Category Archives: Other Musings

Seven wild swims: musings on their meaning to us

1: Wild Atlantic Ocean swim, Loch Slapin inlet, Isle of Skye
One Christmas Day, after placing our turkey to roast in our rented cottage’s oven, we quickly drove the short distance to the raging Atlantic coast.  We were on the western edge of the rural coastline near Torrin, on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. We stripped and suited up, then braced ourselves for entering the foaming, coast-battering surf.  We swam short lengths parallel to the coast, through breaking waves and fine, salty spray, feeling the raw power of the sea hit us with every new fold of incoming waves.

Isle of Skye (2)

Isle of Skye (1)

Rain began to fall as we swam, adding a new, stinging dimension to our activity. We returned to shore to face a deluge and no possibility of drying off, so drove back still in wetsuits wrapped in sodden towels, dripping and slightly delirious with laughter. Nothing builds an appetite like a hard swim in a wild sea.  With the heat sucked from your very bones you crave the warming caress of excess calories, consumed by the comforting warmth of a log fire.  Our afternoon Christmas feast that day was a study in contrast to our bracing, exhilarating morning. 

2: Refreshing River Dart dip in Sharrah pool, Dartmoor, England.
After a forty minute forest hike loaded with anticipation, we finally arrived at the celebrated Sharrah Pool on the River Dart. We gladly found ourselves alone and changed into wetsuits quickly, with excitement growing for our cooling dip.  The deep pool is easily 80 metres long and crystal clear, surrounded by thin, bowing trees and dark granite rocks. The fast-flowing river makes a strong entrance at one end of the pool, creating an ‘endless pool’ treadmill useful for longer training sessions.

Sharrah Pool (1)

Sharrah Pool (2)

The water soon slows and the central, deepest area of the pool is calmest, allowing for mellow reflection or restful floating. The water enticed us, nymph-like, to remain in its grasp for at least an hour, swimming lengths and playing joyfully, like the free, unburdened children we once were. A few walkers passed us silently, but no other swimmers joined us in the inviting water, and we felt gladly selfish for having the intoxicating experience all to ourselves.

3: Small stream-fed moorland loch swim on the Isle of Arran, Scotland
We swam in a small lake hidden in the mountains, surrounded by tall dark cliffs of granite on three sides.  This was on the day before our wedding, on a chilly afternoon on the Isle of Arran.  Like a required ritual, a physical extension of our vows to-be, taking to the brooding water together became an integral part of the story; our story.

Isle of Arran (1)

Isle of Arran (2)

The bracing hike in, the changing into wetsuits, the first tentative dip to the deeply chilly plunge, the tingling relief from the gripping cold on exit; all these actions were complicit in the creation of a personal, meaningful and shared memory for us both.  The chilling water temperature precluded any lingering so our swim was bracingly brief, yet the remembrance of the fading sunlight on the dark water and the silent, personal solitude of the remote loch setting will long remain with us, alongside our committed vows. 

4: Small circular tarn near Wrynose Pass, Lake District, England
We walked one New Year’s Day to Blea Tarn, in the Lake District, where we changed by a stone wall away from the dog walkers.  We slowly, hesitantly, readied ourselves to slip into the reflective darkness. The wetsuits, hats and goggles, once on, transformed us into curiosities, persons of interest, and we were watched by many passing eyes as we made our way to the water.

Blea Tarn (1)

Blea Tarn (2)

A landscape photographer setting up his tripod nearby was disappointed by our first splashes as we rippled the silky mirror on the tarn and removed the sharp, mountainous reflections. The peaty water would take hours to reform to the same glassy stillness, and we felt a little guilty that our passion had trespassed into that of another.  But the view from the centre of the lake revived us and reconfirmed our reasons for being here; to be surrounded by wild beauty and enveloped in the masterful, soft embrace of the haunting black masseur. 

