Épernay (and a few other places too)

Some things make us feel quite boat/homesick – more later

Sunday was our last complete day in Norway and we took it relatively easy by taking a walk along Vega’s southern coast from Nes.  Whilst having breakfast we watched about three dozen siskins that were pecking on the ground.  They were there for about ten minutes but we couldn’t work out what they were eating. Maybe, even though they are seed eaters, they had taken to grubbing insects from the ground.

At the fishing harbour of Nes we passed one of the eider houses; I mentioned the other day about the centuries old tradition of the islanders providing houses for eider ducks to nest in and, in return, the eider down was taken, cleaned and used for its warmth retaining properties.

A sad looking eider duck house in need of repair
Several of the islands off Nes used to be inhabited and causeways had been built to enable the islanders to reach Vega.  These little islands now only have a few cabins; used by locals and other Norwegians as getaways for fishing or weekends away.

One of the causeways – note the red painted stone marking the footpath

Looking back to the north of Vega – the island of Sola is to the right and in the middle is the mountain we climbed on Saturday

Looking across to the mountains on the mainland

We travelled back to the UK on Monday and Matthew dropped us off at the ferry landing stage on his way to work.  The boat left at 7.45am and we were accompanied by the senior school children, who go to school on the mainland, and also a couple of dozen commuters who go there for work.

As we were waiting for the boat we had a look at the island’s ambulance boat.  This is used if a patient needs fetching in an emergency form Vega or any of the many other islands covered by Matthew’s practice, and taking to the hospital on the mainland.

Vega’s ambulance boat

Arriving back at Brønnøysund
We had very poor connections and had to wait five hours for a plane at Brønnøysund and then another six at Oslo.  We finally got back to Lauren & Lewis’s in Reading soon after midnight and were as quiet as mice as we didn’t want to wake them as they get up early to commute to London.

Tuesday was another round of seeing children and friends.  First of all, we drove to Brooklands, near Weybridge, to have lunch with my youngest son Jake.  We hadn’t met up for a while so it was good to have a catch up over a lunchtime meal.

On the way back to Reading we stopped off at Henley to see Chris & Sue who were moored there for a day or two on their trip up the Thames and then onto the Oxford canal.  We both felt quite a pang when we went aboard their boat as we had been away from ours for over a week by that point and it made us feel quite homesick.  It was no good feeling like that as we had another 10 or 11 weeks to go before our holiday was over and we were back aboard.

As usual, Chris & Sue had lots of entertaining stories about their travels and it was lovely to find out that they are having the same ups and downs as we did when we first started living aboard.  Like us, they don’t really see the downs as downs but just part of the life we have chosen.

Chris on South Downs moored at Henley
Sophie & Yanos had looked after Buddy while we were away in Norway and whilst we were away had taken him up to the Derbyshire Dales.  Sophie had been on a yarn dyeing course there which she really enjoyed and had even dyed some yarn in colours of butterflies that I was able to recognise without prompting which was really pleasing.

Yarns dyed in brimstone and peacock colours…

…and Sophie's first attempt at freehand embroidery – an orange tip
When we got back to Reading, Buddy had been dropped off at Lauren’s and (of course) was really excited to see us.  In the evening, Sophie & Yanos popped back and we all had dinner together.

On Wednesday morning we set off in the pouring rain for the channel tunnel to begin our three-week camping trip through France down to southern Tuscany where we shall be holidaying for a month in the hills above Seggiano.

Car packed to the gunwales outside Lauren's

On the way, we stopped at Mereworth for a coffee and catch up with Pete & Val who live not far from our old house that we have now rented out.   It was good to catch up on all the local gossip and hear how things have (or haven’t) moved on.

It was still pouring with rain when we got to the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone for Buddy’s first foreign trip.  When we lived in Kent (and before the equalisation of French alcohol prices) we often had evening trips across to Calais to stock up on wine and beer and have a meal but had never taken a dog with us.

Showing our passports at border control

Buddy not too sure about the movement of the train

We have three weeks to get down to the middle of Italy and our only constraints are visiting friends at various places on the way (not really constraints 😉) and not travelling on motorways.  There was one exception, we had wanted to travel on the autostrada around Genoa as Karen hasn’t been through there in a car before and the alternating tunnels and viaducts are (or were) amazing. 

Those of you who drive in France will know that their N and D roads are generally really quiet and so much better than the UK equivalents (A and B roads), making driving a pleasure.  Whenever we’ve driven to the south of France for summer holidays or to the Alps for skiing we have always hammered down the autoroutes overnight to arrive in the morning.  As we had half a dozen or more children with us it made for much easier travelling 😉

Once through the tunnel we drove south towards Hardelot and Le Touquet to look for a campsite for our first night.  We eventually found one at Camiers just as it stopped raining.  It was still pretty dismal and chilly, so we put up our flappy thing, in order for us to sit out in the evening.

