Monday 22 April 2024

A Defender Road Trip to France and Northern Spain

We had a brilliant Easter holiday in France and Spain with Budgie.  We were away for 10 days and covered over 1750 miles (2850 km), making it all the way down to the Spanish Pyrenees.

Alu-Cab Defender Camper in the Spanish Pyrenees

As is usual for our road trips, we did a few long travelling days, but interspersed these with shorter days and one two-night stay in San Sebastian.

Ferry to France

We chose to take the DFDS ferry from Newhaven, in Sussex, to Dieppe, in Normandy.  For us, Newhaven is only about an hour and a half away and this route was considerably cheaper than the alternative routes from either Portsmouth, Dover, or Plymouth.   

The ferry takes around 4 hours.  We travelled both ways on the Seven Sisters vessel, which was very comfortable and had great facilities onboard.  The boys highly recommend the croque monsieur and the sausage rolls!

DFDS Seven Sisters

The return ferry departed Dieppe at 0630, so we decided to get a cabin for this leg.  We booked a four berth outside cabin, which had two sets of bunks and an ensuite bathroom.  We were heading straight up to Edinburgh when we disembarked, and after the early start we really wanted to make sure we got some sleep on the ferry.  It was definitely worth the extra cost!

4 berth cabin on the DFDS Ferry Seven Sisters

Top Tips for Driving in France and Spain

1. Check the Crit'Air Clean Air Zones

The first bit of travel to Ballon-St-Mars took us a bit longer than expected as we diverted around the Rouen clean air zone.  Budgie is too old to register for the French crit'air system, so to avoid fines we just had to avoid the zones completely. It only costs around 5 Euros for a sticker or 'vignette' if your car is eligible for the scheme, so make sure you check this out before you travel.  Ensure you use the official French government site, as there are a number of scam sites around.

2. Consider avoiding the Toll Roads

Google maps also took us on a couple of toll roads on the first day, which I think costs us around 30 Euros.  The next day we selected 'Avoid Tolls' in the maps application, which made life much easier for route planning.  Most of the toll roads have a maximum speed of 130 km/h (80 mph) which is pretty much out of reach for Budgie, so we were much more comfortable travelling on the slower roads.  These routes also took us through some beautiful towns and villages, and made stopping at the delicious boulangeries easier!

3. Take the required equipment and documentation

There is additional equipment required for driving in Europe; some is obvious, like headlamp deflectors, but others are not so intuitive, such as reflective jackets for all passengers which must be carried in the cabin.  The RAC has a handy driving in Europe checklist, so be sure to check this before you travel.

Finding Camp Sites in France and Spain

Unusually for us, we didn't really have much of a plan for the rest of the holiday, other than to hopefully catch some sun and a vague aim of getting to Northern Spain and maybe Portugal. 

We ended up staying at a mix of campsites, off-grid park ups, and aires, which we felt gave us a nice balance of facilities and some stunning locations.

We had only booked one camp spot in advance, and that was for the first night, as we wanted somewhere to aim for within a fairly short drive after disembarking the ferry.  We booked Ludovic's site in Ballon-St-Mars through PitchUp.  It was a great small site with the added bonus of a small cabin with a hot shower and a sitting / dining area.  The boys loved their first night in their newly built sleeping area:

Kids sleeping in a Land Rover Defender Camper

For our second night, we had aimed to get across the border into Spain, but we were enjoying taking our time and exploring, so decided to have a shorter day and stop on the coast in France.  We headed to the small town of Andernos-les-Bains, which sits on the beautiful bay of Bassin d'Arcachon, and our first 'Aire de Camping Car'.  

Aires come in a variety of forms in France (the literal translation is just 'area'), from motorway services, or picnic areas, to camping zones with facilities.  They are often free, or charge a small fee for overnight parking.  We picked up a guide to camping aires at a local supermarket, but you can also find them in maps, and they are usually signposted from the main road or entry into a town.  

