I’m still alive!

My apologies for the radio silence over the past few weeks. I am still alive and the trip is still going well, though I am currently recovering from a bout of something nasty in the stomach department (recuperating at Tilley Farm which is hugely restorative).

I haven’t been posting as I was finding that it was taking all my time in the evenings. Not just the writing which is quick but sorting through and editing photos and getting them in the right format, editing video etc. So we would drive, walk, visit places, then stop for the night and I would be doing stuff for the blog/Youtube every evening. It was becoming like a job and adding to the pressure which this trip is meant to be addressing.

So I decided to take a break from it. I am still posting regularly on Facebook (so send me a friend request if you are not seeing those) plus I am keeping notes – so the trip reports will come eventually. I am just not pressuring myself to keep up to date.

Pressuring myself is something I do very well. I realise that this whole trip is actually a symptom of it. I could have just said I am taking 4 months off to travel and then gone where I wanted and stayed as long as I liked. But no – I said I was going round the whole coast – and I built in stops for workshops etc. so round the whole coast I have to go – and under time pressure.

Except I don’t. I have to keep reminding myself that there are no rules except those I have set myself – and I have the prerogative to change those. I can miss out bits of coast if I like and I can stay longer in some bits than others. This is in fact inevitable but I am not somehow ‘cheating’ if I do it.

So for the rest of the trip I am taking my time where I want and speeding up when I want. I have two more workshops planned up in Yorkshire at the beginning of December but I have long realised that I would not be up there in time so will take a week out to go from wherever I am to do those then home for the rest of the week for the dreaded election. I will then go back and continue my travels.

It is all good learning. About myself and what drives me. About the pressures I put upon myself. About priorities and what is important. I hope you will understand.

Are you scared and other frequently asked questions

Most of my posts so far have been trip reports – sharing a glimpse of where we have been and what we have done. But people have asked a number of questions about the trip so I thought it might be worth doing a kind of FAQ for the trip. If there is anything you want to know just ask!

Are you scared?

I think this is mostly in connection with free camping though perhaps also doing this alone. The honest answer is I haven’t been yet. The closest I got was when a car pulled into the layby where I was parked alone, just as I was getting the dogs out for their final ablutions. But it was weird rather than scary – they drove on past and straight out the other end. Either they got a sight of Martha and didn’t fancy their chances or they weren’t on the look out for an overweight middle aged woman!! Either way there was no trouble.

When we are on our own at a park up, particularly if it is on the road, I will strap the front doors together so they can’t be opened even if someone broke the lock. But to be honest Martha is a great watch dog and would not take kindly to anyone entering without permission. Even Otter would make a lot of fuss! I think it would feel very different without the dogs but with them it is all very relaxed. And almost everywhere there has been at least one other van so it feels much safer.

Do you have a set route?

Not really. I am following the coast as closely as I can but in reality there are bits where it is just not possible by vehicle. So we have a big atlas and each evening we plan roughly where we will go the next day. Sometimes that has to change when we see the road – it has to be sensibly passable by a small motorhome – and sometimes we decide to follow a route that we had not found on the map. We keep going – stopping for breaks, walks and visits whenever we want to – until I get tired and then I look for somewhere to stop. I have pre-booked (the day before) a couple of sites when I knew I needed to service the van. I have popped into one or two on spec (there are spaces at this time of year) and I have rung CLs on the day for that evening.

I don’t want to book any further ahead as it just puts pressure on us to cover distance.

How far are you travelling each day?

This question has come up both from those who think we are covering the ground quickly – and those who feel we are taking our time! The short answer is “it depends” but it is averaging around 80 miles a day. Any more than this feels really tiring. We would do less if we wanted to spend a long time at a place but this pace allows us to pause where we like, do several decent walks a day and stop off to visit the odd gallery, shop or visitor attraction.

I am doing very few café stops – except the ones where we make our own – and have not visited too many attractions simply because of leaving the dogs. It has been ridiculously warm for most of these first two weeks and the van, while not getting dangerously hot, does get stuffy. So far, we have stuck to things we can all do together. That may change as the weather cools down – we will see.

Are you coming to … [insert where you live]?

