In the Bleak Midwinter

27. Oct, 2018

We knew that the first part of our journey to Croatia might be a bit cool, but we never expected the weather that followed us for the first week of our journey. First though, the boring bits.

We set off from home on a bright sunny morning, stopping for coffee at the Wyevale garden centre on the A23, one of our favourites as it is so easy to park the caravan!  (Sadly this garden centre has since closed) Then as we headed north we saw signs for possible delays in the Dartford Tunnel.  A truck had broken down early morning, but being positive I thought the jam would have cleared by the time we got there.  So much for being positive.  The queue was over an hour long.  Then there was a spillage on the M25, and although the incident was well after our expected turn off the queue stretched back and delayed us further.  The M11 was good, but then the A14 was a crawl for its whole length.  It was as well that we had decided to break the journey at the Caravan Club site at Ferry Meadows (Peterborough) as there was no way we would have reached Leeds that day.  The 170 odd miles from Seaford to Peterborough took nearly eight hours.  This did not augur well.

At least the weather held and we were able to sit out with a cup of tea before walking down to the lake to feed the ducks.  It was interesting to see Great Crested Grebes and some Arctic Terns as well as the usual assortment of ducks, geese and nesting swans.  It was nice too to see Black Headed Gulls instead of the usual Herring Gulls we see on our coast, although I appreciate that these too are becoming a pest. 
 
Next day we made Leeds without problem and set up camp at Moor Lodge, which is becoming almost a home from home, we have stayed there so often. No need to go into the intimate details of a lovely weekend with the family, save to say our visits to Temple Newsam and to Golden Acre were both very cold and both finished in rain.  The highlight of the weekend though was seeing our wee granddaughter Lottie opening her first birthday present from us (a week early, but she wasn't to know!)

Monday involved a final shop followed by a pub lunch, then it was off north to Newcastle for the ferry.  Having spent my early childhood in the north east and having crossed the Tyne by ferry and done the banks of the Tyne by bicycle, car and train, it was going to be interesting sailing downstream on a proper ship.  How things have changed in 60 years!  Most of the docks looked derelict, riverside pubs were empty and covered in graffiti.  The Shields ferry terminals seemed to have been moved, and the centre of South Shields seemed unrecognisable with so many new buildings.  However Tynemouth was very much the same, with the huge old block of flats and then the Abbey and breakwaters.  The waves were crashing over the latter and as we hit open sea the rolling started. 

We had brought prepacked salads with us to eat in the cabin, as we though the DFDS menu of €18 for a bowl of pasta a bit excessive.  However we did follow our salad with a coffee and a bun, and then had to sample some of the malts in the bar before turning in. The ship was very smart, and there were various forms of entertainment on offer, as the 18-hour crossing is intended as a mini-cruise. Lesley went down to the cabin while I watched the sunset.  I don't know what it is about modern boats, but wherever you are all you smell is exhaust or frying food.  The air conditioning in the cabin seemed to be pumping out exhaust fumes all night.  What with that and the rolling of the ship Lesley did not sleep a wink, while I was not much better. 18 hours was plenty long enough – a full cruise would be our idea of hell!

We had an excellent breakfast on board then disembarked and found our way onto the motorway network.  Today's drive was only going to be a short one, so we diverted to go through some of the famous bulb fields en route.  This upset Jane, our TomTom navigator, considerably and in revenge she took us all the way back to the Amsterdam ring road and Schiphol Airport before taking us south again.  On the way we went through several very heavy hailstorms and at one point, having stopped at a service station for a coffee, we returned to the car to find the windscreen thick with snow.  We learned later that we had been let off lightly, as the whole of the Netherlands north of Amsterdam had had quite a covering.

We eventually reached our chosen site near 'S-Hertogenbosch shortly before lunch.  We received a very friendly welcome, and were recommended to take the bus into town as parking was difficult.  We could pick anywhere on the site to pitch, however there was an issue with the toilet block.  The renovation had not been completed in time for the site opening, so we could use a small toilet and shower off the laundry room, or one of the mobile homes which was empty had been left open for caravanners' use.  We drove off into the site, up a very narrow road, only to find the road blocked by a van parked outside the half renovated toilet block.  After finding the workman involved, and explaining that I was not going to reverse the caravan down 50 yards of road barely wider than the caravan, he moved and let me proceed.  We found a lovely open spot, pitched the van and walked back to catch the bus to town.

It was about a 20 minute ride into town, in a bus which seated eight plus a wheelchair.  The fare should have been €2 each, but it was run by Arriva and the driver no doubt worked on a commission.  He asked if we wanted a return, then sold us €5 day rover tickets.  He emphasised to us, on two separate occasions, that the last bus was at ten to six.

Needless to say when we disembarked at the very modern bus & train interchange the heavens opened so we piled into a nearby cafe for lunch and a welcome beer.  After a very nice but unusual club sandwich (gammon, pepperoni and thousand island dressing) we braved the elements and walked into town, trying to decipher the caricature of a map that we had obtained at the campsite.  We finally found our target, the St John's church, a former church which was housing an exhibition of copies of all of the works of Hieronymous  Bosch, the amazing artist who was born here.  

