Thursday, September 12, 2013

Traveling North from Southampton to Blair Atholl, Scotland

On the morning of September 3rd, Vince immediately went to a hardware store to get a couple parts to fix the generator and DC system. The previous day, he was fortunate to get in touch with an RV dealer, near Manchester, that has some specialization in American motorhomes. He was very lucky that someone there took the time, probably about 30-40 minutes in total, to walk him through troubleshooting the various problems. Once he returned with the two parts, together costing about £3, we checked out of the Holiday Inn Express and set off back to the Southampton port to retrieve LandShark.

With the new parts, Vince had partial success fixing some systems. The generator was back in business and some of the house systems, like the water pump and refrigerator. Three of the four slides and the air conditioning/heating however were still not working but we decided we needed to move on as a new K-Line ship had since moored at the port and the dock hands would want our spot for new arriving equipment.

We headed north to our first UK camping site, Sandy Balls Holiday Centre (£20/nt), in Godshill village, near Fordingbridge on the western edge of the New Forest. This is a wonderful camping place, with both inside heated and outside swimming pools, and would be fun to stay for a few days or a week. Not us however. We had a mission to head north to Scotland to the John O'Groats Caravan Site at the north eastern tip of Scotland. We wanted to get to northern Scotland and then start slowly working our way south, trying to keep ahead of the colder weather.
En route to Sandy Balls, Vince took a road that clearly wasn't suitable for large vehicles. This was one of the wider sections; at one point he had only about 2" of clearance on either side.
Sandy Balls Holiday Centre is a great spot for camping; lots to do with 2 pools, a couple of playgrounds, arcade games, bike rental, a couple restaurants, shops, free wifi and more. I couldn't capture good photos to present how nice this site was.

Settled into our super pitch at Sandy Balls. It's huge, even by US standards.
Vincent sitting outside of the Woodside Inn, one of the restaurants at Sandy Balls, where one gets the best wifi connection.
So on September 4th, we set off again north, aiming for the Red Lion Caravan Park (£15/nt) just outside of Stafford, about a 200 mile journey. Vince led in the RV as he had the working GPS; it turned out that the second GPS didn't have the European maps properly loaded so it was of no use. So I was to follow Vince and James chose to be my co-pilot. Well, about 70 miles into the trip, I got separated from Vince in a round-about. And it turns out that if you make a wrong turn in the UK, you can be in trouble. It was 15 miles before I could even turn around; when I did, and I got back to the troublesome round-about, I took another exit, after which James commented, "That's not where Dad went." Seriously? (Actually it was the "correct exit" but Vince took another exit that was connected to a service station. I didn't know that he intended to stop.) At that point I was heading for Oxford, which I knew was in the right direction and was beginning to conclude I was on my own. I was driving with no GPS, no phone, no computer/wifi, and no map. But I had my wallet (yay!) so the first thing was to find a service station and hopefully buy a map (if they still sold those old-fashioned things). Fortunately the BP station sold maps and I was in business. I was returning to "1985", relying on my map-reading skills with no cell phone or wifi for a crutch. The only information I had about our destination was "The Red Lion Caravan Park, near Stafford, Staffordshire". That's it.

The first objective was to get to Stafford, which we did. The second objective was to find this Red Lion Caravan Park which I only knew to be "near Stafford". No street address, village name or postal code. With amazing luck and a few very helpful people along the way, it only took 3 stops, asking for directions, and James and I made it. Both Vincent and I were very relieved to see each other at the end of the day.
Happy and relieved to be reunited at the Red Lion Caravan Park in the village, Houghton.
September 5th, (happy 15th wedding anniversary), we decided to stay another day at the Red Lion. It's a very well-kept, working farm (goats, sheep, alpacas, cows, chickens, rabbits, etc) where they also make the most delicious ice cream. Definitely a nice place to stay. Vince wanted to spend the day troubleshooting the RV to see if he could solve the problem of the unresponsive slides and see if he could get the radio and heat working. Meanwhile, I caught up on the blog and went shopping with Paul to find other supplies.
Lots of chickens, ducks and tiny goats milling about.
The farm has a variety of beautiful bunnies; not sure what their fate is.
Snuggle bunnies.
While we were away, Vincent managed to get all slides working and the radio, for a bonus. (Yay!) It seemed, there was some incorrect wiring, so when he adjusted that, things worked. It was a little puzzling why the wires would be switched around. Maybe more went on with the RV during the shipping process then we realized...
Our anniversary dinner at the Shropshire Inn, Haughton. Okay dinner but good wine and delicious brownie-based dessert. Plus received a gorgeous pair of sapphire earrings to match the ring Vincent gave me for my birthday.
On September 6th, the beautiful weather ended. We woke up to RAIN. Gray, thick clouds and cool temperatures. Thank goodness, Vince thought to outfit the rig with a back-up gas-burning heater that didn't require electricity. At this point our heating/cooling systems still weren't working, nor electricity (being able to plug in to shore power without blowing fuses). Vince suggested we stay another day so that he could continue to troubleshoot the heating system. Given the weather, I thought it a good day to do some serious homeschooling. So Paul and James worked on math and cracked the science text while Sarah spent time on reading comprehension. I began to realize I should have purchased the teacher's edition of these text books as now I essentially had to do all the work myself in order to grade the boys' work. 8th grade review, here we go! That evening, we finally sat down to our first session of D&D since being on the road, which made Paul and James very happy.
Paul getting hands-on training for dumping the black and grey water tanks. Vince is hands-off!
On Saturday, September 7th, we woke up to a sunny day. Hurray! (Maybe summer wasn't over?) We decided to continue our drive north about 160 miles to the Lowther Holiday Park (£25/nt) in the village Eamont Bridge near Penrith in Cumbria.
Really enjoyed the Red Lion Caravan Park. Besides selling home-made ice cream, they sell eggs, milk, home-baked goods and a variety of home-made savory pies. I'm looking forward to their steak & kidney pie.
Exiting the village Houghton. I followed Vincent on a dual direction road; there wasn't much room for another car if it happened to come from the opposite direction.
Beautiful entrance to the Lowther Holiday Park.
The Lowther Holiday Park, located in the beautiful Lake District, is much like the Sandy Balls Holiday Center in that it is almost a vacation community, with general store, restaurant, games room and 4 playgrounds, and one can camp here for several days at a time. Most of the "Holiday Park" consists of permanent trailers and small cottages that are owned; there aren't actually many camping pitches for short-term use. There were several trailers/cottages for sale and the asking prices ranged from ~£10k-£85k. I didn't do any research to figure out what one got for £10k vs £85k.
When we parked at our pitch, women staying across the road commented that they thought we were a band!
On Sunday, September 8th, we woke up to 8 degrees Celcius temperatures; that's about 46 degrees Fahrenheit and approaching northern California winter temperatures. Brrr. I slept in 3 layers of clothing and was still cold. That propane gas heater was quickly becoming my new best friend.

