Sunday 10th December 2017. Snow seemed to be the order of the day, and taking the Freelander out in it was something I had been wanting to do for a while. Luckily for me, it snowed a lot at the start of December. The only opportunity I had to drive any distance in it was to a Fish gig in Leamington Spa. I went with a friend of mine who lives out in the sticks and the sad fact of the matter is that that was the trickiest part of the drive. The Freelander handles well in snow. It is just the right weight and the power matches the car perfectly for snowy conditions. Slow and steady is the way forward. Once we got onto main roads, there and back, it was clear running. Basically it was a bit of a let down on the driving front. The gig was brilliant, however, and he played all of the old Marillion album ‘Clutching At Straws’. Was this the end of the snow? Time will tell….
Sunday 29th October 2017. Winter is officially here as the clocks went back last night. We thought it would be a good idea to squeeze in one more National Trust property before winter fully landed on us. We decided on Charlecote Park in Warwickshire. Before we got there we had to do our usual run into Leicester to get Ash, which led to the inevitable breakfast at the Phoenix and then grabbing some snacks from Lidl. Once we eventually set off it took about 40 minutes to get there by going through Leicester then onto the M69 and then A45.
Once there, they let us park up by the house as Shani had her Blue Badge. The house was built around 1558 and has incredible walks to enjoy around the grounds. The house contains many historical items from different periods in British history from Tudor times, through to Victorian time and the First World War. The Lucy family who built the house all those years ago still reside in one wing, and there is even a holiday flat that is available to rent if you fancy staying there. Friendly as ever staff were on hand in each room to provide information on all aspects of each room, the house and the family.
We did the usual pit stop at the coffee shop before hitting the gift shop and departing. There is a Garden Centre opposite which we had a quick look at before heading home. During the trip home we ducked into TGI Fridays at Coventry for dinner, then went back to Leicester to drop off Ash. A short, but satisfying, day out. It also turned out to be our last proper trip of the year as the weather, and nights, closed in.
Saturday, 14th October 2017. We were off to Bristol for the weekend to take part in the ‘BBC Countryfile Ramble For Children In Need’. The Ramble wasn’t until the Sunday morning, however it was early Sunday morning so staying down seemed to be the sensible option. Owing to the fact we had to traipse into Leicester to fetch Ashley first, we were up around half 6. It was an overcast, yet warm start. Once we had Ash we began the monotonous motorway run down to Bristol – M69, M6, M42 and then the M5. The boredom of the drive was broken briefly by a pit stop for breakfast on the M5 services. It was only 9 am when we reached the services. We all had a full fry up, then did a bit of shopping! The sky was still very grey, which did not bode well for the weekend.
After an hour or so we set off to see some friends in Gloucester, then we went off to the National Arbouritum. It has hundreds of different tree and plant species and all were a multitude of Autumn colours. We spent over an hour exploring the place, and as with everywhere we go, we ended up in the gift shop. We did not leave ourselves enough time to fully explore this huge attraction, as the grounds stretch out for miles (so it seems), so it is on our Re-Visit list. The hotel was another half hour drive from the Arbouritum. We were staying at the Holiday Inn Filton. A very odd building, and relatively dilapidated. Big car park though! Once settled in, Erin and I went for a swim, then it was drinks and dinner and a relatively early night in anticipation of tomorrows Ramble.
Sunday 15th October 2017. We were up at the crack of dawn (well, 10 to 7). Following a quick coffee and a shower, we got the car packed up and checked out. As Shani was doing the ramble in her wheelchair, we had to drive to the finish point, Ashton Court, and then a mini bus ferried us, and others with mobility issues, to the start point. The start point was the Observatory next to the Clifton Suspension bridge. With the exception of a minor mishap involving the wheelchar, lining up correctly and bus ramp (use your imagination), we got to the base of the observatory in one piece.
The physical trials of a ramble hit us earlier than everyone else as we had to push Shani around to the base of the observatory and then up the hill. I about died doing that, having no help from anyone. Once up there we had to check in and hang around in what amounted to a holding pen, where we could buy food and be entertained by some local variety acts of one sort or another. Whilst there we did manage to meet Adam Henson, the Countryfile presenter assigned to our ramble, and have a selfie/chat with him. Very amiable bloke. Due to the joys of television, we had to hang around for hours. We eventually set off at half eleven. We all walked back down the hill – to another holding pen! Luckily I spotted a Discovery which was being used as the event ambulance so all was not lost! Once at the second holding pen, they were letting us walk across the Clifton Suspension Bridge in groups. They had actually closed the bridge for this event, so it was awesome walking down the middle of it. We were all told not to look up as we were being filmed by a drone. Also awesome. The rest of the ramble was very slow. We had to stop at regular intervals for 10 to 15 minutes or more while they filmed segments for the TV show.
It took the 623 of us who turned up (1200 were meant to be there) around 2 and a half hours to walk the 4.5 k route. Without TV stops it would have taken about an hour! As we crossed the finish line, we all got a certificate for completing it. By now it was 2 pm and we were all knackered after the early start and the long walk. Everyone was glad it didn’t rain, although the skies were dull and threatening most of the way. We decided not to waste the rest of the day and headed down to the quayside, near the SS Great Britain. Had a stroll along the river and had a great meal in a Greek street restaurant, which was part of a complex of restaurants house in old shipping containers. Very trendy!
We said our goodbyes to Bristol at 5 and headed home. We had a quick coffee pit-stop on the M42, dropped Ash home and eventually got to our abode by 10 pm. A long weekend indeed, but such fun!
After all the running around we have done so far this year, the car went in for a well earned service. I had heard a weird noise, like wind blowing through a pipe, for many months but paid little attention. When we investigated this during the service it turns out we had driven for over 6 months (including around France) with a very knackered prop shaft.
