Wednesday, 28 January 2015

That’s not a camper van! And other rubbish vehicles to sleep in.

Our last T25 before we bought the Bay. Happy campers.

Some vehicles make good campers. Some vehicles make bad campers. That’s life.

The VW transporter is one of those that has lent itself perfectly to living, eating and sleeping in for many years. Its first three incarnations with the rear engine provided a ready-made sleeping platform and plenty of living space. It was a design that offered campers a huge amount of versatility. You only have to look at the range of conversions – From Westfalia to Devon, Autosleeper and beyond – to see that.

The problem with classic VWs – and newer models for that matter – is that they aren’t cheap. So many of us have had to ‘make do’ with other, 'less desirable', vehicles in their quest for campervan nirvana. I’m one of those too. Before I got the red and white T2 I had a series of 3 T25s. Two of them were aircooled and the other was a water cooled petrol model. This was the time when they were deeply unfashionable, came in a range of pink and brown velour interiors and were generally considered to be the runt of the VW litter by purists. Could you get a wave off a split? Could you hell. How things have changed. Needless to say we loved all 3 with all our hearts.

My first T25, a lovely Devon Moonraker with full length pop top, zig unit and all the bits and pieces, cost me £3000 and had just 30K on the clock. It seems unbelievable now but at the time it was a pretty penny. I could have gone for something cheaper like a transit but somehow it wasn’t on the radar. Transits were for rock bands and sex pests. Anyway, my price range in the early days would have got me such a shed that no self respecting rock band or sex pest would have been seen dead in it.

Instead, when I was a poor student and then a penniless Soho runner, I slept in a series of massively inappropriate cars that weren’t campers at all. I had to make sharper compromises than driving a T25. Before the days of velour and zig units, porta potties and pop tops, there were other vehicles.  And let me tell you they weren’t nearly as salubrious as the five star luxury of a 1980 Devon Moonraker.

Not a happy camper! 4 weeks in a Bedford Midi and a surfing accident at Mundaka.

The first car I spent any amount of time in was a Ford Fiesta van, as owned by my friend Spout. He slept in the back and I slept across the front seats, mostly in the car park of the Sun Inn at Llanengan near Abersoch. The sun roof leaked so most mornings I’d wake up with a hangover and a pool of rainwater on my sleeping bag. Not to mention the handbrake up my backside and a crick in my neck. It’s a wonder I could surf at all. At the end of every cold and wet Welsh weekend I’d head back to a freezing cold student house in Fallowfied. It was miserable but brilliant fun all the same. One morning we woke in the usual discomfort to find that a mini had parked up overnight next to us. When the occupants finally got out there were four of them. The fiesta never felt quite so bad again after that.

Four in a Beetle. Bit of a squeeze. Pic: Guy Hearn

Another vehicle I had the misfortune to sleep in was a VW Beetle. My first car was a 1976 1300 Beetle. I did go camping in it but I never actually slept in it. However, I did have a friend who also had a Beetle, which he converted into the smallest camper van in the world. He removed the back seat and passenger seat to create a sleeping platform. Where the passenger seat was he built a buddy box with a cooker in it so he could feed himself. To do this he’d sit in the back. Come bed time he’d re arrange a few pieces of custom foam to make a triangular bed, which enabled him to stretch out. He seemed to like it. It was pretty good but it really wasn’t much of a camper van. If you were trying to sell it today you might call it a “surf pod”. Add a little bit of cedar cladding and you could stretch it to an “eco surf pod” and charge twice the price. It was fine for one but no good for two. Unless you were very good friends.

Needless to say he soon graduated to a tin top Type 2. We went on a surfing road trip to Croyde in it and I don’t think I have ever been so cold in a vehicle. You actually felt warmer outside.

Great camping trip. Rubbish car. Awful mess.

The next car I had was a Citroen 2CV. I have enjoyed a love hate relationship with these awful jalopies over many years that began when my Dad bought one for me and my sister to learn to drive in. I passed my test in it, which was a pivotal moment in my life. But it soon went downhill from there.

Here are some highlights of my career with 2CVs:

·         I got mine up (above) to 90mph on the M5. Its offical top speed was 72. We overtook everyone and blew the engine.
·         Once, in Newquay I caught a glimpse of good surf through the houses. I jammed the car into reverse to get a better look and the gearbox exploded.
·         I borrowed my sister’s 2CV Dolly when she was away in Hong Kong (without asking). It caught fire on the M5 and burnt to a crisp. I wasn’t insured. We have never spoken about cars since.
·         I used the rear seat of a 2CV as a sofa for many years until I could afford a proper one.
·         If you pull out the choke on a 2CV it will drive on its own. With the roof down you could sit on the roll bar and steer with your feet. This was my party trick.
·         You can get 8 people in a 2CV on a night out in Manchester. This is confirmed.
·         My 2CV broke in two. None of the doors fitted but it took ages to get a proper diagnosis.

