Limbo into the future

It’s been a while since we last posted, just as we were leaving our hibernation cave to go back to “civilisation”. I think the fact that we couldn’t quite summon up the enthusiasm to nail a post together says quite a lot about the last couple of months, to be honest.

Despite living in the same house for fifteen years, in the town Ellie grew up in, we just didn’t really feel like it was home any more. Odd, eh? I don’t know if it was the changes in decor, or the fact that our previously rammed-solid little house was all austere and stripped down – set-dressed for the benefit of potential purchasers – but we really didn’t much regret our decision to put that For Sale board up.

We clearly crossed our fingers hard enough, because with the help of some wonderful estate agents (not often you hear that said!), things moved quickly. Within three weeks, the board changed from “For Sale” to “Under Offer”! With no chain from our buyer, a completion date was set for around two and a half months from the board first going up.

We felt a bit in limbo during the time we spent back there – we couldn’t really get stuck into anything much, because we couldn’t get any of our stuff out of storage. Spring in Chorleywood is our favourite time of year for two reasons – the bluebell woods and the magnolia tree in the front garden. Fortunately, although by rights we should have missed them, the late spring meant we caught both in full force…

bluebellsTime was spent catching up with friends and neighbours, and Ellie’s Oyster card got a battering for London art exhibitions. Daytrips to Waddesdon Manor, and the utterly wonderful Highgate Cemetery – overgrown and atmospheric, home to unknown Victorian wealth and the known from Karl Marx to Douglas Adams via Alexander Litvinenko’s lead-lined grave.

highgate_angelWe finally got to visit the fascinating Bletchley Park – home of the wartime code-breakers, including Alan Turing, one of this country’s most sadly wasted talents. I’ve read plenty about the German Enigma coding machines, but just being able to finally see one (or several) in the flesh answered several questions that had hitherto puzzled me. As for the sight and sound of the Colossus “bombe” in action…

The van was pointed towards the wealds on the borders of Kent and Sussex, for a weekend of the National Trust membership card getting used hard – Chartwell, Sissinghurst, Bodiam Castle, together with some smaller NT properties. A little bit of a wait for the rather wonderful Smallhythe Place (the house of the Victorian actress, Ellen Terry) found us in an early-Monday-morning wine tasting session at the Chapel Down winery in the village. For a brief moment, our life was back on the road again…

But we still didn’t quite feel right. We’d got a few things to do in the interim, but – time passes somehow both slowly and quickly simultaneously whilst you’re waiting. You’ve not got much to do, but there still doesn’t quite seem to be time to get round to it.

Perhaps we were just building our stores of energy? We’ve certainly depleted them over the last week!

Being fortunate enough to have a short overlap between getting the keys to the new house and handing over the keys to the old one, we had a brilliant idea… We don’t have that much stuff at the house. All the storage unit contents are neatly stacked and filed. There’s some gumf piled up in the garages, sure, but… Why do we need a removals firm? They won’t want to do the garages anyway. We can do this ourselves! A few quotes from the various compare-the-removals websites came in. Some looked worryingly cheap, others looked very high by comparison. A chat with a mate who runs a removals firm WAAAAAY up north confirmed our suspicions – the cheap ones were too cheap, the others high, and that was based on nothing more than a guesstimate on our part as to volumes.

The day dawned. We loaded the car trailer with something that almost passes for a car, and tied it to the back of the camper.

ready_to_convoyWith the Peugeot in convoy, we headed into the future. Eventually, we pulled up to our new front gate – and stared at a brace of removals vans blocking the driveway. Not much need to panic, though. Tim-the-Vendor was just finishing the last few bits of packing and sorting, and as he’s such a damnably decent guy, it wasn’t a hardship to have a cuppa and help check everything was done. Just as well we did – as Tim was about to leave, Ellie noticed that the storage under a window seat at the top of the stairs had been completely overlooked… Full of beautiful old books, with a lot of sentimental value.

Eventually, we were alone, facing a garden that seems to have exploded since we last saw the place – barely a couple of months before, but still in winter deadness. Some things have definitely changed…

gardenBut that’s another day. Is it now time to relax? Oh, no. The fun was about to start. After an echoey night on the camping airbed, first thing the following morning saw the keys to a 3.5t Luton-bodied Transit van in our hands – and the real work started… With huge thanks to our soon-to-be-ex-neighbour, Roger, we made serious progress in loading most of the house contents on the first day. Despite a comically incompetent attempt to drop a bookcase on my own head, as the sun set, the roller shutter on the back of the empty van was closed, and it was time to think about assembling the bed frame so we could get in it.

