Southwest Folk Festivals 2016

Here we go with an updated list of folk festivals due to take place in the Westcountry in 2016. Sadly, we seem to have lost a few in the last couple of years – lack of sponsorship being the usually quoted reason. Nevertheless, we have lots to look forward to.

Have fun – and see you there!

January

16th & 17th – Bradford Roots: Bradford, Wiltshire

17th for 5 days – Halsway Winter Warmer: Halsway Manor, Crowcombe, Somerset. A residential break with a programme of English folk music and dance.

February

12th for 3 days – Folk 3 – Cheltenham Town Hall.

March

18th – Lyme Folk Revisited: not really a festival, just one night at the Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis, but worth supporting a concert by young musicians, hosted by Jim Causley.

April

30th & 1st May – Bristol Folk Festival

May

13th, 14th and 15th – Credition Folk Weekend: Cheriton Fitzpaine, Devon.

13th, 14th & 15th – Dart Music Festival: Dartmouth, Devon. Lots of folk mixed with other genres.

27th, 28th & 29th – Bude & Stratton Folk Festival: Bude, Cornwall. A fun festival right on the Cornish coast.

27th for 4 days – Chippenham Folk Festival: Chippenham, Wiltshire.

27th, 28th & 29th – Gloucester Shanty Festival.

June

3rd, 4th & 5th – Wessex Folk Festival: Weymouth, Dorset.

10th, 11th & 12th – Wimborne Minster Folk Festival: Wimborne Dorset.

10th, 11th & 12th – Bradninch Music Festival: Bradninch, near Exeter, Devon.

17th, 18th & 19th – Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival: Falmouth, Cornwall.

17th, 18th & 19th – Teignmouth Folk Festival: Teignmouth, Devon.

17th, 18th & 19th – Ukelele Festival of Grest Britain: Cheltenham

25th & 26th – Folk on the Quay: Poole, Dorset.

July

1st – 10th – Frome Festival: a 10-day general arts festival with lots of folk music: Frome, Somerset.

8th, 9th & 10th – Priddy Folk Festival: Priddy, Wells, Somerset.

22nd & 23rd – Chagstock Festival: Whiddon Down, Devon.

29th for 8 days – Sidmouth Folk Week: Sidmouth, Devon – the biggest and best!

August

5th, 6th & 7th – Dartmoor Folk Festival: South Zeal, Dartmoor, Devon.

6th for 7 days – Bath Folk Festival: a week-long festival with lots of workshops and chances to perform.

19th, 20th & 21st – Beautiful Days: Escot Park, near Ottery St Mary, Devon – such a lot crammed into 3 days with this family-orientated, camping festival.

25th for 4 days – Purbeck Valley Folk Festival, near Swanage, Dorset.

26th for 4 days – Cornwall Folk Festival: county showground, Wadebridge, Cornwall.

September

9th, 10th & 11th – Lyme Folk Weekend: Lyme Regis, Dorset

9th, 10th & 11th – Swanage Folk Festival: Swanage, Dorset.

10th – 24th – St Ives September Festival: St Ives, Cornwall – a 15-day music festival with lots of folk.

23rd, 24th & 25th – Looe Music Festival: Looe, Cornwall – mainly folk.

23rd, 24th, 25th & 26th – The Little Big Gig: Henry’s Campsite, The Lizard, Cornwall.

30th, Ist & 2nd – Riverside Beer & Music Festival: South Molton, Devon.

October

22nd – North Dorset Folk Festival: Marnhull, Dorset.

November

2nd-6th – Lowender Peran: Newquay, Cornwall – a 5-day festival celebrating Cornish Celtic Culture.

 

 

 

Farewell, lovely fuchsia – we’ll miss you.

DSC_0115I don’t know if it’s the same in the rest of the country, but here in the south-west the fuchsia is one of the most popular garden shrubs. It’s not just in gardens that it appears; the narrow country lanes of Devon and Cornwall are frequently lined with hardy fuchsia hedges.
In our own garden we have just such a hedge of fuchsia magellanica. Through the late summer and autumn it provides a stunning 8-feet tall red wall.
DSC_0133The garden shrubs are equally effective. The flowers of the different varieties vary enormously from the extraordinarily delicate, tiny, ballerina-like, to the big and blowsy that look like overly-made-up pantomime dames.
Apart from the beautiful blooms and the very long flowering season, there are a lot of other reasons for fuchsias being so popular: there’s a good range of DSC_0122fully hardy varieties; many are shade tolerant; they come in every size from tiny dwarf and trailing for baskets/containers to large shrubs for the back of borders; they are disease resistant. Apart from the hedge, we had twelve fuchsias in the garden.
I say ‘had’ because today I dug up four plants and burned them. I’m afraid that the others will have to follow shortly.
DSC_0123The reason is that I discovered incidence of fuchsia gall mite – a microscopic pest that attacks only fuchsias and is spread between plants on the wind, or by insects and birds.
This pest was unknown outside of South America until the 1980s when it was found in California. It was officially first identified in Europe in December 2003 when it was found on plants in Brittany. It is now generally believed that the pest was introduced in 2001/2002

