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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Outward to Xanten

4th December. 
Our first intention for this trip was to enjoy some of the Christmas markets in Germany and hopefully a “white Christmas” in the Harz Mountains, a forested landscape on the North German plain covering the three states of Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Lower Saxony - complete with its own national park and a network of small gauge steam railways.

Leaving home a few days into December meant that we were already a bit late to immerse ourselves into the maximum number of Christmas markets, as most start late in November and finish a couple of days before Christmas - though a few do run to the end of December. We had a rough plan for a tour and that would suffice.

As usual we overnighted at the Brittania Inn, St Austell. We never seem to be able to get away early on the day of departure and this favourite stopover gives us a good meal and just that happy boost of “yes, we are finally on our way!”

GPS: 50.3459 N, 04.7402 W

5th December
After a bleary eyed start, we stopped for LPG and a cooked breakfast at Trerulefoot, near Plymouth. “Route 38” sells itself as an American Diner, but disappointingly, two small coffees cost nearly as much as the breakfast - not quite in the great American tradition of endless extra top-ups!

GPS: 50.4074 N, 04.3526 W

Moving onto Bristol, we visited the Caravan and Boat Seat Cover Company, the suppliers of our last foam mattress, who kindly and swiftly made a new template and promised to deliver a new one, plus memory foam topper, to my sister's address by 11th Dec. Swift service by most people's standards, and we considered the slight delay to our plans a necessity as our mattress was now seven years old and a bit compacted - another six months might be a few too many!

GPS: 51.4157 N, 02.6095 W

For the night we found The Crown Inn at Regil from the Club Motorhome site. Recently under new management it has received rave reviews on Trip Advisor. It is indeed a charming traditional country pub, including the long trip down a narrow lane! The car park is fairly sloping and despite picking a spot at the bottom we didn't manage to get quite level, but still acceptably so.

The Crown Inn at Regil

Plenty of room in the car park?

In the main bar was a real log fire and we settled ourselves in front of it with a pint and the menu, which included a full Christmas dinner and other festive specials. We shared some good natured chat with the staff and locals at the bar, but when we ordered our food the landlord politely asked us to move to another table as there was a skittles match about to start! The traditional table skittles was set up in front of the fireplace and at the same time another contest was held in the full size skittle alley upstairs. Both venues were extremely well attended and the levels of skill (and serious rivalry) on display were very entertaining.

Our fish and chips arrived with a pile of beautifully cooked veg and a superb tartar sauce. With four pints the bill came to £27.50 - great value.

GPS: 51.3707 N, 02.6626 W

We chatted on with the friendly locals and left feeling tired and content, looking forward to a peaceful nights sleep – little did we know what the early hours would bring…

6th December
Slumbering as deeply as we could be, I suddenly felt the van rise up, together with a dreadful splintering sound a few inches from my head!

Stunned, I was trying to pull myself awake when the van rocked again and there was a repeat of that stomach churning, grinding and crunching noise. Fearing the van was being vandalised, I cried out: “Oh no!” Not here, not now, surely! It was 03.15 am.

In a frenzy to grab some clothes, I opened the side door window and I could see the number plate on a stationary car, the windows totally frosted over and the exhaust steaming in the freezing air. "Remember this number" I yelled to Sue (as if she was in any fit state to remember anything!) and called out the registration.

The car started to move off and I screamed some choice words through the window. To my relief it stopped, the driver must have thought the van was unoccupied. Still struggling to get my shirt on I opened the door, setting the alarm off in the process. With the alarm still shrieking, an old guy got out of the car, obviously the worse for wear after sleeping off his night’s drinking.

His car, our van, the ground, everything was covered in a hard white frost, adding to the surreal nature of the situation. "My reversing sensors didn't see you!" the old guy countered to my adrenaline-fuelled fury, "There's no damage to you, I only hit the tyre on your bike".

