The Last Hurrah!

Arrived in Datchet and fell into a coma on the sofa for a couple of days. We resisted all the delights of Central London entertainment with no effort at all. Got our very noisy exhaust fixed at a local DAF garage and met up with my hound mentors Terence & Liese to hand over my fairly meagre collection of hound pics from the trip. Valerie did manage a bit of retail therapy in Windsor and the best buy of the day was a skirt with sight hounds embroidered on it!! I managed the early morning visit to the local mini Tesco for baguettes and Guardian but even this left me with supermarket nausea.

Truck parked up outside Jim & Claire’s at Datchet

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Then homeward bound for Northern Ireland via a cousin whom Mike hasn’t met since 1952 in Bury Market!!;

Gordon & Mike. Cousins refound. 
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Anthony and Cath in Heywood on the day the UKIP jokers came close; Steve and Pat who built a lovely stone house in our absence; Mike and Ruth who were just off to Portugal with their saluqis; Paul and Liz and Sandra friends from V’s West Bretton teaching days

Liz, Sandra and Valerie West Bretton School stalwarts 1991-2001
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and Robin an old friend from Dakin Brook Days and his daughter Eva.
It was great to meet them all again and many were the promises that it wouldn’t be as long again.

After camping up at Upper Ossings we made it to the Victoria Dock in Caernarfon on the Menai Straits at sunset.

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The next day was our last day on the road on this trip and the ferry crossing (Holyhead to Dublin) was enjoyed in beautiful sunshine which has continued for our first two days at home.
First sight of Irish shores
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The last tea stop was in a car park in the centre of Monaghan and having pulled up and let Layla out I became aware that I was hailed from a car about 50 yards away. As I wandered over wondering what Irish by laws we had managed to contravene I started to think that I recognised the raspy voice and the strong Irish brogue and sure enough I did! You may remember that our trip didn’t get off to an auspicious start with the water pump blowing only an hour or so after setting off. Our saviour on that occasion was ‘John the Engine’ who identified the problem, helped me to locate a spare pump from a local scrap yard and then installed it and here he was again!! He couldn’t believe that we had just started our trip when we first met and that we were now on our way home. I have been more than a bit ashamed that I didn’t get his proper name after he had done so much for us so I can now put that right. Many thanks to John ‘The Engine Smith!!

So we pulled in through the gate at 86, Blackfort Road at about 5.30 pm on October 12th to a great welcome, baked goodies, flowers, chocolates, a stocked fridge, a roaring log fire and a house as warm as the welcome thanks to Des, Sal and Laraine. Layla howled with delight at the sight of Sam as we drove through the gate and did her old jiggling run in and out of our garden stones at the first opportunity with Sam in hot pursuit. It was great to see how the garden has thrived and how the hedge we planted in 2011 and 2012 has really taken off. The house seems huge and there was a suggestion that we might need to spend our time in the same room for the first few days!

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The end of a great trip made possible by the many kindnesses of friends and family here and the many friends and acquaintances met en route.

We are at home and hope that you will all visit!

Some stats for the nerds.

Days away:211
Driving days:160
No. of countries visited:25
Kilometres driven: 25115

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Datchet again!

Actually the earlier ferry meant that we squeezed round the corner from the M25 to the M4 and Jim’s place in Datchet just before the rush hour began.

Someone has been honing their gardening skills since last we were here.

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Truck exhaust is in for a bit of welding, 7th load of washing is circling the drum, the weather is glorious and as always absolutely nothing seems to have changed in UK in our absence.

We are just beginning to rouse from a coma on the sofa since arriving the day before yesterday.

Next blog will be the last!! Promise!

Dover

For the last day or so I have been resisting the temptation to fill up with diesel on the grounds that it would be better to fill up at the last diesel station in France where fuel is around 109p per litre as opposed to around 136p a litre in UK!!

I had run my tank down well below the quarter mark and was looking at filling up with about 140 litres.
There is only one fuel station set off on a side road off the approach to the Ferry port and we missed it but not to worry we had plenty of time to turn round and go back. Plenty of time but no opportunity. There is a concrete central median on the dual carriageway road all the way into the port!