Infected

Infected

by a collector in the Channel Islands illegally importing cuttings from South America. It was found on the south coast of England in 2007. It has spread rapidly along the coast and inland so that it is already found at many sites south of a line from Bristol to London.
Until recently, all infestations had to be reported to DEFRA, but it has spread so quickly that that is no longer a requirement for private gardeners, although it still applies to commercial growers.

Infected

Infected

So, why is this tiny pest so important? Its effect on plants is devastating; it spreads quickly (one female mite can produce a population of 125,000 in two summer months); it is highly resistant to pesticides and by the time symptoms can be detected, it’s too late.
The first sign of an infestation is when leaves and flowers on fresh growth fail to grow normally and become grossly deformed or ‘galled’. It looks like an extreme case of leaf curl, so severe that all new growth is suppressed. Because the mites burrow deep into the plant tissue, spraying the outside is ineffective – at least for pesticides available to amateur gardeners.

Infected.

Infected.

Once a plant is infected it is very unlikely that it can be saved. If it is a mature shrub with a hardwood structure, one could try cutting off (and burning) all green growth, hoping that all mites have been removed and that new growth will be clear, but if other plants in the neighbourhood are infected, re-infection is almost inevitable.
I’m keeping a close eye on my remaining plants, hoping that by some miracle they prove resistant, but feeling resigned to losing them. Those plants/shrubs are one thing, but the hedge is infected and solving that isn’t going to be easy.

I wonder how that fuchsia enthusiast in the Channel Islands is feeling.

Widecombe Fair 2015

Uncle Tom Cobley and friends - with the old grey mare

Uncle Tom Cobley and friends – with the old grey mare

Once again Widecombe Fair provided a delightful day out. Events began at 9 a.m. and continued throughout the day in the various show rings and marquees, with entertainment continuing in the music/beer tent from 10 a.m. until midnight.

The sheep-shearing is always worth a look. This year the standard was particularly high as it was the final of a competition with heats that had taken place at agricultural shows around the country over the

This back-breaking work isn't just for men.

This back-breaking work isn’t just for men.

preceeding months. Some of the professional shearers are amazing: 400 sheep in a day, each one weighing about 100kg and having to be wrestled into position before being sheared – and all done while bent double. Back-breaking stuff!

New this year was a group of Anglo Saxon re-enactors who set up an encampment and demonstrated various aspects of 10th century life, including the hand-minting of silver coins and tactics for defending against Viking attacks.

Among the display of historic farm machinery was a 1953 Field Marshall tractor exhibited by retired farmer Mary Phillips. Known locally as ‘Mary Tractor’, she has raised many thousands of pounds over the years for the Air Ambulance Service. In 2012, at the age of 72 (sorry, Mary, but I felt compelled to mention it) she drove the Field Marshall from John O’Groats to Land’s End. She raised so much money in sponsorship that in 2013 she did it again, but in the reverse direction, and went to Dunnet Head, about 11 miles north of John O’Groats.

The local foxhound pack put in its usual appearance, but this year it was joined by some of the Devon & Cornwall Minkhound pack. The hounds always make me smile. The younger pack members mill around, very excited by the crowd, but some of the old hands slip away from the pack to work the crowd for bits of pasty and other tasty treats.

The fruit and veg carving also produced smiles and the tug-of-war was ferociously competitive.

But this is definitely a situation where pictures say more than words – so here goes:

Children from Widecombe School enjoying time out.

Children from Widecombe School enjoying time out.

Some of the livestock entries were very cute.

Some of the livestock entries were very cute.

