Camping in the British Summer – not all is ‘tickety-boo’

It had been many years since my last camping trip. It involved hours of trying to set up a tent, many tangled tent poles, food out of tins, lots of mosquitoes, campsite fires, lots of laughter and a whole in the ground as a toilet (it was in France). It wasn’t altogether terrible but something I’ve been less inclined to do the older I get.
But when two friends from Germany approached me and said they would do a tour around “my island”, intending to stay in Wales for a while and if I’d liked to join them for a weekend, I jumped at the opportunity. Because this would be “first class camping” – they own a motorhome.

myn y don

Myn-Y-Don Caravan Park

So one Friday after work they picked me up and we made our way to a beautiful caravan park right underneath Harlech Castle (And the poshest one I’ve ever been to, too. No holes in grounds on this one, I can tell you.) The sun was shining, although being a British summer it was not really warm, we had a formidable corner plot, the views were stunning and our neighbours were quite pleasant too. I learned how to fill up the fresh water tank, connect the electricity, dump grey water and most important of all, how to operate the steps at the door because otherwise it is a really long way down or up. And you quickly get accustomed to the motorhome swaying from side to side like a boat every time somebody enters it or turns around in their sleep at night. But that was fine.

We set up our table and chairs, started a BBQ and with a glass of wine (or two) had a lovely evening.

The next morning we started to have “little episodes” (“Episödchen” for you German speaking readers). That’s what we called the short rain showers that were occurring. So we stayed put until the sun came out and then made our way to Harlech Castle. The castle is a medieval fortification and sits atop a rock. The sea originally came right up to the bottom of the rock but now the shoreline is a short walk away. It was built by Edward I during his invasion of Wales in the late 13th century. It is an impressive sight to behold.

Unfortunately for us, our “little episode” had a come back and turned into quite a substantial one. To make things even worse it was accompanied by quite strong winds. We tried to hide within the walls but gave up after a while and returned to our motorhome. Obviously, half way down the hill, it stopped raining and the sun greeted us with all its might. After some drying off, a cuppa and a short nap (we’re not getting any younger) we went for a pleasant walk along the beach. The views and the light were spectacular and you could see for miles.

But that was all the summer we were getting. During the night it started raining in earnest accompanied by an unrelenting wind. My friends weren’t too impressed, given the fact that the whole previous week hadn’t been too glorious. So they did the one thing you can easily do with a motorhome – they rebooked their ferry, packed up, checked out, dropped me off at home, did some washing at my place and departed for France. They were enjoying ‘proper’ summer sunshine 24 hours later.

This was my adventure with ‘camping’ in Britain. Not sure I will repeat this anytime soon unless it is in the comfort of a motorhome or caravan.

The one thing I can recommend though is Harlech and the Myn-Y-Don caravan park. Having been in Harlech for the last time 10 years ago, I was relieved to see that the village hasn’t lost its charme and the castle entrance and visitor centre are much improved. The castle setting is one of the finest in North Wales and the beautiful village of Portmeirion and the busy beaches of Barmouth are not far away.

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All is ‘tickety-boo’ – this was 2015

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2015 was certainly an interesting year. I travelled a lot to some very interesting places, met lovely people along the way and made very  interesting experiences. I walked up mountains, discovered cities and watched the three queens together with about one million people in Liverpool. 

Amongst the places that stood out the most were certainly New York City, Blenheim Palace and Llanddwyn Island. New York had been a life long dream come true and it was funny in some ways as I’m finally getting used to all the British dialects and accents but felt somewhat challenged by certain American pronunciations. I will never forget one of the phone calls I made whilst there. I had to confirm my shuttle service from the hotel to the airport. After some formalities I was finally asked “Where are you staying, ma’am?” and I answered in my best English “The Pod Hotel.” “Where?” “The P-O-D Hotel!” “I can’t find that on my list. What’s the address?” By now I began to sweat slightly and gave the lady the address of my hotel. “Hmmm. Is that port or pod?” And here’s the thing, she pronounced it ‘pɑd’ whereas I had pronounced it ‘pɒd’ (you can hear the difference here) So after I copied her pronunciation everything went smoothly. Still a lot to learn.

Also this year I have been closest to a hunt I hopefully will ever be. I’m not talking about a fox hunt here but pheasants, I think. I had been out on a walk in Shropshire and had been hearing some shooting and pheasants shouting (or whatever you call it) for a while. At a canal I met a mother with some children. The children were wearing protective headphones and started playing at a canal. They looked as if they had been bored for a while and were glad to be able to throw some stones and sticks into the water. The mother, however, said to them “Keep quiet, this is still a drive.” This is when I spotted some hunters with their rifles in the meadows. I quickened my pace and tried to find some tranquility. Still not British enough for some traditions.

