Wednesday 5 June 2019



The train would take six laborious days to traverse the vast emptiness. A parched, unpopulated wilderness. On day four, the train broke down. After hours or boredom and suffocating heat, the boy stepped off the train while his father slept. In the near distance stood a wiry, withered old tree. He had been observing it for some time. Its stubborn existence there, seemed to defy an environment in which no other vegetation could survive. The tree stood alone and appeared small - about the size of a 10yr old boy - but as he approached it, it seemed to grow in size. Finally he stood beneath its dry, twisted branches and saw it was big enough to climb. From its stiff upper limbs he surveyed the shimmering horizon in all directions. Vultures soared above. Scheming.

He did not attempt to climb down as he saw the train pulling away. It seemed entirely right to him that he was left behind. Somehow he knew the train was a part of his father’s destiny, but that it was in no way a part of his own.

In the shadow of the tree the boy sat calmly. Awaiting inspiration. He had never been considered adventurous. Neither was he worldly, but he listened well. Slowly he surveyed the terrain. Bare distant mountains to what he felt was the north. Rain fell in the mountains. Mountains provided shelter and cooler air. They also served as a vantage point and perhaps supported plants and wildlife. These mountains spoke to him of good fortune and even a sense of home, despite him having only ever lived in a town without a single hill to speak of.

Having had no plan to set out into the blistering wilderness, the boy was ill-equipped. He wore no hat and carried no shoulder bag, no food or water. If he was aware that he couldn’t survive for long, he did not show it. The mountains had called him. The word of a mountain could be trusted. Fortune would favour him. And so he was unsurprised when presently he came upon a stiff and ragged sheet of canvas caught by a small thorn bush. Worn as a shawl, it provided a lifesaving amount of protection from the baking sun. Looking ahead there was not a sign of civilisation and yet after barely half an hour of steady walking, a large plastic bottle presented itself directly in his chosen path. Retrieving it, he tied it to a guy-rope attached to one corner of the canvas. Eventually he would find water, he told himself.

It took the remainder of the day and a full night before the boy reached the foothills of the mountains. Already there was a soft breeze and a hint of fresh air. He was tired and sorely in need of a drink but there was neither sight nor sound of water. He sat on a large rock and then rolled back, lying against the cool of the rock, staring up at the stars in the clear night sky. It was the first really solid thing he’d made contact with since he left the train. The train… He pictured it in his mind, climbing a slow gradient within an endlessly widening landscape. The sound of metal upon metal. Would his father understand? Might he think his son dead, and how would he explain to his wife? His mind floated and almost immediately he slid into a deep sleep. He was in the mountains. Ahead of where he now lay. He found himself drawn through a small gorge, between tight gaps in the rocks until he saw before him a building. Eagerly he approached it and made for the door, but stopped short to read the faded words painted on it in blistered red paint. “Death Awaits You”.

The screech of a bird marked the first sound of life for nearly two days. He raised his head and then sat up. An egret. Several of them. He knew so little of the world but he knew birds. And an egret rarely strayed far from water. Rising to his aching feet, he walked quickly in the half-light towards the birds. Over the rise he caught sight of the glow of early dawn on the horizon and soon after, the shape of a wooden structure.
Lengthening his pace, he began to make out the details of a small shack with a roughly thatched roof. Not a house but certainly something man made. Coming closer he hesitated as he noticed something small beneath his feet. Bending to pick it up he saw an empty shotgun cartridge, and then another. He crouched nervously and looked about him listening carefully, but he heard only the egrets' cries. Approaching the hut he saw the door was left ajar. He stared long and hard at the door.  “Hello” he called, “is anyone there?”
Cautiously he pulled the door open and peered inside. The door creaked loudly. The hut was empty. On one side he could make out openings covered by closed shutters. Stepping inside, he lifted one to allow light in and slowly began to recognise the place as a hunting hide, similar to places he had been on expeditions with his father. A small stove sat in one corner and a large rough timber cupboard in another. A large water container stood by the back wall. Sadly, he found it empty. He opened the cupboard. An empty cartridge box and some dusty tin mugs sat on one shelf. His heart lifted as he spotted a knife, a can opener, a large glass jar of fruit and three tins. Hastily he took the jar. It was tight but he had often done this for his mother. Crouching down and placing it between his knees, he spread his small hands evenly around the lid and applied enough pressure to gently open it. He felt the lid give. Sniffing it first he drank the juice before eating some of the pears and replacing the lid. He had always disliked pears. An image of his mother's sister slowly painting her toenails in their kitchen inexplicably came into his head. His mother always said she was a rebel, but she had been a fun babysitter. He was still very thirsty. Quite severely dehydrated in fact. His head had begun to spin and he thought he might be sick. He shook the tins. Nothing liquid. The words “sausage and beans,” were written on one of them, “Rat Poison” on another.

