Saturday 22 June 2013

Passing Off with pride

Yesterday we attended Chris' Passing Off Parade at ATR Pirbright.  He and his fellow recruits have worked extremely hard over the past 14 weeks, starting as wet behind the ears civvies and finishing as trained soldiers.  They've learnt to live and fight in the field, shoot, apply first aid, casevac wounded colleagues, clean, iron, march, tab, run - in fact anything a soldier needs to do.

We stayed overnight in Farnborough and the next morning drove to the camp. On arrival we waited with other families by the NAAFI before moving to the parade square seating.  One of the Corporals was the 'warm-up act', getting us to practice our cheering and clapping!  Then we had to give three loud cheers, which was the signal for the Royal Logistics Corps band to strike up and commence the March On.

As the band appeared and the two platoons marched on, the cheers and clapping clearly did it's job - we could see the pride in their faces.  Once in position the Inspecting Officer, Brigadier Davies, OBE, MC inspected the platoons.  He stopped to talk to Chris, asking him which regiment he's joining and whether he'd enjoyed his training. Once the platoons were inspected they marched forward for the prize winners to collect their trophies.

The Brigadier then spoke to them all to congratulate them and tell them they were now professional soldiers and part of the Army family.  After a few prayers from the 'Bish' they formed up for the March Past.  I think we both filled up as they marched past the dais, with cheering, clapping and a few tears!

After that we returned to the NAAFI where Chris finally joined us, so we could congratulate him and I could buy him his first pint in 7 weeks! We went for lunch in the cookhouse and then he went off to clear up the block and bring his bags down.  Finally he escaped from Pirbright to head home, once we finally fought our way through the Friday motorway traffic.

It was a great day. We are immensely proud of his achievements, but more pleased for him. He's overcome many hurdles over the years to get to this point and has shown true grit, determination and courage to get to the end of Phase 1 training; another 30 potential recruits will have failed for everyone one that achieves.  Chris now has a couple of weeks off before reporting to the Armoured Corps Training Regiment in Bovington, Dorset, for 6 months of trade training.  After that he'll join his regiment in Hohne, Germany.

But now, he's no longer Recruit Jackson - he is now Trooper Jackson, 9th/12th Lancers.  And we're very proud of him!

Standing Easy as the Brigadier addresses them

First pint in 7 weeks!

Off to the pub for some Father and Son bonding!

Saturday 15 June 2013

Last Stage of the 2013 Tour

Saturday 15 June 2013

We're now back at home, the washing machine is on and most other things are put away. As always when returning from holiday, there was a pile of mail to deal with. Cathy also went straight outside to spend a couple of hours tending her garden (which has grown a huge amount in 2 weeks and is looking great), while I washed Sportie and the bike - priorities!

My alarm went off at 0500 this morning (0400 BST) and after a quick breakfast we dropped waste and left the Aire for the short drive to the Tunnel terminal. By this time it was strong winds and torrential rain, so we sort of expected the same in the UK - but we've spent this afternoon in hot sunshine.  Having persuaded the cheerful (not!) British Border Agency lady that it was us on our passports, we queued up to join the train. During the crossing we spent most of the time cleaning the van, but also took the opportunity to lie on the bed as we sped under the sea! We arrived on time in Folkestone at about 0700 UK time and hit the motorway for the long drive north.  A couple of breaks to refuel (us and the van) and we arrived back at the unit in Anderton at about 1400.  Steph & Ian welcomed us back and I was very relieved with their understanding attitude to the damage to the van and that Ian had already ordered the replacement panels.  Thank you both again for all the advice and help during our journey to "travel in a motorhome". We'll see you again soon and certainly for our next trip in September to Cornwall.

We're now catching up with the outside world and I'm updating our blog.  Over the next couple of days I'll add the remaining photos to our later blogs (after the camera broke) and also add Google Map and other links to the various places we visited.  I'll also add a further blog on our thoughts on the overall trip and some more information on the Aires and Campsites we visited, probably on a separate page.  Until then we're crashing out after a long return journey.  We enjoyed most of it, dreaded some of it, saw loads of new sites and learned a great deal about long term motorhoming abroad and the type,of van we think will suit our needs. More to come in a later blog.

