Monday, 30 March 2009

Airstream Heaven

"....We interrupt this broadcast from Norfolk to bring you the following...."

It was a sort of "I wonder what'll happen if I press this button?" moment.

Back in January, I posted a comment here and on the Airforums website asking if any other Airstream owners fancied a little get-together. I knew that there were better ways of getting in touch with more of the European Airstream owners, but I secretly wanted to find out how many UK owners use the US site and whether it was an efficient way of us UK owners keeping in touch. There was a small, but incredibly enthusiastic response.

The weekend was wonderful (if a little cold and damp at times). The Friday (when most of the group arrived) was a lovely day, but Saturday turned nasty, though that didn't stop us "enjoying" (and I use that word loosely - perhaps "enduring" might be a better choice) a barbeque in a hail storm and a biting North Westerly. We even managed to get the separate veggie barbie going with a little help from healthy slug of whisky and a blow-torch. Still, we gave it our best and stoically soldiered on regardless and it was a most excellent party, despite having to scrape ice off the table!

A total of nine outfits turned out for the weekend, ranging from new European models to a 50 year old vintage one. Here are a few pics of the weekenders (in no particular order)...

Five (of the ten) on site

Chris and his 684

Wide-bodied 684 and Bill. (It's the trailer that's wide-bodied, not Bill)

John & Carole with their 25' Classic

Ian and Ariane with their '78 Tradewind and some rather neat lego-brick levelling blocks

Gaynor, Carl, Connor, Jordie and Rory with their very excellent '59 Tradewind

I managed to miss getting a photo of Simon, Emma, their new baby Tilly and their 534, so here's one from the Airstream meet last year at the Game Fair. (They were still waiting for Tilly at that point)

Andrew (who spent most of the weekend working), his 532 and new Nissan Navara, about which he is very excited.

I was absolutely delighted to see a couple of Airstream motorhomes in the flesh. I've secretly hankered after one for ages, though I've never been up-close-and-personal before. They're HUGE!

Here's Chuck and Mary with their 310

Nick, Helen, Lily, Ella and Toby with their 250

A random Overlander that just happened to be sitting on a seasonal pitch on the site when we got there. Never saw who it belonged to, but it was great to be with it.

And, of course, Us and Ours.

We had a handful of day visitors too. Julia, Dave and Ella came up without their '66 Overlander since it was still in Winter storage, and Marc Harris of Silver Twinkie popped by to say hello. It was great to see them (even though they left their Airstreams at home!). The site staff (particularly Graham) were really helpful, and took everything in their stride.

So, would we do it again? Oh, yes. We've learned a lot from this little gathering, and we can definitely make the next one bigger and better. We found that "Airforums" is a great place for information and such, but I don't think it works well as a communication tool for UK owners. If there are any Airstream owners out there who live in the UK and would like to meet some others (I sound like a dating agency!), please get in touch via the About Us links at the top right of the page. It occurs to me that this might be the first ever time that ten Airstreams have been in the same field in the UK. I'd be delighted to be told differently.

Now then, where was I? Ah yes, Norfolk...

Thursday, 26 March 2009

"Very flat, Norfolk." Noel Coward - Private Lives, 1930.

Cromer, perching on the North East corner of Norfolk, is a quiet little seaside town. At least it was when we were there - it is littered with B&B's and guest houses and is surrounded by caravan parks, so I'm guessing that it is mobbed in the Summer. We found a pleasant little site which is a contender for two awards on our "Survey Of Caravan Sites Of The World (part one - England)." First up, it scored highly in the "Cheapest Site" award. At £5.50 a night (including electric), it's the cheapest we've found for a long while. Secondly, it made a strong bid for the "Slowest Tap" trophy. If the weather had been warmer, the water coming out of the tap might have evaporated as fast as the tank was filling. Still, at that price, we couldn't complain.

