Thursday, 29 November 2012

Caravan marketing: Stuck in the 1950s?

It is late in the day, and I've had a long and challenging day in the day job. I've enjoyed a Jack Daniels or two, so I am tired and maybe a little too emotional.

But I am starting to get really angry at narrow-mindedness and being discriminated against.

'For what?' I hear you ask.

I'll tell you...  I am sick and tired of being discriminated against for having the audacity and the balls to get out there and live a full and happy life on my own, without a partner.

I completely understand that couples and families make up the overwhelming majority of the UK's caravanning community, as I have already mentioned in an article written for the progressive and forward-thinking company Cover4Caravans insurance.

About 12 years ago I bought my first ever brand new caravan, an ABI Adventurer from Glossop Caravans. I was made up.

My elation was somewhat deflated on the day I collected it, when I saw the pre-printed 'Sold' sign in the window..

Twelve years on, a friend has excitedly posted the picture of the 'Sold' sign in their caravan. It is the SAME pre-printed sign as so upset me all those years ago. And it still makes me angry.  Intensely.

Here it is, with the hand written names obliterated of course:

Can you spot what riles me off so intensely?

Imagine you were recently bereaved or divorced. Setting up on your own in your dream caravan is one of the first steps you are taking in your Brave New Life. Can you see in this sign what might put the recovery process back by three months?

Spotted it yet? Yup, it is the pre-printed 'and' along the line upon which the salesperson writes the name of the purchaser. Sorry, purchaserS.

Who says that it will always be a couple?

Here we are in the 21st Century, yet the industry is still using signs that belong in the 1950s. Life has moved on.

Single, couple, family... each status has its pros and cons.

But here is a bit of shocking news for the caravan industry: Not every purchaser these days is going to a be a white middle-class heterosexual middle-aged couple. Caravanning, the joy and the freedom that it brings, and the egalitarianism of enjoying ones own standards wherever one goes, is not governed by ridiculous rules of status or social background.

Caravanning is for everyone, ESPECIALLY pragmatists who can actually think for themselves. Part of that pragmatism is not always conforming to the social stereotypes of a bygone age.

It's time for the dealers and marketeers to wake up to that.

Rant over.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Hebrides 2012 Video

How could I forget? 

Naturally there is a video to go with the recent entries about the Hebrides. It's set to the music of awesome Scottish band Skerryvore. 


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Hebrides Take 2: May/June 2012

May/June 2012

'Always use a filter on your lens' screams the advice from photography magazines. So I do. Having just spent a small fortune on a lovely f2.8 zoom lens for my camera, I went the extra £40 for the UV filter to screw onto the front of it.

About four weeks after purchasing said lens, my hastily-stashed camera fell out of the car onto the ground, and the front of the lens smashed.

It turns out that the £40 filter took the brunt of the fall and smashed, thereby saving the lens that had cost well over ten times that amount.

I thank the wonderful contributors to the photography magazines.

It did mean that I needed a little longer in Oban when changing from the ferry from Mull to the ferry to Lochboisdale, but the local camera shop near the terminal came up with the goods and once again my new, super-expensive lens was protected.

The weather continued to be hot, dry, and sunny. Most of the five hour ferry trip to South Uist was spent outside, and Dougal was wonderfully well behaved for the duration. It's great that CalMac allow dogs into parts of the accommodation on board, but pooches are not welcome in the bars and cafe. That's fine if you're a couple, but what if you're a solo traveller with a dog?

Forewarned is forearmed, so I had made sandwiches and a flask of tea to enjoy on board. All I needed was a tartan rug.

We enjoyed the most amazing week on the 'Uist Chain' of islands.

On the Sunday, the Airstream was abandoned on Eriskay while Dougal and I went as foot passengers (or paw passengers in his case) to the island of Barra to see our caravanning friend Christine.

Goodness me, it was hot. Hot hot HOT. 28 degrees hot. That is hot by any standards, but in the Hebrides it's stupidly hot. As ever, I tried to take a picture of Dougal outside on the ferry but he looked really distressed. Then I worked out what the problem was… the scorching deck was burning the pads of his feet! Poor puppy… he was promptly picked up and whisked into the shade.

A lovely day was spent catching up with Barra friends. The next few days were spent at the usual secret wild-camping spots before giving the Moorcroft Campsite on North Uist a go. What a lovely campsite! It was a little bit spendy for a  single caravanner without a mains hook-up, but such a lovely location, and such lovely owners. Highly recommended.