I hope the new year has more exciting adventures in store for me that I can share with you and you will hopefully enjoy reading about them. 
Here’s to 2016!

All is ‘tickety-boo’- Ready Salted?

PrintEveryone who knows me will confirm that I am a lover of crisps (in Germany crisps are actually called chips, and we call chips pommes or fries) but I think I have never eaten that many crisps in all my life combined than I have since moving here a couple of years ago.

Where I grew up, crisps come in large packs and are used as snacks or nibbles at parties or gatherings with friends in the evenings. They are something special that you share and not necessarily something you eat on your own on a daily basis. The most common and popular flavour used to be paprika/pepper with other flavours like cheese & onion or sour cream & chive introduced later on.

But when I moved here I found myself suddenly in ‘crisp heaven’. Because crisps are mainly sold in small packs of 25g/30g it is ok to eat them daily, lets say with your lunch. Or as a snack when out and about. They are sold everywhere, are part of meal deals and the variety of flavours, shapes and ranges is astonishing. There are whole aisles in supermarkets dedicated to this form of potato snack – baked, extra crunchy, crinkled, extra thick, curly, lights, deep ridged, max and this is only for your ‘standard’ crisp, never mind hula hoops, fries etc.

A study by YouGov UK in August 2014 found that there is a strong correlation between age and favourite crisp flavour in the UK. Participants were asked which one out of the four main flavours they’d prefer. Cheese & Onion is the most popular flavour with 31%, but Ready Salted is not far behind with 28%. Salt & Vinegar has 23% and Prawn Cocktail surprisingly just 11%. Turns out though that if you’re 60 years and older, Ready Salted, the favour that has been around the longest, is the preferred choice by a decisive margin. The generation born between the mid-50s and mid-70s most likely have Cheese & Onion (introduced by Golden Wonder in 1962), whereas the those born between the mid-70s and late 80s opt for Salt & Vinegar (Smith’s answer to Cheese & Onion). 18-24 year olds narrowly prefer Prawn Cocktail which has been around almost as long as Salt & Vinegar. Interestingly their least favourite flavour is Ready Salted.

And the flavours don’t stop there. If you just take a look at one of the main brands there are alone 12 flavours in the classic crisp range. On top of that you get the more exotic flavours, seasonal flavours and different variations for different kind of crisps. And if you always had this idea for a flavour you thought is missing from the range the Walkers “Do us a flavour” competition might be right for you. It has proven to be very popular and had 1.2m entries in 2014. The winning entry ‘Pulled Pork in a Sticky BBQ Sauce’ topped the poll and landed the winner a £1m cheque. He beat five other flavours – Chip Shop Chicken Curry, Cheesy Beans on Toast, Hot Dog with Tomato Ketchup, Sizzling Steak Fajita and Ranch Racoon. The flavours were only available during the competition and are not regulars but you’ll never know. It just shows you how popular this snack is.

All is ‘tickety-boo’ – Clothing vs. Weather

PrintOne major difference between my upbringing in Germany and the way things are handled over hear is clothing. I was taught to dress according to the outside temperatures, meaning if it’s still cold you wear a coat and tights with your skirt. And if it’s warm outside you can wear your summer clothes as long as you don’t get goosebumps or shiver uncontrollably.

I soon had to realize that things are different here. I remember one day I went into town running some errands. It was a lovely day. The sun was shining which was much needed after a long period of dull weather. And then I saw it, somebody wearing flip flops with no socks. It was February. There was even still a dusting of snow on the hills.

Now, you might think that was a bit insane and that you get lunatics all over the world. True. But I’ve noticed that on this island you dress according to calendar. If it’s officially spring or summer you put away your winter clothes and start wearing your summer wardrobe. It doesn’t matter if it’s still cold, if there was some late snow or if it feels more like autumn because of all the wind and rain – the calendar says it’s summer so you dress accordingly. I suppose you have to, because otherwise you won’t be wearing those summer dresses and sandals at all. There were years when I went on holiday to the Mediterranean packing my suitcase according to what pieces in my closet still hadn’t seen any daylight that year. I ended up packing almost my whole summer wardrobe.

This British way of dressing doesn’t only apply to the calendar but also to occasions, especially to girls on a Saturday night out on the town. It can be winter and they will only wear flimsy tops, skirts the size of large belts, no stockings and a slightly frozen look. No coats, scarfs, gloves or anything keeping them remotely warm. It never stops to amaze my friends when they visit and we have been on ‘Saturday night tours’, shaking our heads at the sight of freezing women queuing to get into a club or pub while we were wrapped up warm.