The second day, we started to attack the storage unit. Box after box after box of books, until we started to become seriously concerned about the weight compared to the van’s payload. Time to fill the remaining space with some of the house furniture we’d not managed to fit in the previous day.

van_unloadThe third day, the storage unit and house seemed both to be almost completed. Over the eight years since Ellie’s family house was emptied and sold, family heirloom furniture and other items of great sentimental value have been tucked away into a 75sqft corner of a Big Yellow warehouse. No more! The back wall of the unit was once more visible.

And so, on the fourth day, we felt confident enough to tackle the rented garages. The lowest priority – if we couldn’t get them done in time, they could wait. No problem – I can chuck the heavy stuff from the lockups in, then the few bits from the garage at the house, whilst Ellie has a quick hoover-around, then the last few bits from the house can tuck in. Except it didn’t quite work like that. By 6pm, I was still at the lockups, facing the admission that the van was stuffed to the gills. Eventually, thoroughly worn out, we arrived back to the new house at 11pm. No point in even thinking of unloading now – just time for some cheese-on-toast as our main meal of the day, and bed.

The fifth day started FAR too early. Unloading a van before 6am is not my idea of restful. Still, this would be the last day – just a few bits out of the garage, the last couple of bits from the house, and we’re there. Umm, no. As the afternoon wore on, it became clear that the clutter fairy had been busy overnight. Either the van had shrunk or we’d forgotten just how much there was to go. Unloading started, but failing light forced an early end.

Day six. Cutting it FAR too fine now. Another pre-6am start on unloading, before that lovely restful 150 mile drive. Again. This time… Surely? There could only be a few things left. It was surely ridiculous to take the huge van again. Should we stop in the rental place and swap it for a smaller, less thirsty, one? No, don’t be daft. Let’s just get down there. Wise move. Very wise move. I had to hold the last few things in as the roller shutter was pulled down once more.

We were done. Complete. The house was empty. The house was cleaned. The house was ready to hand over.

Just one final early morning to go – the van had to be returned, and we had to get back home in time for a little local village fete starting that afternoon. Ellie’s talking more about that over on her Colourboration friend Lynne’s Dove Grey Reader blog… and you can read the second part of this post on Lynne’s blog here.

Posted in By Country - UK, Personal stuff | 1 Comment

Kickstarting the Silk Road

We’ve been following Brad and Sheena’s blog for a little while now. They’re travelling and blogging from the same type of ’80s VW as ours, but their trip is a notch or three above ours in ambition.

Since leaving their home in Arizona in January 2012, they’ve been heading through Central and South America, before loading Nacho – their van – into a container for Malaysia. They’re now sat in SE Asia, looking at a map and wondering how on earth they can head west… Whilst we’ve met several people who’ve done similar routes, they’ve not had American passports – and in these politically interesting parts of the world, that makes a big difference.

So Brad and Sheena have come up with a potential route – follow the Silk Road, over the Himalayas, Tibet/China/the Stans. Wow. No real political issues, just a minor financial difficulty – Chinese visas are likely to hit them for nearly $20,000… Yeowch. But. There’s hope. They’ve started a Kickstarter fund-raiser, looking for promises of money in return for a promise of the book-of-the-trip once they’re through. We’ve just donated. Perhaps you might like to, too…?

Even if you don’t donate, their blog’s a cracking read.


The Kickstarter fundraiser didn’t work out for Brad, Sheena and Nacho – they got half way to their target, though. Time for them to rethink their plans and route… Watch that space! We’ll be following on with them, that’s for sure.

Posted in Officialdom stuff, Personal stuff, Travel stuff, Van stuff | 1 Comment

Wherever the time goes


A walk on Hergest Ridge with friends in mid-February (followed by obligatory pub lunch of course)

Spring is finally showing intermittent signs of its imminent arrival, and our idyllic time in Herefordshire has drawn to a close for now. Winter blew back in with a little too much enthusiasm on the weekend we moved though.

The past few months were punctuated by artistic endeavours, visits from family and friends, lots of exploratory outings, and the perennial still trying to work out what we’re going to do next.

viewSo what are our onward plans?

After living the dream on the road and following it wherever it goes, ending up in Herefordshire on somewhat of a whim, we are now following the narrow lanes of Welsh border country and preparing to live the dream in the country. A journey of a different kind. Our travelling shoes are going to be hanging on a hook near the door, ready for another journey in the not too distant future.

