Solar Power

I’ve long been a sceptic about the use of solar power on motorhomes; I couldn’t see the point in all that extra weight on the van roof just for a little bit of power. However, the use of a portable solar panel for emergency use might be a good idea. To this end, I bought a Renogy 100Watt folding solar panel and a Victron MPPT 75/15 solar charge controller, and plumbed the controller through the EBL as an ‘ancillary charger’.

The Renogy panel does not have a controller fitted as most do, which is why I chose it. The Victron charge controller that we bought has a Bluetooth interface so can be monitored at a distance, albeit short.

The first real opportunity to try the solar panel was June 10-12th, during our stay in the New Forest when it was nice and sunny.

On the morning of Thursday 10th, our battery capacity was showing as 90% so I deployed the panel.

I was staggered. The panel harvested up to 123Watts and provided a charge current of around 9Amps! As the battery charged, the current dropped off but remained around 7A for some time. Within a few hours the charger controller had dropped back to its ‘float’ mode and the batteries were fully charged. Although, when on ‘float’ charge the panel only harvested around 70W.

The way in which the controller is connected to the EBL means that I can only charge the habitation battery. A modification I will make is to fabricate a splitter cable that allows the charger to connect to either the habitation battery or the van starter battery.

I really must say that I am hugely impressed with the panel/charger combination but am still not going to have solar panels fitted on the van roof.

Homebrewing in the lockdown

The travelling restrictions, or lockdown, needed to reduce contagion of CV-19 is having a detrimental effect on my homebrewing as I need to travel over to Fratton to collect ingredients, travel which is hard to justify as “essential”. Thankfully, before the current lockdown I was able to get to GetBrewing.UK , in Fratton, and buy sufficient ingredients for 4 brews.

I remember the delicious taste of Gales HSB from the Horse and Jockey, Curbridge, where I remember spending many a lunchtime while working for Digital at the Solent Business Park, so I thought I’d give the recipe for Gale’s HSB a go and try to recreate that taste.

The fruits of my labour are now ready to drink, well, at least the first batch is.

Fullers bought Gales brewery a few years back and since then HSB never really tasted as good as I remember, but it’s still good. There are a number of recipes available on line, I used the one from Graham Wheelers book.

The fermentation was with Empire yeast at 19C for a full three weeks then kegged and left to condition. I left it 5 weeks to condition before sampling it. It was really tasty, but more than 2 glasses leave me with a bit of a dull head. After 3 glasses I have found that my tongue stops working properly.

Homebrew HSB

Although a little cloudy at first it soon cleared up and is really tasty. I’ve made three 2 gallon batches and will definitely brew more once the current lockdown is relaxed and I can get over to GetBrewing.UK

I will be leaving the remaining two kegs longer to condition in order to help the initial clarity. I might experiment with the next brew by adding in just a little more hops to give it more of a fruity bite.

Update 9th Feb

Disaster. It’s all gone. Well, the first keg full is. I can’t find any sign of a leak; Fiona has not been helping herself to it. Damn! I guess I should be brewing 5 gallon batches.

Salisbury short break

I’ve been desperate to get away for some time; to get away from managing Mum’s estate; I’m sure if she’d known the insanity I’m faced with then she wouldn’t have died. Anyway, we decided on a short break to Salisbury. Salisbury although it’s out of county is not too far away; its campsite is walking distance from the city centre and it’s a nice place.

I don’t do ‘God’ and I generally don’t do churches, but Salisbury Cathedral has a wonderful ‘authentic’ feel to it and is well worth a visit. It feels as though it is unchanged since the 13th century when it was built.

Along its nave are a number of tombs; one tomb of a Knight who fought at Crecy (1346) and at Poitiers (1356), and a tomb of another Knight who fought at Agincourt (1415). Marvellous.

The Cathedral from the outside is a very imposing building; it’s size and detail really do impress, however the interior is remarkable. To think that this structure was built and decorated 800 years ago without the use of power tools or computers!

As we wandered around this magnificent old structure the choir was practising. The music and singing made the £8 entrance fee all the more worth it.

One of the relics not to be missed is the Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta, on display despite an attempt at stealing it in recent years and one of only 4 original copies available today.

Old Sarum was worth the walk around. It is the original site of the city which was moved in around 1200ad to its current site approximately 2 miles away. Nowadays all that’s left are some gigantic earthworks which used to form the original hill fort and motte and bailey castle.

Click here to see more pictures of Salisbury Cathedral and around Old Sarum

Summer’s over

Well, Covid-19 thoroughly ruined the late Spring and Summer 2020. As we were locked down for months and unable to travel except for essential journeys we didn’t get up to much. No foreign holidays are planned for this year and the wine fridge is looking quite empty. Most of the New Forest campsites (and others) are closed until 2021.

Once full lockdown was lifted we were able to travel so used the van for days out and picnics in the New Forest and elsewhere in Hampshire.

During lockdown we unexpectedly had a legal matter to deal with. Thankfully I’ve had brilliant support from most of my siblings, excellent advice from various authorities and even contact with the office of the Attorney General.

