The Connected Traveller.

The fast moving pace of technology development, together with manufacturing volumes, has brought enormous computing power to even the casual user at affordable prices. Most of us carry a mobile phone with more computing power than a ten year old desktop PC. The wider adoption of mobile devices adequately caters for business, pleasure and casual use on the move……when connected to a network. I own many mobile devices that in the main work perfectly when connected to my home or office networks but travelling poses more of a problem. My reason for writing this piece is to impart my experiences and solutions when travelling for leisure. MobileKit

My everyday requirement is to have a telephone signal and it is typical that when I’m staying at a hotel or campsite, voice coverage is pretty poor outside of larger population areas. Although some models of mobile phones have better radio capabilities than others, I have found that Vodafone tends to have the most reliable service across devices. Orange, now EE, ThreeUK and O2 I find are average depend on your geographical location. Vodafone with O2, and EE with T Mobile, share masts, Three appear to have their own network (edit- Use EE masts for voice calls in weak coverage areas). but there is a move to merge all networks onto each mast around 2015 to further improve coverage. However I find that I use voice less and less so rely mostly on 3G or when available, 4G data connections for email, browsing etc. The unpredictable availability of these networks led me to try some alternatives.

For work, I have no  choice,  it’s Vodafone. Call quality and coverage is good, but data connectivity, in my experience, is the worst network. For personal smartphone use, I have a Sim only, monthly contract and a Pay as You Go Sim on ThreeUK, Anneli is currently with EE and we have two tablets using GiffGaff “data only” Sims piggybacking the O2 network. For data connection whilst travelling this offers a choice for network coverage. Moving recently to the Three network from EE has added 4G connection when available for no additional cost but also the recently introduced Feel at Home feature. This includes calls and text messages made and received, to and from the UK in selected countries using your standard call plans, plus limited data connection. For us, we travel to France and Sweden often and they are included. Another recently introduced Three feature is an app for selected smartphones, Three in Touch which enables calls and text messages over a WiFi connection if the cellular network is unavailable.

MiFiWhen travelling with the Motorhome, campsite locations tend not to be in very good network covered areas, so two providers expands the possibility of obtaining a connection. Also, WiFi connectivity on sites is quickly becoming more available and, noticeably in France, with increasingly free access. Often a login code is required to limit use to patrons which is where the Motorhome WiFi becomes a “must have”. This excellent package connects to and boosts the available WiFi signal and up to five devices can be connected to it. Once set up and your devices registered to it, the available WiFi network only needs registration on the MiFi. Think of it like your home router but connected to WiFi, not a cable. If the WiFi service is chargeable, often the connected devices are hidden behind the MiFi so only one payment is required to supply all the MiFi connected devices.

Although I am fortunate, within reason, to be able to purchase and experiment with various gadgets, i’m not that keen to spend cash with the network operators. I buy outright my phones and tablets from the cheapest suppliers and choose Sim only plans from the networks which works out much cheaper than ” free” or small up front charged phone deals. Usually the phone or tablet can be sold on, even to the recyclers, which reduces the life cost of the device. Often the Sim only plans are on a rolling monthly contract, so if usage changes, your plan can be changed easily. GiffGaff is particularly good for this, you manage your own plan online, even changing from call plans to data only plans, month by month.

For more information on the networks go to Kens Tech Tips:

Note.

If you choose to try GiffGaff sometime, using the links in this article or clicking the ad in the side bar, at the time of writing, we each get £5 of airtime credit.

Autumn 2012

Our travel plans for the autumn and Christmas through New Year period were a little uncertain as I was scheduled for a cataract correction operation sometime in the few weeks before Christmas. The offending eye had deteriorated sufficiently in the twelve months since diagnosis to qualify for NHS treatment and I was told that I would need to take three weeks out of work following the procedure.

So looking forward, we decided not to book any sites for the Christmas period and if we could get away, stay fairly close to home. The autumn then, was spent mostly staying at our regular weekend

Van and Toad.

Van and Toad.

retreat, Clockhouse Farm at Glemsford with a weekend at the NEC – Birmingham in October for the Caravan and Motorhome Show.

