Thursday, 11 August 2016

Doing the Midnight Flit

Many of us live somewhere not too distant from a huge conurbation like London, Birmingham, or Glasgow. As such, if your journey takes you around or through said conurbation, you have to consider planning your journey to avoid getting stuck in traffic at busy times. Here in the South East of England, that means avoiding the M25 between 6.30am and 10am, and again between 4pm and 7pm.

When faced with a long journey, like my recent trip up to Scotland, I normally aim to travel in the evening when the traffic is, generally, free-flowing. I would break my journey when tired at 'Late Night Arrival Areas' on Caravan Club Sites, but I have now come to the conclusion that that is less than ideal.

On my recent trip, I was aiming to be leaving 'Base Camp' in Kent at 2pm. However, this was the state of play one hour later at 3pm:

Oops. Laundry to dry, still the bike to load, still the kitesurfing kit to tie down on the roof, and one very impatient and frustrated little puppy. So I decided to take it easy and leave after the evening rush, at about 8pm. At least it meant I had time to attend to those REALLY IMPORTANT jobs, like polishing the exhaust pipe on the bike to make sure it looked good when people were overtaking us on the motorway:

Off we sailed, cruising freely through the Dartford Tunnel and enjoying a relaxing tow around a free-flowing M25, and up the M11. As the clock approached 11pm, it was time to stop and rest for the night, so we headed for the Late Night Arrival Area at Ferry Meadows Caravan Club Site in Peterborough.

ARGH! Horror of Horrors! Upon arrival, the gates were locked, as they had been since 10.30pm. 'Murt mhòr!' I cried, my favourite Gaelic saying du moment. It means something like 'Oh heavens above!' I had no option but to overnight on the public road, fretting the night away about my unsecured kit on the car.

Six glorious weeks later, heading back from my hols, the ferry docked at Oban at 11pm and I wanted to get a few miles under my belt before facing the long day of driving South for work the next day, so I managed to keep going to Strathclyde Country Park near Glasgow where I slunk in at 2am, but thanks to the 'Driving Wobbles' I couldn't get to sleep till well after 3am. Which meant I didn't wake up till midday...

...which meant I didn't get to Cambridge until 10pm. So I slunk on to the Late Night Arrival Area, joined by a second caravan at 11pm.

Meanwhile, my antics had been causing consternation among wardens and the Caravan Club. I woke up in Cambridge to discover that this area was for people who had a booking. I didn't. Meanwhile, the people in the caravan next to me *did* have a booking, but as they were on a ferry from Holland until 9pm, they did not have the phone signal to ring ahead and warn the wardens. Which meant that their booking was cancelled and a 'Black Mark' applied to their name, which they then had to ring up and sort out with the Caravan Club and have removed, lest it annulled any future bookings. This, my friends, is the reason I don't normally book in advance. I just don't know how far I'm going to get. I still remember heading up to the Caravan Writers' Guild Event in North Lincolnshire with the kind of migraine that saw me stopping to throw up and lie in the Airstream face-down for an hour every 30 minutes. It took almost 8 hours to cover 120 miles of free-flowing motorway.

The late nights, local arrangements on sites, angst caused to myself and the hard-working and ever-patient Caravan Club wardens are, I have now decided, simply not worth it. In future I think it really is worth missing a day and keeping 'normal' hours. Yes, it will be a faff to unhitch the caravan every evening and hitch it back up again in the morning, but it will give me time to relax and unwind in the evening and a allow a decent night's sleep. There will always be the problem of having to make a booking in peak season then risking not making it if health or traffic conditions dictate, but that's something I'll have to deal with if it happens. But for now, I think setting off at 9.30am, taking a break between 4.30pm and 6.30pm, and aiming to arrive on site at 8pm (with a courtesy call to the wardens to let them know) is definitely the way forward.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Media Tart - Gaelic meets Caravan

For many years I have kept this blog about my travels and caravanning-related rambling. More recently I started this blog about the ups and downs of learning Scottish Gaelic called 'Confessions of a Scottish Gaelic Learner.'

I never thought in my wildest dreams that the two subjects would cross over and I'd end up writing the same entry for both blogs.

Yet... here it is!

My love of Scotland is no secret to anyone. After many Airstream trips to the Outer Hebrides, each one affirming my love for and connection with the place just a little bit more than before, I decided in 2013 to start learning a little bit of Gaelic in order to try to come to terms with and understand my connection a little better.

Alongside my Gaelic course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, I maintained a good relationship with the Caravan Club of which I have been a member all my adult life, and for whom I have worked on an occasional freelance and sometimes voluntary basis for over 10 years.

