Thursday, 16 November 2017

Making dreams come true: another slow road adventure.



When did you last make time to dawdle? Can you remember what it was like to do nothing more than meander, pootle or bumble along? And when was the last time you took the slow road, just because you could?

If your answer is ‘too long ago’ then you need to keep on reading. And then possibly put 3rd May 2018 in your diary. That’s because it’s the day my new book project, Take the Slow Road: Scotland gets released. That’s the cover, above. I love it. What do you think?

I am really excited by it. Not only because it’s a new book, but also because it’s the product of a dream come true, and because of that, is a departure from the stuff I have done before.

If my previous books were tender looks at food, camper vans and camping, this one is a love note to the journey that gets you there in the first place. It’s about taking the time to enjoy the road as a destination in itself, taking time to see and understand landscapes and to relish the moments that they give you.

You might say that Take the Slow Road is the antithesis to Top Gear. And you’d be right. It’s the cure to your overactive, overachieving, go-getting lifestyle and all that unnecessary noise and guff that goes with it. It's the opposite to understeer and oversteer and not really seeing anything except the price tag and the BHP and the number of head turns per mile.

But. And this is very important. Take the Slow Road has never been about being lazy. Quite the opposite. It’s about getting off the sofa, getting out and getting some air in your lungs. It’s finding, seeing and loving all that is to love about life on the road.

I spent a year writing Take the Slow Road: Scotland, making lots of journeys north from my home in Cornwall, sometimes on my own, sometimes with my kids and sometimes with friends. Each trip was incredible, for all kinds of reasons. I drove a few different vehicles, sometimes borrowing motorhomes and campers from Marquis Motorhomes, sometimes driving my own van, and once borrowing a beautiful Type 2 VW from Deeside Classic Campers. I also cheated on one trip and did part of it in a hire car with a tent, although this was more to do with me missing the deadline than anything else. Incidentally, on that trip I did perfect the art of cooking pasta in a hotel kettle when I had to take cover during a really heavy storm.

When you flick through the pages of Take the Slow Road I hope it will take you on a visual and literary journey through Scotland that will inspire you to nip out to the garage and promise the old girl that you’ll book that trip north like you always said you would. I hope it’ll inspire you to turn the key and head off to climb high mountain passes, take tiny ferries to beautiful, remote islands, saunter alongside stunning lochs and laze on lonely beaches. I hope it’ll drive you to explore tiny seaside villages, botanical gardens, cycle routes, camp sites, stone circles, castles and landscapes that you won’t find anywhere else.

Why write about Scotland first?


If anywhere was perfect for a road trip it is Scotland, of course. It has great distances, great views, great people and some of the greatest landscapes in the United Kingdom. Scotland also has the UK’s deepest lake, the highest mountain and the oldest building. It has eagles, red squirrels, wild cats, pine martens and capercaillies. Whales, dolphins, otters and seals swim in its seas. Huge, beautiful Caledonian Pines grow alongside its byways and on its mountainsides, while rare machair grasslands thrive above the tideline of its most beautiful west coast and island beaches.

Scotland also has roads. Thousands of miles of them. Many of them are spectacular in the extreme. With the exception of some of the major routes, every route I drove had something special about it. Heck, even the M74 passes through some interesting scenery.

Scotland has Britain’s highest main road, highest classified road and the world’s longest triple tower cable-stayed bridge, the Queensferry Crossing. It is a country of superlatives, where you can be at the most north westerly tip of Europe or at the UK’s most remote pub.

For motorhomers and camper vanners Scotland is a brilliant place to travel. Generally there is a positive and tolerant attitude towards ‘wild camping’ and parking up at beaches or in the countryside that’s down to an understanding that motorhomes and campervans are ‘good for business’. Good for them. And good on us if we work really, really hard to keep it that way.

Next up. Take the Slow Road: England and Wales

I am already embarking on the next book in what I hope will be a long series. But I need help!! If you have any great ideas for journeys in England and Wales that are interesting, beautiful, difficult or join up themed destinations (I joined up the Harry Potter locations in Scotland), let me know!
In the meantime, please enjoy some of the images from the book.















Thursday, 9 November 2017

Why I hate the Tegstove. And why I love the Tegstove.


Some time ago I was approached by the people at Tegstove. They asked me to try out one of their stoves. It uses Teg technology (creating an electrical charge by placing hot and cold surfaces together) to charge an internal battery in the stove, which can then be used to charge phones or gadgets.
I said yes, because I like trying out bits of kit, but I did make a point of insisting that I would be honest about it because I only review products I actually use, whether good or bad.
In due course the stove arrived and I unpacked it and read the instructions and looked at it and played with it.
And then I put it away again.
Why? Because I hated it. I couldn't see the point of it. I couldn't see how it could possibly be useful to anyone who is serious about camping. It looked gimmicky and nothing more than a bad case of form over function.