On from Moorcroft, I tried a couple of new wild camping spots as well as a couple of established haunts. For more detailed info on where to caravan in the Outer Hebrides check out this blog entry here.

At one area, on the island of Berneray, I pitched up about 100 metres from the nearest other unit and enjoyed this wonderful unadulterated view of the island of Harris across the water:

After the stresses of actually having to move, I had an afternoon nap. When I woke, this was my view:

Yup, some numpty camper van had decided to park just a few metres away, right in my line of sight. Is it me? I mean, really, is it me?

I'd enjoyed some wonderful kitesurfing at North Uist, both off Moorcroft and also at Clachan Sands. And some lovely cycle rides around Benbecula. What next?

A little voice in my head told me to go to Harris, so the rig was loaded onto a ferry. Harris offers more in the way of art, and cake opportunities than the Uist chain. But it offers far fewer camping options to the caravanner. Wild camping spots are non-existent on Harris, and the only accessible campsite is Horgabost (see earlier entry about the caravanning in the Hebrides). But I still had an urge to go.

I was so glad that I went. I'm starting to get seriously fond of Harris.

The previous entry details the art and cake opportunities presented on this gorgeous island. I enjoyed some magical experiences, met some amazing people, but above all achieved an intense feeling of belonging. It was a wonderful few days, and despite the ceaseless rain that was falling in England, in the Hebrides the sun continued to shine.

Suffice to say that I totally and utterly love this place.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Isle of Harris - Art and Cake

 Summer 2012

Some may argue, but in my humble opinion, the beautiful Isle of Harris is the Hebridean epicentre for two hugely different yet important and nourishing things: Art, and cake. Agreed, on North Uist there is the brilliant Claddach Kirkibost Centre that produces some marvellous cakage, as does the Kildonan museum on South Uist. However, as far as art goes, I much prefer the Isle of Harris. 

Art is of course purely subjective. Some art I appreciate, and other I think is a load of pretentious twaddle. No, I'm not a fan of Emin's work, although I do admire her tireless efforts in making art accessible to all, and her part in the regeneration of the resort of Margate in Kent. Nor was I enamoured by any of the installations I saw at Gateshead's Baltic Gallery last year.

Back to Harris.

Your caravanning options are covered here in the blog entry from 2011 and here in its update in 2012.

No prizes for guessing that my preferred medium is photography. Harris is home to one of my favourite photographers of all time, John Maher aka The Flying Monk. John is popularly known as the drummer in the band The Buzzcocks, but his reputation as a brilliant photographer is starting to overtake that.

One of John's techniques is to use super-long exposures at night, sometimes adding simple yet interesting effects with a hint of artificial lighting and coloured gels. John is also one of the very few photographers who gets HDR photography right, unlike the gaudy interpretations of the majority. His dominant theme is documenting abandoned buildings, shielings etc. Often these incorporate an interesting historical throwback, or the tatty caravan/bus/lorry jars rudely with the landscape, yet paradoxically is also part of that unique landscape. His work is well worth sniffing out, and if you're on Harris you can see the real thing at the Seallam! centre in Northton.

Another photographer whose work I admire greatly is Beka Globe. Her awesome collection, along with that of her ceramicist husband Nikolai, is on show at the Mission House Studio on the East Coast of the island. Completely different to the style of The Flying Monk, the whopping great majority of Beka's studies are of breathtaking Hebridean landscapes. Her images inspire me twofold. To start with, there is the stunning composition and technical accuracy that only a Fine Art Photographer can achieve. Additionally, what really jolts my appreciation is the fact that these stunning images are presented in black and white. 

One of the reasons that I love the Hebrides so much is the abundance of amazing light and vivid colours. I had always thought of the islands and their beauty in full, glorious, vivid colour. Beka, however, is an artist clever enough to strip away the distraction of the colour in order to use the light to its best advantage by highlighting the textures, and creating greater emphasis on the composition. Her work, if you haven't already guessed, holds me spellbound.

Colour is something that artist Andrew Craig embraces in his gorgeous oil paintings of the Island of Harris. One of the hardest aspects of not living in a house is that it is not possible to buy beautiful paintings such as Andrew's and hang them for all to see and admire. The same goes for Beka's photos. 

All is not lost. Together with his lovely wife Emma, Andrew runs the Skoon Art Cafe in Geocrab, a little way North of the Mission House Studio on the East Coast. 

It is no exaggeration to say that the Skoon Art Cafe is my favourite 'space' in the world. To be surrounded by Andrew's gorgeous art, enjoying wonderfully tasty yet honest food, listening to relaxing music, and looking out at stunning views over the Minch to the Isle of Skye... yes, I would drive a thousand miles at the drop of a hat just to be there. 