A cool breeze woke the boy as he lay on the cabin floor. His head ached. Remembering where he was, he slowly raised himself to his aching feet. Looking out of the open shutter, something silver-bright caught his eye which had not been visible before. A reflection. He rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his blurred vision, then moved closer and peered out. Thinking at first wishful thinking and sickness might have caused him to imagine it, he slowly formed a conviction that he was looking out onto water. His heart raced but his emotion was one of fear rather than elation. A large lake of gently rippling water. And on the water, dozens, perhaps hundreds of birds. Egrets.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Walking Hadrian's Wall - The English Camino

"We're Gonna Build A Wall"
Hadrian came to this decision and began building way back around 122AD. He may, like Donald Trump, have been focussed on keeping invaders out - the Scotts in this case - but the truth is historians are not entirely sure why he built it. It was a long time ago. The wall is no longer complete. Although the Romans were pragmatists, probably more focussed on getting things done than keeping records of it, it must be said that their habit of keeping records was for those times considered quite meticulous. Cataloguing life in ancient Britain is certainly one of the worthwhile things "the Romans did for us 😏" Despite living in England, when my wife and I decided to take on the 80 mile (118km) walk, I was quite unaware that so much of the wall actually remains.

A section of Hadrian's Wall near Birdoswald

Travelling Through History
This remarkable Roman wall runs coast to coast from Wallsend (surprise), by the old Swan Hunter Shipyard just northeast of Newcastle, to Bowness on Solway about 15 miles west of Carlisle. The start and finish points couldn't be more different. The decayed industrial shipyards and urban deprivation of Wallsend contrasts markedly with the timeless tranquil beauty of the village of Bowness, perched at the mouth of the Solway Firth, where locals and visitors can gaze across at Scotland. Along the way one encounters Roman forts, carefully uncovered by archaeologists, and sections of the wall that were not plundered for building materials or simply destroyed under various developer's schemes. The sections that remain are mostly around the middle of the journey, between Housteads and Birdoswald, but the countryside (mostly very hilly), even on the sections with no wall, is spectacular enough to keep the walker interested. After leaving Newcastle, until one arrives in the city of Carlisle the walker can feel rather like they have stepped back in time. I had little idea of quite how primitive it was going to be in fact and we often found ourselves without mobile phone signal, without places to buy food and without ATM machines to get cash. Thank goodness for a few good country pubs along the way, which became our lifeline.

The walk along the Tyne Towpath through Newcastle is picturesque in parts

World Heritage Site
The wall or what remains of it may be 84 miles long but it was not considered too big to make it a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its prime historical significance is that this wall is considered to mark the furthest reach of the Roman Empire. Much has been unearthed since the site achieved world heritage status. The extent of Roman ruins along the way - forts and entire villages that once supported those Roman encampments - is really quite remarkable. The exhibition of the wall and the Roman artefacts that archaeologists have uncovered, hosed in the Great North Museum, Hancock in Newcastle easily bears a half day visit - preferably before the walk.

