Ridge Monkey

On recommendation from Sarah and James we invested in a Ridge Monkey – a revelation in cooking, versatile, non stick and quick, because it cooks everything in a sealed environment food stays moist and tender and because very little or no fat is needed it’s healthy. So far we’ve cooked eggs, chicken in various sauces and several fruit based desserts, all with great results. We’ve yet to make toasted sandwiches and experiment with different meats, I’m told burgers, bacon and sausages all cook well. It’s also a great stand by if the weather is rubbish and too cold or wet to light the Cobb.

Getting Organised

One of the most important things about cooking in a camper van is to be organised.  Know what you’re going to cook and get everything you’ll need out of the cupboards first, this may clutter the limited work space but there’s nothing worse than trying to find a pot, can or spatula from the under cupboard when you’re in the middle of prepping or cooking especially if you have the table in place.  With a top loader fridge I also need to remember to get all the chilled stuff out before piling the top of it with pans and the like.

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With some imagination there are no limits to what you can cook using a wok, small saucepan, frypan, Ridge Monkey and a Cobb grill just be relaxed about mealtimes, some things take longer to prep and cook when you’re limited on space and tools.  I use Notes on my iPad for recipes that are easy and tasty using a mix of fresh, dried and tinned ingredients. It’s nice to plan and cook together but with limited space I’ll usually do the prep and cooking while Alistair is great at getting the Cobb lit, pouring the wine and keeping Fred away from the food.

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Our new van has a diesel hob, very different from anything I have cooked on before and at first required an element of ‘shall we try this?’  Now after several short adventures in the UK we are  becoming quite skilled at mastering the diesel hob, yes it takes a while to heat up and once hot there is no real temperature control so it needs constant attention, stirring and switching pans around but it’s efficient and I haven’t burnt anything yet.

We enjoy grilled meats, fish and chicken so the Cobb gets a lot of use, simply grill as they are or marinate in herbs or spices in the fridge during the day while travelling.  When deciding what to serve with grilled food the standard salad always heads the list but after several days this becomes a bore so I have developed a list of side options and always stock the cupboard with stir fry sauces, tins of mixed beans in spicy tomato sauce, baked beans, salad beans and lentils, noodles, rice, couscous and several types of pasta, all of which can be made into sides for grilled food.

I take weighed quantities of pasta, rice, couscous and porridge sealed in small bags but also take a set of cups and a measure chart for these basics in case we run short of pre weighed.  Packet cuppa soups are a great standby for a quick lunch but they also make excellent sauces to cook meat, fish, chicken or vegetables in, use a good brand, don’t add all the recommended amount of water to start with and add extra herbs and spices to enhance the flavours.

Travelling Dog


Home again after a week on the road we are so grateful that Fred is a such a good traveller. A week of visiting freinds and relatives he spent 4 nights in the van and 3 at various freinds and he adapts to the changes without any problem. He behaves himself at freinds houses, although he does want to clear their gardens of blackbirds and pigeons, and seems to respect the difference to home. Once in the van it is like a second home to him and the back seat becomes his sofa and the footwell his bed.

Camp sites must always smell of bunnies but he won’t venture far from the van the as soon as he is on a lead Fred heads for the nearest hedge dragging you with him. When we are travelling for day he is fine with just regular stops to relieve himself and of course food otherwise he sits and watches the world or just relaxes. Mind if we are more than half an hour late stopping for food he starts huffing and sighing!

Always whe we get home as soon as he gets through the gate he is off down the garden to make sure all is still in its place in his world.

St Neots C&CC Site


The Camping & Caravan Club site in St Neots is well worth a visit. We are on a freinds and relies trip for the week and just happened to rock up here. The site itself is as you would expect from a C&CC site and getting to the location through housing estates might set you wondering but the location on the river bank is as good as it gets. St Neots itself is an attractive town on the Great Ouse river with copious amongst of green space. From the site you can walk either way up and down the river with good hosteleries in both directions.