We caught an earlier ferry and filled up in Tesco in Dover thereby wasting about £30.
Only the white cliffs of Dover put the smile back on my face.

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La Belle France

After not so ‘belle’ towns and villages just over the border from Belgium, we headed across the corner to the Normandy coast stopping first in Montreuil-Sur-Mer and found it heaving with locals in all sorts of costumes recovering from the annual charity run around the ramparts.

We parked up in the square answering many questions about us and the truck (Not of course the one requiring facts and figures on fuel consumption!), enjoyed delicious French cuisine (Oh-La-La …the prices!!) and slept soundly.

Ramparts at Montreuil
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Gallows, stocks and pissoirs
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Next day we did the ramparts at our own…leisurely… pace, escorted Layli to the vet (Doesn’t matter where you are, they’re all bad news) for treatment which will keep tape worms of the streets of UK. Then we were off to the coast at Equihen Plage.

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This was in striking range of the ferry port and seems to be a favourite stopping off place for campers coming and going. Cliff top walks and sea air…Can’t beat it. Access to the beach was torturous though so we had to put off Layli’s Channel swim until the next day along the coast.

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In a very relaxing Audresselles restaurant we had our last lunch in France. Lots of chat with an English guy who apparently divides the year equally between France and Portugal and makes a fortune as a builder in England!! Go figure!?

Again this is a part of Europe steeped in the history of WWII with its beautiful beaches still overseen by massive concrete gun emplacements and war memorials in every village

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Then on to Le Cite de Europe and Carrefour to spend a fortune to save a fortune on lots of things we would probably do better without. Is it duty free??

Nothing like 5 minutes in a large supermarket to kill off the brain cells and bring on an attack of inertia. By the time we had unloaded the boxes into the camper it was difficult to see how were going to get in ourselves. Camping in the Carrefour car park suddenly seemed a good idea.

V was approached by what looked like a Thai guy suggesting ‘Me-Bus-You’. Shortly after we were visited by the police wielding torches and bearing warnings about the dangers of stowaways. Some had been spotted around the car park. His expression eased somewhat when he saw Layla and realized that we were serviced in the security department. At bed time we emphasised that although our journey was reaching its end she was not to slack off on the night time security. Neither did she……waking up with fierce barking every time the police conducted their hourly torch-lit search under our truck.

Valencienne Encounter

Arriving back in France across the Belgian border we were looking for a data sim for our ipad so that we would continue to have internet for booking ferries and generally researching our route as we determined it! Previous experience with ‘activation’ prompted us to seek one from the service provider themselves where we could get it activated. So we headed into Valencienne, a large city at the heart of Industrial France, with trepidation. Finally we found ourselves in a littered back street car park with broken bottles to manoeuvre round and a trio of youths loitering.

Sim card purchase comes under the heading of ‘Driver Responsibilities’ so M approached the youths to ask the way to the nearest mobile phone shop. Ashraf, Abdel and Justine quickly solved the language problem with Ashraf’s Samsung and a translation Ap. If there are ever any competitions for mobile phone keyboard finger work, Ashraf must surely be a contender. So fast were he and the Ap that we could conduct a conversation at almost normal speed finishing finally with the very welcome message on the screen ‘ If you like we can take you to the shop and bring you back to this place’.

As we walked along together it became apparent that while I have no French they studied English at school and we could communicate a bit with Samsung covering the more complicated bits. Even managed a bit of Arabic. Ashraf’s Mum is from Morocco and his father from Al Jouf in Saudi. Abdel’s Mum is also from Morocco but his father is from Turkey. Justine’s parents are both French.
Tom Tom had managed to get us to within 200 yards of the city centre which was fortunate because muggins here had forgotten both his passport (required by Orange) and his glasses (required for everything!) so another 400 metre walk was required by us all.