As it wasn't supposed to rain, we decided to stay an extra day to see a bit of the area. That, and Vince wanted to use the free wifi to download European maps for the second GPS. Seemed he didn't feel confident about that old fashioned driver's atlas I purchased, or didn't want to lose me. (Sweet Vince, spent hours sitting in the community centre area downloading maps.) While I was waiting for Vince to return from downloading files, I decided to do a load of washing. I had problems getting the hose connected to the machine with water perpetually squirting all over the place. After mucking about for a while it was almost noon, I hadn't made any progress and we were rapidly losing our day. Several emails to Vince went unnoticed so in frustration I headed to collect folks to salvage the day.

We aimed to set out in the direction of Keswick but got as far as the end of the Lowther Holiday Centre drive; we spotted that the Crown Hotel was having a Sunday carvery special for £6.95. We were beginning to understand this familiar Sunday roast special. So we parked and went in. It was quite mediocre but we all had a substantial meal to keep us going for a while.
The Sunday carvery special at the Crown Hotel included roast beef, gammon (ham), roast pork, turkey, yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, peas, carrots, parsnips, cheesy cauliflower, onions, gravy and condiments. I felt like we should be out plowing a field afterwards to wear all this off.
Upon leaving the Hotel, we noticed across the street an Arthur's Round Table sign so we checked that out.
Heading towards Arthur's Round Table and finding out what that was. We learned it is a "Neolithic earthwork henge". "Neolithic" (new stone age), means dating from about 4000 BC to about 2500 BC. A henge features a ring bank and ditch with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside. Arthur's Round Table dates from c. 2000 BC (which implies to me it's out of the Neolithic period but who am I to argue); therefore has nothing to do with the legendary king it is named after (predating him by at least 2500 years).

By Arthur's Round Table, the kids ran to the top of a knoll and the cows all ran toward them to check them out. (Must have heard their American accents.) It startled the kids and they all ran away. Ah, city kids.
Running from the cows. The cows are all watching them likely wondering, "what's their problem?"
Continuing towards Keswick, we came across the Castlerigg Stone Circle so stopped to check that out. It was thought to have been built about 4,500 years ago by prehistoric farming communities. The motivation behind the construction of Castlerigg, its use and how the use may have changed over time, is not really known. Current thinking links Castlerigg with the Neolithic Langdale axe industry in the nearby Langdale fells, with the circle acting as a meeting place where the axes were traded or exchanged. I guess I'll just have to accept that theory.
The Castlerigg Circle seemed to be a popular local destination. There was an ice cream truck parked there and we saw an older couple get out of a taxi with the obvious plan to hike back to their home; good idea for an outing.
On our fifth day in the English countryside, observing sheep still holds its fascination.
We eventually made it to Keswick and our first mission was to find some outer wear. Since all I had were capri trousers and one pair of stretch pants that weren't even good enough for the K-Line sailors to take, my mission was to find a new pair of trousers that I wouldn't mind being seen in. I bought a pair of Craghoppers lined trousers that would hopefully keep me warm in the coming months. Paul and Sarah both got water proof jackets and Paul and James each got a pair of trousers.
Sarah in her new pink waterproof jacket. We're a little better equipped now for this UK weather.
After shopping, we eventually made it down to Derwentwater Lake. It's very picturesque. Sort of reminded me of a smaller version of Lake Como or of Lake Ashi by Hotel Fujiya in Hakone, Japan, where Vincent and I stayed in 2010.
On Lake Derwentwater, Paul watched a dog repeatedly fetching a stick in the water. We thought of Molly; but she'd only like the fetching part, not the water part.
On September 9th, we continued our journey north to Blair Castle Caravan Park, right next to, you guessed it, Blair Castle, in the small town of Blair Atholl, near Pitlochry, Scotland. Paul was my co-pilot today and we both thought if we had a pound for every sheep we saw, we'd be rich. The scenery was beautiful driving north. I really enjoyed listening to the BBC, Paul and I both trying to mimic the accents. 

