Saturday, 11 October 2014


So after a successful Brecon Beast Event I popped up to Shropshire where we remembered Dad on his first anniversay in a suitably quiet and respectful way. Continuing good weather put the seal on Mum's new life with the village, the estate and her amazing little home looking at their best for a visit from the wonderfully supportive friends and neighbours who came over for the day from Coventry.
Unfortunately I missed their visit as I was happily farm sitting near Brecon and making good use of the barn to prep the van for its MOT which it passed with flying colours - as mentioned before at 300,000 miles and 15 years of age : not bad. Four new tyres were fitted anyway as I will be away for some time and as I had also renewed the front brakes and done a general service all that remained was to touch up a few spots of rust (including the common area under the windscreen), redo the side door with a couple of rattle cans and all was set for another journey. I took the opportunity to fully review the contents and their stowage and was again able to make small improvements and add travel guides for next year's adventures and some specialist kit for possibly Toubkal and the Mulhacen plus the via ferratas of the Italian Dolomites.
Two friends from Bristol dropped over for the weekend which included a long walk over the Brecon Beacons, a curry on a busy night in Brecon and another long day around the Elan Valley where Lluest Cwm Bach provided a welcome shady lunchstop on a warm September day.
Anyway eventually I headed off to Portsmouth to meet Greg for a visit to the historic dockyard that we had last visited in 2012. Our main aim was the Mary Rose but first we crossed over to visit the submarine museum which was very entertaining. A WW2 midget submarine brought home the bravery of the submariners whose vessels were towed across the North Sea and then sent deep in to the Norwegian fiords in search of the German fleet - these heroic deeds had been much celebrated in monuments and plaques I had seen in Norway last year but to see an example of the cramped and very basic craft in real life was very revealing.

Even more basic was a very early submarine that had been recovered from the sea bed and restored - basically a cast iron tube that contained a large diesel engine, one torpedo and precious little else.
Thus when we were escorted on to HMS Alliance we felt more up to date. The huge vessel is now out of the water and is presented in its fully operational state (having served well in to the 1970's) and former crew gave us a detailed and fascinating insight in to the realities of submersed life. The torpedo tubes, navigational equipment, diving gear, crew quarters, catering facilities, operations centre and engine compartment were all visited and we developed an understanding of some of the pressures and difficulties of life on board. However compared to modern nuclear submarines all the intricate engineering is technologically obsolete but I guess the personal challenges faced by the crew remain very much the same.
Anyway such was the fascination with more modern warfare that we ran out of time to see the Mary Rose but will visit next year as the tickets are valid for 12 months and after a drink before the setting sun watching the busy waterway I was soon in the modest queue for the LD/DFDS overnight sailing to Le Havre. For the bargain price of £40 the van and I were delivered in comfort across a calm Channel and we arrived as the port slowly woke to another sunny day.
The sat nav was set to avoid toll roads and bridges as I had discovered last year that the new fixed roof seemed to attract higher fees and in any case for once I was in no hurry to cover the distance involved (1200 miles) to the campsite near Marvao in Portugal. Thus by the end of the day after a shop and a doze at lunch time I arrived in the Loire and stayed at a small aire in Grize north of Angers. Three other vans were also parked up by the river under the trees but there was plenty of room and after a walk around the village I slept soundly on a warm night.
The troglodyte village of Rochemenier an hour or so away provided a fascinating diversion with two complete farms carved out of the soft sandstone rock. Several houses, stables, grain stores, a meeting hall, workshops and a church were all filled with contemporaneous artefacts and gave a real flavour of how life must have been. I took a real liking to the photos of an old woman struggling with a ploughshare and then mastering a very early motor car - what a character.