Even cuter

Even cuter

Cute duck with nifty hairstyle

Cute duck with nifty hairstyle

Just open that gate and I'll show you cute

Just open that gate and I’ll show you cute

I'm handsome and I know it

I’m handsome and I know it

Pantomime horse race

Pantomime horse race

Austin Seven drive-by

Austin Seven drive-by

Mary Tractor

Mary Tractor

Bale tossing

Bale tossing

Devon & Cornwall Minkhounds

Devon & Cornwall Minkhounds

Learning the defensive shield wall

Learning the defensive shield wall

Attacking the crowd

Attacking the crowd

Anglo-Saxon encampment

Anglo-Saxon encampment

Banana dachsund

Banana dachsund

Fennel cockerel

Fennel cockerel

Aubergine beetle

Aubergine beetle

Theme: flowers in a tea cup

Theme: flowers in a tea cup

Fancy dress

Fancy dress

Maggie Duffy and Mike Weed

Maggie Duffy and Mike Weed

Dartmoor pony display team

Dartmoor pony display team

The fascinating village of Lydford

The first time I drove into this little village on the western edge of Dartmoor I adhered to the speed limit and was out of the other side in less than thirty seconds without it really registering with me. I may have spotted some very attractive old houses, but picked up no clues to what makes Lydford unique.
However, on my next visit I got out of the car, strolled through the village, and the sense of history became overwhelming.
The Saxon kings of Wessex created a number of fortified towns, called burhs, to protect the borders of their kingdom. During the time of King Alfred in the late 9th century, Lydford became a heavily fortified burh. The location was perfect for the defence of Wessex against attacks from both Danish raiders and the warlike tribes from what is now called Cornwall, not just because of its position on the Wessex western border, but because natural features made the site easy to defend.

Lydford Gorge, part of the natural defences

Lydford Gorge, part of the natural defences

On three sides, deep steep-sided river valleys formed effective barriers to attack. Along the fourth side a large earthwork was constructed. Walking into the village from the north along the main street, near to the village hall the earthwork can still be seen heading off in both directions at right-angles to the road. The area within the defences was approximately 40,000 sq.m. – that’s my estimate from aerial photographs.
In the 10th century a mint was established at Lydford for the production of silver coins. It has been estimated that 1.5 million coins were struck here from silver mined locally. They became known as Lydford pennies. Hoards have been found as far away as Russia, but in Britain only a couple of dozen are known to exist – which includes four that are displayed in the village pub. The lane opposite the village hall is still called Silver Street, but that wasn’t the only metal contributing to the wealth; Lydford was also a stannary burh – a centre of the tin industry.
DSC_0005Here’s a fine Anglo-Saxon silver penny. Or is it? Well, no, it isn’t. It isn’t 1,000 years old and it isn’t silver. It’s made of pewter and I made it two days ago at Widecombe Fair – but that’s another story.
In the year 997 a powerful Viking force appeared at what is now Plymouth, travelled up the Tamar and then across land to attack Lydford, drawn no doubt by the wealth. P1000119The Lydford defences held and the thwarted Vikings headed back to the coast, plundering Tavistock monastery on the way. The battle is commemorated by a metal plaque at the side of the road at the southern end of the village showing a Danish axe over a Saxon shield.
There are a striking number of wide bridleways set at right-angles to the main street. These actually mark the position of the streets of medieval Lydford when it was an important town with its streets laid out in a grid pattern.
Shortly after William the Conqueror successfully laid siege to Exeter in 1068, the Normans occupied Lydford and built a simple castle in the western corner of the enclosed area. Excavations show that five wooden buildings were protected by timber and earth ramparts inside a deep ditch. The site is now owned by the National Trust. The importance of the town continued to grow when it became the administrative centre for the Forest of Dartmoor.
In 1194 King John authorised the building of a stone castle. It was built about 150m east of the earthwork and its function was to act as courtroom and prison for both the stannary and Royal Forest activities.P1000101 It was two storeys high, 15m square, with walls 3m thick. It was re-built 100 years later. A deep ditch was dug around the tower and the soil piled up against the building to form a rampart up to first floor level. The upper storey was demolished and a much taller building erected using the thick walls as foundations. The old ground floor was filled in, except for a small pit used for the most despised prisoners.
The harsh stannary ‘justice’ meted out was infamous. Among its prisoners was Sir Richard Strode, MP for Plymouth, who made the mistake of complaining that mining waste washing down in the moorland rivers was silting up Plymouth harbour.
The Tavistock poet, William Browne, wrote in 1640:

‘I oft have heard of Lydford law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after’
In the Civil War the Royalists used the castle as a military prison, but thereafter, as the stannary laws lost their effect, Lydford gradually lost its importance and the castle fell into disrepair. It is now maintained jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.
So, the now tiny village of Lydford has two castles.P1000105If that isn’t enough, between them stands the solid church of St Petrock’s (also written St Petroc). It’s one of around thirty churches in the Westcountry dedicated to the Welsh monk. This one was dedicated in 650 and it may have been newly built or the dedication of an existing church. It was a Briton/Christian wooden structure that in time became a Saxon/Christian church before being replaced with a Norman stone structure in the 12th century, enlarged in the 13th and had the tower added in the 15th. P1000100The pew ends are beautifully carved, each one different. They show animals and flowers about a, presumably, saintly figure. Renovations were carried out in 1873 arranged by the splendidly-named Rev W.H.W. Chafy-Chafy. The churchyard is full of interest, too. One of its occupants, George Routleigh, was a watchmaker. The inscribed lid of his tomb has been fixed to the wall inside the church. It reads:
“He departed this life
Nov 14 1802
Wound up
In hopes of being taken in hand
By his Maker
And of being thoroughly cleaned, repaired
And set-going
In the world to come.”