Here's why:
It's heavy. It weighs 1.4 kg, which is about 1.2 kg heavier than the Vango folding stove I use for lightweight camping. That means that it's not practical for anyone who is cycle touring or backpacking. You simply wouldn't want to carry it in your rucksack.
It charges phones. But so does my camper van, so why wouldn't I use the van to charge my stuff and get a lighter weight stove? My van also has a stove. Why wouldn't I use that?
It takes disposable gas canisters, which are expensive.
It stands tall, at 365 cm when open, which means it would be very difficult to erect a windbreak for it, unless that windbreak was at least 2 feet tall. The height also means it wouldn't be practical to use inside the van, on a table as it would create too much heat too near the roof lining.
That was that. I couldn't see who might benefit from such gadgetry.
It wasn't for me. I didn't write the review.

Then I went to Scotland with my daughters. The Tegstove, which had been languishing in the van, came with us. On our last night we were pitched up at Bunree Caravan and Motorhome Club site near Fort William when the gas ran out on the Slidepod stove halfway through a curry. With no spare and no other way of finishing off the curry, I had no option but to fire up the Tegstove. Reluctantly.
So, I thought, I might as well test it properly while I am here, using it in the field.
Hyper cautious, I unpacked it, spread the legs as far as I could make them go and twisted a half full gas canister into place. I opened the pan supports and placed the curry on it. I turned it on and it lit easily, as you'd expect from the piezo ignition. The flame, fierce and oxygen rich, wasn't affected by the wind too much and the dinner went on. And so did my test. I plugged in my phone to the stove and, as promised, it started charging immediately, which was a bit novel, to be honest.
As the curry simmered away I examined the flame. Thanks to the Teg technology, the act of charging creates heat, which is used by the stove to warm the gas canister. This solves the problem that these type of canisters have, which is to lose pressure as the remaining gas cools. The heat applied by the electricity generating technology to the canister keeps a constant flame, which means it'll give the same heat, right until it runs out. Sure enough the Tegstove simmered our curry until it was perfect, just before the canister ran out.

I took a picture of the Tegstove in use and put it away. I still wasn't convinced that it would be useful to anyone but was nevertheless impressed by the technology. As a stove it worked. As a charger it worked. As a power source it worked. Nice. But what about that weight issue?
I posted the picture to Instagram and forgot about it. But, when I checked back I was surprised by the reaction, which was pretty good, to be honest. Lots of positivity. Was I missing something? Then I read one comment, which stood out from all the others.

A friend, Cal Major, said "Whoah! I need me one of those."

And that's when it dawned on me that the Tegstove is an awesome bit of kit. Why? Because it's perfect for people like Cal. She is a paddle boarder and recently paddle boarded around the isle of Skye, camping wild each night. Before that she paddled her board around the coast of Cornwall, often camping away from anything. I could see how having a battery pack that could charge a phone or GPS would be more than useful - it could be a lifesaver. I could see how being able to recharge that battery pack when cooking could be very useful, especially at night when a solar panel wouldn't cut it. And I could see how the propane flame and the warming effect of the Teg technology could make cooking a lot more efficient. And I could see that the weight and size wouldn't really be an issue for someone paddling a SUP. Or paddling a kayak, or riding a horse or a motorbike.

Finally I could see that it's not really aimed at me. But if I were to head off into the wilds at the helm of something, I would surely want it by my side.
Perhaps I should give my Tegstove to Cal?
No. Not a chance.
I love my Tegstove.

Get your own at http://www.tegology.com/ 

Friday, 5 May 2017

These boots were made for…


I went to the Arctic in March this year as part of a convoy of 2 Bailey of Bristol caravans and a Bailey motorhome. It was cold, as you’d expect. But not the kind of cold you get in the UK. That’s a grubby, unhappy and hysterical cold that’s usually accompanied by wind and rain and slush and traffic jams and a partial collapse of infrastructure. It’s not good when the cold bites in our little island. 

But in the Arctic, as I found out, the cold is crisp and clean and dry. It’s so cold that all the moisture turns to ice and falls as snow. There are no puddles or slushy hard shoulders, no black ice and no refrozen pavements.

The further north we drove, around the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea through Latvia, Estonia and Finland, the colder it got. In Latvia we found a beach where the edges of the sea were framed by a four foot high wall of frozen sea spume. Later, in Estonia, we encountered our first deep snows. But it wasn’t until we crossed over from Tallin to Helsinki that we woke up to whiteness.

