Monday, 9 November 2009

Go West! (life is peaceful there, in the open air)

Written 7th November 2009

Only 6 days in and so much done already!  I haven't kept up as I should so this is a bit epic - executive summary for those with busy lives or short attention spans: 5 nights, 3 counties, 3 campsites, 3 libraries, 2 nights "wild camping" (for those who will be concerned about such things [Karen] the answer is pubs, supermarkets and carparks... you can guess the question ;), 2 budget supermarkets, 2 visitors centres, 1 cliff top walk, 1 ancient stone circle, 1 moorland cycle ride, 1 MOT and two ferry tickets!...

After a happy halloween with Paul and Cathy and kitten and bump and Jack (O'Lantern not Daniels!), one last night in a proper bed (well, proper futon anyway), a final long soak in the bath with a cup of tea and with nothing else holding us back, it was finally time to stop ligging off our friends and family and actually get going - so we set off towards the sun in a westerly direction (yeah, we could have got going earlier but there was tea and food to take off the hob in the FB cafe...) - all v exciting!

The journey started sunny but due to our late and lazy start, it was nearly dark by the time we reached the sea (just south of Southampton) and it started to rain just as we got there so our lets-have-late-lunch-overlooking-the-sea plan was foiled :(  oh well, we have plenty of time for such things!

First port of call was Dorchester to drop the awning off with its happy new owner and with some direction from we found ourselves at Warmwell Caravan Park, Crossways (not, as I have to point out, in line with the many signs around the gate and reception area, Warmwell Holiday Park, 150m down the road and turn right - I guess many people get the wrong one...).  It was happily as described by the many online reviews and despite the long printed list of do's and do not's, all the staff we met were really helpful and went above and beyond expectations, especially in suggesting libraries and other possible places for free internet.

The next morning, with the awning successfully dispatched and a glimmer of sunshine seen, we set off for the coast and ended up at Lulworth Cove which has a very excellent and informative visitors centre - we now know all about coastal erosion, portland stone, purbeck crumple beds and other such geological features!  Armed only with this knowledge and some whiskey flavoured dorset fudge for breakfast, and still trusting to the small patch of blue sky visible way out to sea, we decided to chance the coast walk to Durdle Door a mere 1.5 miles away.  The first uphill bit was a bit tough (I am discovering just how fit I am not!  Will says it is inevitable that I will be fitter by the end of this trip than before (not that difficult!) and I like the sound of inevitable - like it will happen with no effort from my part... ) but the gentle downhill afterwards was all good and we even felt up to the challenge of the final steep steps to the beach.  In true British beach style (and as commented on before on a different coast), it was cold, wet and deserted but the big natural portland stone arch is impressive and worth the walk.  On the way back, the sun even shone :)

Coast walk done, the next requirement was internet access to find a place to stop for the night in Devon so we headed to Weymouth.  Unlike many british seaside towns, Weymouth seems to be a thriving place, even in November, with a huge expanse of sandy beach and lots of well kept guest houses and other sea front attractions.  We did little more than find a free carparking spot and use the library but I would definately go back there.  I also had my first Aldi experience - such cheapness of not that bad things! - so stocked up with cheap essentials we set off on our way again towards Okehampton on the edge of Dartmoor.

Again, did good and we pitched up at Woodland Springs Caravan Park in Whippon Down.  This had an even longer list of do's and don'ts, this time read out to us (in a campervan, off-season and with limited forward planning, we are finding that we are staying in significantly upper-market places than we are used to!) but again, extremely helpful people and one of the best toilet blocks of any campsite we have ever stayed in - even had radiators and a hairdryer!  After only 2 days on the road, such things already seem like luxuries :)  The following morning, in need of sorting out some practicalities such as MOT (we have 3 months left on the current one but don't want to have to come all the way back in Jan just to get one in order to get tax) we had an excellent recommendation for O'Connor's Campervans in Okehampton and from there a further recommendation for a garage for MOT.  With MOT booked for the following morning, we decided to head out moor-wards to Princetown and the Dartmoor visitors centre. 

The weather on Dartmoor in November is changeable to say the least, bathed in sunshine one minute and driving rain the next (and no, this does not mean rain which is good for driving in!) and we followed our usual navigational habit of avoiding big easy roads and choosing little back roads - this is probably better done in the tiny midget than in a van which is a wide as the road plus a bit of hedge (my poor paintwork!) and doesn't really like hills! - but it was a lovely drive through the moorland.

Unfortunately, due the the off season nature of our trip, we arrived with only 10 minutes of visitor centre time - but it did look like it would have been good - so we spent a further hour in a local artists workshop-cum-gallery-cum-shop which was full of lovely things we have neither the need nor money for but it was warm and dry.

With nothing better to do than be in Okehampton for an MOT at 8:30 the following morning, and a conscious eye on our budget for the week, we decided to try wild camping so stopped in a carpark overlooking Tavistock to cook dinner - the planned menu of sausages and potato wedges [courtesy of Lidl this time, again, not bad for the budget price!) turned into sausages and fried garlic mash - bit of a timing issue with boiling and difficult to cook sausages and wedges in the same pan at the same time with out mashing wedges :) - but we even managed broccoli so we won't get scurvy just yet...  After dinner we headed back to Princetown for a drink and a warm up by a fire in the pub, then back to our chosen wilderness lookout spot to camp and a lovely undisturbed night it was.

