Van Talk 1

We became owners of our first campervan in 2008, after years of travelling Europe with tents. The transition was not down to dislike of tent camping- far from it, so reluctant was I to give up sleeping in a tent that we continued to take a tent for a while especially for sleeping purposes. And I do still hanker after that wonderful feeling of drifting off to sleep with a cool breeze wafting through the fabric of a tent, although nowadays getting up off a squishy, inflatable mattress would be likely to cause more difficulty than it did years ago!

We were in Croatia, staying on the island of Korcula. We’d arrived late and had to pitch up in the dark then cook a meal by lantern light outside. The space we’d been allocated was only just large enough for our tent and it had been a tricky operation. That same trip, we’d survived thunderstorms without as much as a drop of rain penetrating the tent walls, but on the Korcula site, next door to us, a VW campervan with a pop-up roof was parked. We got to thinking how simple it was to park up and hook up. How much more of the year we’d be able to travel. We were sold on the idea of a van.

We got our first van from Ebay, a VW lovingly converted for a project, by someone in Sussex. At this point we’d very little idea of what to expect from a van and how things might work. As it turned out, the conversion, whilst pretty, was neither practical nor efficient. There was no means of accessing the front [cab] of the van from the rear. There was nowhere to stash a porta-potty [essential for us!] except the worktop area! Just imagine- we had to perch on the portaloo on the top of the worktop- a proper throne indeed!

Worst of all though, as we discovered on a trip to Agen, France, the home-made, blue, vinyl roof leaked. This was a shock, after our watertight experiences of the tent. I was horrified when, during a thunderous deluge when pitched up by the beautiful River Lot, we were woken by rain inside the van. We wound up having to use an umbrella over our heads inside, which is a comical image to recollect now but was no laughing matter at the time.

We took the van to a conversion expert, who made a wonderful [if expensive] job of installing a new, purpose made pop-up roof and side access cupboards, sink and cooker, enabling us to move around all of the van and, importantly, have somewhere to perch on the portaloo. Thereafter we travelled all over the place, in all kinds of weather. When we were ready for a little more comfort and some additional facilities we sold it on to a couple who wanted it for weekends away. Husband, especially, mourned its passing bitterly. But the time had come.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Tented Travels-1

Before we got our first van, during our first few years together Husband and I toured European countries using tents. This was in part due to the penurious nature of our lives [we’d come together in similarly, newly-single circumstances] but also knowing that travel was a shared interest. We’d also both gained plenty of experience as campers from both childhood and as adults. I’d already single-handedly hauled four children off camping in my battered Volvo, with mixed results.

One of our very first trips as a couple was to the South of France and on round to the Italian Riviera, then Tuscany; an ambitious holiday to undertake in my ancient car with my parents’ cast-off frame tent. In its heyday, the tent had already been many miles, but still had some usage in it. Nowadays of course, tent technology is much advanced and bendy hoop tents have more or less taken over the camping market.

Husband, ever the map fanatic, is a competent route planner. We travelled down the centre of France. Overnight stops are tedious when using a frame tent, so we planned our sleepovers using Formule 1 hotels. For the uninitiated, these are remarkably cheap, chain hotels dotted all over France on industrial estates. They are clean and comfortable, and usually situated next to a budget chain restaurant, too. The drawback is that the rooms do not include en-suite and employ a colour-coded system for the bathrooms, which is tricky if you need the loo during the night, since the rooms are accessed by numbered code. We used to overcome this by leaving a shoe lodged in the doorway when we dived out at night. Red-doored rooms must use the red-doored lavatories, and so on, which might mean a bit of a trek.

On our odysseys through France we still see Formule 1 hotels, flanked by Buffalo Grills or some similar restaurant, although they’ve largely been superceded by Premier Classe hotels, superior only in that they have a tiny, integrated toilet and shower cubicle in one corner.

I’ve no idea whether, in these early days of tent touring, discount camping cards existed, but if they did we had no knowledge of them, no ACSI or Camping and Caravan Club cards. We simply did a day’s travel, stopped to look for a site and pitched up.

