Marigold Says...

Random thoughts on travelling and life in general.

Our first camper van. There are so many reasons why nobody else ever tried to convert one of these into a camper van.

G Says...

Nothing from Marigold on this occasion. No excuse offered. Indolent wretch. 

People keep asking us about the places we’ve lived in and camper vans we’ve owned. I’ve no intention of listing the numerous houses/apartments we’ve owned over the past fifty years or so as it would take forever, but camper vans, now that’s a bit easier.

We’re hoping to go travelling again soon. After wandering (mostly through Europe in any of a succession of different camper-vans with the occasional long haul expedition thrown into the mix as well) for twenty-five years it took the double whammy of a heart attack and a pandemic to cramp our style. With booster jabs finally sorted we feel the time has come to flee the coop once more.

The biggest decision always hinges on logistics. Seek out hotels, apartments, flophouses and the like or go completely under our own steam in a camper van. We like ‘van life’ and we have done car based trips as well, so it’s not been an easy decision. There’s much to be said for either option, but after much discussion we’ve not gone out and bought another van. So, that’s that sorted for the next trip. The wait for another van goes on.

Europe in the post Brexit era isn’t the free and easy place it used to be. We can stay there for up to 90 days in one go and then we either up sticks and leave again for at least another three months or take up some form of visa based quasi-official residency. Which is complicated.

If we’re only talking three month sojourns, a camper van loses some of its appeal. There’s the problem of storing it when we get back to England for a start. No, we said, the next van will have to wait. Of course, it hasn’t stopped us ‘browsing’ and we often take a walk around our local camp sites, just to look around. Longterm van-living aficionados fall into one of two tribes. Well, rather more than two in reality, but in the main there are the stayers and the movers.

Stayers drive vast distances, bung their van on a site and stay put. There are huge conglomerations of vans/motorhomes in Spain and Portugal every winter, the busy time for long-term escapees from the privations of a Northern European climate. People from different nationalities band together, form social groups, make a home away from home in the sunshine. We don’t knock it as they obviously love it and keep coming back every year, but it’s not for us.

We’re in the other group. The wanderers. We explore new areas, stay a day or two and move on. We’re sociable people, we make friends easily, but they’re short lived friendships. We don’t stick around long enough to be invited to join a quiz team or a basket weaving group.

There’s another point of tribal difference between stayers and movers: the accommodation itself. We see many huge motorhomes on camp sites. They can cost as much as an actual house and are often just as well equipped and equally comfortable. We’ve been invited into quite a few ‘RVs’ where the equipment levels and quality of furnishings made our own bricks and mortar house back ‘home’ appear second best.

These behemoths are true replacement homes, but they don’t allow for much in the way of actual touring. In narrow country lanes or town centres, they’re pretty useless which negates the whole point of travelling to a foreign country in our view. We’ve never wanted one. Well, in weak moments, maybe just for the odd night of luxury living.

Our own vans are the polar opposite of the gin palace genre. While gleaming motorhomes are justifiably on top of the evolutionary scale, we toddle around in an ever so humble camper van. The term encompasses a broad church, but they’re never going to rival their gleaming cousins in any way.

We like van conversions best, vehicles transmogrified into living accommodation from a variety of donor vehicles. There’s no logic to this as we know a purpose built vehicle will be better in every way than a cobbled together homemade conversion, but we like to see a bit of initiative rewarded and even seeing a shipping container welded to a lorry chassis can bring us joy.

In what hindsight revealed to be far from my best ever idea, once we had knocked our first French house into shape – a seriously neglected Maison de Maitre in the Loire Valley that only complete idiots lacking any realistic building knowledge would ever have considered as a money making ‘project’ - I decided to turn my hand to camper van conversion. In one of the barns, covered in bales of hay and thus undiscovered for the first three weeks of our house ownership was a magnificent Citroen Type H van.

It wasn’t much to look at and the Type H had been in production from 1947 to 1981 so Citroen had made rather a lot of these hard working trucks for the farming industry. Even so, few objects typify the elusive French sense of style like an old Citroen and we were thrilled to discover our hidden treasure.

