Going nowhere in Northampton

Just before we went to Germany our renewal quote for our AA membership came through. We haven’t called the AA out for five years and it was so ridiculously high we cancelled it intending to find something cheaper. You will be able to guess, instantly, what happened next.

SC had been up in Scotland staying with her grandparents. They have a motorhome so we planned to meet them in the Lake District for camping over the bank holiday weekend and take her home from there.

The weather forecast was not great so Bernice was packed to the gunnels with the Coleman Event Shelter, heater, rainwear as well as food for five days. It wasn’t clear whether we’d even have room for SC on the way back.

We congratulated ourselves for being ready to leave in such good time (oh, how we laughed later…), put the key in the ignition and the dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree. Battery light, sediment light, condenser light – everything.

We could start the engine so we took it round to our local garage for advice. The mechanic there made a series of pained exclamations as well as the classic sucking of air through his teeth. Eventually he advised us that we might be ok as long as we didn’t use the air conditioning. Or the lights. Or the wipers. Or the indicators….. His parting shot was “The Lake District? It’s not really round the corner.”

Knowing full well that we probably shouldn’t we headed cautiously north, dashboard ablaze. We got back into Bernice after a toilet stop at Northampton services and, with a grim sense of inevitability, nothing. Not even a cough.

We decided to call out Green Flag at monumental cost and were lucky enough to get Chris only 40 minutes later who was cheery and knowledgeable. He advised us what we already knew, the alternator was kaput and we had two choices. We could get towed back to London or we could wait until tomorrow and they could fit a new alternator.

As non-members of Green Flag (rage!) the tow was pretty expensive and we’d still need a new alternator. In addition, we’d then be in London and SC would still be in the Lake District. Financially and geographically we decided pretty quickly to stay put at Northampton services.

What to do for 21 hours at motorway services I hear you ask?! We spent over £20 on magazines to keep us quite for a couple of hours. Magazines are rubbish now aren’t they? I feel like I’ve read every article about 150 times before. We watched the only film downloaded to Scott’s iPad (School of Rock – yay!) and ate an uninspiring pasta dinner.

I feel like we should really have used the time to have deep and meaningful conversations about life without any child related distractions but we’d slipped into a kind of carbohydrate / services stupor and went to bed at 9pm for a surprisingly restful 11hrs in Bernice in the carpark, lulled by the roar of the M1.

Breakfast, 21hrs in….

Chris was as good as his word and arrived at 9.30am prompt with a shiny new alternator. I overheard him on the phone to his boss as he worked “I’m fitting a new alternator to a Mazda Bongo at Northampton Services. A Mazda Bongo. Yes, Bongo….never mind, I’ll call you later”.

I can’t fault Green Flag and we were on our way within the hour. We roared up the M1/M6 as fast as we could to arrive at Lanefoot Farm near Thornthwaite only a day late.

More on that in my next post. Suffice to say we were pretty grateful for the Coleman Event Shelter. And wellies. And waterproofs. And games that can be played inside.

Three are grumpy on a mountain

If you’ve read my camping with kids tips you’ll know the golden rule. Do one thing a day, two short things at a push. Never three.

We left late for Mount Feldberg. SC’s grasp of money is tenuous at the best of times so trying to explain why she had to give us her pounds in return for Euros took longer than expected.

The plan was to do the cable car ride up Mount Feldberg, the nearby trail in the woods and the House of Nature museum. Our first impressions of Feldberg was that is was cold and expensive. It’s 1000m above sea level and about 5 degrees colder than where we had come from. The guide book describes the cable car / House of Nature complex as having “ample parking” but fails to mention it is a giant, ugly multi storey and €13 a day. To add insult to injury it’s 50¢ a time to use the toilets.

Undeterred we headed to the cable car (top tip, these toilets are free if you can hold on…) and bobbled our way to the top. There was a high density of Gortex and sensible footwear at the summit, even the smallest children were kitted out in state of the art walking boots.

With fabulous views of the Black Forest and gently tinkling cow bells it should have been idyllic but now 1500m above sea level it was even chillier. SC was cold and grumpy but, in that peculiar small child way, hostile to putting on additional clothes. I was wearing everything that I had bought but was also cold and grumpy.

