Friday, 28 November 2014

Road to the Islands Part 6: Kylesku Bridge, Clachtoll, and Return of the Mojo

May 2014

It doesn't take a Genius to work out that I am a Gael at heart. I don't understand why (my family is from Kent for at least the last 150 years), but there is something I find so attractive about the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I had enjoyed the East Coast, but one minor thing was bugging me. I'd driven up from Dover and, while I discovered a truly beautiful stretch of coastline, I didn't really find anything that I could not have found closer to home. East Kent, Suffolk, Norfolk, East Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire, and especially Northumberland... they are all so beautiful in that 'Big Sky' East Coast kind of a way. With so much East Coast Gorgeousness close to hand, there would be nothing really to take me back to the North East of Scotland now that I have enjoyed its cultural attractions.

The West Coast however... oh my goodness me, that is something else. Wild, desolate, rugged, and beautiful landscapes that are found in no other parts of the UK with a language and a culture to match. I can't get enough of it, so much so that I am now doing a University Course in Scottish Gaelic, aiming eventually for my first ever degree.

So... despite the fact I had remained as open-minded as possible, and I really had enjoyed my time on the East Coast and in the fantastic Naver/Nabheir Glen, I cannot deny that turning the corner at Durness (and leaving behind the rubbish experience at Cape Wrath) was a 'turning of the corner' in more ways than one. The weather went from OK to fantastic. The scenery went from fantastic to stunning. My spirits lifted beyond measure. Swooping through dramatic glens on deserted roads with my Airstream behind, I actually allowed myself to relax and feel good again. It was an uplifting afternoon.

Being the adventurous sort that I am (that's another way of saying 'disorganised' and 'running by the seat of my pants') I had no plans for the evening. I took a few side roads to see if they'd lead to nice places to camp for the night.

They didn't.

Twice I ended up having to unhitch the Airstream, spin it around, and head back. Given the to-do with the Cape Wrath experience, that made it three times in a day I had to turn the 'van around. This, my friends, is why I love my single-axle caravan, and why, being a single caravanner, I bless my motor mover. It's not that I cannot reverse my caravan, it's that quite often I'll end up with nowhere to reverse it into.

That night I finally ended up in a layby off the A894 at Kylesku, next to the bridge and just out of sight of the road which made me feel a little less conspicuous. Unbeknown to me at first, it turned out to be an interesting place to stop.

Like 99% of motorists I would have hooned over the bridge without thinking twice about it. Now, having stopped to breath and to rest, I had the time to examine the interpretation boards and explore the area.

The curved box girder bridge looked impressive from my makeshift pitch. Before the bridge was built, the A894 was broken by a ferry crossing at this point, and that ferry only ran in daylight. People rushing for the last ferry caused accidents, and many faced an unexpected night in Kylesku or a long, long diversion via Altnaharra.

You'd think that all changed sometime around 1964, wouldn't you? But no, this was the state of affairs until 1984, a mere 30 years ago. Fascinating.

Next day I set off with Clachtoll Beach Campsite in mind. It wasn't too far away, but my dear friend M had told me to take the coast road around the peninsula to Lochinver. What M had obviously forgotten was this sign as you turn off the A894:

Hey ho. These signs are there for a reason. I carried on along the A road taking the long way 'round, but nevertheless was still rewarded with an AMAZING drive. This, dear reader, is what caravanning is about - the joy of the journey and discovery:

My welcome at Clachtoll was warm and friendly, always super-important to a solo traveller. It was a lovely site for a night stop where I could unwind and catch up on work for a bit. Being anxious to get to the islands I only stayed for one night, but I enjoyed the area and the site so much I'm already planning my return visit. Next time I'll definitely be taking the motorbike as well!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Road to the Islands Part 5: Highs and Lows

May 2014

'What is your favourite Caravan Club Site?' is a question I am often asked. It's one that, until now, has proved impossible to answer. I like so many of them, and each for a different reason: There's Morvich, High Onn, Cirencester, Fairlight Wood, Crystal Palace, and many more besides.

