The third in the “Cautionary Tales” trilogy by Oliver Gray. A travelogue about camper van ups and downs in France, Italy and Sicily.
Have you ever holidayed in a camper van? Have you considered it? Don’t set off without reading this irreverent and informative account of an ill-fated five-week trip to Sicily.
Available to buy direct from Oliver at just £12 including postage here:
Available to buy on Amazon by clicking here.
Polly In My Pocket is the third in Oliver Gray’s Cautionary Trilogy.
Previous books in the series are:
VOLUME: A Cautionary Tale Of Rock And Roll Obsession
Available to buy on Amazon by clicking here.
V.A.C.A.T.I.O.N.: Cautionary Tales Of Travelling Without Style
Available to buy on Amazon by clicking here.
For a brief taste of what it’s all about, read on.
This is Chapter 1.
What do you do when you become a pensioner?
Obviously, you buy a caravan. Or, in our case, a camper van.
It had always been a dream and, back in 1980, we thought we’d achieved it. We bought a sweet little split-screen VW camper from a New Zealander who’d been travelling round Europe. The cheap price should have alerted us, and of course it was an immediate disaster. It was all kitted out in wood on the inside, like a gypsy caravan, but that made it very heavy and the engine was buggered. We only went out in it twice, once to Reading Festival and once to the New Forest, and on both occasions we ended up being towed home at vast expense.
Eventually, I took it to a garage in King’s Worthy, where I was assured by the two dodgy brothers who owned it that they would be able to repair it. They kept it there for weeks, getting me to pay them intermittent instalments to buy the necessary parts, before finally pronouncing that it was in fact irreparable and would have to be scrapped. That needed paying for too. A few weeks later, I was walking in Winchester and our lovely van drove past in perfect fettle, driven by one of the brothers. I’m still angry about it today.
People like me won’t admit to being “retired”. It would be tantamount to conceding that useful life is over. Besides, I have to continue to do freelance bits and pieces on account of a pension deficit. But the unpalatable truth was that our publishing business was no longer viable and had ground to a halt, so technically I wasn’t in full time employment any more. Birgit, on the other hand, positively revelled in taking early retirement, after many years of dedicated service in the NHS. Not only did she receive a small “lump sum”, she also was now committed to having a good time and getting on with doing a load of travelling while her much older husband (me) wasn’t too decrepit. So it was logical that the camper van option would crop up again.
One day in 2016, we were on our way back from visiting friends in Devon and were passing the Somerset Motorhome Centre near Taunton. We’d often driven past it before and thought about stopping, but never got round to it. This time was different. “Let’s just have a quick look for a laugh,” I said. Within an hour, we were walking out having bought a camper van.
For such a cautious couple, this was unprecedented. But we both just fell madly in love with “Polly Pocket”, the sweetest little van in the universe. She’s absolutely tiny, but suits my womb complex to a tee, because she’s so unbelievably cosy. Despite her unambitious proportions, she has everything. She’s got heating, a “kitchen area” with gas stove, a grill, hot water, a sink and of course a fridge with room for loads of beer. She even has a small loo and a cleverly designed wardrobe. I’ve always considered it slightly patronising that people call cars and boats “she”, but Polly is plainly feminine in nature, so “she” it is. We adore her.
The first trips were to festivals, a cunning way (in my mind) to justify going to even more festivals than before. The feeling of overwhelming smugness as you climb into your comfy warm bed as the storm rages outside and everyone else is getting drenched in their miserable tents is … well, I bet we are hated. Another early outing was to the caravan site at Eype, near West Bay, where the wind and rain were so strong that tents were literally being blown into the sea and Polly was rocking around like a boat on a storm-tossed ocean. But were we bothered? Of course not. We simply snuggled down with a little DVD player and some box sets and watched them for hours, occasionally boiling a kettle and dunking biscuits in hot tea.
The plan to drive round Europe was daunting for many reasons. Firstly, we’d be away from home for a long time. Secondly, my motorway driving phobia would mean that Birgit would have to do the bulk of the driving. And thirdly, largely unspoken but always there as a worry, was the issue that we’d be cooped up together for a long time with no escape. I’d read numerous articles about people’s marriages foundering after retirement as they discovered that spending all their time together in close proximity exposed all their flaws and annoying habits, leading to arguments and upset. And that was just on account of being in a house together. In deciding to spend six weeks in a camper van, we were taking it to an extreme that could have been a challenge.
I can tell you that it was all fine. “Give and take” is all you need, and doing lots of stuff so you don’t get bored. The first Europe trip (Italy) was non-stop fun, resulting in repeat performances the following spring (Germany and Slovenia) and the spring after that (Northern Spain).