There is a tower on the slopes of the mountain, previously a broadcasting tower, now owned by the municipality of Feldberg. I translated the sign as “Ham Museum”, assumed I must have got the word muddled up with something similar but it was, in fact, a Ham Museum. A museum about ham.

You can climb, via the museum, 45m to the top of the tower for panoramic views. I insisted that SC accompany Scott which made her grumpier still as I stayed on the ground to take photos.

Family harmony was restored through the medium of a hearty lunch (is there any other type in Germany?) at the fabulous Cafe Waldvogel. It looked exactly as I expected a German cafe on the slopes of a mountain in the Black Forest to look like, all dark wood, dried flowers and oil paintings of mountain scenes. Most importantly it was nice and warm.

Good humour back in place we realised that we were over extending ourselves with our plans. Scott and SC like a daily dad/daughter dip in the Arctic waters of the Herbolzheim swimming pool and time was ticking on.

We gave SC the choice of the nearby Wichelpfad trail or the House of Nature centre. She chose the trail in the woods and I was secretly pleased despite having paid for joint cable car / House of Nature tickets. We’d seen a lot of the forest from the road and from up high but it would be nice to be right in it.

The Wichelpfad trail was devised by the head ranger at the House of Nature to encourage children to hike in the forest. Children search for the capercaillie bird with the help of gnomes, elves and fairies.

The trail takes you to little settings built into the trees (the elf pub, the fairy pharmacy, the foxes den etc). It’s only about a mile so it took an hour and SC was enchanted. There’s a nice playground at the end where the postman and the elf find the capercaillie bird (a phrase I never thought I’d need to use!).

On the drive home we saw the beautiful lake Titisee. The weather is supposed to be hot tomorrow so we’re off to it’s bigger brother Lake Schluchsee for some lido swimming.

Steinwasen Park

Due to my aversion to queuing for more than five minutes for anything I hustled everyone up and out of Esther to get to Steinwasen Park (50 min drive away…) as it opened at 9am.

It might seem a slightly odd choice as the campsite is less than 2km away from Europa Park, Germany’s answer to Alton Towers. I try not to get sucked down the wormhole of TripAdvisor reviews but there were lots of people saying it was a better, more manageable option with smaller children.

The first thing that strikes you about Steinwasen is it’s fabulous location nestled deep in the forest in Oberried.

It’s not Alton Towers (or Europa Park) but there was enough mild peril to keep everyone in our party happy. There’s a river splash ride, a pleasingly fast and rattly runaway train rollercoaster and a ride called Spacerunner which accelerates neck crickingly fast.

There’s also a long coaster ride on tracks down the hillside and an 800m bobsled run (rodelbahnen) both of which were great fun.

Such a great word!

The queues were pretty minimal in the morning (*smug*) but it started to fill up around lunchtime so we treated ourselves to an early lunch on the rooftop restaurant. The food was lovely and they were tolerant of my clunky GCSE German.

After lunch we headed to the impressive 30m suspension bridge to take in the fabulous Black Forest views.

I look relaxed, I’m not. It’s high and wobbly…

There’s all kinds of animals at the park as well including wild boar, deer and raccoons. Throw in two adventure playgrounds and SC was a happy camper.

I haven’t been to Europa Park but I can say that Steinwasen Park is great option for smaller kids. We had a lovely day out in a beautiful setting.

Lots of exciting plans for the next few days. Lakes, mountains, lakes and mountains…. more sausages, more beer. It’s my kind of holiday!

Introducing Esther…

After a lovely few days in Stuttgart we’ve arrived in the Black Forest!

As you know, we didn’t bring Bernice (I’m sorry). We’re at Herbolzheim Campingplatz in a Eurocamp mobile home that I have named Esther….

We’ve never done Eurocamp before and it’s a bit odd. When the website said the campsite was small I assumed it didn’t have many pitches, not that you would only be six foot from your neighbour. They seem nice, which is lucky.

The provisions are a bit strange as well. There’s enough saucepans to cook a five course meal, eighteen egg cups but no tea towel.