That’s when the temperature plummeted and I needed to break out the big guns. I am talking big coats and snowboard pants (I loved my Patagonia over trousers and parka), woolly jumpers (knitted by a lady in Appledore) and layer upon layer of merino (Patagonia). And of course, something good to keep the tootsies warm.

Keeping feet warm is always a priority for me. As a surfer I have known cold, especially in my feet. They are the first thing to get chilly in the water - and on the ice - and always where the misery sets in fastest. Once my feet get cold I lose interest and can't concentrate on anything other than trying to get them warm again.


A few weeks before leaving I got a call from Hi-Tec. They were calling to see if I was interested in trying some of their walking boots. Always one to spot an opportunity I suggested they could support me on my Arctic Adventure with a pair of top end winter boots. Happily they obliged and sent me a pair of their Trail OX 200i Waterproof  Winter boots. All black, and looking every bit technical they certainly appeared to mean business. Only time would tell.


My standard walking boots had been warm enough until we got to Helsinki. But then I felt the cold creeping in. They are great boots but not designed for harsh winter conditions. We are talking minus 3 or 5 at the least, with some days dropping as low as minus 10.

It was time to test of the Hi-Tecs. I pulled them out of my kit bag and put them on the morning we woke up in deep drifts in near Oulu and headed out onto the ice road. Because we were filming there was a lot of waiting around standing on the ice. And that was a great time to try out the boots.

What can I say? Well, the difference was noticeable in the warmth my feet were enjoying. Or rather, they were not cold any more. And that’s important. The difference between comfort and discomfort is palpable and vast. And on the ice road the Michelin rubber soles felt stable and unslippy. Is that a good way to describe how a boot grips? Who knows! But I never fell over when I was wearing them. Okay so I sank up to my thighs in snow drifts, when I went for a walk along a frozen river in Ivalo, but I never slipped over. And that’s what matters.







































So, the verdict? There’s a lot of technical detail about these boots that you can read at the end of this post. But at the end of the day the thing I wanted was comfy, happy feet. I got them.
So, you know, this is an official endorsement, from the proving grounds in the Arctic Circle, that these bad boys do the job down to minus 10. And at just £109, it ain’t going to cost the earth to get them.

And you won’t even fall over.




TECH SPEC: THE FULL GUBBINS

  • Leather upper combined with a tough ballistic leather protection, ensures durability and comfort
  • Thermo-Dri and 200g Thinsulate insulation traps heat and stays warm
  • i-shield repels water and dirt and is resistant to stains
  • Padded collar and tongue provides extreme comfort
  • Gusseted tongue keeps debris out
  • Micro-fleece moisture-wicking lining keeps the foot dry
  • Durable nylon and rustproof hardware ensures for a secure fit
  • Extended lacing system offers a more personal fit and greater adjustability
  • Molded heel chassis, offers additional stability, protection and durability
  • OrthoLite® Impressions insole with slow recovery foam delivers superior cushioning
  • Lightweight, durable ‘fork shank’ ensures stability and a controlled flex
  • Ultra impact-absorbing, high rebound XLR8>> CMEVA midsole ensures long lasting cushioning and comfort
  • High performance Michelin rubber outsole delivers multi surface traction and ensures stability and security in the toughest of conditions


Friday, 24 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: days 14, 15 and 16


I woke before the sunrise at Sundsvall. I was very glad I did. We had parked the motorhome facing the view, so the minute the kettle went on I opened the blinds to check what the morning was threatening to bring. The timing was perfect. A deep and dark blue sky was giving way to an orange glow from the east, directly opposite our pitch. I got out of bed and walked carefully (it was very icy and steep) down to the water's edge to get a better view of the sun rising over the opposite side of the bay. There were huge chunks of ice floating in the water at the edge of the campsite, bobbing in the tiny swell. While I had recently walked on frozen lakes and rivers and been in a vehicle driving over an ice road to an island, it was still an inspiring experience to see chunks of ice in the sea. You should never get blase about sea ice. And while it was warmer than it had been, it was certainly pretty parky. Later on I actually regretted not stripping off and taking an icy dip. Which is all very well with hindsight I suppose.
The drive on day 14 brought us to Gothenburg, some 400 miles to the south. While there was still ice and snow in the city, it was warmer and the countryside became less and less white the further south we travelled. I began to miss it. Instead of bright white fields, frozen trees and snowy roads we returned to the greys of winter like we have at home. That was a bit of a come down. But it also meant our adventure was coming to an end.