Househunting started as a bit of fun, but after starting to actually view some properties, we found ourselves honing our requirements and gaining an increasing knowledge of what we didn’t want. When we walked into a certain house close to the Welsh border, we felt strongly that this one had the right vibe, and was the closest to meeting our needs within our budget. In fact we fell headlong in love with it even before the second viewing.  And later, after spending several hours with the vendors over delicious homemade goodies, we felt that this place has close to exactly the right ingredients and will form the framework we’ve discovered we want for the next stage of our lives. So now we’re into the lengthy house sale and purchase process, and I don’t want to jinx anything by saying any more here now. Watch this space!

There have been all too frequent visits back ‘home’ to our old house, once our tenants departed, to prepare it to put on the market. So suddenly all the odd-jobs and projects that never quite got ticked off in our 15 or so years of ownership have been done in around a month of rushing round like flies with blue bottoms. After clearing the house of our personalities before we left on our travels, and having had tenants in it while we were away, it no longer feels like home. In fact the nights we’ve spent in our van in the last couple of months have felt more like coming home. On making the house beautiful through others’ eyes though, we have tried to get over noticing all its faults borne of familiarity, and have worked very hard to make it as perfect as possible for the next owners to enjoy. And hopefully provide us with the hard cash for our continuing plans.

The finer points of architecture, house interiors and estate agents’ details, and our dreams about our new place have not quite been the only things to consume us. We’ve enjoyed socialising with lots of visitors, from those who’ve dropped by for lunch, to those who’ve stayed for a few days. We went to see the splendid Hereford Cathedral and its most famous treasure – the Mappa Mundi, and to Ludlow for a huge book sale, a lovely riverside lunch – and to see the walls, before their recent collapse. In fact we have visited most of the towns and villages in Herefordshire and southern Shropshire.  We also went up to Derbyshire for a rather muddy but very joyous 2cv meeting – think of a cosy heaving pub where you know everyone. And we have thrown ourselves into our arty pursuits.

My printmaking course has been most thrilling and I’ve loved the surprise of the results, and was sorrowful when the term came to its end. I’ve been drawing on images from among our many trip photos to create collograph printing plates, basically printing with a specially prepared collage. Although I’m now tempted to splash out on a printing press, they are sufficiently pricey enough for me to rein myself in and bide my time to be sure that I will indeed do enough printing in the future to make it a worthwhile investment.

Inspiration from Dougga, Tunisia

Collograph printing plate

Collograph printing plate

Resulting print with chine collé technique (coloured paper applied to paper during printing)

Resulting print with chine collé technique (coloured paper applied to paper during printing)

chickensonbenchMy creative bookbinding course didn’t run in the end, but I’ve been picking up on my old skills again, creating unique handmade books for friends’ birthdays in February and March.

In the end I did a term of watercolour and mixed media techniques at the college instead, and some of my inspirations came from closer to home – our chicken neighbours on the vineyard.


Coddington Vineyard chickens sketched in water soluble Neocolor crayons

The upstairs bedroom space at our cottage doubled as a studio for these endeavours with great light and a great view.


pastamakingAdrian turned his hand to woodcarving, and while I have been painting away, he has been enjoying having time to spare to cook lots of lovely food, including cake and biscuit baking and pasta making. His lasagne has always been a dish to die for, and now made with handmade pasta it really is wonderful. We have very much enjoyed having an oven again.

We also both went to a stained glass taster day, coming away with a colourful duck and a puffin to hang in our forthcoming sun-filled windows.

When Lynne at Dovegreyreader and I teamed up on our Colourborations, we were delighted to find that quite a few of her followers joined us for the ride here on WhereverTheRoadGoes – it’s been great to have you along. Libby is one of you, who was quite surprised when she found out that we’d ended up only over the hill from where she lives. She got in touch with a warm welcome and tons of local information, and a dinner invite. It was lovely to meet Libby and Colin, and their friend Pat, and an evening of fabulous food and animated conversation followed as cyberspace contacts turned into real life friends.