To begin with we had lilos, inflated by foot pump, and sleeping bags which zipped together. After a couple of trips I decided I’d become too old to dive out and across fields for the loo, so Husband recycled an old toilet seat by attaching it to a bucket. This became the precursor of the porta-loo.

Our tented trips were made not only from necessity, but for preference. We’ve always enjoyed the freedom of touring this way, but there is something magical about sleeping in a tent-a magic that I still feel nostalgic about, even though we’ve swapped tents for vans. It’s something about how close you are to the air, warm and cosy with a waft of breeze and a gentle flap of canvas…magic!

India 1998: The Come Down

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The Tanglang-La Pass, reckoned at the time to be the second highest road pass in the world, [although now allegedly the twelfth highest]. Still, this was a high altitude road trip and we were fortunate to have undertaken our trek, which had toughened us up and got us acclimatised. Our conveyance was a bus, driven by an experienced driver of course, into whose hands we’d be committing ourselves. The road, if it can be described as such, was single track and largely unpaved-at times a mere dirt shelf carved from the mountainside. This was manageable, with our brilliant driver in charge, but became hair-raising when vehicles approached from the opposite direction [mostly lorries] and our far-side wheels would overhang the ledge.

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We’d be travelling down from Ladakh, where we’d been hiking, to Delhi, but the final part of our journey back to where we’d begun would be by train.

There were plenty of opportunities to stop and take in views, or to use such facilities as existed-the most notable being what [unless you, reader, know different] must take the accolade for most lofty loo, [and with a view].

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Along the way strings of prayer flags hung in forlorn tatters, meaning someone had taken the trouble to place them-prayers from the roof of the world. Small wonder they were in tatters when you consider the parlous state of the world today.

Sometimes it seemed the road was being constructed ahead of us while we motored, although it must have been repairs that were being undertaken. There was little mechanisation, the workers using woven baskets for rubble and boiling up tar on fires by the roadside then spreading by hand-gruelling work.

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The terrain varied, providing fascinating views, sometimes a group of riders, sometimes a facsimile of a fortress or palace, sculpted from a hillside by fierce winter winds.

There would also be refreshment stops. Forget motorway services. They would be solitary tents by the roadside containing a small range of canned drinks and snacks and offering cooked dishes such as fried egg sandwiches, produced from a stove with a cylindrical chimney poking our through the top of the tent. High up here where the temperature was punishing and the wind chilly, these tents were warm and cosy. There would sometimes be one or two stalls selling hand-made goods like knitted socks made from course wool. My investment in a pair of these was to prove a godsend in the coming night.

During this long journey there were no hotels. We were not put up in Travelodges or hostels. Overnight stops had to be spent in tented villages. We arrived at ‘Sarchu’ camp, where the standard tents were set up in neat rows and we were allocated one, before joining our group in the open-sided dining area for an evening meal. By now we’d donned warm clothing seeing as we were no longer trekking and the weather was cold-made colder still by a cruel wind and the night approaching.

That night in our tent we rummaged through our bags and unearthed every wearable garment we had, layering up until we resembled Michelin men, then got into our sleeping bags for what must have been the coldest night I can ever remember spending-even with the addition of my newly purchased socks. There was also a point when it became necessary to prize myself from the sleeping bag, out of the tent, into the dark and over to the toilet tent, an undertaking requiring true grit. I was never so glad to see morning arrive and with it a warm coach to continue our descent out of the north.-

Towpath Tales [part 3]

We were down to our last two days of cycling before we’d need to trek back up to Caen for the ferry.

There was a convenient parking spot at Pont d’Oust, where a bend in the canal is host to a few houseboats, a picnic place and a mooring for leisure boats or smaller craft.

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We lunched, squeezed into paddy-pants [essential cycling gear], applied sun block, applied insect repellent and set off towards Redon. It was a busier day on the cycle path, being a Sunday, especially in an area where the canal and river merge and there is a gorge with steep cliffs, popular with climbers, leisure boats, picnickers and the rest.

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On our arrival to Redon we were treated to the surreal sight of a parade of amphibious vehicles around the town, followed by their launch [as we set off back] into the canal. We’ve seen collections of Citroen 2CVs and various other vehicles in France before but never a sight such as this.

