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I can’t believe it! I am going overseas for the first time. I have been on a ferry before but that was to the Isle of Wight, which is really not the same as going abroad. The Sap and The Chief sat inside me a few weeks back and talked about things they wanted to get done to me before we go. It turns out we’re going to a place called Holland to see The Chief’s cousin who has lived there for years.
They intend to catch a ferry from Dover to France, then drive through Belgium, apparently all on the wrong side of the road...now I am worried.
The Sap has been busy improving my kitchen all week and now I boast a microwave oven and some fold-down work surfaces. Today he’s changed my oil and filters and given me a good once-over to make sure I won’t let them down. I can’t wait to get going.
The ferry leaves Dover at 10.30am but we must be there well before this and we set off at the crack of dawn for the long journey, all up the A3 and on to the M25. Everything goes without incident but after an hour heading down the M20 something doesn’t feel right to me and The Sap swears when he notices that the red warning lamp has come on telling him my batteries are not being charged.
“Looks like we have a broken alternator drive belt,” he curses, “but we have a spare. It’s simple to change, but a damned nuisance as I haven’t got time to fix it before the ferry leaves.”
I know he’s wrong about the belt because the water is still being circulated around my engine.
After he pauses at the roadside to take a look under my bonnet, he soon climbs back in with a woeful expression, “Perhaps a wire has come off or it’s the alternator itself. We only have an hour before the ferry leaves, so let’s get there and decide what to do.” When we pull into the waiting queue The Sap remarks that there are a lot of Belgian vehicles towing trailers with classic cars on them and he wanders off to speak to some of them.
He’s back just as the attendant starts waving frantically to call us on to the ferry. “We’re not really going like this...surely we must get Sammy fixed,” says The Chief.
“Don’t worry, I spoke to a Belgian and he knows a garage with lots of Mercedes trucks that have the same alternator. We’ll meet up on board the ferry and get the details.”
“Are you sure Sammy will make it there?” asks The Chief, obviously worried about being stranded across The Channel.
“I don’t intend to go all the way to this garage today because it will be getting dark and I don’t really want to put the lights on for long or we will be in trouble. I am going to follow the Belgian pair on sidelights and they’ll take us to somewhere we can stop safely for the night just inside Belgium and then we’ll carry on by ourselves in the morning using a map they’ll draw for us...don’t forget we have the leisure battery too, so we’ll be okay.”
I think The Sap is right; once I’m underway, my diesel engine doesn’t take any power out of the battery so if he goes easy on the brake lights and is careful...there should be enough power in the battery to start my engine in the morning. Yes, I think everything should be okay.
After almost an hour tailing our heroes out of the port and into Belgium, The Sap is getting anxious driving on sidelights in worsening light on a busy, strange road, but soon the car ahead indicates to leave the motorway and The Sap breathes a sigh of relief, “Just in time, I wouldn’t have wanted to stay on this road much longer.”
But our way isn’t straight anymore and too often we are losing the ability to see where we are going by the light of the Belgian’s headlamps so The Sap has to turn on my headlamps quite often. I am praying we haven’t far to go and after ten minutes we follow our Belgian guide into the car park of a big store that apparently specialises in cheap cigarettes, booze and tobacco. Our friend climbs out of his car and speaks to The Sap in words I have never heard before, which I later discover to be French, “You can park just over there...you will be quite safe here, there are already quite a few British trucks and vans waiting for tomorrow’s opening and the ferry home. Now you have the map I drew for you...I’m sure you won’t have a problem getting your alternator fixed. Bon Chance!”
We feel abandoned and anxious as his lights disappear away towards the motorway, but my owners soon rustle up some food before they turn in for the night. It is not the quietest spot, because lorries are arriving all through the night to stop over before stocking up, en route to the Channel ferries.
At eight o’clock in the morning we are ready to go and The Sap turns the key anxiously, but my engine bursts into life and, with the red warning light still glowing, we set off down minor roads to find the garage to which the Belgian has directed us. An hour or so later, we draw up outside the garage that is just opening and after The Sap has spoken with the owner, one of the Belgian mechanics is underneath me whipping out the carbon brush pack from my alternator. He shows it to The Sap who says he feels quite ashamed for never checking such a vulnerable part that can have major consequences. After fitting a new pack, my red light goes out once the engine is started and with everything solved quite cheaply, we head back to the motorway that The Sap accepts is the only sensible route for the long, delayed drive to Holland.
This outing is unusual for me, mainly because I don’t go on motorways very often but also because this driving-on-the wrong-side thing feels strange especially when on the odd occasion I find myself moving to the left to overtake some seriously slow lorry battling its ponderous load up the slightest of hills. For mile after mile or I suppose I should say ‘kilometre after kilometre’ I am racing along at 60 miles per hour...again being a good continental visitor, that’s almost 100 km/h. In fact at one stage, admittedly on a slight downhill stretch, I even topped the ton or should that be the tonne? These continental terms don’t resonate in quite the same way, do they? I am still trying to picture a Belgian ‘Ton(ne)-up-Boy’ flat out on his motorcycle’s petrol tank at only 62.5 miles an hour!
After a journey through mostly flat countryside with more heavy lorries than I have seen in my lifetime, we skirt Antwerp, which The Sap says we’ll explore on our return and head for a small town in Holland called Venlo where there is a campsite especially for campervans. This should be a novelty; I have only been on two campsites since they’ve had me. The Sap says that the Dutch are very strict about wild camping, so we will stop behind a restaurant with campervan parking that our Belgian friend recommended.
It’s just getting dark when we pull in and the proprietor is quickly out to welcome his English guests to an otherwise deserted site. He tells them that he waives the camping fee if they dine in his restaurant and has even had the foresight, or maybe business acumen, to greet us equipped with a menu. A quick leaf through seems to encourage them, so I am parked in a corner, hooked up to the electricity and settle down while they ready themselves for dinner. I heave a sigh of relief when they go...it’s been a long eventful day and weary old Sammy just wants to rest before tomorrow’s onslaught.
The next day turns out to be another trial for me because although Holland is flat, so am I...flat-out all the way, as we make for the small town of Medemblik in the north of the country. It is next to the huge dyke-controlled Eselmeer which The Sap says used to be called the Zuyder Zee when he went to school, just before man landed on the moon. We pass the battlegrounds of Arnhem and the bridges of Nijmegen both renown for events during the last war and immortalised in hit films. The Sap says that he wants to reach Amsterdam and visit a coffee shop...there must be loads of places to stop for coffee, so just why he must reach Amsterdam I really don’t know.
Nearing dusk we thread our way into the city and I find myself parked up next to a canal with loads of bicycles whizzing past me. They’ve gone for their much needed refreshment in some local coffee shop, but are back before too long. Then it’s off to another special campervan park where, in the strangely pungent foreign city air, I and my owners drift off and dream.
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After my Easter week’s excitement I was glad that we ambled home gently and I was promised a couple of weeks’ rest. All would have been well if the sun had remained hidden by dense cloud and the wind had continued to rip out the new tender shoots of Spring, but suddenly the sun put its hat on and came out to play and lo and behold, that was the end of this snail’s flipping holiday...they wanted to be off gallivanting again.
The Sap has decided we are going to explore some of the northern parts of Somerset he seldom visited when he lived in the county. He says we are heading for Bath! I fearfully think of my last bath up in Yorkshire when I nearly drowned fording a winter-rain swollen river. Filled with trepidation, I feel soothed as we take a leisurely cross-country route and the nightmare of drowning recedes. We stop for the night just short of their destination, which allows us to be in the city shortly after 9am. The Sap drives round and round determined to park in a supermarket car park that was once a railway station...just think, I am owned and driven by a train-spotter! It’s a good job he doesn’t wear an anorak as well.
He is keen to park me in a particular spot where I can be photographed against the still-standing background of Bath Green Park railway station that he says he came to by train donkey’s years ago. As it turns out, he is more than delighted because by chance one of that railway line’s preserved steam engines has been brought in by low loader for a display...all he had to do was add some steam and there I am where the rails used to be in what is now a Sainsburys car park.
After putting me in a proper space they make some coffee before heading off into the city to explore, leaving me to doze and dream in the sunshine. Fortunately, now that I know that Bath is the name of a city, I had no dreams of being immersed in water but I did have one of being scalded by steam.
My reveries are disturbed when they return for lunch and tea. Apparently, they went into the supermarket opposite and bought a crusty cottage loaf and a pack of vintage cheese, but The Sap is not impressed with the waxy cheese and announces that we are now going to Cheddar where he can buy and gorge himself on Somerset’s hand-made finest. I am confused...I thought cheddar was a tasty hard cheese so how can we go there? I’m half listening and part dozing in a pleasant bit of sun that makes my body creak with joy and I have an image of my portly owner gorging himself with cheese. He announces that we are going to go down Cheddar Gorge...now it’s getting silly, I know cheddar is cheese and I have seen it being eaten rapidly by The Sap so it’s obvious that ‘to gorge’ is eating food rapidly...but cheddar gorge, is this some sort of competition?
