Day 96-97 – Warlords and Poets

Lithuania

Lithuania

Everything I said yesterday about odd familiarity with Lithuania’s countryside, is true tenfold when it comes to Vilnius.

I wouldn’t touch the national issues of our little corner of Europe with a barge pole: if it hasn’t been fully Balkanized yet, it’s only because we all usually have bigger problems (read: neighbours) on our heads than each other: trapped between Eastern (Russia and Turkey) and Western (various German kingdoms and/or Sweden) Empires, the Baltics, Poles, and Eastern Slavs have had a complex relationship ranging from forming a proto-EU to attempted mutual genocide.

The resulting stew found its expression in Vilnius, a once multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city, that defies nationalist description. A Polish city in Lithuania, a Lithuanian city in Poland, a Jewish city in Eastern Europe, it is many things to many people. It is, certainly, a grand old city, its Old Town comparable to those of Cracow and Prague in scale and value; it’s easy to get lost in the narrow, medieval streets for a whole day or two.

It being one of the hottest days yet, this northern city resembled Malaga far more than its parallel towns like Novosibirsk or Newcastle. At the beginning, we wandered mostly from one soft drinks kiosk to another, in the sort of vague daze that walking around a 30+ degree brick-and-cobblestone avenues in midday induces, noticing a lot of churches – of several religions – and fancy palaces of the nobles, all built in a variety of styles: gothic, renaissance, baroque…

Very peculiar is the cathedral-palace ensemble at the entrance to the Old Town, and quite unlike anything we’ve seen so far. The cathedral is not your typical gothic or baroque church, but a neo-classical colossus, resembling a great Roman temple. Next to it, a belfry rises on the foundations of an old wall tower, behind it – a Royal Palace, or the Lower Castle, freshly rebuilt from the 200-year-old ashes (so new it’s not even mentioned in our guide book), and still behind, a tall, conical hill, topped with a brick tower, remainder of the Upper Castle. Together, these represent hundreds of years of common history of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine (with bits of Latvia and Estonia thrown in). The fantasy-sounding names of the warlords, dukes and kings are etched in great letters into the walls and pedestals of monuments: Gediminas, Mendaugas, Kestutis, Vytautas, Jogaila…

A visit to the Vilnius University campus brought some well-needed respite from the heat; the campus is a fine compound of courtyards and arcades, well worth seeing even if you’re not interested in the any of the many famous alumni hailing from these walls. For the people of this region, however, this is where the cultural heart is beating: poets, writers, scientists, politicians and philosophers, Nobel prize winners, bards and leaders, have all studied here throughout the ages.

We meet with some friends who are passing through the city in opposite direction, and eat lunch in an unlikely Ayurveda vegan restaurant housed in atmospheric remains of a monastery turned into a yoga ashram, before heading for a very different part of the city: Uzupis, the district of squatters and artists, Vilnius’ answer to Christiania. Naturally, it’s as different from Christiania as Lithuania is from Denmark: it’s a chaotic, neglected jumble of old houses; the heat forced almost everyone inside, though, and the place feels half-abandoned.

We leave Vilnius and turn back towards Poland. We stay the night some 30 km west of the city, on the shores of Lake Galve, a sapphire gemstone dug by the glacier deep into emerald hills, the heart of Trakai National Park. From the “small beach” (this is how the receptionist called it) at our campsite – a once-opulent spa resort – we could clearly see the dazzling red brick towers of the Trakai Castle, our final destination in the Baltics.

Trakai is a tiny village with enough attractions to last for a busy day. It has not one but two great castles: one in ruin, the other splendidly renovated in Gothic brick, the seat of Lithuania’s most famous ruler, Vytautas almost king the Great. It has clear sandy lake beaches and marinas. And it has a significant population of the Karaites, one of the oddest religious and ethnic minority: Turkic followers of Judaism from Crimea. The Karaite houses are beautifully painted and their gardens well kept, making Trakai into the prettiest village in all the Baltic states; they also bake what looks like small Cornish pasties, called Kibin, an increasingly popular local fast food.

We have to take a small detour back through Kaunas, to pick up a cable we forgot the night before at the campsite, and then it’s back on the dreaded Via Baltica, dodging the crazy Lithuanian truckers, and into Poland.

Angel of Uzupis

Angel of Uzupis

Trakai

Trakai Castle

Advertisements

Day 74-75 – Bloodsuckers at Dawn

Tavastia

Tavastia

The ferry from Aland lands at the tiny, one-ship harbour of Galtby; this is still not proper Finland (or “Finland Proper”, as the region is known due to the fact that this is the home land of the original Finn tribe) but only one of a long line of islands connected by road with the region’s capital, Turku. We stay on the summit of a tall rock cliff overlooking the sea, and witness the most spectacular thunder storm unveiling above us. The colours are otherworldly: the sky is bright green, the lightning is pink and purple.

The islands are known simply as “Archipelago” – Skargard in Swedish – and it’s hard to find a definite border between them and Alands: the entire entry to the Bothnia Gulf is made up of thousands of these islets, skerries and islands. It takes two more ferries, a dozen bridges and causeways, and 70 km of road to reach the “continent”, just before Turku.

We have started what promises to be the most arduous and challenging bit of our journey, the long trek North, so we won’t be stopping that often in Finland. We rest briefly in Turku, getting some good coffee and taking a leisurely stroll along the Aura river, to the medieval cathedral and back. As far as I can tell, this is the nicest area of the city. The way Turku is laid out is mystifying: you’d think the three key points of a medieval town – the castle, the cathedral, and the market place – would all be near each other, but here they are miles apart; I assume the Swedes who built the city as the capital of their Finnish colonial endeavour, had good reasons. The Turku Cathedral, incidentally, is Finland’s oldest, one of the largest, and most important church, the seat of the country’s archbishop.

The south-west coast is, apart from the vicinity of Helsinki, the most attractive region of the country in terms of attractions. Not far from Turku, in a picturesque harbour town of Naantali, is Moomin World, a true mecca for the thousands of Japanese tourists pouring here straight from the Helsinki Airport; we get as close as you can without paying for tickets, but stop just short of spending 50 euro on entering the island-based theme park.

As we go north, between the calm, almost standing sea and the lakes, we slowly enter the Mosquito Country. Finnish bloodsuckers are massive, loud, and annoying – though they are also slow and easy to kill; but that is little consolation for one who’s awoken at dawn by the lawnmower-like buzzing of these dreadful insects.

