Subscribe to Bobby Cussens!

Click on the Subscribe Button to get updates, new chapters, travel blog entries and more...

Bobby's Blog

The start of the journey...

Sitting in front of the computer, wondering about stories of our avoidable scrapes and adventures...

"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." 
Alfred Hitchcock

Bobby C, 16th Oct 2023

Why the terror? What's so scary? 

Setting up a website, putting myself and my material out there for critique.

Who am I to try and build a community, to offer feedback, suggest that others follow suit?

And then, if I don't and no one else is doing it either, then what's to lose?

Every life offers challenges. 

Many years ago,  I faced returning to a job I didn't want or choosing voluntary redundancy. The advice I was given: Be Bold.

I haven't always been. But that endorsement, encouragement has stood me in good stead. 

If you're frightened of an outcome - try harder at it. If you're unsure of your abilities, do it anyway. Face imposter syndrome with 'fake it till you make it'.

Easy words, hard to do. And yet, if we don't, what then? How small will our world compress to? How tight does our comfort zone become?

So, I'm setting up this website for feedback for writers. I'm hoping that the writers I've met and those who haven't become my friends yet will respond. 

Together is almost always better.

I'm hoping you'll join this endeavour. Either as a writer looking for feedback or a reader looking for new material. You might even be a publisher or an agent waiting for the new undiscovered talent to appear.

Please be generous in spirit and time.

Help me create a community of help for writers...

Day 12, Tuesday 15thJan. Minor adjustments

Turns out Teruel has a lovely old town, a great pedestrian bridge over the river and lots of good cafes.  

First thing was spent sorting bits – trying to get more data for my phone deal so that I can upload the blog without visiting McDonalds; M talking to the roadside assistance insurance company about last week’s incident, checking bookings for the rest of the year, finding out when V might be coming out to visit.  

Then we went wandering, and purchased little things that we wanted, having spent nearly a fortnight in the van.  These included: a curtain to separate front and back living spaces, which means that whoever is having a slow start doesn’t get blinded by the light from opening the door, or blasted with a cold inrush of mountain air.  I have super-deluxe, down filled slippers that have no heat protection in the soles, so am now toasty with a pair of insoles.  I hate the dishcloths we bought with us, they’re too papery and not absorbent enough.  We’ve dealt lots of small but significant things.

Just before we finished pottering around the town M asked if I wanted to stay any longer.  

“No, thank you, I think we’re done.  What do you think?”

“I think we should go too.  But are you sure, or are you just saying that?”

Biting back a giggle, I replied “No, I’m sure, but thank you for clarifying.”  

Lessons learned.

We have headed back towards the coast.  Morella and Teruel are both great places, but are an additional 1000m above sea level. The overnight temperatures there are generally -5 or -6, whereas closer to the coast they’re +5 or +6.  M’s fever has picked back up and he’s coughing again. As much as we love the mountainous regions, they’ll have to wait until his body’s fully recovered from this bug or the continent gets a bit warmer.

M feeling under the weather meant that I got a rare experience of sitting behind the steering wheel.  Whilst I drove, M route-found and we both lost patience with British news, there being the ‘meaningful vote’ this evening.  A number of radio shows spent the entire day broadcasting endless hours of callers ringing up to express their discordant views.  Eventually, we changed radio channel and listened to Culture Club and Madonna, which felt like a ‘meaningful’ substitution.  

We’re in a small area called ‘La Val D’Uixo’.  It boasts a number of caves, glorious routes into the hills for walks (one tomorrow if M is feeling up to it) a town with a number of good restaurants and bars and a large, flat, free car park with the 3 types of water provision – all clean and well serviced.

The air was warm enough that we spent the afternoon with the side door open and pottered on getting the various jobs done that had been waiting for a good day. The hope is that we’ll spend a couple of days here before committing to Valencia and the coast.  Friends live near Alicante and we’re looking forward to catching up with them soon.   

This evening, we have the fire is on in our U-shaped lounge (that will later become our bedroom), the dog is in his bed in front of said fire and has just repositioned himself so that his face is getting the maximum heat.  Contentment reigns.

Day 13, 16th Jan, Pushing back barriers

M woke me up at 3am this morning to tell me that he was delighted to have been accepted for RAF flight school.  

“Right, my love, two more paracetamol for you and no long walks; let’s get you well again first.”

So, I went for a run instead, setting off along one of the generally well signposted routes into the hills.  The dew lay as heavy as rain, my ginger running stumbled to a walk up a river bed, me thinking that I’d lose both ankles if I didn’t slow down.  The only flat surfaces were the largest rocks and they weren’t horizontal.  Then, the path turned into a covered waterway (a llevada), which gave me an 18” concrete corridor on which to continue.  

As the route twisted and turned through the valley, hills behind hills were obscured by low-lying mist, with forested peaks looming far above.  It was lovely.  It was isolated.

I am risk averse, as a rule.  I don’t like taking unnecessary chances.  Today, M and I had watched a whole host of people head up into the hills, (effortlessly) jogging along, so I was expecting more company than I found.  My thoughts turned to whether this was a fools’ errand and whether I should just have done a road run.  The tarmac surface above me was only a few meters away but there were 12 feet of thorn-thickets filling the distance and I didn’t fancy being torn to shreds. So, I plodded on, pulse rate higher than the exercise demanded.

As a precautionary measure, I held my water bottle securely in such a way that if the situation demanded, I could use it to butt the temples of a would-be assailant. It might, or might not have been an effective measure, but made me feel more secure.  

So, why do I continue to make myself vulnerable in this way?  Because if I don’t, then soon I won’t be able to.  Fear is a powerful demotivator; its walls come silently sliding in until we’re boxed and unable to move.  I don’t think this is particularly a gender issue, but I do know lots of women who feel the same way.  Only by putting my back against one such barrier and pushing the opposite away with the soles of both feet, do I manage to keep going, to run, to climb, to walk.  The alternative would be crushing.

And the route was uneventful.  I eventually passed a few women (always in pairs…) coming back towards me and then the path abruptly ended.  I found my way back to the road, discovered the beautiful new cycling path that’s being laid and ran on that until it too disappeared.    

The rest of the day was pottering around the town with M.  It’s a place of two extremes – either beautiful and well kept, or unfinished and slightly unkempt.  One side of a street has beautiful block paving, the other has no paving at all, only rubble and signs that warn of workmen in roads which have no men and no work on going.  

Our car park is still great, we’re undisturbed and don’t appear to be causing any disturbance.  The occasional police patrol car circles the area but doesn’t stop or look for long.  

The sunshine is glorious, it’s a cool 7 degrees in the shade, but if you stay under the bright yellow glow, it feels lovely.  Coming back from my jog this morning, I heard familiar birdsong including pigeons, and the air felt like an early summer’s day at home.  Yet here I am, living the unsuspected dream, camper-vanning in Europe and becoming accustomed to the differences that each town brings.  Two weeks down tomorrow, “only”eight left to go.  I am loving every day of this adventure. 

Another set of literary agents have been offered the opportunity to represent my work as of this morning.  And I got my first rejection, but as a refusal goes, it’s about as lovely as I could imagine (rarely have the academic equivalents been so encouraging).  It said: 

Dear Julie, 

Many thanks for giving me the chance to consider your work. I enjoyed the material you sent but I’m afraid this isn’t one for me. 

Please don’t be disheartened though, this is a subjective business and just because a book doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it isn’t going to work for someone else. 

Best wishes,

I mean, if someone’s gonna say ‘No’, that’s how to let you down gently, don’t you think? So, I am encouraged by this refusal. I store it with the other positive feedback for my book and it makes me send out another five missives of hope.  I know this is going to be a slow game…

Then we went up into the mountains.  We’ve used a great App called “Wikiloc” all over Europe.  The App aims to offer footpath route-finding across the globe. We’re glad we know how it works. It has three different sound categories: a happy beep to say you’re on the right route; an unhappy beep when it thinks you’re straying from the path; and a triumphant ‘TaDah’ when you’ve completed your set circuit.

We follow the app until common sense takes over.  When it wanted to send us over a precipice (with Stan, a keen but not invincible Labrador), we chose an alternative clearing.  Eventually, having reached the summit of an imposing mount, the route back towards ‘home’ was steep to say the least.  We commit to a number of drops, Stan complies either behind us or taking the lead until we find an 8’ down-climb that’s roped up as a via ferrata route might be.  

Day 14, 17th Jan, The things we (don’t) know

Hmm…

We encourage Stan to go first, but nothing doing.  

M climbs down and I encourage our intrepid dog to follow: not happening.  

I climb down too… eventually, the poor puppy, whining in distress, commits to the descent.  

M grabs him part way, to reduce his drop and soften his landing.  As he reaches the earth, the dog stands up and wags at us as if to way “well, what are you waiting for?” running on ahead.  We knew we could do via ferrata (equivalent to a grade 1 or 2 scramble).  Now we know the dog can too.  Not that we want to put this to the test again any time soon.

When we return, I spend a fruitless 15 minutes, smartphone in hand, walking round a palm tree and a rockery. I’m trying to get the app to acknowledge that we’ve completed the route and give me the concluding ‘TaDah’ I’ve been hoping for.  I’m unable to achieve this, I don’t know how to get the software to recognise that we’ve done its route in full.

Back at the van, we all collapse, eat, rehydrate and then M and I face the inevitable. At some point, were going to have to do the laundry.  Having spied a launderette on yesterday’s jaunt round the town, we’re soon set up with three machine loads on the go (our clothes; all Stan’s bedding; all our bedding). 

I didn’t’ know that unless you choose the program you want on the washing machines BEFORE you put the money in, it gives you the first programme and there’s nothing you can do to change it; you can’t cancel or get your money back.  I do know this now.  Thankfully, the default setting is a cool wash, but it’s not a mistake I’ll make twice.  

Our evening concluded with a visit to a local bar for bocadillos (sandwiches) and drinks.  My knowledge of Spanish combined with the goodwill of a couple of customers facilitated conversation. We’d got on sufficiently well that I was offered and provided with a complimentary ‘Café Rhumm’ – a cream-free version of a bombadillo in Italy (alcohol and sugar syrup, with coffee).  Whereas in Italy this is topped with cream, in Spain it get’s a top layer of cinnamon and lemon.  Soooooo tasty.

With a warm smile on my tipsy face, M steers me out of the cafe and we go back to our car park for the last evening before we move on.  I don’t know where we’re going tomorrow, but I’m so glad we know about this place, it’s been magic.  

Day 15, 18th Jan, Friends 

As we packed up the van this morning, ready to move on, I noticed the same two Spanish gentlemen who have been in the car park each of our three days here.  

They met at 9am and sat at the picnic table benches in the corner.  On warm days, they were in shirtsleeves, today with the cloudy skies they were wrapped in warmer coats and hats with pull down flaps for their ears.  Each day they were rapt in conversation.  The taller gent in the black coat sat with his back to the rising sun, at one corner of the table.  His friend took the adjacent corner, listening with rapt attention, his short legs swinging several inches above the paved area.  From time to time, he roared with laughter at whatever tale he’d been told. 

They were engrossed in each other’s company, this duo.  Parting was no quick process.  At 11am, they stood to move in opposite directions.  But one remembered a thing that had just occurred, they walked together again, sharing the item that must not be forgot.  Slapping one another’s backs they moved as if to part, but then the other raised a hand and they moved closer once more.  Eventually, foot by foot, they grew more distant until at nearly 11:15, they finally turned their backs on each treasured friend and went their separate ways.

We’ve left the safety of our last stop and inched our way down the coast toward an eventual destination of Granada, seeing friends enroute. 

Park4Night directs us to a tree-shaded car park that’s empty save for two silent campers. We put ourselves equidistant to the others, positioned to maximize the sun’s glare and the energy that the solar panel can absorb.  A fourth camper, large, coach-built and British in origin pulls into the arena. It boasts a private plate and soon a couple emerges with their dog.  The gentleman looks tentative and glances in our direction.  I wave in response and they come to chat awhile.  

We learn of their journey, how they rejected the option of purchasing property in Spain over renting, which they then eschewed in favour of touring in a van. They’ve been doing this 8 weeks and happily share their knowledge of which regions have the friendliest governance regimes when it comes to motor homes.  We flip pages in our map book (gifted by my aunt and uncle) and trace our finger along Spain’s jagged edges.

As our English companions move away, the occupants of the third camper appear and come over to say hello.  A French couple who are happy and friendly, they proudly announce that they’re both 65.  

My school-girl French gets us so far in the cheery exchange, her very good English makes up the distance.  The compliments for my grasp of the language are unearned. I realized a couple of years ago that if I (mis)pronounce foreign words with confidence then the owner of whatever language I have abused will happily correct me and take no offence at my bungled attempts at communication.  Consonant pronunciation is everything!

Writing the blog, not dissimilar to sending out my book to agents, requires a push of hope and confidence that I often struggle to find.  All the likes, smiley faces and comments I receive are small salves to my flailing esteem.  Hormones aren’t helping, they send me on my menopausal rollercoaster. Even here, wandering round Europe, I dip from time to time.  But I want to acknowledge and send back appreciation for those reactions. 

Imagine, if you will, that I’ve pushed a stake in the ground; it has a flag attached. The cloth that flutters in the breeze reads “Friend” and it’s there for all who’ve taken the time to read this account or any of the other things I’ve sent into the open domain.  Your support counts as friendship, it’s precious and appreciated.

Day 16, 19th Jan, Lazy Saturday Mornings….

It’s interesting, that despite our being away from the working-week routine, today felt like a weekend morning; it had that ‘slow start, nothing to rush for’ atmosphere.

I was a bit hormonally discombobulated today.  We were talking about what we’d do (stay in-situ or move on towards Valencia). I set off for a half-hearted jog in the hope that it would balance me out, returning with less energy rather than more cheer.  M, who always tries to make everything good was thrown off by my emotional oscillations. He went to the loo block and I made coffee in a hope that this would be the solution.

Which it kind of was, because on his way he met the inhabitants of the latest van to arrive, with a GB plate, and he sent them in my direction.

Hannah and Matt (late 20’s, both vets) came to say ‘Hello’.  They’d been very brave and enterprising, chucking in jobs from home and taking out a year to do much of Europe.  120-something days in and France, Portugal and Spain were thoroughly covered.  Which leaves them Italy, Coroatia, Slovenia, and up to Norway to do before July.  Stan was given an impromptu ear exam, as he’s been worrying at his ears and we got a lesson on how to treat his ear canals, if required.  

They stayed for coffee and we sat in the sunshine until M suggested it was ‘beer-o’clock’.  Whereupon we sat some more, swapping stories and histories; adventures and mishaps; journeys of learning the art of camper-vanning in countries where you don’t speak the language as well as you’d like.  By 4pm, the only food we’d had was Hannah and Matt’s bag of crisps.  

Our new chums offered to host for supper over at their van (some 30 meters away), since that spot wasn’t tree-shaded.  Matt like M does much of the food and we chomped a picnic of bread, chorizo, cheese, apple and cucumber, which kept us chatting till 6ish.  Stan had a lovely time.  Having all agreed that no dogs should be given human food, he surreptitiously got cheese rind from each of us.  Then we were back in the van, me reading and trying to ignore the endless radio debate on a solution to the Brexit problem.

Much, much later, a message from my cousin in Sunderland told me that as a part of her 52ndbirthday celebrations she’d read my blog and inadvertently set up her own. I’ve put the link here (https://manypauses.blog/2019/01/19/) – it reads really well – like hearing her voice here in the camper   

Around midnight, I wandered in slippers over to the toilet block.  Padding back there was a strong gust of warm wind that rustled the palm tree leaves high above my head.  I gazed upwards, noticing how shiny the fronds looked reflecting back the streetlight.  

I wondered, what change was that wind blowing towards us?

Day 17, Jan 20th, Street Life?

Like a leaf on that gust of warm air, we were off, blown down the coast towards Valencia and sights new in the drizzly remains of an overnight downpour.  The plan had been to go to the pictures at 5pm (the only time for showings) after having seen the sights of Valencia City. Neither happened.

What we saw instead, was much more interesting.  

The city is split by a long riverbed, some 200m wide, broader in some spots. Encased on one side by medieval city walls, the elongated enclave of activity has runners, cyclists, rugby players, scooter-riders and roller-bladers of all ages. 

In the flower beds and bushes were cat shelters and trays of food.  We looked for human habitations, like you’d find in London’s parks: bedding and boxes set out for the coming night, insubstantial and rain-absorbent, we found none.  Wherever the homeless rest, we’ve seen almost no evidence of their dwelling on any Spanish public streets.  It must be there; in England, Belgium and France its growing incidence is uncomfortably visible.  Here, we’ve failed to see it.  

It turns out that Valencia does have/has had an issue with homelessness.  It started to tackle this by sending out hundreds of volunteers one evening in 2015 to walk the streets, to actually ‘see’ how many were sleeping rough.  Of 400+ found, 250 were surveyed for mental and physical health issues and a strategy was devised.  From then, they’ve had a number of projects to increase social housing and get people off the streets (one championed by Richard Gere in 2016).  They also have police patrolling the park in panda cars so that the itinerant population can’t disturb the peaceful rest of the city’s kittens or musings of visiting tourists.  

After a mile or so, we turned away from the verdant riverbed of health, into the city. The streets cobble and tarmac their way between tall apartment buildings, Parisienne in style, some of these towering edifices are elegant, beautifully maintained with long shuttered french-doors, their juliet balconies, overlooking the park.  Other blocks are decrepit , crumbling, uninhabited, unsafe.  The juxtaposition of sound and unsound, felt like a plan for the city was half executed.  Perhaps, there are many property owners waiting for the next round of EU grants…?

During our wanderings, we found the smart and shiny theatre building, all glass and steel framing, not exactly what we’d set out looking for.  But by burrowing further, we found even smaller streets with café tables and chairs and the great and the good sipping, not café-con-leche, but a dark red liquid in large glasses, served on ice with an orange slice.

As magnets gravitate to the pole, M and I had “naturally” been drawn to the cool and trendy part of town “El Carmen” (The buzzing old town district of the city – according to trip advisor).  We were sat amongst the beautiful, and as such chose to hide our unqualified selves in the corner of one bar, from whence we could watch those who belonged, unchallenged.  

From Vall d’Uixo, where we almost exclusively saw svelte runners and cyclists heading out into the hills, to here, wandering through this valley, we had firmly come to the conclusion that Spain must have a zero obesity problem. The entire population appears fit, trim and athletic by nature.  Bar culture put our minds at ease, a more rounded perspective of the population showed that although there are lots of skinny fit people in Spain, there are more ‘normal’ body shapes too alongside them.

The liquid I’d spied was Vermouth. I smiled into my glass, thinking of Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter in Cinzano Rosso adverts of the 1970’s, as I sipped. Vermouth is apparently very trendy in Spain right now.  It’s also very delicious, I needed a second glass, just to be sure    

By the time we got back to the van, walked Stan and had a little post-aperitif snooze, we’d missed the flicks.  