As my friends will testify (the very few I have left, that is), when I am passionate about something I don't shut up about it. Therefore it was only a matter of time before I was gabbling away excitedly to all my pals in the caravan industry about the wonders of Gaelic, and the profound richness it has brought to my life.

And so it was that I was invited by the Caravan Club to speak at the Scottish Caravan, Motor Caravan, and Holiday Home show this weekend. To keep a Gaelic theme, the fabulous singer and all-round Lovely Lady Joy Dunlop was invited along as the headline act to sing in Gaelic and add glamour and - er - joy to the procedings.

Nobody knew how this would go down as the worlds of Gaelic and Caravanning have never been brought together like this before. This was a chance to tell the Gaels and the rest of Scotland that the caravanning sector is worth £700 million to the economy of Scotland, and members staying on Caravan Club Sites alone spend £35 million per year outwith the site, i.e. on meals and days out, and that 70% of those visitors come from outwith Scotland. This was also a chance to bring Gaelic to the one million plus people (over 360,000 member families) in the Caravan Club.

Even before the event, the media circus started and I was interviewed about my Airstreaming and Gaelic for the Scottish Sunday Mail (Daily Record) which you can read by clicking here. 

The day before the show opened was an exciting day as I appeared on the Kaye Adams Programme on BBC Radio Scotland. That was a fantastic interview, and you can listen to it by clicking here and scrolling to approx 2:52. 

Finally, the opening of the show by Joy and myself went down very well indeed. Joy thrilled the crowds with her delightful singing and warm and bubbly personality, while I gabbled away excitedly about everything that is great about touring Scotland in a caravan or motor caravan.

You can see a great video of the event made by the Caravan Times team by clicking here. 

Not everyone in Scotland nor every Gaelic speaker is going to be fond of caravans. Neither is every caravanner going to be fond of Gaelic. However, bringing the two worlds together can only help in the promotion of mutual awareness, respect, and understanding, and that can only be a good thing.

Monday, 26 October 2015

RET and what it means for the Caravanner, the Motor Caravanner, and the Islands

On 26th October 2015, RET was rolled out across the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry network in Scotland.

What's RET then? I'm glad you asked. It's Road Equivalent Tariff, that's what it is. The blurb says that it's something to do with trying to equate the cost of taking the ferry with driving the same distance. The simple reality is that the fares have tumbled, in some cases dramatically so.

RET is not new. It has been going for a while on a few of the 'long haul' routes like Barra, Tiree, and Lewis. Arran joined the Club recently. Now all the islands, and INTER island routes, will benefit from RET.

So what does this mean to the caravanner, and the motor caravanner?

Let's look at a three comparisons. We'll look at the popular route to the Isle of Mull, the hop over to the Isle of Raasay, and the link between the Isle of Harris and North Uist. The comparison fares are for my personal circumstances, so that is a 4x4 truck, an 8m caravan, and one adult:

MULL: Oban to Craignure standard return
WAS:  £267.30
NOW: £71.90

RAASAY: Sconser to Raasay standard return
WAS: £79.60
NOW: £34.20

HARRIS to NORTH UIST: Leverburgh to Berneray standard single
WAS: £94.00
NOW: £36.35

So looking at the Mull crossing, that is a WHOPPING £195.40 reduction in the fare. The ferry crossing to Mull with a caravan will cost about 30% of the 2015 price in 2016. WOW!

The inter-island routes also open up the possibility of affordable day trips between islands. Last year I couldn't believe that to take just my motorbike and myself from North Uist to Harris for the day (for a Temple Cafe or Skoon Art Cafe fix) was going to cost £42.75 (5-day return). In 2016 the same return will cost me £20.10.

This is terrific news for caravanners, motor caravanners, motorists, bikers, and of course for the islanders themselves.


There is always a but. And in the interests of fairness to all, let's talk about that 'but'.

When RET was rolled out to the likes of Barra and Tiree a few years back, the fares tumbled in a similarly dramatic fashion. Tourers, especially camper vans that travel for the same price as a solo car, headed for the islands in their droves.

The only problem was, neither Barra nor Tiree was set up to accept this amount of tourers. Folks would wild camp around the islands. Beforehand, as there were only one or two campers, it was never a problem. Suddenly, swathes of heavy vehicles and caravans were blotting the landscape and, more importantly, destroying it. Machair is fragile, and it wasn't long before erosion set in.

