Old campervans ….. they’re not all wine and roses!

July 2017 – one of our earlier trips to Wales

We came to buy our 2009 MURVI campervan almost by accident. We’d always been hardcore tent campers; even to the extent that we’d given up on modern fabrics because they were far too noisy in bad weather and reverted to cotton which was quieter and more breathable. The thought of caravans or campervans hadn’t entered our minds. Then one day we were out for a walk and we passed a school sports field where we saw our first MURVI and fell for it instantly. We even had a conversation about it and agreed that in the unlikely event that we ever had a campervan that would be the one.

The next thing that happened was that a couple of friends drove up to see us in exactly the same model we’d seen – so we were able to inspect it at close quarters and we loved it even more. The big mistake was to drive down to Exeter one Sunday afternoon to a regional show – just to look. Ha Ha! There was never any possibility of us buying a new van but we still got the full sales pitch so while I enjoyed the moment Madame went off and found a postcard small ad for an older 09 model second hand. Of course we still couldn’t afford even this one – we were about to blow most of our savings – and so we drove home empty handed. This next bit is amazing and rather beautiful because that very week an old friend offered to make a substantial and completely unexpected gift so that we could afford the van – and so we finally got our MURVI eleven years ago and it’s become our little place in the country, our field station and our solace in stressful times.

Now if that sounds exactly what you’d most love go ahead, but you need to factor in the constant need to maintain. Aside from tax, insurance and secure storage, all of which add up to just over £1000 a year; parts wear out and need replacing and whilst it’s possible to retain a head full of elaborate workarounds to keep the show on the road sooner or later everything finally wears out. So we put up with the minor inconvenience of having to blow up one of the tyres every week because in spite of all our attempts neither we nor the tyre centre can discover what’s causing it to deflate. The wonderful onboard heater is a highly sophisticated piece of German engineering but when the controller goes wrong it’s three figures. Water pumps wear out and the batteries – three in total – also have a finite life, and be warned, everything in a campervan runs on 12V, so if a leisure battery fails everything else goes as well. It’s no use thinking the mains electricity hookup will take over. Fancy alarm systems will drain the battery almost overnight. We once spent an icy week sitting in sleeping bags using head torches for light. That was fun! Oh and three way fridges well least said soonest mended – or perhaps you can do what we do and rejoice in the simplicity of the two-way fridge. Ten minutes on any campervan club website will give an abundance of ways of bringing the gas mode to life and trust me I’ve tried them all.

So we carry a reasonably comprehensive toolkit including a multimeter and we find that most things can be lashed up or repaired without resorting to ‘experts‘. The essence of campervanning is an ability to have fun even in a van that’s not quite perfect. Good enough is king! and it’s always better to use the onboard cludger than to trudge across a field in the middle of the night in a force 8 storm – we’ve done that and dried the T shirt, which takes days – especially in Wales. The campervan is the ultimate go anywhere home from home – with all my books for plant hunting, a portable router that can find a signal almost anywhere and a bottle of wine or three.

Possibly the best thing of all is that provided you’re prepared to be a bit flexible, you can be spontaneous and take off at the drop of a hat, even out of season. We’re not fans. we’re addicts; but the key thing is that in 30 years of tent camping taught us that the key to a happy camping life is resilience.

Two rooms, two views, one home.

I’ve got two competing ideas in my mind at the moment so rather than choose one of them I’ll recount both of them and leave it to you to decide if either of them carry any weight. On Saturday we were in full-on packing mode and at the last moment I decided to clean and waterproof our walking boots – there they are drying on the window ledge. Packing is hard work. We once set out with a tent and no poles, and on another occasion with no bivvy mats. I used to keep long lists and tick each item off as we went along, but as our needs changed and the three boys left home, the list became obsolete and we went back to making it up as we went along. There’s always the danger that I’ll forget something important. Running out of medicines on a trip to Snowdonia taught us the importance of carrying the NHS app on our phones.

Then we graduated to a campervan after 40+ years of tent camping and a whole new world opened up to us; a whole new world in which the second thread of my post becomes important. This was a comment on the radio by a woman recounting her childhood memories. Her father was what was then known as a travelling salesman and spent much of his life on the road in North America. Consequently he spent a great deal of time in motels. He used to let his daughter travel with him occasionally and he would invariably say as they swept past the tumbleweed into the car park of a motel in – let’s say – North Dakota – “Ah well, if we lived here we’d be home now”.

Right from the first trip we fell in love with the campervan because it felt like a second home which could go anywhere. Inside was always home and outside – through the windows – was the wide world. For some the appeal of campervanning is chintzy curtains, gleaming chrome work and matching T shirts. Also for some – and I bear them no ill will – the very thought of using the built in cludger is anathema; the idea of sleeping near a tank full of human effluent is horrible beyond imagining. Not for me, though. For me the very thought of pulling on a raincoat and wellies and sploshing across a field in the rain at 3.am is truly hell on earth. After four decades of tenting, cooking kneeling down, sniffing gone-off milk, schlepping across muddy fields and queueing for the toilet or a shower which eats money like a hungry crocodile, oh and waking up frozen stiff; I’m now firmly on the side of convenience and comfort. Spartan virtue scores zero but the built in shower and toilet, fridge and cooker are a joy. We even had a satellite television until the dish fell apart on the roof accompanied by terrible groaning noises. Ours is an old van and it’s extremely temperamental so we carry a full tool kit and expect to have to do running repairs and even resign ourselves to life without an appliance if the replacement is beyond our reach. I’m aware I may be underselling the thrills at the moment and if you’re the kind of person who wants five star luxury on wheels you wouldn’t want to get into budget campervanning. If you read the accounts of extreme suffering on some websites you will discover that for a certain sub-group of wannabe campers, noisy suspension or a certain lack of power whilst towing the family Range Rover on a trailer can ruin lives.

A campervan is just like home, but home in a submarine! So packing becomes an exercise in setting priorities. So long as I’ve got my laptop, the portable router and an aerial on a magnetic base I can usually find a phone signal and internet so I can carry on writing and posting. That’s a lot of fairly expensive kit but it works for me. Madame and I also need a lot of books around us, in my case for reference, plant and fungus ID’s. We have drawing equipment too. We only bring a small quantity of lightweight clothing and a washing line. If the weather is lousy we can dry clothes in the bathroom which has its own heating outlet and becomes a wet room in thirty seconds. As for the long dark nights, the router is usually just about fast enough to drive a TV even where the phones can’t find a signal – but it uses a fabulous amount of expensive data and in any case there are better things to do on long dark nights – including (but not exclusively) listening to life enhancing music on the bluetooth speaker and drinking wine.

I toyed with but rejected calling this piece “These boots are made for walking” – but good walking boots are the number one priority, especially for septuagenarian plant hunters, and we always take out hand lenses and collecting kit as well as my favourite notebooks which have wax coated pages and – with a pressurised space pen – can be written on even underwater. As you may know, if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, I love a good list – our oldest son is sure that this is an indicative sign of some sort of spectrum!

Anyway – you can thank the rain for this posting – but the sun is coming through now and I can feel a walk coming on. Our immediate neighbours on the site are a dozen young people in little festival tents. Our hearts dipped when we saw them arrive but in fact they’ve been extremely quiet and superficially at least, well behaved. I mentioned this to our youngest son who told me they were all probably taking magic mushrooms. I couldn’t possibly comment but we wish them well – there’s not much going for young people at the moment and they must needs take their pleasures where they find them.

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