All seemed to be going well in making the decisions necessary discriminate between the 327 variations in the options available for selecting a sim card that would provide us with internet access on the hoof for the 7 days or so we might be in France. Between them Samsung, my guides and a rather bemused Orange lady helped me to understand the options that I would probably not have understood in English. Passport passed muster, simcard was inserted….all that was needed now was the pass code to fire up my English phone again after a 6 month lay off and yes, you got it, I hadn’t got a clue what it was and I was sure I had written it down in a safe place…..but where was that exactly??!! The sim was in, the 20 euros paid. Don’t worry I’ll activate it myself when I find the code. I never did find the code and we didn’t manage to activate the 3G service.
Best countries for ease of internet access for travellers so far, Russia and Estonia. Germany doesn’t allow even casual internet access to anyone without proof of ID. Even in McDonald’s you only get access if you have German phone and you only get that with confirmed ID.

We finished up with a tour of the truck and a photo op.

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Now our ‘lurking youths’ had names and could not have been kinder or more helpful to an English old timer.

German gardens

We had anticipated a blaze of Autumn colour but found warm weather and mostly trees still in green leaf. It did not disappoint though as gardens, garden centres and florists were full of glorious dahlias and pumpkins of every shape size and colour. We couldn’t resist bringing some back having been assured that they would last until Christmas!!

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We enjoyed the museums, cities, the people we met and of course the beer and food. Travelling, as we do, on small roads (Didn’t see an autobahn until we cruised round Cologne) we passed through small villages with gardens and vegetable plots bursting with colour. German people seem to have such a talent for home making and gardening. Every corner looks artistic with salvaged woo, creepers, pots, gourds, basketry and obvious much-used outdoor spaces. We really enjoyed this part of our trip.

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The Pump Man

You may remember that our fuel pump needed changing at the DAF Centre in Tagliatte in southern Russia.
Spare parts for our old truck with both civilian and military spec have to ‘sourced’.
The staff at the Centre had volunteered that in their opinion the pump main shaft was broken by them in the course of removing it to change seals. They assumed the responsibility of sourcing and paying for a new one. The Centre is part owned by Thomas Eschweiler from Cologne in Germany. He tasked his Dad, Willy, with sourcing a new pump. He soon discovered that the pump is no longer available new but that in Belgium there was a company specialising in the reconditioning of such pumps and having placed an order drove over to Belgium to pick it up and giving it to his son in time for him to hand carry it to Russia.
We had the reconditioned pump in Tagliatti within 4 days!!

Our route home had few fixed points on it but one was Willy’s DAF Garage in Duren outside Cologne so we could thank him in person.

It was great to put a face to a person who had played such an important role in getting us back on the road again 4000 km away in Russia.

Strasse de Romanik

Just as the adobe architecture of Central Asia and the wooden isbas of the Russian Empire had caught our eye so far in our travels, now the timber framed houses common to the Middle Ages in Germany got us thinking what we could do to transform our block-built, pebble-dashed bungalow in Omagh!

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Halberstadt, Wernigerode and Quedlinburg have long histories but which seem to have suffered from anonymity and neglect during their time as part of the Soviet Union. Halberstadt is a modern City but the old part has remained pretty much as it was. The other two are much smaller and remain the ancient towns that they always were. All have been sympathetically restored since Reunification and are now real tourist attractions although from our brief experience it is mostly national rather than international tourism. The towns are beautifully presented for the tourist and well worth an hour or two of anyone’s time. Every where you turn there is a temptation to click the shutter.

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They largely escaped the Allied bombing of the Second World War but still boast a good story or two from the period. Wernigerode Schloss is home to the ‘treasure’ of Church and Town. As in all other conflicts the treasure was boxed and concealed in nearby caves for the duration. In 1945 American GIs inexplicably got the job of moving the boxes back to the castle when it was discovered that two boxes were missing. Nothing more was heard of the contents until the late 1980s when the descendants of one of those GIs (Joe Reardon) put them on the market. This was challenged in court by the Wernigerode authorities but it wasn’t until 1995, after reunification, that an understanding was reached with the family to return the contents of the boxes except for some items which the family claimed had been sold.

