Battle of the Bands

Arriving in ‘s-Hertogenbosch we found the parking to be a little bit more difficult than expected for an autumnal Sunday and it took a while to find a spot we could squeeze the van into. A passing local took pity on us and translated the parking meter instructions into English. We’d decided to visit the Netherlands for a couple of weeks and stopped here because lacking any real knowledge of the country, we’d consulted our guide book and it said it was a pretty and had a nice cathedral.

We had arrived on the continent the the previous day, with an early morning ferry after a night wild camped atop the white cliffs of Dover. A few hours driving north through France and Belgium had bought us to our first and frankly disappointing stop at a reproduction of St Peter’s church. Better was our first experience of a Dutch supermarket (look at all the cheese!) before finding a campsite for the night.

So here were were, our second day in the Netherlands and with a valid parking ticket to boot. We took a guess at where we were on our low quality guide book map and headed in the direction of the market square where we figured we’d find some coffee if nothing else.

It didn’t take long before we found our way blocked by a uniformed group of musicians, jumping around far too energetically for a Sunday while playing loudly and enthusiastically. At its core it was a small brass band, but…they are not usually this animated, are they? And not usually so conducive to toe tapping? We watched for a while until a suitable break in the performance presented itself and allowed us to make good our escape towards to the main square.

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Minutes later, as we found our way blocked by another band, we began to put two and two together. Car parks full and lunatics jumping around with trombones. Something was going on.

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We had, through the magic of picking places at random from a guide book, turned up during some sort of brass band competition. A modern and vibrant take on the classic brass band with silly, colourful uniforms and dancing, some choreographed and some more obviously made up on the spot. There was even juggling.

Arriving at the market square we found the main stage of the Jeroen Bosch Dweilfestival, but the real action was taking place in the streets leading away from the square, as bands set up where ever they could find room and performed to appreciative onlookers.

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After a pitstop for coffee in the crowded and noisy market place we dragged ourselves away from the entertainment to explore the city itself. It was a pretty place, much as we were expecting. A familiar continental feel, but with a splash of something different. Dutch buildings have a style of their own, with distinctive gable ends. The cathedral quite impressive but it all took second place to the dancing and music.

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We settled for the night at a marina, something we did frequently during the rest of the trip. There are many boats and therefore many marinas in the Netherlands and they have cottoned onto the fact that vans need much the same facilities, although we prefer our parking spaces to be a little less damp.

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Trouble in Eden


Only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud
So good I can’t believe it, screamin’ with the crowd

– I. Kilmister, E. Clarke, P. Taylor


It feels incredibly peaceful sat on top of Hounds Tor in the beautiful Dartmoor national park. The sky is blue, wispy white clouds float by and the hot sun beats down on us. We can see Haytor Rocks far off in the distance and the van is parked somewhere on the other side of them.

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The granite tors at Haytor are ruggedly spectacular and had been busy and noisy with school groups and tour buses, but like many places it only takes a few minutes walk away from the car park for a bustling metropolis to become an oasis of calm.

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We’d wandered here via some old quarry workings and gotten lost in midge infested woodland before finding a bridge across the river. We stopped for lunch among the ruins of ancient buildings, relics of a simpler time. Cows and ponies roamed the landscape. It was incredibly peaceful.

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Our walk back was simpler, or at least the bridge across the river we were looking for was easier to find. We stopped to admire the dry stone walling, a completely different style to what we are used to seeing in areas like the Lake District or Snowdonia, much more haphazard, seemingly defying gravity in places.

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While wildcamping in a tent is fine on much of Dartmoor, wildcamping in a van is banned according to the signs in all the car parks and so we headed out of the park to find somewhere to park up for the night and shops to buy some food for dinner. We settled by an arboretum which seemed peaceful enough until the local running club arrived for a race, soon followed by a wilderness survival experience group. Peace returned a couple of hours later.

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We woke to heavy rain falling from the sky. Some days are sun days, some days are roof days. Today was a roof day and we headed for Buckland Abbey, once home to Sir Francis Drake and now home to a Rembrandt self portrait. Knowing nothing about art we’ll just have to take their word for it that it’s worth a cool thirty million. The process of identification was interesting though, as was the house itself.

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As the day drew on the rain subsided and the sky cleared. We drove around for a bit before looking for a spot for the night.

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We settled in an old quarry with a view over the rolling countryside. The quarry itself was a SSSI, apparently showing granite and slate coming together and probably quite interesting to a geologist, but we just liked the view. Sadly, many day trippers and party goers had treated the place like a tip. We did a big litter pick, filling our old rucksack bin with cans and assorted rubbish. As darkness fell, bats emerged, swooping this way and that, squeeking and chasing insects.

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Lydford Gorge is advertised as the south west’s deepest gorge. It’s an easy but spectacular walk which takes us through vibrant green woodland that feels almost jurassic and down to the White Lady waterfall. Further along the route is the Devils Cauldron, a swirling frenzy of water crashing through the rocks.