I can’t write about Lydford without mentioning the Castle Inn. Standing next to the castle this is the perfect village pub: good food, good beer and central to village life. It is the home of the best pie I have ever tasted: steak and stilton fully enclosed (of course, no puff pastry lids here) in crisp shortcrust pastry. Magnificent.

In its heyday, Lydford was more important than Exeter, Barnstaple or Totnes. The first has grown to become a city and the other two have developed into regionally important towns, while Lydford has withered and is significant for its past, not its present.
But at dusk walk along any of the bridleways that trace the course of a long-disappeared medieval street and that history screams that it should not be forgotten.

Sidmouth Folk Week – a day in the life.

Monday 3rd August 2015

10.00 a.m. From the campsite we head to Sidmouth Cricket Club for the best value breakfast in town: 2 rashers of bacon, 2 sausages, egg, 2 hash browns, beans, tomato, mushrooms, 2 slices of toast, marmalade, coffee – £6.

Customs and Exiles

Customs and Exiles

10.45 a.m. We stroll across town to The Hub (the open space at the eastern end of the prom) to watch a dance display. We pull out of our backpacks our lightweight folding stools and settle down to be entertained. Four Morris sides perform: Customs and Exiles, a mixed side from Berkshire performing traditional North West Morris; Fool’s Gambit, a very young and energetic mixed Cotswold Morris side; Moulton Morris Men from Northants who perform various forms of traditional English Morris, including sword; Star & Shadow Rapper, a women’s side from Newcastle.

Star and Shadow

Star and Shadow

Rapper is a form of sword dance performed by a team of five dancers, often with a sixth character called The Captain who makes announcements and keeps the crowd involved. It always looks dangerous to me and I can’t help wondering how much skin they lose in practice. Here’s a clip of a rapper side in The Hub at last year’s folk week. The white structure in the background is the Ham Marquee, a 1000-seater venue where three concerts are held each day – and that’s only one of twenty venues.

12.00. We walk along the prom, passing the numerous craft stalls and buskers, to The Bedford Hotel where we somehow manage to wriggle our way into the packed main bar famous for its jam sessions that begin about 11.00 a.m. and go on all day until around midnight. Musicians come and go. At one stage I count twenty-seven, all somehow contriving to play the same tune (or a close approximation). There are: strings – ukes, banjos, guitars and fiddles; wind – whistles, flutes, mouth organ, a saxophone and all shapes and sizes of squeezebox; percussion – bodhran and bones. From time to time staff appear bearing jugs of beer with trays of chicken and chips.

1.30 p.m. We wriggle back out of the Bedford and walk the short distance to Blackmore Gardens, a small park in the middle of town where events in the Children’s Folk Week are held and where the Music Tent stands. This is the marquee occupied by instrument retailers. It draws me irresistibly, but we bump into friends and spend our time chatting. DSC03662Emerging with wallet unopened, we head for the Anchor, pausing in Market Square to watch some extraordinary street entertainment provided by two gymnasts/acrobats. They combine strength, flexibility and dexterity in eye-catching ways. The young man, for example, balances upside down on his head while solving a Rubik’s cube.

3.00 p.m. We settle in Anchor Garden (actually the car park behind the Anchor Inn) where there’s a stage and a servery with sixteen real ales on offer. For the next hour we enjoy a free concert by The Drystones, two lads who look so young to me that I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear they still have paper rounds. Young or not, they are wonderfully talented and give us a very lively hour on fiddle and guitar.

4.00 p.m. We realise that the Cricket Club breakfast was so large that we haven’t even thought of lunch. We head back there. Their cake slices are as generous as their breakfasts. I work out the tactics of the cricket team. They clearly try to field first and during the interval fill the opposition with such an enormous tea that they can neither bowl nor field. We take our time getting outside fruit cake and tea, then realise that a jam session has started in the bar.

6.00 p.m. We head back to The Hub where another dance display is underway. It’s Moulton Morris Men that we saw this morning, but now they are joined by Crooked Moon, an Appalachian dance group from Brighton. Cheryl joined an Appalachian group years ago when we lived in Totnes and she’s always keen to watch a session. She tells me that each complex sequence takes months to learn. You can see a group in action here.

7.15 p.m. As a precaution against the unlikely event of our being overcome by hunger during the evening concert we’re enjoying one of Tom’s Pies at the bar outside the Ham Marquee.

8.00 p.m. We have moved inside the marquee for what proves to be one of the most enjoyable concerts we have ever attended.

