GRAND VAN TOUR OF ENGLAND and WALES
LONDON to POLICEMAN’S TREE CAMP via OXFORD.
The aim of our forthcoming trip was to meet up with friends from the past. Our friends live in Dolgellau and Gilwern in Wales, Matlock in Derbyshire, Totnes in Devon and Tincleton in Dorset.
The reality for us when travelling for an extended period is we have to be a tad conservative when it comes to spending our hard-earned dollars. It is often said of us ‘they can live off the smell of an oily rag’ meaning we can live on very little. I must point out however we are not misers. In fact we are very generous when it comes to paying our way.
There are two expensive aspects for us when travelling in England: the cost of getting from one place to another (rail travel in England is expensive compared to countries we have visited so far during this odyssey) and the cost of accommodation. To overcome these two drains on the finances we chose to hire a small commercial van, place a mattress in the back and stay in camping areas or stealth (free) camp in the countryside. The cost per day to hire the van was around $50, which was not all that expensive when one considers the van provided both accommodation and transport.
For some, sleeping in the back of a small van might be considered a little uncomfortable but compared to some places we have slept, such as on the floor of a VW Beetle car, the back of the van was luxurious.
During our 1972/3 winter grand tour of Europe and the Middle East sleeping each night in our VW Beetle and or tent was a toughening up and bonding experience for us both. Some nights it was so cold that condensation from our breath froze the interior of the car and when we woke in the morning it was not unlike waking up in a freezer and some nights were so cold that the car tyres froze to the ground.
The following photograph shows a 1972 cold camp high in the mountains of Greece, and the advantages of stealth camping. Waking up to this view and the wonder of the morning sure beats the claustrophobic confines of a hotel room.
Stealth camping is satisfying as not only does it save money but we are out there with nature, something we both enjoy. It’s pleasant to get up in the morning and feel grass under foot. Camping free with nature induces simplicity in life, something I feel we need in this high technology world. In addition, it is satisfying to know you are beating the system. I think that once you close your eyes you cannot tell the difference between sleeping in a hotel or, in our case on this journey, in the back of a van.
I made the van camping friendly. From a builder’s skip bin I scrounged a sheet of plywood and slipped it under the mattress at the rear and it made a perfect table when pulled out.
The idea of staying in van parks turned out to be a non event as the manager of the first camping area just out of Oxford stated that normally people are not allowed to sleep in the back of vans for safety reasons but because we were only staying one night it would be ok. It was suggested we park our van so people could not see the mattress in the back when the rear doors were open, which is what we would want anyway. Facing the bush is a much nicer aspect than looking at other vehicles.
At another van park the manager flatly refused to allow us to stay. The reason? Our van was not a leisure vehicle, it lacked approved ventilation. The theory was we could suffocate without adequate ventilation and they (the management) would be responsible for our deaths. I pointed out that I had enough common sense to leave a window down when sleeping but he wouldn’t relent. When I asked the manager who made the rules he said the fire department and the caravan club who owned the site. Nearby there was a secluded car park where we thought we might park for the night but we received a severe warning not to camp there as the gates into the car park were locked at sunset. In frustration we left and went searching for a free camp.
Surveillance cameras here, surveillance cameras there, surveillance cameras everywhere. It is estimated that there are 4.2 million surveillance cameras in UK so one has to be careful when stealth camping not to be under the eye of a camera. The maxim, ‘Big brother is watching you’, was a figment of George Orwell’s imagination but I can’t help thinking fiction is becoming reality.
A few days after the exchange with the van park manager I happened to meet a fireman and asked him about the law and sleeping in our van. He confirmed it was against the law. I suggested to him that I have common sense and I wouldn’t have all the van windows up. When I mentioned common sense he stated there is no such thing as common sense these days, the correct political speak is ‘professional judgement’. When extricating someone from a self-inflicted situation rescue workers must use the term professional judgement, not common sense. Using the word ‘common’ implies low class and ‘sense’ in this case suggests the person being rescued is mentally deficient.
In retrospect, the van park manager who refused us an overnight stay did us a favour as we made it a point at the end of each day to ask farm owners if we could camp overnight in their fields. Not one refused, some asked us to join them for meals, offered us showers and on one occasion offered a bed in the farmhouse. In the postings from our Grand Van Tour of England and Wales I relate our experiences with the friendly farmers of England and Wales. Stealth camping in UK is not so easy due to there being few wild places where one can conceal a car easily.
So, back to our first stop after leaving London, Oxford. Our main reason was to visit the Bodleian Library. Affectionately known as the Bod, the name is associated with Sir Thomas Bodley who in 1598 resurrected the rundown University Library. My desire to visit the library was spurred on by the fact that the first book to be printed in Portugal is stored there. Some might say ‘so what’ but how the book ended up in the Bod is an interesting story. I wrote about this book in the Faro post when Bev and I were in Portugal in May last year.