Tomorrow we’ll go to the renowned Central Market and stock up on fresh fruit and veg, and get M to the pictures.  Then we’re away again, down towards Alicante…

Day 18 and 19, Jan 21st– 22nd – The best laid plans

Monday, Day 18– We’ve had some sad news in the past week.  Two ladies that had played a significant part in M’s life and early memories, have passed away.  We got a phone call from Pat Coyle’s daughter to say that her mum, aged 90, had passed away peacefully in her sleep a few weeks after suffering a stroke.  Margaret Purdy, the lady who’d been trip ‘Mum’ when taking handicapped children to Lourdes each year as part of HCCPT trips also passed on Sunday.  I won’t replicate M’s gentle and well-written words about them here, but did want to acknowledge both of these lovely people, who gave him encouragement in becoming the person we know and cherish today.

None of our plans for Monday materialized.

Driving round Valencia city in a small car, and more importantly getting parked up, must be pretty miserable.  Attempting this in a 21’ van is utterly impossible.  After an hour and a half of:

“red light, crawl forward, big ramp, crawl forward, big ramp, busy junction, red light…”

and we gave up.  I’m sure that Valencia is lovely, and one day we’ll hopefully return.  Which, of course, meant where to next?

  It also boasts a prodigious number of tiny crowded streets and more road ramps, red lights, heavy traffic.  Driving through, we acknowledged the pretty parks and the tiny compacted parking spaces.  But in the absence of anywhere to stop, we moved on once more.

Beginning to feel like we’d never find somewhere to rest, we headed back up into to hills.  

Finally, in the middle of nowhere, near the tiniest settlement called Bellus, was a campervan stop, with 3 types of water, beautifully kept, nestled below the dam wall of the reservoir.  There’s not much to tell you, except that it was clean, and that in 1788 (that’s not a typo, it was 1788) there were a set of baths that were ranked as one of the best spa facilities in the whole of Valencia.  Sadly, these now reside under said reservoir, but hey – good to know none-the-less!

Tuesday, Day 19– Bellus is a great place to sleep, it’s not a bad place for a run.  It’s one café is probably a lovely place to eat come April when it re-opens.  

We packed up…

“Where are we going?”  I asked

“Not telling,” was the answer “Surprise.”

Which it definitely was.  Looking up at the snow-dusted mountains around us, I mused on how chilly they looked as we started to drive.  A short time later I mused on how they seemed to be getting closer.  No, really, they were a lot closer.

I looked at M. 

“Where are we going?”

“Honestly,” he said “I can’t remember what I typed in the sat nav, but it looked great on the reviews.”

I put the map book down, noting instead how I could see the crevices in the snow now… 

An hour up and then down the mountainside and we arrived at “El Castille de Guadaleste”, a tiny but thriving village, beside a LOT OF ROCK.  Like Morella, it too has an impressive set of turrets perched implausibly on a tiny outcrop of mountain, along with three churches and medieval settlements up there too.  

This “blink and you’ll miss it’ dot on the map also gets to crow about some seriously good eateries and a bar, run by Mac and his (only now, after 10 years) fiancé.  The bar is very popular in winter with the locals, not least because the “European directive against smoking in public places” mysteriously doesn’t apply within its walls. We didn’t much care about the smoking, the wood burner was blazing, the chat and the wine were good, as were the tapas and the Nachos Picante.  

As I gave the dog a walk later, I was sure I saw climbing bolts on various parts of the rock wall, glinting in the street lighting…

Day 20, 23rd Jan – To rock or not…

I did! I did!  I did see climbing bolts!  

Then I saw the UK Climbing logs for the area (tons of baby-easy stuff for me which is incredibly rare in a country that counts bolts in the rock as being there for wimps).  

Then I looked out of the window to see pine trees bent almost horizontal in the prevailing gale, sweeping its way through the valley.  

Oh well.

So, we walked down to the lake, which is very beautiful, sat by the roadside to have our picnic, and walked back.  M stopped to take a lovely picture, it’s very good, really captures the sense of the area. He achieved this with the use of his expensive variofoculs.  Just as he was thinking that he should be careful not to loose those essential glasses the wind whipped them away.

Up, up, up they went.  Over the Dam wall, down the other side, lodged somewhere on the scrub cliffs of the reservoir.  I saw roughly where they went.  Then I noted how impossible it would be to reach them, even if I did want to risk life and limb in the attempt.

It put a damper of the day.  He still managed to see the climbers on the various outcrops of rock though, we observed which climbing areas were protected from gusts.  Which was great, because for tomorrow, we know where to go now! M can’t wait…!

The nearest town with a cinema is L’Alfas del Pi. We’d done a death-defying drive down 270 degree road bends to get there in time to eat before the 7:15 showing of “Vice”, which M has really wanted to see all week.  The cinema owner was very accommodating.  He took us to the notice on his door that showed us that films are played in English on a Thursday, Sunday and Monday.  Today, of course, is Wednesday.

All was not lost, however.  We’d read the trip advisor reviews of the “Deja View” café.  Once inside we discovered the owner had a broad Geordie accent, and was serving braised steak with mash and veg.  

Ordinarily, you understand, we wouldn’t countenance eating English food in an English bar, in Spain.  But we were sat down by the time we realized.  And the upside of being there (apart from the very tender braised beef in onions) was the local knowledge that there were two opticians, one in Benidorm, the other in Calp where we could get M an eye test and replacement specs.  

There was also an interesting contrast between Guadaleste and L’Alfas.  Mac, of Irish descent, has absolutely ‘gone native’. His English accent is barely recognizable from the bullet-fire Spanish that he shares with the locals.  His fiancé is a local girl; he is enmeshed, ensconced in Spain and it’s difficult to see him going back to the UK.  

Trish, however, from the ‘Déjà vu’ has been in Spain 16 years, run a bar and then a thriving restaurant here, lives in a caravan in her son’s garden and decided long ago that the Spanish language wasn’t for her.  She left because of immigration into Newcastle (today running at <1% of the population), she’s considering returning for the grandkids and her Italian husband’s access to British health care.

Mac’s bar was full of Spanish, Trish’s café serves anyone but.  Two different ways of being in one part of the world…

Tomorrow I’ll start back on my ‘Learn Spanish with Paul Noble’ audio book and get better at communicating with the locals.

Day 21, 24th Jan – Demons (not to be read at mealtimes…)

We all have them: some big, small, noisy, quiet.  But I’m yet to meet anyone/thing that doesn’t have a weakness.

Stan’s weakness (sorry, but this is actually really relevant if you’re camper-vanning in Europe with a Labrador), is human poo.

“Why?” You understandably wonder, am I talking about such a revolting subject?  Because sadly, it’s become horribly relevant.

Take last night’s stop, Guadalest.  This tiny tourist spot has three car parks.  The nearest to the centre of town is for locals only and houses the very well kept public loos.  The next-closest is also only for locals and is across the road from the WCs.  The third car parking opportunity is down a steep hill, on two levels and contains public bins, circular skid marks where the locals have shaved off layers of tyre rubber and gives access to one set of climbing routes that rise out of the bushes.  It does not contain a public loo.

“Seriously, you’re complaining about walking up hill to get to the loo?”

Nope. Not at all.  I’m commenting on the effects of all the other people who don’t walk up the hill to find the loo.  Instead they’ve nestled in said bushes, and left deposits sometimes covered with leaves, often not covered at all, for unsuspecting human feet and eagerly searching Labrador noses to find.

It’s not nice!  And Stan is super sneaky.  He’ll pick up his ball, ask you to throw it a couple of times and on maybe the third or fourth go (never the first or second, he’s far too canny for that) he’ll go to retrieve the ball but not come back.  Just as I turn my head to say “Yes, a cuppa sounds like a great idea”  or “Hang on, I think it’s in the front cab”  the little sod disappears, through a break in the car park wall, onto a sure thing.  

The clue to what he’s found is when he comes back licking his chops, in the way that you would if you’d just eaten a large mouthful of peanut butter.  His breath is unbearable and he’s then confined and leashed outdoors for a period of time.  Thankfully, we have a green-tea additive for his water that helps keep his teeth clean and eventually helps clean him up.  

The dog is now on the lead for ALL walks and only when we’re on a beach and are absolutely certain that he’s not going to make a discovery do we let him run free. 

It’s not his only demon, Stan’s, I mean, but it is a particularly stomach-churning one and I’ve never encountered quite so much human “debris” as here in Spain. So… if you’re climbing/walking/hiking/or own a Labrador…

My demon’s came out unbidden this morning.

The weather started out very cold and windy.  Then for a brief spell, the wind pushed aside the clouds meaning that although it was still blowy, and below 100C, it really seemed worth picking our careful way through the undergrowth to do some of the shorter climbing routes nearby.

They were a gift.  Bolts in the rock (that you attach carabineers and your rope to as you ascend) were less sparsely placed than often in Spain, the hand and foot holds were abundant; sharp and unforgiving on soft skin, but plentiful none-the-less.  

First clip (8’ off the ground) was fine.  Second clip (another 6 feet away), similarly good.  Moving beyond this, I’m 18 or so feet off the ground, but I’m on secure foot placements and I can see where the next hand holds might be.  The third bolt is another 3’ beyond my reach, but no matter.  

The wind picks up.  Clouds have already covered the sunny patches and the area is dark and cool.  The air temperature drops and with it goes my confidence.  I reach up, find places from which to move , clip and secure my rope, but I’m unsettled.  

The fourth clip is further apart from the rest.  The handholds are less generous and as my fingers quickly tap the rock’s surface, hunting for a place from which to make the next push upwards, a particularly strong gust pushes me sideways.  I hold on, fingers and feet secure, but it’s not a good feeling. The rock itself is cold.  The frigid stone pulls the strength from my fingers that seem cloggy and slow to respond to commands.  More to the point, I no longer trust them.  

Finally, I find one handhold that suffices and a second that’s shallow, spiky and puts me out of balance.  The wind pushes at my frame again, fingers feel like they’re going to peel off of their own volition… and I’m done.

Not happening.

A route that ordinarily I would have cruised as a warm up, and I’ve backed off it. I’m on the ground feeling shamed and foolish.  Stupid for trying in these conditions.  More stupid for not just pushing through and finishing the route.  My demons are mocking and taunting me.  M’s relieved, he had quickly started to get really cold and isn’t used to me being so reticent.  If I ever back off something he’s normally only encouraging, this time he just got me down as quickly as he could.

Not sure if common sense or my demons won this morning.  I need to get back on rock and try again.  The route today should have been a breeze, instead, I’ve been undone by one.

This afternoon we parked up at the most stunning camper spot we’ve ever visited (and there have been a few beauties), just North East of Altea.  It’s on Park4Night and is near a grand villa, right by the beach.  From here its 20 minutes, South and inland to L’Alfas del Pi where Vice, as promised, is showing in English.

I won’t give anything about the film away – Christian Bale deserves his plaudits for the role and all supporting actors are just as convincing.  If ever you wanted to see demons in action, then see this movie and follow its reflections for modern politics in the US and beyond.  

Tomorrow, hopefully, we’ll get M an eye test and eventually a new pair of specs, then we catch up with the local residents of Benisa.  Hopefully a less troubled day.

Waking up at Altea, we had another bout of ‘Camper-Smugness’.  

Ours was the only home-made van in the car park of maybe 10 vehicles set up overnight. Which meant that, because M had taken the trouble to reverse in to our slot, late after the flicks yesterday, we could open the back doors and have our own private window on a delicately hued sunrise reflecting onto turquoise seas, framed by lush new growth on the pine trees. 

While M slurped tea and slowly came back to consciousness, I walked Stan down to the beach and turned left.  We had to be in Calp (pronounced Calpey for those who don’t know – I didn’t) for 12:45 for M’s eye test to get new specs.  So, I was looking for a potential back road route that I could run from our spot. It looked like I could start on the coast and then move inland for a bit, before moving back out to the sea shore once more.  Should be gorgeous.

A little housekeeping later and I confidently jogged off into the distance. M was following the dual carriageway and then going to find somewhere to park up and wait for me.  I shouldn’t be far behind him.  The first route Google offered said it would be 7 miles, the second offering gave the mileage at 4 miles.  4 was a bit short, but better than 7, so I dropped the destination in Google maps and the opened up Sports tracker.  The former would tell me where to go and how far I had left, the latter how far I’d done and at what miniscule pace.  All good.

Ha!

Three annoying miles later, where I had twice run from the road down to the beach, looking pointlessly for a coastal route and then had to run back (up) to the road again and the dual carriageway was my only option.   I thought I’d just check the Map, in case…

Bummer – another 5 miles to go?  Really? 

I rang M, just to make sure I’d got the correct end point.  He sent me a new pin for where he was, some additional few hundred meters away from where I was heading.

Bummer again.  

It was now 11:30am and I was concerned that I’d be too late for M and risk him not getting to his appointment.  Google thinks it’s going to take me an hour and 24 minutes to walk it.  Obviously, I’m running, or trying to, but even so…

One of the things I admire about the Spanish is there absolute commitment to hills. They do loooooong ups, punctuated with short, sharp, interval-training-type-really?- ups, before they return to the looooong steep slopes.  They’re equally conscientious about coming down, there’s just as much ‘whooah’ pointing to the bottom of their not inconsiderable hummocks.  

It was after two more miles of these undulations when the path turned to rubble, which turned to a footpath through the bushes (oh-oh, watch out for the dark patches) and I, now at the mercy of a map-app, was running blind. 

Day 22, 25th Jan – Nearly lost, newly found

  To my consolation, the postie on his yellow ‘Correos’ moped appeared round the corner of my foot trail.  At least one other human being must know about the route, perhaps I wasn’t completely lost.  

Hurrah! Tarmac!  Civilization!

And eventually, down a side street, was the camper.  Keys were where we’d arranged for them to be and I had, ooh, maybe an hour for the most leisurely shower of the trip.  Not lost, not longer sweaty, and getting ready to meet up with Gary and Lesley in a couple of hours time.

Have you ever known someone, a little, for a long time?  Circumstances mean that you don’t have the conversations you might like.  You get the sense of a person, but not the opportunity to properly connect.

I’ve known Gary, a bit, for 24 years and Lesley less well, for 23 of those.   

It was Gary, in January 1995, who arranged for M and I to meet.  He’d sold M to me on the basis of him being a copper, but not like a normal copper, he was a really nice bloke.  I’ve never known the details on which I was marketed.  It was Gary, who on my visit up North, met me and V from the station and extolled M’s virtues all the way home.  And three weeks later, it was M who accompanied Gary on an evening at the local club, where he met Lesley who was on a work’s night out and not on the market for a bloke at all.  

Our paths have crossed occasionally but through no fault of either side, we’ve never really had a ‘get to know you’ chat.   Today put that right.

And, it has been lovely.

Gary’s unchanged.  Funny, daft, warm, inviting, glad to have us there.  

Lesley’s a little more shy to start with, makes a lot of effort to ask questions, find out things.  

We met up in the town of Jalon (which has a car park where, for €3 you can exchange grey/black water for drinking H20, or for €5 you can also stay the night). Our group of 4 chatted on, Lesley and I gave Stan a quick trip round the park before picking up a few provisions from the local supermarket.  Then we followed them back to theirs for the evening, where, despite being vegetarian, Lesley’s prepared a meat feast for supper.

The route was maybe 10 miles.  It moves inland, past the village of Pinos, a tiny collection of houses and cottages , and then through a lost valley to their home set in its own almond and olive groves.  They have a slice of heaven.

When I tell Lesley how lovely I think it is, she’s genuinely surprised and I seems, pleased.  They have had less enthusiastic visitors.  It’s easy to understand how the relative distance of the cottage from a town or village might appear isolated, but that’s not their experience. I remember reading about life in the Scottish Highlands; homes are separated by valleys and mountains, but because of this, the community ties are stronger.   Gary and Lesley have received more invitations and care and concern than any of us might expect from city dwelling.  And they clearly love it.

So, without being slushy or overly sentimental, I want to say ‘Hello’’ to a pair of kindred spirits, who love the great outdoors and want a simpler, soul-friendly lifestyle.  It’s been lovely to meet them properly at last, I feel like we’ve found ‘new’, ‘old friends’.

Day 23, 26th Jan – Throwing down the gauntlet

My heart flutters with hope, like wings of a fledgling bird on the edge of it’s nest.

I can see a vision.  It’s so clear, I can almost taste it, palpable enough to hear the rhythms of a new life and touch it’s fabric.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

There is something magical, gazing up through muted-green, olive tree foliage, to spy dawn’s pomegranate glow reflected on the shanks of Mount Bernia, It offers tranquility to early day musings, lets the mind wander slowly down dapple-shaded avenues toward wakefulness.

Our stress-free hosts invite us to sit on their balcony as we drink tea, coffee, share stories and let the day rouse us properly.  As the sun’s rays gain power we move down to the porch, chatting, laughing. It’s an easy start to Saturday. Mundanities (washing, emails, uploading) are taken care of with more tea and more quiet chuckles.  

M’s asking lots of questions, Gary and Lesley (G&L) are endlessly patient as we root through the details of their existence here and how it came to be. Decision trees, route maps, little challenges, big ones.  Things they would do again, or differently.  We are utterly enchanted with what we see here and try to remember that a sunny Spanish weekend in January is not a new kind of existence.

M throws down the gauntlet.

“I don’t want a new life to be something that I drive, that I source and find.”

Ok. 

I keep my eyes on the sand-coloured soil of the footpath and wait for whatever’s coming.

“You do it this time.  You find it.”

Ok.

OK!  

I suppress a grin and manage not to Whoop and Cheer.  Eek!  

M’s comment is fair enough. I wanted to do a camper, which meant he sourced the vehicle, the parts, built the internals, did the plumbing, most of the electricals. Did it all, in short, except the soft furnishings. And that’s the same for much of how life runs: I have the blue sky ideas, M makes them happen. Fair do’s; it’s my turn.

We get back to base and I report the conversation to Lesley.  She raises her eyebrows, beams, and pulls out her IPad. We set to, looking at estate agents’ offerings online.  

There’s not much in: (a) our price range, (b) preferred locations or (c) the size/type of property that we’d be interested in.  It’s not going to be an instant find, but that’s a good thing. Tempering the keenness is a good thing.

The plan for the evening is to celebrate the birthday of builder Kevin (a friend of G&L) down in a local town with his wife Sally, and another couple.  

It’s a great Chinese restaurant that has pre-prepared dishes but also cook a range of fresh fish, poultry, red meat to order. There’s lots of laughter and funny exchanges. M and I get to ask more questions. Kev and Sally have been here for just less than 5 years, Tina and Darren about 10 months.  They’ve all found work, faced challenges, struggled with the heat in August.  

We ask, what for us is the key question: Was moving here the right decision?  The answer is unanimous and unequivocal: Yes.

Kev, a DJ at heart was up for hitting downtown Bernissa, drinking and dancing. To my immense relief, no-one else had the energy.  I drift in and out of sleep on the back seat during the 45 minute drive home.  It was immensely kind of Gary and Lesley to include us with their friends.  Generosity has been the by-word of our visit.

Stan is having a brilliant time.  He’s trying to make friends with G&L’s dogs, they’re less keen.  But he’s getting spoilt rotten by G&L.  He has been awarded free access to all of their dog toys and has been given a sleeping bag to supplement the rugs, dog’s bed and other spots that he can choose to lie down.  As the day warms up he moves in and out of the sun’s glare, a rotating set of toys in his mouth and a slow wag of contentment in his tail.