Oblivious to the sub zero temperature I inspected his car. His rear quarter light was stove in, with a dent below, but I searched in vain to find a mark on our van. Eventually I found the point of impact - the car had gone underneath our rack and the tyre runner bolt had pierced his window!

Well, that's one type of reversing sensor!

No contact then!

After we had got over the initial shock and calmed down a bit, Sue took down his details and I took some photos. What a night - not what we were expecting! Needless to say it took a long time to get back to sleep again.

If we have anything to gain from this nightmarish experience, it is the wisdom to always park at the furthermost corner of the car park - which we generally do - but also to back the van in, thus protecting the rear from the traffic. Not only is a Fiat front bumper a lot easier to source and replace than a Rapido rear one, but with our rear bed our heads were inches away from the point of impact - a more violent collision could have caused us serious injury!

In the daylight we pulled off the bike cover and we could see that the whole rack had been bent and twisted sideways - it would have be renewed. Unfastening the bikes, they sprung off the runners like greyhounds from the trap - some indication of the forces involved!
Fortunately the bikes seemed ok, and an even greater relief was that amazingly there seemed to be no damage or distortion to the back wall of the van where the rack was attached.

I think there's been a little bit of stress here!

Aviva is the underwriter for our insurance and I spent a frustrating 20 minutes on an 0800 number (800 on mobiles) listening to jingles and recorded messages.
Eventually I got through and the make of car, plus the car’s owner and the insurance company were confirmed with the help of my photo of the back of his car.

Next I phoned Highbridge Motorhomes who were only 30 kms away. The Repair and Service Manager Steve said he would sort out a new rack for us and have a look at the rear wall when we arrived next day, but I would have to fit the rack myself as he had no work slots available until Monday.

Now there was really nothing to do except put the bikes back on the rack and retire to the pub! That night we had the place almost to ourselves, a comfy sofa and table in front of the fire had replaced the skittle table and we tucked into the most scrummy trio of local bangers and mash.

Might as well have a pint, then...

Ahh, that's more like it!

The Crown Inn is the hub of the local community and the quality and value of the food is exceptional. There is no telly in the bar, no piped muzak - just a blazing open fire, great food and beer and good conversation to which anyone is welcome to join in. It had started to feel like home and we miss it already.

The landlord was also a star. He had come out to have a look at the damage and taken his own photos in case there was any dispute with the driver, who was known to him. He checked the next day weather forecast and the road conditions for us online, and also disposed of our rubbish and allowed us to empty our loo into his cesspit.

7th December
We made an early start, and following the route advice received from locals in the Crown bar we made a painless exit back onto the A38, and indeed what now felt like the outside world!

As promised a new rack was waiting for us at Highbridge Motorhomes and Steve concurred with our view that the back of the van was undamaged. Refitting the new rack, I discovered that I needed a saw and a drill, but Steve sent out a fitter who did all that was required and finished off the job. Simon in Service Reception came up with the required invoice and was also good enough to email me a pdf copy to forward to Aviva.

I guess that's the end of that! 

GPS: 51.2265 N, 02.9675 W

From first class service back to the abysmal: I hung on the phone for an hour before getting though to anyone at Aviva, and then came away confused and irritated with conflicting advice on how to proceed with the claim, from someone who I could barely understand and didn’t seem to know what they were talking about - and for a 800 mobile network charge of £10.25! In contrast I had two polite and helpful unsolicited calls from NFU, the car owner’s insurance company, offering any assistance I might require, even including a courtesy vehicle!

However, with a sparkling new rack on the back and feeling that we had grasped victory from disaster once more, we hit the M5 and found our way to the A46, an old Roman Road, the Fosseway.

Now addicted to the sights, sounds and smells of a country pub in which to unwind from the day's travails, we pulled into the Thames Head Inn on the Tetbury Road, near Cirencester.