It turns out that Mr. Coward was wrong. Cromer itself sits at the Eastern end of the glacial tide-mark known (rather prosaically) as the Cromer Ridge. The highest point on the ridge, Beacon Hill, lies a couple of miles to the West and reaches a lofty 330 feet above sea level. It doesn't sound like much, but it's the highest point in the whole of the four counties of East Anglia. The Ridge, slouching its way down to the coast, and being composed of sand, gravel and chalk, is doing it's best to stand against the sea, but it is fighting a losing battle. All along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast, we would see the efforts of the Environment Agency to protect these fragile shores.

The local architecture is dominated by flint. As common as muck in these chalky lands, every building bearing the general description of "old" is basically a pile of flint lumps stuck together with lime mortar. All the village churches of Norfolk are built this way and the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Cromer is no different, except it is the tallest church tower in the county. Cromer also boasts a proper British pier, complete with the Pavilion Theatre and a lifeboat station stuck on the end. The lifeboat deserves a particular mention.

In the lifeboat station, there is a bronze bust of the local hero, Henry Blogg, "the greatest of the lifeboatmen." He was, by day, a crab fisherman who also ran a beach hut/deck chair hire business. When needed, though, he was the Cox of the Cromer lifeboat from 1909 to 1947. When he retired (at the age of 71), he and his crew had launched 387 times and saved 873 lives. He won the RNLI Gold Medal three times and the Silver medal four times as well as being awarded the British Empire Medal and the George Cross. The man was a true hero. And he couldn't even swim. I have an unbounded admiration for the crews of the nation's lifeboats. They are all volunteers, and the service relies wholly on charitable donations. I can think of no finer example of human altruism. Have a look at the RNLI website and please donate if you can.

Back Eastward along the coast, lies the little village of Wells-next-the-Sea. This is something of a misnomer, since land reclamation and silting up of an estuary means that the sea is now about a mile away. We went there for the same reason we have visited many places - it registers on the "Have We Heard Of It?" scale. Wells is the sort of place which appears in loads of lifestyle magazines, and we had high hopes. The village itself did a very good job of dashing those hopes. It all became clear, however, when we took the long trip down to the beach. The attraction is instantly obvious. A long line of beach huts (about 300 of them) nestles at the foot of a pine tree-clad ridge, right at the edge of the beach. The high tide reaches almost to the foot of the hut steps, and on a sunny summer day, it would be glorious (and horribly, horribly busy)

A little further along the coast sits the village of Cley-next-the-Sea. Again, the sea has done a bunk, leaving a pretty little village, with a narrow main road with treacherous bends, and a rather attractive windmill. Norfolk is dotted with windmills in various states of use or repair. The one in Cley is actually a B&B, and you can stay in a round room in the tower if you like.

The beach at Cley is a pebbled affair, but is the root of a shingle spit stretching about ten miles to Blakeney Point, a large bird reserve and seal breeding ground. The spit is managed as a sea defence, but it wouldn't take much effort for the sea to breach it.

It did, however, provide us with one of those sunsets that the vast, open sky of Norfolk does so well.


Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Norfolk by Northwest

I should spend a moment explaining the absence of posts recently. We've been in Norfolk and Suffolk.

There, that should do it.

Seriously, though, apart from a couple of large towns (like Norwich and, er, Norwich), there is beggar all wireless internet coverage. Take, for instance, pages 126 and 127 of our road atlas. They cover nearly 450 square miles of Suffolk, and not one inch of it was covered by our internet signal. I know - we drove around most of it.

Anyway, grump over. Back to the journey...

Driving from Cambridge to Sandringham, the road passes through an area which is charmingly called The Fens. This part of the world is flat. Very flat. The skies are huge and the soil is a rich, loamy jet black.

Much of the journey travels alongside the rivers and drainage ditches that are everywhere around here. The disconcerting thing, however, is that the water level in the rivers is about ten feet above road level - vast areas of the land are only a pumping station away from being lakes. The whole of the Fens (about a million acres spanning four counties) sits uncomfortably close to sea level. It wouldn't take much of a rise in sea level to lose the lot.

