Brussels to Holyhead, Great Britain, May, 2016
(Mark and Vicki have been traveling pretty much full time since they retired in 2008 and sold their home in Missoula, Montana. They RVed in Europe starting in 2009 for five years in their US Roadtrek, sold it in 2013, and then bought a European camper in 2015. So far, about 37 months in Europe. Mark blogs frequently with lots of pictures at www.roadeveron.blogspot.com. . Vicki's more practical guide to their travels is at their website www.TheRoadGoesEverOn.com.
For our last day in Brussels we reserved on line for the the arau.org Saturday Art Deco tour. This 3 hour bus tour is in French and English so it takes twice as long as it should but you do get to visit 3 interiors, two of which are not currently open to the public, for a senior's price of 15E. The first was Horta's first foray into Art Deco in 1893 for a friend's town house. The house has been mostly restored to that period and plans to be open to the public in January, 2017. The second was an amazing public school designed by Jacobs where an on-site concierge let our tour in. Apparently all Brussels' city schools have a live-in concierge—something urban US schools might be wise to copy instead of giant fences. The plan for the school was to make it beautiful and functional so that the local working class children would want to come to school and even be competitive with the private Catholic schools. With its glassed play area, outdoor spaces, gymnasium and even a swimming pool, within five years of its opening the Catholic schools in the area had closed for lack of students. I am certainly not against Catholic or other private schools—I taught in one for 8 years and my daughter teaches in one now. However, I was struck by the idea that the current trend in America is exactly the opposite. Take money away from the public schools and channel it to charter and extra services at religious schools making them more attractive public schools. Last stop was the Comic Museum which is right by the Cathedral. It's lobby is a very attractive Horta glass creation and open to the public. I also picked up brochure's there describing the free walking tours of Brussels. Their website is bravodiscovery.com. Both the free and paid tours sounded interesting. For this day we parked at the Kraanem metro station for free (but you need to be 6.5 meters or less) at N 50.84927 E 4.46002. On a weekday it would probably be full unless you arrived very early.
Ieper-- Last year we skipped the In Flander's Fields World War I museum, so decided to head for it. We planned to spend the night at the Westvleteren brewery/monastery but a road was closed so we had to detour into Ieper. Luckily, it was Saturday evening and we drove right by the canal with lots of open parking, so spent the night for free at N 50.85902 E 2.88371. Sunday morning we parked for free at the Market Square and toured the museum at 10am. It was surprisingly crowded with both students and older tour groups...perhaps because it was a 3 day holiday weekend encompassing May 1. The museum is fairly new, but somewhat confusing. We had hoped for a better overall look at the War, but it was definitely focused on Flanders.
Off to Westvleteren, but when we arrived we saw the dreaded sign, no beer today in the giftshop. We had a leisurely lunch since Mark had two of the #12 beers, and availed ourselves of the free wifi. Somewhat after 1 Mark noticed extra activity at the gift shop. You could get two bottles of number 12 if you bought a package with 4 of their small glasses for 27E. Since one beer in Brussels costs 18E, we now have extra glasses for gifts or sale on Ebay. We think we will have plenty of luggage room going back to the US.
In the meantime, one of our camper's wheels went from a squeaky sound every once in while to a more persistent grinding. It was Sunday afternoon in Belgium and our non refundable ferry tickets were for Monday morning. We decided to drive the hour or so to the port and try to get an evening ferry. No dice, unless we paid another 60 pounds. So we parked up in the ferry parking lot (which you can get to by following the no reservations signs) at N 50.96725 E 1.86612. No signs against staying and no one bothered us. Limping off the ferry the next day, the noise subsided so we drove to Canterbury to stay at the New Dover Road Park and Ride where campers are welcome and there is water and a dump with free bus service into town. 3 pounds a day, which is midnight to midnight. The pound is $1.47 currently. The TI in town gave us the address of the local Fiat dealer and Tuesday morning, grinding away, we arrived. Luckily, they squeezed us in to look at the problem that afternoon, bearing shot in rear wheel. Unluckily, they don't work on 15 year old Fiats because Fiat doesn't make OEM parts that old, but they did give us the address of an independent garage only 3.5 miles away and assured us driving there was okay. We literally glided into the garage as our brakes went out about 300 yards away. The back driver's wheel was literally spewing brake fluid and falling off. Yes, they could work on it, yes, it would be expensive, yes, we could park up, plug in and spend the nights there until fixed. Three days later we were all fixed up plus had them replace the drive belt, which entailed also replacing the water pump and radiator fluid. So far the price seems fair (though a lot of money) and everything working well. They also looked over other things while on the rack and couldn't see any thing else. Brambles Garage N51.33082 E 1.11953.