The Devil’s Interval start us off with their beautiful three-part harmonies. The three are Jim Causley (who lives on Dartmoor, so we see a lot of him), Lauren McCormick and Emily Portman. They performed together years ago, but then went their separate ways. It’s great to hear them back together. Jim told us that it was so long since they’d sung together that they’d forgotten the songs they used to sing. They found that someone had illicitly recorded them (and many others) in concert and put the recordings up on YouTube. Each time they got together to practise they re-learned the words and harmonies from the internet, but they were horrified to discover that someone had complained and the recordings had been taken down. They had to trace the chap and ask him to send them the recording – which he duly did.

They are followed by the incomparable Vin Garbutt. He really is unlike any other performer I’ve ever seen. His character-filled, mobile features are riveting. Over the years he has written many powerful songs of protest and social commentary, but what really sets him apart is his humour. His relaxed chat between songs is truly hilarious – a mix of jokes and stories based on his experiences touring the world, in the telling of which he makes full use of his rich Teesside accent. As the years have gone by (he’s 67, one month younger than me) those stories increasingly relate to his health problems. He recently suffered arrhythmia and spent time in hospital. “The feller in the next bed said to me, ‘Hey, Vin, you’re a man of the world. What does it mean when one of your testicles is much smaller than the other two?’”

Check him out on his website and if he’s due to appear near you, give yourself a treat.

11.00 p.m. Uplifted by the concert we’re having a drink in the nearby Sailing Club before heading back to the campsite.

Will we have the energy to do it all again tomorrow?

Without a doubt.

 

 

 

Elysian Wonderland by Stuart Ayris

Elysian WonderlandThis is another extraordinary creation by Stuart Ayris. It begins with a painfully accurate observation of a couple who still live together, but no longer communicate. On a whim they set off in their long-neglected campervan, Flo, who takes them to a music festival. An odd character, Purple Alice, persuades them to try a curious purple drink and their adventure begins as they find themselves in a world of talking animals, bizarre people and strange happenings.

There is a similarity to the theme of Alice in Wonderland, (hence, of course, the play on words in the title), but that similarity is only superficial. In this wonderland we find the author at his exuberant, whimsical best in a place where language is a flexible toy for creative play. If the word he needs doesn’t already exist, he invents it – and we instinctively know what he means. If a phrase sounds particularly fine, he’ll repeat it. His trademark pop music references abound – is there another author who would give us a character called Judy Judy Judy? Vivid images are thrown at us in rapid succession. From time to time he addresses the reader directly to make sure we’re still involved.

As they progress through the wonderland the couple see glimpses of their own and each other’s past lives and come to an understanding of their relationship in the real world.

It took me ages to read this book. I had to keep re-reading passages for the pure enjoyment of the writing that frequently feels more like poetry than conventional prose.

Highly recommended.

Available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats.

 

 

Our ‘perfect’ motorhome.

So, we’d drawn up our list of requirements and we were searching for the motorhome that came closest to meeting all of them. We were still using the Compass 100, but it had a final sting in the tail. Actually, quite a few tails probably came into it.
We were still going on occasional short trips and, if ten days or so slipped by without our using it, I would drive to the Caravan Club storage compound, run the engine and give Van Diesel (I’m not sure if I’ve previously mentioned our pet name for it) an airing.
On one such visit I found Van Diesel to have a generous sprinkling of mouse droppings. They were everywhere: on the floor, on every surface, on the overcab bed, on the seats. The upholstery had been attacked, albeit in a rather strange way. The mice had focussed on the fabric covering the mattress buttons, scratching much of it off to reveal the plastic. I assumed that the material scratched off must have been used to make a nest(s), but when I searched every corner of the van I found nothing.
The owner of the caravan on the adjacent storage pitch arrived and confirmed that his van had also been attacked. Then the owner of the motorhome three pitches away turned up. He’d also been a victim, suffering several attacks in the recent past.
When I mentioned it to the wardens it was greeted with a sympathetic shrug. As they quite reasonably pointed out, the compound is in the countryside, surrounded by hedges and fields, and they could hardly try to poison every rodent in the neighbourhood.
I swept up the droppings, disinfected all hard surfaces, cleaned the carpets and used up a couple of cans of upholstery cleaner on the soft furnishings, then I set off for B&Q to buy half-a-dozen mousetraps and a perforated metal sheet of fine mesh size. Motorhomes have vents in various places both to allow for the escape of gas leaks and to help keep them aired. I cut the metal sheet into the required shapes and wired it in place over the vents to make them mouseproof while, hopefully still serving their intended purpose.
However, the impossibility of keeping them out was brought home to me when I opened the glove compartment in the cab. The door is a pretty tight fit – I can’t, for example, get near pushing the ignition key into the gap at any point – and yet the mice had been in. They had shredded the insurance documents I’d left in there and even eaten their way through the hard plastic cap on an aerosol can of windscreen cleaner. The thought of what damage they could be doing to the electrical wiring was disturbing.
I suppose it may just be possible to make a caravan mouseproof, but not a motorhome, there are just too many ways they can get in via the engine compartment: the air vents, gaps around the steering column and the foot pedals. They don’t even have to get into the habitation area; they can do a lot of damage within the engine compartment.
So, now we had two problems: we had to find the right motorhome and, having found it, we’d need somewhere else to store it, rather than in a mouse-infested compound.
We thought we’d have no problem tracking down the right motorhome. After all, we only wanted what we assumed everyone else wanted and it seemed obvious that motorhome makers would supply what people wanted. We were wrong. It quickly became apparent that either we were unusual in our requirements or the makers didn’t ask what their customers wanted and produced models that looked nice, but were impractical.
What were our hard-to-satisfy requirements? Here they are:
4 berth utilising the overcab bed layout (provides lots of storage space);
generous height above the overcab bed, so no need to be a contortionist to get in/out;
it must be possible to leave the ladder to the overcab bed in place when the dinette bed is made up;
must be able to move freely along the van when the dinette bed is made up;
a separate shower;
a gas and electric space heater;
a gas and electric water heater;
plenty of work surface;
a storage locker accessible from the outside;
maximum length 6.5m;
maximum weight 3500kg to meet driving licence rules;
preferably Mercedes or Ford based, rather than Fiat/Peugeot;
within our somewhat limited budget of £10,000 plus the Compass 100.