As a result, we did no trips in either Land Rover in September. We did nip to London once, but took the Nissan, so it doesn’t count! Erin did manage to meet Miranda Hart and get an autograph during that trip, but it still doesn’t count towards the Land Rover adventures. The Y reg Freelander was back on the road at the end of September and we took it for a quick spin to Mount St Bernards Monastery and Swithland Woods. We are now waiting on getting the clutch fixed on the 54 plate.
Sunday 27th August 2017. Having blasted the car around France and the south coast of England, I thought we should not give it too much of a bettering on the last weekend of the Summer Holidays. That said, the sun was blazing down and it would have been a shame to let a day go to waste. Once ready, we headed into Leicester as per usual to collect Ash and also Erin as she had had a sleepover at Ahsley’s. We got to the Phoenix around half 10. Shani and I ordered up some coffee and a small breakfast whilst we waited for the other two to get there. We sat outside and by the time they arrived it was boiling hot. A brief conflab led us to select a National Trust property just under 30 miles away called Lyveden, in Northamptonshire.
It was an easy drive down there, and the driveway into the actual property is a 4×4 owbers dream, long, windy and barely tarmacked with potholes and verges galore. Those in less fortunate vehicles were crawling along. We even had to overtake someone they were going that slow. Once parked up we strolled down to the tiny reception area to check in and get our NT Passport stamped. It was then onwards into the grounds.
This is not one of those properties with a multitude of activities. On the surface of it, the actual house appears to be a ruin, however this is not the case. It is an unfinished Elizabethan Lodge. It was began by Sir Thomas Tresham but subsequent to his death in 1605 all work ceased and the building has been left that way ever since. It is still a testament to the engineering skill of our forefathers, and you are able to explore the building albeit from the ground floor only, and one perilous spiral staircase that goes up to a more recent mezzanine floor. The rest of the area is a moated garden and orchard. In the weather we experienced, as the photo’s will show, it was beautiful. A lot of time was spent photographing the grounds, and the sun was beating down steadily the whole time, so a food break was required. We managed to grab a table inside the small coffee shop and had some sandwiches and cold drinks. The poor people sitting outside were being swarmed by wasp’s who were energized by the heatwave.
Around 3pm we decided to head off. After a few detours and some fun country lanes we came across Brixworth Country Park, located on the edge of Pitsford Reservoir. How we had never come across this before was a mystery to all of us as its only 20 minutes or so away from home. There is a large park, with a big children’s play area, a coffee shop and a great walkway around the reservoir. Owing to the park being rammed on such a hot day, we went for a stroll. Shani struggled, so we didn’t go far, but we got some great photography done. We were all pretty tired due to a combination of heat and exercise, and a quick run down the A14 and then the M1 saw us home in the early evening.
Total Miles: 128.8
Eurotrip!! So, this is the big test. A jaunt over to Disneyland Paris and going via road, in the TD4. The anticipation is palpable. The child is manic. The wine is flowing. The main question on everyone’s lips, once they stop laughing, is: ‘Will you get there…?’. Now, I am not overtly religious, however I have a crucifix blessed by Benedictine Monks on top of the CB, a St Christopher (from the same monastery shop) near the gear stick, and the assurance from AVS garage that the car ‘should be ok’. After all, its only a Land Rover Freelander with over 180,000 miles on the clock. Good enough for me!
There has been a great deal of preparation for this trip, as things are vastly more complicated than they were a few years ago when I last went over there (in the Range Rover in 1998). This is a list of some of the things you have to do before going to Europe from the UK:
- Car Insurance – ensure yours covers Europe, and make the necessary changes!
- Breakdown cover – The AA was 3 times the price of the RAC – guess who got the business?
- Dartford Crossing – we have to use this to get to Kent (from where we live), and you now have to go online to pay
- Clean Air Certificate – You cannot drive in Paris without one (or a few other French cities)
- European Driving Kit for the car – including, amongst other things, Hi-Viz vests for all and a breathalyser kit
In light of this, I have written a separate ‘Guide to Driving in Europe’, which you can read by clicking here.
All of tis is before booking tickets, hotels and so on! It also included an argument with the AA, as they were so expensive. Turns out they will not bring your car back to the UK if the cost of the car is less than the cost of getting it back home. My car is basically worthless, so it was not a good policy! The RAC will do it regardless on their top package, which as almost £100 cheaper than the AA. Shame, as the AA are very good in the UK.
Preparations began on the Sunday (13th August) as I started to get the car packed. With the new Roof Box, I had hoped to get lots of adventuring kit loaded up (90% of which will probably never get used), thus freeing up the boot for less essential things – like out luggage. I had masterfully packed the roof box to perfection when I was informed we would be taking the wheelchair. This single act meant a complete repacking of said roof box and boot, and in the end it left us a bit short on space, with one wheelchair wheel becoming Erin’s travelling companion in the back seat.
A good clean was next on the agenda. The car may be old, but I wanted to present a good impression of British drivers by displaying a clean and tidy vehicle. It took a while, as everything was cleaned – including ‘Back To Black’-ing the bumpers and cleaning all the plastic bits in the engine bay. The car had never looked so showroom fresh. After a couple of hours of profuse sweating, the car was ready. Clean, packed, fluids and pressures checked. She was ready for the off. Now it was a case of charging up anything with a battery and getting some sleep. Easy for me, not so easy for Erin.
The morning of the 14th was a pleasant one. We were up and ready nice and early, and despite my plans of leaving later in the day to avoid rush hour traffic, we were off around 8 am. In terms of driving, this was probably the worst part of the trip. There were about 5 junctions worth of ’50 mph Average Speed Camera’ road works, followed by a complete standstill 4 junctions before Luton. It was a complete crawl down the M1. Although we were in no hurry, it was still very annoying. By the time we got to South Mimms service station (junction 23 on the M25), it was 10.15 am. We had a fry up at Harry Ramsden’s and were back on the road by 11.30. We cracked on with the journey down to Folkestone, and the Premier Inn next to the Channel Tunnel, just off the M20. It was a straightforward run, and we all enjoyed the Queen Elizabeth Bridge crossing at Dartford. I remember when the bridge was being built. It is an amazing piece of engineering, and never fails to impress. We got to the hotel around 2 pm, and had a bit of a rest before deciding what to do next.