5:  Coastal rock pothole plunge pools, Risør, South Eastern Norway
We had three swims in Norway within our first 40 hours after arrival.  The first of these was very special and memorable, if only for the contrasting difference from our wet-suited norm. We parked a few miles away, hiked through sparse woodland and skipped over volcanic rocks to find the pothole-strewn coastline of south-eastern Norway, close to Risør. Skinny-dipping in chilly pools doesn’t lead to lengthy swim times, but it creates a sharp shock in memory of the shared, vital experience.

Norway potholes (1)

Norway potholes (2)

We felt freedom from convention as we shed clothes, stood naked on the edge of a deep, unknown pool and slowly progressed in, suppressing the instinct to scream aloud as the water slipped around our goose-bumped skin like a coat of ice.  We faced the gripping, tactile sensation of cold water on flesh head-on, exciting nerve endings and chilling blood flow and digits. We kept our heads free and above the surface to avoid deep brain chill as we breast-stroked lengths of the formed pool, breathlessly inhaling and exhaling to repel the deep cold.  We left the water and towelled off, shivering and smiling.  Walking back, we felt so awake, energised and alive; buzzing, readied for anything; a wonderful introduction to our explorations in Norway.

6: Sheltered Atlantic bay swim, Isle of Harris, Scotland
Another memorable New Year’s Day swim, another Scottish island set in bright, turquoise Atlantic waters. This time we hiked from our cottage to a nearby beach, armed with warming flasks of tea and cake to enjoy after.  First we changed out of our hats and winter coats on the empty, misty sand, feeling wary of the chill in the still January air.  But the water surprised us, and we surprised ourselves; the Gulf Stream had gifted us a warmed stretch of coast, relatively speaking.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

We weathered the winter temperatures easily and swam long lengths along the shore, enjoying cutting through the low mist hovering just above the calm surface. The swim lifted us, prepared us mentally for the upcoming year, it acting as a symbol of barriers crossed and obstacles overcame. Afterwards we felt ready for anything, the warming tea back on shore creating a deep bubble of happiness and rising contentment inside; a moment of sublime connection to water, and to each other.

7: Fast flowing swim in the river Nene, Wadenhoe, England
We drove from home to the pretty village of Wadenhoe, one warm, quiet weekend morning. We parked at the King’s Head pub, our usual spot, and prepared to swim.  We entered the water and swam right, upstream, in chilly fast-flowing water from the recent rains. We worked hard, a proper training session more than a necessary hit for our swim addiction.  We passed curious cows and tickling trees reaching into the water.

Wadenhoe (2)

Wadenhoe (1)

An hour of graft up-stream later, we thought it best to turn and head home, not quite realising the strength of the rain-fuelled flow we had swam against.  We lay on our backs, legs entwined, and floated much quicker than we had swam, reliving the journey with no effort other than holding hugs and smiles of pure joy.  We arrived back, suitably rested from our earlier efforts, in less than twenty minutes, delivered like logs on a flume.  A workout with a built-in reward; the relaxing, current-assisted float an uplifting delight.

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80 days around the W…est of Europe

So, we thought it might be interesting to post a quick synopsis of our first 80 days on the road, to capture how we’re getting on to date.  As I’m sure was the same for Mr Fogg, some days it feels like we’ve been on the move for a lot longer than we have, other days it’s like we’ve barely started and have only scratched the surface of our visiting potential.  Our days are still jam-packed with interests and activities, but time is still marching by much faster than we’d like.

Here’s a rough approximation of our route so far;  beginning in Lincolnshire, then heading first down the west coast of France, across northern Spain, into Portugal and zigzagging south until we reached the Algarve, then east back into southern Spain.  We’re currently in Granada as we post this update, on day 80 of our trip.

80-days-route-map

We’re tracking every penny spent whilst away on the road, because we want to see if it’s a fully sustainable way of life for us.  We can then compare what we spend our money on and track if our outgoings in specific areas need to be tweaked.  Also, because I’m a bit of a statistics geek and like to play with our growing spreadsheets to see what conclusions can be formed from the information gathered, all manner of comparisons of costs across months and countries can be made.

