Wednesday, 22 October 2008

New Caravan Club Site in Derbyshire

Major plumbing work was required at home, and the male half of AP wanted a clear run at creating total chaos and leaving an awful mess. "How about a girlie weekend away dearest"? So that's how three girlfriends came to try out the brand new Caravan Club site "The Firs" at Ambergate, Derbyshire, just a few miles from home.

Originally called Firs Farm, we stayed on this site the first year we had our motorhome, so it was interesting to see how it had changed. We've said before that we find Caravan Club sites rather "samey" and this site is no exception. It's definitely been "Caravan Clubbed". However, "samey" equals predictable, and there are rarely any nasty shocks with Caravan Club sites. You know what you are getting, which is large, flat pitches, resilient hook-ups, top-notch heated shower and toilet facilities which are always clean, laundry and dishwashing facilities and well-tended grounds, usually with a security access barrier. If you are really lucky you get friendly Wardens, and the ones at The Firs are some of the nicest we have met.

The Firs opened for business in August 2008 having been over two years in planning and construction, being delayed somewhat due to objections from residents, which resulted in the Reception Block being moved six imches, and the shower block being built in a different position. There are 82 pitches, and approx one quarter of these are hardstand. The site is open March to 10 November.

Pitching is in two separate areas - the main site, and a lower section, down a rather steep access road, but offering a peaceful alternative to the more-populated main site. The best pitches of all are on the front row of the main pitching area, in front of the toilet block, and two of these have truly fabulous views down the Derwent Valley, the others being obscured by trees. As we were leaving on Sunday lunchtime there was a queue waiting for caravans to vacate these pitches, so occupying one of these is much coveted. What is unusual about this site, is that the original shower and toilet block has been converted into multi-purpose building including a drying room, an Information Centre, with chairs and tables to peruse all the leaflets, menus, brochures and posters on display and toilets/washbasin for when the main block is closed.

To get the most out of this site, a car is required, however, with a good OS Map and strong pair of legs (the site is at the top of a long hill), there are walks from the site, which take in several pubs. Not having a car between the three motorhomes, we set out with dog and compass and explored the glorious Derbyshire countryside so close to home yet undiscovered to date. The traditional mill town of Belper is within easy cycling distance (or slightly longer walking distance), with a small factory outlet housed in an old mill building and a mixture of shops, Morrisons Supermarket, restaurants, a tea room and a delightful Farmer's Market held the second Saturday of the month.

The weather was glorious and tee shirts and three quarter trousers were the norm. Lunch was taken at The Excavator Pub at Buckland Hollow, a convenient stopping off place on our 8 mile walk, however, we had a very unfortunate food experience, which was not resolved by the staff, so our advice is, if you are thinking of eating at this pub - don't. A far better bet is The Spanker Inn
at Nether Heage, where the welcome was very warm and the menu looked excellent, although not sampled.

The highlight of the weekend was visiting Heage Windmill , the only six sail windmill in the UK, which was in full sail (but not grinding flour) the day we were there, complete with Miller and Wife in traditional costume. Within approx 20 - 30 minutes walking distance of the site, it costs just £3.00 for an individual tour round the windmill, (some concessions) which is run by volunteers, and it really is a little treasure. The Miller proudly looked after our little dog whilst we explored the mill and heard the long history of this fascinating and unique structure.

The windmill relies on donations and income from entry fees, so if you stay at The Firs, please try and support them with a visit. You won't be disappointed.

PS: More about Heage Windmill in the next blog.

Image above: The Firs Caravan Club Park, Ambergate, Derbyshire

Copyright 2008

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Friday, 10 October 2008

Edwina Curry goes motorhoming (or how to make something really easy look incredibly difficult)

The following article originated in The Daily Mail, 8 July 2008, and is featured in this quarter's Benimar Owners Magazine. Abridged for this blog, it makes extremely incredulous reading: "It had a leaking roof and a cold shower, but Edwina Curry fell in love with her new camper van" By Edwina Curry.