As seems to be our way these days – one thing sprang to our attention – the National Trust. They have loads of places in the South East of England, so we aimed for an obvious one; The White Cliffs of Dover. It is an awe inspiring view. Steeped in history, mentions of the Battle Of Britain everywhere, and there is a truly English feel to the whole place. This was offset by a large group of eastern Europeans yelling at an old man in the car park as he merrily smashed his way out of a parking space by ramming the cars both in front and behind him as he did a 490 point turn. Ahh, to be in England in the summer. The walking and the heat were getting to Shani who was struggling to cope with either (she had her crutches but the wheelchair is not designed for off-roading). We had a quick wander up to look down over the passenger port of Dover, and to catch our first glimpse of Calais across the water. The narrow footpaths that took you further along the coast were very crowded, so we went back to the shop and grabbed an ice cream. We then took a leisurely drive westwards down the coast looking for interesting places. We found one not too far away.
This came in the form of Samphire Hoe. The name alone grabs your attention, and the method of getting there (via a single lane tunnel through the cliff, controlled by traffic lights and CCTV) makes it even more intriguing. It turns out that this area was once home to a couple fo small fishing shacks, but in the late 1980’s when the channel tunnel was built, for some reason they decided to dump everything taken out of the tunnel into this bay, thereby reclaiming a chunk of land. It is now a huge rectangle of concrete jutting out into the ocean, the concrete covering all the rock taken out from under the channel and dumped there. There is also a monument/large plaque commemorating all those who lost their lives during the construction of said tunnel. Good for fishing, with a small visitor centre and a little shop, thee was not a huge amount to do there. We had a quick look around before heading for our final destination of the day – Dungeness.
Dungeness is, it transpires, a nature reserve which is on a spit of land that just out the bottom of the country. When we got there, it actually looked like a scene from a Zombie Apocalypse movie. Small shacks were dotted around a barren wasteland, with a large volume of flying insects populating all available airspace. We drove around it quickly for fear of a Deliverance style ending to a good day. Safely back at the hotel, we ambled over to the Table Table restaurant for a lovely meal, delivered by some lovely people (Mel, the manager and Chloe, our waitress for the night being two of them). Suitable fed and ready for bed, we crashed out in nice comfy beds ready for a stupidly early start on Tuesday.
By the end of day one we had already amassed 242.8 miles. The car was holding fast, and despite all the abuse we and it had taken from the naysayers, there were no problems so far. Things were looking good.
The holiday proper starts! In a manner befitting any holiday, it was chucking it down with rain outside. We made a very early start, as the train was departing at 20 past 6 in the morning. We were up at 4 am. I say we, Shani and me were up. It was another battle to raise the little one from her slumber. Getting to the channel tunnel was not straightforward. I have written a more adult version of events, which I will not put here. Email me for details! Suffice to say that a lack of signposts, a lack of light, a lack of sat nave help, a lack of human interaction and an abundance of rain made it the challenge of the day. Once we eventually found the entrance, everything is electronic until you get to passport control. Once there its fairly straightforward, and getting on the high sided vehicle carriages was easy enough. The mileage sat at 247.5 miles when we got on the train. I reset the trip clock to 0 in anticipation of the second leg. The train left on time and 30 minutes later we had arrived in France.
As we emerged from the train (around 10 to 8), it was self evident that the weather was equally as bad in Calais as it was in Folkestone. The upside was that it was getting light, and the rain was easing up. The road out of the terminal is a one way street which spits you out onto the A26/E15. Now, there is an interesting thing about the roads in France. Their main motorways are all prefixed by the letter ‘A’. Alongside that you will see a letter ‘E’ with a number. The ‘E’ number designates the European network of roads as decided by the United Nations. It stretches across Europe and there are even E road designations for UK roads, which the UK government choose not to show on signposts. This can be a bit confusing (read all about the E road system here) but it is, in fact, quite an easy run from Calais to Disneyland Paris.
Just to be consistent with the blog, the roads we took were the A26/E15, A1/E15 and the A104. That is essentially the route in a nutshell. Not far along the road we pulled in at a service station to grab some breakfast. Pretty much everything was in English and the British vehicles outnumbered the French at this juncture. From there we ploughed on down to Disneyland with only one brief stop to pay a toll (21.70 Euro’s). It was a very boring drive. The main difference I noticed between the French motorways and the British ones is the French ones run through the countryside. There were literally only fields around us until we get very close to Paris itself. At one point we passed through Charles De Gaulle airport, the second biggest airport in Europe after London Heathrow. From a driving point of view, you go under a series of bridges, above which were the runways. Planes were taxi-ing above us as we drove through. We eventually arrived at the Hotel at 12 noon. From Calais to the hotel was 200.6 miles. The car had done us proud, and got us to Paris without breaking down. Big hugs for the Freelander!
There was a huge amount of security at the hotel we were in (The Newport Bay, one of the Disney park hotels). There were guards on the road with a checkpoint, barrier and anti ramming devices that drop down into the road to let you in. Then every bag you take in is X-Rayed (in a small tent outside the hotel entrance). This is followed by Airport style wanding metal detection as you go into the hotel. You appreciate this level of security up until the third trip to the car, then it becomes annoying. After the fourth trip you wish you had stayed in a different hotel and the fifth time you wish you hadn’t bothered going! Anyway, after that annoyance, a superb member of staff got us checked in early, and we were able to unpack and hit the park.
The sun had decided to show itself at last, as we walked from the hotel down to the park. There is a large lake at the back of the hotel, the path down the side of this leads you to the Disney Village. This is a conglomeration of shops and eateries of various types. Most of the food was based around the Burger family of foods. Accordingly, our first meal was at Planet Hollywood. Erin’s excitement was growing, and she had to be forcibly dragged away from the shops after we had lunch, and went to the park proper.
