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End of Year Letter 2012 PDF Printable Version E-mail

2012: A Year of Four Seasons

Barry and Margaret Williamson
December 2012

Another year, another attempt to summarise its many differing days. We continue our life of travel: the same one that started at the end of March 1995 when we closed our front door (soon to be opened by tenants), started the engine of what was then our Four Winds motorhome and, in the words of Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens):

'Well I left my happy home to see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends with the aim to clear my mind out
Well I hit the rowdy road and many kinds I met there
Many stories told me of the way to get there
So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out
There's so much left to know, and I'm on the road to find out.'

Knowing there was much to be known, we couldn't know just how much we didn't know. We identified with Isaac Newton, describing himself as being 'like a boy playing on the sea-shore . . . whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.'

So here are the latest four seasons on our beach, digging in the sands of time, seeking enlightenment as well as distraction.

Season One: The Return from Greece via Ireland

After a winter in that anguished, misunderstood and ultimately humiliated country, we returned to the UK by the usual ferry from Igoumenitsa, up against the Albanian border, across the Adriatic to the Italian port of Ancona. Rather than the usual fast sprint across northern Italy to Milan and northwards through Switzerland to Germany, we chose a more leisurely route for the motorhome through the heart of historic Italy.

First stop was Assisi, where we cycled around the hill town to the Basilica of San Francesco (St Francis), begun in 1228 just two years after the Saint's death. Pilgrims come to the crypt in the lower church containing the tomb of St Francis, while cognoscenti admire the Early Renaissance frescos of Biblical scenes and episodes from the life of St Francis by Giotto and his followers. A group of young black nuns clad in white were clearly enjoying themselves, in marked contrast to the solemn young white priests clad in black. The Basilica has been restored after serious damage in the earthquakes of September 1997, the time of our first visit here.

On to Siena where we took a local bus, driven by a dropout from the Ferrari race team, into the medieval centre of the Tuscan city. Its name is reminiscent of the Reeves paint boxes we had as children - remember Burnt Sienna, named after the yellow-brown earth of the region? We wandered the maze of narrow winding streets, old buildings and palaces in search of something more practical: an affordable lunch. All we found was pizza. The centre is dominated by a large shell-shaped square, the Campo, memorable for the ice cream bought there rather than the massive early 14thC Public Palace which, like the nearby Gothic Cathedral, sold entry tickets. Donning our seldom-worn tourist hats, we did prefer Assisi with its architectural and sacred treasures freely on show.

Our third and final homage to the Italian Renaissance was at Pisa, where it was an easy walk from the overnight car park to the spectacular group of Cathedral, Baptistery, Cemetery and Campanile (the famous Leaning Tower). Not our first sight of the grandiose white marble buildings in the Piazza del Duomo, the lawned Square of Miracles, but they never fail to impress. Since our last visit, the Tower has been re-opened to the public (at least, to those with the heart and lungs to climb the spiral staircase). Deterred by the long queues of camera-clicking Japanese, not to mention the high entry charge, we admired it from the ground up. 

Returning through France, we took the Celtic Link overnight ferry for the first time, from Cherbourg to Rosslare in the far southwest corner of the Republic of Ireland. What changes there have been since our several cycling holidays there, 20 years or more ago! The real Ireland, the people of Ireland, still shine through, something not matched by the sun. However, our meeting with friends John and Lisi, doyen and doyenne of the remote Greek village of Mystraki (population 6), brought warmth to our hearts. As did exploring the Burren on Barry's birthday, interrupted only by a crab lunch round a blazing fire.

From Dun Laoghaire, just south of Dublin, we sailed with Stena Line to Holyhead in North Wales and the long and winding A5 to Shrewsbury, where we lunched and talked (and talked) with Mike and Flo, for many years the Winterkampingplatzfuhrers at Camping Aginara Beach in the Greek Peloponnese. Travellers must find and lose friendship along the way; these are two friends we could never leave behind.

Season Two: The Lochs and Glens of the Highlands

Leaving the Flair motorhome in the caring hands of Cheltenham's Motorhome Medics, we hitched a new-to-us, 5-metre long, 2-berth Bailey caravan to our well-travelled swb Mercedes Sprinter van and headed north.