Finally, I now have a firm favourite. That favourite Caravan Club Site is also the Club's most remote, most relaxed, and arguably one of its most beautiful sites, Altnaharra in Scotland. It's 20 miles to the nearest shop, and while the main 'B' road skirts the site, you'll be lucky to count more than three cars passing in an entire evening. 

 Pitches border Loch Naver ('Loch Nabhair' anns a' Ghàidhlig) and are surrounded by Munros, Corbetts, and Grahams - rich diverse Scottish names for what in boring English we may refer to as 'mountains and hills'. Call it what you like, it's stunning. 

 An enjoyable few days was spent here, discovering the nearby clearance village, and learning a little more about The Clearances at the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill. It was at this museum I had a very interesting chat with a Gaelic speaker about the language and the local attitudes towards it - more on that in a later Blog Entry. 

Whenever the sun shone, I'd be out with my camera. It was almost an addiction, it all just seemed too beautiful not to capture. 

However, all good things must come to an end, and I decided to arrange a trip to take in Cape Wrath on the next leg of my journey. 

John o' Groats is well known as being the furthest popular and accessible point on mainland Britain from its Cornish cousin Land's End. The South West to North East Axis is the popular one. By far less popular, but of more interest to me, is the South East to North West Axis, Dover to Cape Wrath. I'm a Dover lad you see, so it seemed fitting to make the trip to the furthest point from my home town. 

Cape Wrath is reached by a passenger ferry and then a minibus service across MOD land. I booked my place on the trip with the minibus operator who assured me that there was ample room to park the caravan while I was on the trip, and told me that I should turn up at 1pm for my booked trip. 

The trip to Durness, nearest town to the ferry to Cape Wrath, was not a happy one. With the Airstream in tow I was stuck behind a tag-axle Buerstner motor caravan (I remember it well) driven by the kind of selfish toerag that gives leisure vehicles a bad name. For the best part of an hour, I missed the lovely scenery as I was staring up the backside of this twitty twonk's ugly bus. A queue of cars (well, about three) built up behind me and I pulled over to let them pass on the single-track road, but still Buerstner Bar-steward refused to let me pass. A rental motor caravan caught up with us. I let him pass too. He then must have lost his rag with Numpty Features as I saw the reflections of flashing lights in the Buerstner's back panel after a while. After what felt like an eternity, with my teeth gritted and my nerves frazzled, Meanie Moho Man FINALLY allowed the rental motorcaravan, and me, to pass. I think the word 'Halle - bloody - luliah' may have emitted from the base of my stomach. Loudly. 

Still, I made it to the pier in time. But there was nowhere to park the rig. There wasn't even the space to park a car - the car park was jammed full. I continued to the turning area, but had to unhitch the Airstream in order to turn it around. I blessed my Motor Mover. 

Sadly, as the turning area was on a slope, the 'van rolled back until the brake fully engaged, which in turn snapped the breakaway cable. Ugh. 

With blood pressure reaching stratospheric heights, I got the rig turned around and now wondered where I was going to park it. Meanwhile, the ferryman was sitting in his van oblivious to my plight. I banged on his door. 

'Excuse me, I'm booked on the 1pm tour. Do I have time to park my rig down the road and get back in time to get the ferry?' I asked. 

'There's no point, you won't get on.'

'No, I will, I booked in advance you see.'

'But you still won't get on.'


'Well, I can take you over, but there's only one minibus and he is absolutely overwhelmed. You see those people on the jetty on the other side of the estuary? I took them over this morning and they are still waiting. You won't get on.'

'But...but...I've booked! I've come all the way from Dover for this!'

'I feel for you, I really do. It's a disgrace and it's not good enough. We have tourists coming from far and wide and are always turning them away. It's an embarrassment, but until we get a second bus there's nothing more we can do.'

'So what shall I do?'

'Complain to Visit Scotland.This is a disgrace and it's shameful. Visit Scotland need to get this sorted out.'