And then, for Year Four, we decided to take the advice of countless friends and head for Sicily. The day of departure was our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. The plan was to leave later (and thus return later) than in previous years, following the notion that the weather should be more summery. We thus were primarily on the lookout for campsites with swimming pools, as, in the weeks leading up to departure, we pored over the green ACSI books which are the twin bibles of anyone looking for out-of-season campsites.
The principle behind these books is quite simple, the practical reality of them slightly less so. Campsites have to try and gain as many customers as they can in order to be able to survive out of season. There’s a certain level of staffing and infrastructure that makes it impractical for many of them to shut down completely when there aren’t many holidaymakers around, so most of them remain open all year, catering for the odd nomads and drifters who pass by, but mainly for people like us: wizened pensioners who’ve spent their “lump sums” on a caravan or camper. We are the people who not only can, but actually want to travel out of season. Not being restricted any longer by school holidays, we have the freedom to travel when we want. And we don’t want to travel in high summer when the campsites are crammed with families with noisy kids. We love kids, by the way (and lord knows, we’ve paid our dues in this respect for a couple of decades), we just want peace and quiet when we go on holiday.
The ACSI idea is to tell campsites that they will provide them with out-of-season travellers, who are attracted by the lower prices they will pay if they produce an ACSI card. It’s normally only a couple of euros cheaper than the standard price, but who can resist a bargain? You do, at least, know that on an ACSI site you will find water (more of that later), electricity (more of that later) and showers and loos (more of them later). Many campers like to pull up by the side of the road and just sleep anywhere, but we decided quite early on that that wasn’t for us. It’s a bit scary and you are more reliant on everything in the van working as it should, which isn’t always the case.
The ACSI books aren’t that easy to navigate. There are actually three of them. The system is based on two main ones, roughly the size of small telephone directories, plus a small one in the form of a 150-page booklet. The small book contains maps of all the countries in Europe divided into small portions. Scattered around these maps are small blue blobs containing numbers. These blobs indicate campsites. The idea is that you seek out the area that you want to stay in and have a look at the various campsites before deciding which one to choose. This is the simple part. Having decided on the number, it’s now time to look in the actual camping book, which contains information about each campsite. There’s a photo which makes each one look impossibly idyllic, a brief description and very vague instructions about how to find it, plus a tiny map that is of very little assistance.
The difficult bit starts with the section that tells you what facilities the campsite does and doesn’t have. The information is presented in the form of letters, but to understand what the letters mean, you have to go to six separate keys. In numerical order, these keys are as follows:
2. Location, ground and shade
3. Sports and play
4. Water and recreation with shops and restaurants
5. Washing up, laundry and cooking and toilet facilities
Within each of these categories are letters indicating what facilities are available and what rules there are. For example, 1f states that only one dog is permitted in low season when on a lead, 2d indicates that the site is located by a lake or recreational pond of maximum 0.1 kilometres, 3q indicates that crazy golf is available but it also has an asterisk telling you that crazy golf is not included in the price, 4d tells you that there is an indoor swimming pool with a sliding roof, 5h reassures customers that there is a senior citizens’ shower with extra wall supports and 6n tells you that there are shopping opportunities in the vicinity (up to 10 km away). Each number encompasses up to 24 letters, in fact you get the feeling that they only stopped when they got to z and didn’t have anywhere else to go.
You can see that it isn’t practical just to open the book and have a quick look to see whether the site is suitable. In fact, you need time, patience, excellent eyesight, a degree in advanced algebra and highly acute brain power to make any sense of it whatsoever. This is why we always make a point of leaving a lot of time to examine the various campsites in advance before making a decision. Even that doesn’t guarantee that you haven’t overlooked something or misread the letters.
By way of illustration, here is a randomly-chosen entry for a campsite in Holland:
4. (B+G 30/4 – 15/9) JP (Q+S+T+U+V+Y+Z)
6. ACEGJM(N 0,3km)QRTV
Some of the letters are printed in bold but to this day I haven’t worked out what the significance of that is. I’ve already lost the will to live before I’ve reached the end of line 1.
For us, the only really important items are: whether there is an electrical hookup, whether there is a restaurant, whether there is a shop and whether there are any washing machines, but the variables between the possibilities encompassed are quite substantial. For example, do you pay extra for the electrical hook up? Is the swimming pool open all year? Does the shop sell fresh fruit? Do the washing machines take coins or tokens and, if so, how many? Much of this information can be worked out by delving even further into the microscopic hieroglyphics of the ACSI book, but in general it’s normally better just to ask at reception when you get there.