After a bit of an uncomfortable transition period, Tiree and Barra now welcome more caravans and motor caravans than ever before, thanks to a new network of camping-crofts and campsites. Wild camping has effectively been stopped.

There are some wonderful sites on Mull - click on 'Mull' in the word jumble to the right to see where I stayed in 2012. However, even in 2012 the small road between Craignure and Tobermory was already very busy. I wonder how it's going to cope. But I implore the responsible camper to use the official sites wherever possible, and spend that money you saved on the ferry fare on the island. £195 can more than cover your site fees and industrial quantities of cake for an entire week.

if you've never visited the beautiful Scottish Islands and have always fancied it, then wait no more. 2016 really is the year to make it happen. Enjoy.

Tùras math dhuibh.  


Thursday, 30 July 2015

Signage at Northton, Isle of Harris

An open letter to the Stornoway Gazette.

Recently I saw the following feature in the Stornoway Gazette:

Click here to read

This was something I meant to write about a long time back, but work and Gaelic study got in the way.

During my winter trip to Harris in November/December 2014, I went to Northton Beach on the Isle of Harris and my heart sank. As I passed the Temple Cafe, the sign at a nearby house said ‘No Turning.’ I was so sad to see this. If you have not read ‘Notes From a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson, then make it your priority to do so! In it, Bryson talks about the ‘No Turning’ mentality of the narrow-minded and petty.

Worse was to come. At the beach, there were a plethora of ‘Private Road’ and ‘No Parking’ signs, along with a line of stakes to make sure you got the message.

Only a few months before in the summer I had stopped here for the afternoon on my way from Horgabost Campsite to the Leverburgh ferry en route to Berneray. I parked the rig along the front, had an awesome kitesurf session, then trotted off to the Temple Cafe for a hearty meal.

On my Spring 2015 trip, I was unable to repeat the experience. Travelling from Horgabost to Leverburgh my only options were to park in Leverburgh School (it was Saturday) and buy a DIY lunch at An Clachan, or hope that the Butty Bus would be open. I went for the former, and Gail and Reuben at the Temple Cafe lost yet another customer that day. I cannot begin to even think of how many walkers to the Temple at Toe Head have had to reconsider their day as they can’t park anywhere.

I think it is perfectly reasonable for the local residents not to want motor caravanners and caravanners pitching up for the night along their beach. A simple ‘No overnight parking please’ sign would surely suffice? If erosion is an issue, then a kinder, softer sign would still get the message across while not alienating the visitor.

I’ve not been back to Harris since May 2015, and I can only guess that people are now parking along the verges of the road.

However, to me as a ‘regular’ to Harris, it’s not the lack of parking that grieves me. I fully understand that to create a flat hardstanding area, even to extend the Seallam! car park, would cost thousands if not hundreds of thousands of pounds.

What grieves me are those signs and the attitude they convey. An attitude of narrow-minded ‘prissy…rural England’ as stated in the letter to the Stornoway Gazette. In other words, the kind of thing that people make the long schlep to the Western Isles to get away from.

Put it another way. If this canker is allowed to spread and turn Harris into yet another 'prissy' tourist-hating pretty place where incomers have bulldozed their way in, forced the locals out, then erected their precious ring fences (just like has happened in parts of Cornwall), why would people make that long and expensive journey?

As a Gaelic speaker, I notice that none of these signs are in the indiginous language of the land. This is the kind of sign you see in Gaelic - a welcoming one.

Let’s hope that common sense prevails and such signage is removed, or at the very least changed to something a little more in keeping with the traditionally warm, friendly, and welcoming Hebridean Hospitality that so many of us cherish and hold close to our hearts.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Greed and ignorance - killing our simple sites

I try my hardest to avoid all newspapers, even the free ones. However, in a moment of tired weakness on the train last night I flicked through the freebie that was on the seat next to me. One of the main stories was about a lady who nearly died after eating a cupcake in a cafe and going into anaphylactic shock. She was allergic to nuts I believe. The picture of the alleged 'victim' showed her in a graduation gown. In other words, this woman isn't thick.

I do not in any way wish to belittle what happened. This woman nearly lost her life. However, what struck me about this court case is that the blame is being heaped on the cafe that sold the cupcake. Now, this 'victim' knew of her nut allergy, and she had also failed to carry her epipen with her. Yet, because there was no sign on the cake counter that said 'Please ask us about allergens', the lady consumed the cake without knowing it contained traces of nuts. In other words, because there was no sign telling her to ask, she didn't. The lady is a graduate. Did she really need reminding to ask?