Let me also tell you that 2CVs make really awful campervans. The seats don’t recline so there’s no chance of getting a good night’s kip in them. Even with the back seats removed it’s really difficult to get enough leg room to lie flat or even to get just a flat surface. There is a well in the boot for the spare tyre. And I should know. In my late teens I spent a summer in Devon and Cornwall sleeping in it. God it was awful. On the plus side it was great over rough roads and cost virtually nothing to run.  So for a skint student it was perfect, kind of. But it really wasn’t a camper van. Generally you were better off with a tent. But that’s another world of pain.
Hippie in a Renault 5 'Camper van'

My next car was a relative step up from the 2CV. A Renault 5 Extra van. Or, as my friend Pete called it, a sandwich van. I converted this van with some bits of ply and foam and built myself a half decent camper that could sleep 2 comfortably and fold away to a bench seat. It also went more than 60 mph, didn’t catch fire and had a proper heater. I think it also had a stereo that you could hear. Luxury!!! I took that van all over France and down to the coast on countless occasions. And, amazingly, no disasters.

But, eventually it had to go. I sold it to a florist and bought my first T25.

And I never looked back.

T25 number 2, a beautiful water cooled effort.


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Our precious. Your precious. Everyone's precious NHS.

It was around this time eleven years ago that my daughter Maggie (that's her at Malham Cove last spring) was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. It was a frightening time for all of us. She had just had her first birthday when her jaw began to swell and distort, disfiguring her face, exploding the bones in her jaw and sending her teeth in all directions. She cried in pain almost constantly for weeks. It was a while before she was correctly diagnosed and was able to receive treatment and I can remember standing at the kitchen sink, crying myself with the worry of the unknown as I listened to Joanne upstairs trying to comfort her. Without knowing what it was or what it would become, we had no idea what turn our lives would take.

Why am I telling you this? Because the rest of the story is all good news, that's why. And the reason it is good news is because of the NHS. This is the NHS that cares for its patients, that pulls out all the stops to save lives, that offers support and help and the world's greatest collection of knowledge and expertise and charges nothing for it. This is the NHS of a society that cares about each and every one of us equally, that is motivated by society and the good that it needs to survive. It is the NHS that is based on the principles of decency and fairness and the greater good.

It is the NHS that is worth fighting for. Or at least getting off our arses and voting for.

And that's not the NHS of privatisation and profit and corporations or an NHS that is governed by people who care for naught but money. It is the NHS of the people, our precious.

Let me tell you now of the wonderful things that the NHS did for us. For a start they saved Maggie's life, which is good enough in itself. The NHS also provided us with a private room on an oncology ward in Bristol for six months while she received treatment. They explained to me what oncology was too. They fed Maggie, changed her bedding and gave her a six month long course of very expensive chemotherapy. They provided a bed in that private room so that Jo or I could sleep next to her each and every night, so that she would never be alone. They provided round the clock care. They paid for Maggie to have operations to insert Hickman lines, and to remove them afterwards.

When the time came for Charlotte to be born (Jo was 3 months pregnant when Maggie was diagnosed) the NHS provided another room for Jo, a midwife and all the know how and knowledge to deliver Charlotte into our lives safely. The NHS also provided a team to extract stem cells from Charlie's umbilical cord to put into cold storage should Maggie ever need them. They did that for free too. The NHS also paid for nurses Charlie and Charlotte - who gave Charlie her name - so that they had the knowledge and skill to save Maggie's life when she had an anaphylactic reaction to a new chemotherapy drug. The NHS paid for their wages and their training. And again, it cost us nothing. That really is a truly wonderful thing. We often wonder how much it would have cost in any other country.

The NHS also paid for all of Maggie's follow up treatment in the years since. It paid for monthly check ups for the first few months, then the six monthly check ups, now the annual ones. It paid for people to scramble when we had worried moments, when Maggie was ill or down in the years since. It pays for absolutely everything.

Jo was ill with the stress of all of this (understandably so) and - guess what - the NHS paid for her treatment for ulcerative colitis and it pays for the medication she still needs. And now that Jo has gone back to college to train as a nurse - so that she can give a little back to the system - it pays for her fees and gives her a bursary to help make the hard years of study a little easier.