The fort at Chesters, overlooking the Eden River is large & rather magnificent 
- this photo doesn't do it justice

Planning The Walk
This is a walk that needs some planning. Other than Newcastle and Carlisle at each end it is fairly undeveloped, with a couple of small towns but mostly tiny villages along the way and wild, slightly untamed countryside in between. Sheep are more plentiful than people. Unlike a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk in Spain (see my two Camino blogs - pilgrimage of the spirit and walking through Spain) less is organised for the walker. Like the Caminos however, there is now a Passport available, which one can get stamped at key points along the way, but there are no state hostels. There are a couple of private bunk houses but mostly it's a matter of camping or staying in B&Bs / hotels. Even the B&Bs tend to be luxury country house affairs, which at around £70-£80 a night can make it an expensive pilgrimage. There is cheaper pub accommodation but these get booked up quickly. Even doing the walk in early November, we found things booked-up 2 months before. Our luxury B&B's were, however, very welcome after hilly 15 mile days walking on sodden ground. I ate more English cooked breakfasts than was good for me. Summer will be easier walking but you will find it more crowded. Also remember that the buses that are scheduled along the route for injured walkers or those who wish to take it easier, these stop running after the last weekend of October and taxis are expensive, since they need to travel out into the wilds from the nearest towns. Bear in mind also, that if you want to spend time visiting Roman forts etc (and I recommend at least one) then you may need to allow for walking only half the day or even taking a day off. On the spur of the moment we decided to take a day off to see the Chesters Roman Fort just outside Chollerford. Unfortunately, not knowing the bus had stopped running 2 days before, we found ourselves hitch-hiking then taking a train and walking miles out of Haltwhistle to find our self-catering cottage for the night, which eventually proved to be only 12 miles from Chesters. Galling when my phone app told me we had walked exactly 12 miles that day. Next time I would plan better in advance!

 1 day out of Newcastle. 
The views along the way can be spectacular at any time of year

Bowness-on-Solway. The hut at the end of the trail, looking out over the firth to Scotland.

In Retrospect
For those who have experienced one, this walk is no "Camino Ingles". The camaraderie of meeting other walkers in Spanish state hostels and cafes along the way does not exist on this walk - not yet. I hope it will come. Don't forget, the Spanish have had 2,000 years to get it right. The English National Walking Trails, National Trust etc have done a lot since this became an official walk and the numbers making the walk increase significantly every year so facilities will improve. Let's hope increased numbers does not harm the experience. I would certainly like to do it again. For those who prefer it, there is also an adjacent cycle trail.

Google will bring up many information resources on Hadrian's Wall. The Northumberland Tourist Office are also very helpful and have a 'where to stay' section on their website -
Hadrian's Wall & Around -
Hadrian's Wall Path (National Trails) -

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores. A new book entitled 'People I've Met On The Road' will be published soon.


Monday 4 April 2016

Fear Of Travel

An Idiot Abroad?
My wife and I are just back from a trip to Turkey - Capadoccia and Istanbul. I knew all about the recent bombings in Ankara and Istanbul when I booked the trip and continued to pay attention up to the time we travelled. There were bombings while we were there and threats have continued this week since we got back. I registered these terrible events before travelling and considered the risks. We did not change our plans. We stayed in the busiest tourist area of Sultanahmet Square but in a smaller guesthouse in a side-street. We even joined the somewhat diminished hoards and visited the Hagia Sophia mosque as well as the Grand Bazaar and we ate out in restaurants near to the square. Traders, hotel managers and restauranteurs in Istanbul told us how the terror attacks had caused about a 50% reduction in tourism for the time of year. They were suffering badly. Given the countless news reports then, friends of mine found it surprising that I would take the risk of continuing with this holiday. They probably think I'm a bit of an idiot.

