Sunday, 21 February 2010

Something Whispered Snow

Well, didn’t so much whisper it, as shake my shoulder at half past seven in the morning and say “Have you seen out the window yet?”
And there it was, a crisp, clean layer of snow covering the farm camping field near Pant-y-dwr, just north of Rhayader, but we were still lovely and warm inside the van.

We went to bed. We woke up. Our world had changed.

It’s not going to have a name by the way, just in case you were wondering. We’re not ones for naming things. Even Charlie dog gets called just “dog” on many occasions. So it’ll be called “the van”, but so far it seems to be living up to our expectations.

On leaving Leicester, with Charlie dog safely strapped in to his new travel harness, we’d made a stop at a large camping shop in Coventry to buy a few essentials – gas, a step, an adaptor for the hook-up and some hose to fill the water tank. The hose has proved woefully useless. Two metres has not been long enough to connect us to any stand pipe so far and we have had to beg and borrow watering cans or longer hosepipes. Note to any newbie motorhomer: take a funnel and a water container. When people say they are very useful, listen to them, they are.

Our first night, outside Shrewsbury, went well. We’d been worried about getting everything working, since on trying to read the nine pages of notes written by us at the hand-over it transpired that we’d made them in some form of gobble-de-gook, the one language that Rob doesn’t seem to have a teach yourself book for (though he managed to pick up “Teach Yourself Swahili” in a cafe/bookshop in Bishop’s Castle).

As it turned out we did just fine. We cooked, we cracked open our complimentary bottle of champagne which came with the van, we watched a film on the laptop, we slept.

Wetting the baby’s head.

At the farm we did much the same thing, though it was dawning on us just how much time living in the van takes up. Getting up, putting the bed away, making breakfast – so far we haven’t got much done before midday. Is this what our new life will be like I wonder?

Rob took an afternoon riding his bike up to the Elan Valley Reservoirs, while I sat and wrote, just to prove to myself that I could and then we settled down for another evening of eating, drinking and watching something on the laptop.

The boiler seems to be very effective and keeps us warm at a low setting all day and all evening. We have found that we don’t need the heating on at night though, although it has been below zero, because we are just so warm under the quilt. Someone on the Motorhome Facts website suggested that we take a quilt to sleep on and a quilt for over us, and that has been really comfortable. This layout would definitely not suit anyone over five foot eight though. I’m not sure anyone much taller than Rob would even be able to walk comfortably around the van.

Waking up to snow was proof of the van’s good insulation. It makes me wonder what it will be like in the summer. Will it keep us cool or will it be like being boiled in our own tin can? Only time will tell on that one.

Moving on from the farm we drove back to the Elan Valley Reservoirs which had impressed Rob the day before, although then, of course, they were bordered by green fields instead of the white blanket we now viewed through the windscreen.

From the Elan Valley we took the drover’s road over the Cambrian hills towards Devil’s Bridge, past the ruined silver lead mines, with their towering slate slag heaps – all very Tolkeinesque. I half expected to see a dwarf with a long beard driving a horse and cart ahead of us. The craggy hillsides, glistening with their white mantle, were very impressive, but as we gradually came down the landscape changed to gentler rolling hills and the snow disappeared.

We made our way round the coast, looking for any campsite which might be our kind of place, that is: small, with hard standing pitches, and electricity. However, all around Aberaeron was typical holiday caravan parks. Row upon row of identical green static caravans. Are they green to blend into the landscape? Someone should mention to caravan designers that barring making them of grass they are never going to blend in, and why should they?

As the sun set, with red skies that deserved viewing from some relaxed position on a cliff top, we were hurtling along the coast road in the direction of New Quay, hoping to arrive before it got properly dark at the only place in our Camping and Caravanning Club handbook which appeared to be open all winter.
It turned out to be a lovely little spot, with sea views as promised, though with three campervans and a caravan already there, all the electric hook-ups were taken. Still, we had company at last. Other people to ask for help if something didn’t work.

I imagine that this would be a very popular site in the summer. Just the five hard standing pitches and a small field - one toilet, one shower and very pleasant, helpful owners.

It looks out over Cardigan Bay, with just a couple of fields separating it from the Ceredigion Coast Path, which has some dizzyingly steep edges (just in case anyone has a problem with heights).

We stayed two nights here and dragged ourselves away from the beautiful sunshine around mid-afternoon, intending to move on through Hay-on-Wye to the Black Mountains for a rendevous with my two sisters and their families at the holiday cottage they were renting.

On the road to Brecon we came into signals on our phones and received a call from the family saying it had been snowing all day over their way, just 30 miles away, and their roads were impassable for their cars. Mmm – it was unlikely a lumbering Renault Master would make it on the tiny roads that we knew in the lee of the Black Mountains. Parked in a rainy car park in Brecon, from where we could see the very white hillsides which marked the start of the Beacons and the Black Mountains, we decided there was nothing else for it, it was time for plan B – find a campsite open nearby – one that has hard standing, accepts dogs and definitely has electric hook ups, since we were not sure whether we could do three nights on the leisure battery.

We ended up in Bronllys, on a large, snowy field, dotted with small, very empty caravans and lots of rabbits, beside a couple of much larger fields full of very large, mostly green, static caravans, a couple of which showed signs of life. The owner lent us an aerial lead so we could plug in and watch the TV that came with the van. It works, and we finally got to see a weather forecast – heavy snow from Brecon to the Midlands would you believe? We think we won’t bother with the TV on the big trip though. We’d rather have the space. You could fit a good few books in there. Rob could take his whole Teach Yourself collection.