By the end of the day I was at Les Eyzies in the Vezere staying on another aire - these provide cheap and often free overnight stops in a variety of villages and towns and are an ideal option for those passing through - many have power, water and waste facilities to hand and should be available more widely in the UK - my regular haunt in Brecon is actually listed as one of only a handful in the UK whereas France and Germany have hundreds.
Saturday saw me arrive in the Pyrenees where a small Aire Naturelle (effectively camping a la ferme) seemed an ideal stop for the night as the aire in the nearby village had a few vans in already and I fancied a hot shower. 9 euros a night gave me a quiet spot on a terrace above the farm house with a spectacular view, excellent facilities and a chance to do a good walk from the door.
This I undertook on the following day and it gave me the chance to adjust to the scale of the 1:50,000 maps, the scale of the Pyreneean terrain and the vagaries of recent changes as my maps were bought in the late 80's. However I enjoyed a 7 hour walk that took in a good ridge with some scrambling that offered superb views over to distant higher peaks and passed through high pasture where abandonned shepherds huts contained the slowly disintegrating remains of a former way of life.
From the Col de Solour I tackled a very steep route to another high crest but then found out why it wasn't marked as a path - the continuation to the craggy summit became exposed and impenetrable and it was with some relief that I descended the way I had come leaving the territory to the goats whose agility conspired to make my cautious progress seem pitiful.
Heading over to the Spanish border I spotted the perfect wild pitch on a terrace above the road which I shared with a French girl also living full time in her van - bizarrely at dusk we were joined by a mature French couple in a small Citroen car who promptly both climbed in to the back seats and spent the night in what must have been even less comfort than the Wicked I had spent a short time in whilst in Oz.
Again with plenty of time to spare I decided to walk up to the Refuge de Plombie and enjoyed its spectacular location at the foot of the towering Pic du Midi D'Ossau which on a clearer, calmer day is apparently within the average remit. However the fog shrouded vertical crags were somewhat intimidating and I was content to return to the van and head over to Spain via the Col de Pourtalet.
Somewhere norh west of Zaragoza I spotted a turn off in to a small national park and decided to head up a steep dirt track to find a place for the night. However as heavy rain was forecast it seemd quite possible that a descent and the flat plain below would become treacherous so I returned nearer to the road and was soon settled down miles from anywhere as the heavens opened on a sultry night
No surprise then when at around 4am a vehicle passed (this has been a regular feature of many a similar seemingly remote wild camp over the years) so I thought little of it.
The next morning two deep tracks led around the corner and a few hundred yards away lay a seriously bogged down car but no sign of any driver - fortunately the sun had dried out the track again and I was able to resume my journey across the vast empty and arid plains of the Mantera with a brief stop in Soria and then longer at the mediaeval village of Calatanazor with its lofty ruined castle and half timbered houses bearing distinctive conical chimneys.

A quick shop in a L'Eclerc stocked up my fridge and cupboards with the machine happy to accept my card (and more importantly return it : always a moment of slight agitation) but the free in store wifi was down so a local McDonalds provided a brief connection to check all was well back in the UK.
Segovia's impressive aqueduct failed to carry away the heavy rains so I nipped up to the elaborate cathedral and then headed off to Avila an impressive walled city that also claimed to have an aire. Maybe it did but unfortunately the circus was in town and on the aire so I decided to push on as it was early and reached La Alberca in the Serra De Francia at dusk. Another mediaeval village greeted me with more quaint streets, traditional houses and at the top of the main road a large and empty car park clearly signed for overnight use. Two other vans were tucked away as I settled in, strolled down to a bar for a couple of cervezas and slept soundly after grilled trout and a range of veg.
The area has a number of walks so on a sunny Friday morning at the end of my first week away after looking round the maze of old streets I set off for the Pena de Francia, the highest hill locally which sports a remote convent and fortification.
The chestnut trees were bursting and the path well marked although a river crossing was enlivened by the rain that had fallen overnight. Only half the clapper bridge remained but after some searching I found a substantial post wedged in the bank and used it to complete the crossing arriving 90 minutes later at the rocky summit. The quiet convent and church were open and the panoramic views made the effort well worthwhile - only a handful of other visitors were present - and my return to La Alberca by the same route was uneventful.
So today I have arrived at Camping Asseiceira near Marvao where Gary and Joao gave me a warm welcome and where tonight 7 of us have enjoyed an excellent meal prepared by Chris who also spent much of the last year in Warwickshire and attended an evening class learning Portuguese at Warwick University : if only I had known!!
Anyway we were joined by Yolande, Colleen and Ali for a very sociable evening catching up on news both locally and abroad and looking at arrangements for my imminent session at Yolande's smallholding. It will certainly be different and will no doubt be reported here in due course but for now that is more than enough.

My sporadic locations lie at the link here   

and some photographic highlights of the last week or two can be found here.

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