Here are a few photos taken during the year

Here are some of the photos we took on our escapes.

New PI

My RPI 3 Model B is now in permanent use as my Kodi set top box which is attached to the TV to allow us to watch free TV and is no longer available for experimenting with. I needed to get myself a new PI for play purposes so I ordered a RPI 3+ Model A from Pimoroni. The model A lacks the Model B’s RJ45 network interface and only has 1 USB port rather than 4. However, it keeps Bluetooth and Wifi so there is no need for all the extra bits fitted to the B anyway.

The photo shows the PI 3+ A next to a loyalty card to demonstrate how small it really is. The PI is enclosed in a Pibow acrylic case to protect it, and it is shown connected to a thermometer via its I2C interface. The PI and case cost me about £35 plus £2.99 postage.

My next task is to design and build the application that takes the thermometer reading periodically and sends the info to a web page hosted elsewhere, create the root file system and a distribution so that the whole thing can be packaged and runs as soon as the PI is powered up.

Great fun…

Cycling in the lockdown

OK, I’ll admit it, I’ve been really slack on the fitness front over the 2018-19 winter with few running and cycling outings, and as a result I have gained a bit of weight. The weight gain may be due to excessive indulgence with the homebrew rather than lack of exercise, but it is time to do something about it.

I now have 4 bikes. My old Raleigh M-Trax is starting to feel its age; it’s front wheel and bottom brackets need replacing, as do the tyres, tubes, brakes, gear changers etc, all of which were going to add up to a pretty penny.

Giant bikes are usually discounted heavily in late August as they announce their new ranges for the coming year so I took a look at the discounted prices. I bought a new Giant Roam 2 hybrid bike in September with a huge discount of over 10% off the new price. Being a hybrid it is comfortable, can be fitted with a rack, mudguards and a bar bag so is ideal for commuting to the shops etc and can be strapped to the back of the ‘van for when we go away.


The new bike, complete with bar bag and rack

Cycling so far this year has been limited to jaunts along the bridleways and small roads to Meon Shore, Lee on the Solent and Alverstoke as I’m reluctant to venture further away as we are all supposed to be in lockdown. I will regain my fitness by treating the 17 1/2 mile trek to Averstoke as a sprint and see if I can average over 16 mph each outing, and then when lockdown is lifted I will venture back out to the “top of Hampshire” and beyond.

Kodi

I strongly object to paying over £150 per year to the BBC so that I can watch Channel 4, ITV or other TV channels. I’m not too happy that we pay about £100 per year to Amazon Prime for access to their very limited content; we watch less than 1 film a month on Amazon, which is poor value for money in my opinion.

I could cancel the BBC license and Amazon Prime subscription and just use the internet for access to TV, but I’d need a nice easy way to do that.

One option is Kodi. Kodi runs on small Linux computers, set top boxes and things like Amazon firestick. I have a Raspberry Pi which is a small Linux computer so I decided to give Kodi a go.

Initially I used Buildroot and configured a very small kernel that included Kodi, but that didn’t work out too well. My config with Kodi ran very slowly and was unusable. I had to look for a better solution.

Then I found LibreElec, https://libreelec.tv/ who have created a number of Kodi downloadable images, including some for the various versions of Raspberry Pi. I read LibreElec’s documentation and decided to download a suitable image and give it a go.

Kodi itself doesn’t provide a lot by itself; it provides an application from which content is accessed via its numerous add-ons. I installed the ‘Scrubs’ video content add-on which gave me access to a vast number of films, TV shows, Sky channels and much more. I also installed the iPlayer add-on for access to BBC and a Youtube add-on.

The Raspberry Pi is a model 3 with 1Gb of RAM, 100 base ethernet, Wi-fi, bluetooth and HDMI so connects to my router via an ethernet cable and uses a HDMI cable to a spare HDMI socket on the TV. Power is provided by a small USB power adapter.

It’s brilliant. There are add-ons for all sorts of content from all over the world and it costs nothing. Well, the Pi was £35 plus a little more for its case. As the TV is CEC enabled, the TV remote control is used to navigate Kodi menus and interface.

It’s so good that I am now going to cancel my BBC license and cancel Fiona’s Amazon Prime subscription saving around £250 per year. I might even buy the new Raspberry Pi 4 which has a 4k video interface. Thumbs up for LibreElec and Kodi.

Update December 2020

As I have now purchased a Chromecast with Google TV. This super little device provides Kodi, Youtube, Plex, Netflix, Amazon and a whole host of other streaming services so I have decommissioned the Pi and returned it to the bedroom.

Grainville-Langannerie via Falaise

Hmmm. interesting one, this. Falaise was always “the place with the knights on the roundabouts” for us but never visited. Friends of ours had recommended Falaise as a stop and we were happy to locate the aire (or at least free overnight parking) right under the castle walls. There were a few large lorries at one side of the car park..more of that later! Having walked into town, and chosen a restaurant for a lovely lunch, the chateau was next on our “todo” list, but looking over the chateau walls to check on the parking below, we were quite horrified to see more of those colourful trucks had arrived, and we could see some poor camels poking their heads out of one truck..eek, the circus had come to town!

