I'm sure many of my driving friends have sat behind a camper van or caravan on a winding twisty road and cursed at the journey being held up - I know I have.
A good friend of mine owns a camper van, or “tourer” as I have now discovered, and Stu and his wife Sharon have for many years, enjoyed extensive travelling around the UK and Europe in “Mabel”. Stu owns “Guitar Retreats” and I have become good friends with him after going to many retreats over the past 12 years. A couple of years ago they joined me for a sailing weekend – Stu loved it, Sharon not so much and during the trip we pondered about the similarities between sailing and touring. I have been camping many times and on numerous caravan holidays when I was younger but I have never been on a trip in a campervan. So I decided to rectify that and see if there were any similarities.
I did quite a bit of Internet research and found that many of the larger companies charge larger prices. I had initially planned to hire one locally around the Edinburgh area but found the costs far more than I was prepared to pay for something I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy. I finally found a couple in Carlise who rented out a small van at a reasonable price. I had planned to explore parts of the Lake District so collecting the van from Carlisle was ideal. Before taking my trip I travelled through to Largs to do a couple of wee jobs on “Jess”, check her over and collect a sleeping bag.
The weather forecast for the the week wasn’t looking great – very unsettled – as the remnants of hurricane Lorenzo (downgraded to a storm) made its way across the UK and I spent a pretty wild, windy night on the boat. It was much better the following day and I arrived in Carlisle in the sunshine - but still very windy. I met Jenny and her husband and they showed me around the van’s features and after I had signed a few bits of paper, I transferred my stuff from the car and set off.
I didn’t have a set itinerary but had looked up a few sites, avoiding the popular places around the Lakes, I thought that even at this time of year, were sure to be busy. I had arranged to meet my good friend Alan, over the weekend whilst he's on holiday in Hawkshead, but other than that, I was going to decide day to day.
My first priority was to get used to driving the campervan, a 20 year-old, diesel Mazda Bongo - one of the reasons it was so cheap compared to others. Having said that, it was clean and tidy and the engine started first time. Being an early Japanese vehicle, the stalks controlling indicators, lights, wipers, etc. were on the opposite side to most modern cars - that took some getting used to. The van was a bit noisy, the steering a little “loose”, the brakes a little fierce and the ride bumpy - but it was 20 years old and it’s unfair to compare it with a modern Audi A1.
I had decided that I wasn’t going to do that much driving and my first stop was going to be Maryport. I had chosen Maryport as it has a marina and I was keen to see this and find out a bit more as it might well be a destination for “Jess” in the future. The campsite is owned by and is right next to the marina. It wasn’t very big, but had everything I needed, showers, toilets as well as a lounge that I could have used if I wished.
I took a wander around the marina and then into the town to find a place to eat. The Harbour Master had suggested “Captain Nelson” but it was rammed with families - which surprised me on a school night. I finally opted for “The Lifeboat Inn” which was just about acceptable and after eating, returned to the marina. It was a bit of a wild night as the van was rocked back and forth in the gale.
The next morning I took another walk out to the lighthouse and then visited the Maryport Maritime Museum. The museum was a great mixture of stuff and very interesting. I had a quick wander around the rest of the town and was struck by just how run-down and deprived it looked - I looked it up and found that it was in the 10% of most deprived areas in England. This area was one of the most pro-Brexit areas in the UK and I can understand why the voted this way when they were told (lied to) that leaving the EU would improve their lot. The marina and campsite are great, but the rest of the town is really quite sad and depressing and leaving the EU isn’t going to change that.
The next day I took a short drive to Ravenglass; I was keen to visit here and take a trip on the miniature Ravenglass to Eskdale Railway. The campsite was a bit bigger than at Maryport and was a “Camping and Caravanning Club” site. Despite this, the facilities at Maryport were much better in my opinion. The site was quiet and secluded but only a short walk from the village of Ravenglass. I cycled down to the village and along the coast a wee bit.The miniature railway runs from Ravenglass, seven miles to Dalegarth for Boot. The railway was built in the late 19th Century to transport iron ore and later stone from Boot and Beckfoot. It was great fun as it rattled through the beautiful countryside and spectacular scenery.
I had arranged to meet Alan and his wife Lynda whilst they were on holiday in Hawkshead. They spend the October break there each year. Alan told me that there was a campsite right in the centre and this would be an easy walk to the pub for us to meet up. Unfortunately, the campsite had changed its priorities and no longer catered for campervans, caravans or indeed tents. Clearly, lodges and static caravans are far more lucrative. I asked if they knew of anywhere else close by but it seemed that everything was fully booked. I eventually found Skelwith Fold Caravan Park, an enormous site with a huge number of static caravans but with some space for campervans and caravans. When I arrived, I unhitched my bike and went for a wee cycle. The weather the following day was absolutely atrocious. It had rained all night and continued to do so for the rest of the day. That was fine as I had a long lie and then spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon watching the rugby world cup (enough said about that the better). Alan and Lynda picked me up and ate in the Queen's Head and spent the late afternoon / early evening in the bar - great time.
I've a couple of days left before I take the van back and have pitched up at the Wheatsheaf Inn in Low Lorton. This is a lovely quiet wee site with a pub! I’m going to spend the next couple of nights here and might take a trip to Cockermouth - there again I might just chill-out, read, play my guitar, learn a new song and have my dinner in the pub.
I’ve really quite enjoyed my trip with a couple of caveats. A campervan is nothing like sailing other than you have the ability to move around from place to place. A campervan is incredibly cramped - well the size of the one that I had and was- there is insufficient storage for one never mind two or two and a child, which this van can allegedly accommodate. Whilst it is possible to cook - there is 2 burner hob and a wee sink - there is nowhere to prepare anything. So little more than the ability to boil a kettle or heat some soup. The most inconvenient thing is the bed - which needs to be made up every night. I am sure that more modern vans are far more convenient and don’t involve the dismantling (so it seems) of the seating to make up what is not that comfortable a bed. The nightly costs were similar to berthing fees in marinas but unlike marinas they varied quite a lot. On average a night’s berthing on Jess with electricity and water will cost around £26 and that is fairly consistent. I have been charged £15 a night and £30 a night for facilities that don’t seem that different to me. Everywhere you park in the Lake District from a car park in the centre of Keswick to a two car patch in the middle of nowhere - you need to pay (I had to pay in a supermarket car park) which gives you the feeling of being ripped off.
Still, despite all of this seeming negativity - it is a very beautiful part of the country and I have found some very peaceful spots which have been incredibly relaxing. I’ve read, played guitar, done a bit of wandering, been on a steam train and ridden my bike! I think if I were ever to do this again I would opt for a more modern van.