On one of our last weekends, we happened upon an event that was happening in the wooded hills above the village. People in ancient open-topped motor vehicles were hurtling round the lanes, and then throwing themselves and their cars up muddy tracks on hill climb challenges. It was the Vintage Sports Car Club’s  Herefordshire Trial, and it looked like huge amounts of fun. We felt nostalgic for the days when we owned a 4×4 Citroën 2cv and enjoyed doing much the same.trial

We chose to live out in the sticks to test out a period of country living. We were in Herefordshire during a long unprecedented winter period of wet and cold weather. We were even snowed in for a few days back in January. In spite of this we’ve become so captivated by this area of Britain, that’s helped to shape our thoughts finally towards what we want to do next.
Keep following us to find out if the road now goes where we want it to. In the meantime, let’s raise a glass of local cider to Herefordshire.cidersundowner

Posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - UK, Personal stuff | 9 Comments

Deep and crisp and even

Once we’d settled into the cottage, we thought it rude not to take advantage of an almost unknown period of geographical stasis, so signed up for a series of part-time courses at the local college. After a bit of back-and-forth over which courses may or may not be running, we’ve ended up with Wednesday through Friday each week booked. The weather, however, seems to have other plans.

It all started last Thursday afternoon, when darkening skies and decreasingly liquid precipitation suggested that hitting the supermarket – hard – would not be a bad plan. It was no great surprise when Friday’s dawn saw our little corner of Herefordshire buried, in apparent sympathy with much of the rest of the country, under a thick blanket of snow. A quick check on the college’s website showed that there was no point in even attempting to head out into the big wide world. They were closed. Hey-ho. Strike one-ninth of my wood carving course. As Friday turned into Saturday, plans for the weekend started to look less and less viable.


First thing Sunday morning, I went off for a little wander up the lane, to see if there was any hope of vehicular escape. The decision wasn’t difficult – not without 4wd or winter tyres, no way. From the driveway here, the single-track lane climbs gently for about a quarter of a mile, before getting a chunk steeper at the junction. Since the lane’s only used by us, our landlords, and the farm a bit further down, there was enough traffic to cause the snow to become compressed and very icy, but not enough to clear it. Even had we got to and past the junction, the main lane out of the village (itself only 10 or 15 houses) looked to be in similar condition, with little hope of reaching tarmac for the thick end of another mile.

Monday, though, brought slightly warmer temperatures – so we figured it was time to give it a try. Since the Peugeot’s clutch seems to have celebrated release from the lockup it was tucked away in during the trip by starting to slip badly at every opportunity, we’re still relying on the van. It fired up and emerged from its blanket easily, but seemed determined not to idle at all – as soon as my right foot let the throttle pedal close totally, it was as if the engine had just been switched off. Hmm. This could be fun. Out we bimbled, and headed up the lane with surprisingly little problem. The last bend before the junction, though, held an unexpected hazard – in the form of an articulated tanker truck, bringing feed to the farm’s cows… No choice, but a quarter of a mile of reversing back to our gate, interspersed with repeatedly restarting the van’s engine – the couple of passing places in the lane would have been borderline in width at the best of times.

Once to the junction, though, the worst was passed – although the long-but-flat route into town seemed wiser than the steeper hills of the more direct alternative, as well as hitting the major (well, relatively – it’s got a number, even if it is a B and four digits) road more quickly. Even so, it was still probably three miles before we consistently put tyre to tarmac.

Tuesday saw the college’s website announcing that they had re-opened! Woo! Just in time for Wednesday, and Ellie’s Creative Printmaking session, right?

Umm, wrong. Another few inches last night saw the big red banner appear at the top of the website again. Will tomorrow see more of the same? Will it continue into the weekend? Watch this space.

(And, yes, all those of you in countries with “proper winters” are allowed to laugh at the UK’s utter incompetence and failure to cope in the face of a light dusting…)

Posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - UK, Personal stuff, Van stuff | 2 Comments


viewNow Twelfth night has passed and we are well into a New Year, we’ve already broken a resolution… to get back into the blogging habit. We’ll attempt to remedy that starting now. However, we have so far kept the resolution to stay off alcohol until the first 2cv camp meeting of the year, Firkin’ Freezin’, in mid-February. It’s early days though.

Nearly everyone we meet still asks us the question ‘what was your favourite place?’, but there’s a close runner up with ‘how does it feel to be back?’ This receives a less than straightforward answer too.

Before we left we had no idea we’d be on the road so long, but the road just kept on going. We didn’t miss Britain at all, and were ambivalent at returning. Now we’re here though, after the initial shock, we are enjoying being back. Being new-returnees has seen a momentum of invitations, emails and phone calls and has meant a veritable social swirl with family and friends over the last two months. Rekindling contact with those we know well, meeting with long-lost relations, and getting to know new people, with warm welcomes all round.