Day 24, 27th Jan – Easy like Sunday Morning…

Well, easy like everything really, with G&L, they do unhurried cheer to an Olympic standard and then when it’s time to kick into action, then “Boing!” they’re up and ready.

So we went from:

“Oh yeah, look at the time…” to “Right then, I’ll turn the car round and we’ll be off!”

Which we did, because this was the ‘look, see” day.  Three hours of sight-seeing-with-a-purpose followed by a late lunch at the locally famous ‘Maria’s’ restaurant in the village.  

Up hill, and down olive and almond-blossom sprinkled dale.  Weaving around the faces of the mountain in ever-tighter hairpin turns. I gaze through the car windows, wondering at the terraces, neat, maintained, industrious, for mile after mile.  

There’s a small cassitta (cottage) in Pinos village, you can almost see it from G&L’s terrace.  It’s rented now but they’re looking to sell.  Comes with different options in terms of land available.  Beguiling, authentic, terracotta-tiled with an open fire. A homestead of whitewashed loveliness.

We move on. “Se Vende” appears form time to time. But more importantly, we get the feel for this corner of the world that our hosts love dearly.  They are evangelical, proud, and still bewitched. It’s not hard to see why.

At Maria’s Restaurant, we’re served by a weary but charming son of Maria, who corrects (instead of wincing at) my Spanish, followed up by Gary who explains my error.  We chomp and chatter as fellow Brits turn up to say hello.  

Chris and Chrissy, who first dated as teenagers and then thirty plus years later finally rediscovered each other and have been inseparable since.  

Gareth (renting “my” cassita in the village) who’s been to the medieval market that we didn’t make, there being too much catching up with G&L to do.  Gareth smiles warmly and says that he’ll happily help up house-hunt in the next town down the mountain, he loves his current location.  

On our way out after an endless set of tasty delights, we’re called in by Jo, another Pinos resident and part time journalist for the local Bendorm Paper. She insists that we meet her dogs and see the new sofa.  

For each conversation of: ”How long?  Why? and Was this the right decision?” we learn not only of personal histories but what made a move successful, and the reasons for that fearless leap.  Each person we quiz states firmly and cheerfully that this was the best thing they’ve ever done.

There was a lot of wobble juice.  I turned out to be the only person drinking red wine until Gareth came along and he felt bad about drinking mine, so insisted I help him finish off his additional bottle.  Bottles of white and rose came to the table along with beer.  Then Jo had wine, which was supplemented by further supplies.  

So, it was a woozy pair of Wilsons that unsteadily wobbled their way to the van last night.  

Brain-full, I stood and looked up at the velvet night, pinpricked with shards of brilliance.  I wonder, I wonder…

V is coming to join us on Saturday.  She’s flying into Malaga, which gives us five easy days of travelling to cover the 400+ miles between here and there.  We don’t want to leave Pinos and G&L; we don’t want to rush along the distance between here and Malaga.

So it’s with lots of repeated hugs that we make our farewells.  Stan will miss Daisy and Holly’s company as much as we will miss their owners. We get an open invitation to come back their way when finally homeward bound.  It’s very tempting.

We stop off at Calp to pick up M’s specs.  They’re not ready on time, so we discover a lake and put the kettle on.  We give Stan a wander and find that the lake is home to lots and lots of flamingos.  Pale pink in body with darker wing tips and then deep blue ends to their beaks.  They wade, mostly heads down, lost in the lake, sifting for lunch.  

Today’s discovery was the collective noun for flamingos.  There are several to choose from (a stand, a colony, a regiment) but my favourite is ‘A Flamboyance’ because, set against the distant mountain tops and the huge rock of Calp dominating the skyline, nothing but such flamboyant beauties could compete.  We stand gawping until we realize that we haven’t seen Stan in a while and we’re in shady, bush territory – there’s a tell-tell tale trail of loo paper.  

“Stan, Stan, where are you?”  He languorously trots toward us, we anxiously check his facial movements – is he licking his lips?  I think not, but am too chicken to lean down and take a sniff.

M is the passenger today, I want him to have the chance to see sparkling views of sun and sea as we head out of the Jalon Valley and back towards Costa Blanca, Alicante and then Cartagena.  On our right are drier sierras, they’re dustier mountain realms than we’ve been used to. To our left, ‘urbanizations’ (purpose-built satellite housing estates) merge to form an endless vista of homogenous roof tiles.  

After the sense of space and tranquility of the last few days, I feel overwhelmed by the crushing populace of the cities that we pass in the van.  People are everywhere…

Day 25, 28th Jan – Farewells and a flamboyance of flamingos

Two warm driving hours (230C today), and M finds another example of Park4Night brilliance.  A small town called Pilar de la Horadada boasts an unspoilt beach.  This conurbation seamlessly blends into the towns North and South of it.  But there’s a parking area that’s free, where the police don’t apparently try to move campers on.  

We choose our spot and start getting sorted.  A voice calls from outside.  M and I pop our heads round the open side door to see a very fit British guy on his pedal bike.

“I’ve been following you round for days,” he says.  “You were at Calp, Altea” and he rattles off other places we’ve stopped at.

We smile, unsure if this is a good thing.

“And I’ve been following you on Overnight Camping.”  

“Oh, ok” I resist the temptation to ask: is that alright?

“Oh well, at least you know who we are now!”  I cheerfully respond and there are a few more exchanges between us.  He’s parked up further down the coast.  A regular campervanner on the Spanish Riviera he reports how much busier it’s become in recent seasons.

“There are campers everywhere now, where there used to be just two or three.”

“Yes” I commiserate and recount our experience of tailing long lines of motorhomes around Scotland.

Then he takes a slug from his water bottle and is gone, leaving us to get food ready.  

Supper done, M walks Stan.  Pilar appears to be a purpose-built holiday town, full of uniform dwellings.  All but six seem empty, the town is uninhabited, dormant; like sleeping beauty waiting for her visitors’ kisses before she can wake up for the summer.  

Which is great for us, it’s quiet and nothing interrupts the sound of waves crashing against the pink and gold limestone rocks, except for the occasional call of a sea bird or Stan snuffling in his dreams. 

Day 26, 29th Jan – Idle conversations; idling batteries

We woke to the sound of waves crashing against the rocks and Stan whimpering to go out.  

It’s M’s turn. 

I lie there, immobile, wondering if I’ll be permanently disabled or if, in fact, the use of my limbs will return. Instead, M returns and offers me tea and biscuits in bed.  

This has a remarkable effect on my paralysis.  I am suddenly able to sit up, rearrange my pillows and stretch out my arm to receive nourishment.  Modern miracles…!

Yesterday, when M had suggested going to the supermarket for bread, eggs, potatoes, more biscuits, I had shot down the idea.  After a long day, I couldn’t face retail.  Which meant that this morning, we literally had three Gallette biscuits between us and nothing else that would substitute for the first meal of the day.  

Giving M some space for his ablutions, I wandered along the beach and saw a cafe, open, people sitting outside and at least one black-clad waitress busily weaving her way between tables.  Hurrah – breakfast!

Twenty minutes later and we leap to the only free table at this oasis of food, me, M and Stan.  The adjacent customers also have a dog, a chihuahua who is utterly resistant to Stan’s charms.  Nothing doing.  No matter the wags, sniffs and licks offered by our puppy, theirs isn’t playing ball; six inches off the ground and it is ferocious.  Which is ok, it offers a conversation point and I pull Stan back to a position of safety.

Anya and Francis are regulars in Spain, this is their first ‘long’ trip (a month) in a campervan, but they look like they were born to do nothing else.  Over our cafes-con-leche and toasties, we exchange stories, favourite sites, long-term ambitions.  The conversation lasts an hour or so, it’s good-natured, easy going, happy and idle chit chat.  

They’ve just come from an area that I’d hoped to visit before we’d detoured back to the coast: Sierra Espuna.  So, after settling the bill, we wander back to the camper, set the co-ordinates and ready for off.

Before we fire up the engine, M checks the batteries, again.  M installed the solar power system, a fact of which I’m terrifically proud.  There are as many ways to do this, as there are instructional YouTube videos on the subject.  It took weeks of investigation, questioning of experts and seeking advice.  In the end, I came home one afternoon to find M, mobile phone in hand, monitoring by Bluetooth the performance of our very own, magical, solar powered system.

Since then, we’ve had a few hiccups.   The batteries seem to charge quickly either from solar power or the split power relay from the engine.  But at night, their charge dwindles alarmingly fast.  Is it the wiring, the inverter, the fridge or that our expectations are too high?  There’s been low-level anxiety all trip; are they ok (the batteries)?  Will they last?  Should we find different ones?

We don’t have answers, but we do have a destination.  And, we still don’t have groceries…

Driving off into a new unknown, the route takes us past various towns and cities, but avoids all retail opportunities or open cafes.  By 3pm, the toasties are wearing thin, we could do with more to eat. Our general view of the world is that you’re never more than 20 seconds away from a food opportunity.  In Spain, at Siesta time, the theory doesn’t hold true. I’m hungry, but kind-of pleased the Spanish haven’t relinquished their culture in favour of western slavery to retail opportunities.

Eventually, we find our way into the national park of Sierra de Espuna.  It’s stunning, not dissimilar to El Vall De Jalon; lush landscapes from which towering banks of rock fight their way up into the cobalt skies.  We wend our way upwards, the widths of roads decreasing in proportion to our altitude. Café after café is closed, looking like it will be many months until they open again.  

Eventually we happen upon the village of El Berro.  It boasts two (closed) panderia, one (closed) supermarket and two (closed) cafes.  Losing hope of eating more than raw onions and red cabbage for our supper, we finally spy an open café opposite a car park.  Parking and food in close proximity is a rare and wonderful combination, we’re truly grateful.

El Menu del Dia (meal of the day) is a generous offering: drink, salad, bread, starter, main, pudding and coffee for €10 each.  We can’t make it past the main course.  The lovely food is plentiful.  Our waiter takes my attempts at Spanish on face value and fires off incomprehensible menu choices.  Seeing my confusion, he quickly reverts to English and indulges my mispronunciation of his mother tongue.  An hour later, sated with food, we walk Stan up to explore a campsite that’s got great reviews.

We’ve eschewed campsites so far.  But M is bothered by the batteries and I’m bothered by his concern.  So, we find a slot in the clean and militarily managed site and I exercise Stan whilst M is face down in the bowels of the van, wiring, rewiring and wrestling with our power source.  

I return an hour later to find him deep in thought.  He’s problem solved, researched, contacted the suppliers (who are keen to both baffle and avoid any liability that might make them uphold their 1-year guarantee). M’s worked out what to do whilst we take advantage of the electric hook up that’s included in the undefined price of staying here.  

We settle and get ready for bed.  One battery appears well and chirpy; the other is unwell and unhappy at taking charge. We’ll leave the poorly battery on hook-up and see what power it’ll absorb overnight.  I’m hoping M will sleep…

The battery’s not happy.  M’s not happy.  Stan wants a walk, so he’s not super-chirpy either.  

Well, the only issue I can have any influence over is the dog.  I leave M on his tummy once more, feet sticking out of the van, up to his elbows in wiring.  I think I hear him utter a tight “Okay” as I leave, but I’m not sure. He’s fully engaged in (a) not electrocuting himself, (b) not buggering up the sad battery or (c) damaging the healthier one. 

Stan and I explore what I think is the back end of another footpath.  

Day 27, 30th Jan – Filling station for the soul

I love the European way of organizing country walks. In the UK you get a map and find your way by carefully trying to discern between one large copse of trees on the horizon or that smaller one, whilst holding your compass onto a wind-torn paper map that wants only to escape your frozen-fingered grasp.  What fun?

None of that nonsense in France, Spain or Italy.  The maps are horrendous if you want detail, but that’s because the paths are signposted (with actual signposts) and have markers all the way round.  A colour coding system tells you if youre on the correct route, a painted cross in that route’s colours indicates if you’ve gone the wrong way and then arrows on trees/rocks show where the route changes direction just to clear up any confusion.  

It’s simple, effective and much, much more reassuring than finding yourself knee-deep in semi-frozen bog that (according to your OS map) is 300 yards to the left of- the one into which you’re presently sinking.

So, when the puppy and I get back to find M listening to the radio, putting away all his electrical gubbins and generally smiling, I’m delighted.  Brill!  We make a flask of tea (just because it’s 22 degrees and sunny, that’s no reason not to have tea) I put together sandwiches and we set off for the walk that I’d given up of having time to do.

The footpath signs take us almost immediately into pine forest.  We climb steeply up rocky slopes that might double for riverbed when it rains.  The light differs here to that in deciduous woods.  At home, the wafting leaves give intense patches pure gold on the dark earth below the canopy.  In winter it’s only the skeletons of branches and tree trunks that break up weak yellow daylight.  More of the sun’s rays settle their way down to the leaf-mulch carpet underfoot and birds flit in plain sight.

The pine forests that wrap themselves around us here have no canopy as such. We walk through foliage clearings but from little more than head-height the branches intertwine so that the sunshine is diffused, gentler, filtered by many feet of finely meshed pine needles. The air is full of their scent, warmth caresses my cheek.  I can hear but have no chance of spying the fauna that invisibly shake branches around me.

The air is full of their scent, warmth caresses my cheek.  I can hear but have no chance of spying the fauna that invisibly shake branches around me.

Breathing hard from climbing 500m in one long swoop of the mountainside, we can finally raise our eyes from the rumbly terrain to look at the majestic craggy spires, bidding for freedom from their tree-clad roots.  I cannot talk.  My vocabulary is utterly inadequate for capturing the verdant green set against grey and rust towering rock, set against the crisp cloud-free heavens.  I can only drink in this loveliness, try to sate my thirst for such wonder.  Perhaps if I gaze intently enough I can greedily keep this soul-food within me, be nourished by it when we must eventually return home.  

In this singular space, this moment before the second hand moves onward, I am enchanted. My heart may never have been so full. I look across at M who’s similarly still.  Even Stan pauses, raises his snout to test the air and offers a languid wave of his tail. 

Gratitude, blessings, fortune has favoured us, does that mean we’re bold?

Day 28-29, 31st Jan-Feb 1st – Parking

Wednesday 31stJan

Second night done at the campsite, we’ve got 300 miles to Malaga Airport for V on Saturday.  In this van, that’s at least 6 hours driving.  Gotta move on.  

I went to pay.  When we parked up, I’d asked M about the prices, he wasn’t sure, the manager had been a bit vague.  There was an allusion to €7 a night, so we weren’t expecting it to cost too much.

If you rocked up to a Premier Inn, in the middle of gorgeous nowhere, for a room-only rate with amazing mountainous views, a reasonable restaurant and shared but beautifully clean bathroom facilities and they said, €18 a night for a double room, you’d probably shrug shoulders and get your wallet out.

But… 

Say to a camper-vanner who wild camps for Nada Euros, in perfect privacy (albeit without the luxury of a ceramic loo) that they have to pay THIRTY SIX EUROS for two nights stay and you’ll see the tears in their eyes as they try to stop coughing in distress.  

That’s probably why the manager didn’t tell us the price (which, let’s face it, is peanuts) – he’ll have known that all but most dependent of caravans would probably have driven on.  And we benefitted from the electric hook up, M got the batteries sorted (yes, sorted!) and the fridge got a steady 110 volts for a change.  I got three hot showers where I didn’t have to dry out the shower curtains or the shower tray before we trundled off… don’t be so tight… 

The AP7 took us from Sierra Espuna, to Murcia, and cross-country to Granada.  We wound our way through four different Sierra regions, the van chugging like a lazy salmon, swimming upstream in a wide dark river. 

Rounding the foothills, a sky-high bowl of rock peaks looms to our left, seemingly marshalling the storms, like a food-processor on a slow whisk, turning white, black, purple nebula over and over on themselves until they doubled in volume.  Like milk in a saucepan that unexpectedly reaches boiling point, the clouds suddenly frothed over the mountain edges, tumbling down steep edges, deluging everything in their path.  Including us. Suddenly we were in a waterfall of precipitation, deep cloud, grey obscurity.  Windscreen wipers ineffectual at clearance, we slowly crawled our way through the inclemency.  

I peered into the distance; sharp spikes of sunlight punctured the cloud to let the rainwater through.  Otherwise, the world was now dullness, obscured magnificence around us, cowering us to the tarmac.  Like a dogged snail we travelled, leaving tyre-track trails behind us in the rain. 

 Eventually, we descended to Granada.  It might have been magnificent, we were just glad to discern the 20 feet in front.  M tussled the van through grumpy rush hour drivers to a Park4Night spot on a hill. Supposedly, this was above the Alhambra. There was no way of knowing.

Thursday 1st Feb

It rained all afternoon, all-evening, when I stirred in the night, I heard the rain. So this morning…  yup.

Stan whimpers and it takes me 20 minutes to unearth waterproofs, boots, warm clothes. Finally ready, I open the door and step out, expecting Stan to do his normal of shooting past me into the outdoors. 

No Dog

Have you ever seen a Labrador wearing a look of utter horror?  He looked at me, glanced at the rain, then tried to lie back down in a tightly curled ball in the corner of his bed.  He hid his head, like Winnie the Pooh, if he couldn’t see me… The coward was miserably resisting leaving the comfort of his warm and snuggly pit. 

“Tough do-dah, Stan, I’m dressed now, you are definitely coming”

After very firm ‘persuasion’, dog and human stride through the drizzle.  We’re beside the city walls, 4 feet thick of stone in broken places.  Exploring through brick-built archway and in the distance, nestled in the valley, is the up-lit Alhambra.  Magnificent, enormous, enticing.

We all have bucket lists, and The Alhambra has long been on mine.  

I’m like an excited child by the time we’re at the 2pm slot for the palace.  It doesn’t disappoint.  Here is a world created by older, wiser civilisations: Moors, Muslims.  The city is festooned with water hydraulics, fountains, pools, gushing gullies to rival the Romans’ work, on whose remains the Alhambra rests.  This magnificent city laces its way through more than twenty centuries of European history.  I walk open mouthed, ear hooked into the €6 audio book that tells me of it’s past.  

I won’t wax lyrical, save to say that if you have chance to visit these gardens and palaces, gawping to the sound of bubbling waterways and lark-shy birdsong, then go.  It is worth it.

We’re now at the second site for the evening.  The first, was a gloomy and glowering sea-side spot.  It boasted public loos, apparently now employed for much more than their original intent.  I don’t know what you use a teaspoon for, but I tend to stir my hot drinks with mine.  I’m not often seen boiling up substances in one, like the poor scrap of a human being, down by the underpass was doing tonight.

Our second place sacrifices WCs for a tranquility.  It’s a flattish car park, largely populated with other campers, considerably more peaceful.  We’ll rest here before wandering over to get V tomorrow.  As I finish this latest epistle, the wind has picked up again and I can hear the familiar sound of rain battering the side of the van.  Hey-ho – It is still winter.

Saturday Feb 2nd

V’s coming…. 

