Thursday, 31 May 2012

Beating the Jubilee jams, the camper van way.

Heading off this weekend? Of course you are. Well, here’s my quickly-adapted-for-the-Jubilee guide to surviving the summer traffic from my book, The Camper Van Coast. The bad news is that there will be jams, the good news is that, if you are in a camper, it may be just that little bit easier.


Here we go again. It’s the summer time, there’s some royal action going down and suddenly we’ve got a whole bunch of bank holidays all at once. Everyone is going to make a dash for it. Quick! Pack up the camper van and head for the coast!
I have lived in the Westcountry for many years now and have gone backwards and forwards to here, there and everywhere a few times now. For five years I commuted backwards and forwards to London in a camper van (and other faster vehicles) almost every week. So I am an old hand at traffic jams, especially Friday night ones, bank holiday ones and the keeping you from making last orders at the Bradworthy Inn ones. Fortunately though, in that time I got quite good at dodging them. That’s because I am impatient and would much rather be moving than not, even if I’m going off on some random track that’s not even pointing in the right direction.

Sometimes you can’t help but sit in a jam. Sometimes there is no way out. You’re just going to have to take it on the chin. Happily though, this is another one of those times when you’ll be jolly glad you’re in a camper and not in a car. Stick the kettle on and settle down in the back. Heck, why not invite the neighbours around for a brew? You might as well make use of the facilities available to you (although this will only work if you are well and truly stuck and NOT ACTUALLY MOVING). One thing to remember is that you must not, under any circumstances, let anyone know that you have a porta-potti in your van or everyone will want a go.

Surviving the Jubilee jams.


Put the kettle on. But only if you’re not moving. Did you pack milk? Or enough cups for everyone? You won’t forget it twice.

• Turn the ignition off. If you’ve stopped, turn it off. Yes, so there’s a risk it won’t start again but it’s better than boiling your engine isn’t it? You’ll save gas too.

Put the stereo on and kick back. There’s nothing you can do so go with it. No use getting all road-ragey and upset. It isn’t going to help.

• Make sure you have food and water on board. Well fed campers are happy campers. We all know that. Pack supplies.

• Tell bad jokes. A joke book that’s jam packed full of rubbish jokes can amuse children for unspeakably long times in traffic jams. Corny, but useful.

• DON’T use the hard shoulder. It might be tempting to pull over if the queue is moving very slowly and settle down for a bit. And don’t even think about nipping down the hard shoulder either. The rozzers don’t like that. It’s not worth the fine.

Avoiding the Jubilee jams.

Get up early, leave late. The trouble with traffic jams is that they nearly always happen at busy times. How inconvenient. I know. What are they thinking? But that’s the way we are. We are a mob. The simple solution of course is to stop thinking like the mob and drive at the most unsociable times. This means driving during the night or very early in the morning. So you have to get up early? So what?

Don’t go with the flow. In many places Saturday will be changeover day for holiday cottages, apartments and caravans. That means that there will be one lot leaving in the morning and another lot arriving in the afternoon. So lots of traffic. Avoid it. You aren’t governed by the time your cottage will be ready anyway. Start your holiday on a Tuesday instead (although not much use on the Jubilee weekend I know).

Use your smartphone. They do have uses beyond tweeting and, er, tweeting. Go online and check out the situation on any number of websites that offer live traffic updates. Very useful, although not great if you’re already stuck. Also look at the website of your favourite roadside assistance provider.

Read the map and find alternatives. Maps are great. Get a good one (not one of those rubbish touring ones that only have the big roads) that has lots of details and you’ll soon realise that there are a world of possibilities out there. Go cross country, stop at a village pub, take your time. You might make the journey last twice the time but at least you’ll be moving.

Consider (for a moment) getting a sat nav. I have very little tolerance for sat nav. They are the instruments of the devil as far as I am concerned because they make us lazy and incapable of thinking for ourselves. And if they go wrong or read your location incorrectly they can leave you properly up the creek. Anyway, I am told you can take out subscriptions that will enable you to avoid traffic hotspots as they happen. Whatever.

Drive defensively. In slow moving traffic you can help the ebb and flow by driving defensively. This means that you keep a fair distance between you and the car in front and do your best to keep moving, even if all you’re doing is creeping. The gap allows you to keep moving, even if they have stopped. That way you, and all the traffic behind you, will keep crawling along and you won’t get into that awful stop-start-stop that buggers up your clutch and helps no-one. Doesn’t always work as other drivers may confuse your attempts at good sense as an opportunity and may nip into your space. That’s when it’s ok to get very, very cross.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The secret weapon of camper van cooking?

You know the stuff. It's smoked paprika, Spanish essential, used in everything from paella to chorizo and made by slowly grinding peppers that have been dried over oak fires. This tin was given to me by a chef friend. Knowing I was nervous about cooking in front of the camera for One Man and his Campervan in the spring of 2010, he pressed this little tin into my hand and said kindly "If you ever get stuck, use this." I accepted it willingly. It turned out to be good advice and I've never been without a tin in the van or at home since.
Smoked paprika is great for those times when you look in the cooler and scratch your head. Seem familiar? Those times when you stare at those chicken breasts that have to be used up, desperate for a little inspiration. When risotto has been done to death, the griddle needs a wash and the lemon and tarragon has gone, it's time to bring out the big gun. Bring out the hot smoked paprika, give it a rub, chuck it in a frying pan, over the coals or under the grill and bingo - excited taste buds!
In One Man and his Camper Van I made a simple rub with the contents of this very tin with sea salt and crushed black pepper to spice up a rack of rare breed pork ribs. It proved to be perfect, with just the right amount of smoke and flavour to add depth and spice to the sweet and juicy ribs. Cooked first in foil then charred slightly over an open fire, they were delicious. Sitting round a drfitwood fire in the dunes behind Lunan Bay, on the east coast of Scotland, on a fine June evening I toasted my friend and his ability to give me something without treating me like an idiot. That was a generous thing to do.
So there it is, giving away other people's trade secrets. My friend won't mind sharing. He likes to see people enjoy food as much as he does. And of course I don't mind sharing because if it wasn't for sharing, learning from friends, reading, talking to those who know and being curious, none of us would ever learn anything.

