Friday, 25 July 2014

Road to the Islands Part 4: Dunnet Bay and Tyre tribulations

May 2014

So there I was, in the middle of nowhere in the depths of the remote Scottish Highlands with a blown caravan tyre. As I was blocking a lane of a two-way road, I certainly wasn't going to put myself at risk by changing the wheel.

I looked at my phone in this remote area fearing the worst, but to my delight and relief I had 4bars of 3G signal. Thank you EE. Proof, as if you need it, than when choosing your mobile operator, price should not be your only consideration.

It was time to put Green Flag to the test. I switched to the Caravan Club's 'Mayday' recovery service after an appalling experience with the RAC last year, where the recovery was both traumatic and farcical. When I complained, the long and the short of their excuse is that you cannot expect a smooth caravan recovery in the winter when you're travelling with a dog. Really.

The telephone service from Green Flag was good, and I was kept informed of progress. It took 70 minutes for the agent to arrive which, given the fact I was miles from anywhere, wasn't an unacceptable length of time to wait.

The operative's socket wouldn't reach the wheel nut in the decorative but chunky alloys on the Airstream. Fortunately, being the conscious caravanner I am, I had an 'extra long' 19mm socket attached to my torque wrench. Every caravanner should be torquing their wheel nuts on occasion and especially after wheels have been removed (eg service or a new van), so every caravanner reading this would have one anyway, wouldn't they? If you don't, here's another reason why you need to be carrying a torque wrench with a socket that fits your caravan wheel nuts.

The offending wheel was an absolute mess. 

As I had parked up by a kerb, we had difficulties getting the caravan jacked up high enough to be able to retract the spare wheel carrier. As the failed wheel was already off, moving forward was not an option. Top tip: make sure you avoid kerbs near the spare wheel carrier if you can.

Finally, the spare wheel was liberated and in its new temporary position. On my journey I continued, shaken not stirred. This being the Highlands of Scotland, I'd had five offers of help from passing motorists who stopped. You wouldn't get that in other parts of the country, despite being passed by 100 times more traffic.

Approaching Dunnet Bay Caravan Club Site, the first thing you see is the expansive bay itself. An impressive and welcoming sight indeed, but not as welcoming as the lovely wardens at the site. Sometimes all you need is a sympathetic ear and a 'there there' after such a hiccup, and that's exactly what I got.

Dunnet Bay Club Site is on the beach and enjoys a lovely outlook. However, most of the week was spent chasing around getting the tyre fixed which threw up another issue.

In an attempt to find out why the tyre blew, I took the Airstream to a weigh bridge. The reading assured me that the tyres were not overloaded, but despite my frugal loading the total weight was still heavier than I expected. The next few days were spent emptying out the 'van of everything, and I mean everything, so I could weigh it to ascertain its actual MIRO. A very, very kind couple in the Bailey next door offered me use of their awning to store my kit.

Despite my apparent restraint, I was still quietly shocked at the amount of stuff that had crept sneakily into my caravan over the years. The Airstream came out to be a few kilos higher than expected, but nothing that couldn't be overcome. It was time for a serious think, and a serious repack.

So, if the caravan wasn't overloaded, and the tyre was running at the correct pressure (I'd checked it before leaving Culloden Moor), and it was a decent brand, why did it blow? It was the offside tyre that blew, so that also rules out damage by kerbing.

The answer can only be: 'one of those things'. One of the kind people who had stopped to help told me he'd stopped at another blowout on the A9 the previous day. As far as he was concerned, the increase in tyre damage is as a direct result of the deteriorating state of the UK's roads. It is indeed possible that the tyre was weakened by pothole damage, but we don't know.

All in all it was a good catalyst to get the caravan weight checked and also it was a good test of the marvellous Tyron safety bands.

However, the whole episode had cost yet another week, and a lot of heartache and effort. The rain fell every day, my spirits were in my socks, and I was 750 miles from home, so scuttling back to friends and family in Kent wasn't a option. The only option was to simply count my blessings and get on with it. So that is exactly what I did.

Researching a travel feature always gives me the push to get out and visit places even if feeling a little lifeless and 'meh'. However, I didn't need much of a push to get out and visit the Castle of Mey near Dunnet Bay. Former holiday residence of the Queen Mother, the castle is now a living memory to a member of the Royal Family we all hold dear to our hearts. It was a wonderful, heart-warming, enjoyable day. Another place that put a smile on my face, especially during the dark visits to the weighbridge at Scrabster Harbour, was Cups Tearoom bang on the harbour side. Cups is a delightful, friendly, quirky place serving tea in pots with hand-knitted tea cosies, and delicious home-made cake. The lady serving was an real treasure. 

Absolute manna for the soul.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Road to the Islands Part 3 - Brora and a Blowout

May 2014

From Culloden Moor, next port of call on my mission was the Caravan Club Site at Brora. This is a nice site, with just 100yds of golf course to cross to get from the caravan to a deserted, beautiful, sandy beach.