One of the reasons for staying at the Sandringham campsite on the Sandringham Estate, was to be close to Sandringham House (You see, sometimes we think about these thinks). I thought that my Mum would never forgive us if we came all this way and didn’t pop in to see where the Queen goes for her hols. Sadly, like much of the rest of the tourism universe, it was closed until April.

Sorry Mum.

Still, there were plenty of other things to see in the area. The nearest big town is King’s Lynn. We popped along one day, hoping to see something a bit special, since King’s Lynn is dripping with history. We were disappointed.

At first I was perplexed as to why a town would create a perfectly ugly new shopping centre (which is suffering during the recession – there are plenty of brand new shops lying empty) and call it the Vancouver Quarter. I was lucky enough to spend some time in British Columbia during a work trip some years ago, and the difference between Vancouver Island and a strikingly awkward new shopping centre are immeasurable. The town was a thorough let-down. But not to be put off, and certain that we’d missed something (anything would do!), we returned a couple of days later and parked at the other end of town. It was MUCH better from that end.

Away from the centre, we spent a happy hour dawdling our way around the old cobbled streets and along the waterfront. It was there that we stumbled across a statue of the local hero, Captain George Vancouver,

an 18th century explorer who mapped much of the North American Pacific coast (his maps were so accurate, they were still in use in the early 20th century!). Such was his legacy that a city, an island and a shopping centre bear his name. It’s probably worth pointing out that the current shopping centre replaced a much worse 1960’s one.

Nearby squats another monument to the Great and Good of local history. Sunk into the ground, it bears plaques naming heroes of yore, including Samuel Cresswell (the first naval officer to traverse the Northwest Passage), John Smith (the founder of Virginia and New England and who was saved from execution by Pocahontas), Friar Nicholas (who allegedly popped over to Iceland and then went on to discover the Americas) and Admiral Lord Nelson. The memorial also doubles up as a meeting place for the local youth who pay homage to their past by leaving sacrificial burger wrappers.

There are plenty of good points to the town (it wasn’t all bad).
There is the very fine two-towered St. Margaret’s Church (one tower bears a clock, the other a handy tide indicator) and the splendid Guildhall, along with plenty of cobbled lanes with leaning houses. We left the town at dusk, leaving the empty streets and an eerily deserted funfair. Somehow, that fitted.

A couple of miles North of King’s Lynn sits Castle Rising Castle, a very fine 12th century keep which, despite missing a roof and several floors, is actually remarkably intact, and a splendid place to while away an hour or two.

Further North sits the curious coastal resort of Hunstanton. Perhaps a cold, grey afternoon isn’t the best time to appreciate a sea-side town, but I’m not sure it would have been any better if we’d seen it in glorious sunshine. I’m certain we must have missed something, but the highlight seemed to be the self-proclaimed “Britain’s Largest Joke Shop.” I can only conclude that the good people of Hunstanton are experimenting with comedic principles because
a: it wasn’t very big, and
b: it wasn’t funny.
Hunstanton’s other claim-to-fame is that it is the only East coast seaside resort in England where the sun can be seen to set over the sea. The sad thing is that the sea here is only The Wash, and beyond that lies Lincolnshire which, let's be honest, is just a waste of a good sunset.

Meanwhile, our new bird feeder was doing excellent trade with the local wildlife. Not that the birds got much of a look-in.

It was either a whole gang of squirrels who worked in shifts, or just one particularly persistent little pest – one morning I went out every ten minutes for an hour to chase him off, but he (or the next shift) kept coming back. Pesky beasts.

We took a day-trip to Birmingham one day. Not the obvious place to visit from Norfolk, but it was the National Boat, Caravan and Outdoor Show. We wanted to have a look at a few gadgets and gizmos, but mostly we wanted to see the new European Airstream 422 Bambi. It’s soooooo cute! We’re going to have to get one for the bunnies. Is there a way to tow a trailer behind a trailer? I’ll have to look into that one… The show also hosted a very desirable aluminium canoe, a rather attractive aluminium sports car and even an aluminium narrow boat. Shiny!