The municipal site at Saint Martin d’Oust is immaculate, with sparkling new showers and a quiet, canal-side location. Better still, a busy, picturesque bar-restaurant by the flower adorned bridge serves delicious Breton cider. As often the case, reception was closed when we arrived but we followed the instructions to choose a pitch and pay later. We parked, made a meal and went for pre-dinner drinks.

Next morning, having visited the boulangerie, we left the site and breakfasted at the canal-side.

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Then it was off back to Le Roc St Andre for our very last cycle of the trip, short, breezy and not too difficult.

We’d come to the end of our trip. When I reflected on it I realised that one of the aspects I’d enjoyed was seeing the numbers of entire families out on their bikes, carrying or pulling all their camping gear and cycling together; trailers with small children or a dog, paniers loaded, heaped up cycle carriers. Sometimes there were young children riding bikes piled high with sleeping bags and mats. They would arrive at a site, the parents unloading and putting up dinky tents and their children still with energy to burn, cartwheeling over the grass, racing to the play park or cycling round and round as if they’d only just risen from bed. The parents made meals using rudimentary cooking equipment, sitting at a site picnic table or setting up lightweight, fold-up chairs-or simply sitting on a blanket.

I was in awe of these parents, who were confident and competent to undertake travel this way with their kids.Those children made no complaints. They played, ate and slept. Next morning they were up, packing, ready for the new day. When they return to school they will have towpath tales of their own to tell-and memories to last them into adulthood.

Scotland is another Country

My early holidays as a young child were camping trips taken with my parents and my two brothers to locations around the British Isles, staying at farms-there was no such facility as a camp site-and pitching tents in a corner of a field.

We travelled, all five squeezed into one of the various small vehicles my father procured-starting with a little, old black Ford. Packing was an art form in which only my father amongst us was skilled [apparently]. The tents [ex-army acquisitions] went on to a roof rack together with our ex-army kapok sleeping bags [camouflage design] which had been cut down to child size by my mother on her treadle sewing machine. Then there was a ‘Bluet’ cooking stove in a tin box plus all our enamel plates, cups and dishes. Any leftover space housed our clothing-shorts and T shirts plus one jumper-oh and pyjamas of course.

We would have to get up in the dark, small hours to undertake the journey, since motorways had not been conceived and stop in lay-bys where my father would get out and set up the Bluet to make tea. My mother struggled with the stove, pumping to get the spirit fuel going and famously throwing it over a fence when the flame shot forth terrifyingly. Much later, having reached the destination he had selected [Wales, Devon, The Peak District, The Lake District] we would stop at a likely farm and request a space for our very basic tents-an arctic ‘bell’ tent and a home-made construction from poles and sackcloth he’d cobbled together to be our ‘toilet’ tent. He would dig a neat, square hole and erect a seat made from 4 struts and a timber frame-to sit on and carefully backfill and replace the turf after use.

Once we travelled to Scotland, an intrepid adventure for the time. My memories are dominated by the mist and drizzle that masked every view, the night we slept in a milking parlour due to the inclement weather [I could feel the drainage channels through the thick kapok of my sleeping bag] and the eyrie, plaintive bagpipe melody drifting through the fog over Culloden Field, where a brutal and bloody battle was fought.

We camped in the Highlands with a view of Ben Nevis. My father fulfilled his burning desire to bathe in a mountain stream by moonlight, an event which, for some inexplicable reason we were all taken along to witness but had no appetite to share; the Scottish weather not lending itself to this kind of romance.

We know the outcome of Scotland’s attempt to sever the umbilical. Scotland seemed foreign enough to me then, without the need for independence and still does, in the same way that the USA feels foreign. There is more to unfamiliarity, to foreigness, than a different language.

