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Campsite Review – Solway View Campsite

In a nutshell

Where:

Solway View Holidays, Balmangan Farm, Borgue, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, DG6 4TR  Web:  http://www.solwayviewholidays.co.uk/   Tel: 01557 870 206 (9am – 8pm) E-mail: n.picken@btconnect.com

Cost:

Campervans/motorhomes/caravans £17.50 per night hard standing & EHU / £14.00 grass pitches – all prices include 2 people plus vehicle.   All prices per night during high season (2017).

Facilities:

Solway View was awarded the Best Campsite in the Scottish Outdoor and Leisure Awards 2016.  It’s located at Balmangan Farm, a 330 acre working beef and sheep farm.   The site is very well run and offers a flat camping field for 25 tents and small campervans (10 with EHU) and 7 hard standing and pitches for caravans/motorhomes.  All pitches have picnic benches and a campfire area.  Five well-equipped wigwams for hire sleep up to 5 people.  Washing facilities are modern, heated and spotless and include disabled access.  Washing machine, outdoor covered drying area, indoor cooking huts, children’s play area, disc golf game.

Great location within a short walk to the sea, through a beautiful wood (stunning bluebells in Spring) which leads to a secluded sandy beach.  Nature walks around the farmland.  Easy drive to Kircudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet and Castle Douglas as well as nearby Carrick Beach.

What I liked:

A really well-run site where the helpful owners have thought of everything.  Peaceful location in beautiful surroundings.  Spotlessly clean.  Picnic benches and campfire facilities at every pitch a great touch (firewood is available to buy). A ten minute walk through a lovely wood take you to a secluded bay.  Green Tourism Gold Award.

Not so wild about:

Wifi not yet available on site since the local exchange is yet to be upgraded – but why not take the chance to switch off and unwind …

 


Review:

I was really impressed  with this campsite, so much so that it’s now one of my Top 10 campsites in Scotland.

Solway View campsite is part of a working beef and sheep farm and segregated from the livestock.  It’s in a peaceful corner of Dumfries and Galloway with sea views, yet only a short drive from Kirkcudbright and other towns and a stone’s throw from gorgeous Carrick Beach.

 

Neil and Patricia Picken are keen campers themselves and have progressively developed this site over the last ten years with all the facilities they would expect.  The care and attention to detail shows: there are indoor covered eating/seating areas, wooden picnic benches and campfire facilities at every pitch, nature walks, and signs providing information about their working farm.  I highly recommend this fantastic campsite – this is what great camping is all about.  It was deservedly voted the Best Campsite in the Scottish Outdoor and Leisure Awards 2016.

 

 

The flat camping field, picnic benches and rope swing

 

One of two well-equipped indoor cooking areas

There are a mix of large grass pitches for tents and smaller campervans and hardstanding pitches with EHU for motorhomes and caravans.  Five well-equipped wigwams are also available for hire.The heated toilet and shower block is spotlessly clean, and there’s even a charging point for electric vehicles just next to it.  A new disc golf course has just been installed, where you throw Frisbee-style discs between holes.

The Disc Golf course – great fun for all ages!

There are farmland and coastal walks directly from the site where you can take in the sea views.  The walk through the wood to the secluded sandy bay is lovely, particularly in Spring where the bluebells are absolutely stunning!  The site holds a Green Tourism Gold Award and generates its own renewable energy via a turbine and solar panels.

(Click on the photos below for larger size versions).

 

 

The sandy beach

A short drive of around 6 miles takes you to Carrick Beach, giving great walks and coastal views.  At low tide you can walk across to the sandy beach on Ardwall Isle, a fantastic spot to just unwind and enjoy the scenery.

View from Ardwall Isle towards Carrick Beach

 

View towards Ardwall Isle

 

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Icebreakers and leadership games for young people

 

Sometimes, getting started on the right path is the hardest part.  It’s true of any big work project, an outdoor challenge or simply working up the motivation to go out for a run.

And as anyone who’s had to deliver a training course or other event with young people will tell you, finding ways to create a relaxed atmosphere is an essential first step in creating the conditions where valuable learning can take place.

I was pleased to get an e-mail this week from John Hardy at EPIC Adventures in Texas.  EPIC run a range of summer camps and volunteering programmes with a strong focus on outdoor adventure, helping young people grow and mature so they can become self-confident leaders.  Great stuff.

He shared with me their list of 22 icebreakers and leadership games they use at their travel camps and I thought this was a really great resource.  I work with groups of young people on the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and every year when we deliver a our training we look to try a new fun activity to get them relaxed, to open up and in the right frame of mind to absorb new learning.

With thanks to John and EPIC Adventures I’m pleased to highlight this great list – I’ll certainly be referring back to it for some good ideas.

And in the spirit of sharing good ideas, do you know of any great icebreakers or leadership games that really work for you?