During the night Charlie dog discovered “the lair”. He found he could get through the narrow gap which leads to the space under the bed when it’s made up. He loves a dark, cosy space and this area is just perfect for him. So we are now treated to the gentle snoring of the dog through the night, with no way of getting to him to shut him up and since the old boy’s going a bit deaf (selectively so, if you ask me) he certainly doesn’t respond to any amount of our plaintive cries of “shut up”.

The next morning, still doing the whole leisurely getting up, making breakfast, testing the shower in the van thing (pretty good actually – better than I’d imagined) we got a call from the sisters. “We’re in Hay. Where are you?” We were 15 minutes away and soon met up with them all to test out how many people you can seat in a Devon Monte Carlo (seven, plus another two standing and two dogs weaving between legs). We made the tour last about twenty minutes and endured the comments on how small it was, we’d never manage a year in it, we’d kill each other, and then we arranged to spend the night parked up with them since the roads were now clear enough.

It proved to be our coldest night so far. The snow was pretty thick on the land, and we woke up to to find that the chunks of ice brought in as we came to bed were still there, frozen, on the mat. There was ice inside the windows and the washing up cloth in the sink had also been visited by Jack Frost. The water was not flowing from the tank, slung as it is under the van and our fingers are crossed that this will not cause damage to anything.

We got moving pretty quickly and made our way back to the Midlands, and that was it, our first trip. Very enjoyable, and a satisfying hint of what’s to come.

Did we make any mistakes on this first trip? Surprisingly, only a couple, and nothing major. Rob had an initial problem with remembering that drawers had to be secured by clicking the buttons in, so the crash as the cutlery drawer flew out on one sharpish bend, narrowly missing a shocked Charlie dog, was impressive enough to imprint this essential action upon our minds. Likewise, securing the cooker lid when stationery was not uppermost in Rob’s thoughts until he slid the van door closed causing the lid to fall and the saucepan of water to hit the floor sending its contents in a wide arc. We found out after that event that the shower cubicle, or sauna, is a terrific drying room.
It has been a sharp learning curve in many respects. We now know that we do need a hard standing pitch. It’s a big, heavy van and sinks down over night, even when there’s a hard frost.

Mud gets everywhere, as does dog hair. This is nothing new to us. It’s the same in the tent and the same at home, but we do have to find some solution for the van. The tent we can tip up and shake out. The house we can hoover. The van – well it just gets dirtier.

Mud gets everywhere that Charlie can get

We know we have not yet learnt all we need to know to travel in the van. We still have a switch on a panel whose function we are unsure of and we didn’t realise until half way through the week that we hadn’t actually switched the fridge on.

We would like to make some “home improvements”, mainly to do with storage, and I need to sew tags onto things so we can hang them up. Mats of some kind are essential and we’ll be measuring every cupboard, so that we can find decent containers to fit available spaces.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

And so it began...

Well, we've gone and done it. After years of sitting beside each other on long car journeys bemoaning the lack of adventure in our lives, we have now embarked on something we hope will be big, fulfilling and fun.
And Charlie dog is coming too.

We are going to travel around Europe for about a year in a smallish motorhome. Planning began a while ago, before Rob took redundancy, Charlie got a pet passport or I resigned my teaching job.

While each of those was a step along the journey for us, what made it seem really real (yes, that was deliberate) was picking up the van from Banbury last Sunday.

The van handover took about two hours and we made copious notes, none of which made any sense 30 minutes later as we struggled to work out how to get the gas on for our first cup of tea. Then Rob managed to get the carpet muddy as he came in from stomping around in frustration by the gas locker. So, after one carefull owner, our spotless van has already been trashed by ourselves, and that's before Charlie has given it his own post-Pollock mud splash effects. I'm still banking on my theory of house security working for the van too. If it already looks like it's been done, who else will bother us?

I have to admit, the van looked massive parked outside our house, and Rob keeps sighing and muttering about how big it is, but I just can't see how we could possibly live in anything smaller for a year. After all, Charlie dog is coming along too, and even a medium sized border collie/springer spaniel cross takes up a bit of room.

We took my sister on a tour of the van via a Skype link by carrying the laptop outside and sat in it for a while, ruminating on the amount of space and where all the blasted cushions, that make up the bed, could live.

Rob put the van to bed the next day in a nearby lock up storage facility until we have time to use it during the February half term. Until then I have to visualise where I will pack all the stuff we're going to need. The cushions are causing me some concern though.

When we bought the van the bed was laid out and I sort of assumed that the cushions would all pack away neatly into ready made spaces. They don't. Two of them do, but another two seem to have to reside in the over-cab space and I had plans for that. The spare cushion that makes up the single bed has no apparent home, though Charlie was eyeing it up. I'd be tempted to leave it behind, but you never know when you might need to kick your husband into the spare room do you? My thoughts are running to sewing a large waterproof bag in some kind of PE kit fabric and putting those three cushions, and the two others that do have a home, into the shower room. After all, we won't be using that for large parts of the day and when we need to we can take the bag out. This should give us space to keep our bedding in and free up the overhead cab for clothing.

So I'm sitting at the computer a lot, searching the internet for van bits. We need a step, a hose, a bucket and some way of attaching European gas bottles. We need to learn about the electrics, hooking up, not blowing fuses and reverse polarity. I've got to get a travel harness for Charlie and find out which campsites are open in Wales next weekend.

Roll on half term.

I am insisting that we travel there via the largest camping shop we can find en-route, if only to get something to go on the floor so that Rob and Charlie can't trash it again.

Oh, and I almost forgot, we've got to hoover the van carpets before we go!