Category: Vanlife

Everything You Need to Know About the NC500

Gruinard Bay

Gruinard Bay: just one of the many stunning beaches you’ll find on the NC500

Where has the last month gone? If you’ve noticed my absence from the blog in recent weeks, I offer a humble apology. I launched my first novel at the end of last month (you can check it out here) and that, along with writing the sequel, getting two separate stories ready for anthologies and my freelance work has meant I’ve been spending way too much time in front of my computer screen. But I’m back! And I hope you’ll enjoy this week’s article which is all about the North Coast 500 (NC500): Scotland’s premier touring route.

I have frequently raved about Scotland’s beauties on these pages, and the North Coast 500 takes in some of the most beautiful and (until now) undiscovered parts of this fantastic country. Dubbed as Scotland’s answer to Route 66, it starts and finishes in the Highland capital of Inverness and loops for 500 miles around the northernmost part of the Scottish mainland. You’ll pass towering mountains, pristine white-sand beaches and ancient castles as you wind your way through the stunning scenery.

Although I’ve visited many of the places along the NC500 route, I’ve never linked them all together. But it’s on my bucket list to either take a leisurely drive in our campervan or cycle the route. If you’re looking for some inspiration for a cycling challenge, check out the Adventure Syndicate ladies who completed a non-stop team trial around the full 500-mile loop in 36 hours.

Raring to go? Great! Here’s what you need to know about the North Coast 500.

NC500 Factfile

The route: You start in Inverness and wind your way through the mountains to Applecross on the west coast. From there you head north through Torridon, Gairloch and Poolewe, and up to Ullapool. Continuing north, you visit some of the most northerly coastal areas of Scotland, including the famous John O’Groats, before returning down the east coast to Inverness.
Transport options: Car, campervan, motorbike or bicycle — the choice is yours! Whatever option you choose, be courteous to other road users and remember that many of the roads are single track and weren’t designed for the volume of traffic they now experience. If you need to swot up on your passing place etiquette, check out this useful summary.
How long does it take?: How long is a piece of string? The NC500 is not a speed race. If you rush, you’ll miss the beautiful sights and hidden secrets that this part of Scotland has to offer. Most official itineraries suggest a 7 or 8 day trip, but if you can spare the time, I’d recommend taking two weeks (or three!). This will allow you to spend a couple of nights in different places and explore the surrounding countryside.
When to go: This really depends on what you’re after. If you want good weather, then May, June and July tend to be the driest months. May and September are good months to avoid the midges and still get some decent weather, and if you’re willing to take a risk, April can be beautiful. (But can also be wet or snowy.) Just remember, you’re not in the Caribbean, so whenever you choose to visit, bring a warm jumper and a raincoat. If you don’t like other people, winter will be quiet, but be prepared for the roads to be icy and most tourist amenities and sites to be closed.
Where to stay: There’s plenty of accommodation available in most of the main towns to suit all budgets. It does pay to book ahead, especially in summer, when a lot of campsites and B&Bs get fully booked.
Essential kit: Midge repellent and a tick remover!
More information: Check out the official North Coast 500 website for more information on the route.

Exploring The Best of Gairloch and Poolewe

Photo of Charlestown harbour with mountains behind

North-west Scotland is one of my favourite places in the world. I haven’t explored nearly enough of it yet, but one place I keep returning to is the area around Gairloch and Poolewe. Nestled between Torridon and Ullapool, it’s a family-friendly haven of beaches, mountains and lochs.

While some parts of the Highlands are arguably becoming overwhelmed by tourists during peak season (hello Skye!), so far Gairloch and Poolewe seem to have escaped this fate. Its remoteness probably helps this, along with the dreaded Scottish midge, but those who do make the journey will be rewarded with some of the most stunning scenery Scotland has to offer.

Gairloch and Poolewe: The Lowdown

Where is it?: Gairloch is part of Wester Ross on the northwest coast of Scotland, around 70 miles west of Inverness.
How to get there: Gairloch is about four and a half hours drive north of Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Wester Ross isn’t the most convenient area to navigate by public transport. The nearest train station to Gairloch is Achnasheen (connecting trains from Inverness) and there’s one bus a day to and from Inverness.
Where to stay: There’s plenty of accommodation in the area, including camping and caravan sites, B&Bs and self-catering cottages. Many campsites back onto beaches, including Gruinard Bay Caravan Park and Sands Caravan and Camping Park. There are also more basic (but beautiful) sites at Mellon Udrigle and Firemore Cove. We travelled in our campervan and spent most of the time wild camping (which is legal in Scotland). There are hundreds of beautiful spots to park up for the night – just make sure you follow proper wild camping etiquette.
When to go: Thanks to the nearby Gulf Stream, Gairloch and Poolewe typically have a milder climate than their northerly latitude would suggest. That said, this is Scotland, so if you go in the winter, don’t expect to be sunbathing. Being Scotland, it can also rain a lot. May–September are the best months to visit, but it’s pot luck as to whether you hit a sunny spell or a rainy week.
What to bring: A waterproof, sun cream and lots of midge repellent. Oh, and a camera, to capture the beautiful views.

