Thursday, 13 August 2009

A convenient vehicle

We have not had any opportunity recently to take a leisure trip in Bertie.  Life is rather full at the moment and weekends are tending to be taken up with commitments.  However through our busy time we have discovered many unexpected benefits to owning a motorhome.

One of the reasons we are so busy is that we have been doing up a house.  Bertie has been invaluable for the convenience of moving furniture out and moving other furniture in.  We have been able to transport items even as large as wardrobes.  It really is quite extraordinary how much can be packed into our bus.  We have saved a fortune in hiring removal vans and avoiding delivery charges.

Bertie has been having some problems with his windscreen wipers.  They do not return to the proper resting position which means that they overshoot in the other direction on each wipe, and this gradually gets worse.  We have been told that it is just a matter of adjusting and tightening the fitting to repair it – I hope this is true.  This is one of the problems of buying an older vehicle – there tend to be little things going wrong all the time.  Some of the curtain fittings are also coming adrift.  We are hoping that Bertie will stay basically sound through the rest of the warmer months, and then we shall work on some of the rust and other problems over the colder months.  I am looking forward to making new curtains.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Rowlestone Court Farm

We have been working very hard renovating a house—among other commitments—and felt that a weekend away would do us good.  July was going to be a busy month, so we felt it would be helpful to have a relaxing break away from decorating, computer work, and such like.  We've decided to explore the campsites in an approximate 50 mile radius around Cardiff.  Our choice for the last weekend in June was 42 miles away – Rowlestone Court Farm, Rowlestone, Near Abergavenny, Lat: 51:56:33N, Lon: 2:54:42W, OS grid ref: SO374275.

This place is a gem and we had a delightful visit.  The pitch included electric hookup and there are toilet facilities and showers.  There is a play area if you have young children.  The farm is a working dairy farm and has a tearoom selling light meals and snacks, and their homemade icecream.  Everything is clean and pleasant, and the icecream is fantastic – including some unusual varieties such as brown bread icecream, which was delicious.

One of my main reasons for suggesting this particular site for our relaxing break, was that it boasted a nature trail.  The first part of the walk is easy and gentle, while the latter part has a few steep stretches.  The wildflower meadow is beautiful and has the greatest number of varieties of wild flower that I have seen in a field for many a long year.  There is a picnic bench at the top of the meadow where you can sit and enjoy the extensive views.  We sat here quietly together meditating.

I would highly recommend Rowlestone Court.  The only negatives—and these are minor—were that the grass was rather long on the camping pitch so one's feet got rather wet from dew or rain when going across to use the facilities; and that at times the bins were full to overflowing and could have done with being emptied more frequently.  The campsite is quite small and I would imagine it can become very crowded in the high summer season, so booking is advisable.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Cosmeston Lakes

The 14th June was my mother's 93rd birthday. She decided she would like to celebrate it with a picnic at Cosmeston Lakes. A picinic in a camper van is a civilised affair because you can sit round the table and make a cup of tea. We had a delightful repast including fresh bread and a cake baked by my son.

Cosmeston Lakes are near Penarth in South Wales and a popular weekend venue for families. The car park can get overfull, but the walk around the lakes is large enough to spread out the visitors so that it does not feel crowded. The lakes are the site of a quarry that was landscaped in 1970 to form the lakes.
There are many options for walking at the lakes: woodland trails, a level path and also a boardwalk. The lakes are home to a variety of waterfowl. There is a play area for children, and also an area designated for barbeques. You may occasionally share the path with horseriders as they are allowed access to part of the site.

Entry to Cosmeston Lakes is free, but adjacent to the lakes is a Medieval village. Personally I feel that entry to this village is rather expensive, so we have never explored it. There is also a pleasant café and toilet facilities, plus a shop selling a few souvenirs.

Map reference: 51°25′N 3°10′W

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Gaping Gill Expedition – part III

Gaping Gill is is a large cavern which is accessed via a 105m drop through a pothole.  Usually it is only accessible to experienced potholers, but twice a year a winch and bosun's chair is set up to lower people into the cavern. 

It was 10.30 by the time we set out on the walk to Gaping Gill from Clapham village.  The walk was said to take an hour, so it was cutting it a little fine for arriving by noon to book in for descent into the cave.  I am not a fast walker—in fact I am rather slow—so I asked Richard and 'ö-Dzin to go on without me in the hope that they would get there in time.  It is not a difficult walk to Gaping Gill.  The first third of the walk is through a nature trail bordering the river, with a wide and easy path.  The path is steadily uphill but without any difficult or steep ascents.  This stage of the path brings one to Ingleborough Showcave – another of the caves in this complex.  The second stage of the walk is more open through rocky moorland and brings one to Trow Gill, an impressive juncture of two rocky crags.  This is the most challenging part of the walk with a stony ridge about 10m high to be climbed – but having braved the near-vertical, 100m scree at Cadair Idris a couple of years ago it was not too daunting.  The final stage of the walk follows a dry stone wall on one side and hillside on the other for much of the way.  The ground is soft and springy, and a little wet in places.