Friday 14 June 2013

Final day - "Final Fling"

Friday 14 June 2013

We're parked in an Aire in Calais, next to the ferry port. We need to be here to be up early tomorrow morning to drop fluids and catch the 0720 tunnel to Folkestone arriving at 0655 BST.
We enjoyed the peace and quiet of last night's Aire and had a lazy morning (for us).  The cold water yodel alarm (Cathy shrieking in the shower!) alerted me to a problem - no hot water.  I checked and changed the fuse but that didn't make any difference.  I also checked we still had gas.  We were also quite low on water so I thought perhaps this was a safety feature to prevent the heating element burning out.  But after topping up with water we still had no hot.  Oh well, at least Cathy had her (cold) shower and hair wash.  It's a submariner's dhoby for me until we get home. We had an omelette for breakfast with some of our emergency baguette stored in the freezer, plus a brew.  After a bit of a tidy up we sat outside in the sunshine, mainly to let Cathy's hair dry so she could take advantage of the electricity to burn her hair straight.  Electric disconnected and everything secured, we moved over to the service point to drop waste and top up with fresh water.  There was no thread on the tap so we had our first try at topping up with the collapsible water container and funnel.  It worked fine albeit it a little slow - Cathy managed it well on her own though - I would have soaked my t-shirt and shorts in the process.

We punched in the coordinates for an Aire by the sea and headed off through the countryside.  "That Woman" seemed to be behaving herself today, although some of the roads were a little on the narrow side - I was particularly unnerved when a large HGV overtook me at speed on a narrow, winding country road - as if my driving confidence isn't shot through already :-(

We arrived at Le Crotoy at about 1230 - lunchtime.  The Aire was already busy.  It says it can take up to 50 vans, but I think there were far more than that there, although it doesn't seem too crowded.  We're parked on a sandy but hard surface with a view over the estuary from the port windows.  We took a walk along the harbour wall and stopped off at a restaurant for a lovely seafood lunch, watching the market stall holders pack up from their morning's trading.  We walked back to the van to sit and chill in the sun before heading off for our final couple of hours driving in France, heading for Calais.

We've just had a text from Chris saying he's passed the final test of his Army basic training - a full week out on exercise putting into practice all he's learned in the past 13 weeks - known as Exercise "Final Fling". This is marvellous news and of course we're hugely proud of him. But, more importantly, we're pleased for him.  He's had to overcome some major obstacles to get to this point, some would say from the very bottom of the gutter. That he's achieved this is testament to the grit, determination, courage and bloody self-mindedness that we always knew he had, but he hadn't yet tapped into.  Only one in 30 potential recruits make it to this point, so it's a massive achievement. We'll be very proud to attend his passing out parade at Pirbright next Friday, before he moves on to the next phase of training with his chosen regiment - the 9th/12th Lancers.  I think this Dad, perhaps like others, will have some grit in his eye next week, making them a bit runny!

Leaving Le Crotoy we drove the 2 hours to the Aire in Calais, including our one and only section of toll motorway - for about 5 miles at the princely sum of €1.60 - what's the point? This Aire is a little like those wild places you see in The Waterworld film, or perhaps The Land That Time Forgot! All nationalities, but mostly Brits, and mostly looking like they've been sat outside the front of their van drinking all day.  Or perhaps they've been parked here for a fortnight, slowly turning brown on the outside and pickled on the inside!  This Aire is a definite cul-de-sac, yet at least 10 French cars a minute drive down, gawp at everyone, turn around and drive off. We sat out for a while outside then went for a walk along the sandy beach.  We had a meal inside the van and are now clearing up, ready for our trip back to the Grim North in the morning. See you on the other side......