There is now a sauna on every campsite and marina – there have been a few in Sweden, but not as regular. Some we can’t really use – they are big, and have to be rented per hour by groups; but some are open for all – either co-educational “swimsuit saunas” or gender separated nude ones – free, and opening out onto the cold waters of the sea.

We spend a bit more time in Rauma, a small town to the north; the entire Old Town of Rauma is a UNESCO property: six hundred wooden houses line its cobbled streets, unchanged since 18th century; the Old Rauma is surrounded on all sides by the new town, a rather terrible jumble of flats and office blocks that looks like a provincial Eastern European village, and you really have to know of the jewel hiding among all this to be able to find it.

Just east of Rauma we stop in the middle of the forest, to search for, you guessed it, some stones. Sammallahdenmaki is another UNESCO-inscribed attraction, a set of massive Bronze Age burial cairns; two of them are nearly 20 meters long. Though looking mostly like piles of stones, they are impressive in size and age, a unique site in all of Scandinavia.

By the end of the day we reach our good friends in Tampere; we don’t visit the city itself, as we’ve been here before and there isn’t that much to see here for the second time – though if you’re ever passing by, by all means stop for a stroll along Finlayson factory district and the Tammerkoski rapids. Similarly to Norrkoping, Tampere is a city founded on its textile factories, and is also known as a “Manchester” of its country; and just like Norrkoping, it’s now transformed into a thriving high-tech and university hub.

We spend this night in real beds, for the first time in 75 days ūüôā

Sammallahdenmaki

Sammallahdenmaki

Rauma

Rauma

Day 69 – Gods Old and New

Uppland

Uppland

We cross central Stockholm – the traffic almost non-existant, despite this being middle of the week – again, this time by car, lured by a vague rumour of the Campingaz bottle store in the Vasa Harbour. Campingaz, though widespread in most of Europe, is notoriously difficult to find in north of Denmark, and we wouldn’t want to get stranded without gas in the north wastes of Finland. The rumour proves true – and with a new full supply of cooking gas we head off, leaving the city by way of Solna and northern, non-descript suburbs, towards Uppsala.

Uppsala is the fourth largest city of Sweden – though that’s not saying much; once an ecclesiastical capital, now it’s a proud seat of one of the finest universities, whose graduates include some of the most famous sons of Sweden – Celsius and Linnaeus. The city’s main landmark, visible for miles, is the mighty gothic cathedral, the only “proper” cathedral of Scandinavia, lofty in its brick spires and full of raw, Germanic strength… although to be perfectly honest, you’d have to see all the other churches and cathedrals of Scandinavia to appreciate how impressive this temple once must have been. In the rest of Europe, it would barely register among some of the larger town parish churches…

We don’t stay too long in Uppsala – it’s still too hot, and the neighbourhood of the cathedral does not offer much in the way of shade of respite, apart from a nice, narrow river spanned by dozens of handsome wrought-iron foot bridges. There are parks and gardens all around the old town, including the most famous one, Linnaeus’ botanical garden. But we leave those to lovers of botany; we are more interested in things that are even less alive than plants, and so we move a few miles north of the “new” city to the otherwise insignificant suburb of Gamla Uppsala.

Here stands the reason for Uppsala’s mighty cathedral. Three impressively tall Dark¬†Age mounds stand in a neat row, making the best effort to imitate Giza’s pyramids, with an Iron Age burial ground trailing at the end. Rather surprisingly, on the other end, stands a small brick church. Taken together, all this forms the Gamla Uppsala: pagan Scandinavia’s Vatican, the remains of the mightiest and most famous pagan temple and holy centre. The¬†Viking descendants of those buried under the mounds continued to worship Odin, Thor and their brethren here late into 11th century, until the final offensive of Christianity. The now-small church is what remains of the original Uppsalan cathedral, built upon the foundations of the ruined pagan temple. Consumed by repeated fires in what must have seen a vengeful wrath of old demons, the cathedral and the accompanying see were moved to its current position in the south, leaving the ancient tombs and their secrets in peace.

The church, though a largely fairly modern, 19th century built, is interesting in itself, as it contains within its walls two old runic stones, one of which describes a journey undertaken by a certain Viking mariner to distant England.

Now we are definitely finished with Sweden. A longish car drive along a narrow, meandering road over the lakes and through forests later, we stop at a small campsite near Grisslehamn harbour – from which a ferry will take us to Aland in the morning.

This has been the longest stage of the trip yet – 16 days, over a thousand miles on the road – and the most varied. We were blessed with some fantastic weather: a far cry from last year’s winds and rains; we’ve earned a fair number of blisters – and we saw How to Train a Dragon 2 with Swedish subtitles ūüôā Stockholm gripped our hearts, Malmo surprised us, and Scania’s villages stunned us with their rose-clad beauty, but it should be a nice change to leave all that behind and face the raw wilds of Finland.

A sign in Gamla Uppsala, urging the public to walk ON the grass.

A sign in Gamla Uppsala, urging the public to walk ON the grass.

Day 117 – The Last Night

Kent

Kent

 

One final stage left of our great circle – the road from London to Folkestone. One last day on the English coast. We’re almost back to where we started, four months ago – in Kent.

In early October t’s looking a lot more the “Orchard of England” than it did back in June. The orchards are heaving with ripe fruit, the woods glimmer gold and amber in the sun. The weather is dreamy, warm but not hot, the air is clear and fresh. England is wearing her best to bid us farewell.

If it’s Kent and sea, it must be Whitstable; we used to visit here once in a while, as it’s a rather lovely little town (possibly the finest within commute reach) and easy to get to from London, and the shingle beach is nice too, in low tide.

We haven’t been here for a few years, though, and we’re in for a surprise: the town looks better than it ever did. The fishing harbour is cleaned up and full of activity; some of the typical black-paint fishermen huts and warehouses are rented out for accommodation, some host an art and crafts market, some house bars and restaurant – but most importantly, many are still ¬†in proper use, by the owners of a fleet of tiny fishing crafts crowding the busy harbour, This is not one of those dead, fake fishermen communities that can be seen in other parts of the coast.

It’s October, which means it’s the middle of oyster season, and Whitstable oysters are among the best in the world; we pass by a tiny black hut, which looks like a former smokehouse, just by the sea wall, surrounded by crowds of customers; this is the unlikely headquarters of the Whitstable Oyster Company. The sea wall itself is the bar of this establishment, and we sit there, enjoying expertly shucked native oysters, local organic ale, and listen to one of the employees explaining the business to a couple of impressable Americans.