The aire in Andernos-les-Bains was a simple area of ground alongside a quiet no through road on the edge of town.  It is minutes walk from the beach and some great seafood restaurants.  The payment machine was out of order, so we stayed for free!  The following morning we woke up to find that the Easter Bunny had managed to track us down in France and had delivered some chocolate eggs for the boys to find:

Easter Eggs on a Defender

Defender Camper at Andernos-les-Bains Aire de Camping Car

We spent the next day exploring the Arcachon area, including the Cap Ferret lighthouse and the amazing Dune du Pilat:

Phare du Cape Ferret

Steps at Dune du Pilat

We spent the night in another aire, just down the road in Biscarosse Plage.  After hotdogs in the rain, we were treated to a stunning sunset:

Defender Camper at Biscarosse Plage Aire du Camping Car

Sunset at Biscarosse Plage

Next we headed down to San Sebastian, in the Spanish Basque region, and spent a great couple of days exploring this beautiful coastal city.  We stayed at WeCamp San Sebastian, which is in a great location on top of the cliffs at the edge of the city; with a regular local bus service into town.  It's a very clean and tidy campsite, with a lovely cafe bar on site and an outdoor pool (sadly we were too early in the season for it to be open).  It was nice to spend a couple of days relaxing at a site with facilities.

San Sebastian Corniche

While in San Sebastian, we decided we weren't going to have time to make it over to Portugal without some very long drives on the way home, so instead we headed down to the Pyrenees.  It was a beautiful drive down to the mountains, and we found an absolutely stunning off-grid park up on top of a hill through the park4night app:

Defender Camper off-grid in the Pyrenees

Pyrenees mountain view from the roof tent

After crossing the border back into France, we headed north to a great campsite we found on HipCamp.  (Use the link for $/£10 off your first booking.)  Camping D'Artagnan is run by a British couple and they also have a British style pub on site!

Defender Camper at Camping D'Artagnan

Boys relaxing at Camping D'Artagnan

From here we headed up to La Rochelle.  Our next camp was another site from park4night, there were no facilities, but it was right on the sea front and next to a brilliant seafood restaurant, La Cabane de Pampin.

Sitting on the bonnet of a Defender

Seafood platter at Le Cabane de Pampin

The next day we drove up to Mont St Michel.  As we were taking the shuttle bus over to the island to explore, we noticed a campsite right by the causeway.  It turned out a night at the campsite wasn't much more expensive than the parking we had already paid for.  So, top tip; book the campsite online and you can drive straight in!

Defender camper at Mont St Michel

Boys with Mont St Michel in the background

Exploring Mont St Michel

Our last stop of the trip was another aire, this time right in the heart of Dieppe.  We wanted a camp spot near to the ferry due to the early start, and this fit the bill; as well as being right next to the beach, it was a short stroll to the bars and restaurants of the quayside in Dieppe.

Dieppe beach

Dieppe church

Defender at sunset in Dieppe aire de camping car

Let us know if you have any other sources for campsites, and if you'd like to see our full route, check us out on Polar Steps!

Ridley Errington on Polar Steps

Read on for info about Budgie's camper conversion.


Monday 25 March 2024

Fitting a Diesel Heater to our Defender Camper

Following on from our post about fitting solar panels to the Alu-Cab Icarus roof on our Defender, the next step was to install the auxiliary battery, run the internal wiring, fit the charge controller and fit the diesel heater!

Diesel Heater Location

After much debating on the position for the diesel heater in the Defender, we decided that the best solution for us was to remove the front middle seat and fit the heater in the Nakatanenga heater console. 

Diesel heater console and cubby box in a Land Rover Defender

Nakatanenga supply a full heater kit for the Defender, with all of the components required to fit it.  The only UK supplier is 4x4overlander, the website is not always up to date with stock, so do give them a call or email to confirm availability.

Nakatanenga Diesel Heater Kit for Land Rover Defender

Mounting the Diesel Heater in the Console

I started by fitting the heater console to the mounting plate, and then fitted the heater inside the console.  The power supply to the fuel pump can be fed through the small hole in the mounting plate.

Defender Diesel Heater console

Defender Diesel Heater Console

Diesel Heater fitted to the mounting plate

The console comes with a few options for the mounting plate for the controller, we decided to just keep it simple at this stage and got the option with a single hole for the controller.  The controller has a backing plate which is bolted through the plate, and then the controller simply clicks onto the backing plate.

Nakatanenga Diesel Heater Controller

Solar Charge Controller

We decided to make use of the additional space in the heater console to mount the Renogy solar charge controller.  We went with a 30A DC-DC Battery Charger with in-built MPPT.  
(Use this link for a 7% Renogy discount code on your purchase.)

The charge controller fits nicely inside the heater console, with plenty of space for the required wiring.

DC-DC Battery Charger in a Nakatanenga Heater Console

I wired up all of the cables to the charge controller at this stage, and left the cables long so that they could be run to their final positions in the battery compartment.

Nakatanenga Heater Console with Solar Wiring

In hindsight I should have also fitted the air intake, exhaust pipe and fuel line at this stage too, as they are really fiddly to fit from underneath once the heater is in position.

Installing the heater assembly

The first step was to remove the centre seat, I also removed the passenger seat to make access easier.

Defender front seats

Defender seat box

Budgie's previous owner fitted these great sound deadening rubber mats, so the next step was to carefully cut out the matting to the dimensions of the heater console.

Land Rover Defender seat box rubber mats

With the mat cut out, the access plate can be removed (just a couple of screws holding it in place).  The access plate is exactly the same dimensions as the mounting plate supplied with the diesel heater kit.

Defender middle seat access plate removed

The whole assembly can then be fitted in place of the access plate.  The mounting plate has a recess at the back which catches the frame of the seat box, and uses the same screw positions at the front to secure it in place.

Defender diesel heater console in position

The rubber mats are then refitted, and the seat rails replaced.  All of those long cables from the solar charge controller, which we fitted earlier, are run along the back of the seat box and into the battery compartment. 

The positive cable from the solar panel is also fed along this route and into the charge controller, while the negative cable from the panel is fed into the battery compartment.

Land Rover Defender diesel heater centre console

Battery Compartment and Solar Wiring

With a bit of shuffling about, I managed to get the original start battery moved over slightly which made enough room for the new 100Ah Renogy lithium (LiFePO4) auxiliary battery.

Renogy lithium auxiliary battery in Defender seat box

There's also enough room for the ANL fuses required for the solar wiring and a new Blue Sea auxiliary fuse panel, which all of the auxiliary loads will be wired to.  At the moment the only auxiliary load is the power to the lighting in the Alu-Cab roof, but the plan is to add some more charging points in the back later, and maybe some heated seats!

The two ANL fuses are mounted to the front of the seat box, and the auxiliary fuse panel is mounted to the back of the seat box.

Solar ANL fuse in Defender seat box

Blue Sea auxiliary fuse box in Defender seat box

The diesel heater comes with a fused power supply, so this was wired straight to the auxiliary battery, and the fuse holder mounted beside the new auxiliary fuse panel.  With everything in position the solar cables can be cut to length, terminated with a crimping tool and wired up to the correct positions.

Auxiliary Battery wiring for a solar powered Defender

The charge controller comes with clear instructions and a handy simplified wiring diagram.

Renogy solar charge controller wiring diagram

Air Intake, Exhaust and Fuel Line

With everything sorted inside the Land Rover, it was time to fit the external components.  Thankfully it's easy enough to crawl under a Defender, so no need for ramps etc.

As I said earlier, it would have been easier to fit the air intake, exhaust and fuel lines before fitting the heater assembly into the vehicle, but it is possible to fit them from underneath.  All three lines are pretty close together, so it's just a bit fiddly getting the lines into position and tightening up the fasteners.  It would probably be best to do the fuel line first, as this was really awkward!

Air intake, exhaust and fuel lines for the Defender diesel heater

I ran the fuel line and the fuel pump power supply cable along the chassis rail, following the route of the existing vehicle electrics.  You can then cut the fuel line to length and fit the fuel pump.  The pump is fitted in a rubber mount which I screwed to the chassis leg behind the rear wheel.
Diesel heater fuel pump

Fuel pump in position on the Defender chassis

The heater kit is supplied with a fuel pick up, which fits into the Defender fuel filling trunk.  I popped the filling line off, cut the pipe at the required position, fixed the fuel pick up into position, then re-fitted the whole assembly.  Don't do this with a full tank, while parked on a slope, or you will spill diesel everywhere - trust me!

Diesel heater fuel pick up

Bending the fuel pick up pipe down a bit, lets you decide whether the pick-up reaches all the way to the bottom of the tank, or leave a bit of reserve in the tank, so that the heater can't run the tank empty.

For the heater exhaust pipe, I followed the vehicle exhaust pipe.  Cut the pipe to length, and fitted the provided silencer, screwing it to the chassis cross member.

The air intake pipe also runs towards the back of the vehicle, but closer to the middle and above the chassis cross member, so that there is a bit of separation between intake and exhaust.

Powering up!

With everything connected, it was time to power up and test the heater out.  It took a couple of attempted starts, to get the fuel pumped all the way from the tank to the heater, but after that it fired up straight away, and ran for the required 2 hour running in period with no problems.  

Once everything was in and tested, we fitted the Exmoor Trim cubby box to the top of the heater console, and I think it looks great.  Next up is the rear storage and sleeping solution for the boys!

Diesel heater console and cubby box in a Land Rover Defender

Read more about the rest of Budgie's camper conversion.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

The Isle of Jura

One of our favourite things about living in Victoria, BC, was being able to explore beautiful Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, but our love of islands didn't start in Canada.  It actually started in Scotland on the Isle of Jura.

Lorne Cottage, Caigenhouses, Craighouse, Isle ofJura

I (R) have been visiting Jura for almost 40 years now, and Sarah has been joining me for more than 20 years.  It's one of our favourite places, and we even got married there on the beach at Corran Sands in 2012.  

Isle of Jura Wedding at Corran Sands

One of the best things about being back in the UK, is being able to get up to Jura regularly.  This is our third trip up in the last 6 months!

About the Isle of Jura

Jura is an island in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.  

Despite being the 8th largest of the Scottish islands (about 30 miles long and 7 miles wide), it is only the 31st largest in terms of population with around 200 permanent residents.  The residents are vastly numbered by Red Deer, with a fairly steady population of around 5000, and in fact the name Jura is thought to derive from the Old Norse word Dyrøy meaning "deer island".

Red Deer on the Isle of Jura

The island is dominated by three large peaks, known as the Paps of Jura, which make for a distinctive silhouette from the mainland and also from neighbouring Islay.  Only the South and East coasts of the island are inhabited, leaving the West coast as a beautiful wilderness which is only accessible on foot or by boat.

With its small, friendly population and remote feeling, Jura is a magical place which really gets under your skin and many visitors return on a regular basis.

Getting to the Isle of Jura

The Isle of Jura was described as "ungettatable" by George Orwell when he was writing his famous novel '1984' on Jura.  Fortunately it's not that difficult these days, and there are a number of options to get here, but it does take a bit of planning!  The major options are listed below, but get in touch with us if you need help planning your journey.

Jura Passenger Ferry

This is our favourite way to get to Jura. The Jura Passenger Ferry crosses between Tayvallich, on the mainland, and Craighouse on Jura.  It's the quickest (less than an hour) and most scenic way to get across the Sound of Jura, but is for foot passengers only, no vehicles.  Craighouse is the main settlement on Jura, so it's an ideal place to land.

Car Ferry

Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) sail to Islay from Kennacraig, on the Scottish mainland, to either Port Ellen or Port Askaig on a regular basis.  This route takes about 2 hours, and you can check out the current schedules online at  From Islay it's a short journey from Port Askaig to Feolin on the Jura Ferry, which takes around 10 minutes to cross the Sound of Islay.  You will likely need a car (or bike if you're feeling fit) for this route, although there is a limited bus service available on both Islay and Jura.  Be sure to check that the connections work if you are planning to come over as a foot passenger with CalMac, we've been stranded on Islay before!

Ferry traffic queuing for the Finlaggan at Kennacraig

By Air

There are regular scheduled flights between Glasgow (GLA) and Islay (ILY) airports with Logan Air

What to do on Jura

Jura is rightly famous for its whisky, visit the Jura Whisky website for details on tours and tastings.

Did you know that Jura is now also home to a gin distillery, rum distillery and brewery?  

Lussa Gin distill by hand in a traditional still in a converted stable on the Ardlussa Estate at the North end of the island.  Using 15 botanicals which they grow or forage on the island, it's the 'spirit of island adventure'.  They are also open for tours, check out the Lussa Gin website for details.

Deer Island Distillers make a small batch Scottish spiced rum from the business units at Craighouse Pier.  They have a distillery shop and also offer tours, check out the Deer Island website for details.  They're also right next door to Konrad's beautiful photography gallery - The Whisky Island, and the local craft store - Camella Crafts.

Jura Brewery are still finishing the construction of their new brewery at their croft in Kiels, which is about a 15 minute walk.  Their Laughing Stag is an easy drinking pale ale which you can find in the community owned Jura Stores, in the Jura Hotel bar, and from the Jura Brewery TrALEr at certain events.

Jura Brewery Laughing Stag

It's not all about alcohol though!  Throughout the year there are a number of regular events, which can see the Jura population expand significantly, you're strongly recommended to book early if you want to stay on Jura during these events:

Jura Fell Race - this 28km fell race sees 200 competitors climb seven of Jura's summits on the last weekend in May.  This is one of Jura's busiest weekends.
Ardlussa Sports - this annual sports event is great fun for all of the family and raises money for local charities, it usually happens the last weekend in July. Events include tug of war, hammer throwing, barrel rolling and family races.
Jura Regatta - this day of water based sports is usually held on the first Saturday in August.  Events include open water swimming, rowing, kayaking, sailing and a raft race.
Jura Music Festival - this great festival is usually held on the last weekend in September.  

Jura has some amazing scenery and wildlife which you can explore for yourself, or take a guided tour with one of the locals:

Jura Guided - Grant offers guided walks suitable for all levels around the island.
Jura Boat Tours - Robert offers small group wildlife and sightseeing tours in their MCA approved RIB. 
Discover Jura - Alex offers small group tours by minibus and in conjunction with Jura Boat Tours.
Jura Cycles - Are now offering bike hire on Jura to help you get around.

Where to stay on Jura

Jura has a variety of options for places to stay, from a super luxury hotel to rustic bothies, and everything in between.  

Lorne Cottage

Of course we are biased, but we think Lorne Cottage is one of the nicest small holiday cottages on the island.  Sleeping a maximum of six, but more comfortable for four, our wee cottage in Craighouse was fully rebuilt in 2019.  With stunning views over Small Isles Bay, our self catering holiday cottage is literally a stone's throw from the beach and just a short stroll into the village.

Lorne Cottage, Isle of Jura

While we were in Canada, we offered the cottage up for long term let and had a number of great tenants.  Now that we are back in the UK, and will be able to visit more often, we're moving to a holiday let arrangement. Stay tuned for an announcement when we are ready to start taking bookings.

Self Catering Holiday Cottages and Bed and Breakfast

There are a number of other holiday cottages available to rent on Jura, and a couple of options for Bed and Breakfast. The most comprehensive listing can be found on the Jura Development Trust's website.

Jura Hotels

Until fairly recently there was only one hotel on Jura, the imaginatively named Jura Hotel!  The Jura Hotel also has a public bar, which serves as the island's only pub.  

When an Australian hedge fund manager bought the Ardfin Estate, he set about a massive investment program; including building a world class 18-hole Golf Course, a huge extension of Jura House and refurbishment of agricultural buildings into a boutique hotel.  If you have deep pockets, Jura House can now be rented for up to 20 guests on an exclusive basis (minimum 3 nights, price on application), or you can stay in the Quads on a hotel basis for a rumoured £1000 per night!


The Jura Hotel has a large waterfront field which acts as a semi-formal campsite during the summer.  There is a shower block, toilets and laundry facilities available to the side of the hotel, via a key fob system.  Enquire at the hotel for the latest prices and seasonal opening.

Wild camping is permitted on Jura, but it should be noted that this does not extend to vehicular camping.  Please follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and Leave No Trace:

    This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one         place. You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply but help avoid causing problem for local     people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals and keeping well     away from buildings, roads or historic structures. If you wish to camp close to a house or building, seek     the owner’s permission. Leave no trace by taking away all your litter. Remove all traces of your tent            pitch and of any open fire.

There are extremely limited places to park campervans, all without facilities, but there are public toilets by the big pier in Craighouse.  Large motorhomes are unsuited to Jura's single track road, and may struggle to get on and off the wee ferry!

Isle of Jura Tourist Map

Is Jura in your plans for this year?  If not it probably should be!