 

 

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A sea kayak adventure in the Sound of Luing

 

 

On the beach at Balnahua looking towards Scarba

 

One of my goals for 2017 is to become a more experienced sea kayaker and to – literally – dip my toes into the water to see if this is something I want to take up more seriously.  Last weekend was the first of three planned trips away this year and really helped develop my paddling skills.

Truth be told, I’m pretty much a novice paddler just now.  I’ve messed around with my own inflatable touring kayak, taking it wild camping in Loch Moidart and along Loch Hourn to climb a remote munro on Knoydart, and also had a day’s solo instruction on Loch Leven near Ballachulish.  But last weekend I went away for two days’ instruction with Kenny Lacey of Sea Kayak Scotland.  I was in good hands: Kenny’s a Level 5 Sea Kayak Coach as well as being an International Mountain Leader, just the kind of knowledgeable expert to make sure I have a good grasp of the basics.  I’d highly recommend him.

Friday night saw me driving westwards to camp at Seaview Campsite at Benderloch, just north of Oban.  It’s a really good site (I stayed there cycling LEJOG in 2015) and much more preferable to the busy C&CC site at North Ledaig just nearby where I’ve also stayed.  And don’t be put off by the ‘sparse’ website … just take my word for the fact that it’s clean, well run and in a great location.

So my brief to Kenny was this: I’d like to learn the paddling skills to become more confident and safe on the water; experience a variety of smooth/rougher conditions; learn safety and rescue skills; and get an introduction to sea kayak navigation and tide planning.  He delivered on all counts – and then some!

I got a crash course in navigation, currents and tidal planning at Kenny’s house on the Saturday morning and then we loaded up the boats and equipment for the short drive to the launch spot.  Kenny’s based on the Isle of Seil, to the south of Oban, and luckily for him lives just a five minute drive from an excellent launch spot at Cuan Sound. Known locally as “Michael’s Place”, there’s a bunk house, wigwams, parking, toilets and showers, all just recently created for sea kayakers.  You can even stay in a converted lifeboat!

We paddled south along the coast of the island of Luing before heading across a stretch of open water to another island, Balnahua, famed for its slate industry.  In its heyday during the 19th Century it was home to 200 people but has been uninhabited since WW1.  Its industrial past is still very much in evidence in its water-filled quarries and former workers’ cottages.  It’s slap bang in the middle of the Sound of Luing, giving great views to more than 20 islands including Mull, Seil, Luing, Scarba, the Garvallachs, Jura, Colonsay and Islay.

 

 

View of the slate quarries and disused buildings on Balnahua

 

The currents in the Sound of Luing are notoriously strong and with Kenny’s expert planning we were confident that we would be paddling with the current on our way from Balnahua south, back towards Luing.  This was a real eye-opener for someone with limited experience of the effects of currents.  It meant that without putting much effort at all into our paddling we were still travelling at around 7 km/h.  Just imagine if we’d got this wrong and were paddling against the current … what a difference …

By this point I was getting some great experience of open water crossings in force 3 conditions and waves of up to 60cm.  The sun had come out, it was nearing 5pm and it was time to find a campsite for the night.  We pulled up at Mary’s Bay (unnamed on maps) and dragged the kayaks ashore.

Mary’s Bay on the island of Luing, looking towards Scarba

 

We kicked back, put the tents up and explored our little patch of wildness, with only a few cows and timid sheep for company.  The sunshine made all the difference, transforming what might have been a wet and windy camp into a lazy, outdoor evening.

Wild camp spot at Mary’s Bay

 

What a location!

 

I took a walk along the coast to collect firewood for our beachside fire that evening.  Sea thrift waved in the breeze as the sun slowly dipped towards the islands out west.  Kenny pointed out a series of strange, pointed mounds dotted around the bay.  They ranged in size from smaller grassy stumps right up to pointed peaks of 50cm or so.  There was no real pattern to their location other than they all sit on raised ground overlooking the sea.  Kenny had previously done some research and thought they might be places where Wheatear like to sit, with their droppings accumulating over many decades to build up these mounds.  It certainly sounds a plausible theory given these birds do like to perch on mounds – but please let me know if you have a different explanation.

 

Sea thrift

 

Mounds up to 50cm high, possibly created by the accumulation of Wheatear droppings ?

 

Looking through a rock window

 

We were just packing out tents up the next morning when the rain started … and didn’t let up until early-afternoon.  Given a favourable wind direction we decided to go on a little paddling adventure and take a look at the Grey Dogs.  In paddling and sailing circles the short gap between the islands of Lunga and Scarba is very well known, where fast-flowing tidal currents give rise to a tide race with waves of (sometimes) up to several metres.  Just take a look at the aerial view from Google Maps to see the currents moving from east to west in this image.  Today, the tidal range was only 1.4m and the wind was blowing a force 3-4 and so the waves looked to be 1 – 1.5m high.  We took a look, keeping out of the current that could easily draw us in, and decided to leave it for another time (I was an improving paddler but not that good yet!)