Going to the Dogs

                I don’t know what prompted us to accept our neighbours’ invitation to go to the dog track, but perhaps it was the aftermath of incarceration at Cahersiveen, where squalls had kept us banged up for an entire day and even a soaking walk to the nearest bar was scant relief. Admittedly, the proprietor of Mannix Point, award-winning site, one Mortimer Moriarti, mindful of the weather has done what he can to mitigate it for hapless tent campers. He has provided classical music ‘piped’ in the showers [!], a well equipped kitchen, washers and dryers and a comfortable sitting room with a peat log fire, squashy sofas, a piano, piles of magazines, card and board games and two, enormous, sleepy marmalade cats. Many had availed themselves of this facility, sprawling across the sofas, wet trekking boots abandoned on the wooden floor. Sadly, the site cannot win awards for weather. After a second damp and windy night we set off to see the Ring of Kerry.

                The morning was at last dry with some promise of blue sky. We followed the convoy of cars, motorhomes and coaches around the ‘Ring’, taking in Skellig Rocks, Ladies’ View and Moll’s Gap, then on to Tralee. Here in the West of Ireland tourism has drenched the countryside in a glow of affluence; the homes bearing the mark of architect’s pen, the hotels upmarket. We were persuaded to spend a second night in Tralee and take in the sights of the Dingle peninsula, allegedly more rugged and less tourist trodden. In the event, the road was just as clogged with sightseers as the Ring of Kerry, the lay-bys and viewpoints as crowded, the fellow travellers as irritating-as I’m sure we are to them. Here on Dingle we climbed to see the most westerly point of Europe, and yes, the scenery was spectacular.

                Foregoing the ‘dining package’ at the dog track we opted instead for fish and chips at Quinlan’s in the town, a happy choice,  then to the stadium, where we mingled with the hardcore regulars in the bar and attempted to make sense of the informative brochure. Groups of men clustered around the screens clutching race newspapers. I pushed what I knew of greyhound racing and its sharp practices firmly into a cupboard in my brain, having recently read a Roald Dahl story on the subject. I studied the names of the dogs, the ‘form’-all written in a mysterious code that may just as well have been the Gaelic that is widely spoken in the area as anything else. For Race 1 I selected ‘Christie’s Ashes’. I went to the desk with my 2 euros clutched in my hot hand, returning with a slip of paper. Outside the dogs were having a pre race stroll, some padding sedately, others prancing skittishly. My selected runner differed from the other five only in his wearing of a blue jacket, but had, by now become the favourite. The dogs seemed happy enough-enthusiastic, even. They were put into the starting boxes, there was a mechanical hum as the ‘hare’ started around then as it came level the dogs burst out in a tumbling blur, flashing past us and on around the track. A portly, florid gent brandished his programme and yelled encouragement, “Gaan, gaan!”

It was over in seconds. Christie’s Ashes had won. I went to the desk with my slip to claim my winnings and returned to our table flushed with success.  A whole 7 euros!

                The result of race one, however was beginners luck. I was to win nothing more-worse I was significantly lighter in the pocket by the end of the evening. This, of course is how the addicted become so in gambling. For us it was an experience and a fun evening though I doubt it will embed into my social life as a regular feature.

A Heady Romp in the Fields of Yesteryear

                When I was a young child my family undertook intrepid camping excursions into the extremities of the UK. I don’t recall there being any such luxury as a camp site or a holiday park, or if there were we didn’t venture into any. We camped at farms. We’d meander along the lanes in my father’s old ‘Commer’ or whatever vehicle he had, until he spotted a likely farm, then he’d knock on the door and request a corner of a field for us. Whether we were ever refused entry I don’t know, but we always found somewhere to pitch up. We all had to help out with the tents, old ex-army structures, notably a bell tent in which we all slept, two adults and three children, around the central pole. This bell tent was reversible-snowy white on the inside and camouflage green and brown splodges on the outside. It was accessed via low tunnels-easy for small children but presumably less so for my parents.

                My father was a little like Allie Fox in Paul Theroux’s ‘Mosquito Coast’, in that he hatched the ideas and liked to ‘go native’, pulling us all along with him. Once the tent was erected he’d take the spade he’d brought along and dig a pit for the toilet tent he’d specially constructed from four poles and some sacking. We slept on ex-army, canvas camp beds, the assembly of which was an acquired skill, and in ex-army, camouflage, kapok sleeping bags that my mother had cut down to size for us on her treadle sewing machine.