The oysters of Whiststable – now protected by the PGI designation (unlike their northern brethren in Colchester, across the bay) grow uniquely big, old, and tasty; we learn that it’s due to the amount of calcium in the water – we are surrounded by chalk downs, and the Thames brings its share of nutrients and minerals into the mix. The oysters grow on beds that are built by hand from recycled shells – heaps of which lie all around the harbour in this high season. The resulting produce is – as we could have tasted – a delicate, almost sweet morsel of brine and muscle. Flash-frozen alive, the oysters are sent all over the world, including – where else – Japan.

Since we’ve been to Whitstable so many times, it may seem surprising that we’ve never been to nearby¬†Canterbury. Well, now’s our chance. We don’t know much about the town – apart from its history as the cradle of English Christianity, of course – but we are agreed on one thing: no more cathedrals. Luckily, to even enter the gardens of Augustine’s cathedral¬†it’s ¬£9 per person, so we are glad to get by with just casting a glance at its famous towers through the gate.

The old town surrounding it, however, was more than enough to occupy us for the remainder of the afternoon. It turned out to be one of the prettiest old towns we’ve seen, comparable with that of Chester, with buildings from 15th and 16th century still in modern use; Canterbury may just have the most impressive Nero Cafe and Pret-a-Manger in England, both behind ancient, wood-carved facades.

Canterbury looks like a place worth spending a whole day in, and I regret a little we haven’t visited here before; beyond the old town walls there are even more ancient ruins, of the Abbey, established by St Augustine himself, and a Norman castle – begun as one of the first in England, even before William reached London after Hastings. But the true gems are within the finely preserved walls, on the pilgrim road just off the West Gate (itself a massive construction, the largest city gate in England): a 12th century Pilgrim Hospital, open to public, and the Weavers’ Houses along the River Stour. The Weavers were the Huguenots, escaping from France in 16th century, and the district they inhabit looks like carried over directly from a small town in Alsace, somewhere around Strasbourg: dainty black-and-white timber houses facing the canal, festooned with ivy and flowers.

The whole place has a cosmopolitan flavour; Kent, separated from the rest of Europe only by the narrowest of straits, has always prided itself on Continental connections – even Caesar writes about its good relationships with Gaul – and it remains the most Continental-looking part of England, not least because all the cafes and restaurants in Canterbury are either French or Belgian. We leave the city and head for Dover and Folkestone, with one small but important stop in the middle of the marshes near Sandwich. Here, visited only by rabbits and pheasants, stands a mighty Roman wall of a Saxon Shore fortress of Rutupiae; today’s Richborough.

We started this journey from another such fort, at Pevensey; that was a place where William the Conqueror had landed in 1066. We end the journey at Richborough: the site of an equally important landing, that of Emperor Claudius’s troops in 43 AD. This is where Britain’s written history begins (excluding Caesar’s little adventure, which also may have begun around Dean/Sandwich coast); this is the first Roman-built settlement, and for many years the chief port of Britannia (until overshadowed by Dover). The local oysters which we had so eagerly eaten, where known in Rome as Richborough Oysters, and favoured as an incomparable delicacy.

The site is, unfortunately, closed on Tuesdays, but it’s enough that we are here to see it, from beyond a wire fence; where all had started, we finish. What would the Roman soldiers have said about our journey? What would William’s knights? It took us four months to get to Ultima Thule of their geographers – Shetlands – and back; we didn’t have to fight any barbarian tribes along the way, although we did have to brace the same cold winds and rains that they would have on the journey north. We’ve been to the Hadrian’s Wall, and to the Legionnary fortresses of Caerleon and Chester; two thousand years have passed, and the walls still stand, and the names of the Emperors, generals and even common centurions still ring familiar in our ears. The Romans, the Saxons, the Normans, are all here to stay.

We drive through Dover, its gigantic¬†castle casting a dark shadow in the setting sun; from a National Trust car park we climb half-way down the white cliffs – quite possibly the most famous cliffs in the world – towards the ferry harbour; we’ve never seen anywhere as busy as this. A never-ending snake of countless HGVs pours forth from the ferries, which pass each other in the narrow entrance without stopping. Easily a third of the trucks bear Polish signs and names; they had made the same long journey as we are about to endure – the final stage of the long holiday, getting back to Warsaw for winter. We’re talking it slowly – the journey that could be done in a day will take us about a week; but then that’s the most we can safely squeeze out of ourselves and the car. Brussels, Cologne, Hannover, Berlin… this is just a taste of what we hope to see next year. But that’s a long-term plan. For now, the short-term plan is: get to Folkestone in the morning and board the Chunnel shuttle…

It’s night now; the last night in Great Britain. The campsite¬†is a fine one, in a gorge carved into the snow-white chalk cliffs; it overlooks the sea, and we can hear the waves churning against the shore below; the ships in the Channel glint and glimmer, and still further on the unseen horizon, the light of a French lighthouse peeps occasionally through low clouds. It’s warm and dry, and quiet, and the smell of sea lingers in the air. Somehow, at the very end, everything is just as it should be.

Day 106 – The Venerable Bones

Yorkshire

Yorkshire

There are few sights in Christendom greater than that of the gleaming white tower¬†of St Cuthbert’s Cathedral rising over the ancient city of Durham.

Durham is a bit away from Northumbrian coast, but it is fitting that we arrive here, so near the end of our journey; for in Durham ends a certain old, long story which we have inadvertently traced throughout the most of our journey, a story that starts in the 5th century in Southern Wales with one Saint Illtud Рa grand nephew of Arthur, by some accounts Рreopening a Roman school (first established by Emperor Theodosius the Great) for young Christians in Llantwit Major in South Wales.

A certain student of this school, Patrick, brings his faith to distant Ireland;¬†and while most of Britain succumbs to the pagans, Patrick’s disciples build in Ulster a network of powerful monasteries. A hundred years or so, one of the monks of such monastery, Columba, journeys across the Irish Sea to an Ulster Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata, and establishes another monastery there, at Iona.

Soon, Iona becomes the cultural and religious centre of all the North; the lords of Dal Riata become powerful in their own right, through family connections and cooperation with the powerful monks of Iona. Another hundred years passes, and one Oswald, heir to the throne of Northumbria, flees from his ancestral castle at Bamburgh Рto Iona.

