Saturday 22nd February – Swindon to Chester (163 Miles)
It had not been the best nights sleep for either of us, I was kept awake until 3am by the incessant barking of a dog, I am not sure whether it was the wind flapping the plastic bicycle cover on the back of ‘Big Momma’ that was making the dog bark, but there was nothing I could do about either, although had I have had a gun I could have stopped one of the noises, the other I had got used to hearing over the last few months !! At which point, upon reading this, I have probably just lost all my canine loving readers who have quickly figured out that filling a plastic bicycle cover full of holes probably would not have resolved the immediate issue of the noise ?
And so it was that we awoke less than refreshed on a day that would see us making a four-hour road journey. Shazza had ‘volunteered’ herself to do the driving today, it isn’t as if she hasn’t driven it before but she is a little nervous about handling a vehicle of this size and perhaps it is also a little to do with her previous ‘driving’ experiences in ‘Big Momma’, which have unfortunately all involved some sort of mechanical breakdown. But we both knew that she had to be capable of driving should the situation ever arise whereby I couldn’t, for whatever reason, and so once a year Shazza the ‘Co-Pilot’ takes the controls.
Helen, who visited us yesterday had said jokingly that she would come to watch Shazza drive out of the ‘yard’, around the potholed road and barn, through the five bar gate (hopefully not literally), and make the forty-five degree angle turn into, and up, the potholed narrow single track lane to the main road. I had every faith in Shazza, helped somewhat by the two ‘Valium‘ tablets that Helen had kindly given to me the day before ! However, had Helen have turned up at the allotted departure time she would have had a long wait. Shazza and I had both got on with our ‘ready to move’ routines and as I did the last-minute external checks I told Shazza to get ‘Big Momma’ started and ready to go. There was no sound of the engine starting, I initially thought that Shazza had more than likely turned on the ignition and was getting ‘Snoopy’ started up with the pre-programmed route. When I climbed aboard into the unfamiliar ‘passengers seat’ she announced that ‘Big Momma’ wouldn’t start and she turned the key to demonstrate. Sure enough, all the lights came on but the engine didn’t start, not even the sound of the battery trying to fire up the engine. We had been here before ! However, I still went through the motions, gears in ‘neutral’, turn the key, Nothing !! Although I could see from the vast array of lights brightly lit on the dashboard display that this was not a ‘flat battery’ scenario, I still went and checked the gauge that shows the ‘Battery Condition’, but I already knew the answer before the display confirmed that the battery power was good. Shazza was peeved, “Why does this always happen to me” she declared, I responded unsympathetically, “Your just jinxed” I said. Early last year we had decided to spend a week in Cornwall, I would finish work early on the Friday and get the shopping done and the van packed and prepared to go so that we could depart as soon as Shazza got home from school. With everything done I went to move the van and the same thing had happened, the RAC attended and discovered that it wasn’t a faulty ‘starter motor’ as such but an internal bolt inside some casing that secures the wires to a solenoid, or something like that !! Anyway, this had all the hallmarks of being a repeat of that problem. It’s crazy to think that after all the thousands of miles of bumpy roads we had travelled on in Portugal, as well as being back here in the UK for five weeks already, that this would happen to us now !!
I made the call to the Breakdown service, initially they had quoted a response time of between 1-2 hours !! Whether it had made any difference or not I do not know, but I had explained where we were currently located and where we were headed and they arrived within thirty minutes !! I explained the current problem to the mechanic but also told him of the previous ‘very similar’ problem. After a couple of initial unsuccessful attempts I was fearing the worst but I must give him credit that he had decided to persevere. A few moments after disconnecting the vehicle battery my iPhone rang, a ‘unknown number’, I was going to ignore it but then chose otherwise, it was the voice of a youngish man from my ‘Tracker Control Centre’, his system had shown an alert on my vehicle and he rang to check that I was with my vehicle, or at least that I knew where it was ! After the customary identity verification and exchange of security passwords he was content and stated that he would disable the alarm until I had rung him back once the van was all sorted again. In the meantime, after stopping for a short break to drink the mug of tea that Shazza had made for him, he re-appeared from under the front of the van, turned the ignition and I heard the wonderful sound of ‘Big Momma’s’ engine burst into life. He turned it off and on again a few more times just to be sure that he had resolved the issue. He told me what the problem was and yes, it was the same as the last time, the inner bolt, “A pig of a thing to get at” he explained, but with a triumphant smile on his face. After leaving me with ‘my copy’ of his completed ‘job sheet’ outlining what he had done he drove off with a cheery wave and a smile. I made the call to the ‘Tracker Control Centre’, again going through the security verification, and they confirmed that they had re-set the ‘alarm activation’ for the vehicle. It was only after telling Shazza how pleased I was that the ‘Tracker’ system worked that I got to wondering ‘does the alarm only activate when the vehicle battery is disconnected‘ ? Surely this would mean that someone could steal ‘Big Momma’ and, unless they disconnected the vehicle battery, no alarm would be activated ? I need to check this out, but later, we had a long journey ahead of us.
