Saturday, 30 May 2015

Not a couple

I really am the odd one out on holiday. It seems to be assumed that I'm probably the female half of a couple - the Missus - and that Mister is doing Something Important elsewhere, but will appear any moment to take charge. When I say I'm actually on my own, and that I've come all the way from Sussex (Sussex? Oh, in that south-east corner of the country. Never been there!) everyone is amazed, even if it's only halfway up towards Scotland.

Here in Scotland people pop their eyes at my daring to travel so far alone, and I find myself trotting out a sanitised version of how M--- and I started caravanning together, and how I learned to love it, and developed the skills to manage on my own - despite the handicap of being a woman on her own, with no Man around to help. This still elicits wonder, so I then put myself down still more, as if possessing even a minimum amount of sensible planning ability is quite unbecoming, and requires an apology.

How odd that is! Privately, of course, I'm pretty confident about what I attempt. But it doesn't do to say so.

And I will accept many of the physical and social limitations associated with women, false though they may be. This tends to make life easier, most men wanting to be considerate towards a woman, especially by employing a bit of technique or strength or whatever it is that will let them shine as a man, bless them. Mind you, if they make the effort, a pantomime of thanks is always part of the social deal and mustn't be neglected.

It's easy to overdo it though! By, for example, giving them back more friendly chat than they were expecting. As far as I can see, British Men (British Caravanning Men, I particularly mean) are Persons Of Few Words. I'm not saying that they are unfriendly, poker-faced mutes. But, possibly because they are clearly the careful, thinking sort, they are far from being chatterboxes, generally leaving conversations to 'the wife'. She is the Spokesperson and Press Office, even if not the One In Charge. So if I catch both together, she and I do 90% of the chat. I am convinced that most men, unless they like the sound of their own voice, are very happy to let their wives speak for both of them.

I have to be husband and wife rolled into one. An occasionally awkward combination on a caravan site, because it's unusual and unexpected and Not The Norm. Some people must wonder what possible enjoyment there can be in travelling on my own, and having to deal with all the chores (and occasional hassle) unassisted. I don't think it's possible to convince someone who is so welded to a partner, so embedded in a conventional family situation, that I am very happy as I am, that I can deal with it all, and that my life (without even a dog for company) suits me beautifully.

When it comes to it, most people do hanker after a companion, and think it's no fun to be free. They're wrong, but my minority view isn't going to prevail.

At least two faux pas

I'm still alive: the silence of the last few days is entirely due to staying in places where there is non-existent (or very iffy) Mobile Internet. No Internet, no posts. I have a growing list of things that could be written about, but it's no good if I have no Internet.

However, I'm now at Yellowcraig Caravan Club Site, which is not too far from North Berwick in East Lothian - a proper town - and I can get online now and then. So there is some hope that this will go out.

It's taken me just two days to haul the caravan from Sussex to here, which is not bad going, although I didn't like staying only one night at Stamford and the Lake District on the way up to Scotland. It made the journeying seem relentless, and restricted the time for local sightseeing far too much. I'm at Yellowcraig for three nights, and although I intend to be out and around - Edinburgh tomorrow, and a day out with a friend the next day - it will feel far more relaxing. The rest of my stops on this mammoth tour are all for two, three, or even four nights, allowing plenty of time to unwind and enjoy the local area before hitching up and setting off again.

Midnight approaches! I will confine myself to describing how I committed two caravanning faux pas on arrival at Yellowcraig.

Faux pas number one: I jumped the queue to get in. Yellowcraig is an incredibly popular Club site. It's never a surprise to find someone already in the 'arrivals' parking spot, so that you have to keep back and wait for them to check in. Well, two big caravans were ahead of me on arrival, but neither was actually parked in the 'arrivals' spot. I'd been on the road for four hours, and was eager to check in and get pitched. It wasn't obvious why these two caravans were hanging back. There was however a prominent notice that the site was full. Perhaps they hadn't pre-booked, and, with their plan to stay at Yellowcraig thwarted, were deciding where else to try. I had pre-booked - way back in January, in fact. I drove past them and into the 'arrivals' space.

Of course, I was wrong. I was instantly admonished for jumping the queue. Oh, I'm very sorry! It wasn't explained why the two other caravans had hung back, but I'd got off on the wrong foot and no mistake!

The thing was, with the site so full, and all the best pitches already occupied, the few still vacant were likely to be the ones that were difficult to get onto. I would still have the pick of these. But the two caravans I'd jumped ahead of were going to have Hobson's Choice. There was no actual ill-feeling, but I earnestly hoped they would both end up with nice pitches, despite having a poorer selection.