My heart sank. I'd booked! But then, I had booked with someone who told me that there was plenty of room to park the rig, which there was not. I didn't want to abandon my pride and joy in a layby somewhere while I took a ferry for no reward other than waiting about on a jetty all afternoon. I sloped off. As I passed the layby at the end of the road about half a mile away, its entrance was blocked anyway by a JCB being loaded onto a lorry. This, as my Mum would say, 'put the tin hat on it.' I skulked off to the next layby, where I pulled over to have some lunch and fit my spare breakaway cable. I was disappointed, but all the signs were saying; 'Don't go'. One of the important things about travel, and about life, is to listen to the messages you're getting and change your plans accordingly. Sometimes, it just isn't meant to be, and it's obviously not mean to be for a reason. You may never know what that reason is, but it's best to just go with the flow. That's exactly what we did, and as Dougal Dog and I continued with our journey, we turned a corner in more ways than one.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Road to the Islands Part 4: Dunnet Bay and Tyre tribulations

May 2014

So there I was, in the middle of nowhere in the depths of the remote Scottish Highlands with a blown caravan tyre. As I was blocking a lane of a two-way road, I certainly wasn't going to put myself at risk by changing the wheel.

I looked at my phone in this remote area fearing the worst, but to my delight and relief I had 4bars of 3G signal. Thank you EE. Proof, as if you need it, than when choosing your mobile operator, price should not be your only consideration.

It was time to put Green Flag to the test. I switched to the Caravan Club's 'Mayday' recovery service after an appalling experience with the RAC last year, where the recovery was both traumatic and farcical. When I complained, the long and the short of their excuse is that you cannot expect a smooth caravan recovery in the winter when you're travelling with a dog. Really.

The telephone service from Green Flag was good, and I was kept informed of progress. It took 70 minutes for the agent to arrive which, given the fact I was miles from anywhere, wasn't an unacceptable length of time to wait.

The operative's socket wouldn't reach the wheel nut in the decorative but chunky alloys on the Airstream. Fortunately, being the conscious caravanner I am, I had an 'extra long' 19mm socket attached to my torque wrench. Every caravanner should be torquing their wheel nuts on occasion and especially after wheels have been removed (eg service or a new van), so every caravanner reading this would have one anyway, wouldn't they? If you don't, here's another reason why you need to be carrying a torque wrench with a socket that fits your caravan wheel nuts.

The offending wheel was an absolute mess. 

As I had parked up by a kerb, we had difficulties getting the caravan jacked up high enough to be able to retract the spare wheel carrier. As the failed wheel was already off, moving forward was not an option. Top tip: make sure you avoid kerbs near the spare wheel carrier if you can.

Finally, the spare wheel was liberated and in its new temporary position. On my journey I continued, shaken not stirred. This being the Highlands of Scotland, I'd had five offers of help from passing motorists who stopped. You wouldn't get that in other parts of the country, despite being passed by 100 times more traffic.

Approaching Dunnet Bay Caravan Club Site, the first thing you see is the expansive bay itself. An impressive and welcoming sight indeed, but not as welcoming as the lovely wardens at the site. Sometimes all you need is a sympathetic ear and a 'there there' after such a hiccup, and that's exactly what I got.

Dunnet Bay Club Site is on the beach and enjoys a lovely outlook. However, most of the week was spent chasing around getting the tyre fixed which threw up another issue.

In an attempt to find out why the tyre blew, I took the Airstream to a weigh bridge. The reading assured me that the tyres were not overloaded, but despite my frugal loading the total weight was still heavier than I expected. The next few days were spent emptying out the 'van of everything, and I mean everything, so I could weigh it to ascertain its actual MIRO. A very, very kind couple in the Bailey next door offered me use of their awning to store my kit.

Despite my apparent restraint, I was still quietly shocked at the amount of stuff that had crept sneakily into my caravan over the years. The Airstream came out to be a few kilos higher than expected, but nothing that couldn't be overcome. It was time for a serious think, and a serious repack.

So, if the caravan wasn't overloaded, and the tyre was running at the correct pressure (I'd checked it before leaving Culloden Moor), and it was a decent brand, why did it blow? It was the offside tyre that blew, so that also rules out damage by kerbing.

