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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wandering Along The Jurassic Coast - May 2007

Hi folks,

Hope you enjoy a few words and snaps of recent wanderings in a largely forgotten part of the South Western English coast - a quick roll down to the mouth of the river Otter in Devonshire to revisit a place which we 1st went to about 20 years ago when SuYin was pre-teen, and very keen on the 'Pooh Bear' books of A A Milne.

The campsite we went to is unchanged, still called Pooh Cottage - a quiet traditional site, no supermarkets, disco, bar, etc - just 2 showers and 6 electrical hook-ups in a big field with lotsa nearly tame rabbits grazing on the edges. Just a perfect setting for Milne's characters to have their adventures.

We walked a lot, 10 miles on one day and 8 the next - I developed a blister on my right little toe - time to get some new walking boots or maybe a new toe! Its a quiet part of the world with lots of retired folk staying in the little seaside town of Budleigh Salterton - about half and hour's walk from the campsite. Sir Walter Raleigh, the famous English seaman, 'legal pirate' and explorer was born just across the hills in East Budleigh. (

We ate dinners at the local pub - just 10 minutes walk from our campsite, great regional beer and very strong (8%) cider. Good home cooking and lots of local yokels to chat with about important local goings-on.........."the fox took three of Martin's chickens last night, etc".

Before setting off on our coastal walks, we first stopped by at what looked like the best traditional butcher in Budleigh and bought pies and pasties baked on the premises to eat along the way. Another important 'pause' was at a neighbouring bookshop to get an Ordinance Survey 4 cm:1km map (which didn't stop us losing our way in a few places!) and then headed Westward down the South West Coastal Path, stopping along the way when Chris painted and sketched.

The weather changed as it often does on this coastline - sea mist, a splatter of rain, brilliant sunshine, clouds........all in the space an hour or so. We got lost trying to find our way across a golf course where the old pathways had got mingled with golfer's tracks. Pushing through the shrubbery along the edge of the course we were amazed at the number of wild Pheasants strolling around in and out of the bushes - I couldn't believe my eyes and wondered why they didn't feature on local menus more often - probably not Pheasant shooting season or maybe the golfers got them before the hunters.

After a late breakfast the next morning we walked down the beach and picked stones in the hazy sunshine - so many zillions of beautiful smooth stones and every one unique in shape and colour, diversity beyond belief!! This stretch of coastline has been made a World Heritage Site - the 'Jurassic Coast' ( ), a heaven for fossil hunters. We pocketed a few choice stones and headed for the estuary of the River Otter towards Otter's Point which took us up the river bank and swampy delta which is a heaven for wild fowl, ducks and migratory birds. After a few miles the scenery changed - farms, rolling hills, little tracts of woodland with old oaks, maybe 300 years old clinging on the side of banks, some with huge roots exposed - only still there by virtue of their twisted trunks which made them unsuitable for the shipbuilders centuries ago.

The weather report warned that it was going to bucket down on Saturday evening, and for the next few days, so packed up on Saturday lunchtime and headed back to London - a nice break, and great change of scene. Nice getting home too - Bill's chicken curry on Saturday evening, down to our local, local for a few pints of Staropramen ( ............yummy!!!

hugs to all

Our Big Rollabout - September 2007

Its good to be back home in Crouch End, and great to have a tiled roof over our heads again. Nice to get hot water from shiny taps and have our own poo-pot and shower and not wonder whose bodily fluids recently graced the loo-seat or shower floor!! Great to be able to roll over in bed and not run out of space too.................of course there are lots of campervans in which all this is possible, and more. But not in our humble Volksy. It's value wasn't in the luxury of accommodation, but was certainly in the very hard work it did for us, and for finally bringing us home - sedately, but safely. We really appreciated its mechanical goodwill, small comforts, and unfailing reliability - and after living together for nearly 5 weeks, it certainly feels more like a horse (one that you can live in) which has taken you through a campaign, than a VW van. A good friend of ours who we visited in Vigo who met the van called it Elvis (because of its big green quiff above the cab), and Elvis really was the star of our trip........... "Thank you so much, thank you so much!!".

This isn't just sentimentality, Elvis carried us 6574kms (3944mls) across some fantastic country. That's the same distance as driving from Miami to Anchorage (Alaska) in a straight line, or a Far Eastern comparison, from Singapore, through Thailand, Vietnam, and up the coast of China to Harbin, just north of Beijing! Just to be boring, an Aussie-ish version would be from Perth, across the coast of South Australia, via Adelaide to Sydney, up the Queensland Coast to Lizard Island and across to Port Moresby in New Guinea!! Up and down mountains, across endless plains of wheat rolling away to infinity, down quiet winding river valleys through cold passes in the High Pyrenees and baking hot temperatures in Central Portugal where it was nearly always over 40 degrees in the day, and got up to 46 degrees (abt 110 Fahrenheit in old money!) in the upper Duro valley. Sitting here writing this, I can hardly believe we crossed so much landscape and saw so many villages and towns - some nestling on mountaintops, and others creeping up the side of steep river valleys. Europe has much to offer the landscape junkie - an amazing variation in geography, vegetation and architecture. And this adventure only took us through a narrowish band of land, perhaps no larger than 400 x 900 miles, running down across 3 countries, and fairly close to the Atlantic Coast.