Andrew and Emma bake amazing shortbread and cakes. Their lentil soup is my favourite, or if the soup of the day is not to my taste I go for the cheese platter. 

For meals a tad more hearty, I head to Northton and what I affectionately call 'Gail's Caff', but its proper name is the Temple Cafe. 

Gail is an amazing cook and a wonderfully friendly hostess. Best of all, a lot of the yummy food on offer at Temple Cafe is veggie-friendly. Decent vegetarian food (in fact, anything veggie other than macaroni cheese) can be hard to find in this corner of the world. Gail has this 'knack' with her salads that make them amazing. Don't get me started about her incredible baking, both savoury and sweet. I have been known to eat there for five consecutive days. 

An honourable mention goes to Hebrides Art, a gallery cum 'Five Star' cafe on the West Coast, sitting on the main road just North of Seilebost. I've only swung by for a brief visit, and have enjoyed the art that's on sale and the friendly welcome. The cakes are purported to be legendary, but sadly I have yet to sample. 

This list is far from exhaustive. There are plenty of galleries on Harris that I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting, and there are plenty of further cake opportunities. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to go back. Again. 

(Footnote: This entry was drafted over two separate occasions, once on the way to work and once during a quiet evening. On both occasions, recounting my happy times upon the Isle of Harris has seen me quietly sobbing. Tears of happiness and a yearning to return. It's not often that happens.)

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Caravanning in the Outer Hebrides - 2012 Update

Summer 2012

For those of you who enjoyed last year's blog entry about caravanning in the Outer Hebrides, here's a little update.

Tiree and Barra continue to offer a network of crofts offering camping and caravanning, and wild camping is as good as non-existent. (Yes, I know that Tiree is Inner Hebrides, but it gets included as it is a jump-off point on the Thursday ferry to Barra.) For an up-to-date list of campsites on these islands, look up:

Isle of Tiree Camping

Isle of Barra Camping

As for the Uist Chain, encompassing Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Eriskay, a lot is happening very quickly.

The Caravan Club now has two Certificated Locations on the Uists, both of which are searchable by members only on the Caravan Club's website. One is at North Uist Boarding Kennels, and the other at North Boisdale on the island of South Uist.

New sites are popping up too.

In addition to Shell Bay on Benbecula (see earlier blog entry), there are now a few sites to choose from.

In June 2012 I finally stayed at Moorcroft, on the South West corner of North Uist, and am delighted to confirm that it is as good as all the reviews suggest. A wonderful little site indeed.

Two new sites have appeared in the meantime, both offering hardstanding pitches, hook-ups, and facility blocks.

Kilbride Campsite is on the South Coast of South Uist, on the road to the Eriskay causeway. It's directly opposite a small sandy beach and is already receiving good reviews.

Balranald Hebridean Holidays is a small campsite by the RSPB reserve of the same name on the North West coast of North Uist. Only a stroll from the beach, and already they have declared an interest in promoting kitesurfing in North Uist. How the birdwatchers are going to react to powerkites in the sky next to the RSPB reserve remains to be seen, but given the blazing rows I have had on the beach I can't see that it's going to be a happy or comfortable relationship. But I wish them well with the kitesurfing project and look forward to a little more company out on the water next year.

As for the islands of Lewis and Harris, little has changed. The only realistic options for caravanners on Harris are still Minch View (recommended smaller caravans only due to sharp corner and narrow entrance) and Horgabost Campsite. Horgabost is still a stunning place but has, in my humble opinion, been spoiled by the large amount of ugly seasonal caravans now moored there. At the end of the day, I guess they need to make a regular income I suppose. Horgabost is now £12/n for a caravan without hook-up... a bit steep for one person. 

There is now a comprehensive network of sites with facilities and hook-ups on all the major Hebridean islands. CalMac fares have come down dramatically in recent years. So the question remains - what's stopping you? Go and discover the Outer Hebrides, before everybody else does.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

George Clarke's Amazing Spaces

November 2012

Rarely indeed do I watch TV. I don't even have one, so normally rely on other people's sets, or streaming over the internet. Catch-Up is a marvellous thing.

One program that is on at the moment, and one that interests me greatly, is George Clarke's Amazing Spaces on Channel 4 on a Tuesday evening. I love it.

It's a truly inspiration prog exploring many kinds of small spaces, from a beach hut to a static caravan, from teeny budgets of a couple of hundred pounds to massive £100k+ budgets.