We got carried with the current north this time along the east coast of Lunga, exploring inlets and spotting seals and Canada geese.  As the rain got heavier we once again paddled the 2km open water crossing from Lunga eastwards to Luing, getting carried about 2km north with the strong current!  I found this pretty tough, paddling through waves of up to 60cm and paddling hard so as not to collide with the passing yachts.

After stopping for lunch we practiced rescue and more paddling techniques before heading back to Cuan Sound.  I feel seasick in larger boats and unfortunately as we escaped the relative shelter of the islands out towards the west the swell picked up and I started to feel a little unwell.  It’s strange that waves don’t make me ill at all but the slow up-and-down of the swell is much more uncomfortable.

In spite of this last short section I’d had a fantastic weekend’s adventure in the company of an expert coach and guide.  New experiences, wild places, sunshine and wild camping … what a great recipe!

 

 

 

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Product Review – Vango Kela III Driveaway Awning

Travelling in a campervan offers flexibility, self-sufficiency and the ability to quickly set up and strike camp.  But there are times when a little extra comfort and room is needed.  Teenagers or dogs might need their own space, or perhaps you want some shelter from the weather.  Whatever the reason, this is when a driveaway awning can come into its own.

I’ve been testing out the Vango Kela III driveaway awning (2017 version), provided for review by Outdoor World Direct.  According to Vango the Kela is the “driving force” behind their current line-up of campervan and motorhome awnings, which also includes the Galli, Cruz and Idris.  All three come in either ‘tall’, ‘standard’ or ‘low’ versions and I tried out the ‘low’ which attaches to a campervan with an awning rail height of 180 – 210cm.  Vango introduced their AirBeam technology range over a decade ago, followed by several updates, and this latest version creates a strong impression.

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s an inherent contradiction in the notion of taking a separate tent awning away in a campervan.  If the whole point of a campervan is to camp flexibly in a self-contained unit, why have a driveaway awning?  Doesn’t this add time and hassle to the fast-and-light, happy-go-lucky experience you’re after?  At first sight this might seem the case but the big advantage of AirBeam awnings is the speed and ease in which you can pitch them.  From unpacking the awning bag it took me just 25 minutes to put it up for the first time (by myself) .  Vango’s website ambitiously states that the pitching time is 8 minutes but with a bit of practice I reckon I could pitch it in 15 minutes and probably less with a helper.

It has to be said that the tent bag, including pegs and pump, is still fairly bulky (L78 x H35 x W37cm) and weighing in at a pretty hefty 17.35kg.  There are much heavier awnings on the market and so with some justification, Vango may well claim this weight and bulk to be in the Kela’s favour, but it still does take up a fair amount of storage room.

 

I was impressed with the quality of the materials.  The double ripstop polyester fabric is durable and likely to last many years, there’s a fully sewn-in groundsheet that keeps out creep-crawlies and draughts and the groundsheet is attached to the flysheet with an external storm skirt to provide all round protection.

The first step in pitching the awning is to connect it to your campervan.  The easiest way to do this is by threading the 6mm kador strip already attached to the awning into the rail on the side of your van.  However, to give greater flexibility Vango recommend using a figure-of-eight strip to connect the awning to your van’s wind-out awning, which essentially means it’s easier to reattach and re-tension the awning after driving away for a day’s exploring.  If your van doesn’t have an attached awning or awning rail then you have other options.  You can use either a pole-and-clamp or hook-and-loop method to attach the awning to your van gutter or roof bars respectively, or simply throw the long webbing straps over the roof and secure them on the other side of the van.

I found it easy to attach the awning to the awning rail of my van using the integral 6mm kador strip.  I managed to fit this on my own although having another pair of hands to assist in threading it into the rail would be even easier.  (I didn’t have the opportunity to use the separate figure-of-eight strip unfortunately since this didn’t arrive in time for my review weekend away but this also seemed simple and straightforward to use).

Inflating the Kela is a case of connecting the included pump to the valves on the outside of the two AirBeams and inflating up to 7psi (there’s a handy pressure gauge on the pump).  The rear beam is inflated first, you then pitch out the corners loosely, inflate the front beam, then adjust and finish pegging out the awning.  There are lots of guylines and some strong, reflective webbing guys at the front.  Internally, Vango have used their patented Vango TBS® II Tension Band System which helps strengthen the structure for windier conditions and there’s also an inflatable bracing beam to avoid any sagging canvas (especially when it rains) at the apex of the roof.  This worked well and as I discovered, the key thing to remember is to remove the bracing beam before you decided to pack up the tent!