There really weren't many places left. I found one that would be suitable for a little caravan like mine. It was a pig to reverse onto though. I found myself steering the wrong way all the time. I suppose I was tired. Eventually I managed it. I went through the usual setting-up routine. This included getting out the long electrical cable, connecting one end to a socket on the side of the caravan, and plugging the other into a socket on a post.

And that was faux pas number two. I chose the wrong post. I went off to reception for a card to work the entrance barrier, and when I returned a man with a lugubrious expression on his face was standing next to my caravan. Oops. What had I done now? Well, I'd pinched his electrical socket. Mine was off in the other direction. Really? But where? He showed me. The other post, which actually had an empty socket with my pitch number on it, was the other side of a bush. I hadn't noticed it.

How embarrassing! I gave him profuse apologies, and moved my cable. He seemed fine about it, but I wondered what he might be thinking. 'Daft old biddy' perhaps. I fervently hoped he wasn't one of the two people I'd queue-jumped. Surely not, otherwise he'd have much more to say...

I was relieved to find that the people next to me - a younger, friendly couple from Darlington - were nice to talk to. And the wife was firmly on my side when a Club warden passed by and informed me that the positioning of my caravan was verging on the unacceptable. For heaven's sake! I pointed out the tree I'd had to avoid while I reversed. My protest scarcely dented his zeal. But we sent him on his way. It's not a spacious site, and I suppose they have to be particular, and can't allow sloppy pitching. But, my goodness, I never have such trouble on my favourite laid-back farm sites in the West Country!

Apart from these embarrassments, my first afternoon in Scotland was very pleasant indeed. I went into North Berwick for a stroll. It was dazzlingly sunny one moment, then cold and very wet the next. I witnessed the fiercest hail I'd seen for a very long time. And it was almost June! Hmm. I would have to expect some dire weather once in Aberdeenshire, so much further north.

Tomorrow I plan to visit Edinburgh on the train. Just £4.50 return on the train from North Berwick, using my Senior Railcard. It's meant to be sunny all day. A summer dress then. But my padded winter coat and gloves as well!

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The open road beckons!

Three days hence I shall be well on my way up north.

It's a packed schedule, and the most ambitious caravan tour I've yet devised for myself.

# Sussex to North-east Scotland and back again, with stops at several places in between.
# 26 nights away.
# 10 Caravan Club sites visited. All of them carefully chosen and already booked.
# 1,430 towing miles, with the caravan hitched up behind Fiona.
# A minimum of 1,300 miles covered on days out, just me and Fiona, the caravan left on-site.
# £340 spent on site fees. So that's an average of £13 per night.
# A minimum of £450 spent on fuel over and above what I'd spend anyway at home.

My records indicate that my typical sight-seeing mileage is 50 miles per night at site. But in Scotland, that will be very hard to keep to, considering the big distances one might cover on a worthwhile day out. On the other hand, the roads are so empty of traffic - compared to Sussex - that my fuel consumption ought to be much better than usual, and so the fuel bill shouldn't get out of hand. In any case, in order to pay for extra fuel, I'm willing to sacrifice the odd meal out. And I won't be hitting the shops for tartan souvenirs.

Originally all but one of the ten sites were booked online some time back, on the Caravan Club's website. What a great convenience that was! The exception was the site at Huntly in Aberdeenshire, which was a commercial site affiliated to the Caravan Club, and matching or exceeding its standards. I had to email them specially.

I've just however rejigged my bookings for the final few days. I was going to have three nights in the Peak District, then three nights on the Cotswolds. Now it's four nights on the Welsh border at Chirk, then two nights on the Cotswolds (worry not, Angie: the Sunday pub-lunch-and-ramble remains sacrosanct!) before embarking on the final journey back to Sussex.

It was dead easy to cancel the Peak District booking, and shorten the Cotswolds booking, by visiting the Club website. But the new booking at Chirk had to be arranged over the phone. The website was showing 'fully booked' at Chirk for the fourth night that I wanted to be there. Now people rearrange their bookings all the time, and the website doesn't necessarily tell the up-to-the-minute truth. So on a hunch that I could still get in, I phoned them up. I was right. They did have a spare pitch for that fourth night. What good luck! So I nailed the booking.