The present day Bodleian Library is purpose built. We were expecting an ancient building and even though older buildings might appear more appropriate for an ancient library old buildings such as the original Bod had insufficient space to house the millions of volumes in its charge.
Of course you cannot just rock up and ask to see a valuable book. Certain formalities have to be gone through and we didn’t have the time for such procedures, however it was still interesting to visit the library and study some of the old books on display. The Bod has over eleven million books on its shelves and as one would expect, some very rare ones.
Unfortunately I was unable to find out the name of the oldest book in the library but I did find out that the oldest paged book in the world is 1316 years old and it’s the St Cuthbert Gospel, a leatherbound edition of the Latin translation of the Gospel of St John. In 2012 the British Museum bought the St Cuthbert Gospel outright following public subscriptions for $18 million dollars.
And whilst on old books and libraries, the oldest library in the world was founded by a Muslim woman 1159 years ago. Bev and I were fortunate to visit this library when we visited Fez in Morocco last year. One could spend a lifetime visiting libraries and bookshops of the world. When I read a book I write in the back where I bought it, how much it cost, where I was when I read it and what I thought of it. Of course, that is only if I own it. I was inspired to do this when I bought a dictionary in England in the 1980s and in the back various owners had written a simple memoir. The dictionary had belonged to a Cambridge University student, a WW2 fighter pilot, a postmaster and then me.
Another library of note in Oxford is the Radcliffe Camera which houses the Radcliffe Science Library. Following is a photograph of its impressive entrance.
In the last post (Return to London) I mentioned that one of my passions was researching the meaning and origins of words and so it is understandable that I had to explore the use of the word ‘camera’ in the Radcliffe Camera. Not having learned Latin I was ignorant of its use when it came to describing a building. Camera in Latin means vaulted room, which of course is what the Radcliffe Science Library is. The use of the word to describe a camera in photography was adopted in the 1800s when the camera was invented. Camera in this case came from the Latin ‘camera obscura’ meaning dark chamber.
The Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera are part of the University of Oxford, which are in the old part of town. In the old part there are many buildings of classical style, a magnet for the likes of us. Bev and I explored the byways, laneways and alleyways on our bikes. Following are a few photographs showing some of our discoveries.
The alternate name for the Hertford Bridge comes from the fact that it looks similar to The Bridge of Sighs in Venice. There are a number of reasons for the Venetian name. The bridge in Venice joined the Old Prison with the interrogation rooms of the courts and when prisoners were taken across the bridge they looked out of the windows and sighed. For some it was their last look at freedom. Another Venetian story suggests that when lovers passed under the bridge and kissed they sighed as an act of eternal love.
There is an interesting feature relating to the above image and that’s the loopholes. The keen observer will note they can accommodate both longbows and crossbows, the vertical slot for the longbow and the horizontal slot for the crossbow.
HM Prison Oxford was built on the site of the Oxford castle from 1785 onwards. The prison was closed in 1995 and was redeveloped as a hotel. The hotel is one in the Malmaison chain of hotels and it occupies a large part of the former prison blocks. Sections associated with corporal and capital punishment have been converted to offices rather than being used for guests. I guess some clients might not sleep too well if they happened to be sleeping in the room next to the gallows or where the cat o’ nine tails was meted out.
Doing porridge’ is British slang for serving a prison sentence. Porridge was served in HM prisons, hence the term. Many readers will remember the British sitcom ‘Porridge’ staring Ronnie Barker. Some sequences were filmed in the old Oxford Prison.
Oxford suffers from traffic congestion, as many towns and cities do in England, and with this in view we parked on the outskirts and rode our bikes into town. On the way in we came across an eccentric style of building perched on the banks of the River Thames, which is sometimes called the Isis River in Oxford.
If the adage that a house reflects the personality of the owner is true then I imagine the original owner must have been quite an eccentric. Is that Aristotle taking refuge against the wall below the deck? The amazing brick patterns and colours beg me to ask whether the original owner requested these phantasmagorical features or did the bricklayer have free reign.
Faces in architectural terms are called mascarons, These two are not only decorative but functional as well.
In Greek mythology Atlas was the Titan god of endurance and astronomy and his job was to hold up the sky for eternity and although associated with many places he was most closely linked with the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Atlas was usually depicted with a globe on his shoulders and because in the above photograph there is no globe the question to be answered is, did he ever have a globe and if so what were the circumstances leading to its fall to earth. I do hope someone who knows will answer me via the comments box.