Day 15 started unlike others in that we had an appointment with Volvo cars at their enormous plant in Gothenburg. After a quick press call outside the factory (the motorhome had to hang back on this occasion) we took a factory tour in a little train. Sadly we had been booked on a Swedish language version of the tour so, whole the tour guide was very nice, I, for one, understood nothing of it. So let me tell you that it's an enormous place where they don't allow cameras or phones. Around 30% of the workforce are women and there are lots of robots doing welding and putting things together. The plant is on a vast scale, very clean and ruthlessly efficient (or so it seemed) and a little bit frightening if I am honest. But that's the nature of the car biz.


Before the day was out we crossed the magnificent Oresund Bridge from Sweden into Denmark. It's an absolute cracker at 5 miles long. It also turns into a tunnel when it 'lands' on an artificial island and then goes underground for another 2 miles. I can't say I have ever crossed such a wonderful bridge and it was a real honour to be able to. Another remarkable experience on this once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Arctic.
The trip as a whole offered me some truly unique opportunities. While the driving was tough the moments between - meeting Santa, seeing reindeer, driving the ice road, crossing the bridge - will stay with me for a long, long time. The team were exceptional company and the vehicles and Bailey caravans and motorhome outstanding in that they were warm and comfortable and dry. And with a steady supply of jelly babies to keep us amused during the long hours at the wheel, we pretty much had it all.
The final day presented the biggest driving challenge of the trip. Around 500 miles to Hook of Holland for the ferry home to Harwich. We left at dawn and arrived at the port at around about 8pm. A real heavy duty day. But no matter. We were only 24 hours from home.

So. Who said you can't camp in winter? Not me.

Check out the arctic adventure on Bailey of Bristol's blog. It is inspiring stuff.


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Days 12 and 13


I had been in Sweden for a few hours when I enjoyed my first interaction with a Swedish person. I'll get to the point in a minute but need to tell you about how I got there first. My contact came on our first Swedish campsite, just across the border with Finland. The site was deep in snow, its glamping pods half buried in white, and the pitches cleared between deep drifts. We had arrived from Ivalo, having said a fond farewell to the film crew earlier in the day. Of course we would miss them - and their vegetarianism - but, on the plus side it meant that our group of hungry, carnivorous males could enjoy some meat. I promised them all a reindeer curry (ironically, honestly) once we arrived at our next overnight.

So that brought me to being in the kitchen block at the campsite, which just happened to be next to the sauna. Every campsite has a sauna. Did I neglect to mention that? Anyways, I was cooking the curry and needed to wash my hands so I went out into the changing rooms to do so. When I came out of the loo I almost bumped into a naked Swedish lady coming out of the sauna, presumably on her way to rolling about in the snow. I apologised in a very British way, as you do, and she said it was no problem before I dashed back to my curry. Why tell you this? I'm not one for stereotyping or for playing to them. But if you are going to have a cliche, you might as well make it one that celebrates life, fitness and a joy for living. Top marks Sweden! It certainly beats roast beef and umbrellas.

No Rudolfs were harmed during the making of this curry
Okay, let's stop the sniggering and get on with the story. The curry was fabulous, a beef rogan josh with home made pittas, spinach and garlic, and rice. Bart, who had joined us in Ivalo for the return leg, fished out a guitar and sang us a few ditties while we drank beer and enjoyed a relaxing night in a snowy campsite, somewhere near the arctic circle. Perfect.


The morning brought more snow, perhaps unsurprisingly. It also brought a change of scenery. Instead of the long straight roads through snow and forests of pine and birch, we hit bridges, fjords, the coast. We crossed rivers and cruised around bends, past open farmland with painted wooden barns in typical Nordic colours: ochre, battleship blues and cool, burnt yellows. It was a blessed relief to be honest, although the pines and birch forests were still pretty much omnipresent between the items of interest.


Our campsite on day 13 was in Sundsvall, a town on the Baltic coast about half way down Sweden's east coast. We arrived late, as usual, and then dashed into town for food before bunking down for the night. It wasn't until the next morning that we were able to appreciate the full beauty of the location. But that's for another day.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Days 10 and 11


After our visit to Santa we schlepped through the snow and ice to Ivalo, our final destination in Lapland. Ivalo is home to Milbrook’s Arctic Testing Station, a place where winter tyres are tested to their limits in serious conditions. It was much the same with us. On arrival we met up with the team from The Caravan and Motorhome Club, the PR company and a couple of journalists. For us, the core team of drivers and crew, it was a chance to drink some pop, eat some good food and let rip. So it was all back to the motorhome after dinner to raid the drinks cabinet, play some tunes and party into the arctic night. It wasn’t pretty.
We were a bit late getting to Milbrook the next day. And a bit cold. One of our Volvos lost all power so we had to drive there with no heating, windscreen blower or lights, which made for a very uncomfortable few miles from the campsite to the testing station. The temperature was minus 8 degrees.
Once at Milbrook we were invited into a gorgeous round, wooden Lappish Hut for a briefing. Then the team’s drivers headed out to do some braking testing with the caravans and cars. As it turned out the results were better for the cars with caravans when the brakes worked than for the cars themselves. Who’d have thought? After lunch the team got to play about in the snow on the test track, which was exciting… it’s not often you get the chance to play about like Top Gear in the Arctic!