Esther’s interior, not very Instagram worthy…

I can’t fault Robin, the Eurocamp rep, who is cheeriness itself. I feel disloyal to Bernice but it is fun to have a fridge and a freezer (hellooo mini Magnums!) not to mention a shower, like, right there!!

The campsite is next door to the municipal swimming pool, you can get a 7-day family pass for €30. It’s absolutely amazing with four pools, three diving boards, a big slide and cafe. It’s also absolutely Baltic freezing. I think I went in for about seven minutes.

I can’t show you a picture at the moment. Just as we were getting out today a monumental storm blew up out of nowhere causing a giant dust cloud to bowl in from the forest. It was a pretty amazing sight but the massive umbrellas were going mad in the wind so we hastened back to Esther rather than get decapitated for the sake of blogging.

Herbolzheim is a lovely spot, it’s about 20 min walk into town where we sought out a giant pizza and refreshments. After being on a strict diet for four months the food in Germany is fabulous, I’ve eaten my body weight in bread, sausages and beer!

More on the Black Forest and catch up on Stuttgart to follow.


Severe weather at The Sunnyfield

The weekend had been set aside for dull but essential pre-holiday jobs but, as my good friend Rachel said, no one ever goes “Hey, remember that great trip to Next….?”. So we slacked it all off and went away in Bernice instead.

Our last minute destination was The Sunnyfield in Stelling Minnis, not far from Canterbury. As you will be aware, the weather had been glorious for weeks but just as we arrived the sky took on that strange swirly orangey, grey look before the mother of all thunder storms. And boy, was there a thunderstorm. Massive big fat raindrops clattered into Bernice for hours, the wind howled and lightning fork after lightening fork split lit up the sky.

We offered up our usual thanks to the gods of camping that we did not have to put up a tent in the rain, put the kettle on and played a few games (more on that later). The weather was so bad we were forced to get ready for bed without setting foot outside which was a bit like human Tetris. “You sit in the roof and I’ll get the bed out. Then I’ll scrunch myself in this corner while you clean your teeth” etc.

The Sunnyfield is definitely in the new eco-friendly “cool camping” relaxed tribe of campsite. There’s composting toilets (the doors are difficult to lock which makes it a less relaxing experience), a shower in a horse box, a wood fired oven for pizzas on a Saturday night and campfires are allowed (yay!).

We weren’t actually in the eponymous sunny field due to our late booking but in the Orchard at the bottom of the substantial hill. Tents and campervans are allowed (obviously) on huge pitches and there’s glamping in bell tents available.

Saturday dawned gloomy and damp but the forecast was good for the afternoon so we headed to Wye for a few essentials then on to Perry Court Farm Shop about 5 miles away. They have a beautiful shop and great cakes in the cafe. They also have a little plant nursery and I saw fit to buy an unfeasibly tall mint plant which was a right pain to keep upright for the rest of the trip.

The afternoon was gorgeous in that bright, breezy way that you don’t realise you’re getting sunburned – see pizza picture below. For Scott’s birthday this month we bought the card game Exploding Kittens and we’re big fans. It’s kind of like a really surreal Uno where you have to avoid getting killed by an exploding kitten. It’s surprisingly addictive and we whiled away part of the afternoon with a few games in the sun.

SC picked up a couple of pals and they amused themselves riding around on the wheelbarrows in the car park (actually meant for people to take their stuff from their car up to their tent – it’s strictly car free on the site).

I went for a walk up the hill – spot the Bongo…

In the evening we sampled the wood fired pizza, cooked to order, and it was excellent. We had also made some pals so we spent the evening declaring mutual admiration of each other’s bell tent / Bongo sat around their campfire drinking the local beer which is available at the makeshift bar.

I liked the Sunnyfield and I liked it more as the weekend progressed. I’m sure it’s not in keeping with the vibe they are after but they could do with more signage. The boundaries are not at all clear on the site, what’s the owners’ private garden and out of bounds, whether you can visit the animals (chickens and pigs) or go in the veg garden etc.

The weather had turned rainy again this morning so we headed off early. Those jobs had not done themselves in our absence and my band were playing at Regents Park bandstand at 3pm (big shout out to City of London Brass band 🤘🏻!!).