Camp set, complete with flappy thing
The awning is called a flappy thing because that’s how Malcolm, the farm & campsite owner at Gordale Scar refers to it.

Karen has a rough plan for our meals for the journey.  She has an app that pools all her recipes and enables her to add her own categories to each one.  She has gone through and marked up all the ones that are camping friendly – fairly simple to cook, previously tried and known to be really enjoyable. 

After dinner we took a walk on the beach and, as you can see, it was hardly summer weather in northern France:

With my dad being immobile he enjoys keeping in touch by reading the blog and he has asked for us to include a picture of our daily route so here’s the rough journey we took on Wednesday:

After a leisurely breakfast on Thursday morning we packed up and set off on the country roads 
We stopped for a picnic lunch by the Canal du Nord and Buddy was soon at home, drinking water from the canal even though the steeply sloped sides looked rather precarious:

Just after arriving a large liveaboard came cruising past and made us feel quite boat/homesick again – see picture at the top.  The Canal du Nord is about 60 miles long and links the Canal Lateral a l’Oise with the Sensee Canal.  The canal was built to transport coal from the coalmines in the Calais area.  It was started in 1908 but wasn’t completed because of WWI.  During the war it was badly destroyed, and building didn’t recommence until 1960 and was finally opened in 1965.  Unlike the UK, the northern French canals support a lot of commercial traffic still and for that reason are often avoided by smaller boats like Brits abroad on narrowboats.

A little while later we passed over the Canal Lateral a l’Oise:

Our previous journeys through Champagne were always on the autoroute and the vineyards lining the wide valley sides could be seen in the distance long before reaching them.  This time, we didn’t see any vineyards until we broke out of woodland at the top of a hill.  We had started getting concerned that we had gone wrong as we knew we should be in Champagne but there was no sight of it.

We were at the top of the western side of the Marne valley and soon realised we were in the middle of grape picking time (vendange).  There were white vans and little cars parked everywhere; the pickers were mainly from places like Poland and reminded us of the fruit picking season when we lived in Kent.

Hillside dotted with vendange white vans

This Polish bus had just disgorged a crowd of pickers who quickly dispersed amongst the vines
We started getting concerned that the local campsites would be full because of the influx of the pickers.  We were lucky though, it seems that the pickers are crammed into the campsites in special areas or on other spare patches of ground around the town.

We soon set up camp again and decided to stay a couple of nights so we could have a day exploring the area without doing any driving. 

It has taken both of us a while to stop looking for Victorian post boxes as we drive through the villages but no doubt we may see stanking plank stores as we investigate the various canals 😉
Our journey on Thursday

Gullsvågfjellet (proof we’ve seen a white-tailed eagle)

The island’s hotel and restaurant – Vega Havhotell

Whenever we’ve visited Matthew in Norway I always find the language incomprehensible.  With most European languages there are often many words that are similar to English ones but it never feels like it with Norwegian.  This visit has slightly changed that as some of the old Viking geographical words we are coming across are similar such as dal for valley (dale) and fjellet for mountains (fells).

Saturday saw us heading off for Gullsvågfjellet, Vega’s second highest mountain at just over 2,400’.  It is the mountain in the background of the picture of the restaurant above.  We set off in sunny weather but with clouds covering the tops, but we hoped it would clear during the climb.  As it happened, the clouds were persistent, so we didn’t get the decent views we were hoping for at the top.

Gullsvågfjellet from Matthew’s house on Friday when there was no low cloud cover
The start of the walk was a steep scramble up a scree slope but soon eased off as the path followed ridges and circled round the mountain.

Looking down on Vega and across to the mainland before we reached the cloud cover
We were lucky in that the cloud cover was just that and didn’t turn to rain until we reached the summit.  As with other paths, the route was marked with red paint spots on boulders and also metal poles topped with red cylinders.

Our summit selfie – moh stands for meter over havet (metres above sea level

The summit cairn
The red containers in the cairn hold the exercise books for people to record their climb.  I mentioned in yesterday’s blog entry that these containers are placed every mile or so along footpaths in Norway for people to record their adventures, feelings, weather conditions etc.

Matt completing our entry
The rain started as we set off back down again.  We were going to take a small detour to a cabin built by the locals as it would be a dry place to have our lunch and was about a 1/3rd of the way down.