I'm rather glad that I've switched from the Peak District to the Welsh borderland. Now I'll be able to revisit Welshpool, and see Lake Bala, and have a look at Denbigh and Flint. The Peak District is very worthy, of course, but I will go there another time.

As you can imagine, I am working through a long checklist of things to see to. Better get on with it.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Brighton Council still determined to fleece the motorist

Grrr. The City of Brighton & Hove has for some reason never liked people driving into the city and parking. Nowadays it has a Green Party MP, and Green policies have descended with a very heavy hand, reinforcing what was always an anti-motorist bias.

Thus much of the city is plagued by 20mph zones. I will admit that these make it safer for pedestrians, because cars and other vehicles can stop quicker if the said pedestrian wanders carelessly or recklessly out into the road, as the more spaced-out ones will; or if a cyclist jumps a red light, as the arrogant ones are prone to do. I will also admit that the 20mph limit keeps traffic flowing more evenly, avoiding that 'racetrack surge' as traffic lights turn green. It is however impossible to adhere to 20mph when going up a hill, unless you let your engine labour, churning out polluting gases - and Brighton is very hilly place in parts. A slow speed like this is also very aggravating when you just want to make some rapid progress from A to B, for an appointment perhaps.

If this were not bad enough, the city's policy on parking is truly abysmal. Really, it seems as if they don't want you to park at all. Spaces are hard to find, it's very expensive, and the parking wardens are draconian. Expect no mercy. Whenever I park in Brighton, I always spend time checking that I have complied in all respects with what the signs say, and whatever else it may require one to do on the ticket from the machine. Thus I pay great attention to ensuring that not a millimetre of Fiona ever goes over the parking space markings on the road. Well, maybe this is what I should do anyway; but the wardens are implacable if anything is not as it should be, and they are clearly instructed to look for fault. Fear of a swingeing fine makes you very, very careful.

I'm surprised that the local Chamber of Commerce doesn't violently object. Crawling speeds and difficult and expensive parking must put many a shopper off.

And lately another sneaky method of getting extra cash out of wicked car drivers has been introduced. It used to be possible - if you knew where - to park for four hours for a mere £3. The tariff had been this:

Up to 1 hour £1
Up to 2 hours £2
Up to four hours £3

I'd found a route into central Brighton that took me past a series of these £3-for-four-hours spots, and it usually enabled me to find a convenient space to park at reasonable cost (reasonable for Brighton, that is). I became accustomed to feeding three £1 coins into the machine, and getting the four-hour ticket I wanted in return. After a time, this became an automatic, unthinking process.

I did it as usual last Tuesday evening.

But then, as I displayed the ticket on Fiona's windscreen, something about it caught my attention. That's £3 hadn't bought me the expected amount of time. Only two hours, not four.

Returning to the machine, I discovered that they'd added 20p - an insignificant but vital amount - to the old price. Which meant that I'd just wasted £3, because the two hours it now bought me wasn't enough.

So Disgruntled of Mid-Sussex delved into her purse, disinterred another three £1 coins and a 20p piece, and bought another ticket. Grumbling, she replaced the first ticket with the second, and brooded savagely on that wasted £3.

How many other motorists were being caught out like this, at least once? And I had been lucky enough to spot my error and put it right before leaving my car. If I hadn't done that, and a warden had come along after the two hours were up - and they sadistically lie in wait - then I'd return to find a Parking Offence Notice wrapped around a windscreen wiper. And an invitation to pay whatever the penalty was - £80 now, I think. And I'd be very upset at the unfairness and underhandedness of it all.

Well, by pure chance I'd had a narrow escape, and was poorer by only £3 instead of £80. But I still felt very annoyed.

I don't think many other cities behave so badly towards people wanting to drive in, park, and then (potentially anyway) spend lots of money on their evening entertainment.

Friday, 22 May 2015

The face of failure

This was me, last weekend, just before the moment came when I realised that I was not going to get to the top of a ladder. It was in an old tower. I did so much want to get to the top, and look at the view through a high circular stone window. But it was not to be. More on this story in a moment. First, what I did shortly before.

I was on a Saturday afternoon out in East Sussex. I went first to Bateman's, the former home of Rudyard Kipling at Burwash, and now in the care of the National Trust, which I hadn't been to for some years. It was looking very attractive.

You can see what a cracking day it was for fine weather! Quite a lot of visitors were over-dressed for the sunshine - for example a group of ladies I fell in with, who were on a coach trip from Sutton in south London, and had thought it might be a chilly day. Anything but.