However the crowning glory was our pitch backing on to the river. In the evening we watched the sun go down and the Terns fishing. They were spectacular when the red sun refelected on their wings as they fluted above the water. In the morning when we woke to clear blue sky the Kingfishers were occasional blue streaks along the opposite bank.

Tour of Wales

Despite promising to go there we hadn’t been to Wales for such a long time and even then only once on a failed camping trip and for weekends or business. The only times I had been there for any length was as a child to the Lleyn and Anglesey and in my early teens teenager to Pembrokeshire. So as we were kicking our heels due to our big summer trip having been delayed a couple of months we decided to take the plunge.

Day 1 : Friday 16 June

The day started with a 4 hour drive around the M23 / M25 / M40. The weather didn’t look that hot and but as the day wore on it just got warmer.  It might seem odd going to Wales from the South Coast via the Grand Union near Northampton but friends Lesley and Jeff have a Narrow boat moored there at Heyfields Marina and we had promised to pay a visit. Like all such places it was down narrow lanes so imagine our amusement when, after a mile or so, we came across an IKEA arctic on foreign plates stopped before a low height bridge – he wasn’t going anywhere except in reverse. As it was the marina owners were more than happy for us to pitch up there for a night. We spent a pleasant afternoon and evening at the start of a very hot weekend with a picnic lunch and BBQ supper and several bottles of wine.

Day 2 : Saturday 17 June

IMG_1090The day dawned with a cloudless blue sky and already hot. After a bacon sandwich breakfast Fred managed to exhaust himself with just one “walk” around the site. We hadn’t decided where in Wales we were going but as it happens the marina in question lies just of the A5 so it was an easy decision to head to North Wales and save on the navigation. Some of the old A5 is a bit of a drag but other goes through some lovely countryside.

It took a while before we eventually got to Wales and we started looking for camp sites. I thought the A5 took us to Bala but when it didn’t we took a turning off signposted to Ffestiniog. The 13 mile road had a number so one might think it was ordinary however as it climbed to around 1500ft over the moor it became a narrow single track passing Lynn Conwy lake, the source of the river Conwy.

Once in Ffestiniog with a mobile signal we got onto the web and found a nice site back in Bala – I should have taken the turning there in the first place. Situated in remote countryside about 3 miles outside Bala this C&CC site was just what the doctor ordered, very peaceful with nice facilities.

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Day 3 : Sunday 18th June

It was Sue’s birthday so a relaxed day was on the cards. One shortcoming of the site was a lack of walking possibilities without walking down the lanes so we opted to start in Bala where there is a great walk from the old station car park along the banks of the River Dee to Lake Bala. Fred had a great time in the long grass and the river and in the lake chasing the gulls. On the way back he got into the river and swam spontaneously for the first time.

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Our walk was followed by a tour of Snowdonia to Dolgelau, Betsw-y-Coed and back to Bala. It was getting warmer and the breeze through the van was welcome. Stopping anywhere meant tangling with the many tourists but we found a nice picnic lay-by on the pass near Ffestiniog where we could watch the classic cars out for the day and loads of would be Joey Dunlops.

Day 4 : Monday 19 June

As I said I was a child when my parents took us to Anglesey and Sue has never been there so that is where we were going but not before Fred had another play in Lake Bala. The A5 took us through Betsw-y-Coed and up and through the pass at Pont Pen-y-Benglog where the lay-bys are full of campers and cars that belong to the guys hanging off the cliffs all along the lake.

A quick shopping trip to Asda in Bangor to buy lunch and stock up and we headed for Aglesey. There are two bridges across the Menai straights and I wanted to use the old Thomas Telford suspension bridge close to Bangor.

Once across the bridge we turned right looking for a lunch stop, a frustrating excessive and annoying when we got to Beaumaris where they crowd you onto the sea front and charge £5 for the day. Anyhow we found a nice lay-by with a view across the straight of the whole of Snowdonia.

Driving a short way around the north coast it was cold and drab and it didn’t take long to work out that we didn’t want to stay on Anglesey. On the way back to the “new” Britannia bridge we made a couple of calls and picked a C&CC site near Cricceth on the Lleyn Peninsula. The site was on a bit of a slope but the facilities were exactly the same as the last site so it would do us for a couple of nights.