Let me explain a couple of those, starting with the shower. In many motorhomes the loo and basin are effectively inside the shower cubicle. That’s good for saving space, but have a shower and everything is wet and needs drying off.
The outside storage locker is important to us as it means we don’t have to bring wet/dirty items (such as the outside chairs/table that could have been standing on wet ground, or umbrellas/waterproofs/walking boots) into the van.
Strangely enough it wasn’t the budget that ruled out most models, even though we were operating at the bottom of the range where motorhomes are concerned; it was the lack of work surface. Even on models costing £50,000+, we frequently saw the sink right next to the hob with no work surface at all, except for the glass hob cover. Pile the dirty plates on there, wash them in the sink – and nowhere to put a drying rack. There often wasn’t even space to stand an electric kettle.
The maximum length wasn’t set in stone, but it seemed about right. Much longer than that and we thought we’d have problems driving it through our narrow Westcountry lanes and parking it on public car parks.
Winter passed, spring was well underway and we were still scouring the Westcountry. We had to relax our requirements. What we dropped was our objection to a Fiat/Peugeot. We didn’t feel we had any alternative. We often called on retailers to find that every single 4-berth motorhome had a Fiat or Peugeot base vehicle.
P1000165Shortly after we’d made that decision, having searched from Bristol to Land’s End, we found exactly what we were looking for at Alan Kerr Leisure, just down the road in Paignton. It’s based on a Fiat Ducato, but we felt better about it as Alan Kerr has been a main dealer for commercial Fiats for many years and had maintained this particular example for several years, carrying out both the mechanical and habitation services. We were offered much more part exchange allowance than we’d been expecting, so we bought comfortably within our budget.
P1000164So what is this paragon among motorhomes? It’s a Bessacar e445, with the 2.3l turbo diesel engine and 5-speed box. Built in 2004, it had done only 20,000 miles with a lot of service history. It came with a full service, 12 months MOT, a 2-year AA warranty covering both the base vehicle and the habitation equipment, a bike rack and a roof ladder.
It’s only 6.13m long, which makes it easy to drive, particularly with the reversing camera. If we meet a caravan or tractor/trailer on a narrow lane we are happy to reverse. We can usually find some corner of a public car park where the space overhang isn’t a problem. It has a tall outside locker, called a ‘wet locker’ by Bessacar (a sink forms the base), which takes the folding seats/table, rotary dryer, umbrellas, fishing tackle, water hoses, electric hook-up cable, bike saddle bags and walking boots. But it was the inside layout and equipment that were the clincher.
P1000166At the rear, across the full width of the motorhome, is a large shower room that holds a full size separate shower cubicle, loo, sink, wardrobe, cupboard and shelves. The overcab bed is huge with good head height. There is plenty of work surface. There’s an area next to the sink big enough to take a drying rack. The area over the fridge/freezer takes the electric kettle and toaster, and still leaves enough space for food preparation. There’s another surface that takes, among other things, the television. We have a four-burner hob, a grill and a full oven.
P1000167 P1000168As the picture shows, when the dinette bed extensions are pulled out, it is still easy to walk up and down, and the overcab bed ladder can stay in place.
Both the space heater and water heater can operate on electricity or gas. The Compass gas locker took two 3.9kg cylinders that cost currently £13.65 to replace from Flogas. Our new locker takes two 6kg cylinders that cost £16.28, so our gas costs have fallen from £3.50 per kg to £2.71.
The cab passenger seat swivels. There are fly-screens on the windows and habitation door. The fresh water tank holds 100 litres – twice the size of the Compass tank. There’s a Fiamma awning.
It suits us perfectly – but it clearly can’t suit everyone or we’d all be driving the same unit.
Buying from a long-established dealer was a very different experience to buying privately – it was painless and worry-free. The sales staff at Alan Kerr were relaxed and helpful. They encouraged us to spend as long as we wanted checking out the van; urged us to take long test drives and asked for a list of any jobs we wanted doing before buying. We gave them the list, the jobs were cheerfully carried out and we bought a van so immaculately valeted that it felt like new.
The warranty gives peace of mind. In the three months we’ve owned Bessie (I’m sure all Bessacars are so named) the water pump and the fridge gas igniter have failed and been replaced without quibble. In that three months we’re covered more miles than in the whole twelve months we had the Compass.
Buying from Alan Kerr has solved our other problem – where to keep it. They have a storage compound for their own stock and the motorhomes in for service work, but they also have spaces they make available at modest charge to local buyers. We have now worked our way to the top of the short waiting list, but in the meantime we had a stroke of luck. A neighbour set off on a long tour of Europe in their motorhome which enabled us to use their space. By the time they return we should have a space of our own.
We are enjoying ourselves immensely, spending more time away than at home. If you spot us anywhere, please say hello.