Where next? Wanting to stay in the lush countryside, I decided to go southwards to Brightling and have another look at Jack Fuller's Pyramid in the churchyard there. Jack Fuller (1757-1834), a man of substance and social standing, is often referred to as 'Mad Jack', on account of the several follies he built in and around Brightling. See The pyramid is his mausoleum. There was a legend that when he died he was buried sitting fully-clothed at a table inside the Pyramid, with wine and a chicken dinner in front of him! But an opening-up of the Pyramid in 1982 established that this was nonsense, and that he was buried conventionally underneath the Pyramid. Nevertheless his resting-place remains an impressive monument, and a strange sight in a Sussex churchyard:

Looking through that outer iron grille, you see a sort of porch, and a window (barred with a diagonal iron grille this time) deeper inside the Pyramid, with total darkness beyond - perhaps this window looks into the room where (until 1982) legend asserted that one would see a skeleton at a table holding aloft a glass of red wine - a top hat perched on the grinning skull - and on the table, the bones of a roast bird on a plate.

I spoke with the churchwarden, who had been showing two women around the belfry of the church. He said it had been a surveyor appointed by the Church Commissioners who had gone into the Pyramid in 1982. Apparently the media were not let in, and we still have only the surveyor's word for it that Mad Jack was laid to rest in an ordinary coffin, and not upright with his right arm raised in a skeletal toast. I'm presuming that there are strict laws on opening up tombs, whatever the good reason for it; that only certain authorised persons can examine a tomb; and that they can do so only under a rigid set of regulations. Given all that, it wouldn't be so strange that the media were kept out, despite widespread public interest in the legend. But it only substitutes a conspiracy-of-silence theory for that old belief. To some it must seem clear that the surveyor saw something very odd, but wouldn't - or couldn't - tell!

One of the two women who had been talking to the surveyor before I came along had been carrying a brand-new Nikon SLR with a zoom lens. Leaving the churchyard, I saw a brand-new Nikon lens cap lying off the path. I picked it up and hurried off to where Fiona was parked, hoping that the two ladies had parked there too, and hadn't yet driven off. Well, there was a car in front of Fiona, and two persons were seated in it. Running as best I could towards them, I held up the lens cap. The woman in the driving seat signalled that I had her lost cap, and was very, very thankful to have it back. It wouldn't have been cheap to replace. My good deed for the day!

Leaving Brightling, I drove off down a lane and spotted a stone tower peeping out of a wood. It was probably another of Jack Fuller's follies. I parked Fiona and walked back to an open gate at a field entrance. A path went from there towards the tower in the wood. I took it.

The 'wood' was just a ring of trees. Within lay a well-preserved stone tower. There was an iron gate at ground level, and it was open. I could see an iron staircase leading up.

There were no notices to say what you could or could not do. I went inside, and started to climb.

The staircase went up to a platform. From there an iron ladder went further up, to a high circular stone window. I don't like heights, but it looked safe enough.

The view out from the platform was pretty good. Here I'm looking over to Brightling church:

Now for that ladder. The rungs were small, and I wasn't wearing the right kind of shoes. Oh well, here goes...

But it wasn't pleasant on my feet, and the ladder, secured at the top by a single bar that tended to pivot, began to sway from side to side as a climbed. It got scary.

That was as far as I dared to go. So near the top, but I'd had enough, and had begun to fear getting cramp in my feet. I descended, feeling defeated. You can see it on my face. The face of failure.

But a woman's got to know her limitations. I soon perked up. The afternoon wasn't over yet! I felt cheerful again by the time I left the tower.

Red summer shoes are nice to wear, but they are no good for doing anything out of the ordinary!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Kerb Drill and other old-fashioned things in the Highway Codes of yesteryear

I was glad to discover a stash of old Highway Codes when clearing a section of my attic. The two oldest dated from 1962 and 1968. The first has a very period feel to it, reflecting another, simpler world in which car drivers were mostly men in sports jackets smoking a pipe, women wore long skirts and pushed prams not buggies, and children wishing to cross the road all wore school uniform and carried satchels. And everyone wore a hat.

Lets have a look at the Highway Code from 1962, which I bought myself, with my pocket money, when aged ten.

In those days, over fifty years ago, a personal message from the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation would greet you on opening the slim volume. In this case, Harold Watkinson, the minister from December 1955 right through to October 1959 - but surely quite forgotten now - who says:

Accidents on our roads do not just happen; they are caused - sometimes by a faulty vehicle, sometimes by road conditions, but nearly always by human error. These mistakes, which take our lives, are made because in most cases we simply do not realize what we are doing until it is too late.