If it is on the coast then almost certainly. I am not making it to many islands and if you are up an unmade track then I may miss you but I will be visiting as much of the coast as I can reach. At the moment it looks like it will be Scotland until the start of October, the West coast and Wales until the start of November, the South West and South East until December, then the East coast in late December/January. I have a few workshops planned so may be taking a few days out of sync to do those if I am not there at the allotted time but otherwise will be steadily working my way round. Give me a shout if you’d like to have a coffee – and even more so if you have a coastal park up you can offer!

How are the dogs finding it?

Great question especially as Martha has famously been extremely car sick in the past. They are actually taking it all in their stride. Martha has amazed me by not only not being sick at all but actually looking quite cheery when I have checked on her on some of these very windy and bumpy roads. She either sleeps or seems to be getting her sea legs and just watches where we are going. Otter travels in her box in the front and loves it as always. She is excited when it is time to leave a place and asks to go in her box.

But they are both also enjoying the variety I think. Otter is becoming more tolerant of dogs and children – and Martha is only barking when she feels something needs sorting. Both are sleeping really well and are very relaxed in the van.

How do you manage off grid?

The van is self-sufficient – especially as the battery charges when driving so we always have enough electricity for our free camps. There is also a solar panel which will have been working over-time recently!  We have an onboard toilet (lasts me on my own 2-3 days before we need to empty at a campsite) and water and waste tanks last a similar amount of time. The van also has gas heating (not required at the moment but we have had a couple of cold evenings) and gas water heater – though to be honest I just boil the kettle if needed. Cooking is gas (calor). Aside from a slight problem we have at the moment with a calor gas bottle which seems to be mis-threading, it all runs smoothly (we have two gas bottles on board so this is not a disaster just an annoyance).

When running on 12v battery, I have an inverter which allows me to still charge my computer and camera batteries and we have several 12v to USB charge points. So I can function off grid perfectly well for 2-3 nights.

At the moment I am aiming for at least 2 off for 1 on, where the on can be a small site or CL as long as it allows basic servicing of the van.

What about showers?

There is a shower in the van and I have used it to wash my hair when on hook up without a shower block. I could technically use it to shower fully every day but it would use a lot of water and gas – and frankly make a wet mess in the bathroom! So I just have a thorough flannel wash or do a “baby wipe shower” (with biodegradable, plastic-free baby wipes!) on the days when we are not on a site. So far I have managed to have a full shower one night in three and I don’t think I am smelling badly!

How do you get internet?

Mostly I tether my computer to my phone or iPad both of which have 4G through different companies. Even so much of the North and West coast so far have been without signal, so the answer then is that I don’t. It is much less of an issue than I would’ve expected. Having taken an official break, I am not feeling guilty if I can’t get online. I can write blog posts in Word to upload when I get the chance.

Occasionally sites have decent wifi which is a treat. The bigger sites have it for a price and I haven’t used it yet but I may need to – it is reasonable if you pay for 12 months.

Do you get lonely?

Not yet – but perhaps ask me again in 3 months. So far in a fortnight I have met up with three lots of friends, which is probably more than I would do at home! The dogs are great company and I am happy on my own. I thought I would miss online communication more than I do but so far I am not minding being without for a lot of the time. Plus I have met new people and got involved in some community things while staying with friends which is a lot of fun.

Lessons from the first two weeks

So we are now two weeks in so I thought it would be fun to review what I have brought on the trip: what has been essential, what I could happily jettison and what I wish I had (and may still get!).

So first what has proved to be essential?

The paper map. Sat Navs are all very well but they like direct routes and don’t function at all when there is no signal (if you use Google maps as I do). A good, old fashioned paper map gives hours of pleasure: planning routes, checking routes, getting back to the right route! Mine is already getting dog eared and has pages falling out but as long as it lasts the trip I don’t care too much!).

The dog guard behind the seats. A last minute addition (it is actually a panel from a sturdy puppy pen), this slots just behind the front seats. It will slide fully back to open up the gangway and can be secured in place with bungees. Not only does it keep Martha secure in the back while we are driving, but it allows me to separate off the front in the evening and overnight. Works brilliantly.

Microfibre towels and tea towels. These I was in two minds about but they have proved to be brilliant. Compact but absorbent and very quick drying. I would say for the human towels get ribbed ones – they feel much more like “real” towels than the smooth ones. My smooth ones have been relegated to hand towels and bath mats!

