Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Turn around when possible

Santander to Plymouth, then to Dawlish, 45 miles, Crofton Country Holiday Park, £12 per night, 1 night

Dawlish to Buxton, 237 miles

The ferry did not leave Santander until 6pm, so we had a day to fill. Our plan - do some final shopping in the morning, park Maisy at the docks in the early afternoon, then spend a couple of hours exploring Santander. The shopping trip required a bit of preparation, partly because Spanish supermarkets are increasingly fortifying their car parks with 2 metre high sun shades rendering many unsuitable for motorhomes. Mercadona now have more stores where parking is problematic than not. We also wanted to find a Dia as they have the best selection of interesting wine and good discount deals. The answer, after a brief perusal of Google maps - nearby Torrevega - in one small area, easily accessible from the motorway, was a Mercadona, a Dia, and a Carrefour hypermarket - perfecto! 

So we bought the eatables from Mercadona, drinkables from Dia but skipped Carrefour. The additional cargo meant a bit of a reorganisation in the rear garage allowing me to do a quick stocktake of the on-board wine lake, which in fact is rather smaller than usual , more of an estanque than an embalse. Around 65 bottles or so, at least 20 or 30 fewer than our typical end of  trip haul. I think the appalling exchange rate curbed our wine buying enthusiasm. Still, it's an interesting mix of French and Spanish wines we are exporting home. Perhaps it will last us just as long, these days I can't quite demolish half a bottle a day with impunity, a couple of glasses is my limit and even then I need a booze break every so often or I end up 'unwell'. This is very annoying as Gill is utterly unaffected, so I have to sit watching her quaffing away merrily while sipping mint tea. How feeble is that?

We arrived at Santander in the early afternoon, booked in, then wandered off to explore the city. The main square is only a few of hundred metres from the ferry port. Santander is not the most charming place we have visted in Spain. It is not horrible, a typical small port I suppose; tawdry apartment blocks line the harbour by the ferry terminal, though there are some stylish older buildings scattered about further along the promenade near the Jardines de Pereda. By Spanish standards the central streets are quite narrow so the main shopping area feels a little cramped and claustrophobic. Conversely, the large square next to the city hall, Plaza Ayuntamiento, has a bleak, windswept look more normally associated with British urban spaces. It exuded a god forsaken atmosphere like Manchester Piccadilly on a drizzly Tuesday in January. Maybe the lively bits of Santander are nearer the park and we missed them. There weere lame attempts at Christmas cheer going on with an ice rink and some seasonal tableaux. Perhaps endishness sullied my impression of the place, we did find a cafe in the end which served us our last two cortada for the foreseeable future. Four o'clock approached. Time to embark, people wearing hi-res waved their arms at us and muttered into radios; soon we all had duly trundled aboard. For the first time in years we have no future travel plans, nothing to look forward to, no wonder we are feeling glum.


A skating rink had been installed in a small plaza - the unseasonably mild weather conspired to turn into a piscina.

Keeled over Christmas tree - an apt emblem for our mood..
The ferry itself seemed to have Tardis-like qualities in terms of being much bigger inside than it appeared from the outside.

As we boarded, it looked quite compact

inside it was huge - and really quite empty - off season it must surely run at a loss.

Loading was complete more than an hour and a half  before departure time. We spent the spare time exploring on-board facilities, then tried to find an outside seat where we could enjoy the warm late afternoon sunshine. On-deck benches seemed in short supply. Finally we found an empty one  at the stern near the helipad. It did not take long to discover why it had been left vacant. It was next to the dog exercise pound, so any hope of  watching sunset in peace was constantly interrupted by a chorus of yaps, woofs, barks, whines and the occasional plaintive howl. If you travel by moho you have to resign yourself to tolerating other people's pooches. Because it offers relative freedom compared to renting a house or staying in a hotel, motorhomes are much loved by dog owners. This trend is augmented by a grey haired propensity for multiple pooch ownership which I can only assume is some kind of displacement behaviour prompted by frustrated parental instincts. Even if you find most dogs pathetic creatures - which I do - you simply have to learn to live with them, and nod and smile politely when otherwise sane and sensible fellow travellers decide to explain to you the remarkable abilities of their particular furry friend. "He knows what I am thinking." intimated one fellow traveller struggling to unload a top-loading washing machine with one hand while clutching a brainless looking miniature long haired Yorkshire terrier with the other. "That's remarkable." I agreed.

The dog owner pound.
We were  entertained briefly by a Spanish frigate leaving port. The ship's company were drawn up on the aft deck. As the vessel headed out to sea it gave a long blast on its horn - I suppose some kind of embarkation ceremony was taking place. I have developed certain pre-embarkation rituals of my own. I always managing to wander nonchalantly past the lifeboat hoists and liferaft racks, just to check, you know.. I have never been a good sailor and ever since I saw 'Titanic' almost twenty years ago, blind panic and a propensity for catasrophication have joined my usual feelings of nausea, dizziness and  a tendency to moan quietly well before we actually cast-off.