The answer can only be: 'one of those things'. One of the kind people who had stopped to help told me he'd stopped at another blowout on the A9 the previous day. As far as he was concerned, the increase in tyre damage is as a direct result of the deteriorating state of the UK's roads. It is indeed possible that the tyre was weakened by pothole damage, but we don't know.

All in all it was a good catalyst to get the caravan weight checked and also it was a good test of the marvellous Tyron safety bands.

However, the whole episode had cost yet another week, and a lot of heartache and effort. The rain fell every day, my spirits were in my socks, and I was 750 miles from home, so scuttling back to friends and family in Kent wasn't a option. The only option was to simply count my blessings and get on with it. So that is exactly what I did.

Researching a travel feature always gives me the push to get out and visit places even if feeling a little lifeless and 'meh'. However, I didn't need much of a push to get out and visit the Castle of Mey near Dunnet Bay. Former holiday residence of the Queen Mother, the castle is now a living memory to a member of the Royal Family we all hold dear to our hearts. It was a wonderful, heart-warming, enjoyable day. Another place that put a smile on my face, especially during the dark visits to the weighbridge at Scrabster Harbour, was Cups Tearoom bang on the harbour side. Cups is a delightful, friendly, quirky place serving tea in pots with hand-knitted tea cosies, and delicious home-made cake. The lady serving was an real treasure. 

Absolute manna for the soul.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Road to the Islands Part 3 - Brora and a Blowout

May 2014

From Culloden Moor, next port of call on my mission was the Caravan Club Site at Brora. This is a nice site, with just 100yds of golf course to cross to get from the caravan to a deserted, beautiful, sandy beach.

After a few days here, it was time to head up to Dunnet Bay, near Thurso, right at the top do the country.

With all the comings and goings of the previous few weeks, coupled with changeable weather and an ever-looming copy deadline, I'd not really relaxed into the trip. However, as the trip North from Brora progressed, I started to at last 'feel the love'. The deserted stretch of the A9 south of Thurso, and the wild countryside I was admiring, finally put a smile on my face. The Airstream is a delight to tow at all times, but right now the whole rig was cruising smoothly down a deserted road at a relaxed pace as I made sure I was driving slow enough to take in the amazing views in safety.

Just as we were cruising along in a long-awaited air of serenity... *BANG! CRUNCH-CHHHHHHH!*

The Airstream fell onto its wheel rim and immediately I knew the tyre had blown. 'Safety Head' kicked in as I let the rig reduce speed naturally and made sure we kept going past a bend in the road to make sure we would be able to be seen in good time by approaching motorists.

When you have safety features fitted to your caravan, it can be tempting to see them as a bit of a waste of money. Chances are, if you're lucky, you'll never need them. However, as this short episode highlights, if you DO run in to a spot of bother, you will bless every single penny that you have invested in your safety and well being.

Such a good feeling I have about Tyron Safety bands. I had them fitted to my Airstream, and I'm so very very thankful that I did. With the band in place, the tyre blew but remained on the rim. As such, I remained in complete control of the rig and brought it to a safe stop. The damage to the caravan is minimal - just a bit of mashed belly pan to the rear of the wheel. No structural, floor, or bodywork damage whatsoever. 

Naturally I felt shaken, and more than a little bit peeved that the Universe appeared to be conspiring to make sure that nothing went smoothly and to keep me in a permanent state of angst. However, my overriding feeling was one of being blessed. It could have been so much worse. Thank you Tyron.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Road to the Islands Part 2 - Back to Base

May 14

Before leaving for Scotland, I received some very bad news. I remember receiving it clearly. I was on a train to work in London, and we had just arrived into St Pancras station. I flicked through the emails on my phone and learned that respected caravan journalist Doug King had just passed away.

image courtesy Practical Caravan                    

Despite the fact I knew that Doug was receiving palliative care, this was still a massive blow. I remember getting off the train onto platform 13 of St Pancras and bursting into floods of tears. I'd lost a friend, a mentor, and above all a sparring partner. There was nothing Doug and I would love doing more than winding each other up. His hatred of Airstreams knew no bounds, which of course I would play on massively. Joking aside, he was always 'there' if I needed help or advice. He also wasn't frightened of lavishing praise, either, if he felt you deserved it. 'Thank goodness there wasn't a Journalist of the Year Award that year' he used to say, referring to my trip with the Bailey Pegasus to Switzerland, '…because I always said that Bloody Ditton would have won it!'

