For the Faint Hearted…

This post is not for those who are wedded to cruises, villas, flights and hotels. It isn’t for anyone who is horrified by spider webs, unable or unwilling to step out on to grass, horrified by fresh air and/or traumatised by seeing others in public facilities such as lavatory blocks. It won’t suit anyone who doesn’t enjoy visiting new places, exploring or undertaking an occasional bit of research or problem solving. If your preferred trip is to sit on a boat or a coach and have sights pointed out to you from a window, then be stuffed with food and drink before enduring cabaret style entertainment, read no further.

There may be those, however who are wavering on the edge of independent travel and have not tried tents, vans or motorhomes but might be persuaded by the freedom it represents, the opportunity to be spontaneous, change your mind on a whim or the weather, stay as long or as little as you wish, eat when and where you want, discover things, meet all manner of people.

Using tents, vans and motorhomes these days is all blanketed under ‘camping’, although it isn’t- at least not camping as it was when I was a child, when we put up ex-army tents in a corner of a farm field. Nowadays everything is far easier, and campsites have become comfortable, user-friendly villages. broadly speaking their services are much the same; clean, warm shower blocks with laundry facilities and dishwashing areas and often a grocery shop. Many offer restaurants and bars or are within walking distance of them [we prefer these to sites in the back of beyond].

We’ve developed tricks to make life on a site even easier. While some campers are happy to wander across to the shower in PJs or a onesie, carrying a towel, I find that a supermarket ‘bag-for-life’ is my best friend, so that when space is at a premium or there is little more than a hook, my change of clothes/towel/anything else is kept dry in the event of an over-exuberant spray. In aires [see https://gracelessageing.com/2018/09/02/aires-and-graces-guide/ ] we have perfected the art of showering in our tiny but adequate van shower, where often the water is hotter than many site showers.

Campsites are commonly situated with beautiful views that you would be hard pushed to get from any hotel, such as next to Loch Ness [Scotland], the wonderful Belt Bridge [Denmark] or by the gorgeous Geiranger Fjord in Norway. Sometimes you cannot fault their location; we camped up against the walls of ancient Pompei on an Italian trip. Where they are not so close, a bus stop or station is usually near the site entrance. Many, like the ones along the Nantes-Brest canal are placed by cycle tracks.

Sometimes we stumble upon a site so luxurious it has to be seen to be believed, such as the one at Seelbach in Germany’s Black Forest, which has children’s showers like an undersea cavern and Innsbruck, where the bathrooms would rival a 5* hotel and have stunning views of the snow-topped mountains surrounding the site.

By the time you read this we’ll have started off once more- away down to SW France and some of our favourite old haunts as well as some new ones!

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Going Local

Home from our two week dash to Brittany we unload, deal with domestics, undertake some garden rescue [drought had been threatening to murder many plants], clean the van and make another, impromtu dash; this time to the New Forest, which is on our doorstep and to a favourite spot- Holland’s Wood at Brockenhurst.

We choose midweek, calculating that the weekend will elicit throngs of campers into the Forest and it’s certainly quiet as we arrive in the early afternoon. Husband is keen to try out a plan he had devised to manage for longer without electric hook-up [Holland’s Wood has none]. Our ancient camping gas/electric fridge has been resurrected for use outside, now that there is an external gas outlet on the van, freeing up solar power for other devices.

In the old, tent camping days the gas fridge was a boon and much used on trips. Subsequently it has been used as an extra fridge at parties or during the freezer defrosting process.

For the uninitiated, the New Forest National Park covers app 150 square miles of land in the south of England and is home to a vast variety of wildlife as well as livestock- pigs, cattle, donkeys and ponies that roam unrestricted throughout the park. The animals, in particular the ponies have adapted to visitors and developed skills in stalking and mugging and anyone sitting down to enjoy an innocent picnic can expect to be gatecrashed by a couple of hungry, marauding ponies.

Ponies, donkeys and cows also wander into the campsites, weaving expertly through and around tents, vans and motorhomes and helping themselves to anything vaguely food related. It’s mid-morning when a tribe meanders into Hollands Wood, one of the mares accompanied by a young foal, all legs and eyelashes. He’s curious, sniffing and nibbling a campervan. Camera at the ready, I go to watch, although not so close as to upset his protective mum. He spots me and walks towards me and I can’t help stretching out a hand, at which he puts his soft nose into it. The mare continues to graze, unperturbed. It’s a wonderful moment.