I met several people at different times who declared that bookings for descents into Gaping Gill had been closed and we were too late… that it was still a very long walk to get there… that the wait to use the winch was four hours or more… and other such discouraging tales.  It seemed unlikely that even Richard and 'ö-Dzin would have arrived in time to book, but I carried on, determined to get there even if we could not visit the cavern.

Eventually I saw Ngakpa-la coming towards me.  He had found himself unable to keep up with Richard's pace and so had sent him on alone.  Ngakpa-la was pleased to see that I had made it so far and we walked the last part together.  He and Richard had also heard that bookings had been closed, but had decided to crack on regardless. 

It was easy to recognise when one had arrived at Gaping Gill as quite an encampment was established.  Many of the members of Bradford Pothole Club—who organise the May open event—camp at the site for the week.  We walked down to the marshalls' tent and were greeted by Richard walking towards us with a big grin on his face and giving us the thumbs up.  He had succeeded.  We were booked in to descend into Gaping Gill.  We picked up our dog tags – numbers 190, 191 and 192.  Later we learned that they had closed bookings at 11 am at 180 people, but had decided to reopen the bookings a little later and eventually let 203 people descend that day.  I was so happy and excited.

It was a long wait to use the winch.  The chair takes approximately 4 minutes to be winched down and back up again, so in theory that meant 40 minutes for every set of ten people.  We had to wait for about a hundred people to descend before it was our turn, so that meant a possible wait of over six hours.  We spent some of the waiting time walking to Ingleborough peak – although the cloud was so low that we did not make it to the top. 

A member of Bradford Pothole Club was particularly attentive to us, and most kind and friendly.  He told us a lot of interesting details about Gaping Gill.  The little river by the gill usually runs straight down to the mouth of Gaping Gill and plunges into the cave.  However it is diverted through the 'Rat Hole' for the duration of the winching, so that people are not being lowered through a waterfall in full flow.  However—inevitably—it is not possible to fully divert the flow of water, so for the first part of the descent into Gaping Gill you are passing through the remains of the waterfall.  He explained that Gaping Gill is a 'wild' cave – that is it is not usually accessible and and so remains a natural, untouched cave.  He told us of two passage ways—trade routes they call them—that we could scramble through to see other parts of the cave complex.  We did not in fact attempt these as we did not have head torches and found the waterproof suits they provided rather cumbersome.  We were also cold and a little stiff by the time we eventually got down there.

The people gathered to wait their turn to enter the cave were a mixed bunch.  Some were ordinary members of the public like us, who had no experience of potholing.  Ages ranged from young to old.  Members of the public ready to descend were recognisable by the borrowed green suits and white hard hats.  There were also a lot of people from other potholing groups who had all the potholing gear: well-fitting wetsuits or waterproof boiler suits with elbow and knee pads; climbing equipment and ropes; special lamps and safety items.  It was cold waiting by the stream and Richard's teeth were starting to chatter, so we got him into one of the waterproof suits.  Eventually—after a 6 hour wait—it was our turn to descend into the cavern.

At the  beginning of the descent into the cave, sitting in the bosun's chair with legs and hands well tucked in, you are plunged into darkness and are only aware of the sound and wetness of the waterfall.  It is not a frightening experience at all – just a little disorientating.  The cave is massive and the sound of the waterfall dominates one's senses.  Underfoot is a layer of large pebbles that are quite difficult to walk on.  As one's eyes adjust to the low light level more and more features of the cavern become apparent: the angle of the fault that forms the 'roof' of the cave; the white porcellaneous band; the glimmer of moving lights indicating people climbing in or out of the southern and eastern passages; the brown stallagtites; the varying textures of the rockface; and everywhere water, and the falling of water.  At the eastern end of the cavern is a mud flat and it was interesting to recognise the change of one's balance and footing moving from the pebbly surface to the smoothness of the mud.  The Bradford Pothole Group had set up lights, and a number of information boards that explained different features of the cavern.  The water falling from the Rat Hole is about half the height of the cascade from the Gaping Gill pothole.  It must be extraordinary for the potholers who enter the cavern when there is no winch and diversion of the river to see the waterfall cascading from Gaping Gill itself.