In time, he returns to Northumbria, captures it, and invites monks from Iona to establish yet another monastery – this time on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, in sight of the Bamburgh castle. One of the Lindisfarne bishops, Cuthbert, becomes a venerated saint and patron of all Anglo-Saxons. Both Cuthbert and Oswald will be joined with the Holy Island through death and burial; Cuthbert’s grave is a straightforward affair, but Oswald’s is a more complex adventure, involving death in battle, quartering, a daring rescue and distributing the by now holy body parts all over Northumbria, with Durham, eventually,¬†getting the most precious relic – the head.

And it’s still not the end of the story; in yet another century, Lindisfarne falls prey to the dreaded Norse sea pirates, the Vikings. The monks pick up the bones of Cuthbert and travel around the northern lands – with a seven years stop at what¬†will one day become the artists’ colony at Kirkcudbright in Galloway – until at¬†last they settle for a well-defensible river bend at Durham, where a chapel is built over the final resting place of the last in a long line of monastery-building saints.

That the seas and coasts play so big a part in this tale – the only inland place to feature is the battlefield where Oswald had, literally, lost his head – is no accident; for in the Dark Age the seas and navigable rivers were the equivalent of the modern motorway network, the fastest way to move from place to place. Travelling around the coast is the best way to trace this early history, from Roman forts to Norman castles.

This long aside brings us to the Cathedral itself; it is neither a product of the¬†Dal Riata Scots, nor the Northumbrian Angles, but Norman invaders, who, having laid waste to the North after the conquest, found it necessary to support the local saints – and support they did, lavishly. The resulting cathedral is the greatest in medieval England, one of the greatest in all of medieval Europe; the final pinnacle of the Norman Romanesque style, foretelling the Gothic revolution in its lofty columns and arches. The saints venerated here proved too strong even for the Dissolution’s axe: the abbey cloisters and monks’ dwelling halls remain uniquely untouched, carved out of the shadows by the autumn sun.

The Galilee Chapel, added after the Norman kings returned from their crusades, looks like a bit of a Cordoban mosque added onto an English church – a forest of round, low pillars; it is here that the cathedral’s most important grave stands, and it is neither that of Cuthbert, nor of Oswald, nor of any other Dark Age saint – and yet it is the grave of a man without whom we may not have known about any of them; the grave of Venerable Bede, England’s first and foremost historian.

We light a candle to Bede’s “venerabilis ossa” and leave the cathedral and castle precinct to take a wander through Durham’s narrow cobbled streets; it’s a pretty town, with a leafy park along the river and several very old buildings, but it’s slightly stuck in the 1980s, full of tea rooms, “cafes” serving all-day breakfast, and old-fashioned Italian restaurants.

We head on south, back towards the coast; one time, all this coast was just collieries, steel plants and factories, and as we get near Hartlepool, a little of this industrial legacy can be seen, as the horizon fills with steaming chimney stacks and chemical refinery pipelines gleaming silver: the Tees Valley industrial zone. We stop at Hartlepool to visit the Historic Quay, about which we’ve learned from a leaflet back in Edinburgh. It is an odd attraction – half a theme park, half authentic open air museum. What they did at Hartlepool was to gut the original 17th-18th century quay buildings and transform them, using mannequins and audio-visual effects, into an almost-living harbour quarter. The gem of this exposition is the ship – HMS Trincomalee, the oldest still floating warship in Britain, no less; it’s a small vessel, and with little historical significance, it’s also severely reconstructed inside, but if you like old ships, this one is not to be missed. It’s a rare chance to be able to study in detail all four decks of a Napoleonic warship while it’s still on the water.

The effect of the mannequins, as usual with these attempts, is mostly creepy, especially since there’s no-one else on board but me, and so every “person” lurking in the shadows turns out to be made of wax. Still, it’s quite a fun little place, although what would anyone be doing here for more than fifteen minutes is a mystery.

We cross the River Tees, and enter Yorkshire late in the afternoon; the road takes us through North York Moor. It’s been a while since we’ve driven through any moor, and it’s the usual mixed bag of experiences: the views are splendid, but the driving is tough, with the road going up and down the moor like a ship in stormy seas. Our final destination for the day is Whitby – one of those iconic sites everyone in England knows about, and most saw at least once.

The abbey ruins, known from a myriad postcards, are as majestic as they are unsurprising; we know exactly what to expect, and the whale-like skeleton of the abbey delivers, despite a slightly dull light. What is surprising, however, is the town below. We tend to think of Whitby as consisting only of the abbey and maybe a visitor centre; but the town in its shadow turns out unexpectedly attractive, all built of red brick, with a hanging bridge thrown over a busy harbour, and at least a dozen fish&chip shops on its both sides, all apparently highly recommended.

St Cuthbert’s Cathedral

St Cuthbert’s Cathedral

HMS Trincomalee

HMS Trincomalee

Whitby

Whitby Abbey

<hr>

The Abbey View House is exactly what it says on the tin: a grassy field on the top of a hill, with an uninterrupted view towards Whitby a few miles away. It’s perfectly calm and quiet, and apart from one other caravan we only have a few¬†alpacas for company. The facilities are simple – mind the step! – but clean. It costs ¬£15 per night.

Day 101 – Summer’s End

Lothian

Lothian

The summer went out with a bang, offering us on its last day something we hadn’t dreamed of happening ever again on this trip: a warm, sunny day out on the beach, eating gelati.

It’s hard to tell at first what St. Andrews is more famous for: as home of golf, or as Scotland’s oldest, and the English speaking world’s third oldest university. But once you get into the town itself, it becomes pretty obvious: this is a town of students far more than the town of golfers. After all, golfers only visit here – the students are here to stay.

In the bright, amber light of the last summer sun, St Andrews is an exceptionally beautiful town; the South Street – linking the University grounds with the cathedral grounds – takes an air of a Provencal town, a bit Arles, a bit Aix-en-Provence; the cast iron gates, the pastel walls and the narrow passages with paint peeling off remind us unexpectedly of Warsaw Old Town; but most of all, St Andrews resembles Oxford – not in architecture as much as the atmosphere.

The town has its share of historical ruins – the ruined cathedral, with relics of Scotland’s patron, once the greatest in all of Scotland, now sprawls over an entire district to the east of town centre, almost as big as the ruin of Glastonbury, with a vast cemetary set on a downward hill which, in a strange way, resembles the streets around Kiyomizu in Kyoto; and the castle, a picturesque shell on a promontory, not unlike the Dunnottar from the day before. As if all of the above wasn’t enough, St Andrews is blessed with two wide, golden beaches within walking distance from the town centre; the North Sea is warmer than we expect, and we wade its waters barefoot, maybe for the last time this year – definitely the last time this summer.