I also owe an awful lot to the NHS, besides our health. When we were in hospital Jo and I vowed that we'd buy another camper if we got out intact. We did. So all the good things that have happened since are down, in part, to the NHS too.

We owe the NHS so much beyond the small payments we make via our taxes. We owe it our lives, our smiles, our daughter, our future. So how could we stand by and allow it to be broken up and dismantled, sold off and turned into another greedy, selfish corporation?

Yes so it's sometimes different. yes the wards are understaffed and staff under appreciated. yes so sometimes you need to shout loudest to be heard or have to wait to be seen. So what? It is facing tough times. Despite this there are still many, many people who, like us, owe their lives to its very existence.

Apparently there is an election coming up.  I shall be voting with my heart and soul and life in the hope that the rest of the UK does the right thing and votes to keep the NHS in public hands. Because we all owe our lives to this precious institution. My precious, your precious, everyone's precious NHS.

Thank you.

BTW Maggie is in full remission and has been for 10 years. We were lucky.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Likes are good. Shares are better. But direct action is best.

UPDATED 28/01/16

The internet, or more specifically, social media, is a powerful thing. It can spread jokes, images, movies and empathy and outrage to every corner of the world in seconds. It likes cat pictures and shots of your dinner and film of my dog trying to get comfy. And there is nothing wrong with that.

However, I am really curious about the effect that social media can have on the real world. Sometimes I feel that social media is just a way of communicating something, anything, to our fellow humans, whatever it is. There are other times when I feel the swiftly flowing wind of possibility blow through my time line. These are the times when the internet becomes an open door and it feels as if we’re really starting to get somewhere. My twitter postcard comps, for example, are experiments in making things happen – and I am always thrilled to get so many inspired entries turn up on my doormat.

And when I see posts on facebook from the WTF [more here] about upcoming beach cleans I can see that social media can do wonderful things. It can bring us together to clean a beach – as it does so effectively for the WTF here in Bude. That's remarkable. Social media enables us to have an opinion and can make things happen. If we want it to.

Some mornings, when I see pictures posted to Instagram using the hashtag #2minutebeachclean from all over the globe (today, Florida, California, Wales, UK south coast) I feel a touch of hope. And more so when we collect likes for our pictures. We have the approval of those who see them. Fantastic. It means that more people are getting the idea. It means that, perhaps, in some small way, we are thinking the same thing: that there is something very simple we can do to halt the tide of plastic washing up on our beaches.

Or is that just me getting ahead of myself? Probably.

A ‘like’ is a like (or a favourite) and that’s that. Nothing else happens really other than a little warmth in the hearts of the poster and liker. It doesn’t actually achieve anything other than helping to ‘raise awareness’ of the issue at hand. There was a great image a while ago of ‘the first box of facebook likes arriving with the victims of the Malaysia monsoon’.  The headline was accompanied by a picture of a confused looking Malaysian being handed a box of thumbs ups. That sort of summed it up for me. Likes may let the world know you approve or feel empathy but they don’t solve anything.

So how about sharing? Sharing (or retweeting) is much more where it’s at for me. Sharing is still quite passive but it does draw a line in the sand. It says ‘hey guys, check this out, it’s worth seeing’. Obviously you could say the same for a petition banning female circumcision or a film of a kitten falling off a shelf, but it’s how the internet works. The more you share, the more people see it, whatever the nature of the content.

The #2minutebeachclean is all about sharing, because it can’t exist without it. We use (and rely on) social media to spread the word while the hashtag enables anyone to keep tabs on us and our progress. The point of the campaign is to persuade everyone and anyone to take just 2 minutes to pick up litter. It relies on vast numbers of us to make a real and lasting difference to our coastline so the more people know about it, the better. That’s why I’d ask you to share or retweet our posts rather than just like them. Because a few beautifully timed shares and retweets can send our message around the world in an instant, and in a way that likes simply cannot.

Having said that, there really would be no point in sharing or retweeting if nothing happened at the end of it. Because direct action is what’s important here, as it is in all aspects of life. We would like to see everyone take responsibility for their patch, whether that’s a woodland, beach, park or street. We want to bring about a change in people’s attitude towards litter and plastics. We want to see a reduction in litter entering our oceans, spoiling our views, choking our streams and rivers and killing our fellow animals. So far over 12,240 images from across the globe have been posted to Instagram, with more being posted each day, which is a very good start. And we don't know how many have been posted to twitter because it's impossible to count. But let's be conservative and say 5,000 at the least. The hashtag has been translated into Spanish, Malaysian, Danish, Gaelic and Welsh and has been used in Puerto Rico and Ireland and will be launched in Israel at a huge event in Haifa in July. But we would love to see ever more from every corner of the globe – because really, it’s one of the only ways we have of knowing who is rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in.