Two of my favourite projects so far have been the woodland cabin and the beach hut. And, interestingly enough, these two were the cheapest. Which I guess requires far more inspiring ingenuity than simply signing a cheque.

Funnily enough, I'm not alone in my love of this wonderful programme. Look at social media and its evident that the fan base of Amazing Spaces is growing rapidly.

Which brings me around to the thoughts I'm having about it. I do wonder how many people watch the programme, see the spaces created, then look around at their own unmanageable and cluttered houses? The small spaces that George examines, be it an Airstream or a converted shipping container, show just how little we really need.

Living in a small space, it becomes terribly important to be lumbered down with as few encumbrances (aka STUFF) as possible. I once tried to live in a 6ftx12ft caravan and a small coupe car, yet in this tiny rig I carried about the massive amount of kit needed to pursue my windsurfing hobby. Despite the fact that all the stuff that I carted around could (just about) physically fit into the car and caravan, everything I ended up needing was always hiding in a box under a pile of other boxes. Tiresome, and a major source of frustration. The small space is only the start. You then have to shrink your life to fit.

My decluttering process is ongoing. I started nine months ago, and it's covered in the blog entry here.

Now winter is here, it's time for the next stage of decluttering. More on that a later date.

If, like me, you are a massive fan of George Clarke and his amazing Amazing Spaces, lend a thought to the wider implications of how simple life could be.

For many of us, finding and converting the space is the easy thing. Ditching all the stuff so that we live freely and unencumbered in that small space… that's not so easy.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Mull Part 2 - Peace, Puffins, and Pasta

Mull Part 2 - May 2012

On my way to Mull, I had bumped into some friends in Oban who were heading to the distilleries of Islay. I was tempted to join them, but the £400 return ferry fare (with the 'van) was a serious source of dissuasion.

'Go to Staffa! It's amazing!' said one of my friends, so I booked myself and Dougal on a trip from Tobermory.

What an outstanding day.

Dougal wasn't keen on the high-speed catamaran from Tobermory (note to self: Dogs don't like cats) but it meant that we got to the island of Lunga in a little over an hour. Here, we had to scramble ashore via a wobbly pontoon and a very rocky beach - not for the infirm or for any dog that is non-portable.

Dougal had to remain on his lead for the duration, and he's a calm and quiet dog so he was no problem. But I would NEVER have taken my parent's dobermann. Not only is he too big and gangly to carry ashore, but he barks at birds. And had he done that on Lunga, I think we would have been booted straight back onto the boat. Because Lunga is all about birds. Especially Puffins. And I LOVE PUFFINS!

These comical creatures are incredibly bold, as most of their human contact is with respectful bird watchers.

Next port of call was the island of Staffa, and Fingal's Cave where Mendelssohn was inspired to write his Hebridean Overture. The island sits on amazing basalt columns, related to the Giant's Causeway across the water.

In all, an brilliant day. Highly recommended. Although I think next time we will take a slower boat the shorter distance from Fionnphort or Ulva Ferry.

Part of my remit when doing a touring feature is to try out the local hostelries on behalf of the magazine's readers. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. And no, it's not expensed.

I had my eye on an Italian restaurant in Salen called Mediterranea, and the nice lady in the tourist office told me of a new site that had just opened up nearby.

Only trouble was, I couldn't find this new site. So I continued along the road with Airstream in tow, and happened upon a remote site called Killiechronan Campsite.

Oh my goodness, WHAT a find!

Quite simply, an amazing spot. AND it turned out to be one of the top places to spot Sea Eagles, as I soon found out when the telescope-tweaking twitchers turned up en masse. Well, there was about 10 of them, but that's a lot for Mull.

My camping fees at Killiechronan were £4 per night. That's right, £4 for THAT view! The main downside was the long walk to the loos and water tap (no showers) and the fact that there was no chemical loo disposal point, meaning that your stay is governed by the capacity of your black water tank. Unless, of course, you spend a lot of time running to and fro the facilities.

Pitched up, it was time to head back to Salen to try the Mediterranea restaurant.

Being a solo diner, I am VERY sensitive to good or bad service. When I saw how busy the restaurant was and the fact that there was only one very busy lady rushing around doing everything front-of-house, my heart sank.

But I need not have worried. The service was impeccable and friendly, despite the full house. And as for the food... WONDERFUL! Definitely recommended.

From Killiechronan it was a short drive to Ulva Ferry and the one minute boat trip to the island of Ulva.