In other words, our conduct on the roads is not what it needs to be for present-day traffic. This Highway Code is for the ordinary road user; it sets out in the simplest language the code of behaviour which is a ''must'' if we are ever to make an impression on the totals of road accidents. If we could ensure that for the coming year every road user obeyed the Code, we should save a great many lives - perhaps our own.

To all who read this Code I would therefore say: ''Give as much time and thought to learning the Code as you would to anything else on which your life might depend. Contrary to what you might think, this Code is meant for you, not the other road user. Remember, it is your life you are risking.''

Now doesn't that sound like a well-meaning minister speaking? Note the earnest lecturing style, the wagging finger, the punctilious grammar, the double inverted commas, and the 'z' in realize, which is surely more commonly written with an 's' nowadays - at least by me!

That said, I rather like this edition of the Highway Code. It's short and sweet, and very clear about what one must do, although it omits the 'why' and is very sparing on the 'how'. It relies a lot on comprehension through drawings, but I think these work as well as photographs. Here's a short selection:

Ah, Kerb Drill explained in a few words at Rule 7! (The modern equivalent is the much more verbose Green Cross Code)

By 1962, most cars had the modern flashing lights we know today, to indicate left or right. But enough hadn't to give point to the section on hand signals. The section on motorway driving was a surprise - very few miles of motorway existed in 1962! Note the male trouser leg and boot pressing the footbrake on the yellow back page! Trousers with turn-ups must have been all the rage.

Oh dear, what a mess those old road signs were. I also found this little booklet from 1965, which gave details of a new type of road sign that would be progressively introduced in the years ahead. These signs have now become universal. (It's a rare treat to see a surviving old-style sign, and it's always worth a photo)

Strange to think that these 'new' signs have now been around for fifty years. They are everywhere, and in great numbers. We must be the best-signed country on earth. It would truly be a colossal task (and a hugely expensive one) to switch them to the other side of the road, as would be necessary if the UK ever adopted the continental rule of the road - driving on the right. Which is why I think that will never happen.

The next edition of the Highway Code in my possession was published in 1968. It has a much more contemporary look.

The front cover shows the 'KEEP LEFT' sign, and it's tempting to suppose that a subtle political message was being pushed at the public. In 1968 Harold Wilson's Labour government was in power. There was still a personal message from the Minister of Transport, Richard Marsh - also almost forgotten now - who held the job for a short while from April 1968 to October 1969:

He says:

This is a new and bigger Highway Code. It has been completely revised and re-written. We've tried to make it easy to read and understand.

Most people study the Code before their driving test and then forget it. That's a pity, because this is a working book. it repays continuous study. 

It deals with problems you will meet on the road, whether driving, walking or cycling. You may say ''I don't need a book to tell me what to do''. But there are right and wrong ways of dealing with hazards and emergencies and even normal situations on the roads. If everyone always did things the right way we wouldn't have all the accidents we do. The Code explains the right way.

The Code is not theory. It's a mine of practical, down-to-earth advice. It's a pocket life-saver. Please read it. Please do what it says.

'I will! I will respond to this very reasonable plea!' Thus spake the sixteen-year old me. Driving lessons were at least two years off, but I was keen to pass my driving test first time, and acquire some mobility and independence - assuming Dad would trust me with the family Ford Cortina! (It took me two attempts before I passed)

This 1968 edition of the Code lacks quaintness but is altogether a better guide to good practice, with more explanation of the 'why' and 'how' behind each rule. The drawings have gone - it's now filled with photographs, or illustrations based on photographs - on the whole successfully:

Toy cars, though?

The arm signal to a person in front of the car, when turning left, now requires the driver to whack a big hand across his passenger's face! And driving is evidently still regarded as a pursuit for men in suits.

Is it my imagination, or does that constable in the green section have a rather fruity look on his face? 'Yes, m'lud. The policeman on point duty gave me a big come-on. I felt obliged to respond.'

I won't trouble anyone with the later editions in my collection. Except to draw attention to this table, which reveals that the number of separate rules has grown considerably as the years have passed:

RULES TO HEED (excluding other material at the end of each version of the Code)
1962  94
1968  150
1978  185
1993  242
2014  307

No wonder passing one's driving test is now a major endeavour!

They cover everything in today's Highway Code. For instance, what to do when confronted with a lollipop lady using Kendo to defend the pedestrian crossing: