Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Road to the Islands Part 1: Design & Drive

On Saturday 26th April 2014 I hung up my uniform from 'The Day Job' for the last time until Friday 4th July. That's quite a block of time off I'd accumulated over the winter. I'm very fortunate to have the kind of job where I can swap shifts with colleagues. They have the time off they need over Christmas and New Year (which, as you can imagine, didn't really happen in my family this past year), and I get to stack up the days owed over the late spring/early summer period.

The plan for the two months off was to do a feature for the Caravan Club Magazine in the North East of Scotland for a couple of weeks, then spend six glorious weeks in the Outer Hebrides. After the trials and tribulations of the previous nine months, I was ready for the break and I knew that the Hebrides would deliver.

However, the first weekend into my trip was a 'college' weekend. Part of my Scottish Gàidhlig course with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye involves a voluntary yet free-of-charge weekend of tuition at the college itself. It's way too good an opportunity to miss, so that became an anchor for the trip. It just so happened that the week leading up to college was the Caravan Club's Design & Drive Competition in Newark-upon-Trent, and I was privileged enough to be invited along as a judge. Contrary to popular belief, such an undertaking is taken on my members of the Club's committees and of media (like me) for no renumeration whatsoever. Sometimes us journos get a few pages of copy commissioned by a magazine which helps contribute towards the time taken, but basically we do it for the love of the industry. It's one of the things I love about the caravan industry - the way that a lot of what goes on is done out of the desire to do the 'right thing' for our fellow hobbyists. It also goes a long way to explain that very few people actually make any money doing it!

Design & Drive is always a good week. It's lovely to catch up with old friends from the Caravan Club Committee Circuit, and my favourite Yorkshire Lass Margaret always does a fine spread of baking for everybody.

The checklists are exhaustive and it's not an easy skive by any stretch of the imagination. You can easily spend anything between 30 and 60 minutes in each van assessing just one aspect of it. My category this year was kitchen and washrooms. There were about 35 vehicles to get through in three days… do the maths!

Dougal comes along of course, and rather than leave him in the Airstream during the day he ended up keeping the scrutiny team company in his doggie pen. His presence prompted the introduction of a special award - The Dougal Award for Dog-Friendliness. His own blog about it can be read by logged-in Caravan Club members by clicking here.

The judges meeting on Thursday passed without event, and we managed to get away from Newark at about 3pm. Next stop, Glasgow…

Strathclyde Country Park Caravan Club Site makes a perfect place to dive into for a quick night stop, which is exactly what we did. It was also lovely to catch up with the fantastic warden team in the morning who made us feel super-welcome.

However, we couldn't chat for long as we had an agenda. We needed to be in Pitlochry by lunchtime as I had offered a fellow student a lift.

On the way up the A9 a coffee was needed, and it was lovely to be served by a fellow Caravan Club member in the petrol station… there definitely is a bond between members of both touring clubs. It really is better to belong.

The road to the Isle of Skye is one of my favourite roads in the world. The scenery is gorgeous and the going is relaxed. It made a change to have somebody other than Dougal in the passenger seat to chat to during the journey.

Dogs are no allowed in the college accommodation, but camping is free to weekend students at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, which meant that I could participate in the classes and not need leave Dougal behind. It was a wonderful weekend of immersion into Gaelic culture that was over way too quickly.

It would have been great to then great straight on with my 'job' in the North East of Scotland, but sadly plans had changed for all the wrong reasons…

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

How dare you.

June 2014

I've just enjoyed a wonderful week in my favourite place in the world, the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides.

There's just something about the place I love more than anywhere else. Could it be the AMAZING food and the warm welcomes I receive at the Temple Cafe in Northton and at the Skoon Art Cafe in Geocrab? Could it be the wonderful views on offer at these places? Or the stunning, jaw-dropping views at Horgabost campsite (pic above), with the strong, silent hills of Taransay and North Harris sitting formidably behind a turquoise blue sea and white sands?

Could it be the fact I've got to know people there - chewing the cud with Harvey from Lickisto campsite in the Tarbert stores, bumping into the lovely photographer Leila as she pops down from Stornoway for the day, or chatting with 'regulars' at the cafes and campsites?

Still, who cares? Harris is my little corner of paradise and I love it so.

Like every place the world over, the Outer Hebrides is changing. It's inevitable, we accept change, but it is the direction that it's going that makes me want to have a rant.

You see, it seems that all over the place, councils and tourist authorities are chasing the 'top end' of the market. However, this is dangerous practice and such policies could end up killing off the existing tourist trade that these places already have, leaving them with absolutely nothing.

I have no problem with affluent people wishing to splash a little cash on a luxury holiday, in the same way I have no problem with a student on a budget hitch-hiking his or her way around the islands and staying in a tent. It's all to do with respect for the environment you are in, respect for the people who live there, and respect for local customs, even if you don't understand WHY things are done in a certain way.

Recently, I've noticed an increase in 'top end' cars on the roads in the islands, to go with the increase in 'top end' self-catering accommodation. With this increase I've noticed some of the customs I love so much, initiated by the locals and imitated by the tourists, are on the decline. By 'customs' I mean good old fashioned manners, waving and talking to strangers, acting as a member of a wider community and not as a self-centred individual... that kind of thing. To my mind, there is a link between the diminution of the charming ways that bring many people like me to the islands, and the influx of the kind of people who tastelessly flaunt pompous self-superiority.

My beautiful lunch one day was spoiled by a table of loud-mouthed pretentious hoi-polloi belittling and moaning about many charming quirks and customs that make the islands so different, and so very special. The fact that the Sunday Paper wouldn't arrive until 4pm on Monday was something they couldn't get their heads around. The cook in the cafe had gone to a lot of trouble to source salad from a neighbouring crofter to make sure their dishes were complete, yet all these idiots could do was moan pompously to each other and leave it. When you've made friends with crofters in the islands and see just how bloody hard they work for a living, to see waste in any shape or form is soul-destroying and heart-breaking. These crass, insensitive, arrogant twits were in danger of spoiling my whole experience of eating superb, home-grown local food in an amazing setting for less than a tenner.

No doubt it was a similar breed of arrogant twit whom refused to acknowledge or wave to me when I'd pull in to a passing place on a single-track road to let their Range Rovers, BMWs, or Mercs with roof boxes pass. A caravan? Pish! Common! Ignore the peasant!

It's not often I'll have a socialist rant, but I can't keep this one down.

I myself have rented self-catering accommodation in the past, when it's not been possible or appropriate to take the caravan, so I am no angel myself. I admire my friends S&P who flatly refuse to rent a self-catering place, as they strongly feel that such properties kill communities and deny local people the chance to buy an affordable house.

And that's the twist in the tale.

You see, for some reason, caravanners are 'looked down' upon by so many people and organisations. Our needs are barely catered for, and normally then only as an afterthought. Thank goodness we have two very strong, influential, and organised clubs to stand up for us. Only recently have the Caravan Club and the Camping and Caravanning Club successfully lobbied to stop Caravan MoTs becoming compulsory in the UK.

However, despite the best efforts of both the Clubs, the NCC, the site operators and the manufacturers, caravanning still suffers a perception problem. And it REALLY irks me.

I really don't give a flying hoot if your pride and joy is a £500 oldie but goodie, a vinyl-wrapped dogfish on wheels (I had to get an 'Amazing Spaces' reference in somewhere), the ubiquitous Bailey Ranger or Sprite Alpine, a super-sized Fifth Wheel Inos, a teeny little Romahome, a 'Too-Cool-for-School' VeeDub Camper, or a Concorde A-Class bus. If you love touring and you tread lightly as you go, you're one of us.

So why why WHY are we seen as poor relations? We all know that the average car+caravan outfit can easily top the £50k mark, and motorhomes can slide into the £100k plus bracket with little effort. The day I left Ullapool for Stornoway, I spent over £300 on fuel, ferry, and food.

Just like people in self-catering, we enjoy the freedom of being to cook relaxed meals at home. Just like people in self-catering, we love to shop in the local shops. Just like people in self-catering, we bring essentials (like Dougal's Canadian dog food) with us. Just like people in self-catering, we enjoy going out for lunch, going out for tea and cake, and going out for dinner. Just like people in self-catering, we contribute to the local economy. Just like people in self-catering, some of us contribute more than others. Just like people in self-catering, we help keep people in employment running the campsites we stay at.

So where exactly is the difference?

Ah yes, let's go back to Harris, and its beautiful West Coast. 

The one big difference is this:

At the end of the season, the caravans and motor caravans leave Horgabost Campsite. The area returns to communal grazing for the local crofters, and life goes on.
Meanwhile, the executive self-catering properties sit there empty, taking up land, pushing up house prices for the local people, and contributing nothing to the local economy.

Now you tell me, which is damaging the local community, and which is the permanent eyesore?


So how very dare those arrogant, idiotic, pompous twits look down their noses at us caravanners and motor-caravanners. And maybe those who make decisions and policies about land use, grants, and tourism need to take a step back and reflect for a minute.

Seaweed harvesting, herring fishing... Hebridean industries that have collapsed and taken communities with them. So why would you put all your tourism eggs in the 'top-end' basket?