Monday, 17 November 2014

A very busy day (Nathanial)

So today we should get the van back, the gite is only booked up until today and we’re ready to go. The van should be ready for the afternoon so we have another late breakfast and slowly pack our food and clothes. We call the garage to see what time the van will be ready only to be told that Fiat can’t deliver a particular part for another 3 days, and there might be a problem with a brake disc! SHIT! To make sure there is no problem with communication I agree to go over to chat with them.

We can’t even extend our stay at this gite as other guests are due to move in later. We quickly get online to find another, but this turns out to be quite difficult as we need it today and some are really expensive. After about an hour Beth comes up trumps again and manages to find one about half an hour away in Burie.

Thankfully the garage have given us a car to use whilst they have the van, albeit a two seater. This means we have 4 bikes, 4 people, clothes and food to get in a little two seater Peugeot 206. To get around this I take Tom with me to the garage with two of the bikes in the back (to put on the van and leave) with all our clothes and food, and decide to meet Beth and Alf in town, where they are going to cycle, then we need to high tail it to the new gite to meet the housekeeper and get the keys.

After a while talking to the mechanic, Alexis, we decide to leave the brake disc as it is. It’s worn a bit thin but it has only just gone through the MOT at home and they didn’t pick it up, so I feel this isn’t a dangerous predicament.

We get back to Saintes and meet Beth and Rooster at the rendezvous point, where they squeeze in the back of the car on the metal plate where the seats should be. Beth’s not amused (she’s just cycled two miles in the rain and then waited for half an hour. With Rooster, who’s not known for keeping his displeasure to himself). We have to leave the bikes chained up until I can return later to pick them up. Beth’s even less amused about this as thanks to the ‘ride to work scheme’ we have just bought her a new bike which is very nice, but we have no other choice.

Now it’s my turn not to be amused. I’m driving a strange car on the wrong side of the road, with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, Beth and Rooster illegally in the back with no seat belts (and no seat) and Tom in the front with no booster. I’m well nervous! I keep thinking every car behind is an unmarked police car. The sat nav is doing its job but I mis-read it (for a change) and I go to turn up a wrong road. To do this I need to cross over the road but I fail to see the car coming in the opposite direction and it’s about to hit me head on. Beth makes her usual high pitched scream in my ear whenever this kind of situation arises, and I soon see the error of my ways. I put my foot down, screech out of the way, receive a horn from the car behind and end up on a country road going the wrong way, Fraggle rock!!

Everything's on the wrong side

We finally get to the new gite and meet the housekeeper who gives us the grand tour and settles us in; we explain we don’t speak any French so for the next twenty minutes she explains all the ins and outs of the gite……..in French! We just nod our heads as if we understand everything she says and keep saying oui, oui. We’re past caring at this point, we unload the car and get the kettle on. Bloody hell, what a journey!

Before I can go back for the bikes, I have to wait for a couple who are very kindly bringing some gas adapters to us (See Beth’s previous post). The couple, Mike & Anne, arrive, we have a cup of tea and a chat and I then set off for the bikes. By now it’s pitch black and the most amazing fog has settled across the country side, which is lovely to drive in. For about five minutes. It’s been a long day and I really can’t be bothered with driving this car any more. The fog is so thick that the headlights are reflecting back at me. If I put my main beam on it’s even worse. I can’t see beyond the bonnet and there’s no cars in front for me to follow their rear lights and no street lights to see anything. Thankfully the sat nav is acting as a co-pilot and letting me know when corners are coming up, as we are in the middle of farm land and the roads are like lanes. There’s no white lines so I can’t even follow them. Thankfully because we are in the middle of no-where, there is no one else on the road which means I at least have both lanes to myself, which I need.

I get to Saintes, thankfully the bikes are still there. I manage to cram them in the back, once I’ve removed the wheels, then its back through fog city to the new gite. I come off the road twice onto the grass verge, nearly write off a broken down car and then the fuel light comes on, great, this could end up ugly. With lots of positive thinking and sweet talking to the car, I manage to get back, have a well-deserved hot chocolate and Baileys, and crash. 
Tomorrow, I’m not doing anything!