 

Pump attached to an AirBeam valve

 

Close-up of the inflatable bracer pole inside the awning roof

 

I really liked the flexible layout of the awning.  As can be seen in the photo below, it creates a light, airy space with very good headroom and a footprint measuring 370cm by 310cm  There’s a large PVC window at the front of the awning and with the addition of poles (not included), this front section could be zipped open to form a canopy, giving a breeze and feeling of space on a sunny day.  There’s a large, zippable side door that leads into the front section, which has the groundsheet.  This can be used as a living and/or sleeping area and an optional bedroom inner tent is available to order.  To the rear (next to the van sliding door) there’s a walkway-cum-storage area with a zippable door at either end.  Since this has no groundsheet this is a practical thoroughfare to use when entering the awning and van.  No muddy foot or pawprints!

When setting off from your campsite for the day it’s a simple case of unthreading the kador strip from your van (a separate figure-of-eight strip makes this a much easier task), rolling up the rear ‘porch’ area and zipping a panel across the rear opening of the awning.  Your awning is then left as a weather-proof, freestanding tent to mark your pitch.

The flysheet and groundsheet seams are all factory-taped to give watertight seals, strong steel pegs and a rubber mallet are included and there’s even an internal lantern hanging point.

It’s a spacious, light and airy interior

 

I’ve used various designs of tents and awnings over the years and am a real convert to the AirBeam.  I was curious at first to know whether the ‘poles’ were really strong enough to withstand the weight and weather without sagging overnight but I’m pleased to report that they remain firm and strong.  Since the AirBeams are integral to the tent it’s a weight- and space-saving solution compared with conventional awnings.

I found the Kela III to be well designed, with little details including ventilation points, ‘tidies’ to hide guylines when not in use and the option to create a canopy opening at the front.

My one major criticism is the design of the awning bag, which I found far too narrow to be able to comfortably repack the tent.  In dry conditions I really struggled to fold up the awning sufficiently small and wouldn’t even bother trying to force the awning into the bag when it’s damp or if I was in a rush to pack up.  At first, I thought the AirBeams weren’t sufficiently deflated but found this wasn’t so.  Eventually I resorted to repacking the awning on my drive at home – and still struggled!  A far simpler solution would be for Vango to provide tensioning webbing straps to tighten the rolled-up awning, together with additional webbing straps to secure it inside a much larger outer bag.

Apart from this one failing I was really impressed with the Kela III.  Over the years I’ve become sceptical of the extra hassle that comes with erecting a separate awning but would happily consider putting up the Kela for even a short stay.  It’s a robust, well designed and flexible product that’s sure to last many years.

There are two zippable side doors to this side

The sewn-in groundsheet creates a cosy ‘front room’ while the rear section provides a practical access thoroughfare

 

Note:  The Kela III Low driveaway awning was provided to me to review for free by Outdoor World Direct.  I have no connection with the company and have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using the awning.  The Kela III is currently available for £549.

 

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Review: The Jerba Tiree Campervan

I think I first became aware of campervans in 1977 when a friend’s family bought a bright orange bay-windowed VW. Even in the 1970s, when orange furniture and curtains adorned our living rooms and orange melamine kitchenware jostled for attention, their bright, brand spanking new campervan stood out. It made a statement.

So fast forward forty years, and I find myself walking up to a brand new VW T6 campervan that I’ve been loaned for a long weekend. It’s that exact same orange that I remember from my childhood. A wide smile breaks out; things are off to a good start.

Based in North Berwick, Jerba Campervans have been producing VW campervans for 12 years. Run by Simon Poole and his partner Cath Brookes, this innovative and growing company have their eye on an expanding niche. Their customers have a sense of that timeless appeal of a VW camper but are looking for the flexibility, reliability and modern gizmos that bring the experience bang up to date. Let’s call it retro – with a modern twist.

Jerba Campervans are an officially-recognised vehicle body builder for VW Commercial Vehicles. They offer five standard conversions of the base T6 Transporter van but with a long list of VW factory options and extras. This means that a range of short- and long-wheel layouts, engine sizes, gearboxes, seat fabrics and so on are available to order. At their North Berwick factory the Jerba cabinetmakers and mechanics then set to work building and finishing the van by hand, also including several cutting-edge innovations.

Back outside the factory, Simon Poole introduced me to the Jerba Tiree short wheelbase camper, which sleeps four and at 5 metres is no longer than many cars on the road. Customer Manager David Miller briefed me on how to operate the ‘camping’ side of the van: elevating roof, fridge, sink, hob, heater, electrics and fold-down rear bed. Between them they know a thing or two about campervans, Simon having owned and driven campers in various far-flung parts of the world and David having sold me my VW California when he previously worked at the VW Van Centre in Edinburgh.