So I’ve decided to hold my flag up high and be the sensible one over here. I will be the one in a cardigan when everybody else wears sleeveless shirts at 12C; the one not having a BBQ until I can sit outside in the evenings without goosebumps and everybody else complains it’s “too hot” or “boiling”; and the one not going for a swim in the Irish Sea until it feels less like an ice bucket challenge.

All is ‘tickety-boo’ – Suicidal Birds

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What a beautiful day today, really enjoying myself. Had a bit of a lazy one, to be honest, doing nothing in particular. And now it’s almost time for dinner. Could invite some friends over, it’s always nice to have some company. Or at least we meet up afterwards. Yup, sounds like a good idea to me.

I could go for a walk before dinner though. You know, work up an appetite and stretch my legs a bit. That meadow across the road looks like it’s calling my name; lush greens, shadowing trees and not a soul in sight. Yes, I think I’m going to do that. Just wished there wasn’t that much traffic today. This road is really annoying but there’s nothing I can do about that. Never mind.

Half way there already, been lucky there was a bit of a gap in the traffic flow.
Oh no, there’s a car coming. And it’s fast, too. Well, I’m sure I’m going to be alright.
Oh oh, it’s quite close now actually.
Oh oh, it’s really fast.
Oh oh, what am I going to do? Stop? Go back?
Oh oh.
OH OH, better hurry up.
OH NO!
Dear me, that was close.

Sometimes I wonder if this is what’s going through a pheasant’s mind. They seem to be blissfully unaware of the dangers of traffic, step out onto the road in front of your car in no particular hurry and then just speed up in the very last possible minute to make it to the other side safely. If they’re lucky. And you.

They don’t necessarily seem to be the brightest birds on the planet. Although I have to say the male pheasants do look pretty (perhaps another case of ‘much ado about nothing’). And I’m not just referring to their attitude towards traffic. I was walking in some woods near Lake Vyrnwy not too long ago and crossed the path of two (male) pheasants. For a while they ran alongside me, almost surprised that I kept going in the same direction as they were. I mean, I was on a footpath, so where was I supposed to go? I couldn’t just disappear into thin air. They tried to run across to the other side several times but almost ran into my feet. They didn’t stop or run away, they just kept up with me and when I slowed down, they did too. I started to feel a bit sorry for them as they were visibly distraught, so I stopped and rummaged in my backpack which finally gave them enough time to walk across to the other side of the footpath and disappear in between the trees.

Life could be so much easier for them (and sometimes longer) if they were just a bit more alert and clever. The same goes for female pheasants as well, by the way. So if you see me in my car talking to a bird that can’t hear or understand me, urging him to hurry up, while frantically looking in my rear mirror whether there are cars behind me or if I can hit the breaks and steer around it, you now know why. I’m just trying to save a life.

A hidden gem of industrial history

Well, I admit it, I got a bit obsessed. With a Hoffmann kiln out of all things. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s a special kind of kiln (a type of “oven” that produces very high temperatures) that was used for the production of bricks or, in this case, for lime-burning. It’s basically THE super kiln (and invented by a German; hey, we are known for being efficient).

It had all started with several visits to the Minera Limeworks, not far from where I live, where several other kilns can still be seen. When I did a bit of research and read about it, I came across the Hoffmann kiln, its history and the fact that there are only a few left in the British Isles. I still have no idea where the remains in Minera are (I probably just went right past them) but I wanted to see one and so visited the Llnymynech Heritage Area near Oswestry one day, where they have a marvellous example. And what a splendid day it turned out to be.

Llanymynech stables

The limeworks stables – horses, mules and donkeys pulled trucks of stone on tramways around the quarries and limeworks

Reconstructed tramway

Reconstructed tramway

Llanymynech kiln

Chimney and (conventional) kilns

Llanymynech is literally on the border between Powys, Wales and Shropshire, England with the border running along its main street and even right trough a now closed pub. The car park of the heritage site is quite easy to miss, I had to discover, but I met some very helpful people who could even provide me with a leaflet of the site.

Now, I am not a very big fan of mining though if you live here in North Wales you can’t miss it (and if they name a pub “The Lime Kiln” it tells you a lot about the area), but this heritage site is really interesting and very well made. I found my Hoffmann kiln (well, it’s hard to miss as it is quite big) and could even step inside.

