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A traumatic first outing in a ‘new’ old campervan

Whilst waiting for Emm to finish her last minute packing, I decided to back out of our parking area and point the motorhome in the right direction facing down the drive. This was just as tricky as I thought it would be, and when reversing with only the wing mirrors to go by I found it impossible to judge distances between the rear of the vehicle and any obstacles behind it.

The rear of the motorhome was particularly fragile, so there was no room for error, and I wondered why the manufacturers didn’t provide more protection for the flimsy plastic panels and rear light clusters. I know good old-fashioned metal bumpers would provide additional weight, but cynically thought that the motorhome industry would welcome a certain amount of damage so they could sell loads of spare body parts at highly inflated prices. Anyhow, I was lucky to get away with it that time, but decided that when reversing in the future I’d always get Emm to stand behind and guide me. Either that or I’d have to invest in reversing sensors or a rear view camera.

Anyhow, after all our faffing about, we really were ready to get going and Emm locked up the bungalow. Monty had already jumped aboard and was sat down between the front seats, seemingly just as anxious as me to get moving. However, before we could do so, we had to complete our pre-start checks. Having worked with aircraft, I knew all about the importance of pre-flight inspections and, based on what John had so diligently told us on our course, we’d typed up a list of essential checks to be carried out before setting off in the motorhome. For example, we checked the gas bottle was turned off, and that all windows and the skylight were securely shut; we checked everything was stowed away, and that all cupboards were closed and locked; we checked the steps had been retracted; that the glass cover over the hob was in the down position, and that the fridge door was closed and locked. Knowing that we needed to fill up with diesel at the garage a few miles up the road, we then double checked which side of the vehicle the fuel cap was located so I’d be sure of pulling up at the pump with the filler cap close to the nozzle.

Nigel Rowland Hicks book coverHaving satisfied ourselves that everything was in order, we then made sure Monty was firmly attached to his travelling harness, which we’d secured to the base of one of the bench seats. This allowed him to be able to sit or lie down between us at the front of the vehicle, but not run amok or get in my way when driving. We then checked everything once more and when we were both happy I started the engine and selected first gear. I automatically reached for the hand brake with my left hand and was mystified why I felt nothing but thin air. Then, remembering the handbrake was on the opposite side to the car, I reached down with my right hand, but again only grasped a handful of fresh air.

For a split second, I was totally bemused and thought the handbrake must have become detached. I then came to my senses and remembered it was a lot lower down than in a conventional car, so reached down and bent forward at the same time. Much to my relief, my right hand met the handbrake this time, and regaining my composure I managed to release it before gently easing my foot off the clutch and slowly pulling away.

However, after travelling six feet or so, I stopped, slipped the gear lever back into neutral, pulled the handbrake back on and switched off the ignition. I then got out of the vehicle and went back to recheck the bicycle was still firmly secured – which of course it was!

Before finally agreeing we really were ready to set off on our first motorhome holiday, we then felt compelled to double check everything yet again. At the bottom of our driveway I strained my neck in both directions to ensure nothing was coming down the narrow lane, and then very slowly and very carefully I pulled away. At the end of the village we turned right at the crossroads, again taking an enormous amount of care, and were soon ready to join the A356 where I pulled up and prepared to turn right onto this fairly busy road.

This was always a rather daunting manoeuvre; the junction was at an acute angle to the main road, largely hidden from view by tall hedges and very close to a sharp bend immediately to our right. Consequently, traffic tended to whiz round the bend completely oblivious to other vehicles trying to pull out from the junction – just like we needed to do.

Every time we had to turn right at this junction – which was every day on the way to work – it almost felt as though we were risking our lives. This time it was even worse as I realised I could have positioned the motorhome better, and with the vehicle angled as it was, even though I had a good view of the bend to our right, I couldn’t clearly see the road to our left through the passenger window.

Consequently, I had to rely on Emm to assure me that the road on her side was clear and it was safe to proceed. However, I knew from experience that it was never a good idea to just take her word for it and pull out without first double checking myself. The big problem is that she can’t always tell right from left. So when, for example, she might warn me that a car was coming towards us from our left, it could be possible for me to look left, see absolutely nothing coming and then pull out into a potentially lethal situation with a car steaming towards us from the right hand side!

Anyhow, two heads are always better than one, and between us we apprehensively looked out for traffic in both directions and when, and only when, I was absolutely certain it was safe to do so, prepared to pull out and turn right. Again, I instinctively reached down with my left hand to release the handbrake, but quickly remembered it was on the opposite side. Hoping I would soon get used to this, I put my left hand back on the steering wheel and leant forward to release the handbrake correctly. However, my delay had allowed another car to speed around the bend towards us, so we had to wait once more until the road was clear. Eventually, it was safe to proceed and we were on our way, albeit much later than I’d initially hoped.