The view from the top 

The welcome sight of the Tindbu
Tindbu translates to cabin on the mountain and, confusingly, we have seen it spelt four different way whilst we have been here: tinbu, tindbu, tindbue and tindebue.

It didn’t take long before the stove was roaring away and we could start warming up and having lunch.  It was so cosy and toasty that we stayed for an hour and could easily understand how people stay the night – there are several bunks provided. 

The cabin even had an outside loo!

On the table was the traditional visitor book and Karen took her turn at making the entry:

You can’t quite read it but she signed it as Karen & Neil Payne from the UK and Matthew, Dr for the island.

It was worth staying for an hour as the rain had stopped by the time we set off.   

It was obviously still raining in the distance
When we finished our walk, Matt showed us around his surgery.  We also popped into the shop and it seemed that everyone we bumped into in the aisles knew Matt.  With only 1,200 inhabitants on the island he knows most of them, well, the sick ones anyway 😉

Just before we got back we saw a white-tailed eagle gorging on quite a large bird.  As we drove past, the car frightened it and it flew off, dropping the kill on the way.   We could see crows flocking down to the dead bird as we drove on.

They really are massive birds and the white tail can just be made out on this shot of the eagle flying off

In the evening we walked to the Vega Havhotell where Matthew treated us to a really good meal.  As can be seen in the picture at the top, the roof of the hotel is traditional in that it is covered in earth and grass.  In the days when houses were made of logs, the weight of the grass (or sod) roofs would compress the logs thus making them airtight.

Vega (off-grid living)

It was pouring with rain on Friday morning, so we decided to take it easy and stay indoors until after lunch with the plan to go out for a walk in the afternoon whatever the weather.  As it turned out the rain eased and then finally stopped as we set off for Vegdalen, a settlement of four houses that can only be reached by foot or from the sea.

The walk took us along the western shore of Vega, the island Matt lives on, beneath the hills that line the beach on that part of the island.  The rain clouds loomed threateningly behind the hills all the way but never made it over the top (luckily!).

Black clouds looming menacingly beside us
It was very windy and maybe that was the reason we didn’t see much birdlife; mainly gulls that I was unable to identify with any certainty.  Every so often we could see waterfalls which appeared to disappear – the wind was so strong that as the water fell it was blown away before reaching the bottom of its descent.

One of the disappearing waterfalls
We walked passed Søla, a now uninhabited island that rises abruptly from the sea.  It looks so inhospitable (and is only about a mile square) that I was surprised that Neolithic remains have been discovered there.  It was inhabited until 1350 when the inhabitants were wiped out by the Black Death.  It was then repopulated in the 1500s and since then its handful of houses were lived in until the last family left the island in 1970.  Amazingly, the main produce was potatoes that were sold/traded to the other islands in the area.  There are now just five summer cabins which many Norwegians we have met further south seem to have in the north of the country.

Cloud topped Søla
All public footpaths in Norway are signposted with red pointers.  In rocky areas, like here, stones are painted red to show the way.

Matthew with more waterfalls, black skies and a couple of cairns topped by red stones

Still following the red stones
Visitor books are also found along the footpaths in Norway.  These are placed in watertight containers every mile or so along the route.  We found one attached to a tree and also this one in a Tupperware box in a container under a picnic table.

Tupperware box with a visitor book inside
Vegdalen is set at the end of a valley where there is an inlet from the sea and a few streams running through it.

Looking down on three of the four houses at Vegdalen
Wouldn’t it be brilliant to be able to live off-grid like this?  I would have to learn to fish though – something I have never really fancied doing but, if it was for food, then I would have different feelings about it.  We were fortunate to see a white tailed eagle soaring above the valley.

Every so often the path crossed streams which, with the recent rain, were often tricky to cross.  Matthew and I spent some time at one trying to put rocks in to create stepping stones, but the force was too strong for them to remain in place.  We ended up walking upstream to find a safe place to cross.

Trying to give Karen a helping hand across one of the streams
We had set out in wet weather gear but halfway into our walk the skies cleared, and the sun came out. 

Clouds rolling away and the sun coming out

Passing Søla on our way back, this time in the sun

Matthew’s home on Vega…
…and one of his wood stores
Vega is the main island in the Vega archipeigo of 6,500 island and, with Søla, is the only mountainous one.  It is just south of the Artic circle which is the furthest north Karen and I have ever been.

If the weather sets fair on Saturday we will probably climb the highest mountain, Gullsvåg, which is equivalent to the highest peaks in Yorkshire.