The incident had not detracted my ‘Co-Pilots’ intention to take the helm and as soon as we had tidied up and I had refreshed her memory on a few basics, namely where the indicator control stalk was, the light switches, windscreen wipers, how to set the ‘cruise control’ and a reminder that it was an ‘Automatic’ gearbox, unlike the car, we were ready to go. I also reminded her that she did not have to drive the whole journey, however I knew that she would just to prove that she could, mainly to herself. I knew she was a little nervous, she too realised that ‘Big Momma’ is not just our mode of conveyance but also our ‘home’ and she didn’t want to damage her, so I got out to guide her through the half-open five-barred gate, the other half couldn’t be opened, and then watched ‘Big Mommas’ rear to ensure that as Shazza swung her out onto the lane that she didn’t take out the telegraph pole that had been inconveniently positioned right on the corner. From their on in Shazza drove ‘Big Momma’ with ease and it wasn’t long before she had the confidence to not only overtake ‘slower’ moving vehicles but also to drive with one hand whilst holding onto and munching on a chicken sandwich held in the other !!
It was an unusual feeling for me too as it wasn’t very often that I got to ride ‘shotgun’ in ‘Big Momma’, but it was also quite nice to be able to relax, look out of the windows at the passing traffic and the Countryside, read my book, enjoy a drink of coffee, eat my chicken sandwiches without having to keep checking my mirrors or just generally concentrate on driving, conduct mobile text conversations with my daughter and even take a few photographs along our journey route, yes, this was actually quite a nice change ! I had made such a big thing on our trip across the water of the tremendous views, well I have to say that here in UK there are also some tremendous views to be had. As we drove up the M5 from the South West, on my right hand-side we had views of the Cotswolds whilst on the left the Welsh Mountains and in the nice winter sunshine, with the combination of blue skies, white clouds and the rolling green countryside it served to remind me that we really do have some beautiful places, sometimes we don’t appreciate what is on our own doorstep. My only complaint is with all the trees that line the motorways that prevented me from taking any decent landscape photographs.
Shazza had enjoyed the drive, once again she was at ease in the knowledge that if she ‘had’ to drive ‘Big Momma’ she could cope without too much trepidation, mind you, she was aware that her journey today had been either dual carriageway or Motorway, single track and smaller roads may require a different level of skills and concentration but we will leave those for another trip !
Once we had got the arrival formalities of booking in sorted we went in search of a ‘pitch’. Although the site was busy we were delighted to find a good-sized one right opposite the ‘facilities’ block as well as a conveniently placed ‘Service Point’ a few steps away and with a good WiFi signal and Satellite TV signal this would do us very nicely for the next five days thank you. I had the additional bonus of being situated in a good ‘People Watching’ spot, not only from all the other units to the Right and Left of us but also everyone visiting the shower blocks. It did make me smile at some of the sights as people went for either their evening or morning ‘ablutions’, dressing gowns and slippers or even ‘wellies’, onesies, ladies with rollers in their hair or towels stacked up on their heads, wonderful, was there any need for me to leave the warmth and comfort of ‘Big Momma’ with all this entertainment able to be viewed from my perfect vantage point.