That evening we ate a magnificent Lappish meal in another Lappish hut. It consisted of reindeer, mushrooms, salmon and salads… there was something really earthy and of the forest about it and everyone loved it. That night we also saw a lunar ring, a phenomenon where by the light of the moon passing through ice crystals in the air creates a halo effect.


Saturday was adventure day for most of the team, and for me too. While the crew went out on a skidoo safari I went shopping for ingredients to cook a seafood chowder over a fire for lunch. It was a big challenge for me as I haven’t cooked for that many people (18) and in that kind of extremes before. The team pulled together to help me get the fire lit, prepare salads and get it all ready, so by the time lunch time came around we had chilli pasta, a seafood chowder cooked in my Kotlich over a fire and a whole range of salads ready to go. Using the Kotlich pan is a bit of a showpiece but everyone seemed to love it – and the chowder tasted great!


 That evening we ate at a hotel and then took to the wild to chase down the northern lights. While we shivered in a layby at the side of the main road (it was minus something ridiculous) that consitiuted the wilds we caught glimpses of the ‘merry dancers’ between the clouds. At first we could only capture them on camera but after a while we caught a long streak of green as it flickered across the sky. It wasn’t the best aurora that has ever been seen but it was ours to treasure.
A great moment and an ambition fulfilled.


Monday, 13 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Day 8 and 9


We woke up at Kuopio camping to more deep snow. It had snowed overnight and the skies were still leaden with the weight of more. It wasn’t a heavy day as far as driving was concerned as we had a crew to pick up from Bailey and Truma, the heating people. They arrived at Oulu airport and met us at the airport hotel where we had lunch before heading out to Finland’s longest ice road. It crosses the Baltic sea to an island and is 15 kilometers long. We parked up the vehicles by the ferry port and prepped the vehicles and film crew before the first caravan headed out onto the ice. The ice is apparently 50 centimeters thick and can carry weights up to 3.5 tonnes, which is about the weight of a Volvo plus fully laden caravan. So prepping the vans simply meant lobbing everyone’s luggage out onto the ice.


I went over in the motorhome with Bernie for the journey out and then back with Niall, from Practical Caravan Magazine. It was one of those experiences that sounds more exciting than it probably was, simply because of the fact that you are driving on ice. The driving itself was straightforward: don’t go too fast, don’t stop and don’t be too heavy. Ice being ice there were a few cracks, some with water bubbling through them, but we didn’t stop to find out if it was dangerous.
The locals seemed pretty blasé about it and we were overtaken once, which seemed to be pretty stupid. But hey, if they can overtake on blind bends and summits, why should an ice road be any different?
That evening, after trekking on to Ranua Zoo camping, the closest all year camp site to the Arctic Circle, we pitched up in the dark to the sound of howling wolves from the zoo. That was a bit weird. There were a couple of other motorhomes staying on the site, which is always nice to see. We aren’t the only ones daft enough to camp in minus temperatures!
The morning brought more snow and lovely thin light. Perfect for taking our first steps into the Arctic circle, just 50 miles to the north. We set off. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I understood that we were heading to Santa World on the circle itself and had to hurry because we had a private audience with him before they opened for business. To be honest I was expecting a line of white painted stones on a lonely stretch of tundra. Some things just don’t turn out that way though do they?


We met Santa alright, just before he went on shift at the Santa World theme park. As theme parks go it wasn’t bad. There were reindeer and skidoos and huskies and lots of pointy hatted elves with bells on. I was frightened. But, of course, when we met Santa (the queuing system was very impressive) he was a very jolly fellow with red cheeks and woollen boots and a lovely Finnish accent. What more could you expect? It was, honestly, one of the most enjoyably bizarre experiences of my life. I felt like a kid and a grumpy old bugger all at the same time, filled with wonder and a touch of cynicism. It really made the trip for me.
We had our picture taken with the big fella and then were ushered out because his shift was about to begin. The punters were getting frisky outside.

It’s always Christmas in Lapland!