I’m rather hoping that the summer holidays, due to start any day now, will have a similar effect.  Watch this space to find out….

Posted in Personal life, Travel

How to Pack for the Summer Holidays

Image by brandsvig via Flickr

Packing. The very thought of it takes the edge off the excitement of going on holiday, at least till we’re on our way.

It shouldn’t be such a difficult task. As we spend most holidays in our camper van, we don’t have to bother with suitcases. We pack our possessions straight into the van’s streamlined cupboards, and here they stay, out of sight, until we need them. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

Years ago, when we were child-free, holidays meant sailing in Greece. Packing in those days meant shoehorning toy-sized toiletries and capsule wardrobes into a collapsible sausage-shaped bag, ready for decanting into ship’s lockers on arrival. A camera, notebook and pen (plus daily access to yesterday’s English newspaper for my husband) were our only desert-island luxuries. Leaving behind the clutter of everyday life at home and at work was exhilarating. Forget feng shui – there were barely any material items to arrange.

Then in time, we had a baby to pack too. Until babies are about three, there’s an inverse relationship between the size of the child and the volume of luggage it requires. Just as Laura’s own baggage was starting to reduce – no more bottles, bibs or buggies – she hit toddlerhood, when she didn’t want to be confined to a boat. She needed playparks full of children to become her new friends. Any nationality, language no object, provided the children were her size.

And so slickly we transferred, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, onto land. We traded in our boat for a camper van. Drier, less lurching, and less likely to strand us due to weather conditions, it was a welcome and natural evolution from amphibian to reptile. And while I was in charge of packing, it was still soothingly minimalist too.

But now that Laura packs her own bags for holidays, new challenges have arisen. Numerous cuddly toys and dolls anthropomorphise into inseparable friends who would simply pine away if left at home without her. By the end of last year’s summer holiday, Laura’s entourage took over the entire vehicle. So for our half-term trip to the Highlands, I decide to set a new rule: one bag of toys per person. A serious constraint for Gadget Man, but a less daunting challenge for me: most of my toys are books to read or write in. It is easy to smuggle extra rations onto the van’s built-in bookshelf.

I expect a rebellion before our departure. But no, Laura sits demurely on her booster seat with an old black barrel handbag of mine bulging at her side. On her lap is a single cuddly toy: Heather the Best-Dressed Rabbit. (Heather even has her own gas-mask case for this term’s World War II topic). I’ve suggested that instead of taking lots of toys Laura pack a bag of Heather’s clothes to ring the changes along the way. I am pleasantly startled to see she’s taken my advice.

Pointing the van north, we hit the road. The half-grown crops in the Cotswold fields undulate as we pass, as if waving goodbye. They will seem so soft and green on our return from serious Scottish mountains.

Four hours later, when we stop for the night at Morecambe Bay, the true contents of the little black bag are revealed. With a coy, self-satisfied smile, Laura unzips it and begins to pull out an endless stream of toys. It’s like watching a conjuror do the handkerchief trick. Three rag dolls, four horses, two dogs, a bird…. all these and more are soon strewn around the camper van, leaving my husband and I scrabbling, as ever, for a space big enough to sit in. One bag of toys it is, so I cannot complain. But what an astonishing mastery of the art of packing for one so young. I sigh and sit down next to Heather. When the summer holidays come round, I think I’ll put Laura in charge of loading the van.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, July 2011)