Gite no. 1 (Nathanial)

As we are going to lose the van for a few days we have to sort out somewhere to stay. Beth finds a ‘gite’ at a bargain price bless her, just outside of Saintes. The location is gorgeous, on the top of a hill looking out over Saintes with the river ‘Charente’ just below the rear garden running next to a train line. The gite has an open fire with patio doors looking out over the most amazing sunsets.

The last time I saw a sunset like this, I was on LSD
We can't get enough of these sunsets

We all have our first bath since moving out of the house. The bath is what I have been missing the most, and Beth has been saying how much she misses our fire from home, so everyone’s a winner.

We are being very lazy and staying up late playing cards with the kids, eating malteasers and getting up even later. We’re having long breakfasts with croissants, pain au chocolates, and baguettes with jam on, this is lovely but my waist line won’t take it for much longer, what with all the wine at night too.

Can't complain about waking up to this every morning

After a couple of days of getting fat we decide to go for a walk around the local area, everywhere is covered in grape vines, I suppose because this is so foreign to us we are enjoying being surrounded by them. They just never get boring. 

This took 17 attempts before The Rooster was happy with his smile, how vain is that?

After the walk me and Tom go for a ride into Saintes. We discover a cool place which is housing a load of ruins and cycle by the river for a while.

Some of the ruins me & Tom found
Tom in front of some old bricks

We cross a great little bridge which overlooks the train tracks and have to dismount at this point so Tom can fully take in all the different tracks and points, it’s very exciting. We even see a blue diesel train, smashing. 

"Three train lines together Dad, STOP, take a picture"
If I didn't threaten to leave him, he would still be looking at these points

We ride back up the hill to the gite just in time for dinner.

Saintes (Nathanial)

Saintes is beautiful; we spend a day sorting laundry out and doing the Lidl thing. As Beth is in the launderette me and the boys go for a wander and find the most gorgeous church. It’s like a cathedral with cave sections and a box for confession. I explain to the boys that they need to spend a lot of time here and repent; it goes completely over their heads, as it would I guess, the only time we have ever taken them in a church is to sing ‘Silent night’. I think this is the first church I have been in that has a confession box. The church is amazing with pictures along the halls of Christ carrying his cross, it has all the leaded windows with colourful stained glass with pictures of Mary and Jesus and some others who look very important, but I have no idea who they are. Sorry God.

Being a non-believer, Alfie was feeling very uncomfortable in the Church
Alfie couldn't understand why this chap had 'balls on his chin'

On our wander we also come across an ‘amphitheater’ which looks like a small coliseum. It must be left over from when the Romans were here. This is a grand site/sight and must have been very impressive in its day.

Toms face cracks me up
It was really peaceful, then Alf & Tom got there

With time on our hands we decide to go to the flicks to see ‘Interstellar’, we were going to go in La Rochelle but decided to wait. The poster in La Rochelle stated the film had subtitles but was still in English. We did the queuing up thing and decided on our chocolate and got ready for the film, only to find out this version was dubbed in French! Thankfully we asked about this as we were about to pay, rather than just buy the tickets and go straight in. Nevertheless we were gutted, we were really ready to sit down to the film and eat loads of popcorn!

Alfie Loves Pokemon

Some of Tom's Work

And for those of you who have been asking about Tom's poor face, here is a snap from yesterday to show you he is absolutely fine now!

The Milk of Human Kindness (Beth)

Before we set out on this adventure of ours we had spent a long time reading about other people who had done a similar thing. We knew that leaving our comfortable lives was a radical decision and lost count of the number of people who said they wished that they could do the same (as well as the those who clearly thought we were mad) but took comfort and encouragement from the fact that there were many before us who had undertaken their own adventures.

Many clich├ęs are true. Life is short. You only get one life. You regret the things you didn’t do. I think it’s fair to say that Nathanial and I are not strangers to taking the road less travelled, or doing things differently. Or the hard way.

That said, we did a lot of research. We made sure that our adventure could be a reality. We worked hard to get everything in place so that we could achieve our dream. As well as the challenges of living in a small space on a small budget, we were going to have to build our small space too and accommodate the different needs of four people, including the education of the boys.