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After three nights in the wild it was time to find a campsite. We crossed the border into Cornwall and checked into the Innis Inn campsite, the only one in the area we’d been able to find a space in. Around the site BBQs were burning and music was playing. It was odd to be back in civilisation again, but was nice to have hot running water. The reason that campsite spaces in the area had been sparse was the very reason why we were here.

Before a moonbase like backdrop, the crowd goes wild as Lemmy, Phil and Mikkey take to the stage. This whole trip has been about this, to experience the patriarchs of rock play a gig in the unlikeliest of locations, the beautiful Eden Project.

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We’re Motörhead and we play rock and roll“, growls Lemmy into the microphone, head thrown back in that distinctive pose of his.  And play rock and roll they did.  It took a while for the atmosphere to build, it was too light and too early really, but by they time they hit perennial favourites Ace of Spades and Overkill the crowd were buzzing. Back at the campsite the music continued, probably to the annoyance of the few campers not there for the concert.

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A ticket to the Eden Sessions also includes a days entry to the project itself, so we spent Sunday winding down among the flowers and trees. It’s not our first visit, but they’ve introduced the high level walkway through the rain forest dome since we were last here which gives a lovely birds eye view of the trees and plants.

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We don’t often revisit campsites, but the National Trust’s site at Highertown is an exception. It’s the very definition of peaceful. In reality it’s little more than a sloping field and some very basic facilities. It’s located down miles of country lane and from the top of the site you can see the sea. Swallows dart around the field catching insects and sheep bleat to each other in the next field. Checking in is easy. Put your money in an envelope and put it in the postbox by the gate. Trust, what a wonderful thing.

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From the campsite the quiet stoney beach is just a short walk away, along a dirt track that also leads onto the south west coastal path. Although it’s late June there’s still some Ransomes around, so we pick some of the healthier looking leaves. Elderflower trees can also be found along the way, so we pick some flowers from each tree to make a a drink from.

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With the fridge filled with nature’s offerings it was time to return home, after a trip that had been peaceful, but not too peaceful…


But that’s the way I like it baby
I don’t wanna live for ever

– I. Kilmister, E. Clarke, P. Taylor


This Desert Life

We arrived at the spot we’d planned to spend the night and were immediately concerned.  Columns of black smoke appeared to be rising from the ground all around the nature reserve we had chosen to stop in.  On closer inspection it turned out not to be smoke but insects. Thousands, millions probably, of insects rising in great plumes. A few landed on the windows, attracted by the light. They were big and scary looking.

“Erm, not sure stopping for the night in the middle of an alien insect invasion is a good idea?”

The question hung in the air as we sat looking at other options for somewhere to park. But suddenly and to our surprise the insects disappeared. Just like that, as if the “No Insects” switch had been flicked, the end of the insect working day.

“Well, that was weird.”

Weird. It was a word that would sum up the whole weekend, but weird isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Parked up just outside of Dungeness, we were in the UK’s only desert. Some of its highlights include two lighthouses, a nature reserve, an RSPB centre, a narrow gauge railway, a small town of mostly wooden buildings and a pub that closes at half past eight of a Saturday.

It was near the RSPB centre that we were camped. Around ten in the evening the police turned up. “Here we go” we thought, but no, they circled the gravel car park, gave us a cheery wave and left. We heard them again later, it’s quite nice to have your own security patrol.  Even the group of lads who turned up later in the evening parked a respectable distance away.  Things were looking up.

The shingle flatlands of Dungeness provide a unique habitat for large numbers of plants, birds and animals.  A day spent at the RSPB reserve rewarded us with several magical moments.  Birds of prey got so close to the hides that you could almost feel the wind from their beating wings. We ooh’d and ahh’d and the coot chicks and ducklings. We listened to the cuckoos, though they remained hidden from sight.

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We got our first view of the train that runs along the narrow gauge railway as we stopped in nearby Lydd-on-Sea to pick up some food to cook for dinner.  The engineer, tightly ensconced in his locomotive, tooted his steam whistle as his train emerged from between the suburban gardens and rattled across one of the many level crossings.  Over the weekend we noticed three different trains running, two steam locomotives and a diesel, all miniature versions but capable of pulling large numbers of tourist filled carriages.

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Being a headland, and a constantly changing one at that, Dungeness has long been the site of a lighthouse. The first lighthouses were built here with a plan to charge passing ships for safe passage but collecting the toll proved problematic and the scheme soon failed.  Currently there are two lighthouses, the old and the new. The old lighthouse, built in 1904, is no longer in use and is purely a tourist attraction. It was replaced in 1961 by the new lighthouse, required because the nearby power station obstructed the beacon of the older lighthouse.

New lighthouse

It was next to the old lighthouse that we camped for our second night in the area.