I stayed the first night just a stone’s throw from the Jerba factory, at Tantallon Camping and Caravan Park, overlooking Bass Rock and the Fife coastline. It was so near I don’t think the smile had even left my face!

I found setting up the van for an overnight stay easy and straightforward. The downstairs bed folds down flat in under a minute just by shifting a couple of levers. It’s flat and comfortable too but like most campers, benefits from an extra mattress to sleep on. The blackout curtains are robust and well designed, fixing with press studs. Customers can specify their own curtain material, a great illustration of how you can design your own van. There are lots of well-positioned LED lights for reading, cooking and other tasks.

Jerba stand out from the crowd not only in the colour choices of their vans but also in the design of the elevating roof. Having seen too many instances of the metal ‘scissor’ mechanism damaging roof material in factory-built as well as campervan conversions, Jerba set out to design some ingenious solutions. First, their own-design roof is operated manually. It’s well designed, simple to operate and with a bit of practice, it’s easy to lift and retract the roof. Lowering the roof manually doesn’t eliminate the potential for damage completely but it makes it much easier to spot since you’re in full control.

But in order to fix any damage, Jerba have patented a removable roof canvas. So rather than incur the expense and complications of refitting a new canvas (a procedure that could take a couple of days in a workshop), theirs is a zip-off solution that can be swapped over in quite literally 5 or 10 minutes. You don’t need to be a qualified fitter to perform the tasks, so it’s quite possible to do at home without even leaving your drive.

As I discovered, zipping off the roof canvas soon gets you as close to a convertible campervan as you will ever get. Sitting in the van with a view over the sea and the sunshine pouring in was a fantastic experience – roll on Summer!

When the sun dipped below the horizon and the temperature dropped I soon zipped the roof back on to cook my evening meal. I found that the roof canvas, made from Ventile, is not only waterproof but also very effective at keeping out the wind.

After being treated to a rare sighting of the northern lights directly from the campsite I meandered the next day south along the coast to Dunbar and Cove Bay, one of Scotland’s hidden gems, before heading west across the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.

The Tiree was a joy to drive and once you’re used to the higher driving position, it’s easy to forget you’re driving a van. Compared with my California I found the Tiree much lighter to handle and while its base-level 102bhp engine might be a little underpowered for some, I was happy with its performance. The campervan experience is all about the journey after all, not getting from A to B as fast as possible.

All Jerba T6 campers come with a host of mod cons to support the driving experience including a touchscreen digital radio with AUX and USB connectors, a CD drive and Bluetooth. Blue Motion Technology improves fuel economy (there’s a start/stop engine system when stationary as well as a regenerative braking that charges your vehicle battery as you brake) while various driver alert and brake assist systems provide additional safety features.

After a great journey across the back roads of Southern Scotland I stayed the next night at Solway View Campsite near Kirkcudbright. By this point I was starting to get to grips with the storage on board. As every seasoned campervanner knows, there’s a place for everything and everything must have its place. Not having a ‘system’ can be a recipe for family strife, as well as lost belongings, but I found appropriate cubby holes for everything. There are lots of little storage lockers for food, crockery, books, clothes and other gear. I soon discovered, though, that once the downstairs bed is made up you no longer have access to the two large cupboards below – so make sure you retrieve your wash kit and change of clothes first!

Another distinctive innovation offered by Jerba as an internal conversion option is the Wallas twin-burner hob. Not only does it run on the van’s diesel – there’s no gas in the van at all, saving space and weight – but it also doubles up as the internal heating.

This was a completely new feature to me, having been used to gas burners and separate cooking and heating equipment. The hob takes 5 to 10 minutes to heat up sufficiently for cooking (use this time to prepare your food) and the temperature can be controlled during cooking. After use, the hob stays hot but in cooler temperatures you can use this warmth to heat the van. Ingeniously, the hob lid is lowered to convert it into heating mode and it blows out hot air from the front of the unit.

It did take me a while to get used to this arrangement. I can definitely see the advantages in having a combined cooker and heater, particularly from a space-saving perspective, but perhaps because I’m so used to the immediacy of gas I did find cooking slower than I’d hoped for. The heater too was less effective than the Webasto heater in my California and since the warm air was blown out at waist height it didn’t circulate evenly around the van. The combined hob and heater is also a slightly noisier solution than I’m used to and so for all of those reasons I wasn’t completely won over. However, a more powerful Webasto heater is available as an option, installed below the driver’s side of the van, and able to blow out hot air from the base of the side pillar within a few minutes.