About half a mile up the road, I turned left onto the slip road and tentatively filtered into the west bound traffic on the busy A303 dual carriageway. Less than five minutes later I nervously negotiated the known accident black spot which is the South Petherton roundabout, and then very gingerly pulled into the Esso filling station. We both kept our eyes peeled for the nearest diesel pump as the last thing we wanted to do was overrun this pump and have to reverse back. In fact, I would have been perfectly happy if I never had to reverse this vehicle at all.

Almost with a spontaneous cry of relief, we both spotted the unfamiliar but distinctive black diesel pump and were pleased no other vehicles were queuing to use it. So, allowing plenty of room for me to open the large door, I pulled up alongside and managed to engage the handbrake correctly this time, just like I’d been driving the motorhome for years. I switched off the engine, climbed down from the cab, picked up the diesel nozzle and silently cursed to myself as the fuel cap was nowhere to be found!

Despite all our previous checking and double checking, I’d inexplicably pulled up with the pump on our right hand side, rather than the left hand side, and not wanting to look a wally I pulled the nozzle as hard as I could in the vain hope that it would reach around to the opposite side of the vehicle. This was never a problem in the car, but no amount of pulling and tugging would make it stretch far enough to reach the motorhome’s diesel filler cap. I cursed to myself again, more audibly this time, before admitting to Emm that I’d have to reverse back and approach the pump from the other side.

She suggested we should just carry on to the next garage, but knowing we were low on fuel and there was no other filling station for miles ahead, I was anxious to fill up whilst we could. After replacing the nozzle, I walked around to the back of the vehicle to ensure nothing was behind. There wasn’t, so I climbed back up into the driver’s seat, restarted the engine and proceeded to reverse very slowly whilst frantically alternating my gaze from the right hand wing mirror, to the left hand wing mirror, and then back again. As I did so, I was immediately aware of many pairs of eyes homing in on us, which put me under even more pressure not to screw up this scary manoeuvre – lest I demolished a petrol pump or reversed into a car!

Emm then insisted on getting out and standing behind to make sure I didn’t hit anything, which was precisely what we’d agreed she must do every time I had to reverse. Unfortunately though, she stood virtually in the middle of my blind spot and was mostly hidden from view in either of the wing mirrors. I could make out the end of her arms frantically waving about, but wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to signal me to do. Was she waving and pointing to tell me to keep moving? Or did she mean stop? Turn to the right? Or turn to the left?

I didn’t really have a clue. But at least she stopped other vehicles from pulling up behind and blocking us in. And despite all this pandemonium, I somehow managed to reverse back far enough to allow me to drive forward again and pull up on the other side of the diesel pump without damaging anything, other than my pride, or running over my darling wife!

Nigel Rowland Hicks book coverAfter fulfilling this essential task we finally set off again, just as it started to drizzle and the clouds ahead got very dark. Whilst we pushed on at a steady fifty miles an hour trying to be optimistic it would soon brighten up, we both noticed that whenever we met another motorhome driving toward us, either the driver or passenger would give us a wave. It seemed as though all us motorhomers were members of some exclusive club, and a friendly wave was some sort of obligatory salute. We soon found ourselves infectiously waving back, and after a while, when we saw another motorhome travelling towards us, we would try to make the first wave. Then, if someone didn’t wave back, we thought they were a miserable lot and wondered what their problem was.

I was impressed with the excellent view the extra height of the driving position gave me, and sort of began to understand why so many normal motorists had been tempted to invest in those great big, gas guzzling 4X4 vehicles which constantly overtake my Volvo estate, then pull over in front of me to continually obscure my view of the road ahead – the ones with the blacked out windows being the worst! I just can’t comprehend why their owners don’t want anyone to see inside their vehicle, or drivers travelling immediately behind them not to be able to see through their rear window and windscreen to get the clearest, safest view of the road ahead. They can’t all be famous celebrities trying to retain their privacy. So what have they got to hide? Or do they honestly believe that everyone will be massively impressed, or even intimidated by them, and think that the driver of the 4X4 who has just overtaken them and immediately pulled over again to block their view, is some really important person and not just some idiot driver with more money than road sense and a huge ego to match!

I fully appreciate that not all drivers of these vehicles are egotistical and deserve such a bad reputation. After all, it’s a free market and we live in a free country. So if someone wants to buy one of these blacked out 4X4s to use for the school run and clog up the town and city roads, notwithstanding careering down narrow country lanes with no regard to oncoming pedestrians, horses, tractors or whatever, it’s their choice. There’s no law against owning one and it’s not for me to argue about. Only if it was up to me, I’d vastly increase their road fund licence fee and ban blacked out windows!

Of course, I can just imagine 4X4 drivers wondering who am I to criticise, having just bought a motorhome which takes up even more road space. They would have a valid point. But I would counter argue that motorhomes are generally on the road during off-peak hours, only travel a relatively small number of miles each year and are driven by more mature drivers, as reflected by relatively low insurance premiums. So, having got that off my chest, I’d better step down from my soapbox and continue on our journey.