So far we have spent less than our initial projected budget; Portugal has been the cheapest country to date, with 31 days of travelling there with an average spend of just over €25 per day.  This was over 35% below our original budget projections, so we are proving to be more frugal on the road than our starting expectations.  This is definitely a good thing as it allows us a surplus for unseen surprises and unexpected costs if and when they occur.

Unsurprisingly, food and provisions brought from supermarkets is our highest cost item, run close with diesel for Benny.  The percentage spend on diesel will no doubt diminish over the coming months as we covered a lot of miles in France in a hurry, and our pace of moving on since then has dropped significantly.

So, in these first 80 days on the road, we will have:

– Driven in excess of 3700 miles, in three countries (not including England), for an average of 46 miles driven per day.  We’ve split the driving fairly equally ( A-1889, N-1831 to date)

– Had our fuel costs and driving efficiency (27.6 mpg) average out to around €0.17 per mile

– Parked Benny in 51 different overnight stops (39 nights in free aires, 28 nights in paid aires, 6 nights in campsites, 5 nights outside a friend’s apartment, 2 nights at friend’s houses) and many more for local day parking stops

– Cycled over 650 kilometres, mostly off-road, with 18 outings on our bikes (including 7 rides of at least 50km)

– Walked over 340 kilometres (GPS tracked) and probably a lot more kilometres that weren’t specifically recorded

– Swam a lot less than we wanted to / should have, but the Atlantic seas have been wild and pools mostly closed for winter

– Had our sketchbooks out on only four occasions (a figure that definitely needs to change going forward)

– Realised that Portuguese, whilst looking similar to Spanish, in no way sounds like it is written when spoken.  But also, we’ve found that a lot of Portuguese people speak decent French (but not Spanish), so that’s been helpful.

Budgeting

Shopping for food is much the same as at home, with the exception of cheeses, which are sometimes silly expensive and often awful.  We’ve recently found that Lidl stores are the more dependable in terms of cheese supply, and do often stock cheddar, salad cheeses and feta for sensible prices, so we stock up there where we can.

Some other items are much cheaper than at home; for example:

We recently bought a litre of red wine for €0.69, another litre for €0.89 and a third, this one a premium label, for €1.10.  We thought it best to try each of the available levels, to see which is better, or at least our favourite.  That’s three litres of red wine for €2.68, or as that volume equates to four standard 750ml bottles, a cost of €0.67 each.  That is, at the time of writing, a whopping average bottle cost of 57p.  This immediately makes us wonder at both the quality of this product, but also the level of mark-up included on a standard bottle of wine available at home.

The first litre was rather poor; it was 10%, but looked and tasted less, more like a red that had been cut with water to dilute it for volume, with no expectation of taste.  To be fair, we weren’t expecting much, and got exactly what we paid for.  The second was actually a lot better, a 12% deep, fruity red that was reasonably tasty and went down very nicely.  The third, the premium label, was quite different, sharp and bitter, and neither of us were left impressed.  So, we found our ‘everyday’ wine – a €0.89 per litre red from Don Simon (or occasionally Peñasol).  This certainly keeps our costs down, as now our favourite (cheap) biscuits cost more than a bottle of red.  It’s also become a joking marker for any other expenses we have; a €3.50 parking charge now gets equated to 4 litres of wine – is it worth it?  Doing €8 worth of laundry – are you mad, that’s 9 litres of wine, or 12 bottles!  We do occasionally treat ourselves to a posh bottle costing around €3, because, hey, life’s too short.

We separated our running expenses into various categories, described below in words that we shamelessly stole from other long timer motorhome bloggers we’ve previously followed on the Internet.  (Many thanks, Adam and Sophie.)