The end of our first season of motorhomes.

One of our reasons for acquiring a motorhome was to provide our own accommodation at folk festivals. After Sidmouth in early August, we managed three more: Lyme Folk Festival at Lyme Regis (just a couple of weeks after Sidmouth); Cornwall Folk Festival at Wadebridge at the end of the month and the Swanage Folk Festival in mid-September. This part of the plan was working well.
We also made a number of very enjoyable trips to events that were fun, but where we’d found local accommodation tricky/expensive to arrange in the past. With a motorhome it is so much easier to get to the Tiverton Balloon Festival, for example. The Minnows site, on the towpath of the Grand Western Canal, is a few miles outside Tiverton, but only a short walk to a bus stop.
Similarly, a day at Widecombe Fair can be enjoyed to the full when staying on a site a few minutes’ walk along the lane.
We also found some very pretty spots in North Devon, Dorset and Somerset. In late autumn we were able to watch the huge murmurations of starlings over the Somerset levels.
So, we’d reached the end of our first season of motorhoming. It was time to make a decision. Did we want to continue owning a motorhome? Was it worth the costs?
The answer was a resounding, ‘YES!’ We love it!
One thing I haven’t really mentioned in these posts is the issue of where to keep it. We’d deliberately searched for a small unit that we could keep at home, but we’d only had it a few weeks when we had to admit that really wasn’t acceptable. We live in a small cul-de-sac with only three houses in it. Those houses, and their gardens, are well-maintained. When turning into the cul-de-sac it’s an attractive aspect – helped by the sea view. With the motorhome outside our house there was no doubt that it was the motorhome that caught the eye. It was an eyesore – and there was no way to screen it.
We arranged a space on a secure storage site a few miles away. It was obviously less convenient, and it cost about £500 p.a., but it felt the right thing to do.
Shortly afterwards a rumour spread among users that the site, which is mainly used for secure storage in containers, was going to do away with the motorhome/caravan/boat storage and put in more containers. Just in case that was true (months later, it still hasn’t happened, and may never) we put ourselves on the waiting list for storage at a local Caravan Club site and after a few months we made the move.
The significant issue was that after making the move to storage, we were no longer restricted on the length of the unit.
The small size was causing us problems, mainly that we couldn’t put the dinette bed together with the overcab bed ladder in place – which we felt restricted our ability to take our young granddaughter away with us.
The Compass 100 had served its purpose. It had taught us that motorhoming appealed very strongly to some basic instincts.
We drew up a revised list of our requirements and spent the winter searching for our ideal model. We looked over dozens before finding our perfect motorhome.
Next time I’ll tell you what features were on our list and what model we eventually bought.

Fun trips in the motorhome.