The NEC show did not have too much of interest for us this year having only just purchased the Bürstner a few months earlier, but gave us the chance to catch up with friends Peter and Lynn of TyrePal fame. Something we did seem to acquire in Birmingham though was a pair of adult mice in the van. A few days after the show, I noticed the alarm had been triggered and immediately found evidence of mice. A drawer we keep the coffee, sugar etc. had been plundered, intriguingly, the top of the Marmite jar had almost been entirely chewed off. After a lot of cleaning and several traps baited with chocolate they were caught within twenty-four hours.

The successful eye op was at the end of November so I didn’t work for most of December and to keep life simple we arranged to stay at Clockhouse Farm between Christmas and New Year but also take

Swan Hotel, Lavenham.

the car too. We have stayed at Glemsford regularly for nearly five years but only visited the adjoining villages on foot or by bike so we planned to check out at least Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds. The weather at this time of year is not the best in England and our visit to Bury was a cold and rainy trip but the day spent in Lavenham with friends Dennis and Tessa was bright and sunny, although a little crisp. A snippet from a Suffolk website declares, “Lavenham is the country’s finest example of a medieval town. With over 300 listed buildings and a labyrinth of small narrow streets, it has changed little since the 15th century. The Church of St Peter and St Paul, dating back to 1486, dominates the town, with its tower standing at 141ft high. Its significant size reflects the prosperity of Lavenham at the time”. It is certainly worth a visit particularly if you are into historical architecture. The bar of the Swan Hotel proved to be an interesting respite from the chill outside. The decor includes wartime memorabilia and was a favourite with WW2 pilots from US Army Air Force 487th Bombardment Group stationed nearby at Lavenham Airfield.

Graffiti, The Swan.

Graffiti, The Swan.

There is a preserved portion of the wall, which was signed by British and American servicemen from the base, which is now visited often by families of those stationed here.

We saw in the New Year with Glemsford friends at the Black Lion.

Houghton Mill CC Site.

Houghton Mill CC 1Houghton Mill CC 2

 

 

 

 

Looking for somewhere different for a quick weekend break late September I found Houghton Mill on the Caravan Club site with pitch availability. For some reason we have missed this one possibly because it closes through the winter so doesn’t come up in a search. Situated between Huntingdon and St Ives, it’s only an hour’s drive from home and what a pleasant surprise. Houghton Mill is a National Trust property and it looks like the Caravan Club has an arrangement with them to operate a temporary style site in the field adjacent to the Mill. The amenities block is permanent and up to the usual club standards but the office is a cross between caravan and portacabin, so easily removed from the site.

Cottage - Houghton

Access is through Houghton village centre and down a fairly narrow lane so there are time restrictions for arriving and departing. Also I seem to remember seeing somewhere that outfits were restricted to a maximum eight-metre length. The village is quite picturesque with thatched cottages mixed with victoria style villas. There is a small shop and two pubs to choose, both serving food. The Three Horseshoes is the nearest hostelry in the village centre and further along the road which becomes Wyton is the The Three Jolly Butchers were we ate a rather good afternoon meal in the bar. There is a restaurant area too. There seems to be a “Three” theme here.

Houghton Mill is open to the public and is the last working watermill in the area. On Sundays during the season, demonstrations of milling are held and flour can be purchased. There are lots of walks and the area looks good for cycling. Walking through the mill to the far side of the site is a lock on the river and further on, a footpath across a meadow to Hemmingford Abbots. Hemmingford has some very grand houses and The Axe and Compass pub. A great friendly atmosphere here with a restaurant also. An unusual feature of the village is the lending library in a phone box outside the village hall.

We walked and explored more than usual for us and will return in the spring to explore the area further.

South West France – Summer 2012

Our summer holiday this year was to be less of an adventure, but more time to relax. We enjoy the South West Atlantic coast of France so we booked familiar sites at Messanges and St Georges de Didonne planning the fill in days using Aires.

P & O Dover to Calais sailings were all booked out on the dates and times we wished to travel so we tried DFDS for the first time, travelling Dover to Dunkirk. The boats were a pleasant change from P & O with kind of “designer” interiors. Disembarking in Dunkirk around 1.00 am, we originally planned to stay at Gravelines but we decided to drive on to Calais finally parking opposite the Holiday Inn as the fair was set up in the Marina car park.