And like a scene from Harry Potter (written just some 30 miles away, after all) a gaggle of students climbs the sea wall, all dressed in sumptuous red gowns; the students of St Andrews are expected to wear these wherever they go (except St Mary’s College, who wear black gowns); it does not half increase the magic of the town, and the deep scarlet of the outfit works wonderfully against the turquoise sky. Once again, I feel like I’m on a movie set.

There’s just one last thing we need to try before leaving St Andrews – the ice cream; “world famous” is much bandied about when it comes to ice cream in Britain, for some reason (not what you’d normally think of English ice cream), but the Jannettas parlour in St Andrews might just be the only one deserving the praise, considering the numbers of foreign tourists passing through South Street. It certainly is a big one, and an old one – four generations of Italian gelati makers are shown on the walls – and it has plenty of flavours, but nothing exactly breath-taking; the green tea is disappointingly sweet.

It’s a weird place, St Andrews. It’s one of the prettiest towns in Scotland, if not in Britain, but we’re quite sure we couldn’t move here: it would remind us too much of other places we’d rather be.

This being the day of the equinox, we are setting off in search of an appropriate stone circle; it would be a great shame if, having visited so many of them in the past months, we’d miss out on a stone circle visit during one of the four most important days in their builders’ calendar.

There is one easily accessible stone circle in Fife, part of a larger landscape near Glenrothes (the one in Fife, not in Speyside), with the rest of it hidden in the nearby forests; there’s not much of it left – just two stones, a henge and some wooden post markings – but the setting makes the journey all worth it. It’s the only stone circle that I know of that has a modern housing estate built around it. With tightly packed bungalows all around the circle, the locals – celebrating the equinox in their own special way, by blasting reggae out of the windows – have a unique claim to fame: their village green is at least 6000 years old!

From the centre of the circle, we hail the departing summer sun, and get back into the van. There’s just one more place we need to visit today, before crossing the Forth; and it ties in neatly with what we had seen a few weeks ago, on the other side of Scotland.

The sanctuary of Iona had been Scotland’s first royal mausoleum, and it had served many generations of the Pictish kings, who died one after another in fighting the Viking invaders; but after it was finally taken over, a need for a new mausoleum arose: and the choice was the Dunfermline Abbey.

With royal patronage, the abbey grew immensely; several Scottish kings were either buried in its crypt, or born in an adjacent palace. These days it’s mostly another vast ruin, having been abandoned and largely dismantled after the reformation. The abbey church itself remained, a fine and grand example of romanesque architecture – the column patterns similar to those of the Durham munster – and its most important burial is now prominently displayed in its centre, with a new brass plaque (and a sign carved in stone at the top of the church tower, pointing to it) – that of Robert the Bruce, that most famous of Scottish kings.

It’s a fine stroll around the abbey grounds, in that last of summer afternoons, with trees in the park turning gold and red; the horse chestnut trees grow crimson and deep pink, something we managed to forget about – it seems the chestnut-eating insect plague had not yet reached that far North. On our way back to the car we pass the Carnegie Museum, set in a cottage where the great 19th century philanthropist was born; we only enter it to make use of the toilet, but the people inside insist on us taking a short tour of the place. We try our politest to leave.

There are two ways to get across the Firth of Forth, both have their drawbacks; going through Queensferry means missing out on Falkirk Wheel; going through Falkirk means missing out on the Forth Bridge. With our van on its last wheels, we must choose the shorter way, and are treated to the magnificent view of the latter, the iconic rust red structure gleaming in the evening sun. As we enter Lothian, the last summer sunset falls beyond the Uplands.

IMG_0684

St. Andrews

Balfarg Henge

Balfarg Henge

Dunfermline Abbey

Dunfermline Abbey


Linwater Caravan Park is a surprising gem of a campsite; the location is its only fault – it’s set rather randomly in the middle of a non-descript field. But everything else is top notch; it’s small and well laid out (none of that “showers here, toilets half a mile away” nonsense), the facilities are modern and squeaky clean, with glassed-through hot showers, and the landlady has enough enthusiasm to spare for four campsites this size.
And despite being some 10 miles away from the centre of Edinburgh, it’s a fairly bargain ¬£18 with hookup.

Day 95-98 – “The Garage”, Episode 1

Highlands

Highlands

Between Monday and Thursday, we stay at Inverness, waiting for parts for the wheel. Spoiler: the parts we get are for the wrong model, so we’ll need to find another garage soon.

Inverness is a city that grows on you, but very, very slowly. Our first impression, five years ago, was that of a terrible, sad, grim, grey place you simply pass through on the way to the Highlands. Our second impression, the first time we arrived this year, was no better.

As we were pinned down at a local campsite (15 minutes walk from the city centre, by the river), we were forced to get to know the city better. After all, this was supposed to be our home for the next three days…

Our first major surprise were the Ness Islands, our route from the campsite to city, which turned out to be a swathe of urban forest park set on islands scattered about the fast-flowing Ness River, connected with dainty foot bridges. The park is beautiful in early autumn, all ornamental pines, ancient larches and birch. And the area next to the park, on the riverside, is equally pretty – a line of rich villas descending to the river, that would not be out of place in Richmond or Kingston. The riverside continues along the two banks, and it’s Inverness’s finest area, a gem of Victorian revival, with a red sandstone cathedral on one side and a 19th century folly of a grand castle on the other.

From the Young Street Bridge starts the Inverness high street, and the old town – now largely pedestrianised. It’s not as pretty as the river district, but once you get to know it better, it has its quirky, late 19th century, grey stone charm – or maybe we just got used to it… anyway, past usual row of high street chains and souvenir shops, past M&S and shopping mall, past even the well-stocked Victorian Market, the streets climb up into steep “braes”, linking the downhill commercial centre with uphill residential zone. Where the two meet, at Stephen’s Brae, is a small indie cafe-cum-bicycle repair shop, Velocity, where we found ourselves spending most of the afternoons.

The language most heard on the streets of Inverness was Polish. 10% of the population is Polish – some of them from the older generation, brought into Scotland by the war (many army camps in the area), but most seeking fortune in what after some investigation turned out to be Western Europe’s fastest growing city – in the last decade it grew by 20%, and is now a small, but busy hub of commerce and industry.