Istanbul - The Golden Horn

Tourism & The Psychology Of Risk
I should say here that risk management is what I do for a living. I have studied it in great depth both at an intellectual and a practical level. The statistics do not support the average person's view of the level of risk. As human beings we are programmed to avoid things that scare us, but most of us go by fairly unscientific instinct. In my work I see how people will take great care to use safety controls when what they see frightens them but not when what they see looks unthreatening. People will not put their hand into an industrial mincing machine because they can see sides of meat being put in and minced meat instantly coming out. They can imagine the pain of that happening to their arm. They will not make a parachute jump without training and careful checks of the safety procedures because they are afraid of heights when they look out of the plane door. But tell them they need to be careful of how they sit at their computer because over time they could develop life-changing back problems and they will laugh (and continue to sit badly). So seeing pictures and film on TV of people blown-up in a Paris nightclub or outside a hotel in Istanbul scares us and we will take action. We will stay away. But statistically the likelihood of my wife and I being injured or killed in a bomb blast in Istanbul was miniscule. It was probably no higher and perhaps lower than the same thing happening to us in London and yet in London we would feel safer. Human nature and our perception of risk is not reliable. If you don't believe this, see how nervous you feel standing at the edge of a high structure even when there is a solid barrier to protect you from falling.

Our instincts are not always a reliable indicator of the true level of risk

The Impact Of Terrorism On Tourism
The impacts of terrorism on the travel and tourism industry can be enormous. It can lead to unemployment, homelessness, deflation, and many other social and economic ills and spreads beyond the immediate tourist industry to effect the wider economy of a country. The contribution made by tourist spending in many countries is so great that any downturn in the industry is a cause of major concern for governments. It matters little that the actual risks are low, it is about how the consumer perceives things, and in that the media with their often sensationalist focus do not help. The repercussions spread far and wide, into many industries associated with tourism like airlines, hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to the tourists and allied services but also to the businesses that supply them. In the end it affects the whole economy. Terrorist organisations have become more sophisticated. They know these things. They know that seriously damaging the economy of a country is just as effective as frightening individuals.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Normally at this time this scene would be filled with tourists.

The Underlying Causes
Clearly the world needs to address the underlying causes of terrorism. People will always have differing views on how things should be run. At one time people with strong views against the status quo would simply protest in the streets or lobby politicians for change. They might even go into politics themselves to try to achieve those changes. That kind of change can be slow to bring about. Increasingly we live in a world of instant gratification. It's all about having what we want and consumerism plays a big part. While millions starve, many of us are out shopping for stuff we do not need. Stuff that will fill up our houses only to be eventually thrown into landfill. Or perhaps we sooth our consciences by making the effort to put it in the recycle bin. Even in relationships we are no longer prepared to work through difficulties, we simply change partner and move on. Chuck one away and order another. Young people turn to terrorism because they want change now, and terrorism seems the fastest way to get it. It can be as simple as the media telling them they need a Ferrari to be successful but there being no realistic chance of them achieving that. We all need to think about the way we are choosing to live and the way we bring up our children. Terrorism as an immediate problem needs to be addressed en-mass by governments, academics and think-tanks, but it is through our personal life choices that we will really change things.

We are all responsible for the state of the world today.
There are unseen consequences to all our actions - especially consumer actions.

So What Can We Do?
When it comes to public response to the terrorist threat, there are obviously things we can do as individuals to protect ourselves. We can ask ourselves if a journey is really necessary. We can choose to travel at quieter times and choose a means of transport less likely to be targeted. We can take holidays in places where gatherings of large groups of people are unlikely and in locations where political tensions are lower. But will this solve the problem? Of course not. Terrorists will simply adjust their methodology and target us in other ways - in schools, sports stadiums or workplaces. They will target us more in our own country. Most of all they need us to be afraid and they benefit from us being unscientific about risk. If we perceive that we are likely to be blown up every time we get on a plane and we are afraid of this, then they will try to blow up more planes because they can see it is effective. Planes feel less safe to us because once they take off we are trapped inside. We can't change our minds because we don't like the look of the guy in the seat in front and get off at the next stop. I cycled 10,000 miles from Ireland to Japan (and survived). I did not perceive it as especially dangerous but I'm sure the likelihood of me being killed was far higher than flying there. And yet I felt safer because I was in control. And I would suggest that this is what we can do. Stay in control.
Travel safety & security advice:
Travel preparation, health etc:

Common-sense Checklist

1. Be aware of the statistical risk - what are the realistic chances of something bad happening and make your travel plans based on that rather than your instinct (which is affected by media hype)

2. Avoid large gatherings where possible (sports stadia, big events and attractions) but be realistic about the risks - the chances of something happening to you are still low.

