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Touring Europe 2010

England, France, Germany, Spain, Wales, Scotland

In mid-May we headed off on our annual foray into Europe, with islands and castles turning out to be a dominant theme, conveyed by the campervan for which we now hold feelings nearly as fond as for our long-loved yacht Cera. In fact, while on tour we refer to the van as “the boat”, and talk about “provisioning” and “stores” rather than just “shopping for food”. There are indeed lots of similarities between yacht cruising and campervanning: freedom to choose where and when we go, no booking for anything, choice of camp site (marina) or wild camping (anchoring alone in a quiet bay). We flew via Seoul by a secondary Korean airline, Asiana, with the most comfortable economy class we have ever experienced. Potential complications that we avoided included sabre-rattling on the Korean peninsula and delays caused by the Iceland volcano.

The van was in good shape after a very cold winter, and after registration and service, a quick run along the gorgeous Dorset coast and a visit to the Renault F1 factory, we ferried over to France. After absorbing more war history in the Ardennes and at Verdun we drove to Paris for meetings on motor sport safety research at the FIA, overlooking the Place de la Concorde. Following the plan, we then pressed on down south, aiming to get to the Cote d’Azur before the summer heat and the hordes of tourists. Being fond of mountains, we chose a route through the French Alps, where some of the passes were still closed but not, rather to our surprise, the Col de la Bonette. This is claimed to be the highest road pass in Europe. It’s probably not the most spectacular pass in the world, and is in fact a touch less high than the Stelvio and a couple of others, but it’s asphalt all the way and the several cyclists at the top seemed pretty glad to have made it. From there we did a complete circuit of the spectacular Grand Canyon de Verdon before diving from the mountains to the sea at Menton. The Corniche road along the southern coast of France is deservedly famous for its beauty and gorgeous coastal views, not to speak of ritzy towns like Cap Ferrat, Antibes and St-Tropez, and the city state of Monte Carlo.

Still out of the high summer season we enjoyed it all, apart from a violent spring storm. The River Argens reaches the Med at Frejus through a wide, low-lying delta, where the traffic came to a halt as we approached it. Drenching rain had caused massive landslips upstream, blocked the coast road in several places, and washed camp sites and coastal tourist cabins into the sea. We soon learnt that about 28 people had died. We simply parked in a quiet side street until the roads opened the next day, an option only made possible by the wonderful flexibility offered by the campervan.

Our next substantial destination was the Camargue, which we reached via the lovely river town of Arles, famous for the “Van Gogh bridge” and the Roman amphitheatre and other remains. We camped in a splendid motorhome-only parking place along the side of the Rhone, by the long wharf where the river cruise boats moor.

The main town of the Camargue is Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, and to its east extends a long gravelly spit of land – the dique, or dike – between the inland lakes and wetlands and the sea. It is possible to drive out to its extremity and (in a motorhome) camp for a small fee. This quickly became one of our favourite spots ever, with long walks possible between the lakes where thousands of pink flamingos live and breed.

From the Camargue, the original aim was to press on west to Spain and Portugal. However, Michael needed to be at a vehicle crash test centre near Frankfurt to oversee the crash test of an Australian racing car that his organisation had prepared so rather than fly up and back we decided to drive. In any event, we had already decided to try to get to northern Scotland this year, and going north made more sense than going west.

The test centre was in the little town of Sailauf, where we spent a few days in a marvellous old hunting lodge, sharing thoughts on motor sport safety with research engineers from the FIA and the TRL. The crash test went off well and extremely spectacularly, being at a higher speed than has ever been done before. The explosion of a small bomb was the immediate impression. All good fun, but when the dust had settled we headed north again, to parts of Germany where we had never been before. We reached the Baltic Sea at the old Hanseatic League ports of Wismar and attractive Lubeck. Both were badly damaged in the war, and like most towns and cities in what was East Germany (except perhaps for Berlin and Dresden) have been rebuilt in rather a patchy manner. But most beautiful old buildings have been sympathetically restored, even if they are often overlooked by unattractive Russki apartment blocks.

Through Shleswig-Holstein we drove to Cuxhaven, on the North Sea coast, for a day trip 45 miles out to the car-free island of Helgoland. Lying in the German Bight with its fortified port in a very important strategic location, the island was Danish then British, until Britain gave it to Germany in a swap for Zanzibar in 1890. On arrival, we were taken ashore by an open motor boat and walked up through the fairly new town – new, because the island has only been populated since 1952 because it was heavily bombed in the war and used by Britain for bombing practice afterwards. The island survivors, and a marvellous surprise, were the countless masses of nesting seabirds, notably including gannets, soaring and wheeling, collecting nesting material and returning to their chicks on precarious ledges. In many places it was possible to get as close to the birds as in the Galapagos, and the island has been a centre for ornithological research for over 100 years. Most of the day was lovely, but a vicious storm hit the island late afternoon, and lightning struck another tourist!