Anyway, Doug's funeral took place while I was in Scotland, and it was an occasion I wasn't going to miss. As much as I wanted to park my Airstream at the church as a final raspberry in our little 'in joke', it wasn't going to happen.

On the way from Skye to Inverness, I overnighted at one of my favourite sites, Morvich Caravan Club Site. I love that site… I think it is a lot to do with the imposing, peaceful mountains all around the site that lend an air of calm, and give it a real sense of place.

From there, it was time to head to Culloden Moor Caravan Club Site near Inverness. I had to seek permission to leave my rig unoccupied, and happily this was forthcoming.

Rather than subject Dougal to the long trip South, I took him to Stirling on the train where he stayed with his pal Bertie, and the humans that Bertie owns. From there I headed to Edinburgh where, by lucky coincidence, my favourite band Skerryvore was playing that night. I booked myself into the Ibis hotel and enjoyed a super evening.

The next day, it was a long train trip South to pay my respects to the legend that is Doug King, then head back to Kent where I had family business to attend to.

Returning to Scotland, I took the sleeper from London to Glasgow which remains my favourite way to travel. It's so civilised in the 'old school' sense of the word. I hear that ScotRail has now lost the Caledonian Sleepers franchise, and a new company with new ideas and new rolling stock will soon be on the scene. I think we will be able to wave goodbye to the lounge car and all the lovely things that make Caledonian Sleepers such a civilised way to travel, so make the most of it while you can.

Dougal collected, we got back to the 'van at Culloden Moor and it was time to explore. The site is surrounded by forest, which made for great walking opportunities for Dougal.

A visit to Culloden Battlefield was a good place to start the Tourist Trail and learn a little bit more about this historic battle, and my favourite day out from the site was at Cawdor Castle.

I loved the motto over the gate as you enter the castle: 'Be Mindful'. That's a great motto to keep in the back of our minds. No matter how grotty things can get, I reckon that being mindful of just how lucky we are in this country, the privileges we enjoy, and the beauty of the world around us is something we should strive to attain at all times

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Road to the Islands Part 1: Design & Drive

On Saturday 26th April 2014 I hung up my uniform from 'The Day Job' for the last time until Friday 4th July. That's quite a block of time off I'd accumulated over the winter. I'm very fortunate to have the kind of job where I can swap shifts with colleagues. They have the time off they need over Christmas and New Year (which, as you can imagine, didn't really happen in my family this past year), and I get to stack up the days owed over the late spring/early summer period.

The plan for the two months off was to do a feature for the Caravan Club Magazine in the North East of Scotland for a couple of weeks, then spend six glorious weeks in the Outer Hebrides. After the trials and tribulations of the previous nine months, I was ready for the break and I knew that the Hebrides would deliver.

However, the first weekend into my trip was a 'college' weekend. Part of my Scottish Gàidhlig course with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye involves a voluntary yet free-of-charge weekend of tuition at the college itself. It's way too good an opportunity to miss, so that became an anchor for the trip. It just so happened that the week leading up to college was the Caravan Club's Design & Drive Competition in Newark-upon-Trent, and I was privileged enough to be invited along as a judge. Contrary to popular belief, such an undertaking is taken on my members of the Club's committees and of media (like me) for no renumeration whatsoever. Sometimes us journos get a few pages of copy commissioned by a magazine which helps contribute towards the time taken, but basically we do it for the love of the industry. It's one of the things I love about the caravan industry - the way that a lot of what goes on is done out of the desire to do the 'right thing' for our fellow hobbyists. It also goes a long way to explain that very few people actually make any money doing it!

Design & Drive is always a good week. It's lovely to catch up with old friends from the Caravan Club Committee Circuit, and my favourite Yorkshire Lass Margaret always does a fine spread of baking for everybody.