Day 5 : Tuesday 20 June

DSC_0012We decided on a drive around the Lleyn Peninsula for the day. The forecast wasn’t so hot and indeed by the time we sopped for coffee just before Nefyn it was bright but chilly. The views from the hillside, more Snowdonia, were nothing if spectacular once again. Parking at Nefyn was limited so we carried on to Abedaron where at least this time the National Trust would let us park for an hour instead of all day and let Fred have a run on the beach. We set off to towards Abersoch, a well to do resort, in search of somewhere to park up for lunch and were disappointed again by rip off car parks. In the end we stopped by a boat yard in Pwllheli where as luck would have it we found a fresh fishmonger and bought a couple of filleted Mackerel for tea.

IMG_1105Returning to the camp site, that was actually in Llanystumdwy the birth and resting place of Lloyd George, we tried to take Fred for a walk and a dip in the nearby river but he wasn’t keen on the boulders. He kept slipping of and he couldn’t understand how deep it was. In the end we took a walk through the woods and past Lloyd George’s grave.

As I said the weather forecast had suggested it would be cooler – it was nothing of the sort with the temperature in the high 20s and still warm at night.

After the frustration of all the expensive car parks we took the decision to join the National Trust so from now on we should be able to find free parking as well as places to visit.

Day 6 : Wednesday 21 June

IMG_0659Today we decided to head south toward Pembrokeshire via some of the coast and Aberystwyth. A short supermarket stop in Porthmadog and back on to the A470 heading south. We stopped for coffee and a walk in the Kings Forest a spectacular wooded area full of giant Canadian spruce trees.

DSC_0013Once at Dolgelau we took the coast road consisting of beautiful country lanes and spectacular coastal views. We pulled over for lunch in a lay-by on the side of a hill that looked out over the Irish Sea to the north we could see all round to the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula. Below us the sea was turquoise and clear.

Today it was very hot and as we got to Aberystwyth the van’s outside thermometer read 31.5C. We stopped on the sea front for a stroll and an ice-cream and watched a large dolphin lazily swimming just off the beach. It started to shower but came to nothing.

Looking at the forecast for the coming days we decided to head inland for the night and a C&CC site at Rhandirmwyn. It was so far out of the way that it was impossible to find and there was no mobile access to call them and once there there was no radio either. It could have been a nice place were it not for the clouds of ferocious midges which, along with the mozzies and bitting flies, made a feast of Sue. So bad was it that we very soon locked ourselves away and cleared the van of the insects as best we could.

Day 7 : Thursday 22 June

IMG_1110We got up very early and there were just a few beasties about so we very quickly loaded the van and headed into Llandovery to find a cafe and some breakfast. We decided to go back along the A40 to south Pembrokeshire and ended up on Pendine Beach for coffee. Fred was so excited being let off on such a big beach that I am sure he set a new land speed record for Cocker Spaniels.

IMG_1112From here we worked our way through Saundersfoot and Tenby and on to the Stackpole Estate and the beach at Bosherston. We had lunch overlooking the sea and then took Fred down to the gorgeous sandy beach. The tide was out and the beach was empty and he had such a good time.

DSC_0014Although the weather was holding it was time to think about going home that afternoon and we headed east along the A40. We tried a couple of small C&CC certified sites that were poorly located and very expensive before we found a lovely little site at White Mill near Carmarthen Coincidentally there was a couple already there in an VW T4 van with a Westie called Fred and they came from Lancing just 30 miles away from us.

Day 8 : Friday 23 June

Today was set to be grey and damp and sure enough as we were packing it started spitting. I managed to get a short walk in with Fred after breakfast before we headed on up the road. The A40 was full of classic hot rods on their way to Pendine for the Vintage Hot Rod Association speed weekend – perhaps we should have stayed. We were heading to the Dolaucothi Gold Mines just by Llandovery. Gold was mined there since before the Romans until the 1960’s. They are a National Trust property so another bit of value for our recent membership. We took the walking tour and the history of the site is fascinating, it would be easy to spend a lot more time there one day.