A year on and the smoking ban has had dozens of consequences: 400,000 people have given up, 175 million fewer pints have been drunk in British pubs - and my husband and I have bought a camper van. I may be a retired Health Minister, but my husband is a dedicated smoker and insists on smoking when on holiday. This summer, we had to find a smoke-friendly getaway. So we found ourselves perusing the latest in mobile homes. After all, John had reasoned, how better to get around the ban than buying a mobile home in which he could light up at leisure? (AP comment: He could always pack up).

I couldn't believe my husband was suggesting we holiday in a souped-up van just so he could smoke. But I came round when I laid eyes on "Vanessa" - all-singing all-dancing camper van festooned with gadgets, from a satellite dish and a rear-view camera to central heating and built-in awning. We were sold on her and after a quick tutorial on how to work her various gadgets -which went in one ear and out the other - we were merrily driving home in a £20,000 second-hand Benimar Anthus. The honeymoon didn't last. A tank of diesel cost us £90, the dogs didn't warm to the cramped conditions and my husband struggled with the chemical toilet, opting for a bush instead (Uhh - pu-leeze!). We decided we'd lose our camper virginity in Ireland, so we set off with everything from fishing rods to DVDs clattering round in the back. (Ever heard of lockers?)

Camper vans are perfectly comfortable if you know how to operate them and desperately uncomfortable if you don't. (No they aren't!) We were completely out of our depth. Stopping en-route to the ferry, we failed to switch on the various contraptions that make mobile living tolerable. The result was a cold shower, a warm fridge and no gas. (This is getting worrying) The rain was hammering down on the roof, which was leaking (I hadn't shut the skylight properly) (How difficult is that?)and our cramped living quarters smelled of wet dog. It was a gruelling initiation.

When we arrived at our campsite in County Wicklow, we were ragged dirty wrecks. Unfortunately, the water tank was empty. Before we could have wash or flush the loo, we'd have to fill it. But we couldn't get the cap off the inlet pipe, (you should have listened at the hand-over then) so we had to dismantle the side of the van (What???) and fill up the tank by hand, using a bucket instead. I gave up and used the grubby campsite toilets - a truly traumatic experience. But the real misery of camper van life is that you can't dry anything out. (Yes you can if you know how!) Our towels were soon as sodden as the dogs and everything smelled damp. Were we really going to survive a fortnight of this? It was a moment of despair that I discovered the shower had stopped draining. Without my specs and stark naked, (way too much information) I found a screwdriver and set about trying to unblock the plug - all the while, I soon discovered, in full view of a child staring at me from the caravan next door. (Presumably hubbie was outside having a fag?)

After this we decided nothing else could go wrong. (Ever heard of Sod's Law?) Then we went exploring, leaving our "This pitch is reserved" notice on our plot. We returned to discover somebody had driven right over it a pinched our spot. (Oops). After another night of being eaten alive by midges, we decided to move on. "Moving on" in a camper van is more difficult than it sounds. (No it isn't!) Everything that isn't packed away bounces around and turns into a potentially lethal projectile, and the dogs hated the way Vanessa lurched along the winding roads of rural Ireland. But just as we thought we couldn't have picked a worse holiday, the sun came out. We found a new campsite, my husband tinkered with his fishing gear and I planned a bike ride. Life slowed down and I felt blissfully lazy. Despite all our beginner's mishaps, I was starting to enjoy myself.

Then we worked out how to operate the toilet and shower. I got used to the broken nails, the grimy feet and the frizzy hair. I also appreciated how friendly our fellow campers were. Most importantly, I began to feel at home. However Vanessa did have one more surprise to spring - she is a devil to park. It's not her fault, the power-steering is brilliant and the rearview camera allows you to see behind. The problem was that nearly all public car parks have a height barrier and we just couldn't squeeze her in. (Agree, this is a right pain in Ireland) After touring a number of car parks we gave up and made for the beach where a fellow angler said it's all down to gipsies. Nobody wants them to park up overnight. This seems mighty unfair.

In the event, by the time we returned home, we were seasoned campers, if a little wild in appearance. I've repaired the breakages, blanked out the unpleasant memories and found my way round Vanessa. The dogs have discovered their favourite sleeping spots and so have we, curled up like mice in the cosy bunk. (I think you mean the Luton). We have been cheap, green - and John has been able to smoke with impunity. I think we might do it again".

AvailablePitch comment: "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear"!
Photo courtesy of Daily Mail