While he’s setting Phillippa for the best route out of Bath, he says he plans to go via the village of Priddy which will take us to the top of the gorge and give a stunning view of Axbridge Lake before we start the descent. As we weave our way through the narrow lanes of the Mendips, we pass a village called Torhole Bottom, which I reckon beats the names of any of those places in Yorkshire I mentioned in Sammy VII.
As we get closer, The Sap is telling The Chief that cheddar cheese was first made in the village it’s named after but was so liked by Somerset folk that it was later made throughout the county and is now produced in all four corners of the world. She asks how the foreign versions can still be called cheddar when, for instance, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Stilton cheese must come from a specific area in Leicestershire. The Sap takes a laid back view, saying that the locals should have registered it long ago but were likely diverted from their task by Somerset’s other well-known product, scrumpy cider and under its influence registering essential trade-name paperwork was probably overlooked.
Suddenly I am dreaming again and I picture the road descending through endless rows of cheddar cheese on which the locals can gorge themselves freely...it’s a good job I go where I’m told because soon we’re about to fall off the edge of the Mendips and he points out the huge lake shimmering in the distance. I am a bit disappointed because the gorge turns out to be nothing like my dream as we twist and turn our way through limestone cliffs to the village of Cheddar and an interesting district called Velvet Bottom.
They are lucky enough to find a parking spot near Gough’s cave. He cracks a joke about Gough being unwashed and malodorous and that his cave was known as Fug Gough. A few seconds pass before she starts laughing and throws back what sounds like the same two words...it went right over my head. Thank goodness they’ve gone for a stroll and left me in peace to ponder things humans eat that have funny names...cottage loaf...I ask you.
Before long they are back and he is nursing a wodge of cheddar like a doorstop and a tub of local butter. He breaks out the crusty loaf, cuts two girt slabs (that’s what he said, honest!) lays on some butter like he’s using a trowel and hacks two lumps off the cheese and they soon sit surrounded by crumbs and contentment. Sometimes I’m quite jealous because I just get fed heavy oil and it tastes worse than the deposit on a zookeeper’s boot...see, I am beginning to assimilate and use their stupid sayings.
Anyway, he tells her that proper cheddar isn’t naturally a yellow coloured squidgy rectangular block pre-packed in suffocating plastic film, but whitish and shaped more like a football that has been flattened top and bottom. He says there is nothing finer than gorging on what is called a truckle of cheddar. He says he and his Somerset mates used to go camping with a couple of gallons of cider, two or three crusty cottage loaves and a truckle of cheese. He reckons a proper truckle is quite rare these days and is shaped like a miniature beer barrel. Nowadays, round blocks of cheese are usually only half the height.
We stop for the night a few miles south of Cheddar, a perfect place for a peaceful night in a small road leading into a cemetery and I dream again of that cheese-lined gorge, which goes to show that even a great dobake of a campervan can have his slumbers disturbed by nocturnal cheese.
The next day we eventually head for home along the A303 when The Sap announces that he’s pulling in for dinner and we lurch down a side road which turns out to be scoured by a series of deep water-filled tyre tracks. “Damn and blast it,” says The Sap, (he didn’t really, but children could be reading) “this track used to be a simple unpaved by-way but the blasted off-road fraternity have taken it over.” He manages to keep me going on a swerving course until a wide patch with a tawdry caravan looms into view and we shudder to a stop. “Look,” he says, pointing, “you can do some food then we’ll sit and enjoy the view of Stonehenge. ”
The Sap’s hopes of getting out are soon shattered when a convoy of 4x4’s streams by chucking mud and water all over me...I reckon I must look like a half demolished chocolate cake now. “That’s put the kybosh on getting home tonight,” groans The Sap, “so we had just as well stay the night and worry about getting out of here tomorrow. It will be too dark soon so why not have the added advantage of seeing the sun rise over Stonehenge?”
In the morning, I can see lots of people milling like ants around what looks like a huge partly eaten truckle of grey cheese. The Sap says it’s a temple built by people thousands of years ago who worshipped the sun. Apparently, many of the huge rocks were transported hundreds of miles from south Wales somehow.
Now, I’ve seen a few sun worshippers in my time while parked on the sea front at Swanage, but they only ever shifted a few odd pebbles from under their towels and I can’t imagine any of their ancestors heaving huge rocks around. I reckon people must have been bigger and stronger back then. I am still struggling to picture those prehistoric sun worshippers. Perhaps ancient Stonehenge looked something like this...but I’m dreaming again.
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We didn’t head straight home from Yorkshire; I can tell The Sap is up to something, but despite The Chief pressing him mercilessly, he won’t let on. Even Phillippa is kept in the dark with only a short burst of programming to take us west from Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, where we looked down on the town from the abbey ruins that The Chief says figured in Bram Stoker’s worryingly immortal classic, Dracula. This outing is fast turning into a literary paper chase! I wonder what The Sap might have in store as we start our westward journey.
After a few hours on minor roads through moorland scenery that deserves to be preserved for posterity but probably won’t be and with the winter sun now dazzling me and reddening the sky on its journey to the horizon and beyond, he stops me on a bridge over...yes, you’ve guessed it, another railway line. He tells The Chief a mainline steam locomotive will soon be passing, hauling a returning special train southbound over Shap, a railway summit on the line between Carlisle and Lancaster. The line is now electrified and rarely echoes these days to the sound of struggling steam engines as it once did. Just as he guzzles his last drops of tea, a distant whistle heralds the appearance of the determined engine, tugging its sinuous rake of old fashioned coaches. The Chief, who seems to have the measure of The Sap, ventures that the train is no doubt crammed full of similar old boys also trying to recapture a long-lost smutty youth.
Pictures taken, we’re on our way south, on what he tells us is the A6...the one-time main road from the glens. He says it carries little traffic these days because everything rushes blindly along the nearby M6, which unapologetically desecrates the once-tranquil fells. He recalls stopping hereabouts as a youngster when he was allowed to stand and watch the trains while his parents took a break for a brew-up on a motor trip to Scotland in the sixties. True, he continues knowingly, the trains shouted their presence and blackened the sky every half hour or so but the traffic high on the M6 throws a remorseless cacophony that echoes day and night across the hills. As he finishes his story we arrive in Kendal where the local council have very kindly pointed out our campsite for the night. We follow the signs and arrive on an empty industrial estate where a little investigation provides a first class peaceful hard-standing, complete with outside tap and no other souls...bless them.
Early the next morning, before workers arrive, we are long gone and heading into Coniston and Windermere where I take a breather while they prepare to wander off to explore. The Chief says she thinks we have been drawn here by yet more literary giants in the shape of William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame.
“Whatever makes you think that?” says The Sap, “perhaps I was drawn here by John Cunliffe!”
“Who’s John Cunliffe?” she asks, thinking he’s joking.
“You must have led a sheltered childhood,” he laughs “these days he is the most read of them all, he created Postman Pat.”
It’s a bright chilly day so tea is required once they return, but I can see The Sap is itching to get going...another train is due, I suspect. Well yes and no. Finally he tells The Chief that they are not here for any railway or literary purpose but he wants to show her a road that is the most spectacular he has ever travelled on in Britain.
I listen in awe as he says what we are going to do: It is only something we can do out of the main tourist season because the road is extremely tight for a campervan of my 6’6” girth, in fact he isn’t certain I will complete the route unscathed...now I am worried.
We travel west on a road that barely appears to be narrowing, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about...there’s plenty of room. Suddenly, though, without warning he heaves me across the road onto little more than a track and that excess room has disappeared; I couldn’t share this road with an escaped sheep and a starving one at that. He tells The Chief that although he shouldn’t really bring me down here because of my width, it is out of season and lunch time. Most tourists, he reckons, will have sought refuge in one of the hostelries at each end of the long narrow stretch, because other than sheep, grass and abundant water there’s nothing for miles.
Gradually the road starts to climb and we weave through the foothills and he is constantly fighting with my steering wheel and gearstick. He tells her that my saving grace, compared to modern campervans, is that I am rear wheel drive so won’t lose traction on the really steep sections and I have a very low first gear and a good lock to negotiate the tight bends.
As we stop in a passing point for the first time to make way for an oncoming car, I wonder why the driver is shaking his head and wagging his finger. The Sap shouts something and sounds my horn defiantly and we’re off again with grass and shrubs brushing along both my sides. We round a tight bend and the road comes back on us and climbs like a confused helter-skelter, then it veers to the right and manages to keep climbing...we pass a car that wisely seeks refuge in one of the passing places and the driver’s eyes seem to pop with amazement as if reflecting on what lies before us. I am getting quite dizzy as we climb in first gear, which to give you an idea, flat out on the level I would barely overtake a push bike pedalled by a 5 year old and a wimp child at that. The climbing seems to go on forever, then suddenly he goes up a gear and we run slightly down hill to a long plateau where a boulder-strewn torrent joins us from the right. All around us are mountains and incredible scenery, the like of which I have never seen before.