I cannot put into words the actual feeling of waking up in the morning and with a hot mug of coffee just sitting in bed, looking up through the big Heki Skylight at the sky above. It is like having your own small square frame of sky, sometimes blue sky with clouds slowly drifting by or like today, heavy grey clouds at various heights being pushed at breakneck speed by the blustery wind, the occasional fleeting glance of birds or leaves as they dip and dive in the maelstrom outside or even the droplets of water on the Heki being moved around like ever-changing pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, it is just so relaxing watching the varied performances being played out above our heads whilst being tucked up nice and warm under the Duvet whilst of course listening to Steve Wrights ‘Sunday Love Songs’, absolute bliss and being a weekend there was no rush to get up ! However, there is only so much laying in bed one can do, isn’t there ? We had no real plans for today but after another coffee to wash down the bacon baguette we decided to go and take a look at the large ‘McArthur Glen Outlet Village’ a mere twenty-minute stroll from the site entrance. This was a much larger affair than the one we had in Swindon and although we had no intentions of purchasing anything it did serve a purpose. The buses into Chester went from here so we popped into the Tourist Information Office to check the timetable for the weekday schedule and discovered that we needed a No.1 bus which ran every twenty-minutes. I sincerely hope that unlike our extended bus trip on the No.1 bus at Peterborough this No.1 only ran on one route !! It’s amazing what else you can see when you are wandering around, today a local falconry centre, which exists primarily on private and charitable donations, had a number of their birds on display………………
Not being much of a shopper these ‘Raptors’ were a welcome distraction. We also noticed that there was a multi-screen cinema complex so perhaps if we become ‘Confined to Barracks’ during the day because of bad weather, which was looking a distinct possibility, then we could perhaps go and watch a movie followed by a stop at one of the many eateries, McDonald, TGI Friday, Kentucky, Harry Ramsden’s or even one of the two ‘Harvester’ style pubs. Not that we ever tend to get bored but certainly from this site there are plenty of opportunities to get out and do something. I knew that the River Dee runs through, or at least alongside, Chester but also the Shropshire Union Canal is close by as well, so perhaps we will get a chance to do some Narrowboat and Barge watching along the towpath. If the Canal towpath activity doesn’t materialise it won’t really matter as at our next five-day halt I know there is a Canal, Towpath and even a Marina. the strange coincidence is, and I have already mentioned this recently, I have found a renewed interest in reading books again, well it never really went it was more a matter of the books I like weren’t available. In the last two weeks I have read four books, all to do with people who live full-time on either a barge or Narrowboats. The last two books are pretty recent events about a young lad called ‘Dan’ (The Narrowboat Lad) who bought himself a Narrowboat and lives on it full-time. The coincidental bit is that he is from these parts and talks about Chester, Wrexham, Ellesmere Port, Oswestry and our next location ‘Chirk’, which is how I have discovered that there is a Marina there, who knows we may just meet him on one of our walks !!
We finished our ‘window shopping’ and headed back the short distance towards the campsite, but not before a quick detour into the very large ‘Sainsbury’s‘ Supermarket where Shazza wanted to purchase some meat for a meal later in the week. She couldn’t find it on the shelved sections so I thought I would be helpful and sauntered over to the young lady at the butchery counter and said “I’m looking for a bit of skirt“, at which point Shazza caught up with me and dragged me away and apologised to the young girl behind the butchery counter who was still giggling, “What ?” I exclaimed, in my bestest innocent voice and schoolboy grin on my face, but Shazza just gave me one of ‘her looks‘ and said “You know what” !!
It had been a very windy night and the cycle cover was flapping away merrily but we were warm and cozy inside. We had checked the weather forecast before going to bed and had anticipated a wet start to the day with it drying out around mid-morning. I had awoken in the early hours to raindrops dancing on the roof, but it was far too early to get up and put the kettle on so I pulled the Duvet back over my shoulders and willingly fell asleep again. When I awoke again, at a more respectable hour, the rain had stopped and although earlier than predicted the sun was shining and the sky was blue. We knew that this good break in the weather would be short-lived so decided to make the most of it whilst we could. Today we would walk to the ‘Designer Outlook Centre‘ and take the No.1 bus into Chester. Not only was Chester an old Roman City but like the town of ‘Lugo’ we had visited on our return through Spain, the thriving city existed within the Roman Walls that encircled it. You can walk on the walls all around the City and look out upon the hills of Wales, look down upon the Shropshire Union Canal, known affectionately as ‘The Shroppie’, and also down to the River Dee. Inside the city walls you can see many examples of buildings that were built in the 1600’s and not just the Cathedral or other Churches but houses as well. Like ‘Lugo’ the new has been intertwined with the old and it makes for a very pleasant and interesting day out, or to do it justice, even longer, even for a history heathen like me.