It’s only FIVE days until our summer holiday to Stuttgart and the Black Forest. I need to confess that we are not taking Bernice, it’s a fair trek down to the south of Germany with a 7 year old. I’m sure others have done it but they are braver of heart than us. We’re booked onto a Eurocamp site in a static caravan, I won’t know what to do with all the headroom!

Any recommendations for the Black Forest I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Sun, sea and servals

Kessingland Camping and Caravanning Club could be described as neat and obliging. They called us to check out our ETA on the Friday night. After a tedious crawl out of London covering only ten miles in an hour progress had, in fact, stalled at a McDonalds just outside Harlow.

No matter, they said, they would leave our pitch details in the “late arrivals” post box (this was said a bit pointedly). We took the hint and put our foot down, Happy Meal balloons bobbing around in the van.

This site is small and well kept, the toilets and dishwashing block are spotless, there’s a small shop selling the essentials and a small playground. The showers are amazing, powerful enough to make your head bleed. It’s a very caravan-y site, only a few tents, mainly massive motorhomes dwarfing Bernice.

There’s two enormous wind turbines looming over the site if that kind of thing bothers you. Personally I like them and find them quite soothing.

Camping and Caravanning Club sites have great facilities and everyone is always very quiet and considerate but they are never going to capture my heart like Swattesfield or Bedgebury. That said, we met some lovely people and, possibly the world’s cutest puppy – a four month old miniature poodle called Bertie.

Great to have the flamingos out again, check out the blue, blue sky

The campsite shares a drive with Africa Alive! and this is where we headed on Saturday morning. It’s a medium sized African themed conservation park set over 100 acres.

Now, Wildlife Photographer of the Year I am not so I will not embarrass myself by posting my terrible blurry indistinct photos of the various animals but all I will say is that Africa Alive is absolutely fantastic. It’s beautifully kept and has over 1000 animals including giraffes, zebras, rhinos and owls along with less well known animals such as the addax and the serval (my new favourite animal if I was ten and had to write an essay on it…).

It’s big enough so there’s loads to see but small enough to feel manageable. If your legs are tired there’s a land train. We only went on it for SC of course….

We were also lucky enough to see the Mighty Zulu Nation Theatre Company perform. This was such an amazing blast of colour and noise, I can’t recommend them enough.

With the weather being so gorgeous on Sunday it would have been rude not to spend an hour or so on the beach. The campsite is about a mile from Kessingland beach. There’s limited parking on the seafront but there’s a beach car park about 10 min walk away. There’s a 2.1m height restriction but the actual height is taller and Bernice went under with room to spare.

Alright, yes, I bought the windmill for myself….

Kessingland has many tempting eateries including a tea room (I LOVE a good tea room), a fish and chip restaurant and a lovely looking pub on the beach front. We had the promise of Sunday lunch with my folks however so we managed to resist and headed off after a fantastic sunny weekend.

2018 is not the year where we are going to do the most camping but it is the year where I am going to get Bernice reorganised for maximum camping efficiency!!! I thought I might do a little video tour of Bernice so let me know what you want to see!

Camping haul!

Check it out, check it out!! We are a family with DESIGNATED CAMPING DUVETS!

Sick of lugging a strangely sized double duvet up and down the stairs every time we went camping I headed to Matalan for new bedding JUST FOR CAMPING!!

The normal (“adult”?) duvet covers in Matalan looked like something your elderly great aunt might have had at the start of the 90s. The kids section had this camping themed beauty however….

It’s only available in a single (I nearly cried!) so I remained in the kids section for this llama themed double….

Yes, I have put it directly on the duvet without washing it first. You can judge me…

The recent opening of Decathlon in Charlton is a cause of camping joy and very convenient for me to pick up a new camping table (the old one had an argument with some barbecue coals) and a new camping chair.

Here’s Scott looking super natural in the middle of the lawn. I’ll take a photo of the new table in action…

We’re off tomorrow on the dot of 5pm to Kessingland Camping and Caravanning Site in Suffolk. There’s a beach, there’s giraffes, can’t wait!