Notions of what home means to us have changed. While travelling we felt at home everywhere, after all we had our home with us. We put down some sort of roots really quickly nearly everywhere we went. We’ve felt at home with everyone we’ve visited on our return too. With winter coming on though and the immense amount of rain that has come with it, a significant amount of which has made its way into the van, we realised the van would not be somewhere to fall back on as a home for more than a night or so for the time being. We now have a closer affinity with homelessness, although ours was entirely self-imposed, after plotting our journey around the UK, not always sure where our next roof was coming from. Strangely, the one place we don’t feel at home, in spite of very warm welcomes from our friend-tennants whenever we touch base there, is at our old house.

Have things changed in one and a half years? Not really. People still have the same issues, the government, the economy, changes to the education and welfare systems… life goes on… it’s the same old, same old, and we’re slowly learning the new vocabulary of onesies, Gangnam style and zuma.

We are cosily ensconced in our Herefordshire cottage for now though, putting down temporary roots in a new area. and enjoying free reign with the oven and washing machine.

ledburyWe attended a meeting of a local 2cv club ‘The Wye Knots’ at a pub not too far away, not expecting to know anyone. Feeling like newbies we walked in, and realised we knew most of those present… more catching up with old friends who were surprised to see us in their locality.

Of course we have decanted our possessions from the van into the cottage, together with a few choice boxes from our storage unit. We have to get used to not having everything with us at all times, and have to think more seriously about what we need to pack when we go away. So when someone suggests going swimming, we realise that no, we can’t tag along as our swim suits are at the cottage.

Not being used to staying in houses has meant that important items have been left at various locations around the country (notably Adrian’s winter coat and phone!). Getting forgotten winter clothes from the storage unit felt like having a whole new wardrobe. Having lost weight means the joy of getting into clothes you didn’t think you’d be able to wear again. Thank goodness I didn’t get rid of absolutely everything then.

We are now embarking on the next part of our life-change project – to find a new place to live somewhere in the countryside where we can afford the space we need and want to find new ways to make a living. When I’m in London, I can’t bear to think of leaving it, but when I’m in the country I don’t miss it at all. Our old house in the South-East will be up for sale come the spring.

Meanwhile our need to be working, and guilt at not doing so, is countered with not wanting to anchor ourselves anywhere too permanently yet. There is the inner conflict with the need to settle in a forever setting and that old familiar yearning for the open road. All around us our friends are working hard, and we’re now spending ‘real’ money at British prices as opposed to spending those pretty Eastern European notes, where money went much further!

While we are getting our heads around all this, we’ve signed up for some art courses at a local college. For me I’m rekindling my interest in handmade books now I have space to do so. Adrian is going to discover the joys (hopefully) of wood carving. I’m also picking up on duties related to my role as Trustee for the Heath Robinson Trust.

A line may have been drawn under our overseas travels just for now (how quickly it all fades), but we’re still in limbo waiting to see what happens next.

Happy New Year!

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At Christmas time

Happy Christmas, one and all!

tealit_baggerWhether this Christmas sees you at home or on your travels somewhere, with or without your loved ones around you, we hope it’s all you could possibly wish for.

2013 is just around the corner, and our plans for the next step of our lives get a little bit closer. External factors will, as ever, dictate how the year pans out – but one thing’s for sure, we hope it’ll finish differently to the start! It’s been a wonderful couple of years, and the adventure promises to continue!

But first – time to kick back, feet up, and enjoy ourselves with two good friends staying with us in the cottage.


Posted in By Country - UK | 2 Comments

Wintering in a walking wonderland

The first month and a bit back in the UK seems to have passed rapidly, without much of note actually occurring. The Scottish wedding was followed by a weekend in a damp Warwickshire pub carpark, catching up with our 2cv friends at the ever-excellent Halloween camp. Prodigal hospitality has been extended far and wide, mostly at embarrassingly short notice. We’ve made repeated forays back “home”, liberating Ellie’s Peugeot from the depths of a lock-up and raiding dark forgotten corners of the Big Yellow storage unit. Eventually, we found our way to the edge of the Cotswolds, ambushing 2cv-mate John’s hospitality whilst we did some exploring around parts of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, attempting to track down somewhere we’d love to spend the winter.