It’s a two-day trip to our first booked site at Messanges, so the following day we left early, calling at Total on the industrial zone to purchase diesel and coffee en route to the motorway. The first stop of the day was for lunch at the Hotel L’Etoile d’Or at Gacé. Al fresco dining is great for people watching but the entertainment here was a film company setting up across the street. They arrived around the time we sat down and within an hour had the set lit, propped and cameras ready to roll. We couldn’t stop to watch the action, and left for our usual overnight stop just south of Tours, St Maure de Touraine. Stocking up with provisions and fuel next morning at the new Intermarche, we then heading further south for Camping Les Acacias.2012-08-20-0107

Since purchasing the Aviano in March, the aircon had not been proven in really hot weather so before leaving England I had it re gassed just in case. Whatever, there is a huge difference in travel comfort compared to our previous vans. We recorded 42o C in the first Hymer on a similar trip but providing we didn’t park in direct sunshine during a lunch stop, the interior remained pleasantly cool.

We arrived at Les Acacias late afternoon to a welcoming Marie Claire and Philippe who had reserved a great pitch for us. We were set up and in the bar down the road in no time. We booked for five nights, spending each day cycling fifteen minutes down to the beach, running early mornings and just lazing around the site. We normally lunch at the Camping le Vieux Porte bar restaurant, which is usually fairly good, but the service and food was pretty poor on the first day. When the bill was presented at the end of the meal we said in unison “we’re not coming back here again”.

After a relaxing few days set off heading to Pauillac just north of Bordeaux on the south bank of the Gironde. We visited here last year and I was quite keen to try another Chateau tour to compare. The splendid Maison du Tourisme et du Vin de Pauillac recommended Chateau Gruaud Larose for an English speaking tour the next morning.

Pauillac - CarreletWe overnighted at Camping Municipal Gabarreys, which is within a kilometre of the tourist information office. This is a really delightful site. We were allocated a large pitch with river view. The amenity block opposite included a sauna and there was a hot tub raised up on a platform at roof level with a great view over the estuary. Arriving at the pitch we found a car parked on it. Turned out that three young Dutchmen were camping next to the pitch and had locked the car keys in the boot, but help was on its way. We had plenty of room to park so we set up quickly and had just sat down with cold beers when the man from France Assist arrived. He was so helpful, Polish, didn’t speak much French, English or Dutch but tried hard to recover the keys. Fortunately the campers spoke a little German, which he

France Assist

understood. Cutting a one-hour saga short, Anneli and I recovered the keys eventually.

The tour of Chateau Gruaud Larose next morning was excellent. Very informative and we learnt far more about the wine process than on previous tours. Two bottles of the Grand Cru 1900 vintage cost the same as our Bürstner! Needless to say a slightly newer vintage was offered for tasting at the end of the tour. Early afternoon we headed north again intending to find somewhere to stay overnight close to the Verdon to Royan ferry as our booking for Bois Soleil started the following day. However we carried on, caught the ferry and arrived at the site a day early. We were allocated a pitch next to our booked one, which was still occupied, making an easy move the next day.2012-08-24-0144

The pitch booked, Chatelaillon, is an elevated position looking towards the beach. We had worked out the positioning of the van to allow for connecting the wastewater to a drain and have plenty of room to erect the privacy room. Manoeuvring onto the pitch the steering became heavy and I realised that the far end of the pitch was soft sand. Cutting another long story short, four hours later and after a lot of digging, we 2012-08-26-0172(0)were towed out using various site maintenance vehicles using large purpose made boards to stop the front wheels sinking further into the sand. We repositioned, well away from the sand, and as we were to be pitched for several days we thought this was a good opportunity to use the privacy room supplied with the van. We had erected it briefly to see if it was complete a couple of months previously so it took little time to assemble and peg out. We used it more than we imagined during our stay. Bois Soleil won the Alan Rogers Readers Award 2011 and this year, standards had been maintained. The amenity block for “La Mer” area had been updated with wet rooms during the closed season and seemed to be cleaned several times each day. The Wi-Fi reception was not as good as last year, possibly reflecting the growing popularity of mobile devices stuffing the bandwidth. It was good to meet Tony and Anneka who were pitched opposite us last year in a bar over the road one evening and spent a few pleasant hours over drinks and nibbles over the next few days.