 Being a) paupers and b) too slow, we did not get tickets for the exhibition showing the real paintings which was now fully booked at €50 or so a head.  Nevertheless the copies were an amazing sight, and hanging from the ceiling of the church were models based on some of his more surreal paintings. In fact the whole town was decorated for and celebrating Bosch's 500th birthday.  The river banks had huge copies of his paintings and more Bosch inspired models.  Buildings were festooned with flags.  
  
Such a pity that the weather was so cold, wet and miserable, and that we were tired from a poor night's sleep.  We just wanted to get back to the campsite.  The bus was due at 5:06, so we walked back to the station.  As we neared it we saw the little bus parked there and it suddenly occurred to me that the timetable was wrong and it would go at ten to five, as the last one was ten to six.  Sure enough, after a quick dash, we just caught it.

So back to the campsite and the fun begins.  On the walk back from the bus we looked for the open mobile home and it took quite a while to find it.  Much of the campsite was made over for semi permanent settlement, with mobile homes and old caravans surrounded by fences and little gardens, and many of the campsite roads seemed to be blocked by someone's fence.  Then we needed water.  There was no sign of a tap near the pitch, so I went back to the mobile home, only to find the only accessible tap was in the bathroom sink, under which you could only fit a cup.  I went to the motorhome service point to find that the tap had a hosepipe permanently attached and that the hosepipe was split, so that the water, instead of coming out of the end, sprayed in a soaking spray from the middle and was directed at me wherever I stood.  Eventually I found a tap behind a new mobile home that was awaiting connection.

Now it was time for a trip to the loo.  Never was I so grateful to have lost weight.  I am sure that anyone heavier than me would have gone through the floor.  It sank terribly as I walked in.  Then there was no lock on the door, so I had to signify my presence by hanging my coat outside on the door handle.  It was even worse for Lesley later when she went over for a shower and found the home full of giggling children hiding in rooms which were supposed to be locked.  

We were well pleased to hitch up and set off next morning, only to find that one of the corners we had to get round on the exit route was so tight we had to unhitch and take the caravan round manually.  If we had not been so tired I am sure we would have seen the funny side, but no, we didn't and still don't!  I suspect that Lesley's site review will not be a good one.

Next day was a long drive of 270 miles along the German autobahns to a little town just north of Karlsruhe called Walldorf.  And yes, you've guessed it, the campsite name was Astoria.  A huge improvement on the previous night, but sleeping in a dumpster would have been an improvement.  Handy for the motorway, a large camping field where it would be possible to remain hitched up overnight, an excellent overnight stop.  We managed a trip to the supermarket to stock up for the next few days.

Thursday was going to be an even longer day, 320 miles, but still on good German autobahns.  But when you are limited to 60mph (technically it should be 80kph for an unregistered caravan) and there are long stretches where you are not allowed to overtake, when big Mercs and BMWs come steaming past at breakneck speeds pulling a huge slipstream behind them to buffet the caravan, it seems like a long, long journey even before weather and roadworks, both of which we had plenty.  We were heading for Salzburg to spend a few days in that amazing city that we had not seen for nearly 50 years.  Originally we were going to a site in Germany near Berchtesgarden, which was an easy commute to Salzburg.  But having heard about the delays at the border with refugees, we felt it might involve too much queuing time.  Two sites close in to Salzburg had poor reviews, so we were heading to one about 20 miles south, which had been recommended, Vierthaler at Werfen.

We started well, but on the hills between Karlsruhe and Stuttgart the heavens opened and we driving through a blizzard.  We were reduced to a crawl and the centre lane became snow bound.  Reminiscent of the M62 on a bad day.   We stopped for a coffee near Stuttgart and had to scrape snow off the car and caravan before we could set off again.  Then it was the turn of roadworks.  It seemed that nearly all the A8 is being rebuilt.  To cap it all when we pulled in to a service station to refuel we were guided to one side by a policeman who was one of many selecting random cars and trucks for a document inspection.  My driving licence and car reg documents were taken away for examination, as would have been the caravan registration documents had we not been British. He even wanted to inspect our gas bottles.  Had it not been for the fact that there were a dozen police cars parked here and many vehicles being checked I would have been a bit concerned.  As it was, it as all done in the best possible taste.

Then there was a huge queue to cross the border into Austria.  We could not really see why, as it is traffic in the other direction that has the refugees, but it still took us an hour to get across.  The queues the other way were as bad, but there was no evidence at all of refugees. I suppose the poor souls are all logjammed further south in the Balkans.

The Salzburg ring road was also being dug up.  And in Austria, when they have a contraflow, it is not the spacious thing we have in the UK. When the maximum vehicle width for the outside lane is 2 metres, it means the outside lane is 2 metres and 2 centimetres wide, with the inside lane only just wide enough for a truck.  No margin for error, and this keeps the speeds down.  At last we were through and made the slow climb up the Salzach valley.  The directions to the site were a bit confusing, and of course Jane wanted to take us over a footbridge and across the fields.  And, as is always the case, there was a huge milk lorry and trailer right up my backside as I was searching for the right road.  I pulled off into a layby to catch my breath, restudied the directions and decided to try a little bit further. Finally we saw the sign and turned sharp left onto a steep access road leading down to a fairytale field on the riverbank surrounded by snow capped mountains.

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