Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Car Trouble. Not Again?


Oh goodness. I got a text today from the man who bought my van, Pootle. The news wasn't good. Having packed up on the motorway the next day after being sold, Pootle has been sitting in a garage in West London waiting for a full diagnosis. The text brought the bad news: a new engine at...wait for it...are you sitting down...a minimum of ....£3000.00. Cripes!

Oh well. Whatever I decide to do next is up to me. But it got me thinking about car trouble. I've had such a lot of it that a blown up engine isn't really much to write home about now. And if you think it's a blase attitude, read on.

My first car was a VW Beetle. Its windscreen wipers used to pop a circlip every so often which would stop them working. It meant getting out, finding where it had gone and popping it back on. One Christmas it popped and I couldn't find the clip. It was pissing with rain so I made my sister take the laces out of her shoes and tie them together. I then tied them to the wipers and passed them through the quarterlights. With a lateral movement my sister, furious and wet by now, could operate the wipers. All the way to Dorset. We never spoke of it again.
But it got worse. I borrowed her car, a Citroen 2CV, without asking. It was my birthday and I was in the middle of another car crisis and needed to get to Devon for my party. The car caught fire. Flames were coming out of the dashboard between my legs. It was terrifying. But try telling that to an angry sister who's in Hong Kong reading a fax from her brother telling her that her beloved car has gone up in smoke. Incidentally, did you know that you are insured third party only when you borrow a car on a comprehensive policy? Ouch. We don't speak of that much either.
It wasn't my only 2CV disaster. I had one once. I got it up to 92 MPH. Amazing! And yes, it spent some time in the garage after that.
Then there was the camper. I hit a pothole and the fusebox jumped off its mountings. We had a minor dashboard fire. And let's not forget the night I moved out of London with everything I owned - this time in a different camper. Broke down outside Trellick Tower, 100 yds from my old home.
Oh happy days. Skippy next. He was a Vauxhall Astra who was stolen from outside a flat in Queen's Park. He was returned and fixed up for me but hit by a boy racer in his Dad's Discovery whilst it was parked outside my friend's house. I'd only had it back a week. He tried to blame me. Said it was my parking wot did it. The twat. It dragged on for a bit mind.
I borrowed Dave's car once. That wasn't good. it broke down on the A30 in a blizzard so I had to sleep in it.
My wife's car, Rosie. Mmmmm. That was expensive! The engine blew up a few weeks after we bought her. At least it was only a 1000cc. But, even so: damn.
And back to Pootle, who, on an epic trip to John O' Groats, made it as far as Bristol. He got sent home on a yellow truck that time too.
Talking of yellow trucks, we mustn't forget the incident with the smashed windscreen in Saintes. Doing 60 up the motorway. Suddenly the windscreen shattered, not cracked like modern screens, shattered. It was like driving into a whiteout with no warning. Mind you, we got 2 nights in a hotel whilstwe waited for a new screen. After three weeks sleeping in the van Jo was quite pleased. Saintes is a nice place to break down.
Unlike spaghetti junction. I was involved in a 10 car pile up there way back in the eighties. We were somewhere in the middle. That was pretty bad. And it wasn't my car either. Girlfriend's Mother's. Crikey!
So what do you wreckon? A blown up engine isn't so bad is it? We are alive and we've had some fun. In fact we've had so much fun I think it's all been worth it.
But now there's Pootle to worry about.
What shall I do?

Monday, 23 August 2010

Dancing with Rick


The Camper Van Cookbook got knocked of the top spot in the Amazon Food and Travel books chart again today. Since its release on 27th of May my camper vanning opus has been consistently at or near the top of the chart.

When I first saw this ranking I was so surpirsed and excited that I checked it every day. Days went by. Weeks went by. The Camper Van Cookbook stayed at the top spot. And then one day a couple of weeks ago I looked and I'd been pipped. I was devastated. Bereft even. How could this happen? How could this disaster befall my numbers? It was an outrage.

I noticed who had pipped me and I felt a bit silly. The leader of the pack was Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey. Then I got the whole thing into prespective. Rick is a legend. He's a giant among the chef's whites. He's a fish guru, a traveller, a chef. He's even got a town named after him. So why am I complaining? If you told me a year ago that my book (what book? have I written a book?) had held Rick Stein off the top spot for even a couple of minutes I'd have told you to take a long run on a short pier. Or worse.

So I have become a little more relaxed about the rankings recently. I tell myself that I am non-competitive, that it means nothing, that everyone else has had a running start. I am a newbie. Since then I've been dancing with Rick a little, much to my amusement. I've been back up there a couple of times. I've even been back down to number three, behind Rick and those Hairy Bikers. And the day that the Food and Drink Guide was available for advance ordering I slipped a little too. The pups! Suffice it to say it was only a matter of hours.


It's ok. I'm not obsessed.


(I wonder if Rick sits at home, unable to resist one last look at the chart before bed time? I'll bet he does.)

Friday, 13 August 2010

The summer of camper van love. And why I'll always choose a camper over canvas.