FOOD – Food bought from a supermarket / shop. This includes wine and beer, but not eating out
FUEL – Diesel for Benny
LPG – Propane gas for cooking, heating and running the fridge when not on sites
TRANSPORT – Tolls, vignettes, ferries, bridges, public transport & parking when not overnighting
EATING OUT – Eating and drinking out in restaurants and bars (also includes snacks & ice creams)
OVERNIGHT STAYS – Cost of sites, aires or parking overnight, where a cost applied
ENTERTAINMENT – Entry fees for museums, galleries, castles, cathedrals, attractions and other events etc..   Note: This also includes personal items such as clothes, laundry & other misc. items

The current ratio of our spending is as per the image below:

EXPENDITURE - Benny Travels.xlsx

This changes a little on a daily basis, but the general theme that feeding ourselves is the biggest expense, followed by fuel for travel, with every other expense lagging behind, is reasonably constant.  As we’re spending a fairly low amount (around €250 / month) on food, this really puts the cost of this lifestyle into perspective.  Other than eating out more, and we love to cook so this is not too much of a hardship, we don’t deny ourselves much at all.

In short, all is going well and looking sustainable going forward.  We’re comfortable with our pace, our spending and our level of activity.  We really need to be running under budget for this portion of our trip, as we will be splashing out for a few weeks of skiing in the French Alps come February, and that doesn’t come cheap.

We do sometimes feel that, even though we have all this time to ourselves and few other external commitments, we don’t quite seem to be achieving all that we’d hoped for in the free time we have.  We’re visiting places and learning their history, reading books, enjoying beaches, cycling routes and trekking mountains, but these are all the expected activities of our trip.  The mundane, everyday things; shopping, cooking, laundry, servicing for Benny (e.g. Emptying waste tanks, filling up with drinking water etc..) all take up a greater portion of our time than we thought they would, and we don’t seem to be able to fit in enough of the luxury extras – playing guitar, writing for pleasure, sketching, learning languages.  Or, it could be that we are falling into the lazy ways of the recently unemployed and time-rich and making the typical excuse of “we’ll have time for all that tomorrow”.  We hope it’s not the latter and that we make the effort and recommit to achieving the goals we aimed for at the outset of our journey.  It’s only 105 days now until our first return to the UK, six months into our trip.

AMEO Powerbreather (Wave edition)

ameo-powerbreather-kit

We first took the Powerbreather with us to a beach in Santander.  Our only other proper beach visits previously were in Dinard and on Île de Ré, but as we’d cycled on both occasions, the Powerbreather unfortunately hadn’t made the cut in our rucksacks.  Santander was the first time we’d parked Benny on the coast near the beach, so we carried the Powerbreather down the winding stone path to the inviting blue of the Cantabrian Sea, for its first outing.

After a quick review of the instructions we headed into the surf.  First impressions were mixed as the membranes in the blue horn attachments that protect the user from ever breathing water also provide some level of resistance to the passage of air, thus making the experience of breathing in an effort beyond the norm.  Similar to using a regulator when scuba diving, the discipline of breathing in and out only using the mouth also takes a little concentration and practice at first.  In choppy surf and strong pulling currents, this proved a little too difficult as there were too many variables to overcome to allow a smooth first testing of the device. Plus, there was a level of anxiety associated with breathing; a hesitant feeling that, although the previous breath had been just fine, this unnecessarily existent but constantly nagging doubt that the next breath wouldn’t be so easily available was always there.  Bizarre, but that was the psychological reality of the first outing.

az-on-santander-beach

After deciding a vibrant, Cantabrian Sea was probably not the ideal place for a first test for unfamiliar apparatus, we awaited a more suitable time to try again.  As it turned out, our next campsite, La Viorna in the Picos de Europa, had a very nice 25m (or maybe 25 yards – never thought to ask) swimming pool.  As only we and perhaps six other guests in the campsite used the pool during our entire three day visit, this proved a much more suitable location for our product test to proceed.

With the water surface much calmer and the swimming simpler, we were allowed a greater level of control in both stroke and breathing, and thus much more confidence in the use of the device, considering it was firmly strapped to our head.  A few easy lengths of the pool brought familiarity and understanding of how best to regulate breathing levels and how to integrate this into our front crawl stroke without the need to turn our head.  It’s slightly unnatural, swimming straight without deliberately turning to breathe, and the psychological aspect leads one to not breathe when required by the stroke.  There is still a strange and unnecessary fear that no air will be available, even though it is and it will be easily on each reoccurring breath.  It’s a simple trust issue, and took many lengths and many more breaths to finally overcome and accept that the Powerbreather works exactly as it should.  It was only then that we could both settle in and breathe naturally, in time with our strokes as normal.

az-swimmng-with-powerbreather

Much more than a mere snorkel, being able to tumble-turn, breathe and exhale without concern of water ingress is a big advantage, as is the opportunity to concentrate solely on small tweaks to one’s stroke, removing one level of complication until the expected change becomes second nature.