Aire by the beach in Le Crotoy

A busy Aire right next to the Calais ferry terminal

Last evening of sun

Thursday 13 June 2013

On the road to Marrakesh - via Giverny

Thursday 13 June 2013

We're parked in an Aire outside the town of Forges Les Eaux. It's a small site on concrete for 24 vans, next to a campsite and overlooking open fields with wooded hills in the distance. It's pleasant enough at €7.30 per night including unmetered electricity.  It's about a 15 minute walk from the town.  There are a few British vans here so I wonder if it's a site for those just arrived by ferry from Dieppe or Le Havre, or a last stop for those about to return home.

I was up early this morning and out to grab our lunchtime baguette.  I even beat the Boulangerie, so went for a wander until they opened at 0730.  Breakfasted, secured and emptied, we headed off for our next stop - Monet's House & Gardens in Giverny.  It started to rain on the way and, by the time we parked up at the Gardens, it was raining "chats et chiens".  So we had a leisurely lunch and a chill out and headed out to explore about an hour later, once the rain had eased off.

The house where Claude Monet lived from 1883 until his death in 1926 remains much as he left it - complete with the famous lily pond - 20km south of Les Andelys near the north bank of the Seine.  We paid our entrance fee under the withering stare of thebhumourless staff and first took a look at the art exhibition.  Sadly, none of Monet's original paintings are on display and the viewing of those available we're spoilt by hoards of rug-rats, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of all the paintings, yawning and fidgeting as their teacher tried to force some culture into their minds. So we left there and headed for the house & gardens.

Having again braved the staff (do they all go to "be miserable" customer care school?), we made our way to the water garden and the famous water lilies and bridges.  Despite the rain and the crowds, the gardens were beautiful.  Some plants had already gone over, some were yet to bloom, but some where in their full, colourful, scented glory.  We walked around gazing at the views and taking loads of (iPhone) photos.  We then moved on to the herbaceous borders in front of the house.  These were truly stunning with myriad mixed colours, forms, shapes and sizes.  This is Cathy's perfect planting form and we both loved it. The tour guides and their followers were a bit of a pain, blocking the pathways, but we played the old gits' game and grumpily pushed our way through!

Monet's house was a bit of a disappointment - Cathy said it smelled of wee - I'm grateful again for my complete lack of smell at the moment! The house itself is a long, two-storey structure, painted pastel pink with green shutters.  A few of the rooms, including his bedroom and bathroom have been recently renovated and all are crammed floor to ceiling with Monet's collection of Japanese prints - it just didn't look right. Most of the original furnishings are gone, but you get a sense of how they might have been with the dining room walls and fittings painted a bright yellow.  The huge kitchen range was a sight to see and Cathy even got one over the house guides by breaking the "NO PHOTOS INSIDE THE HOUSE" rule, taking one from his bedroom balcony window overlooking the garden.  Monet's huge studio, built in 1915, where he painted the last and largest of his many depictions of water lilies, now serves as the book & gift shop.  We bought a calendar to hang for next year.

Returning to the van, we set off for tonight's stop - a journey of about 1.5 hours. When we arrived the sun was shining, so hooked up to the electricity, we walked into town to get some dinner.  Forges Les Eaux is well worth missing! A few of the local dropouts were slouched in the main square. We had a walk around and found little of interest, although we did find a Moroccan restaurant - result.  We walked up to a bar near the town square for an aperitif, then back for some spicy food.  The restaurant was immaculate, although empty when we arrived. We ordered starters, which never arrived (and we were not charged for either!), for main Cathy ordered lamb tagine with tomatoes and raisins, I had couscous with a vegetable sauce and a mix of beef kebab, lamb, chicken & merguez sausage.  We had this with a surprisingly good Moroccan red wine.  Cathy finished with an orange salad and I had a coffee - a very enjoyable and filling meal. We walked back to the Aire for a cup of tea.  Cathy's now reading in bed and I've researched places to head to for lunch tomorrow before finding an Aire very close to Le Shuttle in Calais for our final night in France. Time for sleep now.

The Water Lily Pond
The famous bridge

HUGE poppies

View from Monet's bedroom

The House Tradesman entrance

View from the van in the Aire

A spacious Aire

Emptying tanks

Lovely Moroccan food - shame I couldn't taste it

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Parks and Gardens

Wednesday 12 June 2013

We're parked in the Aire in the village of Villandry in the Loire region, about 20 kilometres south west of Tours.  The Aire doubles as a car park for the Chateau during the day, although there are 50 flat motorhome pitches, so I expect it will empty out a bit when the Chateau closes.