(This blog post first appeared on Pitchup.com a couple of weeks ago. )
It’s been a summer of camper van love for me. I drove 2500 miles around the UK for The Camper Van Cook in my 1979 VW Camper Van. Despite long filming days and rain, I’ve never been happier.
My parents did their best to put me off camping by taking me on wet trips to Wales when I was little. Then the Sea Scouts had their go. I got that grubby end of weekend feeling down pat during summer camps. But nothing could deter me from seeking out canvas, big skies and flour and water on sticks as I hit my teens. And when I discovered surfing my fate was sealed.
I didn’t live by the coast so the only thing to do was pack up and ship out. Camping was the way to go. I loved every moment. Even the night our tent was flattened in a gale or the day the money ran out and my last meal – a boiled egg – fell in the sand. I remained undeterred. I couldn’t get enough of the freedom and the excitement, the waking up next to the beach, the surfing all day and partying around the camp fire all night. But then the winter came around – and with it the best waves of the year – so I had to seek proper shelter. The front seat of a Ford Fiesta with a leaky sunroof wasn’t good enough. The solution was a camper van – a VW camper van more to the point.
There’s good reason that generations of surfers have chosen the VW as their transport of choice. Not only can you go anywhere but you can pack up and move on at a moment’s notice. No guy ropes to pull, no wet tent to fold up in a gale. So you get all the benefits of the great out doors, but without the hassle.
The camper van will also extend the camping season far beyond the summer and the acceptable comfort levels of normal people. This is because no wind or rain or snow can put you off. When the wind howls and the tents start flapping you can just shut the door, pull out the bed, put on the heating (some campers even have gas powered heating with thermostats) and take a nap until it’s all over. Or you could set up the dining table and have a game of cards. In your vest and undies. With the light on. I know! You show me someone who played strip poker in a tent in a winter thunder storm without showing a few goosebumps and I’ll hike up the Cairngorms in just my smalls. I rest my case.
Then there’s bed time. Ok so you’ll have to do a bit of a dance to get the bed out, but once you’re horizontal you’ll feel the benefits straight away. You are off the ground and the penetrating cold of the earth can’t get to your kidneys in the night. You might even need to open a window to keep cool. And you’ve got six inches of foam between you and the nearest hard object. Come the morning’s early light you’ll still be able to peer outside and stretch and scratch along with the best of them – because you’re right there, sharing the moment - but with the benefit of a good night’s sleep.
When it comes to cooking you can’t beat a camper. You’re basically working with the same gas powered cooker as the well tooled-up canvas camper but with the benefit of chairs, worktops, a sink, fridge and, if you’re lucky, running water. Why wouldn’t you want that? When I was writing the Camper Van Cookbook I managed to cook up a chilli for 8 on a slope in a force 9 gale at a very wet and muddy festival. It wasn’t easy as the pot kept slipping off the flame, but I did it, whilst everyone else was knee deep in mud queuing up at the falafel stall.
Some people might say that camper vanning isn’t proper camping. So what is it? It’s not glamping. Maybe it should be mobile glamping? I guess you might call it that. It also explains why I’d choose it over glamping any day. My friends at Berridon Farm in North Devon have a fantastic set up with amazing tents, brilliant facilities and lovely, lovely views (I recommend in case you hadn’t noticed) with cute animals and a little shop. If you want glamping, this is it. But you can’t move if the weather turns or you fancy stepping out somewhere different every morning. In a camper van you can.
Then there’s the driving. People stop and wave. People smile when you go past. There’s a sense of community. VW campers wave at each other on the road. You’d never get that in your late saloon with a top box full of wet tent would you? Camper vans make the whole experience fun. And if you break down you don’t have to sit it out in the rain. You can pop the kettle on and enjoy a roadside brew. Even a holiday disaster turns into an adventure in a camper. You get to live the life from the moment you leave until the minute you get home again.
And that’s why I’d risk the breakdowns and the maintenance costs over putting up a tent every time. Ok so you can’t hike in and hike out like you can with a one man tent and you can’t light a wood burner like you can in a glamping situation, but you can do pretty much everything else – but better.
I love my camper. And I’m not alone. This summer I’ve seen more camper vans on the road than ever before. Everyone, it seems, is getting the camper van vibe. More and more camper van hire companies are springing up every week and – from what I can gather – they are all busy busy busy. Long may it remain.
This the summer of VW camper van love.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Goodbye Poots. Thanks for the ride.


It was an emotional weekend for all of us. We said goodbye to our third VW T25 Camper Van, Pootle. This lovely white 2.0 litre air cooled Devon conversion from 1981 has seen us through some great times, a lot of miles and some wonderful meals. He's a little bit famous too, having appeared in The Mail on Sunday, The Independent, Coast Magazine and Devon life (more than once). Get him! And let's not forget that without Pootle The Camper Van Cookbook would still be on the driveway, waiting for the off.
But as is often the way, the time had come to send him off to pastures new. We shall miss him.

Don't panic though! He hasn't gone to the great camper van camp site in the sky. No! His number won't be up for a long time yet. With 95K on the clock there's life in the old block yet. 30 years is nothing for a Dub like Poots.
He's gone to live with Blair, Liz and 6 month old Joseph. They have promised him a whole new lease of life - because they intend to use him for their Great London Getaway. We're all for it. He'll see some proper action at last. None of this Pootling down to the beach for a surf, a cup of tea afterwards and maybe an impromptu photo shoot. He'll get to see some places. We're a little bit envious.

If you see him in E3 or on the motorway, give him a wave and send him our love. Cheers Poots. Thanks for the rides.