Posted in Travel

The Unusual Souvenirs of Camper Van Travel

Our camper van outside Linlithgow Palace, Scotland
Outside our last stop in Scotland this summer: Linlithgow Palance

As regular readers may know, my family’s favourite mode of holiday transport is the camper van. For me, one of the many joys of camper van travel is that no matter where you go, your vehicle gradually turns into a mobile museum of everywhere you’ve ever been. I don’t mean we fill our van with souvenirs acquired in gift shops. I’m thinking more of everyday domestic items acquired from local shops in whichever country we’re passing through.

The Esperanto Kitchen

Take the kitchenette. The kitchen roll is French, printed with puzzling slogans about champignons, whereas the tea towel depicts the Outer Hebrides. Snacks are offered up on a French tray printed with macarons. A wooden Provençal tomato punnet is now filled with wrapped Welsh sweets. Having used the last of the Belgian soups that broadened our knowledge of Flemish words for vegetables, we’ve just restocked the soup shelf with tartan tins of “Granny’s Scotch Broth” in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Currently in the biscuit tin are handmade lavender shortbread, purchased at the Achiltibuie Piping School Café, which was quieter than expected because the Pipers were on a summer tour of France. Admittedly some of our supplies have more prosaic origins, i.e. Tesco, but at least they came from the Inverness branch.

Reading on the Road

Cover of the memoir of the founding of the Highland Folk Museum
The best book I read on holiday this summer

As I like to read books about the places we’re visiting, our on-board library bears price labels from distant bookstores. (If you’re ever in Inverness, seek out Leakey’s.) We also buy novels from shops raising money for charities that we’ve never heard of. Blythe Community Care was everywhere we went this summer.

This cosmopolitan mix may be taken simply to indicate a lack of advance planning – I admit that we did once set off on a month’s tour of France without a map or guidebook for that country – but for me the eclectic atmosphere is part of the fun.

Tropic of Tetbury

Preparing to head home after this summer’s adventures, it occurred to me that one man’s exotic is another man’s local. As we import our latest Scottish bounty to Gloucestershire, others will be heading away with treasures acquired in Tetbury. They’ll be dropping Hobbs House crumbs into the pages of the books acquired in the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, and remembering to tell their friends about cafés named just as eccentrically as our Highland find. Can there really be a Two Toads anywhere else?

And probably, just like me, as they walk back in through their own front door, they’ll be congratulating themselves that no matter how much they’ve enjoyed their holiday, there really is no place like home.

Picture of lavender shortbread from Achiltibuie Piping School Cafe
We left a trail of these crumbs all the way home

(This post was originally published in the Tetbury Advertiser, September 2013 edition.)

More tales of our Scottish summer holiday will follow shortly.

but here’s one for starters:

Beachcombing in Ullapool – A Story Behind Every Stone

 

Posted in Family, Travel

Beachcombing in Ullapool – A Story Behind Every Stone

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Laura looks for treasure on Ullapool’s shore on Loch Broom, Scotland

We’re in Ullapool, on the north west coast of Scotland, and my husband, our ten-year-old daughter Laura and I are beachcombing along the pebbly shores of Loch Broom. It’s a sea loch, which means it opens out into the sea rather than being enclosed by land and its water is salty. Who knows what treasures we might find here, washed up on these ancient shores?

My husband always casts a scientific slant on these expeditions. His natural reaction is to classify the rocks with their correct technical names.

“Ah, that’s an aggregate, ” he declares, dismissing a glorious hotch-potch of a rock with a single harsh word.

A couple of days earlier, on Nairn beach, I’d been pleased to find a heart-shaped piece of sea glass, particularly because I’m working on a story of lost love called “Sea Glass”. Its pale, opalescent surface, gently scoured by the sea, hints at secrets locked within.

“It’s only a basilisc pebble,” is Gordon’s reaction to my find.

I decide not to tell him how much I paid for a pair of delicate green sea glass earrings in Strathpeffer en route to Ullapool.

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So where’s the rest of the house?

Although not all our beachcombing finds are so classically pretty, all are beautiful. Today I’m intrigued by a house brick, its once sharp corners softly rounded by the sea. Where is the rest of the house? I wonder. Has it fallen into the sea? How far has this brick travelled?

My daughter has tuned in to my thoughts.

“I can’t stop looking at all the pebbles,” she declares. “There are so many of them, and behind every stone there is a story.”

And every stone is different, ground to a unique shape and size by relentless, indiscriminate tides. The sea is an unbenevolent creator.

For a moment, I see myself as a pebble, tiny among a universe of pebbles that extends in either direction as far as the eye can see – inland to the far end of Loch Broom, out to sea where the loch broadens to segue into the sea, flowing out around the Outer Hebrides before rushing towards more distant lands. Its next stop: Canada and the USA, to whose shores so many impoverished Highlanders fled in the wake of the unspeakably cruel Highland Clearances. For most of these reluctant emigrants, these pebbly shores of Loch Broom would have been the last they ever saw of their beloved Home Country.

As Laura slips three carefully chosen stones into her pocket as bounty, I touch my sea glass earrings with renewed appreciation. We’ll treasure the few stones that we can, each in our own way.