The look on the face of an 8 year old as they gaze down ‘Main Street USA’ in Disneyland is worth the price of admission on its own. I was slightly concerned that her head was going to physically explode with excitement! We made a quick stop so Shani could get her disabled pass, then we went exploring. We found the park a bit tricky to navigate initially as the signage is not great, and each section is almost hidden from the others, but we sussed it eventually, having walked around Skull Island half a dozen times. The first ride of the day was Big Thunder Mountain. A Disney classic and a good introduction to grown up roller coasters for Erin. Not much queuing thanks to the disabled card, and we were loaded into the rear car. I sat with Erin, as she held me in some form of death vice. As the ride began, she relaxed a little, especially during the outside sections. As we headed back to the start line, we entered a tunnel and the top of the final drop, and the coaster stopped. We sat and waited in the darkness, then the crying began. After about 5 minutes or so, the lights came on and an announcement that the ride was experiencing ‘Technical Issues’ came over the tannoy. It was then announced that Shani had to be rescued by the Fore & Rescue services and everybody had to wait until they turned up before hey were allowed to get off and walk out. Erin went into meltdown. I lightened the mood by playing the Indiana Jones theme tune on my phone. It broke the tension, and calmed everyone down.
A few minutes later, the Fire & Rescue guy turned up, and all passengers bar us got off and walked out. Backup was called for as they had to lift Shani out of the car and carry her out to her wheelchair. This took a bit of time, and was not the best start to our Disney odyssey. Not much of an apology was forthcoming from the staff either. We moved on. Next we went to Pirates Of The Caribbean. We had got a ticket with a time on it before we went on Big Thunder Mountain, as we had the wheelchair. Owing to the breakdown and a massive thunder storm that saw us taking shelter in a cave near Skull Island, we had missed our time slot for Pirates, but they took pity and eventually let us on. We all, Erin included. loved it. After the earlier trauma’s we called it a day and went back to the hotel for food and sleep.
The first meal we had in the hotel was at the ‘Yacht Club’ restaurant. We had the Half Board Plus food package, so expected something great from an A La Carte restaurant in a 4 star Disney hotel. It turns out there is a single page from said menu for this option with a couple of limited choices. It was, without any shadow of doubt, the single worse meal I have ever had in a hotel. The main course (pictured right) consisted on a couple of giant spring onions with what I presume was some form of anorexic chicken. Vile. I decided to get a bottle of red. This was extra, as were any other drinks (bar a single free soft drink each). We then ordered 2 cokes and a fruit mocktail for Erin. It cost 46 Euro’s for these! We made a unanimous decision to never eat there again. Ever. At all.
We went to bed a little deflated after a broken down ride and some form of warm mush for dinner. We were pinning our hopes on the rest of the week to make up for this faltering start.
DAYS 3 & 4
With one minor trip down the road to the Esso garage to get some snacks, the car took a well earned rest. Our time was spent Disney-ing it up in and around the parks. Undeterred by the disasters of Day 2, we were determined to make the most of days 3 and 4. We kick started Day 3 early, taking advantage of the Early Bird entry for Disney Hotel guests. We got there around about half 8 and headed straight for the Star Tours ride. It was shut. We did find another Star Wars themed ride open – Hyperspace Mountain. This is a roller coaster formerly named Space Mountain. See what they did there? Yes – the Star Wars brand was once again being given a good Disney thrashing. Being a huge SW fan, I was not complaining. I had not been on this ride before so was unsure what to expect. Erin was also very apprehensive but the bribe of 2 stuffed toys if she went on it worked. Retrospectively I probably should have listened to Erin. The whole thing is in pitch black with holographic Star Wars movies playing at various intervals. It was fast, very fast. We were shot up, down, left, fight, upside down – basically thrown all over the place. After the 4 minutes or so was up, we all staggered off the ride. Erin absolutely hated every second of it, and Shani was in full agreement with her. Even I felt a tad nauseous. Still, one down!
We grabbed a bit of breakfast with our vouchers (a Pain Au Chocolat and an orange juice) before going back to Pirates Of The Caribbean again, at Erin’s insistence. We were first on and only 6 were in our boat. It was as good as ever. Just what we needed after the hectic Hyperspace earlier. We then took a little stroll and had a couple of goes on the very gentle Tea Cups ride. The weather was still holding out in our favour, which is good news on the outdoor rides. After that it was off to my favourite – Star Tours. A cunningly named Star Wars themed ride. They are ingenious! It was awesome, although Erin was a little unsure. The Star Tours shop made up for it and I had to leave before a re-mortgage on the house would have been required.
Hunger kicked in, so we went back to the Village and had a late lunch a Planet Hollywood. It was then back to the Hotel for a swim. The pool is awesome, half inside and half outside, with a small bridge over the gap. The sun was still out so swimming outside was acceptable. Shani had a sleep while we did this. The day was pushing on, and by the time we had showered and dressed it was close to dinner. We opted for the ‘Cape Cod’ restaurant, which offered a buffet. The difference was remarkable. Very acceptable, and in some cases great, food. Beer still expensive, but the food made up for it. We retired at the end of Day 3 a lot happier than the previous day.
I had hoped for another early start on Day 4, however owing to tiredness all around we didn’t get to the park until 9. We wanted to go to the Walt Disney Studios park which is next to the main area, but that didn’t open until Half 9, so we grabbed some breakfast in the main park before heading over to Studios.
Walt Disney Studios Park opened in 2002, 10 years after the main park. The rides are geared up around movies of one sort or another and concentrate on ‘Behind The Scenes’ elements of the movie industry. We had a brief wander around first, to get our bearings (and to take some photos with the ‘Boo’ door from Monsters Inc.), and then headed over to the Stunt Show. It was a 40 minute or so show where stuntmen demonstrated driving skills around a fake movie set. It was very loud, very clever and did not involve us getting spun around in any way. As we left this show, we saw the Armageddon Special Effects ride. It was great fun, and put you in a recreation of the Space Station set from the Armageddon movie. I will not ruin it for those who have not been, but do try it out if you get the chance.