The only other way we know of how successful the campaign has been is our stats on our pilot beach clean station in Bude. In the year the station was used, compared to the year before, beach cleaners counting beach litter on a monthly organised clean counted 61% less litter. That's a start and it's all down to people using our signs. Likewise in the first few months of being on the beach at Widemouth Bay and Black Rock, also near Bude, our stations dispensed 250 used plastic bags to people going on #2minutebeachcleans. Collectively it is estimated that they removed half a tonne of plastic litter (at 2kg per bag). We now have 20 stations in Ireland and 15 in Cornwall and Devon.

Two minutes isn’t much to ask is it? It’s nothing but it’s everything. The moment you bend down to pick up litter you say ‘I’m not happy with this being here’. You are taking direct action, even if it’s just one piece of litter, and that’s what matters.

So please, like or share or retweet or favourite to your heart’s content. It means a lot that you do. And, of course, we’d prefer it to be a share rather than a like. But also, please, allow it to lead you somewhere. It’s just 2 minutes.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Don't forget your tent pegs. And other camping stupidity.

My first solo camping trip was a disaster. And it was all down to terrible preparation.

Actually I wasn’t solo. I was with my school friend Oliver Wilson, a funny, ginger haired kid with a round face and a great line in one liners. He made me laugh constantly. We were sixteen, had just finished our ‘O’ levels and wanted an adventure. So we decided to go camping. For both of us it was our first camping trip without our parents and we hoped to spend the week getting into all sorts of trouble and laughing a lot. We did both.

However, Oliver told me later, when we had got home and could put a little distance between us and the trip, that when we arrived at the campsite he didn’t feel like laughing very much at all. He had wanted to punch my lights out. The reason? His idea of a perfect campsite was wildly different to mine.

I had chosen the location, Thurlestone, in South Devon, because I had been there many times with my parents. I had enjoyed lots of happy summer holidays there and had given it a big build up. Perhaps I had over-egged it. Somehow it had failed to match Oliver’s expectations. But, as I promised, they did serve underage drinkers. That was all he needed to agree, more fool him.

Oliver you see, had been hoping for girls, one armed bandits, Ferris wheels and all night parties, but instead found himself in a picture perfect but very sleepy Devon village populated by well to do families having a very nice summer holiday thank you. Certainly it was no party destination, but it was all I knew, so for me it was a seaside heaven. That's what comes of having parents with 'aspirations'.

Despite holding little interest for Oliver’s raging hormones - other than an unapproachable beauty in the tent next door - Thurlestone is a lovely place. It has a stunning sand and shingle beach with a huge rock arch in the sea at its eastern end. The strand line was strewn with seaweed so that when you walked on its crisp, sun-dried surface you’d feel its soft underside give way a little beneath your flip flops. It smelled of salt, sea and decomposition. A heady brew.

The site we stayed at was one of those old fashioned sites with no facilities other than a ramshackle shower block and acres of sloping, cow-pat strewn grass. The farmer was scary and brusque and, as all farmers from all stories about campsites during the 1980s did, kept his trousers up with bailer twine. We couldn’t understand a word he said either, which didn't make for much conversation. The nearest shop was over a mile away and the nearest potential love interest was, as I have already said, way out of our league. Way, way out of our league.

It was all a bit Carry On, to be honest, but without the Babs.

Nevertheless, despite its remoteness, there were joys to be had from this sleepy idyll. At dusk, on our walk back from the pub, glow worms glimmered in the hedgerows and bats fluttered above our heads in the fresh, salty air. In those brief moments, fueled by illegally served beer, it was easy to forget that we were having a very miserable time indeed. The feeling would last just long enough to see us back to our very old and very small tent that leaked in rivers if you touched the sides when it rained.

That first camping trip taught me many things but, above all, that preparation is everything. Even now, in the heavily moderated mists of time, I am able to wince with embarrassment at just how badly prepared we were. And what a screw up we made of it.

We were on foot so had to carry everything with us. From the outside we looked like seasoned campers. Alright we didn’t. But we did have tin cups hanging from our rucksacks that clanked as we walked. What else would you need to prove your worth? Some tent pegs would have been handy, actually.

That’s right. We had no tent pegs, which meant we had to peg out the tent with our cutlery. This was the sort that clips together so it was a bit flimsy for the job, but it was all we had. On one level it showed resourcefulness in a desperate situation but, on the other hand, it was a definite sign of serious camping stupidity because we had to take the tent down every time we wanted to eat, which was often because we were always hungry.