Cathy said there was a minor earthquake last night - the earth moved for her but I didn't notice a thing, although I did dream about being on the top of a really high building that swayed in the wind, so perhaps I did notice it.  We were awake early this morning and heated up some pizza we bought from the market for breakfast.  I know it sounds a bit weird but it was delicious! After topping up water and dumping fluids we left the lovely Ile d'Oleron - we shall certainly return.  It was already sunny and very warm - typical for us to be on the road on the best days!

We had about a 4 hour trip to our next stop at Villandry.  This time we had both sat navs running and checked one against the other.  The Garmin still kept trying to take us through town centres and off onto minor roads, whereas the iPhone couldn't work out which roundabout exit we should take before we were on it. We stopped off at a roadside Aire at about 1230 for a lunch of chicken sandwiches and a brew. We finally arrived at Villandray at about 1445.

The main reason for stopping here overnight was to visit the Gardens of Villandry Chateau, which is about 2 minutes walk from where we're parked. Built around 1536, it's the last of the great chateaux built along the banks of the Loire during the Renaissance.  Through several owners (bet they didn't have to deal with slow, inefficient solicitors when selling on), the 19th Century marked a turning point: the traditional gardens were destroyed to create an English-style park around the castle - looking at the design it must have been done by a local British council 'parks and gardens' workman on a foreigner. The gardens are designed and laid out in a number of different ways: Ornamental, Woods, Water, Sun, Maze, Herb and Vegetable Gardens.  All of them were a bit formal, not really to our taste, but I think in another couple of weeks when the majority of flowers are blooming, it will look much better. We didn't go in the chateau - big walls, pointy turrets, little windows, moat - you get the picture.

It was very warm and sticky today - mid-70s F - with sunny spells and a few clouds and it feels like thunder storm weather.  We decided to eat in today.  We had some chicken left over from yesterday, plus some chorizo, so we cooked up some pasta with plenty of garlic, onions and tomato - I should have taken a few cuttings from the Herb Garden!  I would have liked to get out on the bike but felt really tired after the long drive, so decided to just chill out on my chair under the trees instead, helped by a small aperitif of the Oleron Grimbergen beer, nicely chilled from the fridge!

After dinner we went for a walk around the village.  It's a very still, warm evening, so we strolled around going up little side streets, listening to the birds, having a quiet sit down and moment of reflection by the war memorial.  We also like noseying in the courtyards, gardens and potagers! We also stopped at the primary school noticeboard to read the school lunch menus posted in advance - those children eat really, really well! See the photos below for their menu.  A couple of the old bars and restaurants were still open with one or two people sat outside in the warm air chatting and enjoying a glass of wine.  We walked down to the river Loire, about 400m from the Aire and watched its wide expanse moving slowly downstream from right to left, but the many mozzies soon had us moving on.  It's 2130 as I write, still warm and light, with the local blackbirds singing to protect their territory.

I suspect we'll be up quite early again tomorrow to get to our next destination in time to make some use of the day. We haven't decided where that will be yet, but Monet's Garden in Giverny is about half way between here and Calais.  It's somewhere we've always wanted to visit, but I'll need to check out the local Aires and the travel time to see if it's achievable.  I'd also like to find somewhere to clean the outside of the van - it's filthy and I don't really want to return it like that.

Thought for the Day:  We have a British-owned van conversion parked one van away, which has got us thinking. Our friends have one with a fixed rear double bed, half garage, wet room, decent galley and seating area.  It's winterised with heating and a good sized fridge - and it's about half the size of the one we've rented.  We'll have to do some research, but it looks promising, particularly as we want to explore the Lakes and Cornwall, difficult in a large coach-built motorhome.

Cooking on a wonky pitch!

Aire at Villandry

Used to be men's and women's entrances - which is which?

That's what you call school dinners