The demands of tea and sustenance make him pull over for lunch at what, he says, is roughly halfway, but that a more demanding climb faces us. More demanding? Can anything be more demanding than what I’ve already been put through? But so far I am at least unscathed, if a little breathless. He walks across the track to take my picture and if I could puff out my chest, I would because I do feel quite heroic at my achievement. I chuckle as he is corralled by a questioning posse of sheep that gaze at him as if demanding to know whether he is simply mad or is the infamous campervan-driving sheep worrier so recently escaped from Wales and now seeking refuge in the isolated northern fells.
Lunch over and with the inquisitive sheep left to nibble their scant grass in peace, we set off along the plateau before starting to scale the heights of the second trial section. As we approach a veritable mountain that seems to have no way across, he makes The Chief tremble and yours truly Sammy the intrepid mountaineer anxious, by recounting the tale of the night the looming climb almost snatched his life from him. Now I know he must be mad because who in his right mind would give the fates another chance?
He tells us that one afternoon he’d been at work more than three hundred miles south when he was summoned urgently to resolve some equipment problems on the Cumbrian coast. After rushing up the M6, he says he passed through Kendal just after 11pm. To have a chance of making his hotel at St Bees and a welcoming drink before the last residents vacated the bar and it was closed for the night, he rashly decided to take the cross country short cut. As he turned onto this narrow route, it was getting foggy, even before the mountains, and at one stage he had to stop because the glare of the headlamps in the fog made the road invisible. It was well after midnight when he climbed out of his car; he crept cautiously to the front to see where the road was going, only to find that the wheels were on the edge of a precipice. Swallowing hard, he groped his way to the rear of the car where he found that the road had zigzagged unseen to the left. He reversed and resumed his journey, at times just about walking pace, that tempting nightcap receding in importance.
And this is the road he wants to take yours truly on...yes, now I know for certain he’s mad.
Then almost without warning we start climbing...now I have never been to a theme park, as such, but I have watched from a car park as a little carriage packed with masochists climbs ever skyward on some fragile-looking framework. Then it hurtles downward and all aboard scream with fear...then queue up and do it again. I tell you, if I complete this journey, nothing will persuade me to do it again.
I climb and climb in first gear, twisting this way then that before corkscrewing my way even higher...I fret that at any moment I shall miss my footing and go over the side or hurtle downhill out of control. Then the road disappears, “This is the spot,” yells The Sap, “imagine this bit at night in fog!” He winds my steering wheel hard to the left and I follow the road back and down to another one hundred and twenty degree turn at the bottom. We are heading downward all the time now and I am grateful when he tell The Chief it’s over and we, no make that I have conquered The Wrynose and Hardknott Passes.
In just a few days I have learnt to swim and mountaineer...not bad for a geriatric campervan! I don’t think I shall ever face such a challenging journey again...but on the other hand, with these two twerps I can’t be sure.
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The Sap has decided we’re heading north for Easter, but the up-country weather forecast is not encouraging with predicted snow flurries across high ground...well in some ways it is encouraging to The Sap because he is winterising me. We hadn’t been back from Wales a couple of days before he started on a list of improvements to make my living space cosier.
Campervans, like me, were designed almost exclusively for warm weather use. You may well ask why. Well, I suppose that thirty years ago, most campervan users were hardly going to take a fortnight’s holiday in the depths of winter. Nowadays with early retirements, things have changed.
Anyway, when I left the Lunar factory I was kitted out with a pair of long curtains that did a reasonable job of separating the driving cab from the living cabin. Now, curtains may do a fair job of keeping out the early morning light and stopping prying eyes when you’re relaxing during the evening, but as these two have found, especially with curtains that have shrunk and become difficult to close completely, they’re rubbish at stopping heat from escaping.
On every outing so far, the pair have huddled next to my gas fire. It has been amusing to watch them playing a version of musical chairs as they swap places. The heat rushes past them down the cabin past curtains that might just as well be football nets and once inside the cab throws itself out of the glass and steel skin like as if it has a death wish. So every fifteen minutes they change seats to warm the cold sides of their bodies, but worse still their feet have never been warm.
So The Sap has designed and made a partition wall out of two inch cavity-wall foam slabs. I have to say he’s done a pretty good job and he’s covered it in the same beige carpeting he now has on my walls. This removable wall sits up in the over-cab space and he can take it down and have it in the Tee-shaped aperture between cab and cabin in seconds. He tested it last night and the cabin soon became too hot with the gas fire flat out here on the south coast. Over the next couple of days he plans to line my ceiling with polystyrene tiles, so he reckons the living space ought to be good enough for the snow-bound wastes of the North Yorkshire Moors...we shall see.
I suppose Yorkshire is a logical place to go after Wales. He says it, too, has moorland hills, sheep, rain (which often falls as snow) and its own near-incomprehensible dialect. The Chief reckons it’ll be a bit easier to navigate without all those double consonants and words that seem to go on forever and obliterate the map in their quest for space. We discovered a backwater village called Sodom in north Wales, but not even Yorkshire’s doubtful collection of place names stoops quite so low. Up there, I’m told, they have places like Penistone, Scunthorpe, Humpswaite, Giggleswick, Crackpot and even Hole Bottom.
Eee, Ah’m reet lookin forward to gooin thar.
With names like those it’s hardly upmarket, but it’s so far up-country according to Phillippa, it’s almost knocking on the door of that other Celtic paradise...The Peoples’ Republic of Caledonia, where they hope to take me one day. Yorkshire is a damned long way according to Phillippa’s continual rehearsal of her well-planned route. I keep trying to pluck up courage to speak with her because I know The Sap won’t like her chosen course and neither do I, it’s all humiliating high-speed motorway, which is not natural snail territory.
When The Sap returns, weighed down with essentials for our forthcoming outing, Phillippa is still talking to herself and has just cycled again to the bit where she gives instructions to turn left onto the M1 off of the M25. He’s quick to put her right, “I bloody told you I don’t want to go by motorway, Phillippa...I pressed the damned ‘no motorways’ button, why do you choose to ignore me?” He’s sort of telling the truth; I watched him do it, at least I watched him go to do it, but as with the off button when he went out, he was distracted and missed. If she could say, ‘No you didn’t, you fat twerp,’ I’m sure she would. After cancelling the motorway option, he again leaves Phillippa on ‘repeat’ mode but after a while ungallantly clips her around the ‘ear’ for a bit of peace and quiet. It’s the misogynist in him...he only chooses to use the navigator with a female voice so he can shout at her when he thinks he knows best and believes she’s wrong, then if she doesn’t give up, he smacks her casing in the sensitive spot that rarely fails to work her off button.
When we finally set off for Yorkshire just before Easter, I was thrilled. I quite like their approach to getting the best out of me...with my previous owners it was always rush, rush, rush to get to their chosen campsite before dark. The current idea of a perfect campsite is to find a quiet spot down a lane or in a lay-by, just as it’s getting dark. Although I listened intently to Phillippa droning on about a detailed route taking us up through the Peak District and an overnight stop at Matlock Bath, I only vaguely remember the route we actually took because every now and then The Sap has to assert his authority and deviate from her track. He often takes what he believes will be a shorter route but Phillippa always manages to show that his short cuts are long cuts, but still he persists. First port of call, apart from the couple of overnight stops is to be Keighley and then Haworth... Brontë country.
The Sap wants to see the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway while The Chief is excited about going up on Haworth Moor to see the ruin at Top Withens that is said to have inspired Emily Brontë when she set out to write Wuthering Heights. I am delighted that she likes to look at old ruins because The Sap and I should still be pleasing to her eye for a few years yet.
I find it quite interesting watching steam trains that are even older than I am rumbling in and out of Keighley station. It's a biting cold day and the steam drifts across into the car park where I'm sitting.
After half an hour we move on to Haworth and they park me between the town and the railway line. No more than five minutes passes after they leave before I hear a distant Sap shouting out excitedly to The Chief. Now I can just see him pointing up at a building on which I can make out the word Spooks, but he seems to be pointing above it and it isn’t until later when we’ve parked up in the car park for the Top Withins path that I get to see the picture she took when he hollered. Anyway, The Sap reckons that by the time Joe Public sees this blog and the picture he has modified to protect himself from Welsh wizardry, the locals will probably have changed the name in the picture because in these be-nice-to-all politically correct times,
even perverts have rights.
Ba ’eck t’were cold up on ’aworth Moor! As usual she is gasping for a nice cup of tea as soon as she stumbles into my sanctuary. After the kettle is readied to sing, he has the partition in place and the gas fire on. I have to give him credit...it seems to work a treat...he’s even hinged it half way up so it’s possible to scramble underneath into the cab to retrieve something. Apparently, up on the moor, she came hurtling down a slope, arms wide and shouting ‘Heathcliffe’ when she slipped, carried on down on her backside and crashed into him. Eeee! I don’t think t’were like that in t’book. Muddy wet clothes are now hung up above my gas fire and it is so warm they can now sit in their undies in the midst of winter. Tea and food behind them, they settle down with barely a glow from the gas fire and it’s like a hot house all evening, so hot in fact that so much heat has congregated in the above-cab bedroom that he has to open the window briefly before they climb into bed.