The town of Blair Atholl is very picturesque. When we entered the Blair Castle Caravan Park, we were greeted by a pair of Highland cows.
Highland cattle have serious horns. Trivia: A group of Highlands is known as a fold, not a herd.
Settled onto our pitch at the Blair Castle Caravan Park. This was the priciest campground yet. £21 + £2/person +£2 for the dog, totaling £33/night. One only gets 1 hour of free wifi per day which you have to go to the reception center to access. Serious rationing. Lovely views however.
That evening we had dinner at the Atholl Arms Hotel, in the Bothy Bar, which had a lot of local atmosphere and was quite enjoyable.
The Atholl Arms Hotel is right on the main road and looks like a nice place to stay for a few days.
On September 10th, 3 of our 4 slides were still not working; it seemed the problem was more than switched wiring. Vincent narrowed it down to a faulty solenoid, a part that he'd have to order and have shipped to us....somewhere. He decided to ship the parts to the John O'Groats Caravan Park in the north, so we were committed.

Therefore, without the space to work in, I decided to forgo any notion of using our washing machine and set off to use the Blair Castle Caravan Park facilities. At £2.50 per washing or drying load, it quickly added up. Five washes and two drying loads later, I was out £17.50. I had read that doing laundry in Europe would be costly, which was one of the reasons we decided to add a washing machine to LandShark. What I hadn't factored in, besides the potential that the RV slides wouldn't work (therefore not giving us enough room to do a load of laundry) was that a large load in the washing machine pretty much drained the fresh water tank. So in order to do one or more loads, one needed to have a water faucet plus a dumping drain at the pitch; that way you could keep filling up the fresh water tank with minimal trouble rather than having to move the RV to fill up water every time you did a load of laundry. Oh well, lots of kinks to work out in order to get life working smoothly.

Due to a Blair washing machine breaking down, laundry getting locked in the spinning machine and a number of unforeseen obstacles, the job of cleaning laundry took much longer than expected and everyone was famished. So we fetched take out pizza, which was pretty good and finally were ready to do some sightseeing about 13:30. Fortunately, our destination Blair Castle, was literally next door. We signed up for both seeing the castle and the grounds at a family pass cost of £16. (Staying at the Caravan Park gave us a £10 discount off of the posted £26 fee). Much to my pleasant surprise, all 3 children really enjoyed touring the castle and spending time examining the contents of the rooms. Even more to my surprise, Paul emerged from the castle wanting to buy himself a kilt.
With its earliest structure dating back to 1269, Blair Castle is one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses.
A few times a day, a bagpiper plays for about 5-10 minutes at the front entrance welcoming people. We happened to arrive just as he started playing.
The last room to see in the castle is the ballroom. There was a box of period costumes for kids to try. There was no sign posting stating for what age range these costumes were intended so Vince felt he should give it a go.
We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the grounds. The first area we explored was Diana’s Grove, a 2-acre, tranquil wooded area adjacent to the castle. Originally laid out in 1737 by the 2nd Duke of Atholl as a more formal ‘wilderness’, it was the 7th Duke who created the outstanding collection of conifers between 1871 and 1895. Here, the boys are standing by the statue of...Diana.
Diana's Grove contains a range of Scotland's tallest trees including the Douglas Fir (introduced to Scotland in 1827). Also on view is the tallest Japanese Larch in the UK at 44m high, and the tallest Red Fir in the UK at 39m high. We came across this Giant Sequoia (pictured); the seed supposedly came from the Grizzly Giant, the largest redwood growing in the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park, California. The mound on which it grows was reshaped in 1884 to match the diameter of the trunk of the parent tree. The boys just wanted to hug a piece of home.
After leaving Diana's Grove and spending a few minutes at the children's playground, we visited Hercules Gardens, a 9-acre walled garden recently restored to its original Georgian design. Named after the life-sized statue of Hercules which overlooks the garden, it incorporates landscaped ponds, a folly or two (decorative buildings having no real purpose), a Chinese bridge and an orchard of more than 100 fruit trees.
Vincent and Paul chatting while walking around the Hercules Garden.
Paul and Sarah watching the ducks, sitting next to the swan house.
Another photo of the Hercules Garden; the Chinese bridge is in the distance.
James imitating art.
I went to bed that evening wondering how long Paul's interest in kilts would last?

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