Leaving Canterbury we drove to Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens of the National Trust. We had our Royal Oak Memberships (the American branch) which is the least expensive way of joining. The gardens were beautiful at Sissinghurst and I always find the back story there so interesting. The owners in the 1930's were Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. She a poet (and heiress) and he a book reviewer. They turned an Elizabethan ruin in to one of England's foremost gardens. They had two children together but also an open marriage—Harold a homosexual and Vita taking lovers of both sexes including Viginia Wolfe. Apparently, all this quite well known among friends and family. We also scooted over to Scotney Castle, which has only been opened to the public less than a decade after the 99 year old widow died in 2006. Alas, it has been a cold spring and the acres of rhododendrum were not yet blooming. We have decided to slow down our visit to southern England, head over to Petworth House—known for its art, not its gardens—and start again on the gardens in a week or so. We really have no timetable for this trip.
That night we stayed 9 miles south on a nice layby with amazingly little road noise. We headed south for Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters—chalk cliffs on the Channel. Since it was a gorgeous Sunday the National Trust parking lots were quite full but we did find a spot—the joys of being 19ft long instead of 23 ft that we were in the Roadtrek on our last visit to England. Walked for a couple of miles across the top of the cliffs—well back from the edge which is eroding about 5 ft a year. Already 14 cottages have fallen in in the last couple of decades. No overnight parking allowed there, though you might get away with parking on the verge of the access road. Instead we drove the short distance to Seaford and parked legally at N 50.77398 E .09074, right at the boardwalk. On a nice day expect parking to be difficult until after 5, which is fine since there is a 12 hour limit. The parking places are quite short except for right at the coordinates given. The weather has turned rainy again so we spent the day at Tesco and Halford parking lots and then came back to Seaford for the night.
Off to Petworth House, the best art collection in The National Trust—20 Van Dykes, a Titian, a Bosch, several Blakes and 20 Turners, and lots more including a 4th century BC sculpture of Aprodiite. Since our last visit they have started free tours so on Tuesday we did the underground, visiting the servant's tunnel and icehouse and Thursday the upstairs bedroom's still used by the Lord's family in residence as guest bedrooms. We also walked around Capability Brown's park landscape and went to the exhibit marking his 300th birthday—being celebrated all over England this year at his many garden installations. He was all about deer parks, lakes, lawns and sweeping vistas and tore out the previous garden rooms and more formal plantings. Me, I like more flowers and I don't think Petworth's gardens are its best feature. It is a humongous place to visit and if you want to do tours plan on arriving when the grounds open at 10 am to get tickets to be able to make the most of your visit.
We spent 3 nights at nearby Midhurst at the Grange parking lot. They only charge during the day and then less than 2 pounds. Midhurst is a lovely English town with the ruins of Cowdry Castle, a free town museum, and the Spread Eagle Inn which dates from 1420. At Petworth one of the volunteers said we should also visit nearby Woolbeding Gardens. Only open on Thursdays and Friday's and you have to call or go online to reserve a seat on the bus which luckily leaves from the Grange parking lot in Midhurst. The house is leased but the gardens are large and beautiful, though all 20th century. The house and acerage was leased from the National Trust by one of the Sainbury sons (of the large English grocery chain) and his partner. They spent years and millions constructing the gardens which include an artificial lake, waterfalls, a summer house, bird viewing blind, follies, etc. and some really magnificint and ancient trees. The mini bus comes and goes all day but you will need about 3 hours to see it all, more if you stop at the inevitable tea room for a bite.