Back on the mainland, just along the coast to the west we took a couple of trips out to the east Friesian islands, of “Riddle of the Sands” fame, enjoying the winding route taken by the ferries as they negotiating the tortuous channels through the sand banks. Far north Germany is not on the foreign tourist route at all, and English is rarely spoken or understood. That’s partly what made the region interesting, as was the flat farming scenery, and vast expanses of beach exposed by the huge tides. Like parts of the Netherlands, though, the “view” is too often overwhelmed by enormous wind farms, with hundreds of windmills all visible at any given time. Among other unwanted effects their devastating impact on migrating birds – and this is bird country – is well documented, and Norma found this very distressing.

We had always planned to spend the second half of the trip in the British Isles, so it was back over the Channel in July. We give thanks for the time and hospitality offered by so many relatives and friends who we were able to catch up with, and offer apologies to those for whom this was just not possible this time. We started the tour by ranging up through Wales, along the way visiting the island of Skomer, a knob of land just off the south-west corner of the country. This is another outstanding place for bird lovers, and we were fortunate to get there before most of the island’s puffins had made their mid-year transition from land life to the sea. In another Galapagos-like experience we walked closely past hundreds of these enchanting little birds. Further round the island we viewed thousands more seabirds on shore and nesting in the cliffs, and also the remains of human settlement going back to prehistoric times.

In Wales, with its beautiful castles and less beautiful but very interesting old slate mines, we went up through Snowdonia – less extensive and scenic than we had anticipated – and on to the Lake District. This did have lots of great scenery, but most of the roads were distant from the lakes, were extremely busy and very narrow with intimidating stone walls, all of which made driving the van rather stressful. Up then through Carlisle, with its excellently restored castle, along the western shore of Loch Lomond where we camped for a night, and on to Oban, the port for our ferry to the Western Isles of the Outer Hebrides. These were a major target for the trip.

On ferry after ferry, we had great fun working our way from island to island, from Barra in the south up to the north of Harris. Not grandly scenic, we thought, but with ranging wild countryside, peat wetlands, lakes and waterways everywhere. As elsewhere in the Scottish Highlands, driving and camping are real pleasures: lots of places to stop for a quiet night, narrow but open roads, and interesting historic sites from as far ago as 2,900 BC. We did experience the notorious midge problem in the evenings especially, but the weather was not usually so good that we would be sitting outside anyway.

We ferried back to the Scottish mainland at Ullapool, followed by some lovely drives up to and across the northern coast – including the seriously tatty John O’Groats – and down to catch up with some of our Scottish relatives at Drumnadrochit, on the shores of Loch Ness, where Michael spent so many happy childhood holidays. From there we drove to Edinburgh, where we stayed with Michael’s cousin Libby. The Edinburgh Festival was in full flight, and Libby had arranged for us to see some truly outstanding stage performances. Edinburgh was vibrantly alive, with performances every few metres, outside and inside practically every available space. We will return one day and “do” the Festival at greater leisure. It was a memorable visit.

Despite growing up in England we had never really toured, let alone explored, the northern counties. On this trip we did, wandering around up to three abbeys, castles and mansions a day. We had joined the English Heritage organisation, giving us free entry to hundreds of protected and preserved historic sites. Fountains and Rievaulx Abbeys, two of the great Yorkshire abbeys, lived up to high expectations. We will also particularly remember York and its magnificent Minster, and the cathedral city of Durham: compact, with the massive cathedral beautifully set on its hill within a tight loop of the River Wear. In Durham we camped by the river at the Rowing Club, which had a “Certificated Location”, or CL. These are small Caravan Club members-only sites, with minimal facilities that suit us fine, most on country farms, and we used them almost all the time in England for their value and friendly owners. Another memorable CL was at Fotheringhay, where we were on our own in a field right by the motte (mound) that was the base for the castle where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded and Richard III was born.

An unexpected treat for Michael in Yorkshire, on an unusually clear morning, was his long-anticipated first flight in a glider, towed from a grassy airstrip high on an escarpment overlooking the dales. On climbing in he gave the camera back to Norma when it became clear that the instructor behind him was expecting him to fly the thing most of the time! Further south we meandered round the coast of East Anglia before dashing here and there catching up with more friends and family. Finally, we took a quick flight down to Valencia for a motorsports medicine conference, where Michael made a couple of presentations (which he had prepared on the van). We flew back home in late September with another 13,000 kilometres clocked up in the van, which is now safely locked away in its winter home in a barn in Dorset.

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