Polly Pocket had been “Winterised” (yes, I’m well up with all the technical terminology). In practical terms, that means that, when there is a threat of frost, it’s crucial to drain the water from everywhere in the vehicle, because, were it to freeze, it could potentially damage various components of the van. We discovered this in year 1, when I hadn’t heard of the concept of Winterising and just left the water in. Water in the van is in three separate areas, namely the water tank (containing the water you plan to use), the waste tank (containing the water you already have used, referred to rather unpleasantly as Grey Water) and the hot water tank, which is a boiler. It was leaving water in this last one that caused the original problem.
When I came to switch on in the Spring, the water simply came spouting out of the bottom of the van. A friendly neighbour worked out that the water filter, a tiny, flimsy plastic device, had cracked in the frost and needed to be replaced. Luckily, the local caravan shop stocks just about every spare part imaginable. When I took in what I thought must be a relatively obscure item and asked if they had one, the reply was, “Of course sir, this happens all the time”. That should have been reassuring, but actually, it was rather worrying, as being a complete dunce with anything practical or technical, I was beginning to see that there was more to this lark than simply driving around and sleeping. Polly Pocket, despite being minuscule and twelve years old, had actually been quite expensive, the reason (and attraction) being the range of features included in her make up, actually suited to far bigger and posher vans. For that, read “things that can go wrong”. Little did we know that this was the tiny tip of a large iceberg.
Now I’m going to try and explain some of the other complexities involved in little Polly. Aside from the three water tanks, there’s a heating system. How lovely and cosy! But the heating is very odd. How would you expect such a vehicle to be heated? By gas, maybe, or electricity? Polly Pocket is heated by diesel. Don’t ask me how. You just press a button and, after a moment, without the engine being even switched on, hot air begins to emerge. It’s very efficient, but I don’t trust it. If diesel is so polluting that it’s already banned in city centres and soon to be banned outright, what the hell are we breathing in and what is it doing to us? There is definitely a faint odour to it, like you smell at petrol stations. If I wasn’t already worrying enough about the potential emissions from the gas system, this was a danger too far, except possibly in the most extreme stages of hypothermia while wild camping. So what we’ve done is buy one of those little tiny heaters that people use on boats, that look like a Star Wars lance and emit just enough warmth to take the chill off. But that can only be used when plugged in on a camp site.
So … electricity next. As with any other vehicle, there is a battery under the bonnet that is used to start the engine. It’s not strictly relevant to anything that goes on in the van, apart from if you want to charge your phone when not plugged in. Any time you are plugged in to an electricity supply on a campsite, you don’t need to worry about anything electrical. There’s a plug socket in the van that you can use for an electric kettle, a hairdryer or a DVD player, and the lights are all powered from the connection, which takes place through a long cable which is stored in a little cupboard towards the back of Polly. There is also something else called a “leisure battery”, which is concealed under the seats. This battery provides power for lights while the van is not plugged in. Apparently (we’ve never dared try it out) it can last for up to three days or more, but it doesn’t provide you with power for any of the above-mentioned appliances.
The third source of power is gas. In the equivalent little cupboard on the other side of Polly are two gas canisters, rather like those you use with a gas barbecue. They are attached to a rubber pipe which disappears up into the body of the van and powers the cooker. That means that, even if you are in the middle of nowhere, you can boil a kettle or warm up some baked beans. But the gas cooker is the only means you have to do any cooking. There is no equivalent electrical device, so if you have no gas, you either have to eat cold food or go out to a restaurant. It’s therefore essential to make sure that you always have a good supply of gas.
The fridge is even more horrifically complicated, in that it is hybrid (or even tribrid, if such a word exists). It works either on the leisure battery as you are travelling along, or on mains electricity if you are plugged in, or on gas if you are not plugged in. Switching from one form of power to the other is challenging, and involves making sure that a whole series of switches are in the right position. To check that the gas is working in the fridge, you have to lie down on the floor and get a severely crooked neck checking for the pilot light, which is hidden at the very back of the inside of the fridge. This is another reason that we like to park up, if at all possible, somewhere where there is an electric hook-up, which assures you that the beer will remain cold and the cheese won’t go mouldy.
