The snowy National Forest

Cooking cowboy chicken stew
If, like me, you've never heard of the National Forest that's possibly because it's new. About 200 square miles are being planted to form a brand-new wide-reaching woodland spanning parts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire. It's a project that I think should be applauded.

We ended up at a Camping and Caravanning Club Site in the middle of Conkers woodland park at the heart of the National Forest.
What Conkers seems to be trying to do is bring families outdoors - a good thing admittedly. But it also appears to want to extract money from you by encouraging you to visit indoor exhibits about the great outdoors. My advice would be to enjoy the outdoors for free, and there's plenty to enjoy with dozens of walks signposted. You can research and download maps of the walks or just do your own thing. It's an ideal area for cycling too with access to National Cycle Route 63 running from Burton on Trent to Wisbech.

Snowy views at sunset
We arrived at camp at 6pm and were allowed to choose any vacant plot. There was an inch of thawing snow on the grass but the hardstanding was dry. It was very cold and so we decided we'd cook inside. We kept the lid on the pan of chilli con carne as much as possible and opened the roof window vents to let moisture out.

We enjoyed our dinner and shared a can of real ale before discovering, for the second time in a month, that I can't tell a white grape variety from a red one. I'd bought Tony a three bottle box of Tempranillo and assumed it was white because the box was! So we both drank red wine before retiring for the night.

In the morning, after breakfast cereal and coffee we wrapped up warm, put on our wellies and set off on a walk, taking in Moira Furnace only five minutes from camp. We followed the path of the canal to the discovery centre and then continued around a lake towards Albert Village which didn't appear to live up to the village part of its name - it looked like a housing estate that had been given a name grander than it deserved. Further research the next day revealed there is an old village hidden from view.

Snow-covered railway
As we meandered back to base we crossed an old railway line that looked stunning in its covering of snow, and we came upon our campsite as if by accident. 'Oh look - some caravans,' I exclaimed. It needed Tony's realisation that it was in fact our site, which just goes to show how easily one could become lost in all the footpaths around and about these parts.

We thawed out for an hour or so before we decided we needed to purchase more beers and the missing white wine. We couldn't be bothered collapsing the roof and making Cleopatra fit for the road and so a half-hour walk was necessary to the nearest supermarket which was a Cooperative. I maintain that it was a stroke of luck we'd done this between 3 and 4pm or we'd have ended up with fish and chips too.

Cleopatra with the Cali Topper on
Once back in the warmth of the van we started cooking cowboy chicken which smelled amazing, due mainly to the half bottle of barbecue sauce in its list of ingredients. I felt like a cheat for making dinner in this fashion but it tasted as great as it smelled and I can't wait to use the other half bottle of sauce to make it again. This is definitely one for the campsite favourites.

In the night it became increasingly windy and I lay for about an hour unable to sleep. The Cali Topper we had over the van's fabric roof was bearing the brunt of the wind and so I wasn't worried for the van, but it was clear that even if it wasn't doing the topper any harm, I wasn't going to get back to sleep. At 2.30am Tony was awake too and we decided to put the roof down and sleep downstairs for the first time.

It only took about 15 minutes to put down one bed and make up another. It was the first time we'd tried the downstairs bed and I was pleased we'd had the foresight to order the comfort mattress with the van as it was as comfortable as sleeping upstairs. I wouldn't want to try sleeping on the downstairs bed without it.

Sleeping with the roof down did make me feel like I was actually sleeping in a regular van. It was a little claustrophobic, but had the benefit of being near silent in the wind. If you are concerned with how much diesel the heater burns in the winter (and I really don't think it's much at all), then with the roof down it only needs running on setting one out of ten, if at all.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle
We slept through to 9.30am when we packed up and decided to take advantage of my employer's corporate discount with English Heritage and visit Ashby De La Zouch Castle. I'm not a great fan of castles, but this one had the advantage of costing us nothing, plus you can climb to the top of one of the towers where you can see for miles around, and you can walk through a creepy underground tunnel which was pretty cool.

This was our first really wet and muddy weekend and I spent most of my outdoor time in wellies. This did have an effect on the interior of Cleopatra and I was quite keen to get home and make her look like new again. I can see holidaying in a campervan is really going to test the OCD!

Campsite visited: Conkers (£18.85 per night inc electric hook-up)
Miles on the clock: 484
Meals cooked: Chilli con carne (£3.10), Cowboy chicken (£5.60)
Money spent: Parking in Ashby De La Zouch (50p)

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