Fortunately it was only an hour's wait to go back up.  A couple of people in green suits were standing under the waterfall waving their arms about and clearly thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Those of us who were ignorant were amused, but the experienced potholers went over to talk to them, indicating that the large rounded stones that litter the floor of the cavern had arrived via that waterfall.  If one of those large rocks should hit you on the head it could kill you.  As we waited in the queue a young member of Bradford Pothole Club came round with cups and a thermos of hot juice.  This was so thoughtful, as it was a cold wait in the cave.  They operate the winch for 12 hours a day during open week.  They do charge for the service, but by the time they have paid for hire of the equipment, insurance, and transportation of the equipment up the mountain, they make very little profit.  They have been offering this opportunity for one week every year since 1959.  A second potholing group offers the same service for a second open week in August.  It is a rare and valuable opportunity.  Being there is like being invited into a family group for a while.  The pleasure they take in people's enjoyment and appreciation of the opportunity to enter Gaping Gill is tangible.  Their enthusiasm is infectious and they seem to thrive on the joyful expressions on the faces of those emerging from the cavern.

At last it was my turn to ride the chair back out of the cavern.  This was quite a different experience to the descent.  Because my eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the cavern, what had been blackness on the way down was now quite visible on the way up.  It was a little unnerving to see quite how close the chair goes to the rockface – I could see why they told us to keep our arms and legs tucked in.  All too soon we were back at the top and struggling out of our wet suits.  We handed in our dog tags to show that we were safely out, and offered our profuse thanks to the marshalls.  We set out on the walk back to Clapham feeling elated and inspired, eventually arriving back with Daniel and the van at about 8.30 – it has been a long day. 

Daniel had been becoming concerned because we are so much later than we'd expected, and was very glad to see us.  We were all hungry and felt that fish and chips would be a good idea, but there did not seem to be a chip shop in Clapham, so we set off for the campsite.  Bertie was also hungry.  As we had been in a rush in the morning I had not been able to stop to buy petrol.  It was starting to get dark as we drove along and then the fuel guage started to show red.  I was not sure how urgent it was to buy petrol once the red warning light was illuminated, but I was a little concerned.  Then we saw a sign to Settle indicating that there was a petrol station there, but it was after 9 pm by then, and sometimes petrol station close quite early in rural areas.  We had to make the decision: did we risk using up petrol to get to Settle where there may be an open petrol station; or did we press on to the campsite and hope that there was enough to get us there and then to a petrol station in the morning?  We decided to go to Settle.

The lane to Settle was lovely in the setting sun, with rolling hills and woodland on one side, and craggy outcrops on the other.  We drove into the village and found that not only was the petrol station open, but next to it was a car park, and opposite that was a fish and chip shop.  How delightful.  So we fed Bertie and then fed ourselves.  They may possibly have been the best fish and chips I have ever eaten.

By the time we have finished eating it is nearly dark.  The van's headlights are rather poor by modern standards and the main beam would not work.  Eventually we found the entrance to the campsite and were soon parked up by the awning—though not quite close enough—and settled in for the night.

We set off for home the next morning and had an easy journey back to Cardiff, via a quick visit to my aunt in Birmingham.  Bertie had behaved beautifully the whole trip which amounted to over 500 miles.  He had earned his keep already and provided us with inexpensive and comfortable accommodation for this wonderful expedition. 

To see all of Richard's photographs of this expedition please visit his flickr page.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Gaping Gill Expedition – part II

On Friday afternoon 22nd May, we set off from Cannock to continue our journey to Yorkshire. We were warned by the lady at the Spring Slade Lodge tearooms that the M6 was clogged with traffic and it might be advisable to continue as far as Stoke-on-Trent on the A34 and then rejoin the M6. Unfortunately it turned out that the M6 was periodically moving at a crawl, usually before a junction. It was going to take a long time to get to Preston at this rate so we decided to head across country to Manchester and take the M60 Manchester circular. This worked well apart from getting lost in Rochdale.

However it was a long journey and so it was nearly dark by the time we arrived at the campsite in Yorkshire. We had been unable to get onto the sites we knew of nearest to the starting point of our walk: Clapham (Lat: 54:07:04N, lon: 2:23:36W), and so were booked onto a site on the A59 in Horton (Lat: 53:56:55N, lon: 2:13:22W), just beyond the village of Gisburn. Richard had worked out what was still wrong with the awning and was quickly able to correct it even though it was getting dark, so that it was finally correctly erected. This campsite had electric hookup—our first experience of this with Bertie—and we were delighted to discover that the fridge and the elctric socket were now functional. This meant we were able to use the the low voltage electric kettle for boiling water for drinks which was very convenient.