Whilst waiting for our bus we also noted, from the posted timetable at the bus shelter, that you could catch a bus from here to Liverpool City Centre, another potential day out ! We didn’t have to wait long for our bus which would take us right into the City Centre. However, before arriving at our final destination it also dropped and picked up passengers from ‘Chester Zoo’, yet another potential day out ! This CC Site was beginning to turn out to be quite a little gem, not only did it have easy access, minutes from the M53 Motorway, had all the essential facilities, a local pub come restaurant five minutes walk away, but also within a 15-20 minute walk there was a large Supermarket and Fuel Station, very large Designer Outlet with ‘All’ the big named stores and eateries galore but there was also another retail village within walking distance called the ‘Coliseum‘ with even more big name stores but also a ‘bowling alley’, ‘Vue‘ multi-screen cinema and even more eateries. If that wasn’t enough there were local lanes to explore, either on foot or bicycle and then there were all these ‘other’ places you could visit by bus, virtually on your doorstep.
We arrived at the bus station, which was conveniently located just behind the main City Centre, and the first thing that we see is a ‘Vintage Bus’ advertising a ‘City Tour’. If there is one thing that we have learnt from all our foreign travels, not just from our recent fulltiming trip, is that a city tour bus can provide a very good overview of places that you may wish to explore in more depth on foot a little bit later, so we boarded the bus.
Upon completion of our relatively short, but interesting and informative, Forty minute tour we alighted from our carriage and decided that before starting our ‘Shazza Expedition’ that we required some light sustenance. Normally we would have packed ourselves a light lunch and a flask of coffee but today Shazza had decided to let me off from lugging around a rucksack and so we found ourselves a nice ‘tea room’ and indulged in a light snack and a coffee. As I have said many times, neither of us are interested in ‘window shopping’ and we didn’t need to purchase anything so, suitably fed and watered we opted to make our way to the city wall and walk around it until we found something below the ramparts that needed closer exploration. It wasn’t long before we saw the Chester Canal Basin with Narrowboats moored up and so we descended the wall via the next available steps.
We elected to turn around and head back towards the City and it’s wall as there was more we wanted to see. Once back up on the wall we continued our journey South and came upon ‘Chester Racecourse’, ‘one of the oldest in the country‘ so our tour guide had informed us. I am not a horse race sort of person so I took that piece of information at face value, however, there was another piece of information that she had imparted that had been niggling away at me ! She had confidently stated that “Chester Racecourse was unique because it was the only racecourse where the horses ran around the racetrack in an anti-clockwise direction“. It wasn’t until much later when I recalled that watching the ‘Grand National‘ at ‘Aintree‘ on the TV on numerous occasions that the horses ran in an anti-clockwise direction !! These tour guides can’t half waffle, Shazza commented that she thought I would make a good tour guide, I don’t think it was meant as a compliment somehow but whatever could she mean ?
We walked a little further along the wall until we caught sight of the ‘River Dee’ and decided to find our way down to the Riverside Walk. There are a number of bridges that cross the river to allow vehicles and pedestrians into the City, some are quite modern but we saw and crossed a beautiful original Roman built bridge still serving the same purpose.
We had a good day exploring the parts of Chester that we wanted to see and we were now ready for home, so we entered the city through one of the many walled entrances and made our way towards the bus station. Now I know that I am not that interested in Architecture but I couldn’t leave without getting a few photographs of some of the more interesting bits.
And so back to the bus station which, after a short wait, whisked us back to the Designer Outlook and another short walk back home to ‘Big Momma’. Our day out had lasted six hours and we had walked a distance of 8 miles, so another rather pleasant exercise regime completed !!
we had timed our return to perfection, no sooner had we got back, put the kettle on and made a nice cuppa and the watery stuff came a calling again. We noticed that the campsite had emptied considerably which marked the end of the school half term holiday, yee hah !
We had been turning the heating off at night as it was very mild and even when we awoke it wasn’t exactly freezing, usually at this time of year we would have expected to have woken to frost on the windows and to looking out on white frosted grass, if not a couple of inches of snow, so we were lucky that our first ‘full timing’ winter in the van in the UK was being kind to us. In future years we anticipate not returning from our ‘Winter Sun’ trips until at least March when Spring arrives. However, we awoke again to a nice sunny morning, although the wind had picked up and their was a definite chill in the air compared to yesterday. We had no major ‘Shazza Expeditions’ scheduled for today so we just enjoyed a leisurely morning pottering. Shazza needed some ‘red and green peppers’ to go with the ‘Mexican’ chicken dish she was preparing for this evenings meal. She also needed to get her prescription filled that she was given from the visit to the doctors whilst we were at Swindon. The Pharmacy in Swindon was unable to supply the prescription requirements in full and we couldn’t wait for them to re-order more stock so we took a leisurely stroll to the ‘Coliseum’ retail outlet where there was a large ‘Boots Chemist’. Unfortunately, they too had no stock and offered to order them, but we declined as their was no guarantee when they would arrive and we would be leaving here on Thursday. We walked across to the large Sainsbury’s supermarket to pick up the few other grocery items and whilst in there we noticed that they too had a Pharmacy, third time lucky maybe ? Well they too had no stock but they stated that they could get it by later that afternoon, so we left the prescription and said that we would call back tomorrow.