When we left, the rain started again. Luckily we caught the whole of the Star Wars tribute on the outdoor stage before the heavens opened for a short burst of misery. We didn’t let this spoil the day, and went to (what turned out to be) our last ride of the day – the Studio Tour. It was excellent, with a great special effects bit halfway round and the recreated London set from ‘Reign Of Fire’. We all loved it. We then attempted (for the second time that day) to go on the Ratatouille ride. It was closed due to ‘Technical Issues’. This was a phrase applied to any ride that broke down. It happened many times we were there – Thunder Mountain (whilst we were on it), Hyperspace Mountain, Rock N Roll with Aerosmith and Indiana Jones were all the other ones we heard had broken down. It was a disappointing end to the day in Studios. Food next, and we had a relatively cheap snack in the Sports Bar in Disney Village. Shocking food but lovely staff. I was the dragged around a couple of shops before we headed back into the main park to watch the daily Parade.
If you have a young child, and if you can get your family to any of the Disney parks, I would make a viewing of the parade an absolute must. No matter how much technology, peer pressure at school, US teen TV show consumption or just general growing up the have done or imbibed over years – all of the nonsense in their heads evaporates and they become children again. It is a parents dream. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, can compare to the pure joy they experience as the characters and floats pass by, waving at one and all. It is 45 minutes or so of bright colours and big sounds. I could rave on about this for hours. I won’t. Just grab your kids and go see it. You will not regret it.
Back at the hotel afterwards we went for the buffet option again, then back to the room to pack. Our Disney adventure was drawing to an end.
The final day in France. Up early again, and the rain was falling once more. I got myself ready, then began to load the car as we had to vacate the room by 11. During one of my many trips to the car, I noticed Donald Duck was doing a photo call in the hotel. As a last minute thing, I got Erin and we joined the queue. 40 minutes later we were having a photo taken with Donald Duck himself. I thought Erin had loved the parade so much that she may have been Disney’d out. I was wrong! She hugged Donald as if he were the last person on the planet. My little girl is still a little girl, and I could have cried! Any rate, not to be out done, I also joined in and had a photo with Mr Duck. Then that was pretty much it for Disneyland Paris.
It had been wet, expensive with terrible food. However, we had plenty of exercise, plenty of fun and had regained a child from the clutches of modern life, if only for a few brief days, it was worth it. We set off from the Newport Bay Hotel and nipped up to the Esso garage to tank up with fuel. A few snacks were purchased for the road and that was it. Au revoir Disneyland, and bonjour to some long driving.
In order to see a little bit of the country before returning home, a map was examined to determine what was either en route or interesting. We opted for interesting and made tracks for Dunkirk. Bar a quick service station stop and one other ‘comfort break’ as the yanks would say, it was an easy trip up. We had a brief delay on one motorway due to a truck crash, but aside from that it was plain sailing. Getting to Dunkirk was fine. Finding the beaches, however, was problematic. Lack of sign posting and a Sat Nav ‘malfunction’ threw us off course, but like our forebears we persisted and eventually found the famous beach. It was incredibly windy, however the sun was out. We had a wander down the promenade, and were surprised by the distinct lack of commemorative material on display. It was like any other seaside town, rows of cafes and tourist shops. I was hoping to be overawed by a sense of history, but it did not happen. Still, it was hard to forget what happened here and we made a mental note to see the recent film about said beach [which we did see, 1 week later – it was excellent]. We did not stay too long, and headed off to Calais.
Calais was a stones throw from Dunkirk. Another industrial town, I headed straight for a Hypermarket. We eventually found a good one and went for a wander round. They also had a restaurant in the same complex, so we decided to grab a bite to eat there. Shani was not feeling well and did not partake in the food. After a bit of food and a bit of shopping we went to the Tunnel check in. It was a lot more Human orientated than Folkestone, and was a straightforward process. They put us on an earlier train and we were back in the UK by around 10 pm. Stupidly we had not booked a hotel for the return leg. We tried the one we stayed in on Monday and then another round the corner but both were full. We eventually got a room courtesy of lovely receptionists at the Days Inn off the M20 near Maidstone. We had made it back to Blighty and the car was still performing admirably. As it was almost midnight, we hit the sack and crashed out.
Heading home. Although we were off home, it seemed a shame to waste the daylight hours on the motorways, so we set off south to see what we could see. An unusual move you may think, given that most people thought the car would not make it down the M1 on day 1, but we are foolhardy and always seeking adventure! We fuelled ourselves with a MacDonalds breakfast at the service station where the hotel was, then fuelled the car. What could we hope to see? A brief look at the National Trust book (our Days Out Bible) and we chose Birling Gap in Sussex. It is a beach made up of pebbles and gives a great view of the Seven Sisters cliffs. The sun had come out and the drive was somewhat longer than I had anticipated. It turns out there was an air-show in Eastbourne, so all the back roads were clogged.
The last couple of miles drive into Birling Gap is amazing. A twisty road that cuts through impressive countryside of steep banked fields which climb the cliffs they adorn. The sea can be glimpsed through the gap as you get closer to the car park. It is a small car park, and many people had parked up along the road leading up to the it. We found a space and got a ticket. It is free for NT members, but you still have to get your membership card scanned to obtain a ticket. An odd way forward as this will probably cost the NT more money in the long run (in terms of paper and the car stickers). We checked in and got a pamphlet of blurb then headed down to the beach. This is accessed by a platform jutting out over the beach with a large, rusty, metal staircase that takes you down to the shoreline. Once down you are faced with a stunning view of the Seven Sisters as well as a clear view of the Channel. We had a walk along the beach, as Shani could not manage the cliff top walk, and Erin chased the sea as the tide went out.