Rowan Bank is classified as a Certified Site and a Hideaway by the Caravan and Camping Club. Its only facilities were chemical toilet disposal, water and electric hookup. There were about another six or eight caravans on the site. They all had aerials and satellite dishes and people seemed to be watching TV. There was a feeling of each unit being completely self-contained. We had brought a portaloo with us, but had decided to use sawdust rather than chemicals. We really dislike the pungent odour of the chemicals used in camping toilets and did not wish to live with that for two days. We found with the sawdust that there was no smell at all and as long as we emptied it frequently it was simple to dispose of the contents.

We awoke next morning to discover spectacular views from our van. Unfortunately—due to an error with Richard's alarm—we had overslept a little. We wanted to get to Clapham as early as possible in order to set out on the walk to the cave to be there well before midday. We had read on the website that they closed bookings for descent into the cave at noon. So we had a quick breakfast, piled into the awning anything we did not need with us and set off for Clapham. Daniel, the older of our sons who was not too keen on the idea of descending into a cavern on a rope, had kindly agreed to stay with the van while the three of us went to the cave. As the van was hot wired and unlockable, we did not feel we could simply leave it unattended in the car park.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Gaping Gill Expedition – part I

One of the reasons for buying a motorhome in May this year particularly, was that we had decided to make an expedition to Gaping Gill cavern in Yorkshire. I did not feel I wanted to camp in a tent and staying in a bed and breakfast would make it an expensive event. I'm 54 now, and find sleeping on a lilo is a recipe for insomnia. I need to be warmer and more comfortable these days. Two years ago I suffered a knee injury falling off a horse, and eighteen months ago I woke up one morning with a frozen shoulder. Both injuries are now mostly resolved and I am quite fit, but my shoulder does become stiff and painful if I am not able to get comfortable to sleep.

Our sons—aged 19 and 22—were joining us for this adventure – the former enthusiastically, and the latter a little more reluctantly. Bertie came with a large awning, so there would be plenty of sleeping room for us all. 'ö-Dzin had taken Friday off work, so the plan was to travel half way to Yorkshire on Thursday evening, and complete the journey Friday morning, go to Gaping Gill on Saturday, and travel back to Cardiff on Sunday. This would leave the Bank Holiday Monday free for horseriding.

We set off in good time on Thursday evening. We arrived in the area of our first stop in good time, but did not find the directions to the campsite easy to follow, and the name of site was not clearly visible from the road in the gathering gloom. Hence it was beginning to get dark by the time we arrived at Spring Slade Lodge in Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. In the gathering gloom we discovered that whoever had first constructed the awning had put it together incorrectly so that when assembled the roof sagged – which would make a nice pool on the roof if it should rain! Fortunately our younger son worked for a camping shop one summer season and was experienced at tent construction. Nevertheless it took him and 'ö-Dzin nearly two hours to sort out the poles to erect the awning in a manner that would be satisfactory for the night. It was still not quite right—looking more like a pyramid than a dome—but would suffice for one night.

Spring Slade Lodge campsite offered a quiet and level pitch. Lat: 52:44:19N, lon: 2:03:49W. The toilet facilities (no showers) are adjoined to the Spring Slade Lodge tea rooms that serve food from 10am. This site is classified as a Certified Site and Hideaway by the Camping and Caravanning Club. For my directions see end of post.

The tea rooms at Spring Slade Lodge are a delight. The people are friendly and the food and drink they serve is excellent. We would highly recommend this site if you do not require any more than a pitch and toilet facilities. Although we only stopped there one night, it looked as if there were many wonderful walks from the site, and with the convenience of the tea rooms it would be a lovely site for a longer stay.

Unfortunately the following morning we had a little mishap with Bertie. I turned the key in the back door to lock up while we went to eat… and the key snapped in the lock. This one key operated the ignition and all door locks. I had intended to get spare keys cut before we left, but with so much to organise this was forgotten. Fortunately I remembered that one of the window catches was broken and our agile younger son was able to climb through it, so that at least we could unlock the van and use it to live in. The AA did not have a locksmith in the area and could only offer us transport home. We were loathe to give up on our expedition, so we hunted for a private company to come out and help us. Eventually someone arrived—four hours later–but they did not have a suitable key blank to cut a replacement from the broken half. Because Bertie is so old, the key was not a standard shape. In the end the repair man removed the whole ignition mechanism and 'hot wired' the van so that our journey could continue.