The rewards of beachcombing
Posted in Family

What A Difference A Day Makes

Humorous leap year postcard postmarked in 1908...
Humorous leap year postcard from 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hurrah! At last February is on its way out, and I’m so glad it’s not a leap year. This means that March – and Spring – will arrive one day earlier this year. 

There’s a world of difference between the last day of dreary, chilly February and the first day of daffodilly, Easter eggy March. Even more so for my husband, because the first day of March happens to be his birthday.

How frustrating leap years must have been for him when he was a boy, making him wait an extra day for his birthday. But this year I’d been expecting him to hanker after a 29th of February, to put off the dawn of an alarmingly significant  birthday.

60 – The New 40

Yes, I know that 60 is often considered the new 40, but for me, 60 absolutely spells old age. (I say that from the safe perspective of someone still many years away from their own 60th birthday.) This is because my grandmother was born exactly 60 years before me, and for me she was the archetypal old lady. I thought that 60 years was the perfect gap between a grandmother and her granddaughter. I’ve always liked a neat round number.

To anyone who doesn’t know my husband, you might think me cruel to have bought him a watch for his 60th birthday. You might be concerned that every time he looks at it, he’ll be reminded how quickly life is passing him by.

But is he downhearted? Oh, no. He’s positively chirpy. He’s even requested we celebrate  with a party, although he’s not usually a party animal. I don’t think I’ll be feeling as cheerful when it’s my turn to leave my 50s behind.

This is a complete role reversal.  Usually, I am renowned for my optimism, ever the Pollyanna. For Gordon, not only is the glass half empty – it’s also got a crack in it. So why the sudden about-turn?

Saving Grace

The reason is, he’s a Scotsman. He appreciates the opportunity to conserve his spending. As a child, he and his sister set up a club in their loft, of which the key rules were pinned to the wall: “No smoking, no swearing, save money”. Although he has a generous heart and is capable of acts of extraordinary kindness, he is also very fond of opportunities to economise. And so as February closes, bringing old age closer by the second, he’s  preoccupied with  the financial advantages that turning 60 will bring him: his civil service pension, his free bus pass from the council, discounted entry to museums, and 10% off on Tuesdays at B&Q.

I don’t think such rewards will buoy me up when I turn 60. Instead I’ll be clinging desparately to my faith in the powers of nominal determinism. (Oh, how I love to slip that phrase into a conversation!) Because, after all, by marrying Gordon, I became Mrs Young. We have no intention of ever getting divorced, and so, no matter what my age, I will be forever Young. If that’s not a good reason to marry someone, I don’t know what is.

Happy 60th birthday, Mr Young!

Badge saying "60 Years Young"

Posted in Family, Travel

What A To-Do! The Tale of My Young Daughter’s Action List

Laura in Bronze Age costume at the Scottish Crannog Centre
Laura and friend travel back in time to the Bronze Age at the Scottish Crannog Centre

This evening, I’m intrigued to find my nine-year-old daughter preparing for a playdate in a very grown-up way: she’s made an action list.

I thought I was the only one in our household to use this method to try to squeeze more tasks into the day than time allows. Action lists, shopping lists, book lists – I’m constantly finding scribbled strips of paper stuffed in pockets and handbags that I’ve promptly forgotten without completing.

Even so, the act of writing down my plans gives me the illusion that I will at some point complete them. This is in spite of my self-scolding mantra: “The best way to get something done is to do it” – chanted to remind myself to stop messing about and get on with it.

Sometimes my lists are thoughtfully numbered in priority order or prefaced with egalitarian bullet-points, to deem no one item more important than the others. Either way, jotting the items down gives me the illusion that I’m in control of my hectic life. They usually contain at least 10 points.

I was therefore taken aback recently to hear an excellent management trainer declare that no action list should be bigger than a Post-it Note. My friend, who masterminds A4, Excel-formated to-do lists to manage all aspects of her life, was equally aghast.  When it comes to to-do lists, less is apparently more.

Wearing the ancient plaid at the HIghland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
Sometimes I join her to travel back in time: enjoying life in an 18th century croft at The Highland Folk Museum

But it’s not the size of my daughter’s action list that impresses me: it’s the breadth and ambition of her planned tasks. Whereas mine is full of practical mundanities that I am not looking forward to completing (place grocery order, do ironing, buy school uniform), her neat, bullet-pointed list  is positively adventurous:

  • travel back in time
  • get ship-wrecked
  • start an animal hotel

She pays no heed to  boring time constraints, budget, nor the rules of nature. I am dazzled by her exciting prospects. Her to-do list certainly puts mine in the shade.

As Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it. Just remember this whole thing was started by a mouse.” I reckon my problem is that I’ve not been dreaming enough. So I’ve put my old action list in the bin, and I’ll share with you my new list of things to do today – all the stuff of my dreams:

  • become fluent in a language that uses pictograms instead of lettters
  • have lunch with George Orwell and Gerald Durrell
  • discover the secret of how to become invisible
  • take a trip on a real flying carpet

And even better, I can fit it my new list easily on to a Post-it note! So what are your plans for today?

The Flying Carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880) Photo credit: Wikipedia
And I’m off…

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy these posts on a similar theme:

How To Get Things Done

How To Lose Weight By Feeding The Birds

 

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