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From Dolaucothi I called my cousin Claire in Stroud and we spent the evening with her, Olie and Jade over an Indian Takeway.

Day 9 : Saturday 24 June

And that was about it. We had camped in Cirencester and were up early and on the road and home in time for lunch.

So we have done 1200 miles around Wales (where it always rains) and burned to a frazzle. Last time we tried to camp in Pembrokeshire, 45ish years ago we had to admit defeat to howling wind and rain. Lets try it again sometime…..

PS. please excuse the possibly clumsy use of the dash cam video. It is the first time I have tried it and I am sure I need to refine it a bit,

Our Awning

Having tried various products and looked around the market for our new van we have decided to make our own awning.

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If you have read my blog about our Awning Experiences you will realise why we have gone to the effort of making our own awning. It stemmed from our desire to have a simple fast up and down canopy that was versatile enought to shelter us from bad weather, give us shade and outdoor space in good weather and offer a bit of privacy on busy sites. Like all good designs the final result was a bit of an evolution and it may get the odd adaption in time. We often use it in conjunction with a Kyham pop up toilet / shower tent that serves as utility and drive away store and we take a Kyham winbreak with us for just in case.

So here I will explain what it is about and how we made it;

For the uprights we had already bought a few Robens telesopic tarp poles, these are about £15 each and readily available from a number of ebay stores. These work by extending them to the length you want and then twisting them to lock them. They are 950mm long and exted to 2300mm. That way you can level the canopy as you want. We have enough to do 5 uprights so the canopy fully extended but with a bit of a breeze.

In order to support the ridge I had already bought a fiberglass telescope ridge pole from an Isabella awning from an ebay trader. These extend quite a way so I had cut off a bit of excess and I bought some new quick release fittings for it. Since then I have found that our favourite tent material shop has started doing a nice telescopic aluminium ridge pole that looks like it would do the job for €17.

The next thing to look for was the fabric itself. On the internet we could find plenty of variation of PU coated ripstop nylon which, while it might have done the job, tends to be fragile and not wear well and is prone to leaking or condensation. It would need a lot of reinforcing and be difficult to sew. After a lot of research we found ESVO Camping Shop on the web. A Dutch tent maker and materials supplier. They have everything you need to make tents and awnings and they know what they are doing because they make their own qualty tents. After a few email conversations with them we settled upon some TenCate polyester fabric in 2 shades, a mottled grey for the main canopy and a plain grey for the drop front. It is quite heavy at 235gm/m2 but we ascetrained that Sue’s Singer sewing machine with big denim needled should be able to handle layers of heavier poyester tent material. The widths of the fabric are more than sufficient for our needs so we ordered 3m of each. Along with the fabric we ordered threads, reinforcement (that we didnt need in the end) eylets and a long open ended 8mm zip for the drop front.

While we were collecting materials togther another important consideration was the keder strip to connect the awning yto the van. We had VW California rails fitted to the new van, they look better than the Reimo ones and they are half the price. However the slot in them is slightly to big for the normal 6mm keder found on most awnings. VW sell a rubber insert that slides in and has a 6mm slot which would be great if you were going to use a drive away tent as you would have only one adapter to remove that is more stable than the figure of 8 type and won’t leak. as we were making our own awning we were able to fit the correct 7mm standard keder for the rail. It comes from Kayospruce in Fareham for a couple of quid a metre. It is worth mentioning that some people refer to it as kador and cant find it on the web whereas it should be keder and is easy to find. Also from Kayospruce we bought some more bungee hold downs.

Canopy Dimensions
You can make the canopy whatever length you line but we worked on 2650mm this pdf dodument gives the approximate dimensions out from the van and for the rurn down and drop front.