We’re going even further north today, heading for the North Yorkshire Moors and yet another railway, this one running from Pickering to Grosmont. Midway between them is the hamlet of Goathland, which doubles as Aidensfield in the old TV series Heartbeat. On arrival she says it seems quite strange to be sitting outside the village garage drinking tea and expecting to see some old police cars hurtle through what still looks like a 1960’s village. Just before dusk descends we head east up a winding track to the moors but quickly Phillippa tells him to turn right, then to turn around and finally to turn back.
“Shut up, Phillippa,” he snaps, “we’re going by a track that cuts across the moor where we’ll stop overnight...it will bring us out in Grosmont in the morning.”
“Turn back, turn back,” she seems to cry, before stepping further out of her programme in her desperation to protect us, “turn back, this track is impassable in winter.”
For her trouble she is cuffed around the hypothetical ear and powers down in a sulk. He finds a spot just off the track and we settle down with The Chief cooking a stew which almost has the effect of making this diesel-gobbling campervan feel hungry.
The next morning there has been a fair old fall of snow which allows my idiot owners to run around like a couple of kids having a snowball fight, but they hit me more than each other, I don’t mind though, it is all quite amusing. After breakfast we continue the spectacular winding track and descend into a valley where the fast flowing river is shown on the map, but there’s no bridge, just a warning sign for a deep ford. “She told you the road was impassable, ” says The Chief, patting a slumbering Phillippa.
“Don’t you side with her, that’s all I need. If you want to do something useful you can pull on your Wellington boots and see just how impassable that damn ford is, because it’s a long way back.”
“Why don’t you walk it? You’re the twerp that got us into this.”
“And I’d be the twerp who’d have to walk back again! No, you must go so that I can watch carefully and steer Sammy in your footsteps...so don’t fall over!”
I can’t believe she’s going to do it, but she pulls her boots on, slams the door and heads for the river, which looks ruddy deep to me. He opens his window and shouts, “Go on, if the water just goes in your boots, Sammy will go through okay...if it reaches...well, if it gets that high we’re all going to get a soaking.”
Then he seizes the moment and rushes by her, causing a tidal wave that dampens her ardour for days and I’m sure he is given smaller portions of her cooking as punishment. Wisely, he said nothing...she could have used some unusual flavourings in his portion if he had. Even so, her absolution was a long time coming. I’m not sure about Phillippa’s forgiveness though...I swear that several times when he switched her on, I heard her say, “Told you so!”
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Thump! The Sap has just dashed in and slams my back door, he’s furious. He’s standing on the doormat as naked as the day he was born shivering with a mixture of cold and rage. In fact, if you take into account there’s an awful lot more of him, he’s even more naked than the day he was born. The Chief is still cocooned above the cab, which plainly hasn’t helped his demeanour. Noisily, he lights the gas fire, fills the kettle and clatters it onto the stove, knowing that just a whiff of tea will wake her easier than any poking, prodding or shaking.
Eventually she eases her legs out of the warmth and carefully climbs down the ladder where she grabs yesterday’s clothes that he has hung above the fire. The tea poured, they sit and ruminate on his stupidity. Who in his right mind would rush out naked into a field full of bleating sheep at the crack of dawn? Twice now in Wales he’s innocently gone into a field of sheep, he tells her, and twice he’s had withering Welshmen hollering and honking their horns, perhaps because they look on the English as Johnny foreigners, typically trying to corner the best females.
I listen in amazement because my previous owners have all been normal, conformist types that took me on nice campsites away from sheep and trouble and avoided confrontation of any sort. These two are certainly different but I’m not yet sure if it’s down to crass stupidity or both having rebellious streaks which are compounded by being together. They are certainly going to change my life, I just hope they don’t manage to shorten it too soon.
I hear him telling her that in the early seventies when he first got too close to a sheep in Wales, it wasn’t the disaster it could be today because the boyos only had their parents’ Brownie box cameras to capture his embarrassment. Luckily, there was no internet back then, so pictures of him on all fours, half naked, trying to get poor legs-in-the-air Blodwyn the Blacknose into a more comfortable position, wouldn’t have gone beyond the local chemists. They certainly wouldn’t have reached far-off Cardiff, where woolly-minded journalists sometimes flocked to unearth the latest sheep-dipping scandal. In those days, there would have been little chance of his images going national let alone becoming a cause célèbre with The League against Cruel Sports baying at his heels.
But nowadays he says he is worried about this particular nude incursion into a field of sheep because 3G mobile has finally reached the depths of Welsh Wales. The Sap fears there is a possibility that the passing drunkard with horn blaring might have realised there could be money to be made. Apart from the attractions of living things, he believes there’s nothing the Celts like more than English money.
Would you believe it? Now he’s got me at the histrionics, pondering all sorts of possibilities about the recent horn blowing . Now, I’m a level-headed sort of campervan, yet the rarefied damp air of the Principality seems to have brought out the Kinnockesque in me. For my readers who don’t understand this British political nuance, suffice to say that it alludes to a one-time leader of a UK political party who seemed constantly smitten with verbal diarrhoea and stupid statements.
I ponder whether the promise of short-term wealth might have taken Dai the Drunk’s immediate focus away from some earthy Brenda the Barmaid. After all, some female must have waved her sizeable temptations before him all evening so clearly to raise his blood pressure. Now bear with me, don’t dismiss my offering out of hand. I am sure I could plainly see, as he drove by, that his flagging resolve was stiffened even more by the prospect of transient riches with which to buy his Brenda’s fitting attachment. Yes, without a doubt I saw him take his non-honking hand from its R.S.I-inducing activity and fumble for his Smartphone. Despite the alcohol, the blood pressure and those licentious thoughts about Brenda spread before him, there was the possibility, if only a faint one, that his poised Smartphone did indeed record The Sap’s discomfiture, while the car, not unusually with a drunk in charge, steered its own wayward course.
The Chief says she doesn’t know what he’s worried about because he’s not famous enough for any pictures to go viral and who’s going to recognise his backside anyway, other than his long-retired proctologist?
He has calmed down, overwhelmed by logic; it’s 6am, a soothing cuppa and some toast and they’re ready to point me in the direction of Devil’s Bridge...It’s a Sunday and early, the place appears, unsurprisingly, to be closed. He tells her that it seems impossible to believe that in living memory Wales had ‘dry’ counties where pubs weren’t allowed to open on Sundays at all. The men of many such places chose to sleep all day and avoid Sunday’s wretched reality of closed pubs and open chapels. The Sap reckons that many of the ‘Great Little Trains’ that chuff from Llanfair-no-wayre to Pant-y-hoes and back, owe their latter day salvation to the railway licensing law that enabled alcohol to be sold on moving trains, including trains crawling across those parched counties. Anyway, the trains don’t run for another five hours, maybe to allow Dai the Drunk and friends to recover from last night’s binge before embarking on the next.
It’s a typical grey overcast day and I am parked opposite a sign that says, ‘Entrance to the devil’s bridge viewpoint and gardens’. They are huddled in front of what looks like an old football turnstile incongruously guarding the entrance and are rifling through pockets and purse to find a second £1 coin, but without success. Now this next bit is funny...after both offering to forego the undoubted pleasure of the view, the two squeeze into the stile and he reaches back through the bars to feel for the little slit. After a groping struggle he eventually finds the spot and I hear the coin thump into the empty box below, whereupon they inch their conjoined bodies, penguin like, around to the viewing side. Now if those two lovers of good and plentiful food can squeeze their combined girths through, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people managed to claim their 50% discount, provided, of course, that old Trevor the Turnstile’s watchful eye has drifted away into bygone memories of better days when he worked down the pits in the Rhonda Valley and his only encounter with a turnstile was on Saturday afternoons at Swansea Town’s Vetch Field, long before Swansea itself was promoted to the City league.
It can’t have been very big or particularly interesting, this devil’s bridge because they’re soon back and we’re on our way to Aber-wrist-ache where we park on the vast empty seafront road. Now this could be a nice place, apart from the weather. I can well believe that, given a bit of sunshine, it could be a highly ranked resort, particularly if it were moved a couple of hundred miles south. If it were in Cornwall it would be crawling with tourists at this ungodly hour. Even I, Sammy the Snail, with more battery cells than brain cells, can picture Aber-wrist-ache swathed in glorious Cornish sunshine. It makes me wonder what crimes the Welsh must have committed in centuries past to be so punished by precipitation, but that quite naturally leads me back to sheep. He says that statistically it is always raining somewhere in Wales, which is depressing, especially for the Welsh and may explain why I haven’t seen a happy-looking one yet. Yes, Aber-wrist-ache is depressing; judging by the amount of puddles on the road, the place is well ahead in the rain charts.