Gairloch and Poolewe Highlights

You can find the ‘official’ highlights of what to do in Gairloch and Poolewe here. This is my unofficial guide, focused on the outdoor stuff you people love!

Badachro and Red Point Beach

Red Point Beach

Red Point Beach lies nine miles down a dead-end road off the A832. There are actually two beaches – one on either side of the headland – from which you can look across to the Isle of Skye. It’s a great beach for swimming (if you dare brave it!) and seal-spotting.

Badachro Bay

Back down the road, stop in at the Badachro Inn, a great pub located right on the harbour. Good food, good beer and great views.

Fairy Lochs

Fairy lochs

Fairy Lochs are a small group of freshwater lochans that lie in marshy ground in the hills behind the Shieldaig Lodge Hotel. They’re also the site of a wartime plane crash. An American Liberator bomber, flying back to the United States via Iceland crashed with the loss of all 15 crew and passengers. The strewn wreckage remains on the crash site as a memorial to those who lost their lives.

A pleasant 6 km circular loop takes you up to the lochans and back via Loch Braigh Horrisdale. Be warned – it’s boggy!

Wild Camping on the Beach

Wild camping

If you can brave the midges, the area around Gairloch and Poolewe has some of the most beautiful wild camping spots in the world. A campfire, hot dinner and the sound of lapping waves make for a perfect evening. If you’re new to wild camping, here are some tips.

Gruinard Bay

Gruinard Bay

There are many, many beaches to explore in this area. But Gruinard Bay is one of the most spectacular. It’s actually a series of bays, with a huge tidal reach that can catch out unsuspecting sunbathers. You can scramble back to the car park above the high tide line, but I wouldn’t recommend it. (Voice of experience…)

An Teallach

An Teallach

Of all the Munros and other hills in this part of Scotland, An Teallach is the most intimidating. The full ridge is a Grade 3 scramble and a great day out. We started at Corrie Hallie and dropped down into Glas Tholl Corrie to give a circular route without too much road walking. It’s a popular day out and if the sun is shining, you’ll need to get there early to grab a car parking spot.

Exploring the Best of North Yorkshire

North-Yorkshire-Highlights-Saltwick-Bay

Low tide at the beautiful Saltwick Bay

It’s confession time. I thought about this week’s blog post whilst hanging out the washing at about 9.30am this morning. Which, given this should have gone out at 8.00am was a bit of a boob on my part. I’m blaming the Easter bank holiday – today feels like Monday, not Tuesday!

Rather than my usual ‘how to’ style posts, this week I’m going to take you on a wee tour of North Yorkshire, mainly because I’ve just come back from a lovely few days up there in our campervan, Sadie. Our weekend can be summarised as follows: windswept moors, hilly forest, windswept beaches, more windswept moors. As you can gather, it was pretty windy.

Sadly I don’t have any photos of our 20-mile mountain bike ride around Dalby Forest. Partly because I felt that carrying my new phone around the trail was guaranteed to make me fall off and squash it, and partly because I am pretty slow on the mountain bike and was therefore at the back of the pack. So you have to take my word for it that it was a sunny day and a fun route. I biked about 90 percent of it (which is good going for me) and felt totally knackered by the end of it (always the sign of a good day out).

Saltwick Bay

Saltwick-Bay

Saltwick Bay is about a mile down the coast from Whitby on the east coast of North Yorkshire. It’s pretty popular, but at low tide it’s big enough that you can wander away from the crowds. We went in search of driftwood and found fossils. Many, many fossils. There’s also the remains of a shipwreck:

Shipwreck-Saltwick-Bay

If you’re feeling a bit claustrophobic in Whitby, it’s well worth the walk over the cliff-top path to Saltwick Bay. Just make sure you keep an eye on the tides and don’t get trapped.

Blakey Ridge and Rosedale Valley

We had arranged to meet my sister and her partner for a walk in Rosedale valley the following day. As Sadie is a bit of a beast, we decided to get to the the start of our walk – the car park on the top of Blakey Ridge – early, to nab a good parking spot. Which meant we ate breakfast with this beautiful view:

Blakey-Ridge

Pretty good, huh? Blakey Ridge is a beautifully wild, desolate spot. The lonely Lion Inn stands proud, battered by the wind; a cosy refuge on a winter’s day. But on this occasion, the sun was out and we had our sandwiches packed.