Old Lighthouse

We had planned to go for a quick pint in Dungeness’s only pub and braved the light rain to find it closes quite early, relying on daytime trade only. It’s not surprising really, the area is sparsely populated and there is not much in the way of passing trade in the evening. We weren’t alone though, a few other vans were parked up for night and there were many people fishing from the steep shingle beach, their lines disappearing into the murky sea.

Climbing the 169 steps to the top of the old lighthouse brings a view over the vast flat landscape.  It’s got an almost eerie feel and from this height it even feels slightly abandoned and it’s clear that not all the houses are occupied full time.  

But there is life here and it’s quite vibrant.  Someone is working on an old Airstream caravan.  People are living in the old Coastguard lookout tower.  Artists sell their work from shed like houses, with bright and kooky installations to tempt you in.  Trawlers are dragged up the beach by tractors and fishermen land their catches and smoke them there and then, the smoked fish sold from little huts by the road.  It’s an incredibly photogenic landscape.

There’s rememberance here too, hidden in the scrubland we find a makeshift monument to two Polish spitfire pilots killed nearby during WWII.

Boat and Tractor

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Paintbrushes

House

gloves

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Lighthouse keepers cottages

Coastguard station

And behind it all, the power station sits, gently humming to itself twenty four hours a day.

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Pork Scratchings

The van screeched to a halt in the darkness, the dim headlights just about illuminating the startled family of wild boar sprinting across the road ahead of us. They were lucky, it was late and we were tired, but were travelling slowly as we were looking for somewhere to sleep.  We pulled into a secluded parking area, put the beds down and fell into a deep sleep, dreaming dreams of bacon rolls and crispy pork scratchings.

Thursday morning

As well as wild boar, the Forest of Dean is also home to some pretty decent mountain biking trails. We had planned to ride them earlier in the year when we visited the area to watch the Severn Bore but a broken bike meant we had enjoyed the forest on foot instead. Back now with two working bikes we parked at the Cannop Cycle Centre to start our ride. After spending some time playing in the skills area we headed off for a lap of the much acclaimed Verderers’ trail.

Rosana on a bike

In the late morning heat we rode up the first fire road climb, desperate to get some shelter from the sun and soon enough we were under the cover of the trees and racing back down the flowing swoopy bermed track. The day progressed, up and down, in and out of dappled sunlight, riding more interesting switchback climbs up hillsides and more flowing descents, culminating in a steep set of rollers and fast bermed corners on stoney ground.

Hot and dusty we made use of the centre’s shower facilities before looking for another spot in the forest to spend the night, eventually settling near a lake with a motorhome for company. There was evidence all around of wild boars’ nocturnal foraging, but we weren’t treated to a more sedate boar sighting.

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Not a set of rules in sight

The next day followed pretty much the same pattern with another lap of the Verderers’ trail under the same bright blue skies. In the height of summer the forest was a vibrant green and as we raced along the trail we were accompanied by a soundtrack of birdsong. We stopped for a while to catch our breath and watch a bird of prey that we’d heard circling above us.

We were just as hot and dusty as the previous day so made use of the van’s own cold water shower in the carpark before heading south for a weekend of campervans in Sommerset with the California Owners Forum.

Rosana, still on a bike

The Longest Day

There’s something special about waking up to the sound of the sea gently lapping at the shore. Sliding open the door, the salty air outside mingles with the smell of coffee brewing on the van’s stove. We eat our breakfast while enjoying the view across the water, seagulls circling overhead hoping we’ll leave them something. The weather had been kind and remained calm overnight, Hook Head maintaining it’s serene beauty in the morning sunshine.

Our time in Ireland was coming to an end, we had one more night left followed by an early morning crossing. We decided to head back to Wexford and stay at the same campsite we’d used on the first night, it was near the ferry terminal and we felt we really ought to have a shower before getting on a boat full of people.

We stopped at the town of New Ross to visit the Dunbrody, one of the ‘Famine Ships’, also known as ‘Coffin Ships’, that plied the Atlantic emigration routes in the nineteenth century. It’s not the original ship, that was wrecked in 1875 and this replica was built in 2001. Along with the ship there’s a museum that gives a hint at the harsh realities of life for those on board and the problems the population were facing that led to emigration on such a large scale.

Dunbrody

Cap'n Rosana

A final stop along the way to pick up some fresh County Wexford strawberries to keep us going on the journey home before reaching the campsite and a much needed shower. An early morning ferry returned us to Fishguard and we were blessed with another calm crossing, much to Rosana’s relief. It was the summer solstice and since it was such a beautiful day we decided to extend our trip another day and headed up to the lighthouse at Strumble Point where we found a peaceful spot for the night that gave us a perfect view west over the ocean. There were a couple of other vans there and as sunset approached a number of locals arrived to enjoy the moment as well.

Strumble Head

Strumble Head

As the sun set on the longest day, it also set on another Betty Bus adventure. We’d come to Ireland and found a beautiful country full of colour, interest and friendly people. Our short trip only just scratched the surface, hopefully we’ll be able to return one day to experience more.