That’s about as many good things as I can say about Inverness. Despite its all unexpected advantages, we were rather sick of the place by Thursday, and wanted nothing else than to leave it behind. We wobbled up to the garage and waited…

The crew at Inverness Halfords is an amazing bunch of characters; a sitcom waiting to be written. The grumpy, but kind-hearted boss with a strong Highland accent and a grim sense of humour, who hates all cars with equal passion; an old Afrikaaner, born in Scotland but growing up in South Africa, who likes to ramble a lot about his friends and relatives, but in the end can fix pretty much anything; a receptionist in the vein of young Sheridan Smith, and young apprentices she flirts with. It would be funnier than Phone Shop, that’s for sure. The boss is a master of dead-pan one-liners, here are a few of his gems:

“The French are not making any motorcycles. That’s all I’m saying. So what business do they have making four wheels, when they can’t make two wheels?”

“Ah, a VW keyring. The local dealer used to sell them for two quid a piece. The only thing he ever sold that worked.”

“I should charge you a fine. I should charge you for marring the door of this garage with your car. Go now, and never come back to Inverness again.”

The last one was about our van ūüôā Despite the grumpiness, in the end he charged us nothing, since the underlying problem was not fixed – even though they’ve spent some three hours dismantling the wheel and putting it back together, and the car now drives well enough to give us confidence to reach Edinburgh, at least. (by comparison, the garage in Ullapool charged us ¬£70 for half us much work). So despite the bad press that Halfords usually gets as a chain, if you ever find yourself in Inverness area and need a garage – look no further!

The long delay meant we had to start hurrying to make up the time, so as soon as we left the garage we drove on towards Aberdeen until it got dark; we passed the Culloden Moor, and the Cawdor Castle, and a few other things we’d normally stop and see. The campsites in this area are few and far between, and it’s well past sunset by the time we reach a grim caravan park by the beach in a small harbour town of Burghead.

Inverness

Inverness

Camping in Inverness

Camping in Inverness

 


The less said about the Burghead Caravan Park, the better – it cost a whopping ¬£22, and the toilets were fully carpeted, if you can imagine such a thing. We couldn’t leave it soon enough.

Much better was the Bught campsite we lived at in Inverness Рanother Leisure Centre attachment, near nice parks, with free WiFi, and very close to the city centre, which probably explained the steep £20 price per night, in what is now a low season.

Day 59 – The Story of Man

Starting mileage: 19795 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 21:00

Isle of Man

Isle of Man

With no internet due to roaming charges and GPS stuck in “foreign” mode (not half as detailed as on the mainland), we were for the first time on this trip forced to use Ordnance Survey map¬†and leaflets to find our way around Man. Thankfully, the Isle is small enough and its layout is simple. The main part of Man rises from the sea like a ship, in a high upland, brimmed by cliffs; to the north and south this upland comes down to plains which eventually slide smoothly into the ocean. The main road goes around the highland, and the A1 trunk highway goes right through the middle, connecting the two chief settlements.

Despite the cliffs, there are a few good harbours on the isle, and Peel was always the chief of those: the name of the city (and this is the only city on Man) means “The Port of the Island” in Manx,

Peel is set on the western coast, facing Ireland and Scotland. It was from there that came the settlers and invaders, including, according to the legend, St Patrick and his Christians, and the Norsemen who ruled the island for centuries. The Celtic Christians built a monastery on a small island in the harbour, and the Norsemen built a castle and cathedral upon its foundation.

The Peel Castle is absolutely enormous: the curtain wall encompasses the entire St Patrick’s island and could fit a small town inside. Several layers of Man’s history lie beyond the causeway and the gatehouse, starting with the monastery and its round tower – later turned into a watchtower to spot further invaders coming from Ireland; a few centuries later, the Vikings came and buried their pagan dead over the Christian cemetery. Still later, a Norse lord built the first castle, and what became St German’s cathedral – all now in ruins; the castle saw garrison expansion throughout the Civil Wars and eventually during the Napoleonic era, when the most recent layer of buildings was built: artillery positions and barracks. Like The Laxey Wheel, it’s under care of¬†Manx¬†National¬†Heritage and as members of EH we could enter for free.

The castle is but one of the many attractions of Peel; right by the busy marina rise the chimneys of the kipper factories and curers – Man being the kipper capital of Britain – and the black-and-white House of Manannan museum, holding a replica of a reconstructed viking boat Odin’s Raven. In the harbour, we saw a fish bap van and since it’s a given that this kind of place will have the best food in town, we headed straight for it. Crispy, freshly fried kipper bap and herring in oatmeal were to die for, and only for ¬£3.50 each.

Many of the yachts and boats in the marina bore the peculiar, colourful flag of the Celtic Nations (we bought one as well at the local chandlery); this is a brilliant coup of branding on the part of the Manx people: now instead of being just a single tiny 80-thousand strong island, they are part of a millions-strong conglomerate of nations. Branding overall is a strong point of Man, beginning with one of the coolest flags ever devised; the striking reds, whites and blacks used throughout the isle from logos and banners to house paint make the island easily stand out from the rest of the British Isles.

The rest of Peel is a pretty little town, again slightly reminiscent of what we had seen on Orkney a few years ago: neat narrow streets with pleasant house fronts, all named in the Manx language. The prominent shop on the high street was something called ShopRite, and it was shopping there that really brought the reality of being abroad home. ShopRite is a store which sells products from British shops like Waitrose or Iceland; this is something that we’d expect to see in Germany or Japan, not two hours ferry from Liverpool…

We left Peel and drove slowly back up the hills and then down again, to a small coastal settlement called Niarbyl. We knew Niarbyl was something special because one of the two cabins on our ferry was named after it (the other was called Manannan). Niarbyl turned out to be a tiny rocky cove, with a great view towards the Calf of Man in the south, and further to Ireland; several small thatched huts, beautifully preserved with their white-washed walls and bright red windows, overlooked the beach: a perfect resting place for a weary soul. A few eider ducks swam about among the rocks – we had seen these fluffy ducks earlier in Peel harbour.

A few steps from the beach there was a break in the rocks, and a fault; the stones on one side were black slate, on the other – a yellow-grey sandstone. This was Niarbyl Fault, a place where ancient continents met: on one side was Laurentia, from which spawned the Americas and Ireland, and on the other – Gondwana, the root of Africa and Europe. Isle of Man was born from the splitting and joining of these two great landmasses, millions of years ago.

We sped on from Niarbyl almost to the edge of the Isle; not far from Castletown, in the hamlet of Balladoole (the ‘Balla-‘ in Manx names is the equivalent of Irish ‘Bally-‘, and is equally omnipresent on the map. Both words stand for ‘township’.), we stopped by a sign pointing to Chapel Hill: a low grass-covered mound marked as a monument of national importance. On the top of the mound lay several non-descript piles of stone; like the Peel Castle, only in miniature, this hill also showed clearly the layers of settlement on Man, from a Bronze Age gravesite, through an Iron Age hill fort and a Celtic keeill chapel, to a Viking ship burial. The entire site is part of an island-wide tour of antiquities, called, punningly, “the Story of Man”.