Many, many thanks to MarkP (AKA MP and MtP on comments here) and his wife Sophie for a very thoughtful leaving gift; it may take a while for us to get fully to grips with the best way to utilise the Powerbreather and reap the rewards in our training swims, but we’re both very glad we have the opportunity to practice with it (even if we do look a tad silly with it on).  It certainly raised a few inquisitive eyebrows and queries from other pool users curious in what it was we had, sparking a few interesting conversations at poolside;  all good.

Midsummer Nights in London

One long June day, with plans afoot, we drove under clouded skies to the north of London.  The weather slowly improving with every mile south, and with a promise of better yet to come, we parked up near Golders Green, on the Northern Line, to begin what could prove to be our last visit to London for at least a few years.

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With no real route in mind, we hopped off the tube at Goodge Street, near the BT tower, and walked through leafy parks and beautiful Georgian squares to the British Museum. Not wanting to be inside too long, we did a quick loop of the foyer under the spectacular roof and visited a part of the European history display on the third floor (Sutton Hoo) before heading on our way again.
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Wandering south we next reached Covent Garden, loud and lively with bustling crowds, live music and street performers.  We paused briefly for a small injection of culture, to watch a lively string quintet play rousing pieces in the covered market.
Our next stop was Somerset House, home of the Courtauld Gallery, an important collection of impressionist paintings.  We sat in the neo-classical courtyard, watching kids (and adults) play boisterously in the vertical jets of the fountain display.
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We walked slowly along the embankment to Blackfriar’s Bridge, before cutting left to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral.  A quick explore here then onward south, across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern gallery on the south bank.  Unfortunately the main hall was between installations, so with nothing new to see we wandered on.
We passed by the Globe theatre (more of this later) before stopping in the Anchor pub for a relaxing shandy on the roof terrace.  Suitably refreshed, we passed the Clink Prison museum and Drake’s Golden Hinde (a ship I first boarded over 30 years ago now), before rounding Southwark cathedral and passing under London bridge.
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Hay’s galleria was next where more live music greeted us, this time in the form of a duet playing Eastern European accordion music.  The tunes were pleasantly apt in the iron-framed ambiance of the large space housing Kemp’s impressive bronze sculpture ‘The Navigators’.  The views of London’s north bank skyline were nicely framed from here, showing off new targets to aim for in our rambling explore.
 HMS Belfast, a Royal Navy light cruiser permanently moored just beyond the galleria, is now a successful and popular museum.  With its dazzle camouflage patterns and impressive armoury it provides a stark contrast to the glitz of the southbank.  Next on our walk we reached the ‘Scoop’ adjacent to the City Hall, where some festivities were undeway, not least the attempt to bring a Jamaican vibe to the Thames.  Maybe with a few more cocktails and we could have embraced it.
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A quick ice cream and we climbed to cross Tower Bridge, heading north side again in the direction of the Tower of London.  We walked along the Thames promenade, enjoying views of the southside again with the Shard behind, to Tower pier then north to Trinity Square gardens. Zigzagging north and a little west, we arrived at the Gherkin and the Leadenhall building, before crossing to Threadneedle street and the Bank of England.  Here I tried to explain the merits of no.1 Poultry (James Stirling’s last completed building) but I failed to convince my dubious audience (Nicky) of the values of Post Modernism.
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With time now pressing, we found a pub for a quick bite to eat and wandered back across Southwark bridge to our main goal for this trip – a night at Shakesphere’s Globe theatre. We were here to see Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummers Nights Dream’, a fantastical tale of interwoven lives, lovers and fairies with hilarious confusion and mayhem.
“The course of true love never did run smooth…
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The Globe theatre was a visual treat, helped greatly by the muggy summer weather and a light cooling breeze. The building was rebuilt in 1997 to replicate the original 1599 design; three storey with a circular (actually a 20-sided polygon) plan.  The Globe has no roof over the performance stage and spectator standing area, with only a short thatch cover to the edge tiered seating; an arrangement similar to a football stadium. If it rains, the players get wet but the show goes on. We had seats on the uppermost level of the East Tower, on the front row of the balcony. This offered great views of the action and the crowd below, and a comfortable resting position throughout the performance. The warm night air also assisted our comfort as it afforded the use of coats as makeshift cushions on the hard wooden benches.
“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind…”
The performance was terrific- a modern interpretation of the classic Shakespeare comedy; high energy with quick humour, contemporary musical interludes and naughty sexual overtones. It even concluded with a Bollywood dance number.
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The players, especially Katy Owen as Robin Goodfellow, fully interacted with the standing audience, rubbing, squirting, holding, hugging and even kissing audience members during her energetic and mischievous portrayal of the naughty Puck.  The directorial change of Helena (female) to Helenus (male) added another layer of spicy complication to the lovers’ confused infatuations when enchanted by fairie magic. The physical humour and high-energy slapstick farce of it was most admirably played by all, although purists beware.
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The play, the performances, the weather and the glorious setting in the historic Globe theatre all combined to provide a night’s entertainment of magical proportions and a very worthy finale to a great day spent in the capital; well met, all.
A&N.