We returned to the car windswept and salty. A quick look at the map showed us we were only 17 miles from Brighton, so we took the coastal road and enjoyed more views of the south coast as we headed over there. Parking in Brighton is a nightmare. We eventually got a Pay And Display space at the far end of the sea front promenade. It was such a huge distance back to the piers and restaurants that we had to deploy the wheelchair. Luckily, the sun was still out and the fresh air and brisk walk woke me up a bit. We had a brief look at some shops before grabbing a bite to eat at a beachfront restaurant called Al Fresco. Food was good, service was questionable! The rain then began to fall. Luckily it had dissipated by the time we had done eating. We headed back to the car where we began the long trip home.
I went back Anti Clockwise around the M25, just so Erin could experience the Dartford Tunnel. It added a few more miles to the trip, but what’s a few extra miles between friends? We had another brief stop at the M25 services, which was our first stop on the way down. An uneventful run home, we were back by 10 past 8. The Freelander had made it. The holiday was done.
As I finish writing this, the last drop of Ricard sipped away, the feeling of wanderlust is well and truly rooted in us all and we cannot wait to load up the car, grab our passports and journey out along tarmac arteries to experience even more exploration and adventure.
Total Miles: 994.4, Breakdowns 0, Freelander Lover 100%.
23rd July 2017. A frantic start to the day saw me rushing around getting the car ready (unloading kit, then loading it with a wheelchair) then using an entire loaf of bread to make some egg mayonnaise sandwiches. I also managed to change the bulb in the drivers side headlight. Once set, I got the girls into the car and we set off to get Ash. We met him at Lidl and got a few picnic supplies, just like last week. The clouds hung heavy, as we headed over to the home of the sauce. Initially thought to be closer than it actually was, the drive consisted of dull motorways most of the way there (M69, M6, M42 then M5 – just in case you were interested). The roads only became interesting as we got closer to Croome Park. Despite the downpours en-route, when we eventually arrived, the sun had come out and proceeded to stay out for the majority of our stay.
Croome is massive in terms of land. To get to the actual house from the car pork is a good 5 to 10 minute walk. With that in mind, we hit the picnic before venturing out. It also meant that Shani would not be able to get around, but luckily the National Trust has mobility scooters you can borrow. The ones here were like mini Land Rovers and could go over any terrain. It made life easier for us all as we dumped our rain coats in the storage on this behemoth of a vehicle.
Whilst historic in a very old sense, there was also some modern history. During World War 2, Croome was a secret Radar base fro the RAF. As such, they have kept part of the old Medical facility open and turned it into a museum. There is also a small hanger near there with the cockpit of a Canberra jet, which used to carry radar equipment in its nose section. All very interesting. Once of the volunteers in the Canberra exhibit used to fly in them and its well worth a chat to him about the aircraft. We headed up to the house. Before you get there, there is a church at the top of the hill. We had a look in there first. The tombs of nobles past never cease to amaze me. They are vast and opulent and seem disproportionally grand. They clearly had money to spare and were concerned with appearances even in the after life. Two such tombs are in said church, up by the alter.
The trek to the house from there was long, but at least it was downhill. A long and winding track, where we had to keep pausing to let the golf buggy transport from the car park over take us. The house, like most of the National Trust houses, was huge. there were some very notable features though. One room had been completely ripped out and sold (floor, wall and ceiling included) to an American who had it reconstructed in the Metropolitan museum in New York. the wall was then put back together using anything they could find, including old doors. There was also a rather horrible bathroom that some clueless property developer had installed in the 1990’s. It is so hideous and out of keeping it makes you wander how he earned enough money to buy the property in the first place! The have a rather unusual shoe exhibition in the basement, which is also where a lot of activities for children are housed. Erin enjoyed this part more. After we toured through the rest of the house, it was time for a drink. There was an Orangery with a small café opposite the main house, so we walked/drove up to it for a quick coffee prior to leaving.
We decided to head off around half 4. As we were leaving, a couple of ladies had a flat tyre. I went over and changed it for them which took a few minutes longer than I expected! Feeling like a good Samaritan, we left Croome happy, if a little later than planned. A quick consultation with the map helped us decide a scenic route home. We headed cross country towards Stratford Upon Avon. Once we got to Stratford, we went for a stroll down to the canal, and had a quick look in the RSC gift shop. Erin, of course, left with some souvenirs. We took back roads home, and paused to finish our picnic (around half 7), slightly off course, at Coombe Abbey. Once a delightful country property, this is now a hotel and the grounds around it now somewhat dishevelled. We didn’t stop too long, and were soon journeying home, dropping Ashley back in Leicester before making it back around 9-30 pm.
Total Miles 184.4
16 July 2017, a mild Sunday in July. We had planned to do a National Trust property and have a picnic. It was a bit overcast, but still warm and humid, so a picnic did not seem too out of the question. Everyone was up early for once. The end of term excitement had meant we were all knackered and had an early night. This also meant we all woke up at the crack of dawn. After a few days in the garage, we now had the old Freelander back in action. A seized brake calliper and a broken ball joint (front drivers side for both) had been repaired and the car was driving like new again – thanks yet again to Doug and Kev at AVS garage. I put £40 worth of diesel in it and got a loaf of bread from the garage. We the made a few sandwiches (my egg mayo being the favourite of everyone), lobbed them in the cool box and set off bang on 9-30 in the morning.
As usual we had to get Ash from Leicester city centre. We met him at the nearby Lidl which is an ideal stop for cheap picnic food. Fully stocked up, we headed off to the National Trust property chosen by Ashley – Ramsey Abbey Gatehouse. This was about 55 miles away, almost directly east across the A47. It was a dull drive, made slightly more enjoyable by the fact the car worked much better. We didn’t get a drum roll every time we hit a pebble thanks to the new ball joint, and the car actually sped up when the accelerator was depressed now the front bake was not perpetually on (and squeaking). When we eventually got to Ramsey, we couldn’t see any Brown Signs (the colour of road signs used to show where places of interest are), and promptly drove straight past it. After a quick U Turn and a consultation with Google Maps, we backtracked and found it. Now, I am a big fan of the National Trust. We have been to over 16 of their properties in the last 18 months or so, but I can happily report that this was not what we had expected. This was, in part, down to both Ash and myself not reading the blurb in the book and just using the app to find somewhere within a reasonable distance. The Ramsey Abbey Gatehouse is essentially a very old wall with a gate in in and a couple of windows. That is it. Suitably dismayed, more at our own stupidity than anything else, we returned to the car and looked for somewhere else to go. Luckily for us there is a wealth of NT places in the East of England, and we set off for Houghton Mill & Waterclose Meadows which were a mere 10 miles or so down the road.