Assembling the canopy is simple but requires a bit of patience. Particularly the fabric we used needed 2 people to hold it and feed it IMG_1025through the sewing machine. First the main canopy making sure it was square we cut it 200mm longer than we needed and then folded both ends 50mm twice and sewed through all three layers of the fold. The first a few millimetres in from the first fold and again next to the second fold. At this stage we decided against using the strengthening tape as it seemed pretty robust without. Next we folded the outside long edge 75mm twice and again sewed through all three layers of the fold. This time the first about 25mm millimetres in from the first fold and again next to the second fold so that we left room to insert the zip. We cut the zip to length from the bottom and finished the cut end to stop the slider coming off. Then we inserted the zip into the 25mm left in the long fold and put 2 rows of stitching in to hold it.

To attach the keder we inserted the top unfolded long edge of the canopy between the 2 IMG_1027layers of the keder and put 2 rows of stitching along it to hold it. We trimmed the ends so that there is a fabric tag left to help pull the canopy through the awning rail and stitched and sealed it. Finally we inserted the 10mm eyelets. One 900mm, and another 1200mm to give us flexibility, away from the keder into the folded short edge . We put one in each of the keder tags, Lastly one into the folded edge in each outer corner and the middle of the long edge. It is worth getting a proper fabric punch rather than the eyelet kit to cut these thicknesses.

Next there is the drop front that zips on and off as needed. The method of assembly is similar except that instead of a keder it has the half of the zip and an extra hole along the bottom edge. We have made it 100mm high plus a short flap at the bottom to help close it to the ground.

As you can see it can be configured in a number of ways depending on our needs and the weather. Ordinarily as a porch it only requires 3 bungees along the long edge to hold it down but we also have 3 storm straps to use when it is a canopy or in strong winds. The ridge can be 900mm or 1200mm from the van and when we use the drop front it is pegged to the ground. Raising the ridge helps with rain run off and is necessary if we have it as a canopy. The fabric easily packs into a bag 600mm x 150mm, the poles into a bag 1200mm by 150mm and the pegs, bungees, mallet and so on into a small plastic box.

So there it is. We are pretty pleased with the finished result and at a couple of events we have attended several folk have admired it and asked where we got it from. And before anyone asks – no we aren’t going into production.

Power Latching

Having specified everything we could think of when we ordered the van from VW our first trip away highlighted a glaring omission.

I don’t know why this hadn’t bothered us more with our T5.1 but almost the first evening we realised that shutting the sliding door from inside needed a big shove that resulted in things falling about. Bad enough when we are up and about but a real pain if one of us has to go out in the middle of the night!

Power latching is available as an option to the sliding doors and the tailgate on Transporters but it is only the sliding door that gives us a problem. It would have been a no brainier at £95 + VAT had we thought about it. I got in touch with Paul who owns the T6 forum because I had seen him offering a kit, it came to £430 for the motor, control module and wiring loom which sounds like a lot but the parts alone come to about £350 and then there is the loom and plugs. So a deal was done and Paul met us at Vanwest with the parts.

Now I had thought about waiting until July when we got back from our 6 week trip but I knew that having the parts back home heaving the door closed would annoy the hell out of us so I waded in. Removing the lower rear quarter panel was not easy because Andy @ Coastal Cussions had used military grade trim panel fixings but I got it off and only broke 2 of them. Perhaps the worst thing was that we had got Andy to cover the access panel in the C post over – we wouldn’t need to get in there again would we – with the vinyl trim. I started by cutting a half panel for the top half and then marking and cutting out the vinyl slightly smaller and then breaking out and cleaning away the ply panel I had bonded over the access. With that done I could fit the control module and I had intended to make a hole to pass the wiring loom out of the bottom of the C post behind the step to the connections under the passenger seat. The problem was that the C post is closed at the bottom and does not go right down. In the end we decided to take out the whole access panel and feed the loom behind the trim all of which worked fine.

Fitting the motor is a bit fiddly as it needs feeding into the space but to be honest that was about the easiest part of the whole job. Once connected and everything back in place the power latch works great. Just slide the door across into the lock and the motor powers it home the last bit – lovely. Replacing the 2 broken trim fixings was easy enough and we made a new ply access panel for the C post but covered in our frantic rather than vinyl which actually looks a bit smarter than the original vinyl.

The whole job took a couple of days and was a bit of a “mission”as Mirko would say but the end result definitely seems worth it.