Bungee cords. You cannot have too many. They keep my bedding in order during the day, act as internal washing lines, stop things falling off shelves and generally hold things in place.

The inverter. This gives you 13 amp sockets from a 12v supply and is invaluable for those chargers that run from 13 amp as well as the fairy lights. You can’t run heat appliances from it but it is still a very useful piece of kit that I have used a lot.

Multiple dog leads. This was controversial but I am glad I stuck to it. I have three leads for Otter (who needs to be on more often) – a light normal length “town” lead for visiting places where she has to stay close, a 3 metre webbing lead for walks like on the moors where she can have a bit more freedom but not too much because of sheep, and her biothane long line for the beach. Martha only has the one but she is off whenever it is safe. I could happily have a 3 metre one for her too for walks where there may be sheep!

Grinders of seasonings. I picked these up in Aldi of all places before I left – different blends of seasoning – Garlic and Tomato, Fish Seasoning etc. They are great! Add flavour to meals without needing a whole spice rack.

The water filler cap. This is a godsend when trying to fill water on your own. You just screw it on, attach the hose and turn on the tap. No trying to hold the hose in while running round to the tap and having water spray everywhere. This is an essential bit of kit when travelling alone.

Levellers. Essential if you are parking somewhere not completely flat. Have used them several times already!

My Doris and Fred notebooks. I have two notebooks: one a daily travel log, the other a record of sites and overnight spots. They are customised and have a page for every day. I complete these religiously each evening so I have a record of key things: where we went, what we did, where we stayed, as well as mileage, prices etc. Really helpful record and very manageable.

Skin So Soft. Coming into its own as we hit midge country. Officially the best thing to keep them (and probably almost anyone else) at bay!

What about the things I have yet to use?

Most of the tech I brought. I brought loads: lights, tripods, mics, cameras. I thought I would be doing a lot more stuff (I guess I still might?). But I am generally using two iPhones for photography (my current one and an old one which does well as a dash cam) with occasional use of the Osmo Pocket. I ditched the Go Pro after the first couple of days as the quality is so poor and I have barely used my digital SLR as it is so big. Similarly have yet to use a tripod (though it would probably improve some shots!) and the drone has stayed in its box (nowhere quiet enough to try it out even up here). This may change later on but at the moment I could clear a whole cupboard by stripping down tech and not miss it.

Herbs. I started off with the bright idea of having fresh herb plants in the van and got some cheery coloured pots to put them in. I started with fresh basil and had a plan to buy those pots that supermarkets sell but I kept decapitating the basil as I climbed past and it was looking sorry for itself so I have ditched it and the herb plan. However the colourful plant pots I have hanging up are really useful for keeping odds and sods handy: change for the washing machines, my glasses, the fly swat, chargers and the odd mini tripod in case I need it!

The personal table. This was so that I could work on things without taking the bed down but it was so awkward trying to do everything sitting on the bed that, after the first night, I have taken the bed down every morning and made it up again each night. It is not anything like as onerous as I expected it to be and having a proper table and place to sit has been essential. Martha is fine on the side bench or a single bench – and she often travels on the floor anyway. This was something that surprised me but it is now part of our morning and evening routine. The personal table, lovely though it is, has stayed in the cupboard.

Half the clothes I have brought. Useful I guess to know I have 10 days worth of clothes but the reality is that storing 10 days worth of dirty washing is tricky. So I am doing a wash every 5 or 6 days and reusing the same clothes. So I could probably ditch a few!

Things I wish I had (and may still get):

A longer water hose. Have two water hoses but have still had a couple of occasions where they are too short to reach the available tap. An expanding long hose is on my shopping list.

A small gas burner. The current issue with the spare gas bottle makes me feel that some kind of independent gas burner would be a good emergency measure. It would mean that it was always possible to boil a kettle no matter what! (Have since picked one up).

Days 3-5: Reconnecting with friends

The past few days have been all about reconnecting with friends – both people and places. We visited here last year on our test run and we’ve been revisiting and investigating places further this time round. And it has been great to spend some time with good friends as well.