Vega (eider down farming)

Thursday evening having finally arrived at Matthew’s home

Monday was a 4.00am start as we wanted to get down south before the rush hour that always seems to end up with the M6 around Crewe closed due to accidents.  We had left the boat at the boatyard on Sunday where it will be worked on and, hopefully looked after, whilst we are away.  Goodness knows what state the plants will be in by the time we get back

It felt rather strange knowing that we were going to be away for such a long time and especially when we suddenly realised that when we return we will be needing the stove on as it’ll be November!

We spent a couple of days in Wendover, staying with Karen’s mum and doing odd jobs for her around the house; she is recovering well after her recent falls when she broke her wrist and received two black eyes 😊  On the way down, we called in at our storage unit in Solihull to pick up a few things including the sewing machine that Sophie wanted to borrow as she is starting a sewing course.  After staying with Ann, we went to Reading on Wednesday for an overnight stay at Lauren & Lewis’s.  

We had forgotten it was Reading festival and hordes of youngsters (and I mean youngsters) were already arriving in town.  Free water taxis were on hand to take them from parental drop off points to the festival site further upriver.  It seemed that most were going for the first time as many tent bags and sleeping bag covers still had their labels on.  It was either that or they just planned on leaving them behind and buying new for the next event as seems to be the wont these days.  Homeless charities should get on the bandwagon and arrange to take these unwanted items before they get trampled when the festivals are over.

As we were off to stay with Matthew (Karen’s eldest) in Norway’s Vega islands for a few days, we dropped Buddy off at his ‘hotel’.  Sophie & Yanos had offered to look after him while we were away and their housemate, Carl, was especially excited as he was brought up with seven dogs at home Ireland.

After dropping Buddy off and spending abit of time with Sophie, we caught a train to London.  We planned a walk around the City before meeting up with Catherine in Holborn for a drink and a meal after she finished work.  As you can begin to see we were making sure we were getting to see the children before setting off on our French & Italian trip – Polly and Steve had already been up to stay on the boat in the last week or so.

There was an ulterior motive in walking around the City  - there are lots of pillar boxes there, a hangover from the end of the 19th century when all correspondence was by mail.  We found 13 Victorian boxes including one incongruous one. Its door had been replaced with one that bore Edward VII’s cypher, so it had both VR and EviiR inscriptions on it.

The unusual box at the Holborn end of Gray’s Inn Road
Talking about VR boxes, Chris Hutchins sent me a couple of pictures of a box he and Sue had found when they were moored in Windsor.  It is actually a replica of one of the first boxes manufactured in Victorian times.

The replica Penfold box painted in the original green colour of boxes until the 1870s
We went to a restaurant called Café Rouge in Holborn and had an awful experience so doubt we will visit the chain again; we had been once before, in Leamington, and had quite enjoyed it.  The place wasn’t busy, but the service was slow, the food seemed greatly overpriced for what we got and to cap it all, the fire alarm was intermittently going off.  Unusually for me, I complained but did get a discount, although we had rather hoped a discount would have been offered without actually asking.

Before the disastrous meal – the main thing was to see Cat so the poor service etc. didn’t really matter
Thursday was yet another 4.00am start as we were catching the RailAir coach to Heathrow on the first leg of our journey to stay with Matthew in Vega for a few days.  We weren’t sure whether we were getting two or three flights as we had received conflicting information about our booking.  The first flight was with BA to Oslo and, as the rest of the journey was with local airlines it wasn’t possible to check in all the way through.  When we arrived in Oslo we went to the transit area but were told we had to go landside and re-enter the airport to continue our journey.  It turned out we only had one further plane to catch and landed at Brønnøysund with two hours to spare before catching the ferry to Matthew’s island.

Karen with her baby walking into town from the airport
We popped into a coffee shop to wait for the ferry to arrive and were surprised to find that most of our Norwegian notes were no longer legal tender.  We were surprised as we had saved them from our last trip here which was only a year ago.  When we get back to the mainland we will have to find a bank where we will be able to change them.

Our ferry in front of a small Norwegian cruise ship

Vega is the main island in an archipelago of around 6,500 islands and is well known for its relationship with eider ducks that have been ‘farmed’ for their down for many centuries.  The farming consists of locals building wooden shelters for the ducks to make their nests in.  The ducks collect dried seaweed to make their nests. The shelters keep predators such as sea eagles away and the farmers take the down once the young have left their nests.

View north from Matthew’s house…
…and looking east towards another island
As we are so far north the sun sets a lot later at night, so we went for a pleasant walk after dinner to see the sun setting over neighbouring islands:

Being a long way north we were having to wear warm and waterproof clothes which was really strange after the long dry summer we have had in Yorkshire.

Not sure how often I’ll be blogging as internet access won’t be easy when we are travelling around France, but I’ll write when I can even if only as an aide memoire.