Stopping off at Balladoole meant that we had too little time for Rushen Castle in Castletown. Castletown was Man’s previous capital city, and it still holds the island’s only airport; it is now a somewhat sleepy harbour town, with very winding streets, some of which lead to one of the most secluded urban car parks we’ve ever seen. The castle is fairly small and compact, but is one of the best preserved on the British Isles. We got a sense of it as we crossed the deep corridor leading to original gates and portcullis, where we were told the castle is just closing.

We felt we could have used one more day on Man, but we were already behind schedule – and the car badly needed to see the doctor; we still had a little of the next day to see a few sights along the A1 trunk road before getting on the ferry, and that was that – but I do feel we might be back one day, for Man is definitely a place worth a second visit.

The Peel Castle

The Peel Castle

Peel Harbour

Peel Harbour

Niarbyl

Niarbyl


Glenlough, set up not far from Douglas on the A1 road, is another of the big tent fields prepared for the racing day, but it also has about twenty hard-standing pitches for motorhomes, with electric and water. The facilities are adequate, and there’s free wi-fi in the small leisure room, a blessing in the land of roaming. They also have a couple of Pods to sleep in if you forgot to bring a tent.

Day 36, part 2 – Merlin’s Quarry

Starting mileage: 17502 km
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 22:00

Ceredigion

Ceredigion

The day continues, as we get off the jet boat and head back east towards inland Wales.

The immediate first stop is St Davids itself. UK’s smallest city and one of its smallest bishoprics, the reason for this place’s fame is apparent in its very name: this is where Saint David, patron of Wales, was born, died, and was buried.

The cathedral stands tall to this day, a huge building compared to the size of what surrounds it, of rough, sombre black stone; most of its side buildings and cloisters have been utilized for the benefit of tourists, and there’s a large, very modern cafe overlooking the cloistered garden.

The other major attraction stands just opposite, a splendid ruin of a 14th century Bishop’s Palace, finely preserved with most of its outer decoration still perfectly visible (¬†¬£3.50 pp).

We stopped again at Porthgain to eat a fresh crab sandwich, and then again at Cwm-yr-Eglwys at the foot of Dinas Island, to make a photo of a church wall; the wall is all that is left of a small village church after the Great Storm of 1859. Between these two stops we passed through a small town of Fishguard, notable for two reasons: a ferry to Ireland, and the last invasion of Great Britain. In 1797 a ship filled with French mercenaries landed at Fishguard as a diversion to France’s intervention in Ireland. They were tasked with trying to reach as far as Bristol, but were stopped in their tracks by a hastily assembled local militia and forced to sign a peace treaty at the local inn.

We were only making short stops because our second main destination of the day was still ahead of us: the Castell Henlys hill fort. There are hundreds of these hill forts scattered around Cornwall and Wales – we’ve seen remains of two on our walk in Marloes the day before; usually all that’s left are barely recognizable earthen ramparts. But in Castell Henlys a reconstruction is made of several round houses, typical dwelling of the Celts before and in the aftermath of the Roman invasion.

The reconstruction is not as impressive as it might be; the trust is obviously lacking money for something big and reflecting the true glory of the settlement. For one thing, according to the drawings, the fort should be surrounded by a tall and wide stone wall, and defended by a mighty gate. There is no trace of such walls, nor of a gate, and you’d be forgiven to think that for a fort, it’s not very well fortified.

The houses themselves are finely made, especially the so-called “chieftain’s house”, where you can handle the shields, swords and spears freely. In another house a fire was roaring under a large copper pot; yet another was made into a smithy, and another, smaller one, into a granary. But more than half of known house spots were only marked with posts; there was a Celtic herb garden in the corner, but it was overgrown and unlabeled. The place has great potential, and is still fun to visit (¬£4.75 pp), but it really could use some more funding.

It was in the reception of Castell Henlys that I noticed, looking at the maps and fliers, that we were close to the legendary Preseli Hills. So we took the car for a spin up the narrow and steep roads of upland Wales, a deep hinterland where, according to wikipedia, as much as 60% of population speaks Welsh as their first language.

The first sign that things were getting mythical was the enormous burial chamber, one of the largest in the country: Pentre Ifan. All that remains of it now is a massive dolmen – several tall stones, still standing together, just as they had been positioned 5500 years ago at the entrance to the long barrow.

We drove on, in search of Carn Menyn; the roads got even stranger deeper in the hills: we even had to cross a ford at some point. Eventually, we found it: about a mile off the road, up a tall hill, a pile of bluish-grey rocks. It was a bit too far for us to try and reach it that late in the evening, but we could see it clearly in the binoculars.

What’s so special about Carn Menyn? Well, only that this is where the Stonehenge came from! This is the natural source for bluestone, and in the rocky outcrops in Preseli Hills the bluestone is naturally cracked and comes off in gargantuan, almost rectangular chunks: perfect for a stone circle.

There are several theories as to how bluestones from Wales found their way to Salisbury Plain. Some think they were carried by men – and even tried to replicate that feat – others, that it had been brought over by a glacier and only found in Wiltshire by neolithic humans. Personally, I like the “a wizard did it” theory – namely, that Merlin carried the stones over by magic ūüôā

There is a small, faint circle of stones just beside the Carn Menyn pile, called Bedd Arthur – Arthur’s Grave (of course), and to me it looks just like a showroom for the bluestone quarry. I can imagine the neolithic adverts, carved in fine slate:

Do you plan to build a stone circle?
Look no further than Carn Menyn,
the most popular (and only) bluestone quarry in Britain!

Visit our show circle and you’ll see for yourself
Why Preseli Bluestone is the best Bluestone!

That was about all we had time for; it was time to leave Pembrokeshire and drive past Cardigan to our chosen campsite.

St Davids Bishop's Palace

St Davids Bishop’s Palace

Castell Henlys

Castell Henlys

IMG_7700

Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber


Ty Gwyn Caravan & Camping Park, Mwnt is all about location. It is perched right on the cliffside, beside the coastal paths, overlooking a National Trust beach and a tall hill, known locally as Mwnt and small, ancient parish. The mood and views are fantastic, of course, especially at sunset, and the opportunities for wildlife watching and coastal walks incomparable. It is cheap, as well, at £12 for night without hookup.