As for other aspects of the camping equipment, the good-sized fridge was useful and the sink large enough to wash up. While there’s no waste water tank on board any water draining from the sink can be collected underneath the van. There are handy USB charging points beside the kitchen and a 3-pin socket for when the van is hooked up to a mains power source. Talking of which, the electric hook-up is cleverly hidden behind a panel just below the driver’s side rear light cluster, and a 100-watt SunFlex roof-mounted solar panel continuously switches between the main engine and leisure batteries to keep them both charged. While I didn’t have the opportunity to test this, Simon told me that using the solar panel you could easily stay off-grid for several weeks during the summer months.

Given glorious weather I took the Tiree to the beach on my final day. This is where the flexibility and comfort of a campervan really comes into its own. With the roof up and the ‘upstairs’ windows open the sunshine flooded in, cooled by an onshore breeze through the side mesh windows. It’s useful to know that the mesh is not only mosquito-proof but also midge-proof!

Both front seats swivel and there are two internal tables allowing a range of configurations for sitting and eating. But on this sunny afternoon at the beach, I instead folded down the lower bed and raised the rear section so I could relax while keeping an occasional eye on the comings and goings at the seashore.

That evening I paid an overdue visit to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, near Dalmellington in Galloway Forest Park. The stargazing session I was booked into finished late at night, well past locking-up time for any campsite. This was a great opportunity to find an informal ‘campsite’ just off a forest track and to try the van off-grid. The van performed admirably and I slept peacefully.

However, it was a chilly night with hail showers in the morning. In cool weather I would personally prefer to choose the option of double glazing in the side and rear windows – which as an added benefit would also decrease the likelihood of condensation forming on the inside of the glass.

Overall, I really liked the Tiree and would recommend this as a very good option for anyone considering buying a campervan. It’s ingeniously-designed, flexible in use and provides all the mod cons you’d want in a modern camper. And in a retro colour option it really does make a positive statement!

Overview

What I liked:

  • Easy to drive and good fuel economy
  • Well-designed and ingenious elevating roof design
  • Water, wind and midge-proof roof canvas/window
  • Ample and well-designed storage
  • Effective blackout curtains
  • Lots of well-positioned LED lights and USB connectors for tablets/phone
  • The roof-mounted solar panel
  • The gorgeous colour!
  • The long list of options available
  • Jerba’s focus on innovation and attention to detail

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • Combined diesel-powered hob and heater unit a little slow and noisy
  • The 102bhp engine might be slightly underpowered for some tastes
  • I recommend double-glazed rear and side windows for cooler weather

 

Note:  The Jerba Tiree was loaned to me by Jerba Campervans in order to write an independent product review.  I have no connection with the company.

You can read my review on the Jerba Campervans website.

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The northern lights … also available in purple

Last weekend was a good weekend for viewing the aurora.  In fact, the lights showed up both on Friday and Saturday nights when Scotland was enjoying a rare period of high pressure with limited cloud cover.

But the most remarkable thing about last weekend’s showing of the northern lights was that for the first time in my aurora-chasing experience, the lights on Saturday night were only purple with no green aurora visible at all.  And on Friday, the sky at higher altitude was a gorgeous deep purple hue.

Friday saw me camping at Tantallon Camping and Caravan Park at North Berwick, on the east coast just about 30 minutes southeast of Edinburgh.  I was testing out a Jerba campervan (more about this in a later post) who are based no more than two miles from the campsite.  I couldn’t believe my luck when my aurora apps signalled ‘minor storm’ conditions !

I had a clear view north across the Firth of Forth to Fife (say that after a drink or two …).  But while there was lots of light pollution along the coast to contend with it didn’t prevent me from seeing the aurora.  Things got off to a fairly slow start: a nice green auroral arc developed but nothing much happened for a while.  Then, around 10.45pm, the sky noticeably lit up to the naked eye.  Something was definitely happening !  For about ten minutes the aurora kicked into life.  Green and purple shafts reached up from the arc, the sky above was painted a gorgeous deep purple and all the while the stars shone brightly.

By 11pm things quietened down again and the auroral arc gradually faded into the background.  Short but sweet.

 

 

The next night I was camping at Solway View Campsite, near Kirkcudbright in SW Scotland.  I was hoping for a good night of stargazing since the skies had gradually cleared on my journey west during the day and as dusk fell I could see this was going to be a rare, cloudless night.

I set up my camera at a suitable spot to take multiple shots I could put together into a star trail photo.  Not only was there a ‘minor storm’ (Kp5) in terms of the solar conditions but the weekend was the peak of the Lyrids meteor shower so I was hoping to see some nice bright streaks across the sky too.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I watched and waited for a while in the stillness as other campers gradually switched off lights and went to sleep.  A few meteors briefly darted across the sky before burning up and fading in the atmosphere.  But there was no sign of an aurora – at least to the naked eye.

I kept the camera running automatically, taking shots every 20 seconds, then returned after an hour once 100 or so were captured.  For some reason the camera had decided to stop itself so I flicked backwards to review the photos.  I was really surprised to see big patches of purple show up but with no green lights whatsoever, the usual colour of auroral activity through a camera lens.