The checklists are exhaustive and it's not an easy skive by any stretch of the imagination. You can easily spend anything between 30 and 60 minutes in each van assessing just one aspect of it. My category this year was kitchen and washrooms. There were about 35 vehicles to get through in three days… do the maths!

Dougal comes along of course, and rather than leave him in the Airstream during the day he ended up keeping the scrutiny team company in his doggie pen. His presence prompted the introduction of a special award - The Dougal Award for Dog-Friendliness. His own blog about it can be read by logged-in Caravan Club members by clicking here.

The judges meeting on Thursday passed without event, and we managed to get away from Newark at about 3pm. Next stop, Glasgow…

Strathclyde Country Park Caravan Club Site makes a perfect place to dive into for a quick night stop, which is exactly what we did. It was also lovely to catch up with the fantastic warden team in the morning who made us feel super-welcome.

However, we couldn't chat for long as we had an agenda. We needed to be in Pitlochry by lunchtime as I had offered a fellow student a lift.

On the way up the A9 a coffee was needed, and it was lovely to be served by a fellow Caravan Club member in the petrol station… there definitely is a bond between members of both touring clubs. It really is better to belong.

The road to the Isle of Skye is one of my favourite roads in the world. The scenery is gorgeous and the going is relaxed. It made a change to have somebody other than Dougal in the passenger seat to chat to during the journey.

Dogs are no allowed in the college accommodation, but camping is free to weekend students at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, which meant that I could participate in the classes and not need leave Dougal behind. It was a wonderful weekend of immersion into Gaelic culture that was over way too quickly.

It would have been great to then great straight on with my 'job' in the North East of Scotland, but sadly plans had changed for all the wrong reasons…

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

How dare you.

June 2014

I've just enjoyed a wonderful week in my favourite place in the world, the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides.

There's just something about the place I love more than anywhere else. Could it be the AMAZING food and the warm welcomes I receive at the Temple Cafe in Northton and at the Skoon Art Cafe in Geocrab? Could it be the wonderful views on offer at these places? Or the stunning, jaw-dropping views at Horgabost campsite (pic above), with the strong, silent hills of Taransay and North Harris sitting formidably behind a turquoise blue sea and white sands?

Could it be the fact I've got to know people there - chewing the cud with Harvey from Lickisto campsite in the Tarbert stores, bumping into the lovely photographer Leila as she pops down from Stornoway for the day, or chatting with 'regulars' at the cafes and campsites?

Still, who cares? Harris is my little corner of paradise and I love it so.

Like every place the world over, the Outer Hebrides is changing. It's inevitable, we accept change, but it is the direction that it's going that makes me want to have a rant.

You see, it seems that all over the place, councils and tourist authorities are chasing the 'top end' of the market. However, this is dangerous practice and such policies could end up killing off the existing tourist trade that these places already have, leaving them with absolutely nothing.

I have no problem with affluent people wishing to splash a little cash on a luxury holiday, in the same way I have no problem with a student on a budget hitch-hiking his or her way around the islands and staying in a tent. It's all to do with respect for the environment you are in, respect for the people who live there, and respect for local customs, even if you don't understand WHY things are done in a certain way.

Recently, I've noticed an increase in 'top end' cars on the roads in the islands, to go with the increase in 'top end' self-catering accommodation. With this increase I've noticed some of the customs I love so much, initiated by the locals and imitated by the tourists, are on the decline. By 'customs' I mean good old fashioned manners, waving and talking to strangers, acting as a member of a wider community and not as a self-centred individual... that kind of thing. To my mind, there is a link between the diminution of the charming ways that bring many people like me to the islands, and the influx of the kind of people who tastelessly flaunt pompous self-superiority.

My beautiful lunch one day was spoiled by a table of loud-mouthed pretentious hoi-polloi belittling and moaning about many charming quirks and customs that make the islands so different, and so very special. The fact that the Sunday Paper wouldn't arrive until 4pm on Monday was something they couldn't get their heads around. The cook in the cafe had gone to a lot of trouble to source salad from a neighbouring crofter to make sure their dishes were complete, yet all these idiots could do was moan pompously to each other and leave it. When you've made friends with crofters in the islands and see just how bloody hard they work for a living, to see waste in any shape or form is soul-destroying and heart-breaking. These crass, insensitive, arrogant twits were in danger of spoiling my whole experience of eating superb, home-grown local food in an amazing setting for less than a tenner.