All of the above systems contain myriad things that can break or go wrong. But a possibly more important element to a camper van is that it needs to drive, and it was with a carefree heart that I decided to take Polly out for a little spin, prior to getting her ready for our trip. I turned the ignition key and … silence. Luckily, my handyman friend Gary was nearby and ready to stroke his chin and shake his head, as he pronounced that the battery was so completely buggered that I’d have to go and buy a new one. A visit to Halfords naturally produced the result that the battery I required was the most expensive one on its shelves and I emerged with a very heavy battery but a light wallet. Still, I comforted myself, at least it’s a brand new battery and unlikely to need replacing any time soon. The fact that the engine was now able to start allowed me to take a little trip up to the caravan shop and buy two brand new canisters of gas, certainly enough to last the six weeks we planned to be away.
All in all, I was beginning to feel a little smug, as I called the number of a man who offered a service called a “habitation check”, which is a general health check up for a camper van, highly recommended before setting off on a long journey. I was slightly taken aback by his quoted price of £175, but there was no point in scrimping, I’d only be sure to regret it if I didn’t have it done. The gentleman duly arrived and disappeared inside the van while I retreated into the house. A mere 45 minutes later, he knocked on the door and announced that everything was fine. I knew that it wasn’t, because the control panel showing water and battery levels had stopped working, and I’d expected that to be the first thing he mentioned.
“Oh, that.” He shrugged. “Yeah, it’s broken.”
“Is there anything that can be done?”
“Dunno. You could try eBay, I guess.”
And that was that. As I returned from the post office where I’d had to pick up £175 in cash (he didn’t take cheques), he launched, unprovoked, into a long monologue about all his friends who had recently died before adding , almost casually,
“Oh, by the way, you need four new tyres.”
“What? But we’ve hardly done any miles. The tread is almost new.”
“Ah, well, that’s the problem. Because the van’s been sitting here all winter, the rubber has perished.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Well, for a start, it’ll fail its MOT. Plus …” in a sepulchral tone, “… you can take the risk, of course, but if you had a blow-out at seventy miles an hour on the motorway, you’d be unlikely to survive.”
Than was enough for me, but to be safe, I consulted handyman Gary, who once again just happened to be painting the neighbour’s fence nearby. He was chatting to another friend of practical bent. Both of them immediately commenced chin-stroking, confirmed the perished rubber theory and the MOT failure, and spookily added,
“Of course, if you had a blow-out at seventy miles an hour on the motorway, you’d be unlikely to survive.”
On the other hand, both of them assured me that new tyres would be cheap as anything, probably not more than thirty pounds or so each. Gulp … but of course it was a small price to pay for not being hurled across a motorway by a blow-out. So off I set on a tour of local tyre fitting establishments. Everyone I spoke to recommended a different one, and there seemed to be one on almost every corner, something I hadn’t really noticed before. All of them agreed on one thing: Polly Pocket was a van, not a car, and thus needed special tyres costing a minimum of eighty pounds each. The best price I could get was £320, until the final place I tried, where the semi-comatose young receptionist announced that they could get some discounted ones and that they could therefore do the job for £280. It was still a severe financial blow, but that blow-out image was quite haunting.
“We’ll ring you as soon as they’re in stock.”
The call came through early the next day.
“Good morning, Mr Gray. We’re happy to say that the tyres are in stock. Bring the van in and we’ll fit them.”
“Oh, er, by the way, we couldn’t get the discount ones, so the price will be £320.”
“What? I specifically chose your company because you offered me the best price and now you’re casually telling me you’re going back on your offer.”
“Nothing we can do about it.”
In true Meldrewish manner, I uttered the pompous words, “In that case, I shall take my custom elsewhere” and slammed down the phone.
It wasn’t until I had calmed down a little that I realized I wouldn’t get a better deal anywhere else, so might as well try and make the best of it. I rang back and pointed out that they really did owe it to me to be a little flexible, and in the end, we agreed that they’d do it for a compromise figure of £300.
Now things really were looking great on the mechanical front. Brand new tyres, a brand new battery, two brand new gas canisters and even a brand new water filter. Now we really were good to go. Except that, ninety minutes after returning home from the tyre place, I got a call from my building society.
“Have you recently ordered these items online: £120 worth of clothes from Next and £80 worth of cookery items from Habitat?”
“Certainly not. What’s going on?”
“Your credit card has been skimmed, sir.”
“Shit, what can I do about that?”
“We’ll have to issue you with a new one. It will take four working days to get to you.”
“But we’re about to set off for six weeks in Europe, and we’ll be entirely dependent on using my credit card.”
“I’m sorry, sir, there’s nothing we can do.”
Just a minute … it was Monday, so maybe, just maybe, the card would arrive on Friday, the day we were due to set off. But it’d be touch and go.
Have you noticed? Chapter One is already over, and we still haven’t left home.