3. Check the Foreign Office Travel website for the latest advice on travel locations. I find these very reliable since they are not affected by media exaggeration.

4. Stay in cheaper hotels or better still a small B&B. They may not have armed guards at the door and bag searches, but terrorists are highly unlikely to target them.

5. In high risk countries such as in certain locations in the Middle East, be careful what you say in public. You needn't be paranoid but don't broadcast yourself as a western tourist or let everyone know your political views.

6. Many people feel safer abroad in organised tour groups, but perversely larger groups of tourists are a far more vulnerable target. Research things properly in advance and you will find travelling individually can be safe - sometimes much safer (as well as more rewarding).

Finally I would say that it's important to tell others. It's not always possible to see the threats, but if you go to somewhere like Istanbul and have a great time with no signs of a terror threat, others back home need to know that. Otherwise we remain at the mercy of the sensation-seeking media who are not averse to being 'selective' in their broadcasts to give the impression that a mostly peaceful location is more like a war-zone.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.


Friday 4 March 2016

People I've Met On The Road – Tracey

Needing To Get Away
"So what made you come to Romania, Tracey?" I asked.

"Oh, well I needed to get away," she replied.

Tracey was wringing her hands as she answered. I could tell straight away that she was not comfortable with the question. I needed to change the subject.

I had met Tracey in a shop, while I was trying to get a spark plug for my motorbike. The bike was due a service and had been playing up since the south of France – coughing and spluttering. I don't think many Romanians had seen a four cylinder bike in those days. The police had stopped me when it back-fired loudly, scaring a load of old people in a marketplace. My command of Romanian was almost nil. Tracey having been there for three months was quite an accomplished speaker. She stepped in and helped, explaining my problem to the police then to a shopkeeper in a hardware shop. She hadn't made a big thing about it but she'd brought me to the workshop half a mile away, where we now sat.

"It's so nice of you to help out Tracey," I said, sticking to what seemed a safer subject. "Please don't feel you need to hang around, wasting your day. I'm sure I can manage now."

"He says they'll be here with one in an hour. I'm not fussed waiting. Best I wait any-road. Happen there could be problems if that bloke's ordered wrong bloody part or whatnot."

Tracey's Northern English accent made me feel nostalgic for home somehow. I was glad she wanted to hang around but I would have to avoid questioning her too hard, I reminded myself. Yet I felt stuck for what else was there to talk about.

"I used to live up north, you know?" I said eventually. "Birmingham."

"Birmingham?" she laughed. "Birmingham's bleeding midlands."

"Yeah you're right," I said, shrinking uncomfortably. "Sorry I suppose that's a typically daft southerner thing to say, isn't it?"

"I wouldn't know," she said seriously, "I can't say as I really know any southern people."

I was really messing this up. She'd obviously got me marked out as some kind of private school educated idiot with no idea about the geography of my own country north of Cambridge.

"Yeah I rode all around the midlands years back. Fixing my old Triumph on factory forecourts, greased up to the eyeballs, freezing cold, jeezus. Broke down every trip nearly. Bits used to fall off left right and centre. Always someone came out and helped me though. Seems to run in the veins up there - bikes. Especially British bikes."

I was waffling. Worse still I was putting on a bit of a midlands accent. She'd hate that. Talking bollerks because I felt like a bit of an idiot in her eyes. She may have been from up north but she wasn't the slightest bit interested in bikes, I could see that.

"I'm not exactly a southerner you know," I said. "I mean my parents are but I was pretty much brought-up abroad."

"Oh yeah, where abouts abroad?" She seemed a little less cross now.

"Singapore, Malaysia, Germany. My Dad was an avionics engineer in the Army."

"Ex-pat life eh? Must have been great," said Tracey. "I've always wanted to travel. That's how come I'm here really. Well, that and me uncle."

"Your uncle?" I asked.