All too quickly it was time to leave Saint Georges de Didonne and start heading back for home. Our first destination was a site that Tony and Anneka recommended at Sées, which they use travelling to and from their home in Holland. Just north of Alençon, it is just the right distance when travelling back to Dover or Dunkirk. Camping Municipal Le Clos Normand is perfectly placed to walk into the town centre to 2012-09-01-0234explore and for eateries.  There is a medium sized Carrefour opposite too, with fuel. The Cathedral is well worth a look. Magnificent stained glass windows and someone was practicing on the grand organ whilst we were there. Tony did mention that they had seen “travellers” on the site on previous stays but none this year. Well they were there when we arrived. Several white transit vans and cars, two caravans to a pitch etc, no trouble until they arrived back at the site late evening. Switching on all their electrical appliances cut the power to the whole site until after 8.00 am the next day. No one could leave the site as the exit barrier was powered. The absence of electric hook-up overnight was not a problem to us really but our (English) neighbours were fuming.

Our last destination before returning to England was Gravelines close to Dunkirk. The Aire is just outside the old town walls next to the river and marina area. Arriving just after lunch on Sunday we had a selection of parking spaces to choose but this is a very popular location and became full by early evening. This is a great spot for chilling, watching the boats coming and going and just a short walk to explore the old walled town and Arsenal. The town is very quiet on a Sunday but the Arsenal museum and gardens were open. Nothing 2012-09-02-0254about football here though.

DFDS delivered us safely back to Dover the following afternoon and we were home within two hours. The Aviano didn’t miss a beat, is generally quiet when motorway cruising and returns about twenty five per cent more miles to the gallon than our last, Mercedes based van.

Sound system improvements.

Following the installation of the fairly inexpensive Sony MEX-BT3900U Bluetooth unit, see post – Blinds and Audio review, although the Sony unit made a noticeable improvement to the

Original Equipment.

sound, it was evident that the standard Bürstner supplied speakers matched to the previous Blaupunkt were very average. After prizing off the décor grill and removing one of the units to find the make and reference number, a quick Google search found that the Visaton items were understandably low spec and sold for around £12 a pair. So what to replace them with?

I made a minor foray into car audio sites on t’internet and soon got very bored. I did not want to change the size or position of the standard fit items as they are integrated into the over cab bed, and being the next size up from a mini tweeter, 4” or 10cm, the small size limits the available choice. I checked out matching Sony versions but the information was unclear as to weather the speakers were sold singly or in pairs. Halfords offered a couple of options from Clarion and Pioneer and I also read up about a brand I was not familiar with, Focal.

Focal 100 CA1 10cm.

My Amazon account has been on overdrive for the last few weeks, and not without some delivery frustration, not caused by Amazon I must add, they have been brilliant, but I thought I would try some good old-fashioned face-to-face retail purchasing, so I visited the excellent AudioFile In Car of Bishops Stortford who fitted the Sony unit. Surprise surprise, amongst the well-known far eastern brands stocked, they recommended the Focal 100 CA1 units. Sold. Installation took about ten minutes, the tweeter units adjusted for direction, grills fitted and music switched on. The sound improvement is really noticeable. There is a limit to how much can be achieved with such small speakers but compared to the old units there is real definition between instruments and vocals. The unchanged rear habitation speakers are the same as the original front pair and sound really flat compared to the Focal units. AudioFile suggested a flat sub woofer could be easily fitted within the habitation area and help boost the low frequency sound but that could be an upgrade too far. Would not be very popular on sites!

Now looking forward to those long French autoroutes in the next few weeks, the Focal instruction leaflet mentions that the cones have to be run in for a few hours to attain peak sound performance, ideal. Time to reload those memory sticks with new music I think.

Blinds and Audio Review.

We have now had a chance to evaluate the new Hindermann blinds over the last couple of months. In my previous post I mentioned that there were no obvious fixing points on our Bürstner

Hindermann Blinds

as we do not have cab doors. Using a couple of bungee cords, they are fitting fairly well but I am on the lookout for something, anything, to fit into the leading edge of the aluminium rails above the side windows. A fixing here will tension the blind across the windscreen. Any doubts over their insulating properties have been allayed though, although thinner than our previous sets, they are proving effective in retaining heat inside the habitation area and in the little sunny weather experienced so far with the new van, the interior is keeping cool.

The blinds have highlighted another area of investigation though, there is a real draught in windy weather coming through the offside cab furniture, removing a handy plastic storage tray next to the handbrake reveals the chassis cab step area which has at least a couple of holes without rubber grommets fitted. Another job on the now much shorter “to do” list.