To fill in the morning M got himself scrubbed and dressed whilst I ran along the coast, finding signposted footpaths that took me on the seaward side of cliffs (no bolts for climbing, I checked, just in case).  Sorted and ready, an hour or so later, we trundled into Malaga, to pick up a car which which to travel more easily (there are no seatbelts in the back of the van).

Malaga airport facilities resemble all other airport facilities:  busy, designed to optimize parking charges and facilitate the through-flow of bodies.  But most of all: busy.  I abandoned M, leaving him floating round with all the other cars that didn’t want to get trapped in the financially lucrative parking buildings. I went in search of the Arrivals hall.

Standing in the corral alongside more patient ‘waiters’, I peer intently at and through the glass doors from whence other travellers emerge.

Where is My daughter?

In front of me, directly in my line of sight, blocking my view of that glass portal; obstructing the first possible indication of V, a woman leans on the railings. Her position obscures the view for several of us.  Doesn’t she know? Can’t she move?  My daughter is due to come through any moment.  I might have to wait…seconds… before I see her.  Finally, a guy wanders towards her and she gives him and tentative hug, then she’s gone.  Great…

A smart young woman, (in her late twenties?) comes through to meet an older couple, a greying Brit and a small woman whose thick makeup and long, black-dyed hair, make her ethnicity indiscernible.  Slightly anxious as this new arrival sees her audience, she increases her pace to almost a trot, hurrying in their direction.  Reaching them, she turned first toward the mature woman.  The greeting female held the girl’s arms, preventing her leaning forwards to kiss her cheek, trapping her in an awkward position of neither warm reception, nor whole rejection.

Somewhat flustered, a pink flush spreads across cheeks and neck, the young woman turns to the man.  He carefully manages to put his arms around her and simultaneously hold her apart. The girl holds his arm-tops firmly and rests her chin on his shoulder for a moment before the embrace is broken.  My mind fills in the blanks.  I hope the disapproving stepmother will warm up over the visit and that her father might make time to have proper chats and close embraces during her stay. 

Next, a man in his forties, with a huge trolley full of luggage comes into the arrivals arena and, without exiting that confined arena, stands at it’s centre, looking all around him.  Shortly after, a similarly laden female joins him.  They occupy the majority of the available space, looking aimlessly from left to right and shrugging.  

Day 30-31, Feb 2nd-3rd – The possessive noun

My compassion is running thin.  Do they not know?  My daughter is due to come through.  I might have to wait… even more seconds… if they stand there gawping.  FINALLY, they move off too.  Right…  back to peering.

And I realize that none of them appreciate the weight of my possessive noun.  MY daughter is coming through.  MY light of my life, child of Mine.  I know she’s a grown up; she’s accomplished; far more widely travelled than I; independent; autonomous; frankly awe-inspiring in many ways; but she’s My daughter (other things to other people, but I’m her mother) and I want to know she’s safe.  Woe betide thoughtless passengers who stand in my way when I need to see her, collect her, know her safety.

And there she is.  Home, well, with me, which amounts to the same thing.  I can hug her, stand back so to take a good look, assess what might be needed.  She’s here. Possessive noun placated.

Sunday Feb 3rd

We’re running this morning, V and I.  M, ever the proficient and practical does the washing, which is very kind.  He’s planning to take advantage of the WiFi and wait the 45-60 minutes our route should take.  

During the miles we do, V plugs into something that makes her smile, I’m working my way though “Learn to speak Spanish with Paul Noble” (now on chapter 12 of 37).  As we pound the boardwalks parallel to the shore, I’m silently chanting repeated phrases: “Por que no quiere habla espanol?” (Why don’t you want to speak Spanish?), and “Por que no puedo tomarlo a la estacion?” Why can’t I take it to the station?).

Back at V’s Airb’n’b, M is onto drying our things (for which I’m immensely grateful. I hadn’t expected him to assume this single handedly, we juggle things on the airer).   V takes advantage of our presence to attempt her first open water swim, ready for her ½ Iron Man Competition in Greece this Easter.  We follow her down to the beech, speaking words of encouragement, neither of us commenting on precisely how cold those blue depths are likely to be.  

As V plucks up the courage to run through the surf and into the waves, a small gathering of disbelieving locals stare in wonder at this strange English female.  V’s been taking lessons in preparation for her sea-swim in the competition.  We see the benefit of this in the few strokes she’s able to make before the temperatures render her limbs inoperable and she has to retreat.

We all get it now, the advice of: “you’ll need a wetsuit”.  No more attempts till she buys one!

The rest of the day involves exploring Marbella.  V had imagined some ancient, terracotta-bricked fishing village.  The reality lives down to M and I’s expectations.  But we stop for a drink, I get an ice cream and V asks to cook tea this evening.  Lovely. 

Back at the van, M and I give Stan a walk. The sun has nearly set, the sky looks like it’s been spread thickly with orange tango water colour paint, then brush stroked upwards to fill up to the top of the page.

Tomorrow – Malaga to shop and find that wetsuit, then… well, I’m not sure what… I have my two most important people with me, so not much else matters really.

Day 34, Feb 5th – La Cala de Mijas to Tarifa

Le Cala de Mijas has served us well.  At ‘our end’ of the town, the boardwalks stretch and pull their way through and across the dune conservation area, wick with birdsong, flowers of all colours and prickled thorn bushes sprouting between the dune grasses.  The houses at this end are more local, less urbanization, sleepy in a ‘keep your coat and sunnies on’ while you drink your café con leche, watching the morning slip away.  

We’ve had three days in a car park by the sea, close to ‘amenities’ in which to wait for V to slowly recuperate from her London routines of ‘5am triathlon training sessions, followed by 14 hour days, and an hour’s commute before she eats.  Many of the planned activities have been abandoned in favour of watching the colour come back to her cheeks and the sparkle (that never actually goes) take less of an effort to appear.

Time to wander down the coast though and see what we can sea.  The aim, by the end of the week is to do a mini triathlon so V gets the experience of running out of water in a soggy wetsuit, ripping that off and climbing on a bike, before staggering of that and jogging up hill with her mother.  Surprisingly, the day on which we plan to do this keeps moving backwards!

We’ve had a right-old-chew finding somewhere else for V to stay.  The offer either to use an airbed in the space between the camper sofas or to have a sleeping bag beside us, received the briefest of of horrified glances.  The idea was then summarily dismissed.   The range of accommodation has been more expensive and less attractive here than we hoped, so we’ve looked further afield.  Eventually, with the help of an old-fashioned map-book and Google Satellites, we found somewhere reasonably rural but with things to do, further down the coast. Far enough, in fact to take us past Gibraltar, to the very tip of the Spanish mainland, to Tarifa.

A stop-off point for lunch sees us at a tiny port you’d never find by accident – we had a recommendation from a friend, Puerto de la Duquesa.  It’s Castille, is a proud, burnt-sandstone sentinel, central to the village, and set in lush lawns, surrounded by seafood restaurants to the left, and the beach on the right.  We opt for a beach picnic, English Style; M gets the table and chairs, V and I take down food, plates and cutlery. We forgot the napkins…

Stan is in his element, wandering around, picking up plastic bottles discarded at the edges, trotting into the shallow waves and then coming back to us in case there are crumbs or tidbits.  

He keeps returning to one spot at the corner of the beach.

There is a big, black, open-mouthed pipe pouring onto the sand’s edge…

 

Me: “Where’s the dog?”

M: “Over there… Stan, Stan”

V: “What’s he eating?”

Me: “Oh, no…”

M: “Stan! Come here, Now!”

V: “Oh God…”

M: “Stan!” Stan takes his time, then wanders back, licking his lips, making wide, happy sweeps of his tail – a canine equivalent of the cat that got the…

Me: “What’s he been eating?”  

I’m incredibly brave, I lean down and sniff.

“Oh No…”

There’s a chorus of “Urgh” as we leap to our feet as if to run away from him.

V: “That dog is DISGUSTING”

We pack up lunch and get off the beach, the dog is tied up in the van.  M wants to get out of the bright Spanish sun, so V and I wander off for coffee at one of the cafes.  Stan gets a bowl of water liberally laced with the green tea mixture – revolting animal – oblivious to his disgrace he’s still sweeping round his mouth with satisfied wipes of his tongue.  

Eugh.

When we set off again to Tarifa, V opts to change vehicles and comes in with me. Conversation hovers around a number of topics before resting on my blog – and it’s name – Dare2Say.  

When I started writing and blogging, ‘Dare2Say’ felt very appropriate.  You try writing down your innermost thoughts and then sending them out into the void for the world to admonish, snicker at, or ignore.  Daring in its truest form.  

We hunt together for adjectives so that V can explain in detail why the name is just – well – wrong.  As it turns out, I’m probably the only person who ever really liked it.  So, we play with ideas, V looks up the most popular travel blog titles (the worst being “Blonde in a van”) and we laugh at different sounds. Manchego Trails, Olive Wanders, Wonder Trails.  The possibilities are endless…

Tarifa looks like it’s doubling in size every time you glance out the window. There’s a lot of crane activity and concrete construction.  But if you turn your back to the mainland and follow white-gold sands out to where the cobalt sea is interrupted by vegitinous mountainsides that push up into the clear Mediterranean skies, then, it’s breathtakingly beautiful.  This is where we’ll be for a few days, for V to swim (there are at least 5 places to hire a wetsuit), she and I to run, and M to join us on hired bikes.  

There don’t appear to be any big black pipes leading out onto the sea and the land here is flat, limiting the opportunity for humans to give Stan an impromptu feast.  Even better. 

Day 35, Feb 6th – Beach Adventures

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. 

V appears at the camper this morning, grinning with a paper bag in hand.  It contains the wetsuit she’s hired in town. Very smart, not as thick as we’d imagined and, being designed for surfers, it doesn’t have the more flexible shoulder fabric to aid swimming.  But… it’s a wetsuit and she’s going to use it today.

A little time later, there we are, witnessing her first proper sea-swim – half a mile in one direction, then turn around and back the way she came.  In the pool she knows she can do this in 40 minutes and in the sea she’s aiming to come in well under an hour.  

From the dry sand, we can see that the goggles V’s wearing are causing issues. She does a set of strokes, then she’s faffing on around her face.  The distance makes it difficult to work out precisely what the problem is, but its clearly distracting from the easy strokes she makes between interruptions. 

Stan finds friends, a piece of seaweed and a long stick to keep him entertained.  M records the moment with a video and lots of pics. 

I can’t shake the memories of a nightmare I had when V was five.  

In the dream, we were on the pebbled Pevensey Bay beach; I was watching V play in the shallow surf.  Then my dream-self glanced away a second and when I looked back, she had completely disappeared.  I ran into the water and hunted, arms outstretched feeling the bottom of the sea-bed desperately hunting, trying to look through sea water as I went deeper and deeper…

 I woke up gasping for air from holding my breath underwater so long. In absolute panic I ran through to her room to find V, arms flung across her bed, lost in happier dreams of her own.

I’m not taking my eyes off her as she swims, I don’t care how old she is.

So we watch her, and eventually we trace our way back to the beginning and she’s running toward us, to the outstretched towel and hugs of congratulations.  48 minutes for a first go, we’ll sort out the goggles and try again tomorrow.  It takes 3 of us to get her out of the surfing wetsuit, not designed for a swift exit, and M kindly takes the spare stuff so that V and I can run.. well, jog, for a bit, before we meet M back at the van and go for coffee.

The rest of the day is easy-going.  Lunch at V’s, she and I wander out for more coffee, then a walk into town to find a place to eat.  

We’re hunting for local.  Taverna Grifa is stainless steel shuttering and bright-lit stone floors, crowded with Spanish (all men?) noisily finishing their day at 7pm.  V and I think this would be perfect.  M points out the sunset that we could be watching.  Old dynamics, step-family-tensions, threaten to resurface.  We all work at not going back there.  The debate of where to eat is at least, a lot less contentious than yesterday’s somewhat heated conversations around accommodation.  

M is adamant – we should go down to the beach.  V and I can’t find anything in the town, either beside the old castle, or nestled in it’s six-foot thick walls that is open yet, or inviting.  So just as the sky is starting to fill up with swathes of red, pink, gold and tango-orange, she and I relent.  Walking downhill and all three of us are struggling to see anything suitable.  

Ten minutes later, and finally, “Beach Bar Encuentro” offers us a seat in their tarpaulined conservatory.  

“See” points out M “African Sunset Skys…”  It’s impossible not to agree.  And then, V says, “That could be a good name for a blog.”

All tensions dissipate, over a bottle of wine and hamburgers that actually look like the pictures on the menu, we return again to the topic of my blog name.

Lots more laughter.  The themes include: adventure, not giving in to age, so being daring, but more than that, and there’s an hormone element…  We look at other blogs, admiring some of the clever plays on words and the ones we find less appealing “perimenopausal-woman”.

Then I play with the word Menopause – Meno –pause, paused.  And it strikes me…

Me-No-Pause 

– because I don’t want to. Not for age, not for fear, not for hormones or anything else.

Perfect. 

I follow V’s instructions, look it up on the domain checker and have purchased two years of the same all before taking the first bite of my goats cheese and walnut burger.  

So adventures of watery and wordy kinds on the beach today.  I grin to myself as I snuggle beneath the duvet, this evening. So wonderful, having V with M and I. Each time we navigate choppy family waters and come out unscathed I am washed over with relief.  Here we are, sharing the important stuff, big and small. Being blessed with the enormous luxury of time that we’ve taken/been granted and managing, despite a few ups and down, to be peaceful all at once.  

Day 38, Saturday 9th Feb – Tarifa part 2

The last few days have been a slow meander through swimming and running for V, suppers in Tarifa and general wanderings.  It turns out that there’s a limit to the number of ways you can make “and then we went for coffee” sound interesting…

V’s swimming is better.  On Thursday, she appeared, wetsuit in bag again, announcing that Adele’s song of “Rolling in the Deep’ is a cover of an Aretha Franklin song.  

“What?”

“Yes” she says, playing the vocals her phone  Wow – Adele’s cover is exactly the same as the original…

“It might be older you know” says M to V, “Older than Aretha”

“You think so?”  

Out comes Google and the two of them hunt for information on-line.  

“Wait a minute!” exclaims M…

He holds up his phone for the pair of us to examine.  

“No!”

Aretha Franklin has done the copy, an Exact copy of Adele’s song, beat for beat, tone for tone, the same song with just a different voice.  

I guess that’s how you know you’ve made it, when Aretha Franklin does a cover version of your material…

After which, V took to the water again, in strong surf.  She managed to body surf some of the 8’ rollers, but after the second wipeout she came back to shore.  Using Google Maps M sees that Tarifa has a large port and a sheltered harbour.

Relocating finds us a bay, beside a port for the large ships and ferries that move  in and out of Tarifa’s waters.  We choose a safe route, well away from motorized boats.  In the preferred zone, there are just a couple of snorkellers, pootling around in the seabeds, looking for long-lost treasures.  

It’s half a mile from where M and I sit, to the furthest shore of the bay and back again. So, she’ll need to do this twice to bag her mile.  The first lap is uneventful.  As she starts the second, a speedboat zooms out of the harbor, into the bay where V and the two snorkel pipes are making their peaceful ways around the shore. There appear to be two young men in the craft.  Distracted by something, both are heading for the same ‘safe corner’ we’ve identified for Vicks.  As the boat’s speed increases, the two inhabitants are engaged with something on the boat’s floor, their backs to the wheel and the direction in which the boat is hurtling, unmanaged.  

I stand helplessly on the harbor wall, watching V’s rhythm of: ‘3-strokes and breathe’, ‘3-stroke’s as the boat speeds onwards.  As I stand about to start shouting and waving, the man nearest the wheel looks up, still oblivious of the swimmers and casually turns their potential death trap in a wide loop out to sea and then back even at an faster pace heading inside the port walls, just for kicks.  

As the boat disappears, I can finally breathe.  All three swimmers are safe.  Now, I cannot afford only to keep my eyes pinned to V, I’m also anxiously glancing over at the harbor, scrutinizing for movements, just in case.  

Vicks is making good time.  Lap 1 was 18 minutes for the ½ mile, potentially knocking a whapping 12minutes of her previous speed if she can maintain this pace.  She’s slightly off course, as she heads to the further shore, arcing her way seaward toward that destination rather than going in a straight line.

Which is precisely when the thoughtless buggers in the boat appear again.  This time, I’m jumping up and down on the harbor wall, gesticulating madly as these buffoons behind the wheel speed with their super-sharp propellers toward my one and only daughter.  I’ve no idea if they see me.  One of the idiots does indeed look up and by this time I’m alternating between crazy waving and pointing to the sea where V and one of the snorkellers are very close.  The boat deviates in its course, does a crazy sharp turn sending waves of wake bashing against the harbor wall below me, but it goes, thankfully,  back into the port where it belongs.

I want to run and shout at them, punch them, but V’s now approaching the other side of the bay.  It takes me the same time to run round to this beach as it does for Vicks to reach it. She heard rather than saw the speedboat and felt it’s watery-impact.  I suggest an alternative course back to M, hugging the line of the wall, where the worst that can happen is that she comes close to the waving fronds of rust-coloured seaweed.  

And, ten minutes later, we’re wrapping a towel round her shoulders, gathering her stuff and getting her out of the water, onto dry, safe land.  V’s training is a nerve-wracking experience, it’s exhausting!.

/——————————————————/

Friday deviated from the routine of:  ‘get up – do/watch some form of training –  realize its now mid afternoon – find food’.  

If you face the shoreline from where we’re camped at Tarifa and follow it West, there’s a curious, enormous lump of sand, perhaps 1/4 a mile wide.  It’s as if a narrow band of wind has swept up from the North African shore, visible over a short sea break, and dumped its load onto the Spanish shore. It stands proud, by as much as fifty feet from the trees that surround it. Literally, a lump of sand, incongruously deadweight in the first that contains it. It’s held our attention for the last few days but we’ve never ventured out toward it.  So, on our last full day here, with Google announcing directions, that’s where we point the car.  

We find the Playa Bolonia, an archeological site, not as big as Herculaneum, but sizeable none-the-less.  And slap beside the ruins, separated from us by a hedge of wild geraniums about to burst into glorious poppy-red blooms, is a café for lunch, specializing in fresh fish. Then we follow a road that we think might take us to the enormous sand dune, but which, instead carries us upward.  

Upward and upward.

There’s rock.  Lots of rock. But nowhere, despite my scrutiny is there a single bolt or scarp of evidence of climbing.  Strange.  If I love climbing, the Spaniards are addicted.  Every face of granite that you can get a bolt or bit of gear in, generally has evidence of climbing activity.  Here though: none.

As our car travels up the hillside, we leave scrub forest behind us, move toward roads that become rougher, pockmarked by rock falls.  There’s a plateau, a space to park awhile, gaze out across endless vista.  My eye is caught by a movement on the top of a ledge in the crag face.  The movement changes shape, opens enormous wings and floats, effort free on a thermal, circling with the breeze into the sky. Followed by another, a third, a fourth, fifth and sixth eagle.  Huge,  majestic creatures, encompassing stillness even when airborne as if their flight is of a cloud or a flower petal, carried aloft.  They turn and turn again. 