We left Kingsbarns having had a wonderful dawn walk on the beach where Otter discovered that seagull feathers (not attached to the birds thankfully!) are the best fun to chase. We were meeting my good friend Tracey and her two dogs Cuillin and Roxy at Tentsmuir Beach at 11 and, en route, wanted to follow up a recommendation from Isla: Jannetta’s Irn Bru ice cream in St Andrews!

Ice cream duly sampled (yum!) we met Tracey and had a fabulous couple of hours running around (the dogs that is – Tracey and I maintained a dignified stroll!) on the vast and deserted Tentsmuir beach. Tentsmuir has a huge forest leading to massive dunes and then the beach and is truly magical.

It also has a crepe wagon and the Goats cheese, walnut, fig and spinach crepe is highly recommended! After a leisurely lunch, Tracey and I said our farewells and I continued on up the coast, stopping off in Carnoustie for a cup of tea with Katherine, who started her TTouch training with us in Durham. Amazingly my route went right past her front door!

My plan was to free camp along the waterfront in Arbroath but when I arrived it was already jam-packed with motorhomes – there must have been 20+ parked nose to tail along the front – and it felt very claustrophobic. While there is an element of safety in numbers when free camping, there is a limit! So I decided to press on and in the end chose a big lay by overlooking Lunan Bay, separated from the road by a large grassy verge. We were joined by an Argos lorry for a couple of hours but then he moved on and we were on our own. It could have been scary but wasn’t. I strapped the front doors together and told Martha she was the security detail, but in the end it was quiet and no one bothered us. And we had sea views!

We were up to see the dawn (I must clean the van windows!) and went down to Lunan Bay for an early walk – just wonderful – before continuing up the coast.

The highlight of this stretch was Stonehaven with its pretty harbour. We managed to park up right by the harbour wall so we could have a good explore (can you spot Wolfie?). We’d visited Stonehaven last year but not stayed too long.

The best find of the day was one we missed completely last year: Stonehaven’s war memorial. Built high up on the cliffs overlooking the town, it is designed as a number of unfinished pillars, to represent the unfinished lives of the war dead. An absolutely stunning and atmospheric place – and lovely that it looks down over the town from which the 200 men and at least one woman, left to go to war, and never returned.

From there we headed to Aberdeen with its stunning granite buildings before taking a detour inland to catch up with Ali, another old friend from TTouch. It has been about 5 years since we saw each other but it felt like yesterday and it was lovely to meet her husband Paul and lovely dogs, Tilly and Coco, who were very tolerant of Martha and Otter noisily invading their home. We set up the van outside their stables and I settled down with a G&T and a very delicious low-carb cauliflower cheese, while they went out for a previously booked meal with friends. We slept really well!

After a leisurely breakfast with Ali and Paul, and homemade banana and choc chip muffins (yum!), we said our goodbyes and we were on the road again.

We wended our way back across to the coast then up to Cruden Bay, where we stopped for a walk. As I pulled into the car park I recognised it as another old friend. Last year we had walked along the cliff top to the ruins of Slains castle and it was beautiful, so we did it again.

Slains is a stunning ruin, right on the cliff edge, and is unusual in that you can explore the rooms and stairways without restriction. I was a little cautious as some of the windows had a sheer drop the other side and I didn’t fancy “spotting” Martha and Otter doing Parkour on those! But we had some fun with some of the safer ones.

Retracing our steps back to the village we had a brief visit to the beach (have to have at least one beach a day!) and then continued on to Peterhead and Fraserburgh – both industrial ports – with a brief diversion down to Rattray – a tiny hamlet with a 12th century ruined chapel and a road to match! We were lucky to get out of there with Martha’s stomach contents still in place!

As we turned the corner at Fraserburgh to head west along the Moray coast, the landscape changed, from the gentle rolling farmland that characterises the north coast to rocky outcrops, crashing surf and 1 in 5 inclines. What a great road.

Our final destination for the night was the Gamrie CL, a tiny site just over the hill from the coastal villages of Gardenstown and Crovie. There are only two of us here – much better than the bigger sites – but with only basic facilities: water, waste disposal of all types and electricity. It does however have a big dog walking field so the girls are happy and very sleepy!

Tomorrow we continue along the Moray coast, visiting some of the places my maternal highland ancestors hailed from. Goodnight all!

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