It took less time than we expected.

hopcottageOur first impressions of the Hop Cottage were that it was gorgeous, in the attic of a barn and with a living room dominated by mysteriously imposing 19th century Hop Bagging machinery, but probably a bit too much out into the sticks. After a return to the area the next day, though, we realised that we’d clearly started to drift back into a suburban mindset. It really wasn’t that far, and – b’sides – who cares anyway if there’s a supermarket within walking distance or not? The route from Ledbury, the nearest town, brought some magnificent views as it clung narrowly to the edge of a ridge, winding as it climbed and fell.

coddington_villageHerefordshire’s not a part of the UK that either of us know at all well – yet. It’s completely off the radar, to the point where I suspect most people would be hard-pressed to even identify it on a map of the UK with the counties merely empty shapes. And, yes, we would have definitely included ourselves in that… (Cheat’s notes :- Follow west from the Cotswolds towards mid-Wales, south of Worcestershire, north of Gloucestershire.)

coddington_church_viewWe’re about five miles outside Ledbury, an absolutely lovely town – one of those rare gems with a high street that still almost entirely consists of independent, local “proper shops”. Our first shopping trip into town saw us chatting to various stall-holders in the Farmer’s Market held underneath the black-and-white half-timbered Market Hall; heading over the road and into the church hall to find a series of stalls selling home-made jams, crafts and cakes; then finally browsing through several of the butcher’s shops and the greengrocers. Via, of course, the shop selling nothing but local artisanal cider – not only bottled, but also a choice of a dozen draft taps to fill whatever flagons you may have about your person.

Even though the floovineyardding’s missed us (but not by very far), the weather’s been far from kind to the thoughts of long walks via a pub with a roaring fire, but that already seems to have passed – and we’re well placed, with a public footpath heading through the vines right outside our door. Vines? Yes, we’re living in the middle of a working vineyard! Unfortunately, though, the wine seems to have such a good reputation for quality and value that they’ve totally run out until the next vintage is ready…

Posted in By Country - UK, Food stuff, Personal stuff | 3 Comments

Move the scenery instead…

Whilst we’re back (however temporarily) in sunny Blighty, it seems like a good idea to set the site’s header pic to a random rotation through all the old images we’ve used whilst on the trip.

If you’re wondering where any of them are, just have a look at the page acting as an archive of them all – click on Header Pics above.

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Answers to some frequently asked questions

By way of an initial reflection on our year and a half on the road, here are some answers to the questions we were most often asked on the road.

What is your favourite place?
This is the question that is asked more often than any other and is the most difficult to answer. There are just so many places that we’ve loved, for different reasons.

Familiar and undiscovered areas of France, ancient Spanish cities with tapas bars galore, Portugal’s culture and landscape, but we didn’t have long enough there. Italy for its Renaissance treasures and for its food, we fell for Sicily and spent the longest time there. Tunisia, especially the southern desert mountain areas, with the mystical ksour (see image above). We were captivated by the quirkiness of Albania with its dilapidated roads, the people of Macedonia, the gorges and views of Montenegro, the coast and islands of Croatia, untouristy and friendly Serbia, delectable Slovenia, battle-scarred yet resilient Bosnia, the rural folk painted joy of Romania, just a taste of Slovakia and Poland that leaves us wanting much much more, and a longer time in the Czech Republic too would be welcomed. A dash through Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands just gave us a taste for more too. The thirst for travel will never be quenched. The more you see the more you want to see – it feeds itself.

If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently?
There is very little we would change, the trip unfolded as we travelled and we adapted ourselves to the circumstances we faced and made a lot of the plans and choices on a day-to-day basis. We originally planned to do most of Western and Eastern Europe in one summer, and realised quite quickly that this was a ridiculous plan. Even after a year and a half, we’ve still only scratched the surface. There is still a lot to see and it would be good to spend more time walking and cycling in a particular region next time, a different pace of travel that brings you closer to the landscape and the people.

Have your travels affected your relationship?
We are still together, and still speaking, sometimes even in a normal tone of voice after spending nearly 18 months on the road in a small campervan.

We were living life more intensely and being together in such a small space it becomes a microcosm. The good times are magnified but so are the bad ones. There are so many highs you have to learn how to cope with the lull days, when nothing much happens. And the times when events are out of your control. You learn to face challenges and sometimes it’s the bigger challenges that we can deal with easily, while something insignificant gets blown up out of all proportion.

Although we’ve been together for 16 years, there were times when the stresses and strains of living so cooped up have become too much and we would have gladly gone our separate ways. Times like when a full bottle of red has been spilt into the food cupboards late at night necessitating a full springclean… Luckily those moments blow over quickly. Still, it’s difficult to build in extra physical and mental space and we were rarely able to spend more than two hours apart. Sharing so much so closely means that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate one’s own thoughts and feelings aside from the relationship. The trip has taught us to value our own time as well as cherishing the time spent sharing experiences. We have become even closer if that’s possible and are ready to face the future together.