Now it should just have been a return to the van, a nice meal and then a night relaxing in front of the TV to watch some European football, and it would have been until the power went off. I went out and checked the EHU bollard but the switches hadn’t tripped !! I checked our RCD box located in one of the under seat lockers and that hadn’t tripped either, now I was stumped ! I did the usual, turned all the power buttons off and on again in the vein hope that the mains power would magically come back on, it didn’t ! I went to see the Warden who came across and checked the EHU bollard, no problem there so he checked my EHU cable and confirmed power was going into the van, we were both stumped. He suggested that I call a local caravan auto-electrician who normally comes out to the site and told me to go to the office and his wife would give me the telephone number. When I returned to the van the mains power was back on ! In my absence Shazza had mooched around and had discovered that the RCD box under the seat was not in fact the active RCD box. Well it was an RCD box but not a working one, the actual RCD switch was under a cover on the main ‘Sargant’ control box in an overhead locker ? Why don’t the dealers give you this important piece of information when they do the initial vehicle handover ? Well, thanks to my ‘Investgative’ Shazza we now had our power resumed, well almost but not quite ! Everything was working except the heating system for both the habitation or the water !! No problem I thought, we could use the gas and get the electrical problem sorted tomorrow, well that would have worked if the Gas heating had worked, it didn’t ? Serious head scratching time, no electric or gas !! Surely it had to be a fuse, change fuse and hey presto……..that didn’t work either !! I could feel the frustration building within me, I already knew how useless I was with any kind of Mechanical stuff but something like this had to be something simple, I just didn’t know what to do or where to look next. I stared and stared at the rows of fuses in the ‘Sargant’ control box hoping that a little voice would tell me what the problem was and how to resolve it and it did !! The voice told me to look at all the fuses again, I read what each fuse was for, then as if one had stood out and slapped me in the face I saw one that said ‘fans supply’. I thought about it for a few seconds and it dawned on me that the heating is blown air, blown by what ‘Eric’, yes a fan. My logical mind said to me that if the fan won’t work then perhaps there is a built in safety cut out that will not allow the heaters to work ? I removed the 10amp fuse and replaced it with another from my box of spare fuses, turn on heater controls and……No ! No ! No ! Come on you damn thing I was shouting silently from inside, in my frustration and no real reason or logic for doing so, I removed the fuse and inserted yet another from my box of spares and then turned on the heating control switch again………this time EUREEKA !! the lights came on, it worked, it really worked !! So, why the fuse blew in the first place is something I will never know or understand but what it did confirm is that you cannot trust the fuses you buy from the shops, some are ‘duds’, but how do you check that ? I am sure one or more of my very knowledgable readers will tell me about some sort of fuse testing gizmo I can buy, please !! So what had started out as a leisurely and relaxed sort of day deteriorated into one of utter frustration but ended in one of glory. But sometimes out of the ashes of despair comes something useful, I have learnt today that my RCD box is not ‘the proper’ RCD box and thanks to my ‘beloved’ discovered the real location of the proper one. Also, I have learnt that when you purchase spare fuses it doesn’t actually mean that they all work !! It seems to have been one of those weeks but thankfully all these things have not really been ‘major’ issues, just ones we could have done without !!
I don’t know why anyone ever bothers looking at advance weather forecasts, rarely are they correct and these last few days have been no exception. We had anticipated being ‘confined to barracks’ for the majority of our five days here, but in reality we have enjoyed mainly sunshine and decent temperatures. It has meant that we could get out for walks on most days which is always a bonus. It is ‘moving on’ day again tomorrow but we will not be travelling too far, in fact just down the road to ‘Chirk’ which is very close to the ‘Shroppie’. There is also a Marina there so I will be able to engage in another of my favourite pastimes, ‘Gongoozling‘ ! This is what full time Liveaboards on the canals call ‘Landlubbers‘ who come down to watch the boats. But what will be really good about this particulate campsite is that our very good friends, Paul & Debs, are joining us for the weekend, we should have had a weekend wild camping with them a few weeks ago but I cried off due to the anticipated bad weather, which again didn’t actually materialise !!