The new Sony Mex-BT3900u head unit is now fitted. I had to order a double din adaptor to fit the unit as the Blaupunkt Malaga already installed was about three millimeters larger than the Sony. I ordered the part from The Car Audio Centre website and the order auto confirmed. I had heard nothing further and after a couple of days rang to find out that the part was out of stock and had been ordered. I should receive it in a couple of days. Cutting a long story short, after about two and a half weeks it hadn’t arrived and I had the unit fitted at my local car audio store, Audio File In Car in Bishops Stortford. I have not had any dealings with them before but recommend them highly.

Sony MEX BT3900

Sound quality is far superior compared to the Malaga but highlights the inexpensive speakers fitted to the van as standard. One of those in the habitation area above the dinning table vibrates with low frequencies. These will be replaced before our summer tour. The colour of the facia display lighting can be set to red or blue. The red is a good match with the Ducato dashboard lights. It is interesting how simple the Bluetooth connectivity is with my Nokia N8. Virtually instant connecting the telephone, my cars take at least thirty seconds to connect. There is a built in microphone for hands free calling which works fairly well when stationary and on the move at urban speeds but an external mic would be preferable for heavy use on the move. The choice of audio source is extensive, the FM radio reception is fairly poor as the aerial is fitted into the fiberglass roof and not earthed. Something odd I have not had time to investigate is I have tuned all the BBC national stations, local stations and Absolute radio and get reasonable sound quality except Radio 2, which disappears as soon as the ignition is switched on. The other sound sources are the built in one shot CD player, there is connection available for a CD changer too. A USB socket for using memory sticks and cards and a 3.5mm jack input for MP3 players, phones and IPod/iPhones. The Bluetooth connection also has an audio profile. There are outputs at the rear for a Sub woofer and amplifier. There is also a remote control supplied which is really useful when lounging in the habitation area. I will report further when the new speakers are fitted.

Jubilee Weekend in Brugge.

Taking advantage of the long weekend we wanted to visit somewhere new; we checked several sites within a reasonable travelling distance of home for a Bank Holiday but no pitches were available. I checked the Dover to Calais ferry prices and they were fair, then found Camping Memling at Brugge, so booked for three nights.

The ferry departure was an hour later than our usual booking so there was plenty of time to reach Dover after work on Friday evening. Although the M25 was jammed right around the north east side to Dartford we decided to make a leisurely drive down, leaving at 6.30 using a variation to the route that by passes most of the M25. A “police incident” on the way delayed us by about two hours but arriving at Dover we were put on the earlier sailing and managed a good nights sleep at Calais Marina. The parking fee charged between April and September is a little informal; a ticket was posted on our windscreen asking us to call around to the campsite reception and pay €7. Well we do use this park quite often so we paid up.

We arrived at Camping Memling about an hour before the 2.00 pm check in time and found that although reception was closed for lunch they had a kind of self check in system so we were on our pitch and cycling into the city centre by two o’clock. Situated in a residential street close to the sports centre, the site is quite compact, a mixture of grass, a few hard standing pitches and a small area for tents. There are some motorhome pitches that look more like an Aire at the far end of the site; very little space between the vans but our pitch was 80 sq. metres. The toilets and showers blocks were clean but a smart new one looks like it will be completed within a couple of months. Camping Memling is about a ten to fifteen minute cycle ride to the Markt, centre of Brugge or about forty minutes on foot. There is no bar, food, or shop on the site but a large Carrefour market, Aldi and MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut, if that’s your thing are within a five minute walk. We paid €70 for three nights including electricity. There is WiFi available at €1 per hour, per device. We thought it was a good site located within easy reach of the city centre.

The weather was hot and sunny on the arrival day, the centre of town is very picturesque and was jammed with tourists. We had a very pleasant alfresco but expensive lunch and afterwards a few hours strolling around taking in the sights. It rained heavily overnight into Sunday morning. By lunchtime the rain turned to drizzle so we ventured back into the centre to find it almost deserted. Another expensive lunch and more sights explored. Monday the weather was much the same, drizzle and sightseeing, then back to Calais for lunch on Tuesday and home for tea.

There is more exploring to be done in Brugge and as it’s only about an hour and forty minutes from Calais, easy to reach for a weekend. We were surprised how expensive the tourist areas are, making Paris seem cheap in comparison but overall a great long weekend.

What is the correct spelling for Brugge? A little research (Googled it), In Flemish and Dutch, it’s spelled Brugge and pronounced Broo-gah. In French and English, it’s spelled Bruges and pronounced Broozh.

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