It was very easy to find, and they have a large car park which also backs onto a caravan and camping area. Once parked up we hit the picnic. Suitably fuelled up on egg sandwiches and Lidl viscounts we set off for the mill. This is the oldest working watermill in the country and, as luck would have it, they demonstrate the flour milling every Sunday. This is a very old, mostly wooden structure, that contains engineering elements which are over 300 years old. The original owner, a Quaker, reinvested the profits from the mill into the village, and was so well respected that the residents of the village purchased the mill from him when it came to the end of its working life. It was later acquired by the Youth Hostel Association and for a period of time was used as an active Youth Hostel. In the mid 1980’s they sold it on to the National Trust for a pound. Thanks to a heritage grant from the European Union, over a million pounds has been spent on renovation and maintenance, and now the mill is up and running and there for all to enjoy. The upper floor is very cramped, and has some old children’s games and some YHA history and artifacts. The rest of the mill is dedicated to its own history, and lessons on how to mill flour the traditional way. As usual, the NT staff were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. We were also in time to see flour being milled. Incredible to see the cast iron and wooden cogs working in conjunction with the huge milling stones to grind the flour out. For all we have gained in technology, it almost seems we have lost the art of clever engineering. After an couple of hours exploring the Mill, it was time to move on.
In conversation with the NT volunteers at the mill, it transpired that the coast was not more than 60 miles away from where we were. A mere drop in the ocean, pardon the pun, in terms of driving. The weather looked like it was picking up, so we thought – why not? We worked out we would be there by 3 (or thereabouts), so set off feeling excited about the seaside. About 5 minutes into the drive, it began to rain. Light rain at first, then it blatted down. Undeterred, we ploughed on. This is the British summer, after all. The rain cleared up, eventually, and gave way to grey skies. Although it was a bit miserable, the temperature stayed up so we didn’t freeze as we reached Hunstanton, a coastal town in Norfolk. We parked up on the beach front in front of some closed down arcades and a bingo hall. We could hear the Bingo Caller shouting out the numbers, and for some reason they were piped through a PA system for the whole world to hear. The tide was out, the donkeys were on the beach, and with the recent rain having drenched everywhere, it was a fairly bleak scene. We went for a walk down the beach and did a bit of rock pool exploration around the giant zig-zag wooden wave breaks that ran down the beach at staggered intervals. It was unilaterally decided that we should seek sandier shores, and move down the Norfolk coast. Before we left, we purchased a bucket and spade for Erin, as tradition dictates.
As we drove through the coastal villages, we kept looking for side roads to the beach. We found on in Brancaster, but it just lead to a marina. The tide was so far out that most of the boats were resting on mud flats. We took a couple of photos, drove the car through some mud and sand, then carried on down the coast to Wells Next The Sea. A family favourite, and a place we have been to many times. When we first arrived we parked up down by the beach. Its a massive car park, with shops and facilities at the top end, including a Joules shop which is always dangerous when Erin is around. We went down to the beach and spent a couple of hours walking along the shore, catching crabs, making sandcastles and collecting shells. The sun had come out and was busy beating heat down onto everyone. It was idyllic. With the tide out you can walk for miles. The beach is very sandy at the top with a row of brightly coloured beach huts stretching out along the line between the beach and the forest. With time running out, we headed up into the town and parked by the harbour. We took a stroll up into town to find a cashpoint (ATM) before going back down to the waterfront for some fish and chips. We then had a quick blast in an arcade, wining many sweets from the 2p Push machines, and getting very filthy fingers in the process. As we bid farewell to Wells, the sun was going down offering some great photo opportunities. Take a look in our gallery for some of the ones we took.
We left just before half 9. As we travelled home, we watch the sun set over Norfolk. It was a deep, burning red sunset, that the camera could only hint at when we tried to capture it. We stopped briefly at a service station near Peterborough, and were back home around midnight. I dropped the girls off before having to make another trip into Leicester to drop Ashley off. I eventually hit the hay around half 1 and slept like a log! Total Miles: 310.8
24th June 2017. Although not technically a family day out, this is worthy of a mention, plus June was a very quiet month despite it being the hottest on record to date. Some 30 years ago my school life ended, as it does for all of us at some point in time. My senior school was a place called Bloxham School, located in the picturesque Oxfordshire village of Bloxham, which lies on the outskirts of the Cotswolds. Every year, they hold an open day called Founderstide. This is a day for pupils past and present, and their families, to get together and have a look at the school and all its departments. There is a church service, prize giving for the best students (of which I never partook for some reason!), displays, sports events and a bit of food and drink. It is then rounded off by a grand ball in the evening.
Over the years I have popped back on the odd occasion. It is always a bitter-sweet experience, as life in a British boarding school is not all Harry Potter-esque fun and japes, despite my kids nicknaming the place ‘Hogwarts’. There were dark days there for almost everyone at one point in time or another, but age, and a mortgage, puts school life into perspective, and you tend to rose tint the past, filtering out all the bad bits. Although you spend a relatively small amount of time at school (in this case, I was there for 5 years), it seems to leave an indelible mark on your psyche.
Seeing the place evolve over the years is interesting. Best summed up by the phrase ‘Everything changes, but it all stays the same’. The growth of the School has been very subtle, with new buildings sneaking in unnoticed, and old ones disappearing back into the village, or repurposed for other school duties. For those who have not been back since leaving, they would still be able to navigate the place, only hitting the odd dead end, or brick wall where once there were none.