Since we hadn't been to a real campground since Brussels we moved for one night to the Graffton Campground run by the The Camping and Caravan Club. This is a very unusual site for England—hilly and in the woods—more like a National Forest US campground but no fires or picnic tables, but with hot showers and a coin washer and dryer. Though it cost us 7.2 lbs to wash and dry one load—about $11. To spend the night would have been about 22 lbs but if we joined only14. They also had a 3 month low cost membership option for folks from out of the UK for ony 22 lbs. Three night stays will earn that back plus it gives us access to their certified locations on farms. In the past we have always joined The Caravan Club, but they have no short term memberships and their high fee just wasn't worth it for just a few weeks in England. Normally, as a short term member you don't get the bigger book with all the certified sites but when I asked the very nice manager gave us one with her compliments. They don't get many American campers!
Winchester was right on our way to Stourhead Gardens. We had visited the cathedral in 2009 but decided a return visit was in order. Parked at the St. Catherine park and ride where there were 3 spaces designated for motorhomes. You can't spend the night but the 3lb fee gives your party free bus rides right into town. We loved our return visit to the cathedral. A free guided tour comes with your 6lb (over 60) ticket and our docent was marvelous. In additiona an orchestra with a huge choir was practicing for a concert. What a thrill to hear that music inside the cathedral. Both Mark and I were amazed at how much more we enjoyed the experience this time. Since 2009 we have listened to The Cathedral lectures on DVD from the Great Courses and visited dozens of different stypes and types, we are still not experts but a little knowledge just adds so much pleasure to the experience of seeing one.
We actually felt like we might have to stop by again on our way back through southern England if we can. On the way to Winchester while looking for a spot to have lunch we saw a National Trust sign. Pulling into the parking lot we read up on Hinton Ampner—a much smaller house and garden but we enjoyed our hour or so there. The bachelor who last owned it turned his father's Victorian mansion into a Georgian showplace that promptly burned down in 1960. He then rebuilt from scratch and gave it all to the Trust twenty years later at his death.
That evening we headed for a rural parking lot about 8 miles west of Winchester, but our GPS led us down some really awful 1 lane roads, then lost the road completely, so we u-turned and headed for Salisbury for an urban layby. On the way we found something else that was off a rural road and decided that a bird in the hand, etc. and so spent the night at a sort of a crossroads to a barracaded dirt road. We had gone down the road following a sign for Danebury Iron Age Hill Fort, but had given up. Next morning we continued over the next rise and there it was. Two parking lots, toilets, and a first rate hill fort from whose top you can see 7 others. This is all part of the Salsbury Plain—we had driven right past Stonehenge the day before. We walked all over the hill fort and decided just to stay the night in the parking lot, dump the cassette, etc. getting an early start for Stourhead. An early start is easy as the dog walking English love these spots and the first car arrived the next morning at 6am.
Stourhead is known as one of the ten best gardens in the world. Not for its flowers, but for the amazing landscape created by the Hoare banking family. We loved the hour and a half guided walk and then continued on in the gardens till it was too late to see the house. There is—unlike any other Trust property that we know of—a Caravan Club 5 site certified camping pitch, but you must be a member. Mark inquired at reception and just like 3 years ago they let us stay in the regular overflow parking lot for 10 lbs. Next morning we toured the house with its treasures such as the Pope's cabinet. Be sure to see the films in the basement before seeing the house. I especially love the library where a group of volunteers was cleaning and repairing books and there is a display of Thomas Hardy letters, signed photo, etc. to Lady Hoare, who was an early fan, collector and friend of Hardy and his second wife. (I spent my career teaching English and as a school librarian.) Last stop just down the road but still on the estate is King Alfred's Tower. Unfortunately, only open for climbing to the top on weekends but surrounded by a lovely wood with all kinds of walking paths. We decided to spend a free night at the parking lot so to arrive in Wells in the morning instead of afternoon. As you can tell we are taking another leisurely trip like last year. Having spent 8 months in Great Britain over the last 7 years, we just aren't very anxious about rushing around to “see things.” Many things are worth multiple visits but most are a once or twice type of thing.