 

 

I used the Star Trails software to produce a composite picture using those 100 shots, where you have a good sense of the purple aurora showing through the rotating stars in the bottom left corner.  It’s even more visible looking at a single photo where the lights were brightest.  There were a few streaks across the sky that showed up on those photos but given that they tend to be visible on more than one 20 second exposure they’re almost certainly planes or satellites rather than meteors.  (Now, a combined star trail, (purple) aurora and meteor photo really would have been something !)

 

Did you see the northern lights last weekend?  If so, where were you and what did it look like for you?

Scottish mountain and coastal webcams

Webcams provide an easy way to check the weather conditions before you head out.  Here’s my selection of 25 good webcams of mountain and coastal locations across Scotland, plus a link to a long list of traffic cams.

I’ve provided thumbnails of those webcams that refresh every few seconds.  Those without any pictures are more modern cams that provide a live stream, and some of which you can pan around to get a wider view.

The map below (courtesy of www.scotland-landscapes.com) includes many of the webcams I’ve linked to below and serves as a good location guide.

 

 

 

Click on the links below to see the latest views

Ski and Mountain areas
Loch Morlich, Cairngorms National Park

Look for sunbathers in summer and snowcapped hills the rest of the year!

Cairngorm Mountain Ski Area

View from the Scottish Ski Club Hut, looking to the Shieling and lower ski slopes towards the Fiaciall Ridge.

Lairig Ghru, from Aviemore

Looking towards the Cairngorms with Ben Macdui (left, 4295ft)) and Braeriach (right, 4252ft)

Glenshee Ski Area

A great webcam that gives a panorama of the ski area.

Glencoe Ski Area

Various views including this one of Buachaille Etive Mor.

Nevis Range Ski Area, Fort William

Looking down the slopes.

Ben Nevis and Fort William

Ben Nevis (4411ft) towering over Fort William (on a clear day!)

Braemar snow gate webcam

Is the road open from Braemar south towards Glenshee?

Ben More, Crianlarich

Ben More rises to 3852ft, just SE of Crianlarich.

Ben Cruachan & Loch Etive

Ben Cruachan (3694ft) from across Loch Etive.

 

Torridon Youth Hostel
Torridon Hotel
 

Island and Coastal webcams
 
Beinn Sgritheall and Knoydart from Skye

Looking across the Sound of Sleat to Beinn Sgritheall (3196ft) and Knoydart from Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College on Skye.

 
Waternish, Skye

Looking west towards Loch Dunvegan, Uist and Harris from near the NW tip of the Isle of Skye.

 
Eiliean Donan Castle

An iconic Scottish landmark near the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Dundonnell

Little Loch Broom, near Ullapool.

Plockton

Good views around the harbour and village of Plockton.

Isle of Coll

Looking out from the Isle of Coll Hotel.

Taymouth, Loch Tay

Looking north across Loch Tay from the Taymouth Marina (with the crannog on the right).

Oban

Good views of Oban harbour.

Orkney

From the pier at Stromness.

Shetland

Cliff Cam 3 looks north from Sumburgh Head. On a clear winter’s night you’ve got a good chance of catching a glimpse of the aurora and in summer you can also experience close-ups from the seabird colonies as they rest on the cliff edge.

Fair Isle

This webcam doesn’t seem to be in operation at present unfortunately.

Arran

View towards Goat Fell (2867ft) from Brodick harbour.

North Berwick

View from the roof of the Scottish Seabird Centre.

 

 

 

 

Traffic cameras

 
Traffic Scotland webcams

 

 

 

Skydiving and skiing … indoors

When time and funds are limited, there are ingenious ways to practice extreme sports.  Back in November 2015 I took my son skydiving and skiing and this week we did the same again.  But we weren’t really risking life and limb since all of this took place indoors. There are apparently 56 places in the world where you can practice indoor skydiving, and we … Read More Skydiving and skiing … indoors

Product review: Firepot expedition meals

When you’re out camping, hiking or kayaking, compromises often have to be made when it comes to meals.  Nutritious, tasty food is normally sacrificed for lightweight ‘packet’ meals that are convenient … but bland and merely functional.  It’s as if the pleasure that comes with cooking and eating cannot co-exist with enjoying the outdoors.

The new range of Firepot healthy expedition meals by Outdoorfood.com makes a clear statement: lightweight, nutritious and tasty food is possible.

 

 

I’ve been testing out the range of new Firepot meals and have been impressed.  First off, they’re preservative-free.  This means that there are no nasty ingredients you don’t recognise; just the kinds of ingredients you’d have in your kitchen cupboard at home.  And many of them are locally-sourced from the butcher and greengrocer near Outdoorfood.com in rural Dorset.