False Uncle Syndrome
"I call him that but he's not me uncle really. A friend of me dad's just. I've been... working in his shop." Tracey was delving into her handbag. I assumed she was about to produce a photograph until she pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose hard. I waited while she snuffled and put away the handkerchief again. "I had to leave," she said, "the bastard accused me of nicking stuff from the shop."

"but you hadn't?"

"Had I buggery! He made it up, the bastard."

"I see. So why did he make it up - did he want to get rid of you?"

"He wanted more of me than I was prepared to give, if you catch my drift? He seemed to think if I were working for him as he could have whatever he wanted off me. But I could deal with that. I was well used to fighting off lads at the tyre place where I used to work. What I couldn't deal with was me dad."

"What did your dad do?" I asked. I felt nervous asking but it was the obvious question.

"Fat Freddie – that's me dad's friend – told me dad that I'd been flirting with him. Giving him the come-on, you know? He told me dad he'd have had to give me the sack before his wife saw something, regardless of if me dad paid him for what he said I nicked. Bloody lying bastard!"

"And your dad believed him?"

"Told me to get out of the house. Said he'd not have a harlot in his house. Me mam cried but she never stood up for me. I stayed a few nights at me cousin's. I was upset at first, then just angry. I went round and got some stuff. I had a passport thank God, from a school trip a few years back that I never actually went on. I had three hundred quid out of me dad's drawer. I know I shouldn't have but I wanted to hurt him, and I knew how he loves his money. I didn't even know where Romania was. I thought I must be in Italy when I got here."

"Blimey!" I said. "So how did you get here?"

Escape to Romania
"Hitching," said Tracey. "Buses here and there but hitching mostly. At the beginning anyway. Hitching's good 'cos you learns the language quicker and people help you. I've been amazed how kind people have been. I'm living above a teashop where I work evenings. The woman gave me a lift and says she was looking for someone to teach her and her kids English. She wants to go to live in England, see? I told her not to bother!"

Tracey laughed for the first time since I'd met her.

"When will you go back, do you think?" I asked cautiously.

"I'm never going back, me!" said Tracey, with certainty. "No way. That's all in the past. I'm moving on now. I'm going to San Francisco."

If You're Going to San Francisco
"Wow! I said. So you know people there then?"

"Oh aye. My brother's a movie star over there. Big mates with Tom Cruise! Course I don't, soft bugger. How would someone like me know someone living in San Francisco? But I wanna see the Golden Gate Bridge. Used to have a poster on my wall as a kid. Maybe it's still there – the poster I mean. Me teashop lady says I could get a job as an English waitress. Apparently there's a call for that sort of thing in San Francisco. So I'm saving up for the airfare. Got it half-saved already. Come with me if you like."

I laughed. Then I turned. She was not smiling and I was immediately filled with embarrassed discomfort. I had offended her.

"We'd... well we'd need visas," I stammered. Tracey sat quietly. She was wringing her hands again. She sniffed. I wished I had handkerchief to offer her.

"You've got a girlfriend, haven't you?"

I felt taken aback. I hadn't told her that. And she wasn't a steady girlfriend anyway – not in my mind. But I'd hesitated now, so she'd know that she was right.

"I'm looking to move on too," I said. "I'll write to her. She'll be expecting it. Probably she'll be relieved."

"Happen this'll be your spark plug arriving on this here cart. I'd better be going. Cafe's opening again in half-hour."

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Saturday 30 January 2016

Top 5 Worst Camping Sites Ever

Why Camp?
Since I was a small child I have adored camping - and the more basic the better. I loved nothing more than being tucked up warm in a sleeping bag while breathing in the clean fresh air and listening to birds singing – the scratchy sounds of beetles and other insects crawling around under the makeshift groundsheet. When I built a 'Red Indian camp' in the garden, aged 4, I wanted to move into it. I made myself a table using scrap wood and a toolkit my parents had bought me for Christmas. They were worried. And yet this tent, made of an old blanket, two brooms for poles and some string for guylines, was not the most uncomfortable camp I have spent the night in - not by a long way.