When it was time to move on, we decided to take the scenic route to Cromer in North East Norfolk, rather than the much more sensible and direct road. This was a mistake. The road was narrow, winding and decidedly (for Norfolk) lumpy. At one point, in the village of Cley-Next-The-Sea, the road narrowed perilously, to the extent that only a cyclist could comfortably negotiate the road (if they tucked their elbows in!). Luckily, a 12 ton truck pulled out in front of us and with a pioneering spirit, barged all on-comers out of the way while we followed along in its wake.

And so we arrived in Cromer...


Sunday, 15 March 2009

Snowflakes and Warm Cakes

When the snow finally melted in Cherry Hinton we left Cambridge and headed for Norfolk. First stop Sandringham, on the estate of the Queen’s country retreat no less.

En route we stopped at one of the many mobile roadside 'caffs' for a fried egg buttie. I have never seen so many trailers procuring fried food on one ‘A’ road. Usually you miss one and you’ve blown it till the next county. We are often peckish on the journey and we always seem to be on the road at lunchtime. Those caravanners who turn up at the site at one minute past the permissible noon arrival time are as sensible as they are predictable. But they are missing out on a great British tradition; eating in your car in a lay-by.
Note to self though, next time I’m offered broken eggs, just say “No”. It’s like eating a semi dried-out bath sponge. They break them while they’re frying! Eggs are meant to be runny, and dripping yolk is surely one of the attractions of an egg sarnie.
Anyway, lesson learnt. We usually have a nice little chat with these spatula-wielding heroes of the road. They like the look of the Airstream and often identify with our enjoyment of the nomadic life. This one was no exception. Our chef was a young woman who had quit the rat race for a simpler life, being her own boss and providing food for the peckish traveller.

The site at Sandringham had just opened its gates that morning, after the winter break. There were a couple of other vans when we arrived, but since it can accommodate over two hundred we could choose our ideal pitch. The warden guided us to a little copse and we set ourselves up between the trees as snow began to fall.
Within minutes snowflakes the size of fifty pence coins were floating down and gently covering the ground and clinging to the trees. Ever looked straight up at the sky while snow is falling? It's a kind of slow motion tumbling effect and seems to come from infinity.

Once inside, all set up and watching the darkening sky cast a bluish light over the snow it became obvious that what was needed was some freshly baked madeleines and a pot of tea. You know how it is? The wintry weather had recently brought out the baker in Pete, which was then passed on to me. I hadn't baked since compulsory cookery classes at school. Now I've made chocolate chip cup cakes and madeleines in the space of a week. I think we should put these newfound compulsions on hold until our friend Helen visits again though. These confections are so heavenly while still warm. You try having just one, or two. We need help with the eating. Well we don't but we ought to.

That night was one of those disturbed sleeps peculiar to trailers and vans. It had nothing to do with eating too much cake, actually. It sounded like it was raining with added intermittent sounds of objects thudding on the roof. Reluctant to wake fully and make sense of it all I felt very disoriented. I expected to find dents in the trailer roof the next day. Obviously it was lumps of snow losing their grip and plopping on top of us from the branches above. It is so obvious when you are awake.

A couple of days later Pete entered a postcode into the sat nav and took me on a mystery journey. We arrived at Thetford Forest park and I started to guess what he had planned. For some time now he has been suggesting that I could put aside my fear of heights and thoroughly enjoy a session at Go Ape. He was absolutely right!
Go Ape is a series of obstacles constructed from wood and rope and arranged around trees about thirty feet above ground. You are instructed in the safe use of your harness so that from the moment you leave the ground until you complete the course you are always attached safely. You start on a low level platform, practise using a zip slide and before you know it you are shimmying across wires, ropes and wobbly swinging contraptions, or hurtling through the trees till you bash into a giant rope net.
Not only did I enjoy myself too much to be scared, but I was picked by our instructor to go first. A couple of hours of challenging fun felt more like thirty minutes and the whole thing finished with the longest zip slide ever, Weeeee!!!
Blooming marvellous. Naturally, we ached everywhere for the next two days.