The next morning we woke as the sun was rising over the moor and set off in search of MOT.  I have never watched an MOT before and whilst most of it was expected, the sight of Jules up on the four post lift with a man bashing its undercarriage with a hammer was a bit traumatic - I kept expecting it to flinch like with a reflex hammer...  good news, lights, seatbelts, bodywork, emmissions, wipers etc etc all good.  Bad news, rear brakes, handbrake and one rear wheel bearing not good :(  We had already decided to replace the brakes anyway - being something we haven't even looked at in the grand engine refit ) and we knew the handbrake needed adjusting (you shouldn't *need* to pull the handle nearly as far as the rear window to put it on and leave the van in gear to stop it rolling!) so we were lucky that all the bits which needed fixing were in the same region and O'Connors agreed to do the work the following day if we got the required bits so we set off to Exeter in search of internet (I love libraries!) and GSF.

Our quest complete and still with some daylight, we decided to visit England's highest waterfall.  Unfortunately, despite being advertised "as an attraction for all seasons" it turns out that it means all seasons which happen to be summer as it was closed until easter.

Undeterred we carried on and happened upon a reservoir where a dog walking woman in a car park told us that the waterfall wasn't really worth paying to get into but if we walked round the reservoir we would see a hitherto unseen and unknown and uninvestigated 7000 year old stone circle in the middle of the reservoir which had been uncovered by the drop in water levels and which would only be visible for another couple of days.  Well that sounded good so equipped with sandwiches and cups of tea we set off.  At the far end of the reservoir we did indeed find the promised archeologists and some stones which they said were significant (they just looked like boulders to me and when I asked how they knew they were part of an ancient stone ring and a double row the answer was "well when you're an archeologist you just know...")  but they were very happily paddling around in the mud measuring and surveying so good luck to them.

With left over sausages for dinner (I love having a fridge!), a dislike of getting up and a view to the budget we parked up over night down a closed road next to the garage in preparation for an early start - again a lovely peaceful night but we were still 10 mins late though!

O'Connors' main business is campervan pop top roof conversions and campervan hire so they know what they are talking about and their winter occupation is maintaining their hire vans and sorting out new additions to their fleet and what a fleet it is.

They have vans of all ages, types and conversions in a jelly bean rainbow of colours so we had a good look around with a cup of tea before leaving them too it and setting off down the hill on our bikes into Okehampton in search of breakfast and something to do for a few hours.  On the advice of the lady in the tourist office, we decided that a bike ride along the Granite Way (route 27 on the National Cycle Network for those who know about these things) which is an old railway and was promised to be 6 miles along a reasonably level, paved track (once you get up the hill to the level of the track) on the edge of the moor, would be the thing for us - particularly as there was a pub at the end of it! 

This is not the first time Will and I have embarked on a "oh a bike ride along an old railway, that sounds looks like a good idea it will be nice and flatish, it was a steam railway" holiday cycle ride...  the first time was a few years ago and was a trip along the old Whitby to Scarborough railway line, setting off from just south of Whitby and we decided that a tandem would be fun...  Contrary to popular belief, being on the back of a tandem does not mean that you can sit back and let the person at the front do all the work.  No, what it does mean is that the person on the back has to pedal at the same speed as the much fitter person at the front and can't see what's coming and can't freewheel over the bumpy bits (a lot of the old sleepers and gravel/cinders are still part of the track) to stop the bumps hurting your saddle sore bottom.  We also later found out that the Whitby to Scarborough line has one of the steepest inclines of any steam railway in England and after the first 8 miles down and up hill and then a fabulous 12 mile freewheel down into Scarborough, getting the 20 miles back to the hire shop by closing time was a bit of a struggle.  There were tears and walking and a refusal to go any further and by the end of it, me and Will and the bike were distinctly not friends - although Will and I did make up again that evening in the pub whhen the sense of achievement outweighed the ache :)

This time however, the route was indeed flattish and smoothly paved and I found I am much happier with Will being several (unconnected) bike lengths ahead of me so I can pootle along at my own pace.

It was not an ideal day for a cycle ride (wind in our faces and horizontal rain at times, especially over the two viaducts) but I learnt to use 14 of my 21 gears and we eventually got to the promised pub (Bearslake Inn) where the landlord put an extra log on the fire for us as we gently steamed. 

After two hours, warmed through and with a pint of local ale/cider and a full roast pork dinner inside us, we set off into the cold again for the ride back and found the wind behind us and that what had felt like a level path on the way there had actually been slightly uphill so we were being blown downhill home.  I actually got into 21st gear at one point and was veritably racing along so there were several top gear style sweeping over taking manouvers (although James May doesn't tend to shout "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee" in an undignified manner when discovering he is no longer Captain Slow... ).  The journey back took about half the time.  This is only the third time I've been on the bike, the second time being a short trip down Cromer prom and the first time being a trip from Matt and Jude's house into town (ie not very far at all) when I felt sick by the end of the road...  so I consider 12 miles in half a day to be progress indeed!

We got back to Okehampton just in time for a call to say that Jules was all back together again and luckily the MOT man was free so within minutes were were back on the road triumphantly clutching the certificate - a big big thank you to Pete and everyone at O'Connors for being so willing to fit us in and sort us out at such short notice - if I didn't already have a van I would definately hire one from them!

So, mid afternoon, back on the road and heading west again!  Thanks to Launceston tourist office, we ended up at Mena Caravan park at the top of a hill just outside Bodmin which has to be the best campsite we have ever stayed at [Ian, I wrote this before I gave you the blog address honest!].  Although we arrived late(ish) with no prior notice they couldn't have been more welcoming to us and spent a while in the cold admiring Jules (they get a lot of vans and prefer the ones with "cool" paintwork like Jules!).  It may have been dark with the rain drumming on roof (hail at one point so loudly we could barely hear the radio!) and the wind rocking the van but we had wine, pancakes and the news quiz so we were snug as bugs in rugs!  We have also sorted out travel insurance, and ferry tickets - we depart these shores on Tuesday!

Lands End here we come!

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