The conversion I had in mind would be a ‘stealth van’ - one that doesn’t suggest it contains sleeping quarters and thus becomes more widely acceptable when parked up than a motorhome. The idea was pretty good, but my overestimation of that particular van as a viable choice for the project would all too soon be made apparent. As a donor van for a motorhome conversion, a Citroen Type H van is surely out on its own at the very top of the ‘really bad idea’ league. I suspected that, but pressed on anyway.

Marigold was very supportive. In her own way. Her frequent references to ‘utter waste of time’ were perfectly judged to spur me on to great deeds.

The end result was a battered Citroen van that from the outside bore no resemblance to a camper van. The perfect stealth van. Unfortunately, the interior bore scarcely any resemblance to a camper van either. It had a bed and basic amenities. Very basic amenities. Marigold kept asking when it would be finished. My response – ‘it is finished, this is it’ – failed to bring untold joy and fulsome congratulations.

We see Citroen van conversions everywhere we go lately. Pop-up coffee stands, burger vans, fish and chips, mobile delicatessens, the list goes on and on. What we don’t see are any Citroen vans converted into camper vans. Ah well, I always knew I was ahead of my time.

One of our visitors had a friend who was, apparently, desperate to buy a Citroen Type H. I haggled furiously over price, my efforts not helped by Marigold saying ‘that seems fair’ to the prospective buyer’s opening bid and off it went to its new home in England.

Over a year later we were in the U.K. for a brief visit and called to see ‘our’ van in Lark Lane, Liverpool. Lark Lane is one of my favourite places. It’s always had a Bohemian vibe – very ‘us’ – and our old van was obviously well suited to its new home. The interior had been gutted, a side panel was now hinged and when opened revealed one of the first examples of a street food style mobile kitchen to hit the U.K. I’ve lost touch over the years, but I am sure it’s still going strong.

Our first proper van. It died on that hillside, next to the ancient finca we were attempting to make habitable

Five years after we sold that house, which sat in solitary splendour on a hill, there's now a brand new one almost next door but our abandoned camper van is still there. As a shed, it's brilliant.

More vans, more trips, more mistakes

We bought a ‘home made’ van conversion a few years later. It had spent ten years touring North Africa and was festooned in painted camels and desert scenes. After attracting a crowd wherever we went, we decided anonymity was preferable to being treated like a circus act and I painted the whole van blue. Of course, the minute the camel pictures were hidden away, we missed them.

That freshly painted blue van gave us the travelling bug. We travelled throughout Morocco, Algeria and great swathes of the Sahara Desert in it. It wasn’t remotely luxurious, not even particularly comfortable, but it got us from point A to whatever point we decided to go to next with hardly a complaint. When it finally ‘died’ it became an immovable bedroom on our land while we set about the attempt of turning yet another totally ruined old finca into a habitable dwelling. A task that in the end became the event that finally defeated us.

We’d taken on much bigger projects and after some pretty extensive renovation sold them, but this last one proved beyond us. My lower limbs were creaking, that was bad enough, but Marigold had finally ‘hit the wall.’ The day she rebelled, bellowing ‘I am not a packhorse’ was the day we both realised we weren’t up to relentless hard labour any more.

Even though we had enlisted the help of the brilliant and indefatigable Jim and Linda, we were ready to give up the joys of living on site and go full time travelling. The blue van became a permanent onsite shed and we looked for a replacement.

Bigger or smaller? There’s much to be said on both counts. A bigger van means greater comfort, but is more restrictive. The narrow lanes and intricate warrens we seem to find ourselves visiting on a regular basis are a real trial in a big van. Smaller vans can go anywhere, like a car, but there’s a significant trade off in creature comforts.

Of course we chose a small van. We’re not interested in comfort if it denies us places worth exploring. We had travelled throughout New Zealand in a (rented) tiny little van with not even a suggestion of being a ‘home from home’ and loved every minute of the time we spent exploring that wonderful country. We would have missed out on so much in a big motorhome albeit we would surely have slept better.

The next van, bought on a trip to England, was red in colour and unreliable in nature. We bought it after going to look at a completely different van in Hull and liked the look of the one next door to it immediately. I can’t actually remember why we liked it so much as it turned out to have very few, if any, virtues in reality. It drank engine oil at an alarming rate, overheated constantly and in anything above a light drizzle misfired alarmingly.