Of all the buildings I have written about since commencing Encountering the Past in 2012 the eccentric house of Oxford really grabs me and because sometimes I am considered an eccentric, it is natural that I’m attracted to it. I could easily live in this house as it has such an element of individualism.
There have been periods in history when individualism such as shown in the above building was considered to be the enemy of the state. Sigmund Freud said ‘Individualism is the enemy of civilization’. I came across this quote painted on a wall in Poland when Bev and I were riding towards Berlin in 2014.
In an attempt to find out about the history of the house I asked a passerby and he could only tell me the house was built by a solicitor and originally the lower floor had no windows because apparently the owner was concerned that rioting university students would break in.
From Oxford we pushed on northwest passing through the hamlets of Farmoor and Bloxham. Bev has a dislike for making camp in the dark so on this odyssey I decided to pull up early if possible. At a tee intersection that I later learned was called Policeman’s Tree Corner I spotted a farmstead on a rise and leading to it was a magnificent row of oak trees. Not wanting to go anywhere near official camping grounds I thought a camp on the edge of the oak tree drive would be a very satisfactory free farm camp.
When looking for a place to camp I would watch for farmhouses where people were moving about outside and ask if we could camp on their property. I have adopted this approach for years now as coming face to face with a stranger at the door can be confronting and they are less likely to greet you in a friendly manner. Approaching people outside gives them time to look you over.
The owner of the farm (Mark) happily gave us permission to camp in the driveway leading to the house. I asked him how old the trees were and he told me they were planted to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. He didn’t tell me how old he was so I didn’t get an answer to my question. Before leaving the house Mark asked whether we had all we needed. Enquiries of this nature as to our wellbeing were typical of the hospitality extended to us by farmers on whose properties we camped.
In Australia we rarely have to go into properties and ask permission as there is a mass of public land in the form of travelling stock routes, state forests, national parks and reserves near the road.
Near our camp was a small fenced paddock where in past days mounted police patrolling the area camped each night, hence the title Policeman’s Tree Camp.
At this point I should write about how I record activities each day. At the end of each day I write on my laptop a rough draft relating to the day’s activities and during the day I make entries into my concertina book. It does require some discipline and so far I have managed to keep up to date. Following is a copy of the rough draft relating to our camp and an image from my concertina book for the day.
‘The afternoon was pleasant as the setting sun brought a warm glow to our camp. Dinner was simple, tinned salmon and cheese wrapped in lettuce leaves and of course a cup of tea. At sunset we decided to go for a ride but I had trouble with the rear cog of my bike. I think a circlip has broken so it looks like a trip to a Tern dealer tomorrow to get a new one.
Went for a walk instead and about one km from our camp out of nowhere came a storm, we ended up drenched. Back at the car we hung our wet clothes inside and crawled into bed. Very cosy indeed, it is so good to get horizontal and to have a dry warm bed…bliss compared to some camps we have had over the years. I do hope that it doesn’t rain too much tonight because if it does we could leave tracks on the manicured grass edge of the driveway, something I would prefer to avoid’.
Following are a few images showing the countryside around our camp.
Unfortunately I am no expert when it comes to estimating crop yields but after looking up UK wheat production statistics I have calculated that the crop in the above photograph would yield between nine and ten bags to the acre which in Australia would be a bumper crop. A good crop in Australia would be around seven bags to the acre. I expect the difference is because of higher rainfall in the UK.
The reason I have quoted acres above is that I would hate to see the word acre disappear from our language and be replaced with hectares as from an etymological point of view the word acre has an interesting origin. An acre was the area that could be ploughed in one day with a yoke of oxen pulling a wooden plough.
The leaves of the teasel plant are classified as sessile which means they have no stalk and because there is no stalk a cup like receptacle forms where the leaf joins the stalk. The cup shaped receptacle fills with water in which insects become trapped and when they dissolve the insect-laden water brew is taken up by the plant. Recent experiments indicate teasel plants with access to the watery insect brew had increased seed set. If this is the case the teasel plant could be said to be partially carnivorous.
Dried seedpods of the teasel plant were used to raise the nap on some materials and they were also used to card wool. The word teasel is from the Old English to tease. Seeds of the plant are an important food source for some birds, notably the European goldfinch.
That’s the end of Post 1 relating to our Grand Van Tour of England and Wales. I have learned a lot when researching and writing about the topics in this post. I hope you have too and I also hope you will continue to travel with us. Make a comment if you wish and click on FOLLOW if you want to be alerted each time we add a new post to this blog.
The next post of the Grand Van Tour, will describe the town of Ledbury, which Bev informs me has a street that the locals claim is the most photographed street in England and it will also describe the events surrounding how I managed to get my bike repaired in Cheltenham. In closing, an appropriate quote for today about living and learning.
‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever.’