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Life on the open road.

Byline: By Paul Cole

We were congratulating ourselves on having negotiated our way on to the M6 when the alarm bells first began to ring.

A couple heading in the opposite direction waved frantically at us from the cab of their own motorhome. Clearly something was wrong. Had we forgotten to disconnect the mains cable?

A quick inspection of the dials on the dashboard suggested all was OK. My wife cast her eyes round the living space behind us. Everything seemed to be in place. Reassured, we continued on our way. For 15 minutes.

Then it happened again. An obviously concerned couple in another passing motorhome gesticulated wildly. We pulled in to the services - but nothing appeared to be amiss.

The penny dropped three motorhomes later. This time the gestures seemed more sedate, almost a salute.

Welcome to the Universal Brotherhood Of Motorhome Owners, a breed apart.

We had only borrowed ours, of course, but these other knights of the road weren't to know that. Every 10 minutes, it seemed, we were exchanging greetings. We were in.

Don't confuse motorhome owners with caravanners, though. Each seems to look down haughtily on the other. There's a clear class structure when it comes to hitting the holiday highway.

After several invitations to hire a motorhome, I'd finally given in. I set miserable memories of wet and windy caravan breaks in Wales aside and became that most nervous of novices. The Motorhome Virgin.

Determined to make the four-wheel honeymoon a memorable one, I threw caution to the wind. "Let's go to Orkney," I exclaimed. "That'll be a real challenge. What's the worst that could happen?"

Breakdown, both mechanical and marital, perhaps?

Not a bit of it. Apart from a windy moment (quite literally) on a suspension bridge high over the River Findhorn, the next eight days proved both trouble and stress-free. Hell, this was fun.

Our first night found us in Appleby-in-Westmorland, where we arrived late but put all the plugs in the right places in the darkness, brewed a cuppa and turned in for the night.

Eager to hit the road, we were off early next morning, ringing ahead to book a pitch on a Caravan Club site in Arrochar. On the Continent you can park up just about anywhere but it's frowned upon here in the UK.

Besides, the friendly advice and assistance offered by site wardens is invaluable on your steep learning curve. You may quickly get the hang of driving your motorhome but there's much more to take in.

Where do you empty your waste water? Why are some pitches better than others? Are the local roads wide enough? And if not, are there plenty of passing places?

Most importantly, how can you be sure your pitch will still be there when you get back? The only drawback of motorhomes is that you have to take them with you if you fancy a day out.

Canny caravan site regulars, we quickly discovered, carry signs bearing the apologetic message "Sorry, this pitch is being used". They're a polite lot, the Universal Brotherhood.

The members-only site in Arrochar boasts pitches right on the shore of Loch Long with magical morning views as the mist hugs the water and the wooded hillsides. But we were not to linger.

A long diagonal run up the sides of Loch Ness, broken by lunch in Fort William, found us on the North-east coast. We'd planned to stay in Broara, but the north was tantalisingly close.

Our destination was Dunnet Bay, and a site set in a small field on the fringe of a sandy bay that stretched a mile and a half. We planned to stay a night and didn't leave 'til four days later.

The Bay's own scenic delights apart - Dunnet Head is the most northerly headland in Britain - it's an ideal base from which to explore the many attractions the coast has to offer.

Depending on the time of year you can spot seals playing at Little Clett, watch the puffins flock to Duncansby Point, take walks through the forests and brave the wind as you cling to the cliffsides.

The Castle of Mey, the late Queen Mother's Highland retreat, offers more homely attractions as members of her staff tell you delightfully dotty tales about life with Britain's best-loved Royal.

As you stroll through each room, you'll spot cuddly toys lurking amid the books, board games, Dad's Army videos and fine art. "We used to hide them away," said a servant. "But she'd demand that we put them back.

"She reckoned that if someone had bought them for her, then the very least she could do was put them somewhere she could see them. Look out for Nessie atop the oil painting there ..." And it's only a fiver to get in.

John O'Groats, just a few miles along the coast, offers little other than tacky tourist shops and inflatable raft trips but offers a gateway to Orkney, only 45 minutes away on the ferry Pentland Venture.