Llanymynech Hoffmann Kiln

The object of my obsession – the Hoffmann kiln

Llanymynech Hoffmann Kiln2

You really get a sense of scale when you walk inside the Hoffmann kiln

Sculptures by David Howorth of lime workers taking a break

Sculptures by David Howorth of lime workers taking a break

And all the other processes from the quarries to the transport of the final product were explained in an easy to understand and visual way. If you walk up the quite steep path to the quarries – there are two, an English and Welsh quarry side by side, linked by a now blocked tunnel – you get some beautiful views into Shropshire as well. And in my case heavy rain, but never mind.

Llanymynech Tally House2

The Tally House – there was a weighbridge in front of the house, so each truck of limestone from the quarries could be weighed and directed to the kilns

Pushing an imaginary truck

Pushing an imaginary truck

Llanymynech English Brake Drum House

The Brake Drum House on the English side of the quarry. A cable around the brake drum controlled the descent of the heavy stone-filled trucks, while at the other end of the cable the empties were hauled back up the hill

Llanymynech English Quarry

The English quarry – now a beautiful walk

Llanymynech English Quarry2

The sculpture are spread throughout the whole heritage site and help explaining the work that was carried out

Llanymynech English Quarry3

There are lime kilns everywhere, sometimes just visible as deep holes in the ground

Llanymynech Welsh Quarry

The Welsh quarry with the brake drum house to the left

Llanymynech Welsh Quarry2

Welsh side of the tunnel linking the two quarries

Llanymynech Golf Course3

You get some spectacular views up there…

Llanymynech Golf Course2

…and you can find out what the weather has in store for you. For me it was rain.

Llanymynech golf course

There is a golf course on top of the cliffs. Why is it they are always in the nicest locations?

I can only say, I was positively surprised by this hidden gem, so if you’re ever in the area visit the Llanymynech Heritage Site, it is a bit educational but you get some beautiful walks too.

All is ‘tickety-boo’ – Heavy lifting

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Most times when I travel home I carry a suitcase the size of my car. It’s almost empty on my way out but not so much so on my way back. I pack to the absolute weight allowance of the airline plus an additional piece of hand luggage. See the problem is, I can’t live without certain things over here so I have to ‘import’ them. The most important one: Kölsch, the beer brewed in Cologne and that I grew up with. Even though I managed to move to a town in North Wales that has finally it’s old brewery back and makes an excellent beer, namely Wrexham Lager, I need to have a German one on certain occasions. Eurovision Song Contest is one of these or international/european football championships (especially when we win the world championship) or just a certain time of year, for example when it’s carnival season in Germany. It’s a piece of home. That’s the reason why my suitcase is usually quite heavy on my way back over here, it’s all those bottles (well, and other bits). I always dread the moment I have to haul it off the baggage carousel at the airport and it usually leaves me with at least one bruise on my shins. The things you do for something you love… 

I remember one particular occasion. The flight had been delayed and we all had been waiting quite a while for our luggage; there’s nothing more annoying because you were just crammed into an uncomfortable seat for quite some time and the only thing you want is going home but you can’t just yet. Finally the belt started to move and the first suitcases showed up (mine is usually one of the last ones). People were moving closer to the belt, eyes fixed on the whole in the wall where they first appear, trying to spot theirs.

“The suitcase is wet. Must have started to rain.”, I heard a woman mention to her partner. “But the ground looked dry and we didn’t fly through any clouds.”, he replied. He picked up another suitcase which was slightly wet as well. He touched the wet spot and rubbed his fingers. “That’s not water. It’s somewhat sticky. Smells like alcohol.” Oh dear, I had a very bad feeling.

And then the moment of truth arrived in the shape of my own suitcase, even wetter than the other ones. I pretended not to know what had happened, touched it tentatively, rubbed the liquid between my fingers, smelled at it, grunted something and hurried out of the terminal. Needless to say my suitcase was dripping and left a wet trail. Fortunately nobody seemed to notice. Outside the terminal I quickly opened my now soaked suitcase and disposed one broken beer bottle in front of all the smokers and other waiting people. I do wrap them properly and even put them in a box but the beer found it’s way out. Probably should have warned me when another bottle broke after falling down about 10cm onto a carpet floor while I was packing. I was properly embarrassed to say the least, even more so as I had to take a shuttle bus to my car and it smelled distinctively of beer. People on that bus must have thought I was drunk. I’m just glad I wasn’t stopped by police during the following week because the beer smell lingered for a couple of days in my car, too.

What I learned from this episode? Apart from the fact that socks are good at soaking up liquids, that some clothes needed to be washed twice and that I found some sticky spots in my suitcase for quite some time and in unusual places, nothing really, to be quite honest. I still ‘import’ my Kölsch, I just try to protect it even better.