Have you had any problems with the van?
Yes, an old van means of course we’ve had our fair share of issues. Our major breakdown came in the summer of 2011 with our driveshafts, something that threatened to end our trip before it had begun in earnest. Thanks to John and Steve Gallimore, our rescuing knights in shining armour we were back on the road again before too long, fortified and ready to face the fray. Other more minor matters have been dealt with relatively easily thanks to Adrian’s mechanical prowess, some Googling, the 80-90 online forum for VW T25s (T3s), and Louis Barbour’s generous assistance and garage space in Croatia.

Weren’t you scared?
Before leaving I had slight pangs of fear – mostly around the feeling of being vulnerable in a van with all our stuff in. Once on the road we have virtually never felt unsafe, anywhere. We avoid known dodgy areas and take all the normal precautions you would take as a city dweller – care over locking the van, removing valuables where possible.

I would feel less safe in many parts of the UK than we ever did in perceived unsafe areas such as southern Italy, Albania, Romania or Tunisia.

You trust that you will always find somewhere to camp, somewhere to stay and if you breakdown somehow things will work out. So far they always have, even at the blackest moments.

What have you got out of the trip personally?
We have become more adaptable, flexible, tolerant, more outgoing. Living in a small space has meant strict discipline and we’ve become tidier and more minimalist. We’ve learned to appreciate the simple things and the small details, from a hot shower and clean clothes to good fresh food gathered in the market and cooked on our two-ring stove.

We have pushed boundaries within us as well as crossing many physical borders. We first really felt we were doing this when we travelled in Tunisia – we’d changed from being tourists and felt like real travellers for the first time.

We have learnt more than we ever did at school. We have improved our languages (French (improved), Italian (from scratch), German (dusted off) and a smattering of words and phrases in at least 10 other tongues from Arabic to Polish), history (ancient and modern), art (from caves to installations), architecture, geography, geology, conservation and restoration, natural history,  crafts and traditions, religions, and the ability to instantly convert from and to a number of currencies.

We’ve been inspired by how different civilisations and empires have shaped the regions we’ve visited – and how they’ve influenced everything from religion to home furnishings. Travelling slowly means you notice the continuum of language, foods, architecture and people as you move from place to place.

Other things we’ve learned:
– The more challenging the country, the more rewarding it is.
– The poorer the country, the friendlier and more generous the people.
– Meeting or knowing people in a country enriches your experience one hundred per cent.
– The best time to travel nearly anywhere in Europe is the ‘shoulder’ season: May, June and September (plus a week or so either side of these) – when things are open, but before it gets too hot, too crowded and too expensive.
– There is more likely to be bickering in and around the van if one or more of us is hungry.

We’ve both lost a significant amount of weight and reached fitness levels previously unknown to us. This has happened through a change in eating habits, much more exercise – cycling, swimming, walking, simply being on the move a lot more. We hope to keep this up in spite of all the tempting food in UK shops, and those welcoming pints.

Most important of all: we’ve learned to value every day like it’s our last one on earth, never to take things for granted, and to live in the precious present moment.

What do you miss from home?
We missed very little from home (apart from family and friends), especially after the first few months. We did miss having an oven (pies, roasts …), a grill, a bigger fridge, and regular predictable access to a washing machine. These were very slight ‘misses’ compared to all that we gained though.

What will you miss about travelling?
Our thirst for more travel is tangible and we know we will find it hard to settle down. We’ll miss the sounds of the evening dog chorus – part of the aural scenery in southern Europe and North Africa.

As are: unoiled donkeys, dawn cockerels, the miaou of the latest camping cat, cows mooing (sometimes even sounding like bears), church bells, mosque calls to prayer, unfamiliar languages spoken at speed, rattling trams, buzzing mopeds, waves crashing, and there’s always a boy with a ball.

The sights and smells of markets, forests, olive groves, fresh mountain air, the tastes of new foods and drinks, trying new things from slacklining and grape stirring to cycling up hills. Seeing eagles and vultures soaring and lizards fleeing.

The constant new impressions and experiences, the joys of discovery and of never knowing where we’re going to be. The awe-inspiring views of a snow-peaked Etna to the rare sight of the floor of Siena’s cathedral.

From the columns of ancient civilisations to dramatic new masterpieces.

The adventures of camel riding, wild horse round-ups, giant burning torches, getting stuck in the mud… or the sand.

The reward of our first steps inside an orthodox church having first having overcome language barriers to find the key. Wild swimming in rivers, the sea and lakes, and into caves.

Joy and laughter with new and old travelling friends and above all… the freedom of going wherever the road goes.