By law, the cafe should have had the sign. In other words, the law states that even if you have a dietry allergy that can kill you, it's down to the eating establishment to remind you to ask whether or not that cupcake is going to kill you. In the eyes of the law, the responsibility seems to be a little one-sided.

What has this got to do with caravanning, you ask?

Well, quite a lot, actually.

You see, I'm an advocate of using your caravan, tent, or motor caravan to get away from it all. REALLY get away from it all. It's not for everyone I'll grant you, but to me personally I love being away from club houses, madding crowds, electric hook-ups, and all those other trappings of modern living. Generally I go for four or five months over the summer using small, simple sites (CLs and CSs for those in the know) without electric hook-ups that charge up to £5 per night. I love being self-reliant for my electricity (by solar panel) and for my heat and hot water (LPG, solar shower, woodgas (BioLite) stove, or BioEthanol.) There is a connected feeling of wholesomeness and contentedness about quietly living off-grid for a while.

However, these tiny corners of paradise where I find myself over the summer are dying out at an alarming rate. It is now very difficult in my corner of the woods to find a mains-free CL or CS where you can camp for £5 or under per night. The third CL in three years near to where I am based in Kent has just closed. The three CLs used to charge between £2.50 and £5 per night. All of the owners lament the same reason for closure: Today's 'Compensation Culture', and the prohibitive cost of insuring against it.

Nobody is ever going to make a living out of charging under £5 per night for up to five caravans. However, if you have a spare field with a water supply and enjoy meeting people, it can be a good way to earn what one ex-owner called her 'Gardening Money'. In other words, a little bit of cash to spend on her hobby.

Small sites without facilities are nowhere near as well patronised as their full-facility £15/night cousins, but for folks like me, that is half of the appeal. However, without the volume of 'bed nights' per year, it can be hard for the site owner to cover their existing costs, let alone pay out for expensive insurances. Therefore they take the difficult decision to close, and another simple site bites the dust.

Meanwhile, my Club Magazine tells me of all the small sites that are opening, and generally these are all in the £12-£20 bracket and feature electric hook-ups (EHUs). Installing EHUs is a very costly business, and of course that outlay needs to be recouped as well as the actual energy cost. As the majority of caravanners and motor-caravanners like being hooked in to the mains, these sites can do quite well and the owners can cover their costs, including insurance.

But I don't need a hook-up in the summer. I don't want to have to pay for something I don't need or want. 

On the site I am enjoying at the moment, there are rabbit holes. If I twist my ankle falling down one, as far as I am concerned that is my own stupid fault for not looking where I am going. Regrettably, however, there are people amongst us who suffer from the afflictions of greed and ignorance, and are of the opinion that everything that happens to them is someone elses 'fault'. Of course we all need protection from unsafe working practices, dangers to health, and the like. However, responsibilty for their own actions is something that some people seem to shirk, and the rest of us end up paying for it.  Right now, some of us are paying for it by losing the few simple sites remaining, and the wonderful lifestyle they allow us to enjoy.

Long live common sense.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Changing Direction

June 2015

Nothing stays the same forever, we all know that. Sometimes it's good to take a while away from your normal routine, have a think about stuff, and do a bit of a 'happiness check'. You may have enjoyed doing something yesterday, but do you still enjoy it today?

After a very damp and cold three months in Scotland I've decided to change direction a bit. Sadly for some, I'll no longer be continuing my journalistic pursuits for the time being. We live in a very different world to the world I set out in about 15 years ago. You can try and keep up with it all or do something else. I tried for a bit, but now the time has come to do something else.

My Airstream took me to the Outer Hebrides in 2009, and I fell hook line and sinker in love with the place. Before that first visit, I didn't even know that Scottish Gaelic existed. Like many folks, I thought it was pronounced 'gay-lick', which it isn't. It's more like a cross between 'garlic' and 'gallic'.

Fast forward six years and I have completed an 18 month foundation course and am now half way through a two-year part-time university course in Scottish Gaelic. Upon completion of this two year language course I have the option to complete my first ever degree, which is seriously tempting.

If the struggles of a mature student or learning the Gaelic language are of interest to you, check out my other blog, Confessions of a Gaelic Learner. 

Sadly, being just an average human being and not Superman, I can't divvy up my brain into separate bits and be able to give of my best to many things. I have a day job on the railway based in London that I enjoy immensely and have been doing for 21 years, so that isn't going anywhere. I *love* learning Scottish Gaelic, which takes me to Glasgow, Skye, and the Outer Hebrides at every opportunity. This leaves little time for anything else, and sadly something has had to go.