The Sap opens his door and dashes to the sea wall to smell the air. His only reward, apart from the shivers, is to catch a great splash of pooh on his head from an anti-English seagull. That must have been the last straw and as he turns toward me, two gnarled Welsh women walking their retired sheep dogs point their walking sticks accusingly at him and squawk in Welsh. He stops and politely asks what they are saying but a sudden squall distorts their heckling words so they sound to me like sleep plucker. Obviously not to The Chief because she’s laughing her socks off and they’re really thick long socks! When he gets in she mops his head and suggests the old dogs and their walkers might be reincarnations of ancient Welsh witches, because how else could they recognise his chubby pink cheeks when they are swathed in camouflage trousers?
Now it’s his turn to laugh his socks off, but it’s not quite so easy because he forgot to put any on this morning. He tells her that maybe his army surplus camouflage trousers are so effective that the old biddies saw right through them. Yet within seconds he has a face as long as a donkey’s thingy when he convinces himself that Dai the Drunk must have exposed his backside to the merciless world of social media. How else, he says, could Myfanwy the Miserable and Gweneth the Grim have identified him as a gwyrdroi except by that damned photograph?
He is not just being stupid, I think he is being exceptionally dim-witted. It is far more likely that it is yours truly that has been identified and word has gone around there’s an English ponce at large in the area, only because he’s driving an exceptionally splendid campervan.
The Chief asks what gwydroi means, that the wizzened witches shouted after him as he dashed for my sanctuary to escape their flailing walking sticks. He says it has a familiar ring about it but he doesn’t know for sure. The he goes deathly white and I bend my ear in anticipation. He now recalls the hordes of sightseers shouting the same word with venom back in 1970. As the police led him away for interrogation he asked what the crowds had been shouting. ‘Gwyrdroi?’ asked the officer, ‘it means pervert...that's the word my superior used when he told me to bring you in’.
The Sap fears that all eyes are now upon him, all tongues are wagging their double quick Welsh lingo, while suddenly flocks of sheep seem to have deserted distant hillsides and been confined to their pens under heavy guard, meaning a fat shepherd with a huge crook. That’s the bent-at-the-end ‘Little Bo-Peep’ type, not the Kray-twins, hardened criminal sort of crook. Quickly, mindful of those ubiquitous net curtains twitching in nearly every window, we’re heading north, not that it will be any warmer but the puddles might have dried up and his new-found infamy might not have reached the banks of the Dee. After a long wet drive we’re in Thlan-goth-lingummy, where she says they have an annual singing competition called an eye-something or other. I ask you...how can anything to do with singing start with eye? It’s as daft as something to do with rhythmic percussion starting with ear!
It’s their lunchtime when we arrive at Thlan-goth-lingummy and he heads through the town looking for road-signs for an aqueduct that he’s been told carries a canal with its barges across a valley. Soon I’m parked up enjoying my handsome reflection in the water while they have a late fool-English breakfast. She suggested Welsh Rabbit but he said he hates cooked cheese...totally mad...now I want to know, what have rabbits to do with cheese anyway, apart from whey-hey!?
They have left me in peace and head off to cross the valley on this aquaduck thing. They disappear around a bend in the water, so what happened next I do not know, but all the time they’ve been gone there’s been a flotilla of funny pencil-shaped boats going by crewed by even funnier rubber-shaped people who wave at me as if they know I’m a celebrity.
Suddenly, they’re back and as usual she is ‘gasping’ and ordering him to ‘get the kettle on’; She’s so bossy! Little do I know that disaster lurks beneath the tranquil surface of the water. He has left something switched on so that when he tries to start my engine there is only a clunk and it does not burst into life. Stupidity to the fore once more, they manage with the help of a passing local, who I expect wished he had passed much earlier, to push me forward half my length. Then it’s back I go with The Sap managing to start me in reverse gear, but he only just gets his foot from revving accelerator pedal to my brake in the nick of time because my back wheel is halfway down the grass to the water. I can see my life shortening by the day, because unlike those pencil-shaped barges, this blob of a campervan can only swim like a brick.
With a sense of relief I’m heading back to Thlan-goth-lingummy but he stops along the road where The Chief climbs out to photograph what I now know to be the aqueduct with one of those pencil-shaped barges and rubber people in transit. Reaching Thlan-goth-lingummy he parks me at the top of the car park just in case my battery isn’t yet up to scratch...I can’t see any nearby hazardous water, which is a great relief but there is an enormous stone wall at the bottom, which I hope he stays well away from. He has taken The Chief to see the steam railway which once stretched from somewhere to somewhere else and took many of the Midland’s holidaymakers to west Wales. Now though, he says, it has joined the ranks of those that trickle to Panty-y-hoes and back, but they have plans to expand. From what I’ve recently learnt, they should just focus on survival.
The sun must have set because the grey clouds have got darker. In my past lives I would have been comfortably parked up on a nice little campsite by now, but these two have an aversion to such gatherings and off we go to look for a suitable bolt-hole for the night. He spots a straightened piece of road where the old road is still accessible, albeit one end is closed off and we settle down for the night; at least we thought we had until a familiar noise outside brings a sense of doom and pulling back my curtains reveals a field full of sheep. Like a shot he’s on his way again.
The Chief deepens the doom and gloom when she reminds him that the chances of finding somewhere to park up with no sheep nearby must be akin to finding decent cheese without calories which she knows is something The Sap has been hoping to find all his life. But he presses on remorselessly, climbing ever higher as we head for the Horseshoe Pass and the road to the north Wales coast. We pull in to a picnic spot but it’s now too dark for The Sap to read the sign that says ‘No Overnight Camping’, only in English.
They’re tucked up in bed when they hear a car enter the site and despite the fact we’re the only ones here, it parks right next to us. Any second we expect a knock on the door but nothing. The Sap is out of bed like a shot and pulls back the curtain expecting to see a courting couple so overcome by urgency that they didn’t even see me in the corner. But no; he tells The Chief that there is only one man in it and he’s just sitting there, no booze, no wacky baccy, no R.S.I., no nothing. He tells The Chief that he’s not coming back to bed while the threat remains outside. He says that in some ‘Aires’, those roadside stops in France, thieves have been known to squirt engine ‘cold start’, into campervans. This is basically ether, as once used as an anaesthetic and when the occupants are judged to be out for the count, the thieves break in to steal anything worth having.
He tells her to go to sleep and he will exercise his manly duty and keep guard all night. As the dawn breaks, The Sap has slept fitfully next to my door, stirring with every forest sound, when finally our next door neighbour starts his engine and leaves. For days afterwards they speculate what he had been doing in the car park and particularly why he had to park next to us.
My favourite reason? He had been shacked up with Jones the Bread’s wife but when Jones came home early from Wynifred the Widow’s, Jones chased him out but he couldn’t go home because he knew Ivor the Engine was there still enjoying his wife, Glenys the Gaumont’s pleasures until it was time to prepare the engine of his great little train for its journey to Pant-y-hoes and back. Maybe our companion for the night sought safety in numbers in case Jones the Bread came looking for him. Talk about interbreeding...and not only with the sheep and rabbits.
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I’m all excited. We’re heading to Wales this weekend. I have never been to Wales; I’ve listened to lots of talk about Wales and sheep in my time, but I don’t understand any of it.
Before I know it, we’re on our way and Philippa stands-by patiently to start telling The Sap the way. He spent an hour before we left, pressing her buttons so that she’d know where he wanted to go. The Chief sat impatiently after observing that most women know where a man wants to go before he even thinks about pressing any of her buttons. If she’s anything to go by, these Chief Cooks and Bottle Washers must be really clever people, which makes me think that they must progress to doing something important like running a multi-national company or a huge investment bank, even being a politician would be a small step up the ladder from being a bottle washer.
Talking of ladders, they both thought that the one I left the factory with is useless. It was made from small square steel tube and in my original colour brochure a child of eight is shown halfway up it. I don’t think the people that designed me expected adults, especially largish adults or fat plonkers (the largish is a sop to The Chief but there’s no sop to The Sap) to be sleeping or doing anything up there. He reckons the pain-provoking ladder proves this.
They both tried to climb onto their new mattress last weekend and found it nigh-on impossible without something on their feet. The Sap thought he was being clever; he wore his shoes to climb the ladder but couldn’t get them off because of the lack of headroom. You try lying under a bed so you can’t get your head high enough to allow your hand to reach your feet! He could just do it if he turned on his side and brought his feet up in turn to his hand. Next thing I knew he was shouting and hollering ’cos he’d got cramp in his thigh. It must have been bad because I don’t think he even used the ladder to escape below from my over-cab and that cramped experience.
It also dawned on him that if he wore shoes or slippers and managed to get them off, there was nowhere to keep them but he couldn’t just chuck them down below or he’d never reach my toilet during the night, unless he dived out of bed. Worse still, with The Chief in bed first, taking up her two thirds, he feared for his bladder, so made me a new ladder to make it easier to get up into the over-cab bed.