…only being shackled to the road could ever I be free” from the song ‘The Road’ by Frank Turner

Posted in Personal stuff, Travel stuff | 4 Comments

Trying to see with fresh eyes

Why have we headed back to the UK now when winter’s approaching fast? You’re asking. We’re asking ourselves the same question! We were planning this return in late autumn for several reasons (finances, not wanting to spend another winter in the confines of a small van, sorting the MOT, post and of course catching up with family and friends). When a friend texted us to invite us to her wedding by Loch Lomond in late October it gave us a date to aim for and plan around. It took a few days, back in Romania, to get our heads around having a set end date for our travels in mainland Europe, but once we had mulled it over, it felt good to have something so joyous to come back for.

T S Eliot wrote “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I had this quote very much in mind as we arrived back in the UK to low thick clouds and rain, and the overwhelming sense of the familiarity of everything threatened to wipe out the last year and a half of travelling from our thoughts quickly. After the initial shock of arriving back, we have been looking at our country with fresh eyes. Trying to anyway. On entering every new country on the trip our eyes are open to all the new things about that country, the people, the scenery, the things in the shops. The people have been very friendly so far – is this just a language thing? I don’t know, but most people have been surprisingly upbeat – Andy at Campershack, the MOT tester, the tyre courier, the waitresses where we had our first fry up, people in shops and on trains. Our friends and family have been pleased to see us too, in spite of us turning up at little or no notice. It’s relaxing to not have to worry about what language to use, how to ask for things. We know the shops, we know they will more than likely have exactly what we expect them to have. If we ask for six slices of salami, we won’t get 600g (there was a week in Serbia where our sandwiches did get quite boring after a while). Is this all much too predictable though?

After a few days of sorting ourselves and the van out, swapping summer stuff for winter stuff and digging wedding clothes out of storage, we were ready to hit the road again, northwards en route for Loch Lomond and Claire and Stephen’s wedding.

What a location and what a wedding. Who would believe that you could have the ceremony outside above the Loch in late October, with the bride’s grand entrance… whizzing in by speed boat, in her warm furry hooded white cloak over her dress.

The food and company were great, and the dancing went on until the early hours when the brilliant band rounded off with a rock rendition of the Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond. The Cruin venue kindly let us overnight in their car park. The rain set in though and the view next morning wasn’t what it might have been. We then headed on to Inverness to visit my cousin and his family for another warm welcome – it has been too long and new babies are suddenly five years old.

The journey north was a timely reminder that however far you may travel, the landscapes of the British Isles will still take your breath away. Scotland’s lonely cloud-shrouded moody mountains, the incredible orange moorlands and purple hills. Gushing waterfalls and rivers, distant snow dusted tops, deep mossy bark forests. Our eyes were opened once again to how much this country has to enthrall us, in spite of the weather.

Our time up here is short, most campsites will close in a few days’ time, and we have other things on our return to the UK to do list…but we vow to come back and enjoy Scotland in more depth. It is hard not to stop and explore the back roads like we’ve been doing for so long, and instead keep to the boring, but time-saving, old motorways.

A pigeon struck our high top window cracking both sides of the plastic double-glazed pane. With a £100 excess, this is an extra expense to add to our growing van parts shopping list. We were just relieved not to find the remains of the culprit embedded in the window, and were glad it wasn’t one of the many birds of prey we’ve seen soaring close to roads on our travels.

I made a brief visit to London to surprise my book club meeting. They nearly fell off their chairs and there was, just as before I went away, a long evening of wine, cocktail sausages, stories and laughter.

I thought I knew London by heart, but after a time away, your memory lapses and I found myself on the Jubilee line which hasn’t stopped at Charing Cross for decades now. I got off at Waterloo and walked back across Hungerford Bridge. The heart of London. I paused to remember the great cities we’ve been to of late. How does London compare?

Nothing can really take its place in my heart as I listened to the sounds of the river, the traffic, the steel drum busker, and the cityscape emerged before my eyes in the misty late afternoon sunlight. This was the first time I had been apart from Adrian for more than two hours in seventeen months, and time spent alone has become as precious as the time we’ve spent together.

Our travels go on. More catching up with family and friends around the country. We don’t have a home – it’s still rented out to friends for the time being. We still don’t know what we’re going to do next. We’re determined not to fall back into the old ruts we made our escape from. We know more clearly what we don’t want to do. But we don’t yet hear the call to what we want to devote the next part of lives to. Yet. Except that it must include more travelling. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re definitely on our way.

Posted in By Country - UK, Personal stuff, Wildlife stuff | 7 Comments