One of the items returned from Texas
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Detail of the tapestry dating back to the C13th among the town treasures in Quedlingberg

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One of the advantages of travelling with your home on your back is that in touristy places you can usually beat the larger coach parties to it. They seldom arrive on the scene before 10 and before that we felt as if we had the Strasse de Romanik to ourselves.

Brass bands,treasure and magic

The next night we stumbled into Halbertstadt without knowing anything about it. In fact Tom Tom took us right into the square at the heart the old city. Hesitant to actually drive down the narrow street into the square itself I did a recce on foot first. The walk into the square was like walking into another world. From busy modern streets into a cobbled square made up of ancient buildings and a church at each end. A Petanque like game was in progress on the gravel at the centre of the square and there was a modest gathering of people in front of the church to my right. As I noted space for parking and turning in a small parking area, the first notes of a brass band playing added to the atmosphere.

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I squeezed the truck down the street and parked up and we tumbled out to sit on the steps to listen to the band playing from the bell tower of the St. Stephanus & St Sixtus Dom. The atmosphere felt magical and indeed we discovered later that this brass band performance was rare and unscheduled!! Strange that it should tug at all the same emotions as those felt when we were woken by the call to prayer from the central mosque on our first morning in Turkey.

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The bulk of the small audience made use of the bollards.

The Dom has the distinction of having hung on to all its treasure through over 900 years of turbulent European history and this is now on view to the public in a museum in the cloisters of the adjoining abbey. Much to Vs delight these included one of the oldest surviving tapestries in Europe (C12th). Also included some magnificent reliquaries crafted locally to house relics brought back from the Middle East by the Crusaders.

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Loved the interaction between two reliefs in the Dom

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The Centre of the old city is composed of narrow streets lined with old timber framed houses.

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That night we got chatting with two German ladies at a neighbouring restaurant table. So far in Germany we have been travelling through what was East Germany between 1945 and 1991 and I was interested to see what, if any, differences we were likely to see as we entered what had remained Germany during that period. This was the subject of our discussion and their conclusion was that whilst the contrast was stark at the point of reunification after massive investment in the infrastructure and private housing in what had been a Soviet Republic, the differences remaining were quite subtle and mostly in the form of the classic Soviet accommodation blocks that we had become familiar with throughout the old Soviet Union. Many have been demolished, many have been refurbished and some remain as a reminder. They recommended the ‘Strasse de Romanik’ and visits to 2 towns in the Hartz mountains which had been transformed since reunification to become centres of tourism. Quedlinburg & Wernigerode.
Our route took another twist.

The privilege of parking up and going to bed in such a Square was magic.

Of course every magic moment has its downside.

I did mention the Church at each end of the square? Did I mention that each had a bell tower and a clock? Did I mention that each bell rang on the quarter? Did I mention that synchronization was last conducted in 1593? Whether I mentioned it or not, we got precious little sleep. It is the anticipation that keeps you awake trying to calculate the number of minutes to the next toll.

Mountains! Hills!

We haven’t seen a mountain or indeed anything that would really earn the title ‘hill’ since ……..wait for it…….the pass through the Tangshan mountains leading from the Ferghana valley to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. At a rough estimate that is at least 5500 km ago. We have traversed the length of Kazakhstan from SE to NW, completed at least 2000 km in our journey northwards through Samara, Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia, wandered our way southwards again through the Balkan States and Eastern Poland and are now in what was Saxony in Eastern Germany. In that whole distance the truck has very seldom needed less than 4th gear for an incline or decline. The mountains of Eastern Turkey, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan gave the truck a tough time so no complaints but the terrain over the whole of that distance has been a surprise to us.
Actually looking forwards through Western Germany, Belgium, the north west tip of France and southern England it looks like the first mountains we will see are going to be North Wales!!
When you don’t have a route planned beyond a vaguely westerly direction, the terrain often comes as a surprise. The Harz mountains in Saxony Anhaltz in Germany is a perfect example and negated the last paragraph almost as soon as it was written. With a highpoint (The Brocken) similar to Ben Nevis it is not to compare with the Pamirs but it certainly gave the truck a work out through the gears.