It is extraordinary how delight can arise from a situation that could be regarded as a disaster if we are open to this possibility. The lady running the tea room was extremely kind and helpful to us. She helped us find telephone numbers for local car locksmiths, and even lent us her mobile phone when we were having trouble getting signal on ours. When it was starting to look as though the van might not be repairable and a tow home might be the only option, she offered to take us to the station so that we could still go to Yorkshire, leaving Bertie on her campsite, and pick us up from the station on our return ready to be towed home. We were so grateful and appreciative of her kindness. 'ö-Dzin and I also spent a couple of hours sitting in the gardens at the tea room waiting for the repair man. It was good to have time to just sit quietly together, watching the bluetits, coal tits and chaffinches at the bird feeders and ejoying having nothing to do but wait.

So eventually we were able to set off on the second part of our journey, though it late afternoon rather the late morning as had been our intention.

My suggested directions to Spring Slade Lodge: exit M6 at junction 11 and head for Cannock – but note that this does not immediately bring you onto the A34. Travel to Cannock following the signposts, and then leave Cannock on the A34 heading north in the direction of Stafford (Stafford Road). Turn right onto Broadhurst Green Road at the traffic roundabout by The Chase Golf Club (on your left). Turn left at a crossroads into Camp Road. This is the first proper left turn, but note that there are several tracks to the left before this. Notice the German Military Cemetary on your right as you turn to confirm you are in Camp Road. Spring Slade Lodge is about half a mile down the road on your left. It is indeed opposite the Katyn Memorial, but as far as we could tell this is simply a name on a post and not visible from the road – certainly not if it is starting to get dark. There also was no sign on the tearooms visible from the road indicating this was Spring Slade Lodge.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Buying Bertie

In May this year we decided to buy a camper van. We had owned an old VW camper about 15 years ago, but wanted something a little more luxurious this time. To start with we decided to buy something old and inexpensive to see how we got along with it – would we use it often enough to make it worth while; would we enjoy this sort of camping; would it prove too expensive to run? If we discover that we use a campervan a lot and enjoy it, we will buy a newer and more expensive model in a few years time.

As experienced campers, with grown up sons and aging limbs, we felt that it would be nice to have a vehicle that arrived ready to live in. Camping with a tent had become too much work and too much packing, and I particularly found it difficult to get comfortable enough for a good night's sleep in a tent. We prefer to own a small car as we do not need to use it very much, and do not often travel long distances, so towing a caravan was not an option. I have never particularly fancied towing anyway.

After a bit of research we decided upon a few criteria:
* a minimum of 4 berth to give us a bit of room
* sufficient headroom to walk around in the vehicle comfortably
* at least one of the front seats to swivel
* kitchen at the back of the van
* hot water, cooking and reasonable storage
* easy access from the driving area to the rest of the van
* easily accessible engine
* seatbelts for a minimum of two rear seat passengers

The vehicle that we kept coming back to was a Talbot Express. They are a little older than we had originally intended to buy but had everything that we wanted, and were top of the range when they first came out. Unfortunately we could not find one for sale near us to go and view. Eventually we decided to take a risk and go for one that was being advertised on ebay by a dealer in Staines. We travelled down by train one Friday afternoon in May – buying a return ticket just in case. After viewing and a test drive we bought our campervan—or motorhome—and drove it straight back that evening.

We have named our Talbot Express ‘Bertie’. This first journey in him was about 140 miles – a good first run for us. Driving is more physical than in a small, modern car. The gear stick is a long pole, and the van is heavy to manoevre at slow speeds, but buzzes along nicely at 60 mph on the motorway. It was getting dark by the time we reached the Severn crossing toll bridge, so the lights had a try out as well. The engine seems sound and with 95,000 on the clock should have a few miles left in it. The front seats are a bit saggy – but nothing that a cushion couldn't cure. The interior is in good condition for its age and clean.

Four out of six fuses and covers were missing, so this was the first thing to sort out. With a bit of improvisation we were able to use the caps off fuse holders and springs out of pens to get the electrics working. We bought a refill gas cannister. By the end of the week we had everything working except the fridge:

* hot water geyser with the gas
* water pump
* air conditioning on electric / heating on gas
* the cooker – two hobs, a grill and an oven
* cooker fan
* battery and water level indicator
* interior lights

The fridge is supposed to work off the leisure battery, the gas, and mains hookup. We could not get it to work at all, but found when we arrived at our first site that it does work off mains hookup. So this is something we shall have to sort out. Bertie has a shower cubicle and a large wardrobe, plus quite a number of other cupboards.

We were ready to start our adventures.