What I’m trying to say is, we tried to cover every angle, but with such a vast array of things to cover, we stretched ourselves very thin. It was perhaps inevitable that we couldn’t cover all the bases.

Deadlines come as they inevitably will and by the time we left the house (a month ago!) whatever wasn’t done wasn’t done. Nathanial has been working through the bits that weren’t finished on the van and I have been working more on the admin side of things: paperwork, documents, route planning, book buying, more research.

Once in the van, our priorities underwent a drastic change. Although it was an immense relief not to be worrying about work, decorating, finding tenants, sourcing supplies for the van, and having time to spend with our children, there were new pressures. In a house, you don’t generally have to worry about water; you just turn on the tap. You flush the loo without a second thought as to what just happened to the contents. If you use gas, you might be on a meter, but generally you don’t run out. Or if you do you pop down the road to charge your key.

With the van, we had decided long ago in the planning stage to have a gas tank fitted underneath the vehicle. This way, you’re saving room inside the vehicle and not having to faff around with gas bottles and the different fittings they have from country to country. An LPG tank just gets refilled from the fuel station in the same way a car is filled with petrol or diesel.

Although I knew that LPG was available in Europe (as GPL) I had forgotten to remember that like the different fittings on the gas bottles, the nozzles for the gas differ between countries and it was necessary to purchase a set of adapters to enable us to fill the tank. It wasn’t until we had been in France for a week or so that this little piece of knowledge decided to pop back into my head. And now we had a problem. We weren’t running low on gas but we would need to refill at some point and were now unable to do so. When we left La Rochelle, before we lost fourth gear, we had pulled into a campervan dealership we’d spotted from the road which sold accessories. Unfortunately, it was one hour into the customary two hour lunch that all of France seems to obey and we didn’t want to wait around for an hour in the carpark so we carried on. For about half an hour when the gear went.

Before we took the van in for its repair we had tried another camper dealership in Saintes but the staff had done the head shaking and breath-intake thingy that mechanics do and we’d come away empty-handed.

A big saviour of ours through the building of the van has been the SBMCC (Self Build Motor Caravanners Club). They have a fantastic forum where ignorant people like us ask all sorts of questions relating to self-builds and fantastically knowledgeable and kind people take time to answer them. In the past year the members have helped us out of several holes and saved us a lot of time and money. And research.

I posted a thread asking the members if they knew where we could get adapters in France. Within hours we had been told that most garages are able to lend you an adapter, but even better than that, a lovely chap called Mike told me that he and his wife Ann would be travelling through Saintes later that week and would be happy to meet us and give us their own adapters!

Having been victims of a few burglaries, a robbery in Spain, and a crash and run on our car just before we sold it, our faith in humankind had been somewhat dented. In just four weeks of travelling we have had some bad luck, yes, but wow, what amazing people we have encountered. We have been given invaluable advice from fellow van-dwellers, in La Rochelle we met the lovely Irish couple who gave us the printed sheet of aires and some great knowledge besides.

The mechanic who is fixing the van has gone above and beyond to help us out, even loaning us a car for free, which we would have been who knows where without, because the van was unfortunately not ready for Friday as we’d hoped and the owner of the gite we were staying in had another booking.

The owner of our new gite was at first bamboozled when I called him unexpectedly in London on Friday morning but within minutes he had arranged for his French housekeeper to pop round to the property and make it ready for our arrival.

Mike and Ann not only offered us their set of adapters but drove out of their way on a horrible rainy night after having been travelling all day (and on a ferry all night) to deliver those adpaters right to the door of our second gite which is several miles out of Saintes. It was lovely to talk to them about our lives and experiences. Mike and Ann seem to have had many adventures themselves and I felt their calmness very reassuring. As well as coming to our aid with the adapters, Mike was also able to enlighten us to the fact that our van was the subject of a Fiat recall to fix the under-mounted spare-wheel holder, something that has been a cause of concern because ours isn’t working and we are having to keep the spare wheel (which is HUGE and weighs a TON) under Alfie’s bed. Where we would much rather be storing other things.