Time and again I wondered how on earth the Romans, Moors and all the other invading armies throughout medieval times could have made such journeys. Trudging across the vast plains, rocky highlands and parched, baking hot semi-desert, wearing helmets, armour, and horses pulling all their needs on carts (their vans?)............water too, where did they refill, how much did they carry, was water more important than arrows and steel and tools? This is tough country, nothing but Cork trees and Dwarf Oaks dotting the landscape, cattle looking very thirsty, some very 'out of the cowboy movies' farmhouses - a European version of Arizona or New's really there, and we rolled over it all day after day. Breathtakingly beautiful and totally awe inspiring. All this sounds like academic musing, but driving across some of these places made us wonder how we would survive without a friendly Elvis under our seat! I wondered if the Legionnaires sitting, shivering in winter watchtowers on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland would have wished to be back in the dry dusty heat of Extramadura, or were they happy to be out of it? Both places have their own beauty which is worlds apart in topography, climate and colour.

We saw old cities and towns, castles and cathedrals, to the point that we just got tired of buildings and history - just the landscape was absorbing enough. We didn't walk as much as we wanted to. The temperatures were just killingly hot and I realise how fit the cyclists and pilgrims must be. They were there so often - the cyclists in their brightly coloured cycle fetish gear, they must be mad! Sometimes singles but other times in huge groups, all hammering up hills in the midday sun like they only started 5 minutes ago..........(no Englishmen or mad dogs in sight), just these guys sweating as they pumped the pedals.

The pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago ( ) also amazed me. I had expected most of the pilgrims to be oldies, but age spread was surprising - men and women, some on foot and some cycling the hundreds of miles to Santiago
(check: ) to see the legendary tomb of St James (Santiago to the Spanish, St Jacques to the French). It is the 3rd most 'popular' pilgrimage in the Christian world - after Jerusalem and Rome! The pilgrimage is a serious undertaking, a long and often not too winding road crossing country that changes drastically - hot dry plains and cool wet mountain ranges. Stopping to refuel Elvis along the road close to 'The Camino' I noticed that the stations all sell shoes and blister plasters!! This is a popular line for pilgrims who must wear out a few pairs along the way - I bet there is an abundance of cobbler shops in the little towns along the way which also do a roaring trade.

Santiago was wet and cloudy, and we were told that it's normal. We even bought an umbrella there! The cathedral looked very different to all the others we saw. Dark, brooding and looking like it just emerged from a swamp - all the intricacies in the facades alive with flowering weeds and moss. Not the shining beauty that is Burgos or Albi cathedral, this one looks very serious indeed! The interior full of activity, chanting and the sound of masses taking place in all the side chapels as the priests try to accommodate the overwhelming demand for prayer and devotion which must be uppermost in the minds and souls of the pilgrims after their long, exhausting journey. Confessionals lining all the corridors, mostly full, sometimes just with one sleeping priest..........overworked perhaps? All this under the gaze of the statue of Santiago high above the main alter. A tiny gilt staircase weaving its way up through 'screaming out at you' sacred gold and bejewelled altarpieces and holy decorations leads to a little chamber where a priest urges you to hug the Santiago statue, strangely from behind, pop a donation in the offertory box and then he hands you a little sacred printed prayer with a picture of Santiago printed on the other side (a 'Compostella' - hence the name 'Santiago de Compostella'). This is the literal proof of each pilgrim's passage and their humble treasure to take with them as they turn back to prepare for the homeward journey.

Travelling in a campervan can be an experience more akin to exploration than vacationing. Most folk go to A PLACE for a vacation, and if they travel around within the area its usually for a day trip, and then back to the accommodation for the evening. With a campervan you aren't restricted in the same way. We were always wondering what fascination could be round the next corner, or over the next mountain range. Reading the many guide books that we took, we had a huge range of choices based on mood, inclination or plain curiosity. There were areas which we loved and wanted to stay in for a while, so we did. Took in the local flavours, walked around the area, sat in the village square or enjoyed the local produce if it was market day. Chris painted a lot, I often read and wrote in my journal. Both of us have brought home our own memories of the trip in different ways - each place with a different perspective, and memories of events which spark off each other's thoughts on a place or situation. We both took lots of pictures and many of them are attached - you may notice that Chris's camera has far higher resolution than mine - I'm very jealous!