I don’t expect the ladder issue is finished yet, but I wouldn’t mind betting it will be over...the ladder that is, before the weekend’s out. But for now, it’s a step in the right direction with its kind-to-bare-feet wide steps, albeit painted pink.
He tells her that first off we’re heading for a place called Devil’s Bridge, which is near Aber-wrist-ache or some such place, because he wants to visit a two-wrist railway he hasn’t seen since the last time, but won’t tell her when that was, or with whom.
He is laughing again about sheep and wrists as he tells her about a time in Wales when he tried to rescue a poor sheep that had rolled over and was stuck with its feet in the air. He was getting annoyed with all the Welsh people supposedly on their way to work, because there he was kneeling on wet grass, huffing and puffing to get this poor sheep sorted and all they could do was peep their horns and shout abuse at him. He has told The Chief that if she should see any sheep in funny positions, with or without anybody nearby, she must keep it to herself because he’s no longer interested in bleating sheep or horny-sounding Welshmen.
It’s been dark for a while now and we’re not going to make Devil’s Bridge before the witching hour, so he pulls into a lay-by and encourages The Chief to set about preparing the evening’s sustenance. Afterwards he says it was a creditable feast, given my humble culinary facilities.
After a few rounds of something called cribbage, which I shall leave to your fertile imagination or a dictionary to solve, it’s time for them to head up the new wooden hills. She’s first and yep, the ladder decides to play rough with her only half way up. He manages to stop her naked decent to the floor below. Now he is under penalty of being denied her culinary and other skills, if he doesn't promise to come up with a means of stopping the ladder from moving perilously under foot. I am getting quite used to his weasel words and I can tell that it is a half-hearted promise. I should say it was, until he climbed out for the first of his nocturnal loo visits and found himself nearly thrown on the floor. Badly shaken, it reminded him that a solution was really urgent and could not just join the endless list of things to be done.
Word must have reached the hills of northern Wales from the valleys of the south where Blodwyn the Blacknose was ‘rescued’ by The Sap all those years ago, because every sheep for miles around seems to have gathered in my immediate vicinity. It’s the middle of the night and all are flocking well near me and are bleating for all they are worth. She wants to know what they want, as if he is an expert on the needs of sheep. Half asleep, he says that the only thing they need is to baa-grr off, and he shouts abuse out of my little window, but they don’t move and the bleating gets worse.
An hour later they’re still creating holy-hell, as if the devil is in the field on his way to his bridge. It gets too much for her and, safe in the knowledge that she can’t get out to do anything, she insists he goes down and scatters the sheep. Knowing there will be no peace from any quarter until he does something, he slides, fireman-like down the ladder...not because he is in any particular hurry to please her, but because he missed his step and now, clad only in his birthday suit, he heads out of my rear door at the crack of dawn to holler at those sheep.
Suddenly, a car driven by a Welsh night-worker or more likely a drunk who thinks the police will have retired to their stations for a cuppa, picks him up in its headlamps and further disturbs the remains of the night with its Colonel Bogey air horns. Anyone would think we weren’t having enough trouble with horns already.
“I’m not coming to Wales again,” says The Sap, having dashed back naked into my sanctuary, “every time I come here I’m harassed by sheep and Welshmen who can’t keep their hands off their horns.”
I don’t believe him, there’s too many steam railways here and even I know already that keeping The Sap away from railways is almost as difficult as keeping him away from food.
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We’re off on a mission this Saturday...it’s bright but still cold. The Sap has at long last found a proper mattress that he believes will just fit my over-cab space...in fact he’s already bought and paid for it on E-bay — the cheapskate. I heard him telling Mrs Langford, the seller, that he wants it for his campervan and that he had seen few four-feet wide mattresses for sale. He discovers that it was only used twice by her granddaughter and is like new.
They have to go to Enfield, north London and he asks the woman whether he will be able to park outside her house. Mrs Langford gives her enthusiastic but innocent approval, telling him that it is a quiet suburban street and there is plenty of space on the road, most often directly outside her house. She says that she and her neighbour are widow pensioners and do not have cars. I can hear her telling The Sap her life story. She then reveals that her neighbours try not to park outside her house because she has heart problems and an ambulance or paramedic car often needs to park there. He and The Chief will have to remove the mattress themselves, carry it downstairs...down the drive and into yours truly waiting outside in our emergency reserved parking spot. Reserved? Yes, because the old sweetie says she has some big bollards and she will get them out before everybody returns from work at 6pm. Bless her.
First though, we have to go north of London and come south into Enfield on the Friday evening, because I’m not allowed through London any more. He says it’s because of a new congestion charge. After my last escapade with the horse, I would have tried to reassure him that I have no problem with congestion at the moment, so wouldn’t be scaring any of London’s horses. It seems odd to me that Londoners and their visitors should be penalised for being bunged up; it's almost as if they’ve committed a crime.
I haven’t been to London for years, but once was driven several times around the roundabout outside what I heard my first owners say was the Queen’s house. She must be a very important lady because it’s a huge house, with gates and red-coated soldiers with big heads, guarding the place. I think we went round five times because I ended up feeling quite dizzy. I don’t think we saw the Queen, but we might have done because there were so many windows she could have been almost anywhere, peeping out. I’d like to think, though, that if she was looking out of one of those netted-windows that evening, she would have seen me. I don’t expect she sees many campervans outside her house, so I tried to give her a pirouetting performance as if she had commanded me to be there.
Right now we’re heading around the M25 toward a place called Stevenage where a camping warehouse sells sleeping bags for really cold weather. The Sap says they have a special underside that won’t go thin with all his weight and so let the heat through. I hope he’s thought about this because other than in the depths of winter, it’s going to be like a furnace up there.
With his super sleeping bags on board, we’re heading south to north London...I have never seen traffic like this, it's one big queue and we’re now bogged down in it. He's bought this special box with a tiny little woman called Phillipa inside, keeping us on track. I am amazed because she keeps holding up maps showing where we are and telling him to turn this way and that. I have no idea where we are, but she must have been here before because she sounds really confident. She tells him that he has only one more mile to go and soon he must turn right and then right again. She then says he has arrived at his destination and keeps repeating it as if she’s proud of herself, but now he doesn’t seem happy with her.
“For crying out loud, shut up Phillipa,” he yells as he reverses into our reserved space.
“Watch out!” yells The Chief, “you’re about to run into Mrs Langford’s bollards.”
I am confused because I have heard lots of conversations in my time with that naughty word mentioned, I didn’t know that old ladies had bollards...maybe it’s an age thing or something to do with medication taken for heart problems that makes their voices sound low like a man’s. I heard her answer when he telephoned her and first off he thought she was her husband, if that makes sense. Yet little Phillipa’s voice sounds high and sweet to me, but doesn’t seem to please The Sap right now...perhaps he prefers ladies with bollards. Eventually he cuffs her round the head and shuts her up half way through her tenth, ‘You have arrived at your destination’ message which was making me feel quite sleepy ’cos if we’ve arrived I can have a good rest. I don’t think Mrs Langford realises we are going to stay here all night.
Out they climb and with The Chief sporting her best, ‘I’m desperate for a cuppa’ smile, they head up the driveway and into the house. I reckon there must be quite a lot of old queens living in this street too, because all around I can see net curtains moving and purple heads gazing out at me as if I am an ice cream van they have been waiting for. I hear a door slam and a really old lady, whose nose reaches my driver’s window well before the rest of her, is muttering to herself about parking and bollards. The next thing I know, she has lifted my windscreen wiper and put a piece of paper beneath it. I suppose as a welcoming note.
Then I see my two, heading down the drive struggling with an enormous mattress. I really hope he’s measured it properly because it doesn’t look to me as if it will go through my narrow back door, let alone be turned to go down my centre aisle or squeezed through the narrow gap into my over-cab space. Eventually though, with much cussing and swearing from The Chief, which teaches me some new words, the mattress is standing in the aisle between my downstairs beds. I hear him say that he might have bought a pup, but it must be very quiet...nothing like the noisy yapping little thing the old couple used to bring with them sometimes, which had no respect for my carpets.
The Chief is in a foul mood because the old lady must be one of the few in London, if not the whole of Britain, that doesn’t drink tea and had none in the house. Her first task now is to get the kettle on. His first job, he says, is to work out how the heck to get the little-used-rigid-as-hell mattress up where he wants to put it. I know that didn’t sound quite right, but I bet he’ll be wishing he could stick it in a skip before the morning.
He spots the note under my windscreen wiper and retrieves it; he finds it’s from the old biddy in No. 32 opposite, who tells him that bollards are a sign of heart problems and should not be fiddled with when trying to get a big thing inside. He reads that he must put a note on his windscreen to say which house he is visiting in case I must be moved for an ambulance.