Dipping a toe into Freediving

With our self-inflicted delay affording us the opportunity to have another full spring and summer in the UK before departing, we’ve been very keen to ensure we fill our diary with lots of interesting activities and events.  With a weekend in Feb free from Six Nations matches and other likely distractions, we managed to book ourselves onto a fairly local (based in Oxford) ‘Introduction to Freediving‘ course, hosted by Gofreediving.com’s Emma Farrell.

EmmaFarrell-Freediving2

Emma is a renowned member of the freediving community in the UK (and wider afield) and offered us her huge range of experience in her introductory presentation.  We learnt about the history of this growing and fascinating sport, the physiological characteristics implicit in all of us that contribute to safe breathing control, along with the more technical and serious aspects of how to control the urge to breathe and how to recognise hypoxic fit symptoms etc.

Then it was on to the pool to test our new knowledge in practice, with initial demonstrations before we buddied up and attempted our first go at a timed static apnoea.  We took calm, relaxed and shallow breaths floating on the surface of the water as if in a comfortable bath, before a quick deep breath, a long and full exhale of all air from the lungs, then a final three-stage breath first filling the diaphragm area of the belly, then the lungs in the chest, then a final large gulp of air with an wide open mouth.  We then smoothly rolled over to float in the water face down, relaxing the body fully and holding this final breath for as long as we were able.  The buddy stood adjacent in the water, helping the freediver to stay steady and calm with gentle tweaks and encouraging words.  The urge to breathe – brought on not by a lack of oxygen, as our blood, muscles and lungs are fully saturated in O2 in reality, but only by a CO2 build-up trigger that we can learn to control with practice – was unusually lacking and the overwhelming calmness of the environment meant we managed to hold our breath much longer than either of us had expected.  Nicky achieved over 1 1/2 mins, Aaron over 2 1/2 mins, with definitely more to come.

Our next lesson was the more active dynamic apnoea, swimming lengths of the pool on the bottom with one breath, whilst practising our slow, long fin kicking technique. This gave us the chance to further practice the breathing techniques prior to holding our breath and to apply them in a more realistic scenario, with us moving, swimming and diving as we would in a normal holiday exploration.  We found this working well and our confidence grew throughout our time in the water.

Nicky fins

In all, a very interesting and worthwhile introductory course, and one we hope to follow up with further training courses to help improve and expand our knowledge and enjoyment of freediving.  The techniques learnt will be invaluable in opening up areas and experiences potentially not otherwise available, and can also be applied to assist our swimming, our kayaking, and our general breathing control and comfort in any other physical activity.