One reason for choosing Holland’s Wood site is proximity to Brockenhurst village, with its shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants, although walking there and back involves trudging along by the busy main road for some of it. It’s a cute place though, with a parade of shops and a railway station, making it just about possible to go camping by train.

Due to wrist surgery I’ve not cycled for about a year and this is the occasion for trying it out- first around the relatively flat campsite a few times, during which my legs begin to hurt already, then for a short ride on a forest track. The gravelly track is bumpy and I’ve not brought my support straps, so post-cycle my wrist is not too happy!

We BBQ on our new gas, outdoor cooker then the evening closes in with some magnificent thunder and lightning plus a few showers and we sit outside under the awning to enjoy the spectacle.

Next day is a rest for wrists and we walk. We go through the village and up to picturesque St Nicholas church, which we weren’t able to see inside the last time we looked as its roof had collapsed. It’s a tiny and beautiful church and has a special stained glass window donated by New Zealand, in recognition of the health care given to their war veterans in the First World War.

Walking in the New Forest is always rewarding and I feel we’ve earned the meal we have in The Huntsman, just along the road. We leave on Friday, just as others are streaming in to the site, encampments of tents springing up and it’s looking much busier. Goodbye for now but we’ll be back again soon…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Van Talk Again…

Continuing the history of Lessageing campervans…

Our current campervan, a Fiat Ducato, is now longer new- either in terms of age or miles, and of course in recent times there has been a veritable explosion of brand new, shiny motorhomes as people took to van trips instead of the cruises and villas they could not book. Acknowledging this, we like to call it a ‘Vandemic’, and the newbie owners, ‘Pan-vanners’ and although we’ve met and chatted to many who are new to this way of travel we harbour hopes that in due time they’ll go back to their package holidays and cruise liners, perhaps even leaving a plethora of slightly used travel wagons in their wake.

But before all this, and after our thrilling Italian Odyssey [previously described], Husband set to on another ambitious plan, to drive to the Peloponnese. This would be via France, Italy, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania. Thus far we’d camped in Croatia, but had gone no further than Dubrovnik, so it felt intrepid to be undertaking such a trip. I’ve described this adventure previously, episode by episode, but haven’t ever fully explained how a piece of independent travel like this can be.

Not all of the countries we crossed are as developed in terms of camp sites, roads, services and facilities as the more familiar ones. Not all of them were easy to insure for, either, as you can read next week! Croatia’s roads had improved a great deal since out first foray with a tent and the sites were more established and widespread. Montenegro, however, the tiny country between Croatia and Albania, provided more difficulty. We wanted to see Budva, hailed by the guide books as a kind of ‘mini-Dubrovnik’ but could find no sites or stopovers near to the town. I pursued the search, eventually, on a German travel website finding a possible place off a backstreet several roads away from the front.

Using the satnav coordinates we circled the supposed site, unitl I spotted what may have been a corner of a caravan roof, which we headed towards. Through a narrow gateway and up a rutted track, past a smouldering bonfire we came to a halt, the only sign of life a few heedless people further up inside the supposed ‘site’. I went to inspect what looked like a shower block, which turned out to have been one once, but leaves had blown in and it seemed disused. After a while a gentleman turned up on a moped; the owner, gesticulating and apologising. They were closed, but we could stay, which we did.

The old, walled town of Budva is interesting and historic, although it does not in any way compete with Dubrovnik. We went to look, then walked along the seafront, attractive enough, lined with restaurants and bars. We chose one and had a creditable meal, then returned to the strange, ‘closed’ campsite and spent the night there. Nothing untoward happened inside the locked site gates, despite misgivings over the security of the place.

We left in the morning and prepared ourselves for the next challenge, to cross into and over Albania…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsendis now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishingand many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook:(1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Van Talk 4

After many satisfactory excursions in the Citroen van [see last week’s post], we determined that it may, now need a new owner. Its defective handbrake had led to some unnerving situations, especially on steep slopes. On the hefty climb from the ferry exit up the hill into Bonifaccio, Corsica my heart leapt into my mouth as I prayed that we wouldn’t need to stop!