We found this place, this moment, by accident, but it’s veracity captures us, holds us still.  Shortly after, the road abruptly ends, barricaded where development has ceased, as if someone decided that humanity’s encroachment on nature had gone far enough. Which means that we have to descend. V and I have planned a run, 8 or so miles back toward Tarifa, contributing to her triathlon training.

So much has come out of these few days. Lessons about swimming and competing, so that V knows she can take part in this race of madness that she’s paid into. Learning about the size of eagles and why the many faces of the rock here, only hold evidence of nature, not of man’s insubstantial conquests.

Well done Tarifa.  Thank you.

It’s been a technology-rich day.  

Using WhatsApp, V dropped a pin for the café she thought we might like for breakfast. Google Maps kindly obliged, bringing us to her Airb’n’b so we could pick her up and then on to the café itself.  The waiters in the café had mobile phones on which they recorded our table number and orders, then delivered our ham and cheese croissants with smooth Spanish coffee.  Likewise, the bill, contactless payment for it’s settlement, all tech enabled.

We took V to the station where she’s travelling up to Madrid, working for a company that delivers parcels all over the world using the latest hard and software available.

You get the picture.

But the most fun we had with technology today, was the battery-powered scooters around Malaga.  By downloading the scooter app, you register (with bank details, obviously) scan the QR-code on each scooter, which unlocks it and then whoosh, you’re away.  You end your rental (charged at €1.15 per minute) by taking a picture on your phone that acts as a date-time stamp.  

Zooooom!

Day 39, Sunday 10th Feb – God Bless Technology

Malaga is beautiful.  The Castle is set in parkland, overlooking the port beside which unfold the granite-lined streets of the city centre.  Rich in heritage, pre-dating the Romans with Phonecian foundations, it has a mellow, gracious feel.  

As we wander back down from the fortress, a busker plays classical guitar and I imagine wide crinoline skirts rustling against the flowerbeds and hedgerows of rosemary.  You’d hope they had good shoes though – not kind on the tootsie pegs these pathways!

We need to plot a route home.  With just under 4 weeks now by which to be back at Calais.  Straight up North, or East before North, or West and then North? Either way, eventually, it’s gotta be North.  We’ve got about 1300 miles to cover, route dependent.  

Heading out of Malaga, we start with North, up into the mountains.  We’ll probably stop off at Cordoba and then head for Mid-Pyrenees, get to Lourdes (for M) and then chug across France, west-ish, arcing left of Paris.  

Today, the poo-box needs attending to.  There’s an dearth of appropriate facilities, but we find a campsite.  The manager won’t let us pay to use the chemical site without paying for all of us to come in – so two adults, a camper and a dog all get charged for separately. 

Charm might be in short supply, but his technology efficiently relieves us of our euros.  We find our allotted space, next to other parked vans, all neatly stacked like sardines in a can.  

M does the nasty bit, I recycle and empty rubbish, we take on as much water as we’ve got containers for.  Then we sit, for at least 3 minutes, before M says: 

“Shall we just bite the bullet?”

I’m not sure what he means.

“There was a beautiful spot back there, on the Park4Night app, overlooking the lake – described as stunning, quiet and peaceful” he explains, “shall we just go?”


“Great idea”

Neither of us can bear being confined in an area that has more rules than its 217 pitches. It’s wooded but not beautifully clean, the dog needs to be on a lead all times, we need to be on leads at all times and the boundary for our spot gives us, at most, 3’ on all sides.

So, like kids bunking off school, we gleefully escape, delighted when the barriers open automatically and our exit is unimpeded.  It’s been an expensive water exchange but the relief to be out is so enormous, we simply don’t care.

A few minutes up the hill sees a track, reasonably flat if you drive round the craters. It takes us out to a spit of land, maybe 100m above the reservoir which envelopes us on 3 sides.  Imagine the lake district, Ullswater probably, tree packed islands emerge from its depths, it’s blue reflects the azure of the cloudless sky and in the distance the sierra mountains wrap their arms around us, in an all-encompassing embrace.  

M and I pick our very own angle at which to park, unrestricted by any regulations.  We get set and take the dog out for a wander. Both of us have spotted the ominous lumps of tissue paper beneath bushes, so Stan will stay on his leash even if we’re glad to be off ours.  A couple drives part-way up the track and we exchange “Hola” and “Buenos Dias” as we pass.  But, we return too soon for them. She’s wiping her hands with a piece of tissue that she discards to the breeze.

No…. 

She hasn’t….

She bloody well has.  

The steaming evidence is just round the nearest bush to where we’re parked and the pong is all the proof you need.

For God’s Sake – don’t these people have toilets to go to?

We relocate slightly, away from the offending ‘mound’ and settle to enjoy the rest of the evening,  it’s stunning sunset and supper.  This is a qualified beauty spot, you just need to watch where you step and keep the dog under close scrutiny, something that sadly, technology has not yet developed an app for.

Day 40, Monday 11th Feb – El Chorro, Alhora and mean things to do to your campervan

As the mornings have gone on, it’s been slowly less dark by the time Stan whimpers for his food or a walk first thing.  The sky was a grey-yellow hue this morning as I opened the door and peered out, lead clamped firmly to the reprobate’s collar (no surreptitious wanderings for you, my boy).  Behind me, over the nearby ridge, like a volcano of exploding colour, light was shooting up into the bank of low cloud that shrouded us.  

I struggled to make out what was happening with the light, sleepily wandering up the lane, toward the road and the ridge.  Squinting, I encouraged myopic retina to focus on what was ahead.  At the top of the path, the sun suddenly escaped through the valley opening.  As if dawn’s laser had burnt a hole, a ray of pure gold tunneled through the v-shaped rock walls, beneath the cloud’s heavy weight, flashing past my groggy eyes and straight across the lake.  It landed, like a firebrand on the opposite shore, a shot of brilliance that dispersed low-lake mist and left those fields ablaze.  

Gaping, open mouthed, I ignored Stan’s tugging on the lead and just looked. Gazing from the source, where eventually the morning sun would rise, to the lakeside, a bright pinpoint of colour in the mist-grey landscape, and back again.  Like an umpire in a tennis match, my head turning left to right, desperate not to miss one tiny scrap of what might be evolving.  

Just as suddenly, it was finished.  The light dispersed, the fields of flame dulled back to grey and green and the dawn was subsumed by nubula.  Gone. And not gone, caught in my imagination, trapped in optical nerves and synapses, held by dint of will, keeping the image safe inside my brain.

Back at the camper, the morning resumed it’s easy routine – tea, work, ready.  The plan had been to go to the Caminito del Rey – a rockside route around the El Churro gorge where hanging bridges allow fee-paying tourists to totter and imagine what would happen if their rope bridges…  But this required booking, which we hadn’t realized.  

An English bloke (about our age?) was leading a group of climbers back down the crag-face to his car.  I heard English voices and always greedy for information, I went to steal some from their knowledge bases.

They were generous, not just then, but later when we were hunting for the camping spot he described and the climbing shop where I could buy the local climbing book. The book was easily obtained, the dust-ruble track at 35 degrees was simply not going to happen for us.  We found a spot to stop, below another huge crag of rock, begging to be touched and clipped to, where we finished lunch and I poured over my new climbing guide.  

A long crag of easy routes (confidence builders) hung above the next town along. That’s where we’d head, which we did. 

Tiny bends we are getting better at. Steep hills take their time, but the van gets there in the end, it’s 2.2 engine doing the work of the 2.8 version we’d have preferred.  But in the tiny town of Valle de Abdalajis, where the roads were barely van-wide, with right hand corners, and steep, steep slopes of pressed concrete long ago worn smooth, there, we nearly came unstuck.

A generous local lady nodded in blasé acceptance of us definitely making it down her precipitous lane, past two diametrically parked cars and onto the next hazard-laden street that was out of view.  We were less sure.  M put his foot on the main break, van in gear and used the handbrake, for security. Which he needed, because, despite these measures, the van kept sliding downwards.  Slowly, you understand, but it hadn’t stopped.  I looked at him; he looked at me.  We were still not-stopped, still responding better to gravity than Peugeot’s engineering.

So, six feet into the lane, we had no chance of reversing.  We were committed.  Do or die, or in the case of our gearbox, possibly both?

She was quite correct, we did inch our way down and squeeze our way between two battered vehicles, nudging our way forward.  And along, and left at a right angle, and right at another right angle and round.  

Just as I’d decided it was safe to breathe again, our road definitely being wide enough for one vehicle in the two-way traffic, M mentioned what the guidebook said.

“It’s a sharp right turn, up a steep track”

Oh, is it?  Like we’ve been gliding around on smooth, flat-plane roads so far then?’  I keep these thoughts to myself, they’ve proved unhelpful in the past.

“Aha” is all I comment.  Until we draw level with said track.

No way. Not even for the best camping spot in the universe.  It’s not happening, and neither, by default is my climb here tomorrow.  The crag’s parking spot is another 2.9 miles, uphill, before further mile walk in.  There’s nowhere to abandon the van if we don’t attempt the drive up there and no chance that engine will make it.  Time for plan C.

Which sees us do some horrifically awful turns and angles in the van that audibly creaks, before we give in and go back to last nights beautiful (if slightly poo-y) stopover.  The gearbox is juddering in emotional shock and the brakes are weeping and screeching with exhaustion and over heating.  

Oh my.

Back at the path end, we chat to a lovely German couple in their camper, watch two cars come with awkward drivers who don’t stay long after they’ve visited the bushes, and M makes sure the dog’s on a really short lead.  

The sunset is gorgeous, more peaceful than the day’s beginning, but we’ve had adventures enough in the past few hours – tranquil will suit us just fine.

Wednesday 13thFeb – El Chorro: “Solid as a rock…”

It’s been two days of… rock.

  • Rock music played by M, we drove down through France to Meatloaf and Alice Cooper and he’s picked up the the rock theme again, although going for a softer version this time
  • Aiming to visit El Caminito del Ray – an amazing walk through the gorges at El Chorro.
  • Getting my hands on rock.

There’s nothing quite as disappointing as buying a new rope and a guide book to the local crags, to discover that you’re not going to use either.  Which is where we were on Tuesday morning.  It’s like getting all geared up for Christmas, only to discover you’ve overslept, its Boxing Day; everyone’s gone home, and they’ve taken your presents with them.  I exaggerate not…

We’ve got used to the eternal summer of Spain’s winter.  The temperatures are almost always in double figures, rain is rare, and the tourists haven’t really turned up yet so we’re only slightly encroaching on the locals.  

Imagine then, yesterday morning, having poured over the crag guide and readied our climbing gear, got out the rope and – well – everything – imagine  my dismay on waking up to the sound of sleeting rain and howling wind.  

It’s a bit of a shocker when winter actually shows its teeth over here.  

Glum…

Still, we needed shopping, stuff needed doing for the van and I got lots of work done…

11 o’clock – grey wet,  yuk – we went to Alhora, there’s a Mercodona Supermarket

12 o’clock – grey wet,  yuk – still shopping

1 o’clock – grey wet yuk – on the way back from shopping

2 o’clock – less grey, no wet – hmmm…

3 o’clock – blue and grey, dry, better…

And the loveliest husband in the world, who doesn’t want to climb himself, but does want me to use the book and the rope, suggests (without me even hinting…) that we could go climbing since it had cleared up.

I wait perhaps a millisecond: “Okay!”

After the last debacle climbing where I just scared myself silly and left the rock-face feeling miserable; I was nervous.  In the guidebook, there are perhaps 6 of 283 pages  that list climbs I feel happy to start on.  We head for the most accessible crag, Fontales area, just above the village of El Chorro.

Two hours later…

I am a rock climber reborn.  

The rock is firm, it’s got lots of edges (this is a good thing), positive and lovely to grip, and the warm breeze that floats around me neither pushes nor shoves, just reminds me that I need to keep my jacket on.  M belays me up and down four routes, holding me steady, offering endless encouragement.

I keep waiting for the whisper of fear in my ear, but it doesn’t come.  Images of falling, failing to clip into the bolts, falling, banging limbs, don’t appear in my mind’s eye.  The icy grip of terror that has been known to wrap itself around my insides, doesn’t squeeze.  I’m in my element, in the place I feel connected and assured, even in moments when I’m hunting for the next hand hold, stuck between clips.  I am in the best of places: I am on rock.

Jubilant we come back to our home-on-wheels, supper is in a new spot, a mile down the hill from our last.  This new place is equally lovely but lacks other vans and local ‘deposits’.  So, Stan gets to wander on a much longer leash, find sticks to chew and have thrown for him.  All is well with the world.  Tomorrow, we have tickets for the Caminito de Ray to walk the gorge, and are planning to go back in the morning for the longest route I’ve ever climbed (35m) that’s three grades up from today’s achievement…

Wednesday 13thFeb

Communication is a wonderful thing.  I’ve written about it before.  About the value of asking questions over the merits of making assumptions.  Had I done this, we’d have been climbing earlier, before the bus was due to take us to the start of the Caminito del Ray, for the walk we’ve been wanting to do for days.

Instead of climbing, then lunching, then Caminito-ing.  We spend ages getting sorted, then finding a parking place for the van, then discovering that the walk has been cancelled due to high wind.

Bummer.

The sun is out though…

We ‘rock’ up at the crag (pun, geddit?!) to find lots of Europeans and one American couple crowded round our easy’ area of routes.  Chatting becomes a lot easier as soon as we openly state that Brexit is a disaster and we wish we had the political constitution of the countries represented by the climbers around us.  The US couple declare that their country is, just about, more screwed than ours. All nationalities present agree: the US is marginally worse than the UK, Europe is clearly better and on this basis, cordial relations are established.

Belayed by M, I do 5a route (equivalent to HVS or an easy Extreme1 climb if on trad) – the kind of warm up I’d run up at the indoor wall at home).  It feels ok.  I’m umming and arring about what to do next when M points out that the 6a (E2) route is now free and why don’t I just do that instead?

30 minutes and 35 metres later, I am as triumphant as Stan with a new plastic bottle. Yah-bloody-hoo.  At last, I’m getting my ‘head’ back, letting go of debilitating fears and finally, finally, climbing again.  

It was wonderful.  I’m incredibly grateful, for the opportunity ,for the support that M offers me in attempting the things I want to acheive, for this whole trip.

We’re going to come back another trip for Caminito del Ray.  Our journey has effectively carved Spain into two parts.  The Western reaches and Portugal will have to be done next time.  This visit, we’re going to head East, inland, to hold onto as much warmth as we can, before facing the chilly North.  

Yes, next time.

We’ve learnt a lot about ourselves and the van in the past six weeks.  

  1. The hand-luggage sized lockers (excluding footwear and toiletries) have too many things in them, we could have done with ½ what we’ve brought
  2. Our elasticated washing lines have been fabulous.  Today, only today, we discover that the cab’s ceiling handles make a great indoor washing line holders for stuff that’s not quite finished outside. This means that our living quarters don’t end up like a laundry room
  3. We haven’t, not once, thought that this was too much, too little, or not comfortable.  42 days coming up and we’re mourning our last 24 days.  We could do this for longer – next time
  4. There’s a million places we haven’t been yet…

 “There’s a Spanish train that runs between Guadalquivir and Old Seville, and at dead of night the whistle blows and people hear she’s running still…”  Chris de Burgh, 1975

And there we were, travelling over the Rio Guadalquivir.  There are, in fact,  day time trains connecting Cordoba and Seville, but I’m doing it again, getting ahead of myself…

We packed up and moved away from El Chorro.  From our spy-hole over the lakeside, nestled in the olive groves, we left the rust coloured soil defying the blue-deep sky and the clouds keeping count of the score.

I’ve got work to do.  The campervan makes the most amazing mobile office.  I sit, brain focused on internal thoughts whilst my eyes let the blues, greens and sand coloured images flash past them.  I am preoccupied and at the same time absorb just how special, how entrancing this country is.  

We pull into a small town some 20 miles from Cordoba where there’s a camper stop (to deal with the ‘you-know-what-box’).  

This is La Rambla, not to be confused with Las Ramblas of Barcelona fame.  The singular variety, La Rambla, is a small encampment that’s famous for it’s ceramics.  There’s been a market, but we arrive at 1pm, so we missed it. Likewise, all the shops and cafes have shut up shop, in ritual for the siesta.  Lunch is in the van and then we take Stan out for a walk, a ramble around the tiny pressed concrete streets so previously injurious to the van’s engineering.

It’s a beautiful place.  

There are several small parks, each with ceramic picture tiles set into in the public seats, encasing the fountains, on top of the signage and above the aviary in one sheltered corner.  Across the whole town, all of the ceramics are both colour and pattern co-ordinated and they are all, each and every one, completely, intact.  There’s not so much as one chipped vase, not one cracked urn, not one tile around the fountained areas that’s been damaged.

In our local area of England, the council took two years to replace the wooden bridge that youths burnt away.  The replacement steel bar bridge lacks charm but has survived similar arson attacks. It’s hard to imagine that such delicate decorations would last a week, much less the decades that these gentle items have withstood the tinkling of the fountain-fall of water.

Thursday 14th Feb – La Rambla to Cordoba

We are charmed.  Stan trots alongside us as we trace our way around a footpath, circumnavigating the small town.  It’s siesta-quiet and the warm sunshine lulls us to a wandering pace. 

But  foothills that try to contain the city’s sprawl.

Oh lord.

Our plan is to make Cordoba.  It’s on the secondary list (not a want, but a nice to get to) so after lunch we bundle up the van and move further inland.

Less than an hour later and we rise over the gentle hill that offers access to Cordoba. The city is huge.  As we take in its enormity, our hearts sink.  

The connurbation has spread as far as the eye can see, like someone dropped a pecan and chocolate chip ice cream that melted all over the valley floor.  The white-cream-brown lumps have seeped into the corners of the verdant buttresses, spilling over the river-banks and around the moderateB

ut, in fact, Park4Night finds us to a large flat dolomite car park, fenced in by high-rise flats and the dual carriage-way on three sides.  We settle the van and head off, crossing the ancient bridge to enter the hallowed city.

At the entrance to the jumbled collection of streets, houses and shops, stands aloft and separate, the building that back in the 780s was a mosque until (can you guess?) the Christians turned up.  They plonked a cathedral on the side and largely erased the Arabic texts and decorations.  

The mosque itself is a four-sided building, housing a central area.  Access on three sides is through three great, metal covered doors, each standing over 20 feet high.  Whatever the bustle on the outside of these walls, inside they have a hypnotic effect.  We are stilled, other tourists similarly so.  Families with small children slow down, becalmed.  

The outer walls are arched, creating covered walkways, offering shady shapes, arcs of shadow against white-washed walls.  In the main area of the square, low olive and citrus trees offer the first layer of arboreal canopy, protection from the sun.  Above this, the palm trees waft gently in the breezes we can only see, and standing majestic in the centre, are spire-tall cypress trees, taking your thoughts directly up to heaven, just in case they couldn’t get there by themselves.

I resent the glowering cathedral dominating one side of the square.  It interlopes, intrudes, impacts the tranquility of this respite built some 1500 years ago.  