Leave your motorhome in the ferry company car park and take a Maxi-Day tour of Orkney highlights for just pounds 38 a head, including crossings, coach travel on the islands and the services of a friendly local guide.

Our tour took in the Churchill Barriers and Block Ships sunk to protect allied ships in Scapa Flow, Kirkwall, Stromness, the prehistoric village of Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar around which Billy Connolly danced naked.

The standing stones are remarkable and as impressive as Stonehenge. An ornate chapel made from two Nissen huts by Italian prisoners of war using just paint and barbed wire is another eye-opener.

Tickle the tastebuds with melt-in-the-mouth haddock at the Ferry Inn in Stromness, washed down by a pint of Dark Island, a ruby-red ale brewed on the island and to die for.

Back on the mainland (Would the motorhome still be there? Of course it would - thefts of motorhomes are thankfully rare and crime itself is almost a stranger in these parts) it was time to head back.

The coast road offers splendid scenery at every twist and turn before you head back down to the West, where we overnighted in the forests of Kinlochewe (everything sounds like Middle-Earth up here).

Rather than head straight back down the motorway we traced a figure of eight, crossing country again to Inverness and then down to the rolling Yorkshire Dales, a gentler landscape than the Highland wilds.

But don't let that deceive you. The high roads between Reeth, the delightfully named villages of Crackpot and Booze, and Hawes are more difficult than anything found north of the border.

It's here that the motorhome was really put to the test. Handling is excellent on left-hand bends but needs more care on right-hand sweeps. You'll also need to compensate for crosswinds.

The high driving position allows you to play trucker without the hindrance of an HGV and the Pacific Pilote proves surprisingly easy. Even after 1,500 miles in a week there are no aches and pains.

The Pilote comes with all mod cons including a permanent double bed, meaning you avoid the DIY hassle of making up beds each night. Designed as a four-berth, it's very comfortable for two adults but could feel cramped for more.

As it's of French design, you get gas cooking rings and grill but no oven, although you'll hardly miss one if you're sampling the local pubs and restaurants. There's room for a microwave if you're so inclined.

With its own shower room and easy-to-empty chemical toilet, the motorhome is convenience itself, allowing you to travel almost anywhere anytime and stop for a snack and a cuppa whenever the whim takes you.

And while buying a motorhome outright is expensive, it will pay for itself over the years during which you enjoy the absolute freedom of the road. Not to mention your place in the Universal Brotherhood.

Look, there's another one. Wave!

ARROCHAR, Dunbartonshire: River Croe Caravan Club Site (01301 702236): Beautiful undeveloped site in Argyll Country Park with some pitches on the shore of Loch Long. Caravan Club members only,

DUNNET, Highland: Dunnet Bay Caravan Club Site (01847 821319): Breathtaking views over deserted sea-washed sands to Dunnet Head, Britain's most northerly mainland. Ideal for John O'Groats and Orkney.

ACHNASHEEN, Highland: Kinlochewe Caravan Club Site (01445 760239): Set in the heart of the forest on the long winding road to Gairloch, pitches are on hardstanding but it's hardly a scenic site. OK for an overnight.

HARMBY, North Yorkshire: Lower Wensleydale Caravan Club Site (01969 623366): Pitches are crowded into an old wooded quarry bursting with birds and rabbits but are too close for comfort when it's busy. Again, OK for an overnight,

HAWES, North Yorkshire: Brown Moor Caravan Club Site (01969 667338): Well-maintained site just a few minutes' walk from holiday hotspot Hawes with its pubs, restaurants and attractions - but still has that 'get away from it all' feel.

MOBILE HOME: Pilote Pacific P6

Base: Peugeot Engine: 2.2 L HDI Diesel

Berths: Four

Price: pounds 32,990

Hired from: Hayes Leisure, Walsall Road, Darlaston (0121 526 3433)

FURTHER INFO: Motorhome Information Service, 01444 458889 or www.motorhomeinfo.co.uk

The Caravan Club, 01342 326944 or www.caravanclub.co.uk

Orkney Tourist Board 01856 872001 or www.visitorkney.com

Highland Tourist Board 01997 423019 or www.highlandfreedom.com
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Title Annotation:Travel Destinations
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Feb 12, 2005
Words:1558
Previous Article:Eating out.
Next Article:Family bonanza.


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