After a few days here, it was time to head up to Dunnet Bay, near Thurso, right at the top do the country.

With all the comings and goings of the previous few weeks, coupled with changeable weather and an ever-looming copy deadline, I'd not really relaxed into the trip. However, as the trip North from Brora progressed, I started to at last 'feel the love'. The deserted stretch of the A9 south of Thurso, and the wild countryside I was admiring, finally put a smile on my face. The Airstream is a delight to tow at all times, but right now the whole rig was cruising smoothly down a deserted road at a relaxed pace as I made sure I was driving slow enough to take in the amazing views in safety.

Just as we were cruising along in a long-awaited air of serenity... *BANG! CRUNCH-CHHHHHHH!*

The Airstream fell onto its wheel rim and immediately I knew the tyre had blown. 'Safety Head' kicked in as I let the rig reduce speed naturally and made sure we kept going past a bend in the road to make sure we would be able to be seen in good time by approaching motorists.

When you have safety features fitted to your caravan, it can be tempting to see them as a bit of a waste of money. Chances are, if you're lucky, you'll never need them. However, as this short episode highlights, if you DO run in to a spot of bother, you will bless every single penny that you have invested in your safety and well being.

Such a good feeling I have about Tyron Safety bands. I had them fitted to my Airstream, and I'm so very very thankful that I did. With the band in place, the tyre blew but remained on the rim. As such, I remained in complete control of the rig and brought it to a safe stop. The damage to the caravan is minimal - just a bit of mashed belly pan to the rear of the wheel. No structural, floor, or bodywork damage whatsoever. 

Naturally I felt shaken, and more than a little bit peeved that the Universe appeared to be conspiring to make sure that nothing went smoothly and to keep me in a permanent state of angst. However, my overriding feeling was one of being blessed. It could have been so much worse. Thank you Tyron.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Road to the Islands Part 2 - Back to Base

May 14

Before leaving for Scotland, I received some very bad news. I remember receiving it clearly. I was on a train to work in London, and we had just arrived into St Pancras station. I flicked through the emails on my phone and learned that respected caravan journalist Doug King had just passed away.

image courtesy Practical Caravan                    

Despite the fact I knew that Doug was receiving palliative care, this was still a massive blow. I remember getting off the train onto platform 13 of St Pancras and bursting into floods of tears. I'd lost a friend, a mentor, and above all a sparring partner. There was nothing Doug and I would love doing more than winding each other up. His hatred of Airstreams knew no bounds, which of course I would play on massively. Joking aside, he was always 'there' if I needed help or advice. He also wasn't frightened of lavishing praise, either, if he felt you deserved it. 'Thank goodness there wasn't a Journalist of the Year Award that year' he used to say, referring to my trip with the Bailey Pegasus to Switzerland, '…because I always said that Bloody Ditton would have won it!'

Anyway, Doug's funeral took place while I was in Scotland, and it was an occasion I wasn't going to miss. As much as I wanted to park my Airstream at the church as a final raspberry in our little 'in joke', it wasn't going to happen.

On the way from Skye to Inverness, I overnighted at one of my favourite sites, Morvich Caravan Club Site. I love that site… I think it is a lot to do with the imposing, peaceful mountains all around the site that lend an air of calm, and give it a real sense of place.

From there, it was time to head to Culloden Moor Caravan Club Site near Inverness. I had to seek permission to leave my rig unoccupied, and happily this was forthcoming.

Rather than subject Dougal to the long trip South, I took him to Stirling on the train where he stayed with his pal Bertie, and the humans that Bertie owns. From there I headed to Edinburgh where, by lucky coincidence, my favourite band Skerryvore was playing that night. I booked myself into the Ibis hotel and enjoyed a super evening.

The next day, it was a long train trip South to pay my respects to the legend that is Doug King, then head back to Kent where I had family business to attend to.

Returning to Scotland, I took the sleeper from London to Glasgow which remains my favourite way to travel. It's so civilised in the 'old school' sense of the word. I hear that ScotRail has now lost the Caledonian Sleepers franchise, and a new company with new ideas and new rolling stock will soon be on the scene. I think we will be able to wave goodbye to the lounge car and all the lovely things that make Caledonian Sleepers such a civilised way to travel, so make the most of it while you can.

Dougal collected, we got back to the 'van at Culloden Moor and it was time to explore. The site is surrounded by forest, which made for great walking opportunities for Dougal.

A visit to Culloden Battlefield was a good place to start the Tourist Trail and learn a little bit more about this historic battle, and my favourite day out from the site was at Cawdor Castle.

I loved the motto over the gate as you enter the castle: 'Be Mindful'. That's a great motto to keep in the back of our minds. No matter how grotty things can get, I reckon that being mindful of just how lucky we are in this country, the privileges we enjoy, and the beauty of the world around us is something we should strive to attain at all times