On a more practical side, the owners rely a bit too much on location and popularity; there is only one toilet and shower for Gents in what seems like a 100-pitch site, and both reception and rubbish bins are well hidden and unmarked, resulting in people wandering around helplessly (hint: they are both well outside the campsite).

Day 29-30 – A Tale of Three Cities, part 2

Starting mileage: 16645 km
Day started: 09:00/08:00
Day ended: 22:00/22:00

Gloucestershire

Gloucestershire

Still in Bristol. I mentioned Isambard Kingdom Brunel¬†yesterday and of course, we couldn’t leave the city without visiting the ss Great Britain, Brunel’s second major shipbuilding exercise, beautifully restored and preserved in a dry dock on an artificial island, half-way between central Bristol and Clifton.

In the small exhibition before entering the ship, you can read that Great Britain was a Concorde of its time: the height of technology and engineering of its time, like most of Concorde built in and around Bristol. It was the first iron-bound steam ship, the first large ship with a propeller, the largest ever vessel at the time of its build and for 10 years after (until Brunel beat his own record with the Great Eastern; the previous record holder was Great Western, also one of Brunel’s).

I may be biased, but Great Britain is a magnificent ship and well worth the visit (the admission price is ¬£13 pp). She was recovered from Falklands where she had run aground in 1886 and brought to Bristol on a floating platform – a little more than a rotten hull – almost a hundred years later in 1970. Since then, she was restored to almost full glory, and you can not only climb aboard, walk the planks of the weather deck and play with the steering wheel, but also venture into the bowels, past the passenger decks and cargo hold to the engine bay; at the time of our visit the engine was “running” so that you could see the giant pistons and shafts moving.

It’s ¬†a great shame we’ll never get to see the Great Eastern in such glory – a ship which was twice as big and ten times as heavy as Great Britain – but it’s the next best thing, and a great attraction in its own right.

From the docks we tried to get to Clifton Suspension Bridge, glimpsing tantalizingly among the buildings like a giant’s toy thrown over the gorge; we did get some good side views, but we weren’t meant to get to it: the complex system of roundabouts ¬†and crossroads at Ashton Gate thwarted all our efforts of getting through to Clifton and, defeated, we had to move on to Gloucester, driving through the centre of Bristol this time.

Gloucester is an ancient and proud city, and it has two distinct, separate areas worth a visit; there are the 19th century docks, with massive, elegant grain storage warehouses of red brick, now finely restored and, as is the fashion, slowly transformed into flats, offices and shops. There are a couple of museums here, a brewery and a peculiar “holistic centre” on board an old lightship. Gloucester still has a working harbour and shipyard – though the traffic, of course, is just a fraction of what it once was, and oriented at small leisure craft and narrowboats.

From the docks it’s just a short walk down the main street towards Gloucester’s other tourist draw, the Cathedral. Now, I’m no expert, but the cathedral in Gloucester is pretty average-looking; it doesn’t have the magnificent facade of Exeter or the grand dimensions of Winchester. However, the medieval district around it is quite something else: a maze of narrow passages and old houses built on and around the remains of the old St Peter’s abbey, with bits of old stone wall here and a cloister arch there, with summer sun peering through the archways, playing shadows on ancient pavements.

Of course, the cathedral draws a different crowd nowadays: its distinct wide cloisters “played” the corridors of Hogwarts in the Potter movies, providing the abbey with a constant supply of tourists from all over the world for years onwards.

We set out in search of a campsite Рit was Saturday evening, and everywhere was fully booked Рbut we have returned to Gloucester on the next day, to refill the gas bottle and pick up some supplies in the massive Go Outdoors megastore. Thanks to that revisit, we saw yet another face of the city Рthe most modern, multicultural one, with big mosques standing next to methodist chapels, and half a dozen languages Рincluding plenty of Polish Рspoken in the streets, confirming that like in Bristol, Gloucester remains a world city long after its harbour stopped welcoming trade from all over the Empire.

Our last stop on the outskirts of Gloucester was at the Over Farm Market farm shop, one of the best we’ve seen so far; the Over Farm produces an abundance of fresh fruit – that you can pick yourself, if you have the time – and this was the first time in all six years of living in the UK that we’ve seen substantial amounts of fresh black currants for sale – alongside strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and red currants, all freshly picked in the morning, and bursting with the heat wave sun and sweetness.

We also bought a bit of Single Gloucester cheese there – Double Gloucester’s less known brother, more perishable and costly in production than the latter, therefore normally only available in or near Gloucester itself.

This being Sunday in the countryside, we didn’t have much in the way of an itinerary; the James roastery in Ross-on-Wye was closed, the ferry in Symonds Yat was running a very infrequent service, and the only place we knew would be open for certain was the Puzzlewood – a fenced-off bit of Forest of Dean where old yew trees roots smash the limestone boulders, creating a maze of rocks, holes and secret paths. Overgrown with ferns and vines, Puzzlewood looks just like you’d imagine a fantasy forest to look like – and indeed, the owners play up the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien had visited here a few times and allegedly found inspiration for the forests described in The¬†Lord of the Rings.

I don’t think in Tolkien’s days there were that many wooden bridges, huts and benches set up in the forest, though, and I seriously doubt the Professor was charged ¬£6 to enter and had to pass through the pet farm. It is still a nice hour’s walk today – not quite the “Day Off” advertised, the forest is far too small for that; if you’ve ever been in the real European forest, you’ll find¬†everything here is in miniature: the “canyons” are a few feet deep, the trees are not allowed to grow too old and big, the views from the tops of the “hills” reach only as far as the next tree trunk. A hobbit-sized adventure.

It was time to go into Wales, and although we managed to visit Caerwent in the evening of day 30, thematically and geographically ¬†it belongs to the next day’s travels, and so I’ll leave it for tomorrow’s post.

ss Great Britain, Bristol

ss Great Britain, Bristol

Gloucester Quays

Gloucester Quays

Puzzlewood

Puzzlewood


Forest Gate in Huntley was the last campsite on my list, after everywhere else turned out fully booked, and I was a bit worried what the fact that they had plenty of space left on Saturday night might mean. I needn’t worry: the place is lovely, a bit of the owners’ vast garden dedicated to campers, with plenty of shade under the old pine trees, an accommodating landlady, and decent facilities – although the building they’re housed in looks a bit dilapidated, the toilets are clean. The best bit – departure time is 5 pm, so there’s never any rush to leave in the morning!

Refilled the gas bottle (Campingaz 907) – lasted a full month.