No doubt it was a similar breed of arrogant twit whom refused to acknowledge or wave to me when I'd pull in to a passing place on a single-track road to let their Range Rovers, BMWs, or Mercs with roof boxes pass. A caravan? Pish! Common! Ignore the peasant!

It's not often I'll have a socialist rant, but I can't keep this one down.

I myself have rented self-catering accommodation in the past, when it's not been possible or appropriate to take the caravan, so I am no angel myself. I admire my friends S&P who flatly refuse to rent a self-catering place, as they strongly feel that such properties kill communities and deny local people the chance to buy an affordable house.

And that's the twist in the tale.

You see, for some reason, caravanners are 'looked down' upon by so many people and organisations. Our needs are barely catered for, and normally then only as an afterthought. Thank goodness we have two very strong, influential, and organised clubs to stand up for us. Only recently have the Caravan Club and the Camping and Caravanning Club successfully lobbied to stop Caravan MoTs becoming compulsory in the UK.

However, despite the best efforts of both the Clubs, the NCC, the site operators and the manufacturers, caravanning still suffers a perception problem. And it REALLY irks me.

I really don't give a flying hoot if your pride and joy is a £500 oldie but goodie, a vinyl-wrapped dogfish on wheels (I had to get an 'Amazing Spaces' reference in somewhere), the ubiquitous Bailey Ranger or Sprite Alpine, a super-sized Fifth Wheel Inos, a teeny little Romahome, a 'Too-Cool-for-School' VeeDub Camper, or a Concorde A-Class bus. If you love touring and you tread lightly as you go, you're one of us.

So why why WHY are we seen as poor relations? We all know that the average car+caravan outfit can easily top the £50k mark, and motorhomes can slide into the £100k plus bracket with little effort. The day I left Ullapool for Stornoway, I spent over £300 on fuel, ferry, and food.

Just like people in self-catering, we enjoy the freedom of being to cook relaxed meals at home. Just like people in self-catering, we love to shop in the local shops. Just like people in self-catering, we bring essentials (like Dougal's Canadian dog food) with us. Just like people in self-catering, we enjoy going out for lunch, going out for tea and cake, and going out for dinner. Just like people in self-catering, we contribute to the local economy. Just like people in self-catering, some of us contribute more than others. Just like people in self-catering, we help keep people in employment running the campsites we stay at.

So where exactly is the difference?

Ah yes, let's go back to Harris, and its beautiful West Coast. 

The one big difference is this:

At the end of the season, the caravans and motor caravans leave Horgabost Campsite. The area returns to communal grazing for the local crofters, and life goes on.
Meanwhile, the executive self-catering properties sit there empty, taking up land, pushing up house prices for the local people, and contributing nothing to the local economy.

Now you tell me, which is damaging the local community, and which is the permanent eyesore?


So how very dare those arrogant, idiotic, pompous twits look down their noses at us caravanners and motor-caravanners. And maybe those who make decisions and policies about land use, grants, and tourism need to take a step back and reflect for a minute.

Seaweed harvesting, herring fishing... Hebridean industries that have collapsed and taken communities with them. So why would you put all your tourism eggs in the 'top-end' basket? 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Living Life to the Full

This is another one of those ‘catching up’ entries that I feel I ought to write to explain the long silence. I’ve received a few comments via other media nagging me about the break, and one person wondered if my friend Mat had eaten me in the Outer Hebrides, as I disappeared after he came to visit ;)

It’s very tempting for me to say ‘lots happened’ and hit the ‘Blog Reboot’ button. However, upon reflection, I’ve decided to go public with what happened for two reasons that I will reveal at the end of this post.

Despite my journalistic dabblings, I don’t class myself as a professional writer. Why? Professional writers can churn out quality output on demand regardless of what’s going on in their lives. I can’t. I’m one of those arty-farty Creative Types who can only write when I have a clear mind. To be even more arty-farty about it, I guess that means that my writing comes from the heart, it’s channeling something I feel, and if that creative channel is blocked by something then the words cease to flow.