He tells The Chief that he used to visit a wealthy aunt in her exclusive block of London flats where parking was limited. Residents were told that visitors must always put a note on special headed paper in their windscreens saying the car owner’s name and whom they were visiting. Apparently, the Porter had to check that strange vehicles were not trying to avoid the meters that had sprung up. The Sap said that his aunt would always bring him out the filled in headed paper to put in his windscreen. She never put the flat number and always wrote her name illegibly so that the porter would not come knocking on her door.
So, The Sap wrote poorly that they were visiting Mrs Longbridge, reasoning that this would counter inquisitiveness and nocturnal disturbance. The Chief is tickled by this and now cradling a cup of tea is close to smiling. The cup of coffee The Sap had with Mrs Langford, has now been processed and is deposited in my loo before he seeks to tease the mattress aloft.
An hour has passed and still the mattress is not where it should be. They’ve got most of it in the over-cab space, but a lot is sticking out into my living area and eclipses the light from one of the ceiling lamps. They have failed dismally to turn it through 90 degrees so that the long length is across my width, it just will not bend to go through the five feet wide opening. They had hoped to be sleeping on their new mattress in their new dual sleeping bag tonight, but it’s gone 10pm and things look and sound bad.
The Sap hatches what he believes will be a winning plan so that he can turn the mattress without having to lean across it and weighing it down. He climbs the steps and crawls onto the polystyrene block with the mattress above him and somehow manages to turn over onto his back. Can you picture this? It’s a bit like being hidden under a bed that has collapsed and making it worse, above the mattress is only a few inches to the ceiling. It’s a good job he got rid of that coffee earlier because he wouldn’t be able to get out now in a hurry. They grunt and they groan, they swear and curse, I am rocked on my springs and pots and pans rattle in the lockers. I’m half expecting Mrs Beaky from No. 32 to be on her way over to investigate and leave another note about disturbing the peace and tranquillity of the leafy suburbs. If she has been disturbed, I think she must have the wrong idea completely and is fearful to knock on my door in case she is exposed to seeing something she hasn’t seen for donkeys’ years.
Another two hours has passed and finally the mattress is in place, but The Sap is so weary from his struggles that he can’t get out. The Chief is no help because she has collapsed in a quivering heap listening to his protestations and watching his efforts to free himself from the crushing mattress, which has so far only resulted in not much of one leg flailing around above her head. Another half hour passes before he is free, staggers down the steps and throws himself on the downstairs bed on the driver’s side of the aisle.
“Aren’t you going to undress and clean your teeth, while I make the upstairs bed,” she asks.
His snoring gives an unequivocal answer...they, or certainly he, won’t be sleeping up there tonight despite all their efforts.
We’re going to see the London Eye tomorrow, whatever that might be and I hope it sees me, because I’m a rarity in this modern world, complete with an, as yet, unused mattress.
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The Sap and The Chief are taking me on a short journey today. It’s been frosty for ages and despite the propane gas bottle, they have bottled-out of staying overnight for a while. I thought they would, because they’d been on an airbed in the over-cab space when we first went out and had struggled to stay warm with temperatures below freezing. Why they hadn’t slept on my two single beds with their Dunlopillo mattresses adjacent to the simmering gas fire, I do not know. Maybe they just thought it would be warmer cuddling together ‘up top’ or perhaps it has something to do with going upstairs to sleep. It can’t have been for any other reason, because there’s not even enough headroom for the one who gets in first to climb back over the other to go to the loo, let alone anything else.
I think The Sap fell victim to his own knowledge and believed that because air is a good insulator, they would be warm inside their double sleeping bag atop an airbed. He isn’t the first to make that mistake in an over-cab bed. I could have reminded him that air is only a good insulator when it’s static and there’s nothing static about the air in an airbed with two people tossing and turning with the cold. Their body heat goes straight through the airbed into my cab roof then out into the clawing cold of a winter night. He tells her he’s going to put a polystyrene block down, then an aluminium heat blanket before a proper domestic-type mattress to make my tiny over-cab bedroom a sleeping delight. So far, he’s not been able to find a four feet wide mattress at a price he wants to pay...which is next to nothing. He’ll regret it when he’s used up even more precious headroom and she won’t be able to squeeze past him to get to the loo.
Hey ho! I’m still nice and cosy to be inside with frosty grass all around me. A cuppa brewed on my gas hob will be welcoming, she says, but there won’t be any overnight adventures until I have a proper mattress or it’s Spring again. They truly are blinded by the upstairs notion, but I guess it will pass in time.
Today we are going to a large country estate that welcomes walkers and sightseers. Their true mission is to gather oyster mushrooms; I have been here before with the old couple and their grandchildren collecting chestnuts as a change from sitting at the seaside. That was five years ago and, oh dear, things have changed.
I am brought to a stop outside the car park I went in before. Just as well really or the problems they’re having with my overhead bedroom would have been permanently solved with headroom up to the heavens. I’m stopped because they’ve put a damned steel barrier across the entrance. Many innocent campervan owners have driven into these obstacles, erected probably to deter those nice people called ‘travellers’, in this enlightened age; when I was young they were called gypsies. They have earned themselves a reputation in recent years for marauding onto private and council land and costing a fortune for a court order to make them move on...to repeat the process yet again somewhere else. Maybe if they stayed a couple of days and left everything clean and tidy like I do, there wouldn’t be such a fuss about them, but they usually leave it like a waste tip for landowners to clear up. Now, anybody driving a vehicle over 2m high is punished, it’s a wonder we’re still allowed in roadside lay-bys.
The Sap drives a little further along the road and nips into an open gateway where a track leads into the woods and thoughtfully he parks me to one side. He tells The Chief he is going to leave a note in my windscreen explaining that we do not constitute an advanced scouting party for a hoard of travellers and will be back and gone within the hour.
Oh dear, they won’t be happy when they come back. They have only been gone twenty minutes and a Landrover draws up and a little man climbs down and walks all around me. He peers in the windscreen and sees the note before climbing back into his Landrover. He moves off behind me and the next thing I hear is the rattle of chains...this worries me.
It’s a bright cold day and I can see them now with beaming smiles and laden with bulging carrier bags. They must have been successful. As they draw nearer their smiles disappear, so something unpleasant must have happened behind my back.
The Sap is swearing and The Chief is near to tears. They put the mushroom-filled bags inside and he starts me up and turns me around, swearing and cursing all the while. For the first time I can see why they are so upset. The five bar gate has been closed and there is a substantial chain around it and the post, with a padlock. For a moment I am afraid he is going to charge the gate in his temper and try to break free, but he stops. He asks The Chief to make some tea while he gets us out.
He is ferreting around inside my under-bunk lockers and appears in front of the gate weighed-down with tools. He lays into the gate, not with an axe or a sledgehammer but with a pair of spanners. He tells The Chief, who has brought a steaming mug of tea, that he is going to take the hinge bolts out, which will free one end of the heavy gate. He’s now got a little trolley jack under the gate and is driving out the bolts. The two of them manage to heave the gate open, pivoting on the chained end. Before you could say Jack Robinson I am outside, released and parked in the road.
She starts carrying the tools to me but he says no, he is going to put the gate back together so whoever thought it was funny to lock us in will wonder where the hell I have gone. I can hear them grunting with the weight of the gate and putting all the bolts back in. In the distance I can see two horses with riders approaching and they speed up when they see me on the road. The clip-clop of horses alerts The Chief who calls to him to hurry... “Just one more bolt out of the four to fit and tighten,” he calls.
A plummy voice cries out, “I say, you there, what are you doing to our gate? You can’t take that heap of yours onto our land!”
“I’m not,” he shouts.
“Then why, might I ask, are you taking that gate apart...I shall call my husband,” says the woman, who obviously must be wedded to the estate’s owner.
“Who might you be, your Ladyship?” asks The Sap, continuing his re-assembly.
She looks down her nose at him with distain, “I am the gamekeeper’s wife.”
“Well bully for you, Lady Chatterley, I thought you were somebody important,” he calls out, finishing the gate job.
“How dare you, I shall call the police!”
“Oh yes?” says The Sap, “what will you tell them?”
“That you are trespassing on estate land and have damaged a gate.”
Her horse passed its opinion in the form of a nice pile of rose manure.
“Don’t be a silly woman...trespass is a civil matter, as is any damage you think has been done to the gate. However, call the police and I shall report whoever locked us in for false imprisonment and attempted theft, which are criminal offences.”
The other horse-rider has been on her mobile phone and soon a familiar-looking Landrover pulls up and that little man climbs out, “I have been told you are being rude to my wife,” he shouts.
“Ah, so you are the gamekeeper,” rises The Sap, “You also fancy yourself as a lock-keeper, I see. I suppose you had to lock that gate to keep your boss’s pheasants in, was that it?”
“You were trespassing.”
“And you are illiterate...I left a note...we stayed twice as long because of your stupidity.”
“Don’t you call me illiterate...I know what that word means and I’m not stupid,” he bellows.