This inn looks the part and has a pleasant atmosphere inside, but the experience was immediately jarred when the landlord insisted on charging us £5 to stay in the car park, despite partaking of a meal. This we have found is now the exception rather than the rule and didn't go down well. To compound the contrast with the Crown I paid £13 for a fish pie that was no more than a bowl of goey potato and floury paste, lacking the desirable ingredient of a discernable amount of fish! Sue had a tasty and well presented pork steak with bacon and brie, but that and my pie, with a couple of pints and the parking fee came to £42. To add insult, the staff’s attitude was that my taste buds were the problem and everyone else loved it! Not a stopover that we would recommend other than when you are feeling desperate or rich, or both! 

Hope they've found some fish for the fish pie by now!

8th December
A crisp clear day lifted our spirits and we made our way to Lincolnshire to stay with family.

9th December

Sunday lunch at The Beck in Mablethorpe – quality catering at a furious pace and fantastic value.

GPS: 53.3436 N, 0.262655 E

10th December
On a visit to Boston, we purchased some Amazon Kindle Paperwhites from Waterstones. Ebook readers have evolved rapidly and this appears to be a superb bit of kit: light, simple to operate and with that all-important backlight to give the appearance of paper in any lighting condition. Though the screen is not perfect, as many reviewers have noted, it’s good enough for me, and now that pile of paperbacks can be left at home - and need never run out!

11th December
The mattress and memory foam from the Caravan and Boat Seat Cover Centre arrived as promised, the covers were exchanged and the new bed tested: Aaahh……

12th December
Another visit to Boston to dump the old mattress foam at the local recycling centre and post all the left over and surplus parts of the bike rack back home to neighbours.

We had booked a P&O ferry via the Caravan club website and now drove gingerly through heavy frost, via the Humber bridge to Hull, for our passage to Rotterdam.

13th December
As the ferry eased up the waterway, we marvelled at the sight of the vast industrial complex of Europort, a million sparkling lights against a reddening dawn sky. Having been shoehorned in backwards in front of a line of trucks, we were off in seconds after re-entering the van, showed our passports swiftly to a very cheery young Dutch customs officer and were on our way.

Sue had made a quick selection of German Christmas markets to visit after a bit of internet research, but we decided to have a look first at Xanten. It would be nice to make our first stopover a place we knew well and I was curious to see what kind of stab they made at the festive commerce!

The Arnhem Bridge, a bridge "too far" 68 years on

The temperature was still around freezing and we passed through Holland via the bridge “too far” at Arnhem, the scene of a epic military engagement in September 1944.

The first dusting of snow in Germany

Into Germany, the fields were white with a dusting of snow and when we arrived at Xanten I was presented with the first test of our new Michelin Agilis Camping tyres, a gently rising snow covered track into the Wohnmobil Park. These tyres have the now legally required, in Germany, M+S (Mud and Snow) marking, and coped with the ice and compacted snow well, including manoeuvring in and out of the service bay - very impressed so far, a vast improvement on the old Michelin Camping XC.

Safely pitched at Xanten's WoMo Park

GPS: 51.6541 N, 06.4632 E

Wrapped up well and dodging the patches of ice on the pavement, we ventured down to the Christmas market and it was everything we would have expected from Xanten. A little village of wooden huts was set up in the square, together with a large tepee floodlit with red and orange light. A show stage was also set up with lights and speakers; no one was performing but the strains of English carols and American rock music blended together across the roofs of the huts! 

Yeah... its all magical!

"Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens..."

A glass of Gluhwein a day keeps the cold away!

Outside the tepee, which contained a bar and a donner kebab outlet, happy drinkers were standing under wooden shelters, warmed by open fronted log braziers supported at chest height on steel posts. Every hut was decorated with lights, as were the numerous trees. Strangely, this enchanted little setting was thin on the crowds, but the cold was more bitter than we had estimated and after a stroll around all the stalls and a swift Gluwein we opted for the oven-like warmth of the Vecchio Teatro.  Here we had a superb pizza served by a formidable Italian speaking, German speaking, English speaking - Croatian waitress!

Next: we start our dedicated tour of the best German Christmas markets!