So what blocked that creative channel? Sadly, dear reader, the long silence has been a result of the terminal illness and eventual passing of my father.

Before September last year, the time when I received the ‘Please Get Home’ phone call from my mother, I’d never even heard of the term ‘Palliative Care.’ Now it’s a phrase that is painfully familiar. For those of you who have ever cared for anyone at the end of their life, you’ll know just how exhausting this is.

Against the strong recommendations of the professionals, we decided to at least TRY and grant Dad’s wish of coming home to die. The reason that the professionals recommend against it is because they KNOW how difficult it can be. We had a fantastic team of carers supporting us, but nothing could ever prepare the mind or body for the process of 24/7 care of a loved one with only 20 minute respite naps throughout the night. You do end up a walking carcass, too tired and exhausted to even feel.

Dad slipped away peacefully early November, after which of course the necessary arrangements had to be taken care of, support given and received, Christmas and New Year dealt with, and so on.

What I desperately needed at that time was time to sit and digest everything. Time to recuperate, time to recharge my batteries, time to reflect. Let’s just say that ‘Life’ had other plans, and stole every opportunity that I thought I would have to sit and just ‘be’.

There is far more to go in to, but to try and keep this relevant to an Airstream/Caravan blog, let’s just say that my Airstream has provided an essential sanctuary over the past nine months. Sometimes, all it took was a fifteen minute break in the Airstream on the drive, cuddling the dog and letting the tears flow, to be able to face going back into the house and putting on a brave face while continuing to care for Dad.

In other words, a caravan can ‘be there’ for you in bad times as well as in good.

It was my Dad who got me into Caravanning. We had a 1969 Thomson Glenmore when I was born, which was our holiday home in the early 1970s for trips to Wales, the Lake District, and even to Spain a few times. Entire summers were spent with my Nan in the caravan on the same site near Herne Bay. My birthday is in August, and I spent every birthday from my 4th to my 21st at the same site in the same caravan, which during the latter years had become mine.

So why the need to include this entry on the blog? Why not just skip over it by simply saying ‘Lots happened?’

Two reasons.

First of all, I passionately feel that it is important to acknowledge, talk about, accept, and embrace death in our lives. Yes, it’s not a happy or a popular thing to keep in mind, but death brings us many stark, positive messages. Death so eloquently brings home just how fragile LIFE is. It’s a poignant message that life will always end, an inescapable reminder of our own personal mortality. There is no stronger message in my book to GET OUT AND LIVE the life you have. Would Dad have wanted me to spend my days mourning his passing, beating my chest and letting my life pass me by? Would he buffalo! Keeping death in mind, not in a sad way but in a positive way, might also help us to make better life choices. It’s an old cliché, but who ever did lie in their death bed thinking ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office?’ rather than ‘I wish I’d spent more time with the people I care about, and getting out and about with the caravan exploring this beautiful country we live in?’

Secondly, despite the reminders above, life can sometimes feel a little hard for all of us. To cheer ourselves up we may look at Facebook, watch the TV, flick through a magazine… and all the while we are faced with people’s ‘perfect’ lives. So much more perfect than our own. The logical part of our brain KNOWS that that their lives aren’t perfect, media is portraying just one side of a story, but we still come away from the experience feeling more depressed than when we started. I’m aware that some people might look at my blog and think I live a charming, perfect, serene life. I DO live a fantastic life, but it’s a real life and I face challenges just like every other human being on the planet. Never a day goes by when I don’t stop for a minute and be thankful that I’m one of the luckiest, most privileged people in the world. I may not have a beautiful house, I may not have a flashy car, and I’ve got rid of most of my material stuff to pursue a life of perpetual caravanning, but my goodness I feel lucky.

Finally, it was caravanning that made my Dad so proud of me. To see my features in magazines, to hear other people telling him that they enjoyed what I wrote, and to see me on the telly, made him almost burst with paternal pride. I have a lot to thank caravanning for.

Life IS short. So make fun of it.