As we crossed these breathtaking landscapes, time and again we were forced (by our amazement at the scenes) to stop, get out of the van and snap away. Often, other motorists would stare, shake their heads and even sound their horn at us (even though we always tried to find a safe parking point). Locals didn't know what drove these mad Oriental tourists in their beat up Volksie to stand out in the middle of nowhere snapping away like demented Japanese tourists in Trafalgar Square! Living with such beauty flooding into your room every morning when you open the window must visually desensitize you. I'm sure if I lived on a hilltop village, watching a crimson sun rise and set daily over a dim horizon beyond the plains nearly a hundred miles away it would eventually get boring. The spectrum of colour always limited to creams, parchments, yellows, khakis and ochres with the odd trickling line of green poplar groves trying to follow the path of an almost dried-up river valley, and always, that cobalt blue sky. Thankful for the dazzling white walls and terracotta tiles of the occasional tiny village - phew, a couple of new colours to contrast against the endless arid sprawl - just like something out of Don Quixote and Clint Eastwood all rolled into one. The names of little villages that we passed through added to the 'cowboy comics' theme - Santa Cruz del Monte, Santas Martas, Carrion de Los Conde, Melgar de Fernamental, and so it went on every few kilometres! If you ever pass through northern part of Castilla Y Leon, the stretch between Burgos and Leon is unmissable. The same for the western side of Extramadura, and also when approaching Zarragosa from the south - which are just as barren and possibly more dramatic!

Fortified villages in Portugal, many built by the Roman engineers, later conquered by the Moors, held against all odds until finally besieged and reconquered by the Christian / Knights Templar armies in the 10th/11th centuries should be the archetypal tourist honeypot, but some of them have managed to avoid being overrun by coach parties. Perhaps the coaches can't get up the unbelievable gradients, or around the tight hairpinned approach roads, and poor Elvis had a tough time too! We dismounted when we could get no further and wandered upwards through the steep, narrow cobbled alleyways which lead up to the ancient castle walls and watchtowers. The views looking across flat plateaus from 1500m high mountaintops + castle battlements breathtaking and must have given many resident warlords a great strategic advantage, and the borders between central Portugal and Spain are dotted with scores of such beautiful citadels. The populations in the ones we visited were mainly of older folk, the young possibly moved to cities and larger towns on the plains and the coast where jobs are available and modernity has seduced the later generations away from their village life. In Marvao, there were only 170 citizens left, half of those working in the local administration or a handful of boarding houses and restaurants. In Castelo de Vede, there is just one engineer left to fix the village bicycles, motorcycles, the odd car, generators, meat mincers, lawnmowers and anything else which runs on fuel, electricity or grisly old muscle power. More important maybe is the one bar and cafe which is also the village sports club's headquarters. Ahem,.... even in the mountains of Portelegre, beer and sport have close and very symbiotic relationship! There was a signpost to the fountain surrounded by a drinking trough in one of the back streets - famed for its curative waters which sprung from some mountain spring once blessed by a famous saint. Anywhere else in the 'tourist world' there would be admission charges, tacky shops selling empty bottles, and at least 5 surrounding pizza restaurants and trendy shops selling upmarket Crusader gear and postcards, ........not here, just a little boy playing with a stick and a cat lazing in the only bit of shade for hundreds of yards. The curative waters were for any thirsty passer-by. At the end of each day in this region we were exhausted by the heat and constant climbing, but the scene that met you at each turn of the alleyway became addictive, and we couldn't get enough of it. We had to force ourselves back to the campsite to raid Elvis's freezer - cold beer and supermarket Roti Poulet or Frango.

Campsites were generally very good got cheaper the further south we went. In France they were in the mid-20 Euros range and in Central Portugal in the very low teens per night including electric hook-up. There were a some funny and a few strange campsite managers. In France a pissed English campsite owner, a serious spinster charging the highest site rates in Sarlat, thuggish manager in Vigo, bearded tycoon in Gorliz, the 'used to be a campsite last year' campsite on the mountaintop in Lamegono, the 'no-one in the office, help yourself' campsite at Viseu, The multi-tasking Dutch family in Ferrera do Zezere, the 2 gay English queens near Marvao - they all helped to shape the character of our adventure, and make punctuation marks in our long, long rollabout. Most campsite owners were sane and straightforward, keeping clean, efficient and tidy sites. We had few complaints other than the extreme heat in Portugal, and the flies and mozzies when camping near farmland.

There is no time to even briefly cover the list of places we visited and I'll leave that to the attached pictures which, I hope, are worth at least a few thousand words. I've reduced the picture sizes for fast downloading (esp. for those without a broadband connection), and if anyone wants full size originals please just say the word - they are all in the region of 750Kbs to just over 1Mb each, and there are almost a thousand to choose from!!!.

I hope you enjoy the read, and looking at the pictures just a fraction as much as we enjoyed our long adventure. We certainly felt like ancient mariners returning to the home port when we finally got homesick and turned north, headed for Central France and the Channel crossing. After all the drama and mind boggling scenes in Spain and Portugal, we still enjoyed parts of Southern France the most. They may have a tamer country, and maybe its just our preferences coz we've always been rather tame ourselves, with the very occasional yearning for a big adventure. So, its back to our Hobbit-like village of Crouch End for the time being, until Elvis gets an oil change and the increasingly noisy clattering in it's engine seen to, we'll be back to daily chores and the odd spot of chicken curry.........oh god, there's the garden too!!

Well no time to loose ay!

Hugs to all