Eventually, it’s time to move away.  We’re hungry. Searching through Google, M finds us a place for lunch.  The waiter is charm personified and for the first time in my life, I surrender critical faculties and control over the bill.  I hand back both our menus and say:

“Ok, choose what you think we will like”

Michael looks horrified as Alberto the waiter smiles at me, glad that I have acknowledged his superior understanding.  He proceeds to supply us with food and wine and later, the bill… What the hell – it’s Valentine’s Day after all…

Friday 15th Feb – Park Life… Cordoba – Montoro – Argamasilla de Alba

Thursday night, 14thFeb

Our big flat car park in Cordoba was (just) ok for a few hours, but neither of us felt like spending the night there.  Right next to a dual carriage way, unmonitored by security, it was a perfect place to get gassed/robbed.  Just as we decided to move on, M found a ton of reviews all describing the horrors that have happened here.  

Quick, quick, run away, run away..

Park4Night shows a new spot for the night, just a mile or two away, it gets great reviews – quiet, picturesque etc.  We set off into the twilight sky, the last of the sun’s glow diminishing by the second. As visibility finally fails, we’re directed onto a narrow track – bouncy to say the least – our headlights suggest that in between the craters are just more craters.  Neither of us like what we’re looking at; trouble is, it’s a narrow lane and we’re on it now.  Paint-scraping foliage hems us in on both sides and there’s nowhere to make a 3-point (or 5-point or 7-point) turn.

Oh well, onwards and upwards…

The narrow gets thinner, the bushes get thicker, the night gets blacker, our hearts rise up to our throats.  It goes on forever….  Well, at least a couple of miles.

Abruptly, we are stopped.  

A barbed wire fence is festooned with high-vis jackets as it bars our way.  We’re going no further forward, and we’re not turning round.   The only way back is by reversing.  Bummer.

I close my eyes and hide my face.  I’ve no idea why i do this, it’s not like I can actually see anything and it’s too dark for M to see my trepidation.  He’s sensibly focused on the reversing camera and rear view mirrors, squinting at the views he can barely see since he lost his variafocals some four weeks ago.  I love being behind the wheel of the van under normal circumstances, it’s a great drive.  Tonight though, I am quite happy to let M’s ‘Police Advanced Driving’ experience take over.  In concentration-zoned silence, slowly, slowly we retreat, one careful wheel rotation at a time. 

Where is the end of this awful lane?

Each time we hear the awful woody branches slicing into the van’s paintwork and lovely decals there are two sharp intakes of breath in the cab.  M keeps us straight, no dips into the deep ruts on either side, no bumping into low obscured walls or boulders.  Just achingly slow progress until, eventually, we’re back to where we turned off and can reverse the van into a small access area.

Neither of us say much for a while.

“Well done”

“Cheers Chubs”, he replies but he’s got his phone out and is now looking for that ‘other’ site he saw, eight miles away.  The review has pictures.  It’s a long, river-side car park beneath a hill-mounted town.  Looks lovely, although we’re slightly wary of car parks next to busy roads.  There are no bushes in evidence though and that looks like a tarmac road.

M’s sleuthing finds us in a ¼ mile-long, immaculately block-paved parking area, directly above the ox-bow river that separates us from the town of Montoro. Gazing up as we give Stan his last walk, it’s like staring at a Christmas card of Jerusalem.  The jumble of buildings, one layer stacked above another is up-lit by dotted street-lights.  A central dome at the peak carries a cross, and above this, one particularly bright star hangs heavy, before the canopy of the galaxy opens up above. 

It’s quiet. It’s calm.  It’s very flat and there are no bushes, craters, car thieves or assailants anywhere to be seen.

We sleep.

Friday 15thFeb

I’ve got a deadline to meet so the van becomes my office.  M explores Montoro with Stan, they come back to report on their findings and then, after lunch we move on.  I’ve mastered the art of typing while we travel, so sit next to M, up front and look up to avoid car-sickness, letting my inaccurate touch-typing do it’s worst.

We can’t quite bear to go North yet.  Partly because the weather forecasts show plummeting temperatures, but mostly because we’re entrenched in this new life of ours.  Going up, means going home, means it’s coming to an end.  It must, end, of course, but we’re just not ready to admit that yet.  

So M (with careful assessment of all site photos) picks a place, next to a lake, with a castle, with motor-home specific parking.  

Argamasilla de Alba, is exactly what it says on the tin.  A lovely expanse of a reservoir, overlooked by a medieval castle and the dam wall with another ancient structure on the other side.  The parking is broad, flattish (we’ve got ramps to get level) and again it’s still.

Supper is a chicken-broth with the chunks of crusty loaf, consumed to the sight of the sunset down-climbing the skies behind the turrets of the fort.  Tomorrow we’re going to try Albacete, slightly North but mostly East of here, it’s a city that boasts a nice cathedral and a buzzing tapas scene, apparently.  

We’re so close to Gary and Lesley now, that it seems a pity not to go by their slice of heaven, so that’s our general direction.  These two lovely people are glad we’re coming and unfazed by the fact that we can’t quite predict when we’ll arrive.  

You just never know what you’ll find…

Jules is a bit busy at the moment so she’s asked me to do a blog. Please be warned there is a little bad language but I think you’ll agree it’s in context.

Growing up on our street of 8 houses, the only people to have a car were Tommy Anderson and his son Peter. In fact it wasn’t a car, but a Commer Camper Van. An exotic vehicle especially when it drove past as I held hands with my mam waiting for the bus.

It was that camper that was used to carry my first bike back from Leiths Bike sShop in Houghton. Peter driving, my dad and I sat in the back holding the bike. I remember being nervous that the pedals would scratch the wood panels either side.

It was Peter and his dad who would together wash the camper.
I’d sit on the kerb stone on their side of the street and would watch, entranced as the water ran along the edge and under my legs. It was a treat if I could get outside as they were setting up, as I’d have the sheer delight of watching the stream as it set off following the camber of the road.

In 1978 Peter and Tommy had a win on the pools, it was a source or conversation in our house, as no one knew how much was won, but that didn’t matter as you could imagine and dream with gut aching envy.
When the brand new T registered red and yellow Dodge Auto Sleeper Camper pulled up outside their house it was clear it had been a big win.

By now there were two more cars on the street but nothing as entrancing as the ’Ice cream van’ as other less reverential folks would refer to it. They were jealous and although I was too, it was never that spiteful resentful kind.

Peter was one of those quiet men, shy but knowledgable, the handy lad on the street, who knew how to fix the puncture on my bike and had the tool to do what ever job needed doing. His dad was braggy, funny and loud, the world according to Tommy Anderson and if you didn’t take note, you were the fool. Peter always seeming to hang in his shadow.

How many times did Tommy say to me “ Your dad could have one of these if he didn’t drink or smoke.” I knew he was right but I equally knew my dad would never speak like that to another man’s son. 

As the years went by that camper was used to transport two more pedal bikes and on one occasion I rode in the front seat next to Peter driving. 
I was 18 and he was being my knowledgable chaperone whilst I went to see a motorbike, but that is a story for another time.

I looked up to Peter and so admired the quiet way he got on with things.

What’s this got to do with camper vans, Julie and me? I hear you ask. 
Well, I’m getting there.

Tommy, was a rather prescriptive man and Peter had his instructions, a lot more I imagine than I ever knew, but i was never allowed past the front door or inside the wondrous workshop, I’d knock on the garage door as a teenager and when it was opened ajar I’d say “Peter might you have a …… “ the door would close and open moments or minutes later with Peter kindly hand me the said request. I didn’t need to be told to return it, I’d dash, do what ever it was needed for and have it returned in a ridiculously anxiety inducing manner. I’m not much different today, I hate asking for a hand or to lend something.

Why we do what we do...

Mick's blog post 25th Feb 2019

Anyhow, Jules and I had been together 6 weeks when Tommy died. It was a sad time on my Mam’s street and his passing meant one of those old anchors was gone. 
In hindsight it was perhaps a mistake, when, because Jules and I were skint, I bought a second hand three piece suite off Peter. It wasn’t my wisest moment when I happened to mention to my new prize, that Tommy died on the sofa. Needless to say that settee never made it into our home and languished in the garage. It was a superb piece and it wasn’t as if he’d oozed on it. Honestly, women!

No one had ever driven the camper except Peter and his dad, no one, it simply wasn’t allowed. So the fart from a passing gnat could have blown me over when in the summer of 1998 Peter asked me if I’d like to borrow the van to take Jules and Vicky off to a weekend in the lakes.

My mam had happened to mention to Peter we three were off camping.
Unbidden and certainly not as a result of a hint, the message came to me that Peter would like us to take his camper. I’ve no idea why and he wasn’t the type to curry favour, he had always been sweet on my mam and although she was 17 years older they made a lovely couple when they started courting in 2001.

I can’t tell you how nervous I was. This was a creaky wallowing land crab but with the promise of cosy magic. A country cottage on wheels, a park where you like, put the kettle on and admire the view mobile. It was Peters pride and joy and I was the first man in 20 years to drive it other than the two Anderson’s. 

We had a fabulous weekend, we three. 

I wasn’t to know what part worn tyres were. I’d heard the term but never got round to trying them. Peter, forever the economist,make do and mend man was a huge fan of them, after all, why pay £50 new when you can pay £5 at the car boot and yours are the skills to fit them. 

I knew I was being enthusiastic trying to overtake the van.


There was a bang. 


As the steering lunged left to right and back again and the rear end whipped and cracked back in Six-Million-Dollar-Man slow motion, with me at the wheel and my two new girls in the van. My throat swelled, stomach heaved and arse did more than twitch as the Police advanced training on the skid pan kicked in from 10 years earlier. Reverse lock, counter reverse lock, is this bloody thing ever going to stop.

“Fuck me, please stop, stop soon, stop soon…. Jesus Christ what the fuck was that? Sorry Vicky, eerrr…” shaking.  Thank god we did not crash, we were alive and so was Peters van. 

I was the first out of the van and had to sit on the kerbstone. Jules and Vicks were supremely chipper. How were they to know what my heart, head and guts had been through? The only clue being my colourful outburst. I was a blamange but as the minutes passed I took on more solid form.

That overtake going down hill on the A66 not long before the Barny turn off was one spurt over 50 mph too much for that rear near side tyre.

That experience stays with me today, do you know your tyres have a set of easliy found and deciphered numbers on their walls telling you when they were made? They do, allow me to be a little Tommy Anderson-ish and if they are over three years old, please replace them. I do.

Back to campers. Two years later and one year into caring for Julie’s newly disabled dad, I decided either Jules and I were probably going to end up at a divorce court or we were going to end up in the countryside.

I can’t tell you how nervous I was. This was a creaky wallowing land crab but with the promise of cosy magic. A country cottage on wheels, a park where you like, put the kettle on and admire the view mobile. It was Peters pride and joy and I was the first man in 20 years to drive it other than the two Anderson’s. 


We had a fabulous weekend, we three. 

I wasn’t to know what part worn tyres were. I’d heard the term but never got round to trying them. Peter, forever the economist,make do and mend man was a huge fan of them, after all, why pay £50 new when you can pay £5 at the car boot and yours are the skills to fit them. 

I knew I was being enthusiastic trying to overtake the van.


There was a bang. 


As the steering lunged left to right and back again and the rear end whipped and cracked back in Six-Million-Dollar-Man slow motion, with me at the wheel and my two new girls in the van. My throat swelled, stomach heaved and arse did more than twitch as the Police advanced training on the skid pan kicked in from 10 years earlier. Reverse lock, counter reverse lock, is this bloody thing ever going to stop.

“Fuck me, please stop, stop soon, stop soon…. Jesus Christ what the fuck was that? Sorry Vicky, eerrr…” shaking.  Thank god we did not crash, we were alive and so was Peters van. 

I was the first out of the van and had to sit on the kerbstone. Jules and Vicks were supremely chipper. How were they to know what my heart, head and guts had been through? The only clue being my colourful outburst. I was a blamange but as the minutes passed I took on more solid form.

That overtake going down hill on the A66 not long before the Barny turn off was one spurt over 50 mph too much for that rear near side tyre.

That experience stays with me today, do you know your tyres have a set of easliy found and deciphered numbers on their walls telling you when they were made? They do, allow me to be a little Tommy Anderson-ish and if they are over three years old, please replace them. I do.

Back to campers. Two years later and one year into caring for Julie’s newly disabled dad, I decided either Jules and I were probably going to end up at a divorce court or we were going to end up in the countryside.


A camper van was just what we needed. One weekend a month, Vicks would be minded by Bill, and Jules and I would have two nights away, anywhere along as it was alone.

£1100 later and Jules and I had a Creamy white 1982 VW camper. (Not the classic shape, I’m the man who looked at a 1971 model, one owner selling for £3000 and said, “I’m not paying that”. Anyhow, I digress.)

We didn’t know the term “wild camping” but all we really did was follow Peter’s lead. Our first spot was Stape, a sleepy area on the North Yorkshire moors by a stream. His favourite and by default mine and ours.

That 120 mile-an-hour heart aching race down the A19 in the twilight of July 20th 2011 answering my mothers call of “ I think somethings wrong with Peter” was longer than that bloody blow-out, but much much more terrifying. 


There sat in his chair by the fire was my old friend, not much older than I, but a father and brother a man to me, some one I’d loved for years. Once again my Police training kicked in. I knew what to do. How many deaths had I been witness to? I knew what to do for my friend.

So why do we do what we do?

Jules and I stayed away from those divorce courts. The five campers we have had have all been our friends, they have taken us far and wide. Sheltered us from many storms and given us a perspective that we would never see any other way. 


We get ourselves in some arse twitchy situations, over reaching the van’s traction or dimensions, all in the search for that great spot. That slice of heaven, the spot where no one else is – it belongs to us and woe betide any bugger who wants to park alongside.

When in May last year, Jules said to me:

“Michael, I think we should build our own van”. My reaction was that of dread and

“Are you mad woman?”

But build our newest friend we did and I must say, so long as our other vans aren’t listening, this one is our favourite.

How many times over the years have I said to Jules “Peter would love this…” In making this van I’d have loved to have involved him, but in truth I have, in so many ways. When ever I see a passing brook or stand by water I think of him. I take off my shoes and rest in the cool water, and I’m by that kerb stone all over again.

My wife is usually right about most things, she’s the blue-sky thinker, I’m the one who’ll put the fire on, set the kettle and start with tea. When she comes out with a crazy idea, I usually recoil but the strength of my resistance is often due to the fact I know she’s right.

So what do I do when the latest idea is a move to Spain..?


 

LI haven’t been able to write for a while.  Not that I didn’t want to – but there was so much to say, so much in flux, my own feelings too tumultuous to commit them to the keyboard.  So I couldn’t.

Things feel calmer now, there’s less going on.  My head has room to write.

What’s been going on?

My reasons for needing to change our life, for ripping M from his very happy existence as guest-house proprietor are clear when I explain them.  Getting to the point where we could both acclimatize to the need for change has been acutely painful… one that I’m not quite ready to put down on paper.  The subject of “What next?”, after the guesthouse, has been looming large over the van as we’ve trundled up hillsides and slid down to valley depths.  

Our questions are of existential importance: Where?  What?  What for? Who for?  How?

They are equally nebulous and important; necessary to consider and yet seemingly impossible to commit to an answer.  So we’ve towed them behind us, these questions, a large bunch of heavy-grey helium balloons inextricably attached to our travel, bobbing in the mountain breezes, often out of sight but we’re never free of them, they are ever-present.

We’ve avoided discussing those orbs of unknowing, never ‘bottoming-out’ the issues.  It’s unusual for us to do this, we’re ‘peel back the scab and let’s sort it’ kind of people.  But we didn’t want to mar the trip.  Plus… we didn’t have any responses.

So, we get back to Gary and Lesley’s haven on Monday 18thFeb with a speculative date to visit a couple of houses for sale.  There’s the possibility, tenuous at best, the idea that Spain might be the answer for us.  That we might travel again in November, after waving farewell to our last set of guests.  It’s super-hazy.  Those balloons are still on long strings, we haven’t pulled them closer and tried to peer at their patterns, much less taken a pin of certainty and burst the buggers. But even having a dimly-lit vision of what could be right for us makes their presence less intimidating.

‘Kev’, whose birthday party we went to when we were last here, is a builder, in the middle of reconstructing G&L’s bathroom.  He and his wife have a home here and are looking to relocate within the area.  He’s been to see loooaaaddds of places.

One of them was a five-bedroomed house over three floors in a nearby town (Benigembla, look it up, it’s gorgeous) – tiny Spanish town of 600 people, which quadruples for the 10-day fiesta in August.  We view the house on line.  The wall tiles are only slightly more stunning than the original floor tiles, that lead to the inner courtyard that you can spy onto from the roof terraces above. My heart stops.  M’s heart leaps.

We get the estate agent’s number from Kev, drive out there to find it (not hard in a village consisting of around six streets) arrange a time to see it next morning. The local deputy mayor will be there too.

And… oh my. The bottom two floors would convert very nicely into a Spanish guesthouse, lots of space because (and this is the real biggie) the top, third floor, is entirely separable from the rest, its a gorgeous terrace-flat and I am hooked.

I see it. Crystal-clearly.  How we make M’s new business, give me privacy, start a new but familiar life, create an income… it’s all there.

Or it was until the Mayor and the estate agent start (Not) answering questions, not quite saying outright lies, feeding us information that seemed so suspect. Their words called into question all legal house-purchase practices, the antecedents of this lovely building and the potential trouble we’d have got ourselves into if we’d bought it.

Tuesday 26th Feb – What makes a house…?

It takes a couple of days for me to let go of my sunlit attic-space apartment, with the sound of M’s happy Spanish guests drifting up from below.  The need for certainty rose up, grabbed my brain cells and plugged them with a solution.  I could almost pick up a pin and set away disposing of our ever-present not-knowns. The process of relinquishing this fantasy is uncomfortable.  

But let it go we must, because we were on the verge of being solidly duped, a point clearly emphasized by a recommended property agent in Jalon who has showed us a number of other places.

One home, the one I thought could be ‘the answer’ was similar to G&L’s place, out in another valley.  Nestled in the mountainsides, with 6000sqm of vines, almonds, olives.  I pushed open the car door anticipating a rush of love and enthusiasm, and felt… nothing.  

As M walked around the plot, working out various logistics, I felt worse than nothing. As he said “You know, I think we could buy this” I apparently recoiled, physically moving backwards.  

What on earth is wrong with me?

If you’d said to me two months ago that we’d decided to move to a part of the world that has 320+ days of sunshine, every year, and find a mountain-loved hut where we could set up an eco-tourism/cyclists/walkers holiday business (by putting cabins on the terraces)…

Next day I went back there, trying to work out what wasn’t happening.  Simple – this house wasn’t…

Then I found her, forgotten at the bottom of a lane, unloved, abandoned.  My heart became an auditorium of nerve endings, on the stage, a virtuoso played a single note that reverberated around the room. A collective intake of breath was held as the sound captured every synapse in the space.  I saw me, on the whitewashed terrace, writing, looking up through the branches of the carob tree to the mountain top spikes punching into the blue above them.  Turn 180 degrees and the house faced the chasm between two tiger-striped walls of rock that plunged to the river-bed hundreds of meters out of sight.