Fifteen years ago, your average leisure journalist was expected to produce words. Very soon after that, the advent of digital photography caused the magazines to dump their Staff Photographers, and the journos were expected to do the photography too. Thereafter, as digital media takes off, video is expected now as well. With video, a whole new bag of worms is opened up, and it's something I don't really want to go into in public.

There is a massive, massive difference between writing about a successful trip you have already completed, and being commissioned to produced a set piece to a set format on a set area within a set timeframe. Meanwhile, 'trolling' on the internet is on the increase. The uneducated and narrow-minded can be so vocal when protected by the anonymity of being the other side of the screen, which is a luxury not afforded to those who choose to publish.

Insurance is another bag of worms. If you make any money from your caravanning and your writing, then you need to have all the insurances in place: Business use on the car, business use on the cararavan, public liability, and public indemnity. In my case that amounts to a cost of almost £3,000 per year before I even start to consider fuel, camera equipment, computer, data (both cloud and hard), mobile data transfer... and all for a revenue stream of about £25 per month from Google and not a lot more (per month) from other sources.

So, my website is down for now. The YouTube videos are pruned. The latest 'ScotVlog' Series was a moderate success and a great reminder of the ups and downs of my trip, but the time taken to produce and upload these films has not been justified. Instead, I now spend my time defending what I've said in the films to people who weren't even there at the time, but think they know better about what happened to me than I do.

I need a break from all this.

I do have a couple of new projects up my sleeve, so don't think you've got rid of me that easily. Howver, right now I need a little time and space to clear the backlog, readjust, and start coming up with some fresh new ideas.

Thank goodness for my Airstream.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Time Flies

Where has the time gone?

On Sunday night I drove to Rye and enjoyed an evening with my dear friends M&T, and on the way home I nipped to Camber, where I used to live, and savoured a moonlit walk on the beach just over the dunes from the beautiful, designer Eco-house that used to be mine.

Walking Dougal today I thought about that beautiful house. While I do miss it, I don't miss all the reasons why I sold it and moved into the Airstream full-time.

So when did I move into my Airstream for good? A year ago? Two years ago? Nope. It was THREE years ago. Three!

Where has the time gone?

Well, there have been a few major life-events that were unforeseen. One of these was losing Dad and everything that entailed, from his end of life care, sorting through all his stuff, and then of course helping Mum move out of the big family house and into a smaller place where she could start her new life. Just so you know, she is absolutely fine and loving her new pad.

The other unforeseen life event was embarking on a University Course in Scottish Gaelic. Where'd that come from? Two years ago I started the foundation course out of interest, and here we are two years on almost half way through an intensive CertHE course that might be the footings for my first ever degree. The amount of work is a bit crazy right now, with assessments on top of the normal course work.

So much for only working two days a week in 'The Day Job'.

What gets to me, though, is that I open the garage doors at my Mum's new pad, and filling up a substantial corner of it is all my STUFF. Still! Stuff that, for the past three years, I have been meaning to sort out. I've had a bit of a sort through, and when it came to stuff like my snowboarding kit that has gone unused for three years, I looked at how much it was worth on eBay (less than the cost of ONE week's hire) and promptly put it back in Mum's garage 'just in case'. Well, I don't *HAVE* to empty the garage.

This winter, with no dramas scheduled and fortunately none occurring, I thought I would at last have the spare time to get 'everything' sorted. I even took my Winter Hebrides break before Christmas to give me a clear run after the new year arrived. Just like last year, I have parked the Airstream on a 'seasonal' pitch from October to March which means I don't have to pay any time or attention to where I will be staying. It's nice to relax and breathe a bit after a summer of roving around.

However, for one reason or another, that 'spare time' never materialised. The box of CDs still awaits sorting to go to Music Magpie. The photo albums still await scanning. The boxes of books still await sorting.

While on that walk today with Dougal, it also sunk in that in a shade under two week's time I shall be hitching up the Airstream for a three-month study/work/holiday tour of Scotland. I've already got the motorbike ready. I have two free days - count them, TWO - to get everything sorted and packed and ready before leaving, as every other day I will be at work earning those credits in order to take an extended period of leave. Tomorrow I will be packing away my winter coat and getting out my shorts, sandals, and a summer shirt or two to pack in the 'van. Dougal has 48 cans of his favourite German dog food on order to arrive before we leave. My kitesurfing kit is about to be strapped to the car roof. Winter is over and it's time to wake up and get out there again.

Sandals? Shorts? Kitesurfing? What happened to winter? Where did it go? I thought winter went on forever and you could get tons of stuff done?

Where has the time gone?