So, in summary. If you’re planning an adventure yourself, I would say go for it. You will possibly forget some things, or possibly not if you are more organised than us. But if you take the wrong path, sometimes that makes for the best journey.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Alfie Again

Goodbye 4th gear

I knew it was coming, I thought we might have got a few more miles though, we’re not long out of La Rochelle and I lose 4th gear. We are just passing ‘Saintes’ so decide to go there and look for a garage. Luckily as soon as we pull off the main road I find a space to pull in to gather our thoughts, unbelievably, I’ve pulled into a mechanic shop car park. I walk into the garage and do my usual ‘Brit abroad’ communication including lots of sign language. I manage to find a very friendly chap who spends a lot of time looking at the van, making phone calls and doing some research on the internet. He tells me he can do the job but also tells me where the Fiat garage is too to see how much they will charge. My guess would be double what he has quoted but decide I will get the quote as well as the second opinion. The diagnosis is the same (a problem in the actual gearbox, not the linkage system as I suspected) and as I thought, twice as much to fix it. So I arrange to deliver the van to be fixed at the original garage but they can’t do it until Wednesday and will need it for a few days, so it looks like an unexpected stop for a week in Saintes. I can think of worse places to be stranded in.

Looking at the engine hoping this will fix the gear crunching problem, its all about positive thinking

La Rochelle

We’re now in ‘La Rochelle’, I love this place; I spent a week here when I originally lived in a van about 20 years ago.

We decide to eat some miles up for a couple of days, we’ve got great weather and better countryside, without wanting to sound like a pompous twat, I really enjoy seeing the pre-war architecture, the old houses with wooden frames are amazing, they just look so, well, French.

We decide to try the toll roads one day just to get to where we we’re going as quickly as we can. This day it absolutely hammers it down. I have never driven in such fierce rain. The wind screen wipers are on full and I still can’t see 6 feet in front of the bonnet. To add to it the gears are starting to crunch between 3rd & 4th, we decide to cut the journey short and find an aire nearby. There just so happens to be an Ikea close by too. As we still needed a couple of bits for the van we detour there for a couple of hours, home away from home, how sad is that?

The toll road costs 31 euros (!!!) and is horrible, not just the weather, but the motorway mind numbness you can get. I don’t think we will do the toll roads again; I’m enjoying the country roads too much, even if it does take a while longer. I have a quick look at the gear selectors and linkage on the van but can’t see anything obviously wrong, I have a funny feeling this is going to be a problem, me and gear boxes don’t always get on.
A couple of aires later and here we are in La Rochelle. We meet a lovely couple from Ireland, Austin & Jean, who have shared some great info about where to stay, Austin even gives us a print out of all the aires they have stayed at in various countries with his comments on each one. I’m well impressed with how organised he is.

No idea what it is, lets climb on it!
Believe it or not, i had hair like Tom once
Lovely mittens   

The weather is still nice so we have a couple of days here. We cycle from the aire into La Rochelle which is an 8km ride, the cycle lanes are great and they hug the coast all the way, an absolutely beautiful ride.
We buy a baguette, some fromage, ham and tomatoes and sit on the harbour edge tucking in and watch life slip by. This is it, this has been what all the stress has been for, we’re only about 10 days abroad and I feel fully adjusted to this life style already, Tom is also just taking it in his stride.  Beth & Rooster are still making little adjustments but I don’t think it will take long.

Tom is in there somewhere

The forecast is dubious for the next few days so we decide to head more south to Bordeaux, then off to Perpignon, it should be warmer down there.

Alfie's Bit

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Female Perspective (Beth)

Although I’ve been keeping a written journal of our travels, it seems a bit daft to put it up alongside what Nathanial has written (and I’ve edited) so I thought I’d just add in a few of my thoughts from the journey so far separately.

*Book your channel crossing in advance. Turning up on the day costs more.

*Building your own motorhome/campervan is fantastic for getting exactly what you want for a fraction of the cost, but if four people are going to be using the toilet, position it so that you don’t have to remove four bikes and a bike rack to access the loo cassette.

*Listen to experienced motorhomers, their advice can be invaluable (lumps of wood notwithstanding). Turning up at an aire in the dark when the loo needs emptying and it’s raining isn’t much fun. See above.

