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 Reading, Travel, Writing

How to Be an Armchair Traveller

(This post was written for the January issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)

Cover of Sea Witch by Helen HollickJanuary is traditionally the time when holiday companies’ commercials start popping up on our television screens. What better distraction from our post-Christmas overdrafts than sundrenched villas and beaches?

In the depths of the January gloom, these adverts tempt us to raid the rainy-day fund reserved for moments of crisis, such as when dishwasher gives up the ghost. (Now there’s a middle-class problem.)

The Budget Travel Option: A Good Book

Debbie Young with Helen Holllick
With Helen Hollick, creator of the fabulous escapist Sea Witch adventure stories

I for one will be resisting the lure of travel agents and instead taking refuge in a good book. This time last year, through the pages of Helen Hollick’s excellent historical novel Sea Witch, I sailed away with her enticing pirate Jesemiah Acorne. After an interesting stop-off in South Africa, we headed straight for the Caribbean, where thoughts of palm-fringed shores and tropic temperatures helped me shut out the dark nights and icy winds of Hawkesbury Upton. It may have helped that I was reading in a comfy armchair by a log fire, with what was left of our Christmas bottle of Lamb’s Navy Rum.

Photo of bluestockinged scarecrow with Books are my Bag bag and Little Free Library
My Little Free Library – offering armchair travellers an easy source of escapist books

Good books are much cheaper than holiday bookings – and you don’t even have to wait till the summer to enjoy them. And, as with radio, the pictures are so much better than on television. If your budget doesn’t run to a new book, check out the huge range of £1 books in the Hawkesbury Shop and Head Start Studio, or the free books available round the clock from the Little Free Library box on my front garden wall in France Lane.

Last January, my sorrow at ending my voyage with Captain Acorne was cut short when I realised that “Sea Witch” was the first in a series. I’ve been saving the sequel especially for this winter. So wish me bon voyage – I’m back off to the Caribbean via the pages of Pirate Code. I just wish I could bring back some duty-free.

OVER TO YOU What’s your favourite book for armchair travelling? I’d love to know!

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends!

And if you liked this post, you may also enjoy this anecdote that centres on reading a book on a plane, inspired by my avid travelling: Flight of Fancy: A Cautionary Tale

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing

Channelling Calm for the Dover to Dunkerque Ferry

(My contribution to the March edition of the Tetbury Advertiser, written in the middle of February as we were about to embark on a week-long trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands)

As I write this month’s column, I’m just 22 miles away from becoming the Tetbury Advertiser‘s foreign correspondent: I’m poised to cross the English Channel. In a Force 10 gale.

This morning, the idea of spending a week in February touring Northern France in our camper van has lost its charm. When we booked our passage in the dark days of December, far-off February seemed comfortingly spring-like. We knew we’d have to pack warm clothes to guard against the colder climate of a continental landmass but did not foresee such storms.

Photo of the HMS Belfast moored by Tower Bridge, London
The Royal Naval vessel on which my father served: HMS Belfast, now moored in the Thames as part of the Industrial War Museum (Photo: Creative Commons by Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia)

Naval Advice

My parents phoned before we were due to set off yesterday, just after the lunchtime shipping forecast.My mother did not exactly suggest we cancel our trip, but I’m sure that’s what she was hoping to hear. My father, a former Royal Navy meteorologist, sounded positively excited on our behalf. The prospect of our trip brought back fond memories of his days serving on the HMS Belfast during the Korean War. He offered us the benefit of his advice.

“Just close your eyes and think of the sea as rocking you to sleep.”

That might have worked when he was in his navy issue hammock, but unfortunately our chosen ferry service, DFDS, doesn’t provide hammocks.

“Tinned peaches are the best thing to settle your stomach when you’re seasick. Make sure you pack tinned peaches.”

We have none in the larder, so I slip tinned pears and pineapple rings into my bag instead.

“We are allowed to postpone the trip to the Sunday when the forecast looks better,” I tell him.

“Oh, the swell will continue for days after the storm,” he assures me brightly. “That’s how it was every time we set off towards Korea, as soon as we were away from the shelter of the land.”

Outlook: (Fun)Fair

My daughter on board the Channel Ferry, late afternoon
After boarding the ferry late afternoon, Laura demonstrates how many cuddly toys she can fit into one small “Wanted On Voyage” bag

My daughter asks what our crossing will be like. I try to frame the prospect as a positive adventure.

“Think of it as crossing the Channel by rollercoaster,” I suggest.

I know she’s just reached the age where she loves rollercoasters.

“Will we go upside down?” she asks eagerly.

“I sincerely hope not!”

I’m thankful that the journey will be relatively short, until my husband recollects a memorable Channel crossing from his distant past.

“Once we had to wait outside the port for four hours because it was too rough to dock,” he remembers. “We just had to ride the storm out at sea.”

I try to banish images of the final scene of the movie The Perfect Storm.

So if my copy for this column turns up a little late, that’ll be because we’ve been shipwrecked and I’ve resorted to old technology to submit it. But not to worry, I’ve got an empty Cotswold Spring water bottle in the van that I can use to send my message. I’m just hoping it has a homing instinct.

Postscript: Our scheduled 10am departure on the Saturday morning was delayed till early evening. DFDS bumped us up to the 8am crossing instead – which left around 4pm. The reason for the delay? The ferries had been stuck out at sea for not four hours, but 10 hours, awaiting conditions sufficiently calm to let them dock. By 4pm, thankfully, all was calm. And my tinned pears and pineapple stayed in their tins. Phew.

More posts about our February trip coming soon! Here are the first two:

A Question of Priorities – about a strange encounter on the dockside as we waited to board

A Theme Park By Any Other Name – a theoretical tour of prime European theme parks, resulting in our visit to, er, Plopsaland