The Sap climbs in behind my wheel, “Not stupid, eh...the gamekeeper Mellors didn’t have to marry Lady Chatterley...did you have any choice?”
I had the final word as we drove off. A build up of gasses in my system caused me to break wind in my exhaust pipe...and what an ear-splitting noise it was! The horse reared up and deposited her Ladyship in a nettle bed. I laughed because even with her puffed up importance she won't have a problem with headroom on that bed.
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Sammy here. I have spent a week trying to get my adventures in order. I have to tell you it’s not easy. My driver said he used to have the same problem with his village-beating career as a cricket batsman; he reckoned he struggled to get his ducks in order. This, like a lofted cricket ball, went straight over my head.
Life isn’t all about adventures, if it were it would just be life and mundane. His C.C and B.W., which I now know stands for Chief Cook and Bottle Washer (funny name I think, but that’s what she calls herself when he needs sustenance on a journey) says life can be like parking up on a beach and watching the sea. Much of the time it’s flat-calm and a little boring, but occasionally when a tidal wave heads to land, you have to ‘fun like ruck’, (he always laughs when she says this so I know I am missing something).
They’re entitled to comment on the devastation a tsunami can cause, they saw it two years ago in Thailand where memorials to lost loved-ones sit high up on the cliffs, showing where that cruel wave had broken against the rocks and split asunder many families. I would have liked to have gone too but they went by aeroplane because they said it was too far for me at my age and I had a nice little rest while they were gone.
Anyway, today I am looking forward to a relatively minor adventure as we skirt Southampton; I would like to pick up my skirts and run but I plod along at 55mph on the inside lane with cars and lorries dashing by. I am rocked and buffeted by a Royal Mail pantechnicon but I don’t mind because it reminds me that I am still here and many of the caravans and campervans that left factories in 1984 have long ago perished in the tsunami of progress and modernity.
I am a simple chap, what for me is an adventure is run-of-the- mill for many, but when you read about the things I call an adventure, please judge them by what I, as a big lumbering campervan, can do. I will never drive a racing car, never fly in an open-cockpit aeroplane, never swim halfway across The Channel, let alone finish the second half. I will never go through the jungles of Africa or the Amazon, at least not without a chainsaw and stump puller (she laughed at this as well, but I don’t know why!).
I hate chainsaws...I always think that if men had to use hand saws and plain elbow grease, they’d think twice about cutting down trees. There again, I am now wondering where all the trees went, as we drive through the New Forest. He reckons they were all cut down to build Henry VIII’s warships and even a great galumph of a campervan that has never been to school knows that they didn’t have chainsaws in those days. I spend most of my time happily dumfounded listening to them. He says they didn’t have chainsaws back then although they had chain mail. She says they might have had chain mail but didn’t have chain letters or even stamps to go on them. Even I know they certainly didn't have those intimidating Royal Mail pantechnicons.
He was busy with my interior all last week, getting me all spick and span for this, our first expedition. I heard him on the phone telling somebody we were heading west for a ninety mile proving run and overnight stop. It’s early December...it makes no difference to me, I stand outside through all winds and weathers, it’s just a change of location. Have they ever stayed overnight in a campervan when it’s below freezing outside? Unless drastic measures are taken, it won't be much different inside...I just hope they don’t blame me.
Before we leave the trees behind, at least the thought of them and Henry’s men converting a forest into heath-land, he is talking about an adventure he once had involving a single tree, when he wished he’d had a chainsaw; well, he isn’t telling me but the CC&BW and I overhear everything, even when they whisper.
It was all a very long time ago apparently when he said his sap was rising (whatever that means) and he had parked up one evening with a hopeful bridal candidate only to find at the witching hour that his old car would not go into reverse. With the optimism of youth, he had headed off down a narrow track in the hope that it would lead back to a proper road.
Right in the middle of the bridleway, he said, stood a sapling; whether this had grown from the rising sap he’d left there on a previous occasion, I don’t know, but apparently this sap thing stood more erect and provocative than anything seen earlier on the bridal way. CC&BW is laughing again suggesting that, unable to go back, he went from the bridal way to the bridleway...she has a weird sense of humour.
Despite valiant efforts, the little tree would not yield to his attempts to uproot it and in desperation he tried to drive his car around with his right wheels climbing the bank to the side when disaster struck. The car slid down and the edge of the roof lodged itself against the wooden impediment. He trudged off to a farm where a farmer brought a tractor to tow the car free but not free; just before he did this he freed my driver of two weeks wages because he said that unlike him, he recognised a ‘sap’ when he saw one.
I hope my driver doesn’t have too much of a problem with rising sap each time he takes me out, I had enough encounters with trees with my last owners and as he should know, the tree always wins. Luckily, in case we should get stranded he went out to get a red gas bottle, so he’s not as stupid as he looks. My last owner and his wife stayed overnight in frosty conditions and the blue bottle with butane froze so I had no heating and they were reluctant to drag themselves from a painfully cold bed to my even colder interior.
So, I know what will be in store this cold winter evening as we park up on a Somerset hillside at the end of our first epic journey. Luckily, I heard him telling his son that he had managed to buy and bring a red propane bottle instead of butane. His son, who might be more stupid than he looks, asked if it makes any difference. Any difference? It is the difference between life and death, my driver told him...the gas bottle colour is also symbolic...a true reminder of the slogan, ‘Better Red than Dead’. Oh well, he understands something, but he is still in for a shock. I hope he’s got a big one, ’cos a small one won’t last...I’ve seen it all before. Halfway through the night with the gas fire at full stretch, a small one will give up and all heat will disappear and they won’t even manage a warm cup of tea, let alone a hot one in the morning.
It is 07.00, I am still alive but there’s hardly a sound inside. He must have a big one because I can still hear the gas fire hissing its pitiful production of heat that goes straight through me. It’s minus 3ᴼC outside and the frost-laden grass cracks as some mad dog walker trudges by and his dog helps to thaw the ice around my front tyre.
The Sap (my new name for him) is now out of bed making the Chief (my new name for her) a welcoming cup of tea. Shivering, he sits opposite my fire determined that if they do this again he would be coming up with ways to keep the heat inside me. I am all for that, it means I will still be alive and kicking, albeit gently in these modern times. The frozen, but waking world she photographed at 08.00 when she could lay in bed no longer as nature called, looks hardly modern. Now framed, it takes pride of place on my wall as a constant reminder of ‘Sammy’s first outing’.
Sammy's Tales by Richard G. Stevens
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Hello, my name is Sammy and I am a campervan. My owners for the past ten years have given me the name Sammy, or more correctly ‘Sammy the Snail’. I first made my appearance in the world in 1984 when I left the Lunar factory in the UK where I was coach-built upon a Mercedes chassis.
At that time I was sheer luxury, with a double bed above the cab and two single berths down each side. My kitchen is at the end and I have a sink with hot and cold electric-pumped water, a cooker with oven and a fridge. Also at this end is a shower room with a ‘flushing’ toilet and fold up sink. By the standards of 1984 when VW Campers were offering their primitive facilities, I was like a palace on wheels.
I cannot remember my first owners, but I think they were somewhere in Sussex...I am thirty years old...very old for a campervan and my memory is fading. It is because of this that I asked my current owners, the fourth, if they would write down some of my adventures before they are forgotten.
You see, campervans don’t usually have adventures...they have outings where they carry their owners to campsites, both home and abroad, before they are stored away, unloved until needed again. If they are lucky they might get a couple of trips a year. I was like that with my previous owner because he was frightened of me—you see, I am tall and wide and he was forever bashing me into things that got in our way. In truth, I became frightened of him because on the rare occasions he took me anywhere, I would always come back with dents and scratches. By the time of my twentieth birthday I was looking quite sad.
I have just remembered my second owners; they were an old couple that used to load me up with their grandchildren and take them to the nearest seaside spot. It was always the same place, but there were other grandparents doing the same thing so I made quite a few friends in the campervan community. I wonder where they all are now after twenty years...most have probably ceased going anywhere...I am a dinosaur, a ‘Snailosaurus’, a relic of a bygone age.
I don’t know what campervans have inside them these days because I’ve never been close except when one overtakes me on a motorway. They look very posh and shiny and go like racing cars and now I understand why my owners call me Sammy the Snail.
I want to make it to my fortieth birthday because I understand I shall be a ‘classic vehicle’ and my owners won’t have to pay to take me on the road anymore. That’s if my driver makes another ten years himself! But now he tells me there is another threat to my existence, you see I have an old diesel engine which some people say should be scrapped. They say I make a lot of smoke, but how much do I make compared with a modern lorry that’s on the road every day?
I hope I live a bit longer, but before I shrug off my mortal coil, (in my case this should be ‘mortal leaf’ because I haven’t got coil springs) I want you to know something about my adventures. A friend of my owner has said he will open a blog (whatever that means) and put one of my stories on it every week, starting next weekend. I have had a lot of adventures and can’t wait to tell you all about them.
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