Continue on we did, and the drizzle turned to heavy rain alternating with torrential rain. We dared not say so aloud, but we both wondered why on earth we were leaving the comfort of our spacious, centrally heated home to spend a week cooped up in this confined space during the first spell of miserable wet weather we’d had for months on end.

I’d started with the windscreen washers switched to their intermittent position, but soon had to have them on all the time. Then, as the rain became more of a monsoon, even the fastest speed wasn’t fast enough to keep the windscreen completely clear of water. As we slowed down to thirty miles an hour at times with both wiper blades swishing hypnotically from side to side in double quick time, but still not sweeping all the water away, we started to have serious doubts about carrying on towards one of England’s wettest counties during the worst weather we’d had for months. At least I seemed to have got more used to driving the motorhome, and apart from the weather everything else was going relatively smoothly. That is, up to the point where my driver’s wiper blade suddenly started to travel too far to the right across the windscreen.

Or to put it more precisely, accompanied by a loud clicking noise, the top quarter of the blade swept past the windscreen before clicking again as it came back the other way. This was rather disconcerting to say the least, but not wishing to alarm Emm, and more importantly not wishing to stop and get out in the pouring rain, I cautiously continued and prayed that the rain would stop. However, it seemed I’d neglected my prayers for so long that they weren’t listened to. Or if they were listened to, they were given a good ignoring to punish me for all my bad tempered grumpiness and cussing over the years!

So, apart from the noise of the rain beating down on the motorhome and the loud clicking from the windscreen wiper, we carried on in relative silence along the A303 and then the A30 beyond Honiton and Exeter. Then, as we proceeded up a fairly steep hill in heavy traffic, my dodgy windscreen wiper swept over to the right and went beyond the extent of the windscreen with a loud click once more. But this time didn’t come back!

Faced with this rather worrying dilemma, whereby I was driving along in considerable traffic during a substantial rainstorm with the passenger windscreen wiper swishing from side to side as it was designed to do, but with the driver’s wiper blade stuck out to the side of the windscreen like a cat’s whisker twitching in the slipstream, I couldn’t help thinking our trip was jinxed. And that buying a motorhome was the most stupid thing we’d ever done.

I started to inwardly panic, but resolved to appear calm lest Emm panicked even more. However, my attempted calmness was somewhat hampered by a sudden urge to empty my bladder, a feeling made worse by the sight of all the water running across the windscreen in front of me. Gritting my teeth, and not daring to take my eyes off my limited view of the road ahead, I groped around for the electric window switch. Then, having pressed what I thought was my switch, Emm’s window wound all the way down and allowed a deluge of rain water to blow into the cab and give her a good soaking, which rather wound her up!

Nigel Rowland Hicks book coverHaving realised this unfortunate mistake, and straining my eyes to see the road through the rain running in torrents down the windscreen in front of me, I finally managed to press the correct switch to open my window. Then, with both windows wide open and a fifty mile an hour gale and rain lashing into the cab, more in hope than expectation that it would start wiping once more, I reached out with my right hand and attempted to push the wiper blade back onto the windscreen where it belonged. Unfortunately, as I tried to do this the motorhome veered slightly, but very alarmingly, towards the kerb, Emm let out an audible cry and I realised I had to stop!

However, having rather belatedly reached this conclusion, it certainly wasn’t practical or safe to do so on that particular stretch of road. Consequently, I had to carry on until we came to the next layby. Luckily the A30 heading west is more abundant in lay-bys than most roads, and we knew we wouldn’t have to drive far in that dangerous, semi-blind condition.

I slowed to a crawling pace whilst we fumbled with the window switches and got them both closed again. Then, with the upper half of my torso unnaturally twisted and distorted and my neck strained to its limit, I leant across as far as humanly possible to enable me to just about see through the clear passenger side of the windscreen. And by half crossing my outstretched legs to fight off the increasing pressure in my bladder, I somehow still managed to operate the pedals and stretch my arms to their fullest extent to turn the steering wheel.

After a few minutes, which seemed like hours, with all the other traffic thundering impatiently past, we made out a lay-by in the gloom ahead where I thankfully pulled in, switched off the engine and wiped the sweat off my brow. Then, as fast as my legs would carry me, I rushed to the back of the motorhome and the on-board toilet where, with a huge sigh of relief, I blissfully released the pressure in my bladder. As I did so, I thought that this was far more civilised, not to mention convenient, than having to rush out in the rain to pee behind a hedge in the long wet grass.

Will Nigel and Emm ever make it down to Cornwall? It’s still a long way. To find out you’ll have to buy his book, ‘Some People Prefer Hotels‘, that painstakingly tells their tale.

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