Rosedale is a tranquil valley, surrounded by wild moors. It also has an interesting history. During the nineteenth century, the valley was mined for its high-quality iron ore. The remains of the brick kilns can still be seen, high on the hillside.

Brick-kiln-Rosedale

To transport the ore to the foundries, a railway was built and the remains of the tramlines now offer a flat, high-level path around the valley.

Rosedale-valley

On a clear day, you get stunning views across the valley. Keep your eye out for ring ouzels (the blackbirds of the moors) and listen for the call of curlews circling overhead. It’s a wild, windswept and beautiful place – a taste of the best North Yorkshire has to offer.

The Etiquette Guide for Wild Campervan Adventures

Campervan-etiquette

In my humble opinion, one of the best things about owning a campervan is having the freedom to park up in a remote location, settle in for the night then wake up for a morning run from your mobile doorstep. And a lot of the time it’s as simple as that. But if you want to avoid giving yourself – and other campervanners – a bad name, there are some essential pieces of etiquette you should know.

First up, the legal bit. The laws around wild camping vary depending which country you’re in. Remember that all land is owned by someone, even if it’s classed as ‘public’ land. So your best option is to get permission from the landowner before parking up for the night. In England and Wales, wild camping in technically illegal so you’ll need landowner’s permission to stop overnight. In Scotland, wild camping in tents is allowed, but the law around campervans is a little hazier. If you’re out of people’s way, not obviously parked on someone’s land and don’t make a nuisance then ‘informal camping’ is tolerated in most places. Across Europe and further afield the laws vary: there’s a useful guide here on which European countries do allow wild camping.

With that bit out of the way, if you fancy a bit of wild or stealth camping in your van, then here’s a quick guide to essential etiquette for wild or informal camping in your van.

Don’t ignore ‘no overnight parking’ signs

If someone has gone to the trouble of putting up ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs it’s a clear indicator they’ve had trouble with campers before. If you decide to stay regardless, you may get a rude awakening by an angry landowner, or even the police. A lot of local authorities in England are cracking down on previously frequented overnight stops. Even if you want to argue about the technical legalities of this, please don’t give campervanners a bad name by blatantly ignoring the signs.

If you’re struggling to find somewhere to stop for the night, it’s worth trying pubs (particularly in remoter areas). They may be happy for you to park up overnight if you eat and have a few drinks inside.

Park up late and leave early

No one’s likely to take much notice of a van that’s gone in the morning. Spending the day lounging outside your van with a barbecue and the awning out, however, is more likely to draw the attention of an unfriendly landowner. If that’s the kind of camping you’re after, then pay for a campsite.

It’s also a good idea not to stay in the same spot for more than two nights on the trot. After all, one of the joys of wild campervanning is waking up to a different view each morning.

Keep the noise down

As above, the best way to enjoy success with wild camping it to be unobtrusive. That means no loud campervan parties (unless you’re really in the middle of nowhere!). If you park up outside of towns and away from houses, you’re unlikely to have a problem and can karaoke along to your heart’s content. If you’re stealth camping in a town, you’ll need to be a bit more careful. Blackout curtains can help, as does accepting you’re in for an early night.

Leave no trace

It sounds obvious, but litter is one of the main gripes about wild campers, and in some places has resulted in wild camping being banned altogether. It’s easier in a campervan than a tent, so there are no excuses for not taking your litter with you.

Be considerate when toileting

I haven’t come across this so much in the UK, but I have in Europe, where popular campervan car parks are turned into open-air toilets. It’s not nice and it definitely gives van-dwellers a bad name. If you don’t have toilet facilities in your van, pick a pee-spot that’s well away from any watercourses. Carry a trowel and bury more solid waste, and bag toilet paper to dispose of in a bin.

Don’t run generators or engines late at night

Another thing that shouts, “Hello! I’m illegally camping here!” is running engines at night. And generators are most definitely a no-no. If you need to charge your leisure battery, do it during the day. If you need more electricity than that, consider paying for a site with a hook-up.

Empty chemical waste at a designated disposal area

If you’re lucky enough to have a toilet in your van, make sure you dispose of the contents appropriately. Most public toilets are not suitable for emptying chemical toilets, so you may have to check-in to a campsite for the night. Use it as an opportunity to have a hot shower before you hit the road again!

Be considerate, but have fun!

Wild campervanning allows you to spend time in some truly beautiful landscapes. Respect these landscapes, be considerate to other people and you’re guaranteed an enjoyable and memorable trip.