Entranced was I.  Less so M, G & L when we snuck around to find not one intact window/door; two floors of rot and decay, of badly needed new wiring, plumbing, internal everything. Plus: an owner who might be in the care-home of one city or the mental-health institution of another; a daughter untraceable; and no idea of price, if, indeed, it was up for sale.

Contrast this with a 1980’s build at the back of a conurbation, three well-proportioned bedrooms, views over the valley, it’s back to the mountainside, just 500 yards from some of the best rock climbing in the area.  The ground floor is easily convertible to a guest-house/Airb’n’b living space.  Upstairs boasts multiple balconies, rooms to ‘be’ in, lots of potential to change the bland ‘holiday-home’ fittings to something you’d want to run your fingers across with loving pride.

Or then again, some of the really nice places we’ve seen, rented for €300-400 a month, hassle and maintenance free, on long leases that leave their occupants at liberty to move/return to the UK without the inconvenience of arranging a sale.

So… I couldn’t write.

If we’ve decided anything, it’s that we need to keep on looking.  Renting here for six months is the least that we’ll do whilst we feel our way up those balloon strings.  I’m less anxious about them now, catch them in the sunrise and they look almost pretty.  I won’t burst them, but one by one, as we’re ready, I’ll untie them and watch them glint in the sun’s rays as they disappear into the cloudless skies above.

Wednesday 27th Feb – Pinos, Valencia to Sot de Ferrer, Aragon

I REALLY need a haircut…

I have one booked, for March 15th, when we must be home because guests are arriving the next day.  And we have our Eurotunnel ticket.  We toyed with the idea of taking the ferry from Bilbao to Portsmouth, saving ourselves around 500 miles and €300 in tolls, but nothing doing.  No tickets.  Everything this side of Brexit is now jam packed as reluctant Brits pour back into the UK, away from the sunshine into the dark turmoil that is our shambles of EU relations.

We hadn’t the heart to drive for very long yesterday.  Our departure had been delayed as were were reluctant to depart the warm and cheery company of Gary and Lesley.  Also, I delayed us until after lunch because I needed to set up a number of Skype calls.  I’m supervising a group of post-grad students dissertations for a Northern University.  Today was the first part of that supervision process.  They’ve each written a research proposal for what they want to study as the major part of their Masters degrees, which we need to discuss.  At this stage, proposals tend to be vast in their ambitions.   

The biggest idea of this year’s tranche, is the the student who wants to establish the value that social enterprise education might have on entrepreneurial activity in post-conflict areas of rural Columbia.  It’s a well researched proposal with lots of relevant literature in its justification.  Sadly, this social education process hasn’t happened yet, the post-conflict areas are far from stable and (even if I thought her travelling there was safe) all universities are twitchy about research taking place outside UK borders given the Durham PhD student who recently spent many weeks in a Dubai jail on spying charges. 

My Columbian student is bright, intelligent and cares passionately about peace in her country. At the end of our skype we’d worked through the issues about the scale of her research, her funds to carry out the work, and time limitations (it’s got to be done and written up by Sept 30th).  She’s happy with what I’ve asked of her in reworking the project and completely unaware of the irony I see in our conversation.  M and I are battling with precisely the same issues: what scale of life do we want post-guesthouse, what funds are we going to use to achieve it and what are our timings.  Of course, we don’t have to complete a 12,000 word research project by the end of the summer, and so have the advantage, perhaps.  

Our first leg of the drive home takes us beyond Valencia and then North, up toward Zaragoza. It’s very warm, the driving cab reaching 300c.  We’re a bit irritated that, with all of Spain to explore, we’re going to spend a 100miles or so on a road we’ve used before.  

It turns out to be an advantage.

A month ago, on our way South, fleeing from Teruel’s biting temperatures of -60c, we’d driven past a tiny town, buildings clustered around a hillside where a long white set of steps zigzagged half a mile or so to it’s zenith.  We’d exclaimed at the view but hurried on to the coast and the promise of warmth.   Now, doing the route in reverse, we want to know what this is, so pull off and find ourselves in Sot de Ferrer. 

It’s a tiny town, with antecedents that predate the ‘modern’ palace of the 1200’s, was built as a summer recess for the then monarch of Aragon.   The town’s highest recorded population was 900 souls at the turn of the 20thcentury.  This dwindled to 402 in 1990 and has steadied at 409 for the last couple of decades.  People stop and chat in the roads returning our greetings of “Hola” and “Bueno Dia” with automatic politeness.  Our experience is that the Spanish are generally surprised, but pleased, if foreigners take the trouble to greet them, and always respond. As we wander, we notice buildings that are mostly large, tall, creating narrow, quiet, long, shady lanes up which to wander towards the sunlit spaces always just out of sight.  

All of the roads, lanes and the large flat car park are either tarmacked or paved in pressed concrete.  They are smooth and easily traversed.  All, except for that pathway from the top of the village up the white-walled zig-zags to the chapel above.  Here, alone, the path is covered in sharp, lose pebbles and rocks.  

I notice the change in terrain, but don’t think about it too deeply, until we reach the first of thirteen white icons, each containing a tiled-painted picture of Jesus’ final days.  This is a route of the Stations of the Cross.  And the loose pebbles?  M explains, being brought up Catholic, those are for the supplicants who make their pilgrimage on hands and knees.  The rocks offer the means that worshippers might suffer more this way, than by crawling on a smoother surface.  I shudder, my imagination reconstructing the damage to skin, bone and cartilage.     

Luckily, our progress is injury free up to the chapel with its ornate but gilt-free altar in the cool depths of the thick whitewashed walls.  And then down again, along the outskirts of the rustic settlement and back to where the van is parked.

Supper is my attempt at paella, chicken and chorizo variety.  Stan lies in his bed, at the van’s doorway, staring out as maybe 100 sheep are herded up the lane on the other side of the fast flowing river. It’s good to be back in the van, door open until beasties discover us and reluctantly we witness the last of the sunset through glass.  I love this space, it’s harmony and simplicity. Our way of life in here has become a shelter from reality and all the decision making that we, the UK and even my dissertation students face.  Nine days left and counting…

Thursday 28th Feb, Zaragoza – Gilted and glorious

“Let’s try and get away early” suggests M, horizontal in his pit, unaware that it’s already 8:43, “Let’s be on the road by 10”

“Okaaaay…”

I respond, glancing at the clock.  I forbear from sharing the truth – he looks really comfy and has taken to writing things – its not time wasted.  I love his words.  Another hour won’t hurt…

By a tremendous feat of effort and will, I’m behind the steering wheel at 11:06 as we pull out of the car park and back onto the road.  It’s about 170 miles (3½ hours driving in this van) to the Park4Night place near the centre of Zaragoza, from where we can explore the city.

Our journey flashed past in plains of vast, eye-leading flatness.  They are a patchwork of greens, greys, rust browns and sand-pale, rectangles, tessellating perfectly, unpredictable in colour from mile to mile.  All flat. In the distance we see ridges and mountains, but up close… unruffled horizontalness.

We passed the Airport of Teruel, where you will never catch a plane.  It is an air-park, not a junk-yard of disused machines of flight, but storage for excess capacity, planes that have legal issues, and others awaiting delivery.  Huge jumbo jets dwarf a nearby village, standing out from the smooth agricultural earth like sculptures from outer space.

There’s a lot of un-lovely urbanization on either side of the A23 as it ploughs its way north. Huge factory buildings of corrugated metal surrounded by homogenous, efficient housing for workers, stacked high to minimize their footprint.  We sail past these seemingly lifeless metropolises, hoping that our destination holds more promise.

Which it doesn’t to start with.  

I used to live in Sheffield, North Yorkshire.  I was miffed on hearing that the queen went past ‘my town’ on the train or in the car and commented about what an awful place Sheffield was.  It wasn’t.  But from the motorway/rail line, you only saw the industrialized, metallic and harshest view of the town’s digestive workings revealed in all their ugly glory.  You didn’t see the parklands, the river running through the city, it’s sandstone library and town buildings or all the places to stop, ponder and think.

Likewise, Zaragoza has an unprepossessing set of outskirts.  Row upon row of high-rise terracotta coloured apartment buildings.  Built in the same pink-brown hue is Zaragoza’s penitentiary, plonked just outside the city’s perimeter and by architecture, largely undistinguishable from surrounding residential accommodation.

Then we find the river, gracious banks along the Rio Elba, and the pace slows, water glistens and a parking space accommodates us for a late lunch, a walk for Stan and the opportunity to stop.  In the distance, along the river bank, an amazing collection of spires are calling to us: “Come and discover”.  

Walking is one way of sightseeing; by car is another; also bikes.  But we find two abandoned scooters at the roadside and after app-loading and payment, whoosh, we’re off!  Level 23 takes us up to meteoric rates of around 14 miles per hour – enough to get your hair wafting out behind you and to fix a grin across your chops. Yahoo!

The search to reach those spires take us to a huge plaza, with water cascading down and across a sculpture of the world as a map, a stone-carved globe, and the Basilica. Where in Sot de Ferrer, the place of worship was ornate in structure but in simple white, the Basilica de Zaragoza is the polar opposite.  The vast structure houses thirteen domes, on the outside capped in enameled tiles of blue, white, green and yellow.  Inside each is decorated in fresco, cherubs gazing, holy wars waged, saints blessing, dying, saving others, and these works of art are as nothing compared to the marble.

Vast structures depict angels winged and floating on gusts of folding turbulence, arms reaching down to the gilt laden altars and chalices that send tumbling golden light to caress the bowed heads of kneeling sinners.  It is wondrous.  It is overwhelming.  How could a simple soul enter this palace of worship, see a vision of such wealth and power and not feel awed into deferential gratitude, just to be allowed inside?

I cannot connect with this opulence, but I see those who do, for whom the visit is of benefit, amongst the mostly reverently-quiet tourists.  Wheelchairs and walking stick bearers queue for their chance to hear the padre’s words of comfort and feel his gentle hand upon their hair.  Others sit silent beside the confessionals, one penitent returning to his confessor and pressing something that glints into his hand.  There are twelve smaller dome-topped chapels around the central, largest, most magnificent structure, and in each one, two or more heads are bowed in communication with their saints, their god. 

I cannot enter into their acts of worship, any more than I could crawl on broken knees up thirteen, pebbled Stations of the Cross.  But that reflects where I am, my spiritual journey.  I see compassion here, amongst the fabulous physicality of what is around us, and I’m glad of it.  There can never be too much compassion in this world.  

And we send a prayer for dear friends of ours, who have recently revealed their struggles with illness.  Their faith is strong and shared and Christian, so in this temple of Catholic holiness, surely here, God or one of his saints must have an ear. For them we both send up an application for support:

“Protect them and care for them, they’re going to need you.”

Friday March 1st, Close Calls over the Pyrenees

We left Zaragoza and headed even further North.  

Down at G&L’s, spring had sprung and perhaps gone over, blossom had turned to almond sets and each day was bathed in warm Mediterranean breezes.  Zaragoza’s trees are bare, the grass is just starting to waken and blossom is a rare flowering entity on the most optimistic of trees.  The air is cold.  We delve into our lockers and pull out the jumpers again.

By the time we’re at the Spanish base of the Pyrenees, 600 miles north and 2000m up in altitude, the world looks like it’s been trapped forever in November.  There’s no snow on the ground, and although distant mountain caps are striped with white, they’re not blanketed as February might expect them to be.

We do a few ups and downs, the van seems happy enough.  It chugs on the ups and when M keeps it in second gear he manages to minimize the amount of braking required.  So far, so good.

There’s a decision point, part-way into the mountain passes.  Carry on straight up, directly heading for the central pass, or divert through the less picturesque tunnel that saves the mountainous undulations but takes all the fun out of the drive.  I show M on the map.  We give it a moment’s consideration.  

“Nah… we’re here now”

“In it for a biscuit”

“Righto…”

We’re set for the adventure and stunning majestic sights; the route doesn’t disappoint. It would if you’d gone up to the highest valleys where the skiing is thin, there were maybe three ice-packed routes to choose from.  You’d be really glum if you in were lower ski resorts.  Then you’d have wanted to bring a stout pair of walking boots and waterproofs because your skis weren’t going to be of much use to you.  But in the cab of our camper, it is glorious.  

Deep blue, semi-frozen reservoirs are fed by icy-cloudy rivers that jumble their way to join the whole.  The sun in it’s hazy sky throws random shots of light across tree-pocked hillsides. Those same rays refract off the snow where it persists, shooting back brilliant gleams of gold, right onto the back of your retina.  It is, not to put to finer point on it, bloody lovely.

Up, up, up we chug.  Over the top, across the French border as we start the 10 miles or so of constant descent. The van is in second gear, or third (when it flattens out a little).  The brakes do squeak a bit, but not alarmingly so.  Just enough to remind us that they’re unhappy.  But they still work.

Or so we think.

The lowest point in the foothills, on the road to Pau is a small but bustling town called Laruns.  As we’re approaching the central square, which doubles as the roundabout we have another decision to make.  The shortest way to reach Lourdes, where M really wants to spend a couple of days, is by turning right here and doing another undulous, tiny, twisty road that will lead us into the heart of that city.  The alternative, flatter but triple-length route is to up to Pau, across to Tarbes and then down the third side of the rectangle to get to our destination. M pulls over.  He’s not happy about the van.  The brakes have started making some alarming noises.

As we move off the main road it creates the most awful sound. Is the entire chassis about to pull away from the van itself?  

“So what routes did you want to show me?”

I pick up the map but say:

“They must have a garage here, what do you think?”

“Yup”

M gets out and shines a torch through the wheel trims.  As he moves from corner to corner, his expression gets darker.  

We’re not going anywhere, we also can’t stay where we are, partially blocking the main access route through the town.  As M puts the engine back into gear, that awful deep grating sound, starts up again. It’s like the wheels are filing down the axles.

A road sign says there’s a camper car park just 200 yards away, it takes us several horrible minutes to grind into it’s entrance.  

Only now do M and I’s joint imaginations relive the past 10 miles of hairpin bends at super-steep slopes.  We realize how incredibly lucky we’ve been.  My head’s full of tales of drivers who’ve careered into pebble beds to save themselves and their passengers, or failed to make a tight curve.  That could so easily have been us; but it wasn’t.

We passed a garage on the way into Laruns.  It’s clear we need assistance, it’s also 4:45 on a Friday evening.  Monseigneur Pierre Casajus, proprietor of the second garage in town agrees, reluctantly at first, to look at our poorly camper.  He and M drive off so that our French ‘Mecanicien’ can listen to the sound of discs slicing through wheels, and by the time they return, he’s on board.

There’s a cynical part of me that says “Well, yes, he would wouldn’t he, given what he’s charging?”  M balks at being fleeced €342 for parts that would cost £40 at home.  But it’s Monseigneur Casajus or the Renault Garage that Google rates as 2½ out of 5.  Pierre seems like the better choice.

The parts can be here by Monday, at the earliest.  He’ll do the van that day, at some point, charging €48 an hour for as long as it takes.  We’re in no position to argue.  The breakdown assistance are much more helpful than last time.  ‘Alan’ (pronounced in a French accent) assures me they will pay for a hire car (but not fuel) and €85 towards a taxi to take us 60km to Pau to pick it up.  So, it’ll all be fine in the end.  

We nudge the van back from the garage to the camper stop, where €21.60 for 3 nights seems a wonderfully fair price to pay.  

Collapsed in a local café, over food that someone else prepared, we count our blessings. We’re not in a crumpled heap on the side of a Pyrenean lane, with no wheels/steering column/brakes left to mend; we’re not in hospital, nor is the dog at the vets/in a dog pound, because of injuries; we’re not sitting in a juddering mess, trying not to cry whilst we cook our supper.

We’re in a warm, busy restaurant, the van and dog are safe. It’s a beautiful place to break down and my French vocabulary is now expanding to include several car parts and vehicular maladies.  All good, by the skin of our brake pads, but good nonetheless.

By 8am I’d got myself sorted in the corner of a local cafe whose WiFi I could surf to do my dissertation supervision sessions.  M took Stan and the Van around to Msr Pierre.  The brake pads had arrived, not in specialist Peugeot boxes as promised but more like something we could have ordered from Amazon.  Never mind…

“Come back at 12 or at 2pm, it will be done”

M called back whilst I was working and then we called back together a couple of times. Each time we passed Pierre was working on a different wheel, with just ‘the other one’ to go.  

At twelve, we’d clocked his progress and even a rudimentary knowledge of maths would tell you that 4/4 is done.  So we pulled into the forecourt to call time.  Pierre was a bit put out:

“Je dit 2pm…”

“Oui Monseigneur, mais tu es finis…”

He grumbled, flashed the card payment machine in front of M and then grabbed his keys and dashed out of his office, locking it behind him.

Monday 4th March – Breaks – Break-in? – Broken

 

Oh well. It wasn’t much of a farewell, but at least our brakes were done and we could resume travelling north now.

“Right” says M, “I’ll drive the car” (he being the one who hired it) and you take the van.  Here’s the keys…”

He fumbled for a bit.  Checked all his pockets, checked the surfaces in the van, checked the ignition of the van where he’d agreed the keys would be left with Pierre…

Yup – you guessed it.  No keys. 

Pierre had by this time zoomed off in his little black Citroen C3, up the hill and away into the distance.  We examined the details we’d taken on Friday evening.  The business number could clearly be heard on the other side of the office windows.  No Pierre. No mobile number.  No keys.

We rang the lovely assistance people.  Perhaps they had another form of communication?  No.  But we agreed that surely he was just on his lunch break, he’d be back soon.  

At 1:45 we saw him.  

Hurrah! 

Ah… No… wait… 

Come back…! 

Pierre shot back down the valley.  He turned to look at his premises and clearly clocked us, but didn’t stop.

By two-fifteen, it was looking unlikely that he would EVER return.  I wandered down to the other garage in the town. They rolled their eyes at the mention of his name, exchanged meaningful glances, tired ringing his office number and emphatically (perhaps in the way that only the French can do) said they didn’t know. I wandered back.

The lovely assistance people rang us back.  They’d rung all over town: the other garage, the gendarmerie, the tourism office… no-one had a mobile number for Pierre.  It was a mystery.  

We stood outside his large office window, staring at our keys on his desk.  Would one little stone really be wrong?  Only a small break-in.  Just enough to get our keys and go, not for anything else…

Finally, finally, at three pm, he zooms onto his own forecourt in a desperate hurry. This has nothing to do with us. He asks in a “I don’t really give a shit, but you’re still here, so I’ll enquire” kind of way why we’re still hanging around.

“Tu a nos clef”  (you have our key)

“Ah. Merde” (note the lack of any apology.)

“Oui Monseigneur, Merde”  I replied, affecting a calm that I didn’t at all feel.

He looked at me sharply and I returned the stare.  No matter.  Keys in hand it was off to Pau, to drop off the hire car, see a bit of that city and head North.

The van was a bit sluggish by the time we’d done the 60km to Pau, but I didn’t mention it to M in case I was being unnecessarily alarmist.  By the time we reached Pau and decided it was no place to park for the night, and had then decamped 25 miles south to Lourdes once more, it was clear:  all was not well.