We decided this just meant it had character, drove it down to Dover and then across France and Spain into Portugal. After a few thousand miles of ownership even our legendary powers of van loyalty were stretched to breaking point. Amazingly, we found a Volkswagen enthusiast on a beach near Tarifa who offered to swap camper vans. He owned an ancient, very battered and garishly painted rust bucket of a van which he insisted was mechanically perfect. We made no claims of that nature about the red beast.

Our new friend had driven from Lithuania with his girlfriend and two dogs seeking warmer weather and a relaxed life on the beach. After three months of this idyllic lifestyle the girlfriend left him for a ‘man with muscles’ and they left the area, taking the dogs along as well. He sounded quite upset by the dogs deserting him, not so much the girlfriend.

We tried to picture the muscle bound love rival, but had already formed the opinion that it wouldn’t have taken much to turn the girlfriend’s head as the spurned lover was quite singularly unattractive. His face was very pink, verging on puce in colour and almost completely spherical, resembling a face that a young child would have drawn with even a faint hint of hair on the polished skull. His nose was spectacular, exactly what the word bulbous had been invented for when used in reference to what the late Tony Hancock once called a stonking great head ventilator.

No muscles either. What a cruel world we live in. I thought about giving him the ‘better to have loved and lost’ speech, but it may not have translated very well.

Nobody in their right mind meets a complete stranger, from Lithuania, on a beach and an hour later swaps over their possessions and drives off in a completely different van. Well, that may well be the case, but it’s exactly what we did.

Marigold loved the new van, an impression based largely on the colour scheme, blue and a sort of washed out pale turquoise, and off we went in our new home. It’s one of those colour combinations that Dulux haven’t got round to including in their colour charts.

That van turned out to be one of our all time favourites and took us right across Europe as far as Belarus, where we were turned away at the border, the only nation ever to reject us on sight. They said we lacked the appropriate visa and I’m sure we did, but that rejection still rankles.

I don’t appear to have taken a single photo of that blue and turquoise van. Ashamed of it? Surely not, but we were in Tarifa a few years later and parked up next to our van’s identical twin. The upper part didn’t quite match, but that was no surprise as we’ve never seen that exact shade of colour anywhere else.I asked the very affable Dutch owner if I could take a photo of his van in order to compare with a picture of the one we used to own only to later find no such photograph existed!

Our next van, having returned once again to Blighty, we bought on eBay from an Olympic wild water canoeing medalist. Yes, I know, not strictly relevant, but impressive none the less.

It was a Mercedes Vito, professionally converted from the base vehicle by someone who understood camper vans. Everything worked and the Vito was to serve us splendidly over the next four years. It did have one design feature we found awkward on occasions: a fabric roof that popped up to allow standing room inside. It soon became obvious this was perfectly suited to warm weather, making the interior much more liveable, but on chilly nights it was bitterly cold with the roof raised. Cold weather meant adopting a contorted method of getting around very much like the escapees from Colditz endured in their underground tunnels.

When we took a break from travelling for a while we really missed having a van to call home. A friend asked us if we wanted to go with her to the next big camping exhibition – like the Motor Show, but for camper vans – as she wanted our advice on what to buy as her first van. It was 200 miles away so we agreed to go with her and suggested an early start.

‘What? Early, so about half nine?’ She said.

‘We were thinking about five o’clock,’ replied Marigold. Our friend surely understands the theoretical concept of five o’clock in the morning, she must know it exists, but has no personal experience of it. Or, indeed, any desire to turn that nebulous idea into actuality. Early mornings, they’re for other people, aren’t they? We settled on 07.30.

The camper van show defused our friend’s interest in actually owning one, but reaffirmed our conviction that we needed another van and, next time, why not seek out one offering a bit more comfort. Not luxury, we’re not that precious, but looking at so many vans made us reassess our priorities.

A fixed bed, an actual ‘indoor’ toilet, more storage space and a separate living area. We didn’t break all our rules, the next van had to be less than six metres in length as beyond that point they become too impractical.