Whilst we’d been exploring these Mediterranean islands and negotiating the terrors of Italian traffic, in idle moments, Husband had been perusing the pages of vans for sale and so it was that on our return [literally, because we returned to Dover, one of the UK’s premier ports] we went to view a new van. It felt almost treacherous to be parking our tried and tested and by now, battered, Citroen outside next to a potential successor, but ho hum, needs must.

We met the owner, Vic, a sturdy and cheerful man who did not appear to be the fittest individual. An ex taxi driver, turns out he’d been the victim of a road accident and had embarked on a van conversion as a recovery project.

On the outside, the white Fiat Ducato looked smart and unsullied by contretemps with other vehicles, Italian or otherwise. The interior had been beautifully finished and was complete with sockets with USB chargers, a posh sound system and a few clever additions like fold- down worktops. The only snag we could see was the seating/bed arrangement, which looked too complicated to contemplate, a jigsaw of red and white cushions and boards. Vic was nonplussed, assuming that all van users prefer 2 single beds.

Had he used the van? I wanted to know. But, just as the previous sellers, Vic and his wife had spent one night only in the project van, on a trip to the races, sleeping in single beds. They hadn’t cooked, showered or spent any significant amount of time in it. And it was clear to see. The cooker and oven were pristine as purchased, everything else immaculate.

We bought it, then put our beleaguered Citroen onto Ebay, having washed, polished, scrubbed and generally tarted it up. It did scrub up well, elicited a great deal of interest and sold- but to a couple who used it to live in while they renovated a house, which seems sad. The old van had plenty of life left [although it was in serious need of a handbrake!].

Husband is partial to pottering about in the van, making improvements, which he has done. We got an excellent upholsterer to sort out the sofa/bed problem, dispensing with the red and white jigsaw of cushions and opting for a smart grey, which matched the interior. Now we’ve done a lot of miles in it, showering, cooking, exploring, relaxing. It feels as much like home as home does and is the perfect holiday vehicle.

Our horizons widened further with the aquisition of the Fiat, becoming more ambitious than even Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. Where did we go? More next week…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Van Talk 2

I’m sitting here in our current van, writing, feet up on the comfortable bench sofa- my default evening position, laptop across my legs.

This van is number three. In last week’s post I described how we came to become owners of our first van, a VW and how we modified it for our comfort and our needs.

If things had turned out differently we might still be using a VW van. I’m sure that were it not for me, Husband would certainly have stuck with VWs with their dinky, hip looks, iconic engine sound, compact size and a certain nippiness. It transpired, however that a chronic health condition I got diagnosed with in 2014 required more van comforts, such as a bathroom and toilet. For those curious enough to want to know here is a post from way back when I was terrorised by the disease: https://gracelessageing.com/2014/12/07/journey-to-the-centre-of-the-colon-a-gastric-odyssey-with-apologies-to-jules-verne/

In any case, the upshot of it all was that we branched out into unknown territory- a panel van. Again, it was an ebay purchase, a Citroen. This time Husband ventured up to Hull, in the north of England, to have a look at the vehicle. At home, I was obliged to rely on his judgement plus the ebay photos, which did portray a handsome, luxurious interior and- most importantly- a shower and toilet cubicle. Once more, this was a home-made conversion and once more, the van had barely been used since the work was done.

But there was one stunning difference. The van was perfect for us as it was; no need for expensive, corrective work or re-modelling. And besides having what was now a necessity- a shower plus loo cubicle- it had an oven below its three gas burners, two sumptuous sofas in the back and a TV! We’d never missed a TV in the VW van, but were not about to remove it. The bed, however did take a little longer than the ‘rock-n-roll’ bed in the VW, involving inserting a plank into the space between the sofas and turning the sofa cushions over. Once converted into a vast double bed it induced a supremely wonderful sleep with the added joy of waking to a view up and out of the skylight, which might reveal sky and stars, clouds or a glorious tree canopy.