Driving between Stourhead and Wells found us on lots of very narrow roads especially around the town of Bruton. Next time we will definitely not follow the GPS. However, Wells is lovely; England's smallest city. We were able to park this time at Waitrose and were lucky that someone was leaving from the 20 or so spaces that aren't in the parking garage. The attendent said to go ahead and pay the long stay price, so we had 5 hours to explore. I think we went to 6 charity shops and bought a few more books to read and a tiny bocce ball game to play when our granddaughter joins us in late July. We both think the Cathedral is one of the best in all Europe and this time we went on a free hour and a half tour and really saw and understood so much more than on our pervious two visits. However, the chained library was closed at 4 and being a retired librarian, I was very sorry to have missed it. Worse though was that when we returned to the camper the battery was dead as one of our radiator fans had been running for four hours. The Waitrose people were kind enough to send out a clerk to get his car and give us a jump. Mark has now learned how to unplug it and we will be searching for a garage to get it fixed while we are in England.
One of Mark's favorite wildcamping spots from our last trip was on the Bristol Channel near Clevedon. The tides there are the second highest in the world with a 47 ft spring rise and fall. The parking spot at N 51.44990 W 2.85237 is also right on the coastal path for nice walking. It was out of the way though as we now headed to the Newbury showground about 60 miles west of London for the 3 day Southern England Camping and Caravan Show. We spent 4 nights in the giant field with 2000 other rigs for 55 pounds which included admission and 60s type band entertainment. We bought a few accessories and toured lots of English rigs. The real head turner was a Hymer 4 wheel drive built on a Sprinter cutaway cab. They told us that Hymer had bought Roadtrek in Canada and were planning on introducing several new rigs to the US market. I think they will be extremely popular—especially if they can keep the prices near to what they are in Europe. This rig with a giant garage, fixed bed, seats 4, etc. was list price at 75,000 pounds which included England's 21% tax. Without the tax that is about $92,000. What a deal. Of course, Americans would want to add air conditoning and a generator which are not common in Europe.
After the show we headed to town to do laundry and backtracked to Stourhead Gardens. The weather was gorgeous and the rhododendrons had come out quite a bit in the last 8 days. Worth the trip and we spend two nights in the King Alfred Tower parking lot just 2 miles from the gardens. It is isolated but seemed pretty safe and a police car was there walking their dogs just before dark and never said a word to us, so apparently not an issue to spend the night. Between our two visits went spent 3 nights there and on our last night another van stayed too.
North from Stourhead to Gloucester. Again a repeat but from 2013 this time. Again joining a tour for the Cathedral added much to our visit. The park and ride had bars so we tried the first carpark in town—had to wait about 15 minutes until someone left a space we could squeeze into. Parking in British towns, cities, or villages is almost always a hassle. Anyway the cathedral has the earliest fan vaulting in the world—every bit as good as Kings College in Cambridge. In addition there is a marvelous tomb of William the Conquerer's oldest son—who he refused to name as his heir and had him imprisoned for many, many years until he died. Gloucester has a nice pedestrian center but many store fronts were empty or filled with charity shops. Overall it didn't seem very prosperous, but we did have a nice pub lunch at The Fountain that we had eaten at in 2013. Not quite as good as we remembered!