The second way they stand out from the competition is that they’re dehydrated rather than freeze-dried.  Whereas freeze-dried meals typically have their ingredients mixed together separately, Firepot dehydrate their meals once the ingredients have been combined and cooked, locking in the flavour.  Dehydration gives them a shelf-life of two years so there’s little danger of the food going off.

There are currently four meals on offer: orzo pasta bolognese, dal and rice with spinach, chilli con carne and porcini mushroom risotto.  They’ve also just launched a breakfast (posh pork ‘n’ beans) and have more dishes coming over the next few months.

The meals come in two sizes and I found the smaller pack size (weighing 135g) provided an ample and filling portion.  Rehydrated, the meals weigh in at 500g.  And when you’re active, the energy value of the food you consume really matters a lot.  I was impressed to see that their meals provide between 500kcal and a whopping 700kcal of energy in each serving.  For the really active or hungry, the 200g portion size give up to 1000kcal in energy.

 

 

I’ve tested out the meals on a hike with my Duke of Edinburgh group and a cycle ride, as well as enjoying the breakfast pork ‘n’ beans at home.  So how easy were they to cook and how did they taste?

Cooking was a doddle.  Each meal has either a pan or pouch method, using different quantities of boiling water to rehydrate the food.  Fill levels are handily marked on the side of the eye-catching packaging.  Just bring water to the boil, turn off the heat, cover or seal, then go off and do something else for 10 or 15 minutes until the food’s ready to eat.  I liked the simplicity and the fact that the packaging is really easy to re-seal.

 

 

The meals were tasty too.  The porcini mushroom risotto tasted, well … as a homemade risotto should.  The chilli was also flavoursome and the pork ‘n’ beans packed a punch with a nice kick of tabasco in the tomato sauce.  (I’ve yet to taste the dal and the orzo pasta bolognese).

For my own taste I would probably suggest leaving the chilli and pork ‘n’ beans to hydrate for an extra 5 minutes to soften the beans a little more.  And while it’s impossible for the manufacturers to cater for everyone’s individual tastes, I would have preferred to have had a creamier, cheesier risotto and a spicier chilli.  Everyone’s different of course – these are just my own personal preferences.

 

 

I must admit that I am perhaps a pickier customer than most.  For one, I’m biased against packet foods, much preferring to cook my own when I pitch up in my tent at night – and I’m a keen cook at home, too.  (You can find some of my ‘real food’ backpacking recipes here and here).  There’s definitely something very soothing and therapeutic about cooking when you’ve been on the go all day and while it might take a little longer, I enjoy this aspect of camping a lot.

So am I tempted to leave my own ingredients at home and simply pack a range of dehydrated Firepot meals?  For the simple reason that I like my food with strong flavours that I can adjust to my particular liking, on most occasions I think I’ll continue to cook my own food.  That doesn’t mean that these new meals from Firepot aren’t really good – they’re certainly better than similar meals I’ve tried in the past – but it simply reflects my particular liking for camp cooking!  However, where time dictates that a quick, simple and tasty meal is needed – a hearty, tasty breakfast, for example – then I would definitely want to try a Firepot meal again.  All in all, these new meals are a great addition to the meal choices available to outdoors folk.

 

 

Note:  The Firepot meals were given to me for free by Outdoorfood.com in order to write an independent product review.  I have no connection with the company whatsoever.

 

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Hello aurora!

Last night the aurora came back for a brief visit.  The light show was slow to get going but for a brief five minutes the sky lit up and sent purple and green pillars reaching high up towards the stars.

Charged particles from a coronal hole were forecast to reach the Earth yesterday and sure enough, once it got dark (around 9pm now that the clocks have moved to British Summer Time) my camera picked up a weak auroral arc.  I’d headed out to my usual spot, up a hill and less than 15 minutes from my house.  Aurorawatch UK had issued a red alert, the first since October 2016, so I was hopeful for a good light show.

You can read more about what triggered the aurora and where it could be seen on the Aurorawatch UK blog.  I’m pleased to say one of my pictures also features on the blog.

So last night involved quite a bit of standing around waiting.  It was a gorgeously clear, starry night and blowing a cold breeze.  But while aurora chasing does involve a fair amount of waiting it’s certainly not boring … the sky’s forever changing with the aurora coming and going, clouds threaten in the distance and of course, you’re intermittently checking Twitter for other real-time reports.

A couple of trails from passing aircraft caught on film

I was beginning to think that nothing was going to happen but then – all too briefly – the sky lit up.  It was as if a switch had been pulled.  Boom!  The change in intensity was clearly visible to the naked eye – picked up much more clearly by the camera of course – and pillars of light stretched upwards to the stars.

But it didn’t develop.  As quickly as it came the aurora retreated to the arc low on the northern horizon.

She’s a welcome sight but very fickle in these parts.