                Cooking was executed on two primus stoves housed in biscuit tins-always outside, even in a howling gale. We ate and drank from enamel plates and mugs. Whenever it was deemed necessary for us to bathe we made excursions to local towns where we would find a public bathing house. You would be shown to a steamy cubicle and handed a towel and a small wafer of soap.

                There were, of course, times when the weather was inclement [even in the summers of childhood]. Most farmers would take pity on us, allowing us to sleep in a hayloft or a barn or once, as I recall on the floor of a milking shed, where the concave channels for drainage made for an uncomfortable night. During periods of sustained rain we’d sometimes go to the cinema, a treat that would be followed up by fish and chips in a newspaper wrapper, consumed whilst sitting, all five of us squashed into a car with steamy windows. Occasionally the parents felt the need to visit the local pub and we’d be brought out bottles of lemonade and packets of crisps, since in those days children did not enter such establishments.

                We travelled to Scotland, Wales, the Lake District, the Peak District, camped within sight of Ben Nevis, on the moors, next to pubs, next to rocky streams.

                What a contrast the modern equivalent of camping is! These days I feel grumpy if there is no internet access, the water in the showers is less than piping hot or the electric hook-up fails. Even UK camp sites have managed to acquire the sophisticated facilities offered by continental sites. Some would say it isn’t ‘real’ camping if you don’t build an open fire or catch your own food but I’ll stick with the comforts the van provides, miniature though they may be!

It’s good to know your place.

People can be sniffy about camping, sometimes recoiling at the very idea. I assume they’ve either had a cold, wet, unpleasant, childhood experience of it in the UK or have never tried it at all. Whilst I’ve done all kinds of trips and travel and enjoyed [occasionally] the pampering that a luxury hotel can provide, there have been few years in my life when I haven’t undertaken some kind of camping trip. But amongst all our friends and family members we are alone in pursuing such an eccentric activity.

Until about three years ago we used tents. We undertook some monumental excursions lasting several weeks and sometimes covering several countries. The last tent holiday was to Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, a six week duration. The trips were a success because we took them during the summer months and to places where the weather is reliably warm and sunny; although tent technology now is such that the structures can withstand the worst deluges. We never got wet.

Then we became ‘time-rich’. Holidays could be taken whenever, and for as long as we wanted. Now the tent was less useful, because of the constraints of weather [no fun in the cold]-hence the purchase of a miniscule camper van which houses and transports us for many weeks of each year. However, while the van is a marginal step from tents in sophistication, we are at the bottom of the heap in motorhome terms. The average motorhome is a lumbering giant of a vehicle providing accommodation akin to a modest bungalow, including flat screen TV and satellite dish, shower and toilet cubicle, fully fitted kitchen with accompanying gadgets.

Our van is dwarfed by these other, giant vehicles. The space inside, once we’ve pushed up the ‘rock and roll’ bed [yes-it really is called that] is very cosy-intimate, you might say. If one were to fall out with one’s fellow traveller there would be nowhere to stomp off to and sulk, like a spare room. It is both necessary and desirable to get along-and to know one’s companion very well. There is no space to be coy on delicate matters such as ‘facilities’ [the porta-potty]. It occupies a night time position squeezed in between the bed and the front seat. The bed, though comfortable, is narrow, so that when one wakes to pee the other follows suit.

In financial terms it makes perfect sense to be using such a tiny home on wheels. Fuel goes further and we are classed as a ‘car’ on the ferry to Europe, saving us a lot. But there are other advantages to being so small. We fit into a car space in supermarket car parks and can manoeuvre along narrow streets. It takes very little time for us to set up, having not a lot in the way of gadgetry and we fit into any ‘emplacement’, which is more than you could have said for the tent. During frequent lazy spells there is nothing that cannot be accessed by stretching one’s arm a little, from the wine bottle to the corkscrew. What’s not to like?

Why do we do it? Because it is the most relaxing, flexible, enjoyable type of travel you can get. If you like somewhere-stay. If you don’t-move on. Weather nasty? Look at the forecast and move somewhere better. Cook-or eat out. No timetable, schedule, booking. No socialising unless you want it. Choose your location, your position, your view, [and some of the best views you can get anywhere]. Then there are the sites-!