We spent the night in lay-bys both before and after Hereford that we found on the wildcamping site—neither memborable and both with a good amount of road noise. In Hereford we parked at the ASDA—which is the name for WalMart in England—that is right on the south side of town. There was a 3 hr limit so with shopping we were somewhat rushed. In our short walk to the Cathedral we found a better place for future visits. Just go around the same roundabout ASDA is on to the right hand exit. Two nice carparks—St. Martin's—with no bars. I will warn you that if you are longer than 5.5 meters you have to be careful of parking over the lines as they will fine you for that. We try to find a spot on the edge so we can back in over grass etc. The Hereford Cathedral is not really very imposing but has some fine and ususual tombs inside and we also caught part of a tour which was great. Don't miss the chained library and the Mappa Mundi—though they are not free like the cathedral. The tourist office is also located in a terrific half timbered house.
From Hereford we went south a few miles to revisit Kilpeck Church. An absolute gem from 1130 with amazing Norman carving. Mark had bought a book in Hereford on the Hereford school of Romanesque sculpture as we had seen this church in 2009, marveled at it, but were totally ignorant. Last time we had also missed the remains of a castle right on the hill next to the church which had been slighted by Cromwell. We also visited The Weir—a Trust garden just west of Hereford. A nice, landscaped valley along the river Wye, but skippable. The house was turned into a nursing home.
Croome Park is a massive affair and was the first Capability Brown landscape and he remodeled the house also. The various follies on the ground would take all day to visit and lots of stamina, but we did enjoy the church—which is only from the 1700s—but includes four magnificint tombs from the 1600s that were moved there when the earlier church was demolished by Brown. These tombs reminded us so much of Italy and were in almost perfect condition. The house was not as interesting as most Trust properities we have visited but does have a long back story as always. Much of the furnitiure etc was sold off at various times to raise money. The famous tapestries were bought in 1900 by an American who gave them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1948 when the family trust sold off almost everything the Met bought the rest of the furniture, the ceiling, floor boards and fireplace from the room and totally recreated the whole thing at the museum. The last family who lived there was a real estate developer who added 17 bathrooms before he went bust in 2007 and it finally came into the hands of the National Trust. Even some of his renovations with be kept along with the painted dining room the Hare Krishna did in the 80s. The Trust feels that it all is part of the history of the place. During the war there was a top secret airfield there where radar was fitted onto planes and the house was kept in readiness for the King and his family if they had to evacuate from London. Some of the RAF buildings remain and now contain a museum of those days.
Leaving Croome we decided to press on to nearby Brockhampton Estate to visit the moated, medieval manor house held by the same family and lived in fairly continuously from 1425 to the 1950s. It is part of a huge parkland of 1700 acres. The family married well in the 1700s and built a newer hilltop manision at the top of the park which is leased out by the Trust and so can't be visited. There are lots of walks and even orienteering trails in the park but we kept our visit short to just the house and the ruin of a Norman church next door. Really trying to visit two Trust properities in a day is usually far too much.
After visiting Croome and Brockhampton we drove on towards Berrington 20 miles away where we plan to visit. No wildcamping places showed on our map but low and behold one popped up on the GPS as we approached Leominster. Don't know why it was only in the POI download I put into Garmin. Anyway it was a very nice, central parking lot for 2.5 lbs per night. The camper next to us said he had been there a week! N 52.23028 W 2.73827. We ended up spending two nights there as Croft Castle is also only 5 miles away. (Beware the quarter hourly church bells if you are a light sleeper!) Croft Castle was built in 1654 and the family has lived on the land pretty much continuously for 1000 years. Pretty astounding to us homeless Americans. However, not really one of the more interesting Trust properities.
Our expenses have been pretty minimal this month, especially for England. We haven't driven that far, we have wild-camped a lot, and most of our entertainment has been seeing property owned by the National Trust. We have found that revisiting we often skip the more expensive sites we have seen before as once was enough. However, on our first or second trip to England admission costs were more in the $500 a month range. Camping: $200 Groceries: $430 Eating Out: $70 (we're dieting!) Diesel: $310 Admissions and Parking: $87 Laundry and Propane: $85