Number 5 - Chertsey
We went camping often during the time I lived in England as a child. One place we camped a few times at weekends was a well established formal site by the River Thames in Chertsey, to the west of London. One summer my parents decided my brother and I liked the place so much we would go there for a whole summer. We were in between houses so it was a doubly convenient as my father could get to work from there. We had a big frame tent, a canoe and we fished every day. It should have been a delightful summer, except that it rained. It rained hard and not for just a day. 
It rained for weeks. The site had poorly drained ground and a tide of water washed into our tent on a daily and nightly basis. In the mornings we had to collect shoes, pots and pans etc from all around where they had washed away. One day while my mother was out washing and drying everything at a laundrette, my brother and I watched a very worldly-wise man with a trowel dig a small trench around his tent for water to drain into. It clearly worked well so we borrowed one of the gardener's shovels and dug a trench around our tent. We were pleased with our efforts. When my mother got back she was horrified. The trench was two feet deep. But it worked. The following week we had to move to a rented house. The police had come when a mobile home was washed into the River Thames with people in it and floated away downstream. Luckily the people managed to get out and swim to the shore but the police closed the site down afterwards. It was a miserable experience and I don't think we ever went back.

Number 4 - Shanklin, Isle of Wight - The last of the great English romantics
Looking for somewhere quirky to take my wife for Valentines Day, I read about a restaurant on the
Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. To add a bit of adventure I took her in my VW camper-van. We arrived straight to the restaurant. The food was good but it was in a bit of a slummy place. Arriving at a nearby campsite in darkness we found the place with a few mobile homes but no lights on. The sign at the gate said 'Campsite Open' however, so we drove in and found a spare pitch (there were many). Backing down a slope onto the grassy pitch we immediately sunk up to the axles in soft mud. My heart sank. This would require a tractor to pull us out. There was no answer at the house. Trying to be philosophical we went to bed and slept. In the morning we saw the full horror of our situation. I phoned the AA but there were no breakdown services available on the island. Knocking on caravan doors we realised this was a place where homeless people holed-up at minimal rent for the winter. The site owner came once a week. Nobody had a car except one guy with a Reliant Robin 3-wheeler pick-up (you literally could pick it up). He very kindly tried to pull us out using a makeshift rope from junk. My wife went to the toilet block for a shower. It was derelict. The homeless people washed under
an old hosepipe. The site began to fill with the smell of cheap fried sausages. Once people had eaten they came to help. Many were semi-disabled. It was a mud bath. The little 3-wheel plastic car's wheel spun as it tried to pull the VW out. The smell of burning rubber did not go well with the sausages. Finally after about 2hrs of gargantuan effort, someone 'salvaged' some carpet from a large mobile home and we got some grip. We tried for hours. Eventually by 'flooring' the accelerator the VW managed to slide haphazardly onto some gravel and in a shower of flying mud we reached the path. Handing over all the cash I had to the poverty-stricken team of disabled and clinically obese helpers, we just carried on driving - 6hrs all the way home to Kent, hungry and caked in mud. I'm not one for buying chocolates and flowers. I like to treat my wife to something a bit special.

Number 3 - Katerini
It was March. Hitchhiking in Yugoslavia on my way to Greece with a girlfriend, we were picked up
by a Greek truck-driver who told us we really must visit the beautiful holiday resort of Katerini on the east coast where he and his family regularly spent their holidays. Greece is full of stunningly beautiful places but this guy really enthused about this place so a few weeks later we decided to make a detour on our way from Montenegro to Thessaloniki. We arrived in Katerini by train late at night. All the hotels and B&Bs seemed closed down for the winter period. We looked for someone to ask about where to camp but there were absolutely no people. Walking along the beach we finally decided to pitch our tent in a bit of a cove where we might not be seen from the town. We climbed down a slope and pitched on a flat area. Not having a torch we felt about in the dark and found somewhere level with no rocks. Tired and rather disappointed by the lack of a welcoming resort that we had imagined as a beachside paradise, we got into bed and slept a heavy sleep. Poking our heads out of the tent in the morning we gazed open-mouthed at the site before us. A burned out shack, emaciated wild dogs, all manner of rubbish strewn about a disgusting smell and swarms of flies. Climbing out we found, worse still, that we were camped in the mouth of an untreated sewage outlet. The evidence of this was all around us. Striking camp and heading quickly back to the station, we found one or two sorry looking people. "Yes" they told us, this was a lovely resort before they built the meat rendering plant. It seemed the water pollution and the smell of the plant had driven away the tourists. We spent the whole day and half that night waiting at the deserted station for a promised train before we finally managed to get out of the place.