 

 

 

“Feel the heat coming off those brakes”

I didn’t need to.  As my hand drifted within a foot of the wheel itself, I could sense the temperature radiating from the corner of the van.  Not good.  The disc could warp or the brake fluid could burn off.  Either way, we couldn’t ask the van to do another 1000 miles to home in this condition.

We rang the lovely assistance people (again) explained the issue, that we didn’t want anything more from them, other than a recommendation of a nearby mechanic with a safe reputation.  They gave us a recommendation but also were incensed on our behalf.

“Did he apologise to you?” said the lovely Alan (pronounced with a French accent). “He did not apologise to me. he was very rude.”

Tarbes is where we’ll find the nearest reliable garage on their lists.  By now it was 18:45, the garages would all be closed.  Tomorrow they’ll use their infinitely better skills to explain our problem to the mechanics of choice.  Hopefully they’ll fit us in.  We’re on a countdown now to Saturday.  Got to be at Calais first thing.  Got to have Stan’s tapeworm done at least 24 hours beforehand.  I’ve booked a vet’s appointment at Bordeaux for Wednesday, but there’s nothing to say that we’ll be road worthy by then…

But there’s nothing we can do tonight and so little point dwelling on what-ifs.  The answer… clearly… is to go for a wander around lamp-lit Lourdes, and the grotto, light some candles and then find a bistro selling a lovely, grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc with cheese platter and bread, and imported plum pickle.  Then to wander back to the van to wait for tomorrow.   

Brakes are still broken but hey…

First – I want to say that the Britannia Roadside Assistance European Team are brilliant – I mean, fantastic, great, unfaultable.  Which is just as well.

Perhaps it’s because we’re British…

Waking up in Lourdes, we leap into action.  Well, it’s more more like a groggy: “Urgh, What time is it? Tea, I need tea before I do anything…” but we get up and sorted.  We’ve had our instructions form the Assistance Team, and need to be in Tarbes by 8am, just as the garage opens in the hope that they’ll be able to squeeze us in.  

25 miles later and the garage manager is bemused, the assistance team were great, happily explaining what we needed.  Nope.  Too busy… 

Meanwhile, the breaks on this short route from Lourdes to Tarbes are verily zinging with heat 

“You could fry an egg on that.”

“You couldn’t eat it though.”

“No, smartarse, that’s not what I meant”

Smirking feels wrong, so I turn back to the map and we ponder what to do.  The assistance people can’t tow us to Bordeaux, but have found us another garage nearby that can help; we all hope.

So, deep breath, off we go.

25 miles later and the garage manager is bemused, the assistance team were great, happily explaining what we needed.  Nope.  Too busy… 

Meanwhile, the breaks on this short route from Lourdes to Tarbes are verily zinging with heat 

 

Tuesday 5th March – Breaking News – Lourdes to Bordeaux

“You could fry an egg on that.”

“You couldn’t eat it though.”

“No, smartarse, that’s not what I meant”

Smirking feels wrong, so I turn back to the map and we ponder what to do.  The assistance people can’t tow us to Bordeaux, but have found us another garage nearby that can help; we all hope.

So, deep breath, off we go.

To Latrense, a small town outside Bordeaux, 200km away.  David (again in a french Accent, so Daveeede), our latest help from L’Assistance tells us that the garage has lunch from 12:30 – 1:30, he warns that we won’t be seen till after their midday break.  That’s fine, hope’s on the horizon, we’ll need lunch too.  

It’s super-swanky, the garage.  We’re assuming that if Old Pierre was ludicrously expensive in his dump, then this one with the colour-co-ordinated furniture, seating and floor tiles in its expansive foyer might well end up being financially crippling.  We need to be safe though.  So, we stand around and wait till the only person in this huge area gets bored of ignoring us.

Gerome, finally deigns to approach us.  This mechanic is shorter than me, both in stature and charm.  To say he doesn’t want to help, would be to falsely suggest that ‘help’ had ever been on his agenda.  He looks at us and accepts M’s handshake, rebuts my introduction and simply states:

“Come again at 2”

“Pardon?” 

“Come again at 2”

“Oh. Okay.”  

We need his help, we’re not about to argue, so scuttle off to the van, sitting for another 35 minutes to ensure we’re well over the 2pm mark before we return.  

 

Stephanie, the receptionist almost manages not to curl her nose in my direction (maybe I should have put more eyeliner on – these things matter in France).  When I hand her our paperwork, she quickly drops it on the desk, hopefully thereby avoiding infection.  Behind her stands the mechanic who dispatched us so efficiently half an hour ago.  It’s like your worst reception team at the GPs surgery.  The receptionist doesn’t believe you’re ill enough to deserve an appointment; the doctor doesn’t care.

I manage to explain about the brake discs (Les plaquettes de ferin), the heat, the concern.  

“Yes, yes, leave your key.”

I ask what will happen.

“There will be a diagnostic”

Okay again. 

Not feeling over-burdened with information, we take Stan for a walk, away from the industrial estate where the garage is situated and into the very lovely village.   It’s quaint, with a number of small boutiques and individual shops, restaurants and cafes.  The warm sunshine directly conflicts with the cold dread we’re both harbouring.  We’ve walked around, sat and had a drink, but after an hour know we’re just putting off the inevitable.  We’ve got to go back and find out what the results of the tests are.  Like a pair condemned we trudge back to the chrome, black and grey waiting area, so that the staff can not talk to us for another 20 minutes. 

Finally, Gerome appears and imagine our surprise…

The van is given the all clear.  The great assistance people have a technical team who speak with Gerome and they say that it is all “fine.”

We look at the van.  No hubcaps have been removed, no wheels have been taken off for inspection.  Gerome took our van for a drive, apparently… we suspect this included reversing it into the inspection area and back out again.  He still hasn’t actually made eye contact with either of us and now refuses to enter into conversation.  The phone, with the assistance-technical-person on the other end, is thrust towards M as Gerome makes a quick departure through a door marked ‘privee’.

 

Our hands are tied now.  The assistance people have nothing more they can do – the van’s been given the all clear. Our mechanic at home (who M rang) is as unconvinced as we are.  The fact is though, that we’ve got several hundred miles to go to get to Calais at an average speed of 50mph.   We’ll have to push on until either it is all ok, or it isn’t.

Enroute to Bordeaux, David rings again.  He is concerned about the diagnosis too and wants to make sure that we’re ok and still moving (see what I mean, these guys are lovely).  We tell him our experience and plans for the next few days.  At the end of the conversation, David gives a huge sigh.  

“I am sorreee”  he starts his sentence “I think this is just normal for France, Oui?  The garages, they are all rude.  It is not so elsewhere, mais en France…” 

David finishes with another heartfelt wordless expression.  We don’t want him to feel bad and reiterate our relief for his help.  He insists that they will call again on Saturday.  The file will remain open until we reach British shores.  One of the team (we know them all by now) will ring on Saturday afternoon to make sure we managed to cross the Channel without further mishap.  I wish I could hug these guys.  Their feedback is going to be glowing and extensive.

All of which takes us into Bordeaux, parked up on the riverbank, looking across River Gavonne as it sleepily sludges it’s way to the sea.  Our view is similar to staring at Westminster from The Thame’s South Bank, except infinitely more French.  Actually, it’s lovely.  

As the sun sets, the lights from the other side sparkle-twinkle on the viscous water, like one of those pictures from an in-flight magazine of places you’ll never have time to visit.  Stan has another run around, finds a couple of dogs to abuse by sticking his nose up their rear ends, M and I get supper at a local bar, looking on to all that prettiness.

By 9pm, the wheels are still mad hot, but they haven’t fallen off… yet.

Wednesday 6th March – Bordeaux to Nantes

“Ok… easy does it.”

We’re off again, avoiding motorways and tolls so that we can keep the speed down and with that, we hope, the temperature of the wheels.  

It is SLOW going.  

Taking turns to drive, we strategize that if we use deceleration (taking your foot off the gas to slow down) or the gears to reduce speed, we can minimize the amount of breaking.  

The upside of this, is that we see lots of French countryside.  Plus, it’s really flat here, so you can see for miles in all directions.  The view extends straight over the very smooth, endless fields of stunted, dormant grapevines all neatly tied back waiting for spring, to some really pretty chateaus.  The world is waking up slowly after winter; gorse bushes offer gaudy yellow splotches of yellow brightness against the green-brown landscape. They distract from the grey tree spines that are wind pushed, waving distractedly into the dark clouded skies.

The rain started overnight in Bordeaux, it sticks with us up the D137, up to Saintes, past Rochefort, still drizzling as we limp past La Rochelle.  

We take regular breaks to let the system cool and keep an eye on Stan.  He visited a lovely vet in Bordeaux this morning. It took half a pack of dog treats to get two tapeworm tablets down him.  Sometimes, I’m really embarrassed to be the owner of a Labrador whose nose needs surgically extracting from the bottom’s of better socially adjusted canines. Other times, like this morning, he does us proud.  Today, Stan was super compliant, licky-loving and generally charming and obedient in a way that suggested, he would always be that good.  Together, we got lots of approving French nods and glances.  

I’m still beaming with pride when I’m presented with the bill for our 13 minute visit to the vets.  I just want to know – is €52.40 the normal price?  Whether it is, or isn’t, we need the stamps and squiggles in the pet passport and gratefully receive our certificate (for general, good doggy-ness?) to take with us to Calais.  But friends have spoken of the devastating effect these two benign looking tablets can have on puppy-insides.  So Stan get’s lots of additional outside opportunities over the course of the day, to be on the safe side.  Plus, we keep regular checks on the van’s four corners, just in case.

One advantage of bland-ish landscapes, is that they allow the mind to wander.  Mine drifts across the weeks that we’ve had on this trip.  The challenges (mostly vehicle related), and the few tensions that have arisen between us. 

What’s come up and eventually been dealt with is our different perspectives on the need for privacy.  When M has asked for the van to himself, for using the loo/ablutions.  I’ve cleared off with Stan, often for 30 minutes, so that he’s got plenty of time to get sorted.  When I’ve asked for the same, M has either responded by saying: “It’s fine, I don’t mind” or he’s decided to employ the time usefully, by, say, cleaning all the van’s windows, from the outside, looking in.  

One day, I got decidedly tetchy and explained that it wasn’t about M’s level of discomfort, but mine.  He was genuinely surprised.  But, credit where credit is due, he took the point on board.  

In Bordeaux, he was relaxing in the warmth of the van, whilst the wind whipped up a storm outside.  I asked if I could have some space and without a word, M picked up his coat, called the dog and stepped into the maelstrom.  Some time later, I wondered where he’d got to, opened the side door and found him shivering outside.  He looked up at me with concern.  “I didn’t want to intrude…” he offered.  Ok, maybe this still needs a bit of refinement!

That’s about it though.  It’s not been a holiday.  It’s been a learning curve, an adventure, a risk, a lifestyle.  We’ve both worked whilst we’ve been away.  M has constantly been taking enquiries, bookings, sorting out the cottage, doing business admin.  I’ve had various pieces of work to do, much of it time-limited.  So, this hasn’t been a cessation from economic activity; the ability to work whilst away hasn’t impeded or spoiled the journey. If anything, it’s added a level of security.  This is what we can do whilst we’re travelling.

I pushed for this trip; I’m profoundly grateful that M let me ‘gently encourage’ him into it. We’ve learnt so much.

But today is a long, slightly anxious day.  We pull into a Park4Night site at Nantes in the dark, we’ve been driving for eight hours and have covered just 200 miles.  Urgh…

It’s still raining so we leave the brakes to sizzle in the drizzle.  There’s more of  ‘fait accomplis’ approach now.  The brakes will be fine, or they will not be fine.  Today’s drive has, thankfully, been uneventful. Tomorrow we need to make quicker progress or we’ll never reach Calais in time.  Supper is a one-pot wonder and then we watch ‘Fleabag’ that M has managed to download using patchy wifi and mobile data.  

Time’s slipping past, the hours left are rapidly disappearing….

From a four-paw perspective – Gavarnie, France

I’m conscious that it’s been mostly me, or occasionally M doing the talking over the last nine weeks. But Stan’s been with us too.

He was a bit bored on Saturday round Lourdes, lots of slow walking on the lead, not enough running around and chasing things. Sunday, however, was a much better day spent leaping all over Gavarnie. Here it is in his own words:

“We got in the car. I get to sit in the back now, it’s better than the boot.

The drive went on forever – taking, like, TWO hours, but then we got out. 

And there was snow, and water, and hillsides, and paths, and other dogs. Then there was a long walk off the lead. I found a stick whilst they had food, and then I had two apple cores.  The apples were great.

Then we were off and there was snow and paths and other dogs and water in the river and from my bowl. It was great.

I had another stick whilst they sat and had coffee. I chewed bits off it and then ripped off the bark.  And they threw the stick all over the place and I had to go and get it for them (they’re very forgetful).  And it was great.

 

Just as I was getting really hot and tired, we were back at the car and I fell asleep on the back seat.  Apparently there were loads of sheep in the market square that doubles up as a roundabout in Laruns, but I didn’t’ see them, coz I was still asleep.

Then we got home and I got fed.  And that was great.  

Then, because it was so warm, they left the door open till it got dark and I stared out at everything till I fell asleep again.

It was all great.”

Coming Home - the final blog March 9th 2019

The last two days of our trip passed in a blur of fields and trees.  Steep-rooved houses, criss-crossed Tudor beams are either clustered into towns, or spaced out like candles on the flat landscape of a birthday cake.  The van brakes ground, or they didn’t grind, we developed an oil leak but kept topping up. The sole aim was to get home now, distance to cover in case our train pulled into the Euro Tunnel, sliding into the darkness without us.

And yet, like a child on Christmas day fighting tired eyes for fear of missing grown-up events, we clung to the last hours of our amazing odyssey, torn by the requirement to get back and our desire to turn around, shoot off in any other direction but home.  

From Nantes we made it to Mont Sainte-Michele, it’s tall gothic spire puncturing the sky, launching upwards from grey mud-sand of Normandy beaches.  We allowed ourselves a stop from incessant forward movement, to tread its causeway and jostle with multi-cultured faces and voices, squeezing round corners, along ramparts and up to the Abbey itself. Despite it’s apparent medieval nature (think Hogwarts- meets Lindesfarne-meets Bamburgh Castle), it’s mostly a 20thcentury fabrication.  Tiny turrets jut out at odd angles, wonky chimneys offer ledges from which pairs of seagulls squawk in protest at disturbed repose.

Then back in the van, into gear: onwards.  

Our final evening, Boulonge-sur-Mer, was an opportunity partly for reminiscences, glowing memories over a bottle of wine on a last supper out, and the transactional stuff that I’d fixed on achieving.  M, ever patient sighed as we sheltered from icy rain dashing out to the launderette machines cleaning and drying clothes and dog bedding.  In my head, it was essential to re-enter the UK without a mound of smelly washing.  

I was discombobulated, hormones not helping, but in mourning what was over I was snipey and focused on little stuff rather than seeing a bigger picture.  

Next morning, air cleared, mug of tea shared and approaching Calais, we clicked back into the sync I’d shoved us out of.  Notes were compared as miles passed:  favourite days, favourite nights out, the best of ‘this’, worst of ‘that’, things to change/avoid, do differently in future.  Would we stick with this van or make a different one? Where would we go next time?

 

What was clear as the road signs counted down the kilometres to our exit, was that we’ve done many journeys in the past 96 days, the least of which was the 5000+ miles. We’ve learnt what we can achieve if we decide on a course of action.  M’s confidence has grown: he had lost faith in his ability to make things, the intimidation putting him off the idea of building the camper to start with. Now he describes how he can reshape the kitchen area, estimating half a day for the work.  He’s started to write, and gets lost in his own thoughts and words, creating a narrative so different to mine, M fluid at expressing things that I find it harder to say.  

My beliefs have shifted too.  I’ve started consultancy work that I’m loving in its own right, proud also to be contributing independently and more significantly to family finances, outside of the guesthouse.  I know now that we can make a new life, lots of new lives.  I have more confidence that ‘blue sky dreams’ are not in fact only suitable for the ether, they have more value and less risk attached to them than was assumed.  My determination to have us both reach for them offers real benefit, rather than folly. Just look at what we’ve done so far.

Which doesn’t at all cover my gratitude.  I am shortly in danger of being one of those gushy actresses who, hands clutching a shiny award, overstays their stage time.  But, if you’ll allow me to monopolize your attention for just a short while longer:

Thank you Mr Wilson.  You are my best friend, my enabler, trustee of the dreams, tears, heights reached, lows plumbed.  I am afforded influence, and though I’m judicial in what I push for, there are times when the adjective is simply ‘pushy’.  I’ve nudged and then oomphed you.  Thankfully, you see our adventures as good things, have loved the journey and appreciate the necessity of changes coming our way.  A lesser man might have descended into resentful irritation.  You have not.  You wake each day determined to be both cheerful and the best human that you can be.  I stand in awe of such resolution on a daily basis.

Vicks has been a stalwart supporter of this and other departures from the norm.  Her visit in the middle of the trip was precious time.  It provided opportunities to chat about subjects inconsequential and more serious. I hope she and I keep running/cycling together.  I love the space it provides, time for the two of us and our endless striving towards her ever-more-ambitious sporting goals.

Family have been wonderful.  Curators of our journey, lines of contact to speak with, eternally supportive and encouraging. We got back to the UK and stopped first with the “London Lot”.  Out came the trolley jack, copper slip, clamps.  Off came the wheels, problems identified, rectified, rolling stock restored.  M up again early on Sunday morning, hands around the brakes and their innards, supervised by Uncle Ron. Then we go North on Monday for M’s Mum’s birthday (she’ll be 82), to see my Mum, Dad and Joy, to spend time sharing the highlights, good and bad.

We’ve been blessed with friends who’ve assumed our abandoned responsibilities, sorting the cottage and caring for it’s guests, ensuring plumbing keeps flowing in the freezing weather, collecting the post and sending weekly reports that the guesthouse is still standing.  Our garage was broken into, we have pictures for the insurance company, accounts from neighbours and colleagues in the police force.  There’s a raft of kindness that we’re profoundly appreciative of, buoyed by the sense that although we sometimes feel like a separate double act, clearly we’re not and have many people to be glad for.

And, I’m grateful for all the people who’ve responded to this blog, sent messages of support, noticed our tribulations, even just affirmed their presence with a “Like’.  Each bolsters, endorses, encourages, make me fight a desire to hide or keep this exploration of the possible quiet and private.  You’ve come with me; your company has been invaluable and reassuring.

It’s going to be a roller-coaster ten months.  We’re stopping the guesthouse, which necessitates leaving it.  That’s four floors of downsizing and we’ve no idea of into what.  The guesthouse bookings are very busy, lots of guests who are valued friends and new friends to make.  Lots of decisions, weighing up, taking down, simplifying and stripping away.  

Optimism is my natural bent, I assume success and strenuously resist losing that outcome.  I have huge buckets of optimism for the future, our blue skies are liberally littered with fluffy clouds of opportunity.  All we need to do is decide where we’re looking first: North, South, East or West, and surely, that can’t be too difficult.  Can it?

We need your consent to load the translations

We use a third-party service to translate the website content that may collect data about your activity. Please review the details and accept the service to view the translations.