Well, they seem in order....

Eventually the Pont Aven slipped away from the quay, reversed a bit (do ships 'reverse'?), then sailed slowly down the Bahia de Santander towards the sea. It was a pretty twilight and I joined the small gaggle of people at the stern rail scrabbling to take identical cliched photographs of the wake in the evening light. A peaceful scene, punctuated by the occassional yap or howl from the adjacent pooch gaol.

My brilliant travelling companion...

Once it got dark we headed for our cabin and played with the folding bunks. Given that the space is not much bigger than one of those coin operated metal toilet kiosks, it is remarkably well designed and contrary to expectations we got a reasonable night's sleep.

At breakfast we learned we had slept through a minor emergency. At some point in the small hours the ferry had to make a detour to enable a helicopter evacuate a seriously ill passenger. As a result our arrival in Plymouth was going to be delayed by two hours. We changed our plans, deciding to head for a campsite near Dawlish rather than the small site on a cider farm near Taunton as originally planned.

Only five hours to go....
We left Santander on a sunny warm evening. Mid afternoon the next day found us sailing up Plymouth Hoe in freezing fog. We drove off. Muriel woke up still convinced we were in Santander. Her stock response to cartesian confusion is to repeat, somewhat robotically, "Turn around when possible, turn around when possible." She was not alone with this thought. Immigration waved us through with a perfunctory glance at our passports. As we approached the customs shed an officer flagged us down. I assured her that we had checked the van for stowaways; she asked us how long we had been out of the country. "Since September," I replied.

"Lovely," she said with a smile, "Why did you come back?"

As I drove around Plymouth's traffic choked roundabouts garish neon gleamed 'Primark', 'Staples', 'Jobcentre Plus' through the foggy dusk. The officer's question seemed very pertinent. It is not far from Plymouth to Dawlish, but by the time we got there in was pitch dark. To add a little excitement to the day Muriel directed us off the A38 onto a bewildering series of back roads, mainly consisting of sunken lanes that no one in their right mind would ever try to drive a motorhome down, Clearly this thought must have occurred to the on-coming car drivers as quite a few gave us an annoyed flash as we squeezed past one another at a snail's pace.

Gill had phoned ahead and the receptionist at  Crofton Country Holiday Park assured us that they were open until six, I was relieved when we found it and thankful that the guy in the office drove ahead in a 4x4 to direct us to our pitch for the lighting was low key - which makes it good for star gazing, but a nightmare to negotiate in a moho. I was pleased to settle in for the night. Homecoming was proving tricky, and we still had a long drive tomorrow.

Dull but mild

Wednesday dawned, a little overcast, but very mild. I drained the grey water wearing a tee shirt; tee shirt weather in December, it's  not often you can say that in England. As a place to stay in winter Crofton Country Holiday Park seems very good. The site is divided in two on either side of a narrow lane. One side is a holiday park packed with chalet's and statics, but well landscaped and not too much of a blot on the landscape. The camping area is very well designed with heated, impeccably maintained facilities, good sized pitches, friendly staff, and only £12 per night in low season. The pitch size is generous, the staff welcoming and helpful - I have been very rude about British campsites elsewhere on the blog, but you have to give credit where it is due. If we get a mild spell in late winter or early spring, I think we could do a lot worse than to return here to escape the Pennine gloom.

As we drove north up the M5 the sun came out and we had a lovely day driving through the west of England. For the second time on the same day England surprised us. Over the past three years we have enjoyed driving through regions on southern Europe that have a great local food culture. Of course there are excellent places to eat out in the UK, and good products and produce, but it's not the norm. Mediocre is our default setting; branded, corporate, packaged commodities strewn to customers used to second best from faceless distribution centres. It does not have to be like this, and happily today we visited two places that confound the stereotype.

The first was a couple of miles from where we stayed near Starcross in Devon. . Powderham Farm Shop is packed full of great local products. We went there for some bread and came out with a shopping bag full of stuff, excellent mince, a range of local sausages, some Devon blue cheese - the whole place is a showcase for good British food. In a sense, however, you might expect this from a stately home estate's farm shop. The real surprise came when we stopped for lunch at Gloucester Motorway Services.  Bill Bailey called them 'cathedral's of despair', and if you wanted something that epitomises the worst aspects of British food, then look no further than what the hapless British motorist has to put up with on our motorways. However, Gloucester Services shows that it does not have to be like this, the place is full of excellent fresh produce and has a farm shop every bit as good as the one at the Powderham Estate. What the place shows is the mundane and the ordinary can be delightful, there is hope, but sadly only here and there.

Gloucester Services -  catering for the masses does not inevitably lead to mass catering.