The acquisition of the bigger van opened up a whole new angle on places to stay. Now we could be self-sufficient, no more reliance on campsites for showers and the rest. In Europe [although not in the UK] we’d be able to use ‘aires’. For the uninitiated, aires are places that motorhomes or campervans can park up for overnight stays for either a very modest charge or no charge at all. In France, especially, they are everywhere, towns and villages offering parking, waste disposal and water in a designated area. In most other European countries there are plenty of aires, too. We’ve stayed in the centre of beautiful Reims, where a short stroll takes you to any number of Champagne bars, beside any number of canals and rivers, overlooking rugged coastlines in Sicily- hundreds of great views and access to bars and restaurants if we want.

Of course we still use sites. We often spend long enough away to need laundry facilities and a few extra services. And we have our favourites, the ones we return to because of their position. So where did we go with our new van? Wait and see…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsendis now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishingand many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook:(1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Van Talk 1

We became owners of our first campervan in 2008, after years of travelling Europe with tents. The transition was not down to dislike of tent camping- far from it, so reluctant was I to give up sleeping in a tent that we continued to take a tent for a while especially for sleeping purposes. And I do still hanker after that wonderful feeling of drifting off to sleep with a cool breeze wafting through the fabric of a tent, although nowadays getting up off a squishy, inflatable mattress would be likely to cause more difficulty than it did years ago!

We were in Croatia, staying on the island of Korcula. We’d arrived late and had to pitch up in the dark then cook a meal by lantern light outside. The space we’d been allocated was only just large enough for our tent and it had been a tricky operation. That same trip, we’d survived thunderstorms without as much as a drop of rain penetrating the tent walls, but on the Korcula site, next door to us, a VW campervan with a pop-up roof was parked. We got to thinking how simple it was to park up and hook up. How much more of the year we’d be able to travel. We were sold on the idea of a van.

We got our first van from Ebay, a VW lovingly converted for a project, by someone in Sussex. At this point we’d very little idea of what to expect from a van and how things might work. As it turned out, the conversion, whilst pretty, was neither practical nor efficient. There was no means of accessing the front [cab] of the van from the rear. There was nowhere to stash a porta-potty [essential for us!] except the worktop area! Just imagine- we had to perch on the portaloo on the top of the worktop- a proper throne indeed!

Worst of all though, as we discovered on a trip to Agen, France, the home-made, blue, vinyl roof leaked. This was a shock, after our watertight experiences of the tent. I was horrified when, during a thunderous deluge when pitched up by the beautiful River Lot, we were woken by rain inside the van. We wound up having to use an umbrella over our heads inside, which is a comical image to recollect now but was no laughing matter at the time.

We took the van to a conversion expert, who made a wonderful [if expensive] job of installing a new, purpose made pop-up roof and side access cupboards, sink and cooker, enabling us to move around all of the van and, importantly, have somewhere to perch on the portaloo. Thereafter we travelled all over the place, in all kinds of weather. When we were ready for a little more comfort and some additional facilities we sold it on to a couple who wanted it for weekends away. Husband, especially, mourned its passing bitterly. But the time had come.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Orkney to Shetland

It’s our last couple of days on Orkney and we move out to a newly opened, relaxing site overlooking Kirkwall Bay, where the island ferries come past all day and the big Northlink ship stops in the port opposite every evening. Once installed we pull out chairs for an hour or so in the warm sunshine.

The weather turns wet for a last afternoon and evening to while away in Kirkwall. We shop, lunch and go to visit the Orkney museum, which is free entry and has a small but lovely garden as well as a few interesting exhibits.

Later we make our way round to Hatston Port to wait for the Northlink ship to pick us up on its way from Aberdeen to Shetland, though not until 11.45pm. It’s still twilight when the ship arrives to collect us, along with a half a dozen other vehicles waiting. Once boarded we go straight to find our cabin as our arrival time to Lerwick is 7am.

The en suite cabin is cozy and comfortable, if a little stuffy, but sleep is, at best intermittent with the ship juddering, pitching and rolling on this blustery night. Neither of us is especially well rested when the tannoy announces our arrival to Lerwick. It is a rude awakening, rolling from the bowels of the ferry into a cold, drizzly morning at the ferry terminal and up and out into a bleak, unforgiving landscape of hills dotted with sheep. At this stage we’re only interested in catching up on sleep so we park up and get a nap. It’s an inauspicious start to our Shetland visit but by the time we rally and drive out to Sandness in the west and lunch overlooking tiny Papa Stour island the weather has improved and the rugged scenery seems to have an appeal of its own.