Sadly the meals we ‘prepared’ weren’t anything like the stuff I like to cook today. Our diet consisted mostly of cold baked beans straight from the tin. Or baked beans with sausages in. I’m not sure why we feasted on such miserable camping fayre as I could at least heat up a tin of beans or whip up a passable spag bol by that time. I can only assume that, in my wisdom, I had forgotten to pack the cooker or the gas or the pans. On the plus side it does mean that I had remembered to pack the tin opener. Oh, hang on. We had to borrow that from the parents of the out-of-our-league-girl-next-door.

Eventually the family took pity on us and cooked for us, while their smirking, aloof daughter looked at us in a way that said ‘no chance, not ever, and especially now, you incapable idiots’.

As if that shame wasn’t enough, we disgraced ourselves further in front of her and them on our last night. We took ourselves off to the local pub for a few pints but only proved that we couldn’t handle it at all. Oliver threw it all up in the local bus shelter while I took up an invitation to play ‘a few numbers’ from a singer songwriter who was knocking out a few happy tunes in the bar. It makes me cringe to think of it right now all these years later. The song I chose to murder, an offensive, anti-establishment ditty, was one written by a friend of mine. It was a massively inappropriate choice for a twee country pub filled with well to do stockbrokers, golfers and holidaying families but I went ahead and did it anyway. I won’t furnish you with the full details of the lyrics, however it started with “we are the generation that will save your rotten lives…” and went downhill from there. The silence, when I had finished, was, as they say, deafening.

That night I slept in a hedge. Alone, of course.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Camping Nazis.

Hell’s Mouth Beach, North Wales, August 1987

There used to be a campsite at the southern end of Hell’s Mouth beach. The location was perfect but the facilities – one stinking, broken loo in a tumbledown shack and a fresh water tap – left a lot to be desired. It was basic and cheap but somehow perfect. On a low cliff overlooking one of the area’s best surf breaks, it provided a base for surfers riding the waves of this famous spot. We’d leave a few quid on the window of the farmhouse as we passed and pitched as we wished.

The only problem with the field was that it had no shelter, so when the wind blew you really knew about it. Even in August a fresh south west wind could tear apart our camp and keep us awake with flapping canvas and lashing rain.

It must have been howling the night we decided to pitch in the dunes because we left the car on the camp site and trekked some way across the stream. There would be no other reason for leaving the flat clean grass on the campsite other than to escape the wind.

We went off to the pub, came back and went to bed. I was woken at first light by wet canvas across my face, my duvet soaking wet and the dome tent billowing like a sheet in a storm. The flysheet had worked loose (probably something to do with the pegs being in sand) and was flapping madly while the inner tent, which wasn’t waterproof, was leaking water all over me. This was because the wind had changed and was now blowing straight down a gully between the dunes. With a funnel effect making things worse, we were being battered. The gusts were so strong that they were blowing the tent almost flat on my side, creating a bulge above Nick. He slept on, snoring quietly in his drink induced stupor.

Unable to sleep any more, I got up, wrapped myself in the damp duvet and trudged off down the beach to the car. When I got there I found that there were other campers on the field. They had arrived while we were at the pub. It was a family of four: parents and two children. Dad and son wore khaki shorts with long socks and tank tops whilst mum and daughter wore pretty flowered dresses under their cotton storm smocks. They made a startling sight, more like a company of cheery Nazi Youth than campers making light of a storm in North Wales in 1987.

They were up and about, making breakfast, hanging out their washing and getting ready for the day ahead. The fact that it was five in the morning was odd enough but what was more disturbing was the way their tent, a heavy duty A-frame tent in grey canvas, barely moved, let alone flapped. Dad’s Brylcreamed hair remained staunchly parted.

If they were surprised to see me appearing from down the beach wrapped in a duvet they didn’t show it, and carried about their business as I clambered into the back seat of the car and attempted to go to sleep again. They were clearly better at this camping lark than we were and had had an awful lot more sleep than I had.

The last thing I remember before nodding off was the dad banging a large wooden peg into the ground in front of their Ford Transit van with a wooden mallet. Nailed to it was a copy of their number plate. I could only assume that this was to show the other campers (me) that this was where they parked and that other cars should not park on that space.

Later that day, when they had gone off to buy groceries, we parked in their spot, just to annoy them. 

Ours was the only car on the camp site.

What do you call yours? #mycampervaniscalled LOVE!

A few weeks ago I (with the help of my friends at the Caravan and Motorhome Club) asked the good people of Twitter and Instagram to...