I’ve been reminded that I’ve been very slow in posting this next instalment. My excuse is that we’ve been away in the motorhome so much that I’ve struggled to find the time. I’ll post this, and maybe one more, to cover the first twelve months of our motorhoming experiences.
So, there we were with our Compass Avantgarde 100, a bit on the small side, but in perfect working order, albeit with the knowledge that the next problem to develop in a non-watertight gearbox would probably prove terminal. The sun was shining, summer was upon us and we decided to get on with enjoying ourselves.
One of the most interesting places we visited was the Crossways Caravan Club site at Moreton, near Dorchester: a fascinating site of contrasts. It’s very attractive; the one-way site roadway meanders through woodland, passing through lovely glades that each contain a small number of pitches.
Deer live in the woodland and frequently put in an appearance. Campsites are the favoured venue of people who want to holiday with their dog and, as is usually the case, the majority of pitches had one or more dogs in residence. Amazingly, the deer seemed unfazed, unerringly picking out the dog-free units to be hand-fed morsels of salads. One hind was even confident enough to bring her fawn out into the open and ignore all the cameras pointed at them.
Two further advantages of the site are the pub only a couple of minutes walk from the gate, and the railway station opposite the pub. One of the things we look for in a site is easy access to public transport – that station certainly provides it as it is on the main line to Dorchester, only a 10-minute ride away.
The proximity of the railway line has its downside as at one of those glades it forms the boundary to the site. There’s a level crossing next to the station and passing express trains sound their horns as they approach – a very effective alarm at 6.00 a.m.
Another quirk of the site is the dry composting toilet facilities. The toilet seat looks conventional, but beneath it is a large dark hole. Children aren’t allowed to use the toilets unaccompanied, presumably because of the danger of falling in – a possibility too awful to contemplate. The loos worked fine, but they clearly didn’t suit everyone. I saw one chap emerge to be confronted by his wife and teenage daughter who angrily declared them unacceptable and demanded a move to another site. For me, the showers being in a separate block 100 yards away was more of a problem.
We’d strongly recommend a visit to this area – there’s so much to see and do. Dorchester is not to be missed. A lot of redevelopment has taken place around the station. Many top class restaurants and shops have appeared, but the old town is only a few minutes walk away. There we found the Dorset County Museum, the Tutankhamun Exhibition, the Dinosaur Museum, the Terracotta Warriors Exhibition, the Teddy Bear Museum and The Mummies Exhibition – so plenty to do if it rains. When the sun shines guided walk leaflets from the TIC provide a good tour of the town. As this is Thomas Hardy territory you’ll find frequent references to his work.
Dorchester isn’t the only attraction. You can change trains there and head for the seaside delights of Weymouth. Close by, there’s also the Tolpuddle Martyrs museum, Clouds Hill (the cottage of T E Lawrence) and the Tank Museum at Bovington Camp.
We spent a week in the area and could easily have stayed a lot longer.
One minor problem had become apparent with the Compass. We used the overcab bed for storage and slept in the double bed made up each night from the dinette. That bed is put together from six mattresses: the two seats and two backs of the dinette benches and two small mattresses that fit onto the pull-out extension. Having six components means a lot of joins, each of which can open up a little in use. In the interest of comfort we bought two of these, although we went for two-inch thickness, two-feet wide size. Problem solved.
One of our most notable trips in that first year was to the Sidmouth Folk Festival. Attending such events was one of the main reasons for our buying a motorhome. The festival (or Folk Week as it’s now called) was great fun, as usual. Staying on the over-crowded official, temporary campsite was an interesting experience. At the time I wrote a post about both the event and the camping which you can find under the Folk Festivals sections of this blog.
Bath is one of our favourite cities, so it was a treat to discover the Bath Caravan Park. It’s alongside the River Avon about two miles from the city centre, which is easily accessed by walking/cycling along the riverbank or by bus from the adjacent park & ride. The site is open all year and has sixty-four pitches all with hardstanding and ehu. Under the Interesting Places section of this blog you’ll find three posts that will help explain why we like the city so much.

Later this week I’ll put up another post covering the remainder of our first motorhoming year and the decisions we made at the end of it.

Beneath the Boards by David Haynes

Beneath the BoardsI’ve read and enjoyed the horror/ghost stories by this author that are set in Victorian times. This one is set in current times and the impact is all the greater because of it. The thought that this may all be happening, right now, in a house not far away, makes the horror more intensely disturbing.

A young man with a failed marriage behind him has to retire from the police on medical grounds suffering PTSD-driven hallucinations after receiving serious injuries. He tries to start a new life by buying a run-down country cottage. The scattering of locals make him welcome, but as he starts the renovations he is troubled not only by his own past, but by a sensed history of evil within the cottage.

Are we witnessing at close hand his descent into madness, or is he uncovering past deeds of dreadful horror?

This is written with a vividness that forces sights, sounds and smells into the reader’s senses. Those who have already read it will know what I mean when I say that I’m having difficulty shifting from my brain, “Scretch, scretch, scretch.”

Recommended – if you think you are strong enough.

It is available from Amazon for Kindle.