For our first night we’re staying at Skeld, again in the west of this skinny island. There’s a chilly wind and some drizzle as we descend to the small marina below the hills and it feels remote. There’s no internet or TV signal and the services are a complicated system of keys and coin-slots, although there’s water and hook-up.

Next day we’re off north towards our main destination of Unst, the most northerly part of the UK. It must be accessed via two ferries- one to Yell then a second to Yell’s miniscule sister island, Unst, just two miles long. The ferries run like clockwork, backwards and forwards all day, efficient and quick. As we traverse Yell the surroundings become even more barren- vast areas of peat bog, the peat cut and stacked in many places, or bagged up for collection. With time to spare before the next ferry we park by a small loch for lunch then we’re off across to Unst and to our site, at Gardiesfauld. It’s a youth hostel [currently closed] and camp site on a small bay, the few pitches overlooking the beach. It is charming, a few stone cottages fringing the beach and a soft light over the water. Out in the bay there are circular constructions for a fish farm.

Unst may lack size but there is a lot to explore and we are about to do it!

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Orkney

Our ferry from Thurso to Orkney passes the island of Hoy, where the stunning stack of rock known as The Old Man of Hoy stands out from the cliff, looking surprisingly lifelike. Then we’re rounding the edge of the island and into the harbour at Stromness. The small harbour town fringes the circle of the bay and rises up the hillside behind, grey stone houses in a tangle of streets and steps.

Our site for the first night sits out on the entrance to the harbour. It’s a small site but in a great position. As each day winds down here, in midsummer the nights never get truly dark and it’s magical to see the daylit sky at 11pm or wake at 3am to light and birdsong. The weather is warm and bright and the sunsets beautiful.

Stromness’ narrow streets are paved with original slabs and while they aren’t pedestrianised, vehicles are few and far between. There is a collection of independent shops; no chain stores, no ‘Specsavers’ or ‘H&M’, rather some fusion second hand/handicraft stores and a few charity shops plus ‘The Rope Shop’.

We move on to Kirkwall, Orkney’s metropolis and administrative centre, where our site is in a convenient, central location.

Next day we are off to explore our area and to stumble upon plenty of interesting sights and places to visit. We lunch overlooking an island with a footpath causeway, flooded at high tide, a popular spot. There is a ruined palace, [The Earl’s Palace] at the tiny village, Birsay. We drive around the coast for more spectacular views in unbroken sunshine- not something we’d been expecting here. At home there is torrential rain and unseasonal low temperatures and it’s hard not to feel smug.

We make our way to the Ring of Brodgar, an ancient neolithic/ bronze age site. It’s a huge ring of standing stones, impressive as it stands on the hillside in splendid isolation. We’re lucky to be wandering around unimpeded by fellow sightseers, although there are a couple of ranger volunteers, desperate to impart their gems of knowledge.

Next day we set off for an exploration of the southern islands, Burray and South Ronaldsay, connected by road causeways. First to Mull Head, a nature reserve where a short path leads to The Gloup. A seacave collapsed and created a deep, rocky tunnel through which the sea can be glimpsed, a stunning sight. The sheer rock walls look man-made, pockets of thrift clinging and a meadow pippet strutting about, unconcerned by onlookers. On the cliff edge, fulmars are nesting and I watch while a male bird comes in to land and greet his partner with a series of cackles.

We drive down across a road causeway to look at the Italian Chapel, a tiny, exquisite church constructed from a Nissen Hut during the second world war by Italian Prisoners. It is beautifully maintained. As we inspect the painted ceiling and lanterns made from bully beef tins I try to imagine how it must have been for the Italians incarcerated here on Orkney. How different the winter must have seemed, the landscape and the culture!

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Wet and Windy Wales. Part 2.

We are in our tiny, third class compartment, which is sandwiched between one accommodating an over-excited and very loud group of students and another with an elderly couple and a dog. It is raining, as it has been for more than 24 hours; in a relentless, driving deluge that kept us confined to the campervan the entire day previously. But having purchased the tickets for this little train journey up into the mountains we are obliged to go.