Maybe the fantastic weather helped, but what an amazing little island. The ferry ride, the nose around 'Sheila's Cottage' which is presented as it would have been used a generation ago, the pretty three-mile walk, and the delicious meal in The Boathouse Cafe at the end of it…. all in all an absolutely perfect day. Ulva is now indelibly scored into my heart like so many other Hebridean islands.

Such a feeling of peace and tranquility eluded me when visiting the island of Iona a couple of days later. We had left Killiechronan and headed to Fidden Farm Campsite near Fionnphort on the South West Peninsula of the island. Gung-ho caravanner that I can be, I decided on using the little 'B' roads to get there.

Oh dear. We made it intact and were rewarded with some stunning scenery, but it was a bit of an ordeal. Passing places are few and far between, and some parts of the road are not exactly caravan-friendly. Top Tip: Stick to the A roads in Mull.

But getting back to Iona. It's an important place to the Christian Pilgrim, as it is the place that St Columba first arrived when bringing Christianity to Scotland and the North of England. As such, Iona is full of Pious Pilgrims and bored students on field trips. 'Trip Buddies' that I kept bumping into assured me that Iona was a delightful place away from the busy-ness of the ferry port and Abbey, but it was too late in the day for Dougal and I to embark on a marathon walk.

Instead, we headed back to Fidden Farm, lit the fire in the firepit, and took in the amazing sunset. Now THIS is what we come to the Hebrides for!

Mull. A Must-Do.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Mull it Over

May 2012

After the Airstream weekend in Dorset, I had a few weeks off. Where to go? Somewhere close by like Pembrokeshire or North Devon? You know, the kind of places where normal people would head to from Dorset?

Nope. I needed my Hebrides. So off we went on our long, long journey north.

In the meantime, one of my esteemed editors had decided that I'd be the best person to write a 'seaside special' about Tobermory in Mull, as I was THE Hebridean caravanner.

Slight problem with that. I'd never been to Mull, let alone Tobermory.

But now, I had an excuse.

I'm proud of the fact that I have never, ever written about somewhere I haven't been myself, so it was my pleasure to swing by Mull on the way to somewhere more remote.

Given my experience in Cornwall, I wasn't expecting great things from Tobermory. I imagined a rip-off joint epitomising everything I dislike about the UK Tourist Trap.

How utterly, utterly wrong I was. Tobermory, indeed the entire Isle of Mull, was an absolute delight. It was oodles better than I had dared to hope. Not as remote, quiet, or treeless as the Outer Hebrides, but a wonderful place all the same.

The trip started off in Craignure, Mull's principle ferry port, where I had my first ever veggie Haggis, neaps, and tatties courtesy of the friendly Craignure Inn. Yum!

As is often the case in the Hebrides, you end up seeing the same people over and over again. A lovely Scottish lady I'd met on the ferry in the doggy area crossed my path a couple more times during my stay in Craignure. Commenting on the wet and pretty miserable weather using local dialect she said: 'Aye, it's a bit dree!' Or maybe it's spelt draigh? But it's pronounced 'dree'. And it can only be dree in Scotland.

Sniffing about the Tourist Info centre in Craignure, I realised that my four days in Mull was never going to be enough, and I rebooked my ferry crossing so that I could stay a week. And I was straight on the phone to the Esteemed Editor: 'Never mind two pages! This place deserves a mega-spread!' Fortunately he trusted me enough to commission a larger feature on Mull there and then, and I'm pretty sure that nobody was disappointed with the results.

Tobermory is a delight. An absolute delight. I really, really, really liked it.

It was there I saw that the mobile cinema (in a lorry!) was visiting, and on the Friday would be showing a film I'd always wanted to see - Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. So I decided to go.

Beforehand I took a tour of the Tobermory distillery - it was OK, but nothing really to shout about. On it, I met a lovely German couple, Frank and Ciara. Frank was a fellow photographer with the latest version of my camera, so we enjoyed a nice chat.

The cinema experience in the truck was amazing. No trailers before the film but as everybody knew everybody else the auditorium was alive with the sound of animated chatter. I loved the film, and all through it the lady next to me whom I had never before met kept offering me wine gums. Have I mentioned how much I love the Hebrides?

As I left the mobile cinema on a high, I noticed what a beautiful evening it was. I grabbed my camera and tripod from the car, went to the corner of the harbour wall to do some night shots, and guess who was there? Yup, Frank, my new friend.

Anyone who has done night photography will know just how much hanging around is involved waiting for super-long exposures, so it was nice to chat and bounce ideas off each other as we waited for our shutters to close. A total coincidence, and the perfect end to a wonderful evening.