*There are three ways of expressing GPS co-ordinates. Our aires book and our sat nav weren’t singing from the same hymn sheet to begin with.

*Dry shampoo is quite handy when your hose connection isn’t compatible with the aire’s water supply.

*Buy lots of different hose connectors if you are going to be travelling abroad. See above.

*Schoolgirl French will get you so far but a northerner miming and attempting an accent is far, far funnier.

*The French do not appear to drink milk like the English do. It is hard to find fresh milk (lait-frais), even in supermarkets.

*Many French public loos don’t have toilet seats, paper, or soap, but they tend to be cleaner than English ones (because they make them harder to use?).

*Chickens are more expensive and tougher than the ones from home, but tomatoes are cheaper and taste much better than ours.

*Mechanics pull the same faces and do the same air-sucking noises and head-shaking the world over. In my vast experience of two countries.

*MacDonalds is a great source of free McWifi, albeit quite slow. The food is just as bad/good dependent on your thinking but I would say more expensive. Also, I have never had the door wrenched open on me whilst visiting the McToilet in England by an over-enthusiastic cleaner who I’m pretty sure knew I was in there.

*Saying “sorry, we’re English!” is a very useful phrase for avoiding street sellers/shop assistants/beggars or anyone else you don’t feel like conversing with.

*France has it’s own share of amusing place names.

Week following 28th October - (Nathanial)


The adventure starts here! First stop, Legoland.
The further we were getting away from where we lived, the lighter I was feeling, it has been so much tougher than I thought, getting away, I was beginning to feel claustrophobic and Bournemouth wasn’t letting us go without a fight.
On doing a little research, it seems a few people had been allowed to stay in the Legoland staff car park in their campers the night before entering the site. On enquiring at the Legoland hotel (wow by the way) we were also allowed to stay in the car park, bargain.
Legoland is absolutely amazing. I might be middle aged but the Star Wars Lego section really is impressive, there are whole scenes from the films made up out of Lego, amazing. Tom (Youngest son) wanted to go on the Pirate ship so that’s what we went first, Rooster (middle son) wanted to go on the submarine but we didn’t make that one, the queue was just too long.
After a full on day of madness and queueing we made our way to Folkestone, via central London!!! Don’t ask.

He still wont admit to having a good time!

Lego boating, not exactly speed boats, but The Rooster enjoyed ramming his Mum & Tom

My beautiful Tom

Who's the fairest of them all?

The Leas

A bit more research on the internet and we find a great place to wild camp before going for the tunnel. We stay at a place called ‘The Leas’, a very nice area overlooking the sea with lots of huge Edwardian buildings and old fashioned street lights with a long stretch of paths and lawns. There are cafes and a theatre and a very fancy band stand.

One hotel called ‘The Grand’ had been visited by Yoko Ono and is now a symbol of peace. It even has a stone on one of the lawns saying this, as well as having a spot light on the roof constantly spelling Earth Peace in morse code. A little bizarre but a nice gesture I guess.

I wonder if 'Riff-Raff'' meant unemployed people living in vans?

Rooster is still having some difficulty getting into the swing of things. Rooster did not want to leave home and is very vocal about it, a bit too vocal really. Rooster will always voice his opinions and let us all know how miserable he is. We knew it would be difficult for him as he finds any kind of change difficult, he even struggles in different company than just his immediate family. This usually comes out with inappropriate humour and melt downs ranging from feet stamping and muttering under his breath to full on mood swings and arguments, which end up with him storming to his room and talking to himself about how much he hates the person who has just upset him, usually me. Although some of his behaviour can grate on me, I am enjoying spending all this time with him. We are having some very positive talks, and even though he doesn't agree with a lot of what is being said, I feel some of what is said is getting in.

And through the tunnel we go

And off to France we go! After a thousand conversations and even more goodbyes, we are finally on the train going under the water. This is very exciting for Tom who is struggling to get his head around the fact there is a tunnel under the sea and we are now in it. He is a bit disappointed though that we can’t see under the water like you can in the Oceanarium.