Our route took us to Huddersfield (for old friends, house, bank), Blackpool (Margaret's brother, flat, shopping), the North Yorkshire Moors above Pickering (former student and good mate, one of life's learners) and Hawes at the top of Wensleydale (walking and cheese).

Once in the Highlands, travelling slowly north, we met several times with Glaswegian pal Dan, his palatial Hymer motorhome sited temporarily in laybys as we visited from nearby campsites by bicycle or Sprinter.

Our route took us through Connel, home to Murdoch and Anne MacKenzie. Barry last met them in Madras (now Chennai) nearly 40 years ago, when he was developing the Polytechnic Physics curricula. Murdoch was Minister of St Andrews Kirk in the city and spent some 10 years in India with Anne and their three children. He is the least retiring of all the retired people we know, still fully and effectively engaged in countless church activities, including the Iona Community. Since the summer, we have been privileged to develop two websites which detail his life's work and that of Anne. A highlight is the account of their return to Scotland from India, journeying by public transport overland through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece etc, compiled at the time by their three children: Ruth (12), Catriona (10) and Iain (8). Aspiring bloggers should find inspiration there!



Two months of travelling, walking and cycling north of Glencoe included a spectacular ride below Stac Pollaidh, fortified at a tea shop overlooking the Summer Isles (population 2 no 3, they've just had a baby), and finishing at Ullapool in an excellent Indian Restaurant next to the campsite!

Finally we headed south and west to Stranraer for a ferry to Larne near Belfast. However, a sharp deterioration in the health of the Sprinter's engine forced an abrupt return to the Motorhome Medics in Cheltenham. Every cloud should have a silver lining and ours was a detour into the Delamere Forest, south of Chester, for a meeting in a clearing with another influential person from Barry's days in Madras: Brian, who had taught physics at a Christian College out there.

Season Three: Cycling the Great Rivers of Germany

While the Medics carried out major open-engine spare-part surgery on the Sprinter, the Bailey caravan's floor was relaminated (under warranty) in the keep of Golden Castle Caravans. Meanwhile, we and the Flair motorhome were on a DFDS Lines ferry back to the mainland, to drive across Belgium onto the banks of the Rhine. There, by the remnants of the Bridge at Remagen, began two months of brilliant autumn motorhoming and cycling along the banks of five of the great rivers of Germany: the Rhine, Mosel, Ahr, Neckar and Danube. Germany vies with Holland in its provision of dedicated cycle paths: they are all-pervasive within towns, between towns and as long distance routes criss-crossing the country.

We gradually built up our cycling mileage again, culminating in a two-day ride along the Mosel from Koblenz and a longer ride from the Black Forest town of Donaueschingen, where the Danube officially begins. In three days, we were very happy to reach Ulm, about 140 miles (225 km) away, or 8% of the 1,770-miles (2850 km) it takes the Danube to reach the Black Sea. One day we will return for the other 92%.

Season Four: South through France for Spain and Portugal

On learning that both the Sprinter and caravan were ready for the road, we returned to Cheltenham via the well-used Dunkirk/Dover ferry and transferred our worldly goods and unworldly ambitions yet again. This time, we returned to routes and countries we hadn't known for 13 years or more. The overnight ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff in Brittany took us to the beginning of a long slow journey south down France's Atlantic coast. By the end of the year we aim to be traversing Spain, avoiding the fleshpots along the Mediterranean coast.

Our main aim has been to achieve more flexibility. Now we have a good place to live (the caravan) and a vehicle to take us where we will, cheaply and smoothly (the Sprinter), carrying bicycles to the relatively few places where it is still possible to ride safely and at length. In addition, we will be able to leave the caravan behind and use the Sprinter and the bicycles plus rooms for more intimate travel in Iberia and in Morocco, as we have done in Tunisia and the Balkans.

Meanwhile, we send our very best wishes for the coming year and we look forward to hearing your news, wherever you may be.

Barry and Margaret


Italy: Pisa


Ireland: In the Burren


Scotland: Taynuilt Highland Games


Scotland: Kiel Church looking out over the Isle of Mull


Germany: Cycling by the Mosel


Germany: Cycle Path in the Danube Gorge


France: The Ancient Stones of Carnac


France: The Tidal Causeway to the Island of Noirmoutier


England: Sprinter Van and Bailey Caravan