The route to get there had not changed (Lutterworth, Rugby, Dunchurch, Southam, Banbury). Neither had the mode of transport – my father’s car (the TD4 Freelander this time, and not a 1980’s Audi 100 filled with cigar smoke). As soon as you hit Banbury, you can smell the food factory nearby. Still not sure what they make but it is a heavy sweet smell almost like coffee baking. There were some days in the 80’s when this smell gave me butterflies, and anxiety. In an almost Stockholm Syndrome way, it now signals an imminent sense of nostalgia.
Once in the village there is a diversion away from the main car park, to the playing fields, which serve as a temporary car park during Founderstide. I arrived in the clonky old Land Rover just as the prize giving had taken place. It has moved from a modest marquee on the Headmasters Lawn to a massive marquee on the uppermost playing field. My car drew, what I imagine were, some admiring glances from the array of Range Rover owners who walked past it on the way back to the school. I joined the throng and headed straight for a look at my old house.
The school (still) has 6 boarding houses. Mine was called Raymond House and was opened by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1970’s when she was Minister for Education. It is possibly the most ill-fitting of all the buildings in the school, being a 3 storey rectangular box, with a small house clamped at a right angle to the far end of the building. Bar new windows, and a new name plaque it has not changed a bit externally in almost 4 decades. I did not look inside, as it has now become a house for girls only in the aftermath of the school becoming fully Co-ed at the end of the 1990’s. The quad, the rectangle of tarmac outside the house, was full of cars but used to be full of life. I remember sitting out there, reading Stephen King, listening to ‘Born In The USA’ by Springsteen and being all that was the 80’s.
I moved around from there to the Science Block. I almost got expelled due to an incident early in my school career in this building, but that is a story for another time. It has not changed a bit. I think some of the desks have been replaced, and a couple of rooms have been chopped in half but again, very recognisable to all who have been though it over the last however many years. The buildings outside have changed a bit though. As you look at the front of the building, it is now flanked to its left by the Technology Centre, a very modern piece of architecture, housing computers and design stuff. In front of the science block used to be the Squash Courts, Five Courts and an antique Gym. These have been replaced by a Music School, built into what was the old gym. Beyond that, sandwiched in between the Music School and the Great Hall is the ultra-modern Vallance library, named after the headmaster of my era.
I walked up past these buildings to the Great Hall itself. This was really the heart of the school both now and then. It has the English block at the far end and the language block at the front end. In the middle is a large, obviously, hall. This is where all school assemblies took place, along with plays, prize giving, talks, and even movies thanks to a cinema screen that lowered down across the stage. I explored either end of this building, as the hall itself was being prepared for further activities. Once again, nothing has changed, and in one classroom, even the desks were from my era. I did notice all the plastic chairs had been replaced by ones with cushioned seats and backs. The youth of today clearly softer than the youth of yesteryear.
There were many areas I had missed, and I may go back again one day, but I was pressed for time, so rounded off my visit to the main school campus by wandering through the main school building which is home to the Chapel, dining room and a small library among other things. This has changed quite a bit, with the old staff room being replaced by catering equipment to service the new and rather large refectory area. The Chapel itself has not changed, and I think any pupil from any past era would agree, going right back to the start of the school around 1860. Whilst it is a delightful bit of architecture, it was a place I tried to desperately avoid whilst there as a pupil. We had to use it at least 3 times a week – house chapel, school chapel and your year chapel. I feel that all those years spent gorging on God were enough to last a lifetime…
The main school is also now adorned with CCTV cameras, which makes sneaking out under cover of darkness for a crafty cigarette virtually impossible. WIth this type of security it makes me wander how the odd rebellious student is able to rock the boat these days! I am sure they have new and different things to do that would upset the system.
I ended my walk down memory lane by walking up Workhouse Lane. The name arose from an actual Workhouse situated on the lane, which was, in my day, owned by the school and converted into a small theatre for plays not grand enough to be performed in the Great Hall. I am not sure of the buildings purpose now, but it looked dishevelled and unloved. Its use seemed to have been consigned to the history books.
Back on the playing fields, I fired up the car and hooked my iPhone up to the Bluetooth cassette in the cars old tape player (things of science fiction 30 years ago), firing up ‘Misplaced Childhood’ by Marillion as I once again bade farewell to a place I will never truly leave behind.
Total mileage: 72.5 miles
14th May 2017. Although this was not a day out per se, it was a place we went to, whilst out for the day. We happened to be scoffing at the Phoenix when a friend posted a video on Facebook. He was driving his Land Rover Defender through some water, whilst a saloon car sat there not daring to drive through. He went through like a hot knife through butter. He then put up #becauseican. First thought was – we will have some of that!
The TD4 has not done a lot of purposeful wading. By not a lot, I mean basically none. I hadn’t done any for some considerable period of time, but remembered the basics. One of these being that the wading depth for the Freelander 1 is 1400 mm (as recommended by Land Rover in the user manual). There had been a drop of rain or two that day, but this had abated by the time we found the spot. For anyone local it is between Huncote and Earl Shilton.
I attached the GoPro to the front of the car before we left Leicester, and began recording as we approached the ford. In my haste to play, I forgot the golden rule of driving through water. Stop and have a proper look first. I didn’t, and just ploughed into it. I was driving slowly, but not as slowly as I possibly could have, especially considering the foot and a half of water was a bit deeper than the recommended limit (by about 200 mm). Water came up over the bonnet and there was a large amount of steam bellowing out from under the bonnet. This was just the water hitting the hot engine and evaporating, not any damage to the car. What I hadn’t realised at that stage, and only picked up after my fourth trip through the ford, was that the under car protection for the engine (a plastic sheet under the engine bay) had been partially ripped off by the force of the water. Having had our fun we headed home but not before stopping to jack the car up and pop the protection tray back in place! Much fun had by all – results available on YouTube!