The circus has come to town. More and more vehicles will be arriving over the coming hours and we have no intention of staying here while they set up their “big tent” during the night.

We weren’t sure what was most off-putting; the thought of those poor animals cooped up overnight in the trucks, the noise of the trucks’ generators, the roaring of big cats at night or the fear of not being able to exit the car park due to the behemoth trucks (also would the big cats be taken out for a walk at night??) but we made a decision to get outta town! Andrew asked one of the drivers who told us the circus would be starting the next day. Such a shame because Falaise really did look worth a visit. I hope Falaise enjoyed the circus but it wasn’t for us.

The tiny hamlet of Grainville- Langannerie was our very last overnight stay. In front of the Mairie and post office, there was a fair amount of traffic in the car park but no other vans parked up overnight. The church bells were really the only noise. We were so glad to have avoided the circus in Falaise, it would have been terrible to end the holiday on a “low”. Next morning we covered the last few km to Ouistreham ferry port, via a large E LeClerc supermarket for a few biscuits and cakes for the office (yes Andrew buys biscuits for “his” office too) and gifts for our much appreciated cat sitters. We were able to resist the wines. At the ferryport the van was searched as usual and we boarded quite quickly. The weather was much better than on our last cross channel trip home, but it started getting a bit choppy so after dinner, Andrew and I retreated to our cabin for a lie-down. Soon it was time to vacate the cabin and return to UK soil.

So ended our wonderful 31 night trip. Next will be a summary of our holiday, including our conclusions and some stats.

Ecouche

The final few days of such a wonderful holiday. Ecouche looked interesting and the aire was another free one. Having left Alencon I had a “brave” moment, offering to do some driving. Having changed drivers, the satnav suddenly directed us off the main road onto a country lane where I had to pull over for any oncoming traffic. Yikes, not what I’d hoped for at all. After a few miles of this, the satnav’s instructed us to turn left, but we could see that turning led only to a few homes, so she’d clearly gone rogue.

Having pulled over at the first opportunity, Andrew checked the rest of the route and sure enough, Satnav was about to send us in a loop- no particular reason, we guessed maybe she was bored? Memories of our last return trip through Normandy when Satnav had created a proper zig-zag route for heading North to Caen.

We do have a paper Normandy map and luckily Andrew took over the navigation (I say that because maps and me don’t mix well at all) I was happy to follow his instructions, ignoring satnav’s constant “turn back where possible/ at the roundabout take the 4th exit”- (meaning go back) we returned to “big roads” where I felt much more comfortable.

Anyway, Ecouche was well worth the journey. It’s a lovely town, with a very “prosperous” feel, as well as a WWII Sherman tank and plaque commemorating the town’s role in Operation Overlord and remembering the devastation inflicted on the town. No rows of closed down shops here. They have 3 boulangeries, one of which Andrew visited in the morning, despite the drizzle. Their bakery goods were the cheapest we’d found for some time, so another tick in the Ecouche box, for a longer visit next time. The aire was well placed for town, and free. We were glad to find it, despite the satnav’s best efforts.

Bourges/ Vierzon

Bourges was one of those “passed near but never visited” places so the decision was made to give it a go. There was an Aire near the town centre, which sounded hopeful, but we made the error of not checking the up-to -date information. Hence our arrival at what had been the aire, and was now part of a large area of roadworks, oops! However, there were a couple of other vans parked up so maybe they had the same 2014 Book. Feeling safe enough we walked into town, picked up- yes, you guessed- a walking tour map of the town, and started with a visit to the rather magnificent Cathedral, dedicated to St. Etienne, or St. Stephen to you and me.

St Etienne’s Cathedral was built between the late 12th and late 13th Century and has some rather special stained glass windows, reminding us of Chartres Cathedral. A quick count of the seats indicated that the congregation can exceed 1000!.

Bourges also had some quaint cobbled streets to wander, but we were getting a tad hungry by this time. Now we appreciate that “lunch” in French restaurants tends to be 12 till 2/ 2.30 but we can usually find somewhere that’s open all day. Hmm, not in Bourges, it seems. So our tour was cut short by hunger and we returned to the van. Having now done some research we found the address of the current Aire and headed out to find it. Well, it was quite a way out of town, and basically a very scruffy car park next to some out of town type stores. We had a quick look around and observed a couple of vans turn up then leave and we understood why. We expected it to get “busy” late at night, and just didn’t feel at all comfortable there. So reluctantly we bid farewell to Bourges for this trip. We didn’t even stay to have lunch in the van.

Where to stay the night? We opted for Vierzon, another town we recognised from roadsigns. A few km along we found Vierzon and its Aire- another free one! The borne was out of order, but we had sufficient water for a day or so. No vans were parked in the signed aire, preferring a patch of ground near the footbridge which took us into town.

Vierzon was an odd town, with several shops up For Sale or To Let and quite a few groups of males loitering or sitting outside bars. This would not be a place where we’d extend our stay, one night was enough.