Low energy architecture with a butterfly friendly roof.
So, marooned here for while, without a clear idea when we might be on our travels once more, maybe we should take heart from today and try to  seek out some this country's simple delights. This positivity did not last for long. Somewhere on the M6 south of Stoke we ran into drizzle and fog; rush hour in the Potteries was grim and we arrived home to a freezing cold house and a demand for an unpaid parking ticket for £70.

Next day we deposited Maisy at the hill farm where we store her, it was grey, cold and damp, in other words normal weather up here in the Pennines. We have DIY stuff to do in the house, Gill's Dad needs more of our time and attention, I have a lot of reading to catch up with and a heap of other writing projects to complete if I could muster the energy and find the inspiration. Ideally, we should enjoy equally time at home and time on the road, but I don't think we have even come close to that; being at home still feels like the bit in between. Muriel's echolalic catch-phrase 'turn around when possible' seems so tempting, not so much a catch-phrase as a mantra, perhaps a mission statement even. Is travel addictive, an obsession  - probably. What I think it provokes is an ambient restlessness, a nagging dissatisfaction. One final thought, what do you want, a satisfying life or a thought provoking one? For the traveller, the only satisfactory life is a thought provoking one.

Pennine grim.

Gill with her best 'it's f****** freezing face on, she is, of course, far too well mannered to express such a thing.
About 15 years ago I wrote a sonnet about travel after reading Paul Theroux's 'The Happy Isles of Oceania' -

          Parting Shots
Departure spawns its own mythology:
the tearful scene, a squalid terminus—
she needs his promises; he wants 'no fuss'—
one wistful kiss, a gauche apology.

Her script demands a clichéd gravitas:
the jukebox playing, as his silhouette
dissolves into the cinematic sunset:
"Regrets, I've had a few!" An emptied glass.

Then always for the loved one left behind,
the niggling doubts: this time he won't return,
he'll die, shack-up with someone half his age,
come back quite changed; she knows that those who find
delight in not belonging always yearn
for solitude no woman can assuage.
The poem captures, I think, the underlying sense of loneliness that pervades Theroux's book, written shortly after the break-up of his first marriage. What is wonderful about our journey is it is 'our' journey, a celebration of love and companionship, a grand Romantic gesture in a world where grandeur is in short supply and the Romantic distrusted, not least because it has a whiff of the uncool about it. The uncool, it's a latter day heresy, designed like all thought control to limit  expression, to kill joy. There are scant blessings to be had in growing older, but one of them is to slip beyond the realm of the cool, being sixty plus is inherently uncool - therein lies a certain freedom, unachievable by the young.

I think, that was a roundabout way of saying, thank you Gill - we did this together, and it was marvellous.



  1. I have just caught up with real time in Turpie World! I started reading your blog in summer and have read every page since your first post about getting Maisy. Like Gill I love to read these tales of Moho life in the hope that we will set out on our own adventure one day. I thought I was well on the way to achieving that next year. We had agreed to retire and hand the business over to our son and that will be completed in the spring and I was all set for a 90 day trip to Sicily in our 20yr old Hymer after Easter using the excuse of my 60th birthday. However at Christmas our daughter announced that she would be producing our first grandchild in July! That has changed everything as we will be staying fairly local for 2017.
    The point of my comment is to say a huge thank you for sharing your experiences in your blog. I have really enjoyed reading it and love your photos too. I look forward to your new adventures next time you can get away.

    Thank you

    1. Firstly - congratulations on the impending new addition to the family, exciting times. None of our kids are at that stage yet - but of course, you never know! Surely the arrival of a grandchild has to be the best reason ever to postpone your planned trip - and after all Corsica is not exactly going anywhere, it will be waiting for you when you are ready to go.
      Funnily enough, I was looking at ACSI sites in Corsica last week. We wondered about a 5/6 week trip there in May/June – the ferry from Livorno to Bastia seems the cheapest option as it’s only 4 hours and does not involve over-night cabins. We were last in Corsica back in 2002 in a big frame tent with the kids. It is a lovely island. We never explored the west coast or visited Ajaccio. One cautionary note so far as mohos are concerned is some roads are frighteningly narrow with rock overhangs, but the main roads are ok, apart from Cap Corse, it’s a question of being sensible I think and if you really did want to explore the more remote parts of the interior, then hiring a car or taking public transport is always an option I guess.
      Anyway, I am delighted you enjoyed the blog. As well as missing travel, I also miss writing the blog – it kind of became part of my daily routine. Maisy is being repaired at the moment, nothing major, just fixing the bits and pieces that dropped off through wear and tear – kitchen tap, malfunctioning hob and the like. I worked out the other day that in the last three years we have spent 502 days in the motorhome - they are not really designed for that sort of semi-permanent occupancy – it’s a credit to German build quality that so little goes wrong – I am sure Hymers are similar.
      Anyway, thanks again for the kind comments, we may come across one another one day. You’ve seen enough photos of the three of us (Pete, Gill, Maisy) to spot us if you do.
      Bon voyage!