Still stuck for things to do with that chicken? "Three ways with chicken" on page 129 of The Camper Van Coast may give you a few more ideas...

Friday, 25 May 2012

Sunny days are here again. Another favourite camping spot.

Well, the sun has well and truly got his hat on this afternoon and it looks like he'll keep it on for a few more glorious days yet. Twitter is awash with happy sunshine tweets and I'm feeling that prickly sun and salt feeling after a surf session down at the beach. Good times, with the promise of easy peasy burgers with tomato and chilli man jam later (page 118 of The Camper Van Coast) or perhaps even curried pork kebabs (page 123). It's a barbecue kind of a day.
It's at times like these that we long for the open road and a perfect destination to pitch up and cook up. This week we got back from a road trip in the van to Ireland. Whilst we stayed at the most idyllic spot at Caherdaniel, there were good times this side of the water too. We stopped off in St David's in Pembrokeshire to catch up with our friends at TYF, introduce the kids to coasteering and spend a couple of days before catching the ferry from Pembroke Dock. The weather wasn't as good as it is now but we still managed to have a great time. When I camp with the kids we tend to avoid the wilder places, simply becuase it's better to be on a camp site sometimes. So whilst the place we stayed has wild opportunities nearby (see pages 8 and 9 of The Camper Van Coast), we opted to stay on the site at Newgale. It's one of those old fashioned campsites with hand painted signs telling you not to do all kind of things and to avoid doing all kinds of other things. The loo block, which looks like a pebbledashed farm outbuilding is actually really nice inside and exceptionally clean.
The site is adjacent to Newgale beach, one of Pembrokeshire's surfing hot spots, and just about 10 minutes drive from the lovely city in miniature that is St David's. There is a strict no caravan policy which means the site still feels rustic and has none of the niceties of some campsites like electric hook up or hardstanding. You take your chances and park on the grass. If you want sea views then you might have to sleep on a slope as the field rises as it heads away from the beach. The pitches at the top of the field have excellent views. We voted to stay at sea level and, to be honest it was no real hardship getting up, crossing the road and ambling on to the beach to check the surf. The girls made good use of the slope anyway - by freewheeling down to the van.
There is a cosy cafe nearby and a pub right on the beach which does beer and crisps. Frankly, after the drive from London, when we got there, beer and crisps was enough for me. The best thing about this campsite has to be its location right on the very lovely Newgale beach. If it was anywhere else you might not like the bossy signs or the boggy ground or the basic facilities. As it is, the location is enough.
And so what if there's no noise after 11? With a few beers and a bag of crisps inside me I am happy stumbling quietly back to my pitch.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Pitch Perfect. A new place to stay.

Don't all jump at once, but I think I may have found a new favourite pitch. It's no secret but it's a way away for most of us. It's at a campsite called Wave Crest in Caherdaniel in County Kerry, Ireland and it is about as close to the sea as it's possible to get without pitching on the beach itself. A well aimed cast would see you plopping your spinner into the sea with ease from the pitch we chose. I love that. I also love the fact that the campsite, whilst not among the cheapest sites you'll ever visit, is laid out in such a way that every pitch feels private. This is down to the way it has been shaped from the hilly cliffside. Paths lead off to quiet corners where you can pitch your tent with nothing but a sea view. If the wind blows there are nooks and crannies where you can find shelter away from the Irish weather or send the children off to explore. You can even camp on your own little island. That's the one in the photograph below with the grassy causeway. Not too shabby huh? If you pitched up there you wouldn't even have to worry about being good at casting. You could let the brake off and dangle your tackle in the briny without taking more than a few steps from your door. I didn't catch anything at Wave Crest but you may be a little more lucky.
On the Ring of Kerry the water is as clear as you could ever hope for. As you stare into the depths you can see the seaweeds swaying in the currents and schools of small silver fish darting from one panic to the next. Where there is sand you see patches of azure, even on days when you'd expect a sea to match the mood of the sky. At the very sheltered O'Carrol's Cove nearby (below), the beach seems to belong more to the tropics than Ireland's temperate shores. One sunny day we ate lobster alfresco under a hot sun as our children splashed in the water (albeit with wetsuits on). Dreamy times indeed. O'Carrol's Cove claims to have Ireland's only beach bar but seeing as we could think of at least a couple more, we wondered where the logic came from. Even so, the food is great and the views of the cove from the terrace are stunning. All you need to do is make sure you face east or you'll get an eyeful of the mobile homes at the back of the strand. They won't spoil your fun but you can't help thinking that another well laid out campsite (or no site at all) would have been better. Then again, if it's deserted sand you want, a short cycle will take you to Derrynane Beach, my hands down, no contest, most favourite 'best beach in all the world'. It's wild and beautiful on any day but with a light easterly, some south west swell and a blue sky there is nowhere better.