Most of the miniature compartments, the ones with plush, upholstered seats, are occupied by a coach party from Bognor. Ours is spartan- shiny, brown, plank benches- and very cold on the backside. I rummage in the rucksack and find my waterproof trousers, which are an inadequate but makeshift seat pad. We wait until a cheerful young woman in a railway uniform locks us in, then we’re off, rumbling and rocking, smoke billowing past and steamy windows through which we can just make out the flat marshes of the estuary at Porthmadog, our start station.

We rattle on through stations, begin to climb and then we’re on a steep gradient with a [wet] rocky face on one side and a drop on the other. I imagine the view, since it is obliterated by rain. The students screech relentlessly at each others’ remarks as we go, whilst also demanding to know if the field is ‘real’ or cooing at the hundreds of lambs we pass. There is sudden excitement when next door’s one-eared dog apears in our compartment, filling it with furry greeting, having ducked under their seat. Once it has been welcomed and made a fuss of it is hauled back by its owners.

After an hour or so we come to a halt, the end of the line for today, before being shunted back down to the last station we passed, where a cafe awaits us, the captive passengers. There being just this one cafe, we queue up for whatever is on offer, hopefully hot, as it continues to rain and the compartment has not been a cosy experience. Seating is under cover but outside- no chances being taken! We wander around the station while the tiny engine is moved from one end to the other and see that an ancient diesel engine has been co-opted for the haul uphill.

Downhill takes less time, of course, and once we’ve returned to Porthmadog the rain has, at least slowed to a drizzle.

Next day is predictably sunny as we prepare to travel onwards, shopping en route. It is a picturesque journey with a detour in Pwhelli to get LPG but the garage is closed on this Saturday afternoon. Pressing on over the hills and along the lanes we come to our next site, at Aberdaron, a tiny beach village with two pubs, two shops, a bakery and three cafes! Aberdaron is used to tourists. The sun is still out when we wander down the steep hill from our site to get a beer, and there are throngs of Saturday pub goers everywhere- an uplifting sight.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Tales from the Tow Path

I’m continuing this mini series on favourite places with a look back at experiences along the Canal du Midi, France. The canal runs for 240 km from the lovely old city of Toulouse, south to beautiful Narbonne, connecting via a shorter section, the Canal de Robine to the Mediterranean. There is a corner along this shorter section where waterways merge and it is here that a gorgeous old stone cottage stands, crumbling and neglected, so that whenever we’ve cycled past I like to imagine living there between the two canals in the green, watery space.

Taken bit by bit we’ve cycled all of the canal at some time or other, the experiences punctuated with stops at picturesque or historic sights like medieval, walled Carcasonne, [touristy but fun] or Beziers with its stunning run of locks and the canal crossing the river via aqueduct.

Cycling canal tow paths is not challenging and is unlikely to suit those who pedal purely for exercise, but for those who enjoy leisure cycling, where scenery, tranquility, beautiful wildlife, occasional stops for coffees or beers and a chance to explore iconic and historic towns and cities it offers great rewards. The hardest slópe is a short pull up and over a lock, the trickiest navigation stray tree roots.

There are long stretches of canal where nothing much changes, avenues of trees- mostly planes but with some poplars or oaks, flank the sides and the banks are riotous with wildflowers.

Parts of the waterway are popular with boat users, usually hirers who are in the process of learning the business of lock negotiation, which can provide entertainment in the height of the season. It is mostly good-natured although we’ve had occasion to witness some disputes over lock access at times.

Other stretches are occupied by houseboats, like Dutch barges, but, unlike UK canals there are few narrow boats- we did, however watch one being taken down the nine Beziers locks once!

At the southern end of the Canal du Robine lies Narbonne Plage, from which cycle paths extend either way along the coast. We stayed on the beach site with a tent many years ago, a first stay in the area which was followed by several more, latterly with vans. The town, though not picturesque has all the ingredients necessary for a beach holiday [including lovely weather]. A preferable option for staying, and one we’ve taken up a few times, is Gruissan, which certainly is picturesque from any angle and has narrow, cobbled streets with interesting shops and bars, the streets winding up to a high pinnacle topped with an old church tower.

I’m sure we’ll return to parts of the Canal du Midi- not least because we’ve deliberated following the waterway north east from Toulouse at some point- although not, of course this year.

Another trip, however is imminent, here in our own UK [but not in England!]. We’ll be setting off as you read…watch this space!

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook