May 2014.

I've bought a campervan as a 60th birthday present to myself, made some curtains and a patchwork quilt, waved goodbye to my family, and set off. My aim is to explore the coastline of Britain, anti clockwise, starting in Kent. I have no idea what will happen.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

A morning of mixed fortunes

Yesterday was really the start of my odyssey.. I left my friends Jackie and Richard in Sole Street to see Kent... I had instructions on how to find Chatham Station where I was to meet Heather HB off the train from London. We had a lot to pack in, she had taken one precious day off work, and I will say more of the places we visited later. She is a very old friend and my first 'official' on-board guest – ie not Nick or the dog. We headed for The Historic Dockyard Chatham which is fascinating and well worth a visit. Then Heth bought me the most wonderful lunch at Whitstable and on to the Turner Contemporary Gallery at Margate which was showing JMW Turner paintings, Helen Frankenthaler and Edmund de Waal. Heth is known to enjoy scouring charity shops and was also keen to find a pair of coral coloured trousers to go with her new top.. but we did neither.
Baa on the front at Herne Bay
We headed back west towards Chatham and had a look at lovely Herne Bay. We made a foray in to Maidstone which lacks the charms of those lovely north coast seaside towns we had seen earlier, but has an excellent Sainsburys. I had booked in to a campsite on a farm close to Maidstone run by a charming lady who had dyed her hair like a bed of marigolds. She had chickens and stables (for DIY livery), barn storage, caravan storage and rallying events for caravanners. We ate fish pie and asparagus and had a pretty good night's sleep.
This morning we had a prompt start to get Heth back to the train at Sittingbourne I washed in the van, Heth used Mary's basin/shower/toilet facilities in the farm buildings, and was impressed. One of Fiona's yardsticks for a bathroom – is ease of use – 'There's nowhere to put my spongebag!' she will wail, if the facilities aren't to her liking.. and Heth was impressed with Mary's shed. Hooks for clothes and a plastic table for spongebag etc, and hot water.

And then my fortunes started to slip. I wanted to empty my waste water tank (something I hadn't done before) and Mary said if I hadn't been using bleach to empty it into the hedge.  I had to move to get in to position.'Stand back Heth,' I said - she was surveying the operation - 'because Baa let's off a blast of exhaust when I start her up.' I revved up a bit and then turned her sideways to the hedge (the waste tank (just sink/basin/shower water) - has a tapped hose under the van on the driver's side. I got out and fumbled for the clip to access the hose.. but I hadn't turned the engine off, and the exhaust pipe and the waste water are side by side. I got a nasty faceful of diesel fumes!
Heth did the gates and we waved good bye to the farm and set off for Sittingbourne Station. She made her train perfectly and I headed off .. first to the car park at Wickes. I did my meditation, sorted myself out, checked the stowing, and used the bathroom.. And then I discovered, to my horror, that there was no water in either the bathroom tap, the sink or the loo.. Aah! no pump? The pump must surely work on the leisure battery as well as the mains.. But the leisure battery was totally lifeless. I couldn't understand it.. I drove for miles yesterday and that should've charged it. I stood in the tiny bathroom wondering what to do and then looked up at the mirror... My face, washed and moisturised at 7am, was totally covered in black diesel smuts. And my hands too. (Heth can't have had her glasses on, or I am sure she would have said!) I took a photo in the mirror but the photograph didn't work – it was neither good or funny! 
I scrubbed at my face with a cloth and rang Simon at Somerset Motorhome Centre – how he must dread my calls! He said my problem was that I had been driving along yesterday with my master switch off – the leisure battery only charges when it's on. So I headed for Sandwich and Deal – master switch on.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Trial run

I realised that to do a trip around the UK like the one I am planning, I must be a member of the Camping and Caravanning Club.. I joined weeks ago and have been rushing to the post each morning in anticipation of my welcome pack (there must have been an administrative glitch) but at last it has come.
They give lots of essential information on the location and facilities of all the campsites, and social events and get-togethers for like-minded campers – wild campers, rambling campers, under-canvas, motor-home- and caravan campers. And tips on equipment, local interest, etc.
I very well may go for a rambling or a folk singing weekend but at this stage it's the campsites I need to know about. I booked my first site this week, on a farm by Chichester Harbour, and Nick and I and Alf the dog set off on Monday. 
I was quite confident about the berths because prior to this inaugural run Jane, Hebe and I had a run through the different configurations - two single berths, or one double.The driver and passenger seats go forward, bases pull out from under the sofa and chair, and gaps are filled with different shaped cushions. It's an ingenious design and easy once you know. Hebe had a nasty crack on the head when pulling out the double bed base, and I skinned my knuckles pulling forward the captain's chair (the passengers' seat which can face front or back.)

We took, for this one night, a basket of food, a bag of asparagus, bundles of bedding, the dog's bed and his food, an overnight bag... This innocent enough car-load of stuff confirmed to me what I really knew - that minimalism and tidiness (not great strengths of mine) form the backbone of successful campervan living.
We got a (reasonably) level spot to park in, got hooked up to the mains, got the loo flushing, the water heater working, and supper cooking. After supper Nick declined the offer of a shower, but I had one. 
The 'bathroom' is an ingenious space; there is a loo and a basin, shower and towel rail and when you take the tiny carpet out it's a wet-room. I undressed outside the door and stepped in, flipped the basin to vertical and, having shuffled the shower curtain round behind me, switched on the shower. It's a very small space and only when I had balanced hot/cold and found the showergel did I realise that a cautionary notice from calor gas had come off the new gas cylinder and was stuck to the bottom of my foot. I tried to inch down to peel it off but I just couldn't get it. No matter, the water was warm and I started feeling pleasantly hysterical.
When I emerged from my somewhat floundering shower Nick was doing the crossword with a glass of wine – he looked slightly surprised that I found the ablution experience quite so hilarious, and Alf was asleep on his bed. We made the beds and the walls seemed to close in on us - there is very little room for a dog when the duvets are hanging over the sides of the beds. He could move forwards and backwards, but couldn't turn round. He panted a lot and it rained all night – but we were dry and snug.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

I have a camper van!

At long last, I have found a camper van. I am now the proud owner of an Autosleeper Symbol. It is just what I have been looking for, is in pretty good condition and only has 45,000 miles on the clock. I have seen several over of these in the last five months – I like the layout – and it was from Somerset Motorhome Centre who, I was reliably told, wouldn't sell me down the river.

Oh the excitement as I set off from Winchester with my new Senior Citizens Rail Card. I had two connections to make and we were rerouted round Romsey because an idiot lorry driver had hit a bridge. I just made it to Bristol for the last leg of my journey through the no longer flooded but very soggy looking Somerset Levels, to Taunton. It felt like going to collect a much longed-for puppy. Gordon from Somerset Motorhomes met me and drove me to the garage. And there she (I'm pretty sure it's a she) was, white with racing green detail. 

We spent ages going through how everything works - much of which I have now forgotten. Not the driving part – that's not difficult, and I am sure I'll soon get used to the dimensions of the van. It isn't exactly 'just like driving a car', it's a bit like driving a car - and dragging a small house behind you. Don't get me wrong, this is not The Who's tour bus, it is like a hi-top transit van. Big enough. And I love sitting up so high. Note to self, don't be distracted by the great view you get seeing over all the hedges. I drove along the A30 and tried to take in the majesty of the Fovant Badges as well as the narrow road, and that was almost a bad mistake.

No, it's the ramifications of the living quarters that take some learning. How to get water in, water out; operate and empty the loo; the fridge operates on mains battery, leisure battery or gas; pulling out the beds; draining the tanks. I have a briefcase full of information and manuals to read! I'm sure it'll all become like second nature.

I set off white knuckled from Taunton to Salisbury, juggernauts speeding past me on the A303. But the only near-incident I had was the one as I passed those Fovant Badges. I got to Belinda's house and we did some interiors' planning over a bit too much white wine. Then off to Salisbury market's fabric stall on Saturday morning. Mildly hungover, I bought yards of smart, tough ticking to re-cover the seats, and set off for home.

Now, thankfully, the three-day blues that naturally happen after a birth have passed. The day after I bought her home I looked out of the bathroom window and saw this vast white beast - and thought, Oh God, what have I done?! This is no puppy, it's a whale! An expensive whale! Then a piece of plastic falling off the inside of a window and I thought the end was nigh. But that has all passed now. The window can be fixed. I am bonding with my van, planning my route, and getting on with the covers...

Thursday, 3 April 2014

My search for a camper van, Part II

Armed with my 'essentials' list (my van's 'must haves') I scanned the internet and visited local motorhome dealers. The T-reg Swift Mondia I saw in Godalming had moved to Freeborn's Southampton showroom and Berty, a mechanic friend, came with me for a test drive. (Three months, and not sold - is that a worry? No, because it's winter and the market picks up in March.) Berty drove first (as shown)  and one twitch of his eyebrow told me he didn't like it much. It had a grumbly second gear. I had a drive and didn't like second gear either. Happily for the T-reg Swift Mondial, Freeborn put right whatever was wrong and it has now gone to a new home in Spain.
After Christmas I hounded a poor man called Ginger who restores old VW camper vans in Waterlooville. They are so much easier on the eye than most other small vans. I drove to his workshop and peered through the railings (there was a lovely duck-egg blue one I particularly liked) but Ginger had a bad go of flu and didn't open up for days... And when he did (the duck egg blue one, beautiful as it was, needed a lot of work) I realised that the old VWs did not tick any of my essentials boxes. They are a purist's van and obviously I am not one.
Berty and I saw many vans – Fiat Ducatos, Peugeot Boxers, Fords, Citroens – and he gave me ideas for what to look at: the sills underneath (a no-no if at all rusty as that's an MOT fail); go through the gears and feel the clutch, even without the engine on; is there any outstanding finance?; look under the bonnet and it should be clean and tidy, no rust or corrosion round the battery; look for rust generally; is the cam belt in date? Most were at least 17 years old and most just weren't quite right.
My daughter Hebe and I went to Cheltenham to meet Robin, a gardener, and see his Talbot Symphony, 20 years old, and only £7,500. This put a completely different complexion on the whole situation. If it would get me round the UK and was in good condition the depreciation at that end of the price scale was minimal. It's the more expensive ones that depreciate because the market's so much smaller. The Talbot was immaculate, good as new, and had been so lovingly cared for. We loved it too, though I  must admit I was a bit worried about its age. I said if Robin would do a habitation check (like a survey of the living quarters) and change the cam belt (no supporting paperwork was available) I would take it. And that was my mistake. Dealers do habitation checks, not gardeners, and I could've had the cam belt changed myself. At that price I should have just taken it. By the time I had got home, ready to transfer a deposit to Robin, he had sold it to a couple from Stafford who arrived just after I left, no dithering, with the readies. I can't blame him.
Next stop Somerset to see an Autosleeper Symbol. I think this may be the one.