Number 2 - Orsova, Romania
Cycling along the Danube in Romania on our way from Ireland to Japan, my son and I found ourselves in the riverside military town of Orsova. We had become separated and had not found each other until 11:30pm at night. Everywhere was closed up so we looked for a place to pitch out tent. Unfortunately everywhere seemed either concreted over or flooded with water. Heading on the road out of town we found a derelict children's play park in a lay-by. The ground seemed unsuitable to pitch a tent as it was knee-deep in broken bottles, cans, take-away cartons, old pushchairs and sacks of household waste. Dog tired we decided to sleep on a pair of broken benches. We lay there amongst the rubbish looking at the stars, but we got no sleep. The lay-by, it seems, was used by what I believe are now termed 'doggers'. Every ten minutes a new car would arrive and people would get out and talk. Doors banged, then the springs of the car would begin to squeak. Finally it got light and the full horror of our campsite became apparent. It would have been unsurprising to find a dead body or two amongst the detritus. We packed up quickly and left.

The derelict playpark was vile but the view of the Danube in the morning almost made up for it 

Number 1 - Camp-Platz Petronell Carnuntum, Austria
I have never lost my love of sleeping outdoors. In fact I prefer most things outdoors. Most of all I enjoy wild camping. Wild camping allows few of the comforts of modern settled life we find in houses and hotels. However, in my experience it is surprising how organised campsites with full facilities can be far more uncomfortable. It was in Austria that I encountered my worst camping site. Petronell Carnuntum is a small historic town on the Danube and within a nature reserve. My son Sam and I stopped a night there on our way cycling to Japan. It was a lovely hot sunny day and the site looked idyllic as we rode in. Pitch anywhere you like, the manager told us, then come and pay in the bar – we have nice cold beer and good food. The site had pleasant lawns and decent shower blocks too. It seemed quite a few others had recently arrived and were happily putting up tents. People smiled at us and a few young people came over to chat to Sam. We had the feeling this was going to be a nice place to stop. After putting up the tent we took our leave from our fellow campers and headed over to the bar to pay.

"Let's have a beer now, shall we Sam, then we can have a shower later and go out to eat?"

As we sat at the window drinking our beer, the evening sun going down, the scene outside began to change. The new arrivals had begun heading to the washrooms for showers and after a few minutes, tensions began to develop. Shrieks could be heard as people began swatting mosquitos as they were bitten. One by one freshly showered campers emerged in swimming trunks and shorts from the washrooms and began running towards their tents, vaulting over anything in their path and screeching to their partners to hold open the tent door for them. The mosquito population, quickly alert to their tactics, grouped into a swarm and attacked en-mass. Mass hysteria seemed to fill the site. It was like a battlefield with half naked people running for their lives to barricade themselves in the shelter of their tents. The assault came when a group of around six showerers who had been hiding in the washrooms decided to make a run for it together. These poor souls had covered themselves as best they could, even winding towels around their heads and faces. They sprinted like a crazy heard of stampeding buffalo, tripping over guylines and knocking over flowerpots as they were bitten half to death by the swarm. They paid a high price for this poor strategy. 

The site managers - an elderly couple retired here from Vienna – watched with us from the bar, unmoved but miserable. Clearly this was nothing new to them. They had been unaware of the mosquito problem when they bought the lease, they told us. The local authority would not allow insecticide to be used in the reserve - strictly verboten! - so the mosquito larvae could not be sprayed on the surrounding ponds. People only stayed one night, they told us. 

"Jah, it is all looking so lovely when they are arriving, but then when the evening is coming they discover the true horror of this place."

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores. A new book entitled 'People I've Met On The Road' will be published soon.