On to the 'Big train' we go

First things first, we need to get some food so visit a ‘supermarche’, This freaks Rooster out for a while, he struggled with the fact that everything wasn’t written in English and every one speaks French, strangely enough. The way he deals with this is to blame the French for being from a different country, they should all speak English!

We decide to go to Berck as a first point of call. We have a book which tells us where all the aires are in Europe, this combined with a map of Europe I downloaded onto the Sat Nav should mean that navigating around should be pretty stress free. You don’t get post codes in Europe to put in the Sat Nav, and the book we have has coordinates for each aire. This is turning out to be a bit of a nightmare though, we keep putting the coordinates in but the Sat Nav is telling us to go all over the place.

God bless the internet, a little more research and we find out that there are three different ways of writing down coordinates, who knew? And why for God’s sake? After figuring this out the Sat Nav took us straight to the aire, perfect. It has been raining all day and is now dark, so we just park up and Beth makes dinner while me and the boys go for a quick explore.

The following morning is gorgeous and we realise we are parked pretty much on the beach, so we go for a bike ride across the promenade to explore Berck some more. As we get on the beach we notice a large gathering of people looking at something, so we join them to find a group of seals just lazing around, Tom wanted to stroke one (as he does every animal we ever pass) but we decide it’s best not to this time. After watching the seals for a while we ride some more and find a chip van. As Rooster is hungry, we say he can have some chips if he orders them……………in French. Bless him he does, and we eat our first real French fries on a French beach, this is more like it.

Our first ever aire!

The next day we head off to Rouen. Beth’s Great Granddad is buried in one of the war graves and she wants to visit him, so we look for an aire close to it and put in the coordinates, easy peasy, japanesy.

Mr William Carter

William's final resting place. A lot of the men here were the same age as my eldest son. Very, very sad.

A couple of hours of driving through the most beautiful French country and hugging the river Seine we find an amazing aire. It looks like some kind of summer camp with climbing walls and BMX tracks, a basketball court, camp areas, kayaking, tennis and swimming areas in the river. The kayaking is closed for the winter but to Tom’s great pleasure the bike tracks are open, and for Rooster the climbing walls are part of the open park too.

The day is burning hot so we decide to stay for a couple more and just let the lads play without moving anywhere. That night Beth cooks a roast and we opened a bottle of bubbly we were saving for a special occasion, happy days.

A roast and a bottle of bubbly, happy days!

Climb any mountain

We’ve started to watch David Attenborough’s ‘Frozen Planet’ in the evenings; I’ve downloaded loads for us to watch on a hard drive which plugs directly into the TV. That night as we are watching the penguins escape from a hungry seal I think I hear someone outside. I think nothing of this as we are the only people in the car park overnight and it’s locked up between 22.00 & 07.00. Then, it happens again, I definitely feel something on the van. I forget the advice from our friend back in the UK campsite about having a ‘piece of wood’ and grab my Maglite torch which is over a foot long and swing the side door open. I don’t know why but I thought someone was trying to hook up to the van and tow us away. My heart pounding, I turn on the torch only to find a ginger cat jump in the van, she nearly gave me a bloody heart attack! This is great amusement for the kids, the cat is very friendly and cute and not at all the van stealer I imagined her to be, talk about paranoid!!

Beth, the boys and our new ginger friend

Tom the stunt man

The next day is burning again and the lads are up and off to play, I have a couple of bits to do in the van, fit light switches (I’m currently pulling fuses out to turn them off) and I need to fit an inverter too, so it is good not to have them running in and out. There are some French kids around so Rooster and Tom are in their element and playing on the BMX track with them. All is going well, I am cracking on with the light switches, confident I would get the inverter done too. Rooster comes back for a drink and ends up playing with ginger cat for a while, then one of the French kids comes round and says Tom has fallen off his bike. Beth went to fetch him and brought back a train wreck, bless him he had fallen flat on his face, his chin was cut he had a fat lip, he bruised his forehead and we thought he broke his tooth too, he was proper messed up………..for about half an hour, after a little cry and cuddle with his Mum he was up and off again, he is such a stunt man.

Tom the stuntman!

The light switches by the way, look cool, they have little blue lights which come on when you turn the light on, well impressed.