Our new, well second hand but new to us, van was 5.99 metres in length, (phew, just made it), and very different from the tin cans on wheels we’d previously owned. Purpose built, not a cobbled together conversion, with that acknowledged symbol of excellence ‘Hymer’ on the bonnet, a permanent bed, a bathroom and huge amounts of storage space. Perfection.

Ah, the best laid plans and all that. Our new home was widely admired and gave us everything on our wish list. It also became a symbol of, by some distance, the worst decision we ever made, a trial run.

We went off, just for a week or two, touring around Devon, Dorset and other pretty places to find out the strengths and weaknesses of our new arrival. For the first time, we noticed people referring to our ‘motorhome,’ nobody would ever use the term ‘camper van’ in relation to a Hymer. Far from imagining we had now made it to the upper strata we felt like frauds. Real travellers don’t own motorhomes. We missed the cozy familiarity of our old, battered, improbably inconvenient, cramped and uncomfortable former vans.

The first issue was the raised bed at the rear. A decent size, not quite a ‘double’ in width but pretty close. As it was transversely mounted the actual length was just about okay for Marigold, but I was obliged to adopt a foetal sleeping position. Which was okay, I could cope with that. Most of the time.

Mattress level was about four feet from the van floor to allow room below for that highly prized storage space. Entry was by a set of three removable steps, very steeply raked steps. Marigold wasn’t keen at all on this arrangement and wasn’t reticent about mentioning it. Often.

The ‘bathroom’ contained a fitted toilet and a shower head. A wet room, in miniature. Theoretically, we would now be entirely self sufficient in the ablutions department. Unfortunately, we’re not circus acrobats or contortionists and only those with the capacity for extreme ‘bendiness’ would be able to make full use of these precious facilities.

Fixed bed, problem. Bathroom, problem. Okay, not an ideal start, but hardly game changers. What tipped us over the edge was the weather. It rained solidly from the moment we arrived in Dorset. We’d found a campsite to check out the mains electricity connection. A luxury hitherto unknown to us. After listening to rain pounding on the roof all night we awoke to find the field we’d parked up in was now a lake.

If I say the only bright point of the next eight days, as the rain continued to fall and escape was impossible due to us and everyone else being bogged down in mud was the arrival at the site entrance of a fish and chip van you may appreciate it wasn’t our happiest experience. I threw on a coat, stepped down into water up to my knees and waded off to seek the rollicking excitement of a bag of chips. When that’s the highlight of your week…

Marigold was very calm. She didn’t blame me for the weather – yes, of course I worried about that – but the Hymer took the full force of her disenchantment.

‘I hate this van. Why didn’t we keep any of the old ones?’

It took ages to get off that camp site and we were among the lucky ones. At least our van hadn’t sprung leaks like those belonging to our neighbours. The massive, very luxurious and incredibly expensive motorhome next door was awash. Even worse, it was incapable of moving under its own steam and the owners sent for a tractor to tow them to dry land. The tractor belched out smoke, bellowed mightily and pulled the entire front off their precious motorhome off, but they still couldn’t budge it.

Decision time. Set off in the Hymer for a year’s travelling and put these minor teething troubles behind us or rethink the whole idea? Marigold had the answer. We sold the Hymer and bought a BMW 4x4 instead.

That BMW took us into the High Atlas mountains, through great swathes of the Sahara and across the whole of Europe in the next year or so. We missed out on the easy going camaraderie of life amongst our fellow van owners, but found hotel and hostel life equally interesting. We never, ever, booked ahead, yet found accommodation wherever we went and sometimes it even reached the rarified heights of acceptable! The bad choices are the ones that live longest in the memory and we treasure those recollections of truly appalling hotels in the middle of nowhere most of all.

The Red Beast

Not our actual van, it was far too shy to allow photos to be taken, but its doppelgänger

Upmarket. A Mercedes, no less. In warm weather, brilliant. Cold nights, oh dear.

The rented van in which we toured New Zealand. And I was worried about a few painted camels

Here's the more restrained side...

Our last van. A proper motorhome. Modern, efficient, well equipped. That's just a few of the reasons we didn't like it. We know our place!