Tag Archives: camper van

Trip to Dartmoor, May Day Bank Holiday weekend.

I’ve just got back from a real surprise. And that surprise is Dartmoor. I mean, I just had no idea.

True, I went to the National Park when I was a kid. My dad was in the Royal Navy, and had gone along as a natural expression of the ruggedy outdoorsy thing that he was connected up with as Exped Officer.

My memories are: dad struggling up a hill with a caravan (attached to our car, obvs), a cute antiques shop in a small village where I saw a badge depicting a Nazi spreadeagle clutching a swastika in a laurel wreath and big, open empty spaces. I was young.

I’ve also crossed the edge of the moors on a number of occasions, often in the rain, and have been struck by its complete bleakness.

This time, we headed west on Friday afternoon of the Bank Holiday in the camper, and spent our first night part way there in the The Haymaker Inn, Wadeford, Chard – a real local’s boozer, which did great pub classics – my ham, egg and chips had high quality crumbed ham and was just yumptious. The team were welcoming of a camper van, and we slept well after a few beers.

Early next morning, we headed on our way – torn between Exmoor (which we love) and trying out Dartmoor. Both of us had the idea that Dartmoor was a big, bleak open space – but we decided to give it a try, just for a change.

What a great choice that was! The first day we headed to the wonderfully named Castle Drogo, a Lutyens-modelled modern castle, where we stopped for breakfast in the impressive entrance driveway, before heading up into the National Trust car park and taking a walk down to the valley floor. It was a steep drop down in glorious sunshine, and we made our ways through luscious woodland in light that seemed to have have been specially laid on for artists. It’s a weird effect at this time of the year that I’ve also noticed previously in Exmoor – as if the trees have not grown, but been drawn by a fine draughtsman, with black shadows and startling deep green mosses and lichens on trees whose newly-sprouted leaves make them the sylvan equivalent of life-loving teenagers. There is something beautiful about trees at this time of the year, with luminescent greens overhead spreading deep cathedral light.

At times, the path opened up to stunning views across the valley where the soft leaves cotton-woolled into  emerald clouds.

Jackie and I walked with a kind of joyous anticipation at what was next. The valley floor vouchsafed a kingfisher and a yellow wagtail, and so much greenery and reflections on the river that it was like the world was new-made. The climb back up took us out to a viewpoint in which the hills spread out far into the distance, and it seemed that someone had fashioned the perfect landscape with us in mind.

A bite to eat, and a drive through more gorgeous and verdant woodland took us to the village of Moretonhampstead, where we mooched in the shops and I couldn’t resist an antiques buy. Then, newly provisioned after chatting with the locals who were super-friendly, out, up, on to the moors.

Taking a side road that squeezed and turned and twisted and dipped, single tracks with passing places and an occasional local farmer hurtling round corners with wild abandon, we climbed up on to the moors proper and found a space to park. We were up, now, in the sky, with the coconut smell of gorse bushes around us, and the steady khom khom khom of ponies that were sculpted by sunlight. Here we came to rest, sitting in the blaring silence that drowned everything else out, and feeling the slumber that sealed my spirit come upon me – that calm at the centre of being where the true me is. Except it wasn’t slumber. I didn’t sleep, but passed into eternity, the zen state where time reveals itself for what it is: illusion – and the world turns on its axis oblivious to the minutes and seconds of man. I was the same as the horses and the stones and the pools with the waterboatmen and the gorse in muddy green and the shaggy blonde of dried sedge.

Reading up here gave every word concreteness, and I read a novel, The Red Sailor, with joy as Jackie sat and crocheted, and we drank tea in the silence, and the sky came down to kiss us.

That night, I woke in the darkness to see the stars bewilderingly bright. The constellations seemed to be changed, and though some of the sky was familiar, it was teeming with new-bred stars. I aligned the centre stroke in Cassiopeia with the tail of Ursa Major to triangulate Polaris, but could not see it. Someone had stolen my night sky and filled it with milk, or the semen that fills the belly of the sky and creates newborn worlds – and I felt primitive and modern and bewildered and holy all at once, while the ponies stood around me, stock still, as old as the stones.

The next day, we headed through perfect countryside, and I felt as if we were suddenly in a fantasy world. Down into Widecombe where one of Dartmoor’s signature four-finialed church towers points stolidly at the sky, then out again onto the Moors. We climbed to the top of Haytor, a pile of striated granite left by a careless giant and sat in silence a while, taking in the scene. Then, joined by a pair of Slovaks, I broke the ice with the question: “Does this mean anything to you: Strc prst skrz krk?” They laughed and we fell into conversation.  They were I.T. developers out from London for the weekend, and had never been here before. We shared the sense of wonder at a place newfound.

And so the day went on, with us exploring, going through fairy dells where I was sure Mr Tumnus would suddenly appear, looking at Hobbit-shire fields and feeling like that small child again who stepped on to the moors. But this time, focussing on the really powerful stuff, the gentle and inexorable throb of deep life in the land.

That evening, we headed off the moors and stayed in a pub car park at Lydford. The Castle Inn is situated next to an ancient tower once used for court sessions and, next to that, a mediaeval church. The whole of life is there: social, legal and spiritual, in a microcosm. The food at the Castle Inn was excellent as was the beer, and we slept early and woke early, to break our fasts outside the castle tower as the sun beat down.

Next, a walk to Lydford Gorge before 8 am, descending down to stand at the base of the White Lady Waterfall, and feel the pagan magic of the world here. The thundering power of the water filled my ears and I felt more wonder. I paid an offering to the water deity in an atavistic moment and felt completed, somehow.

We lingered on the moors a while longer after eating a Devon Cream Tea at Lydford Gorge National Trust centre, and then made our ways home, filled with a kind of elation.

These moments, these are what life is for.

Stay here a few days and walk through your dreams:
down through green valleys, from high barren hills,
to lichen-scaled trees by numinous streams,
where moss-thickened walls ring deep fairy dells.
Feel, in your dreaming days far from the town,
all weight lift, till only a daisy chain
tied to your ankle keeps you on the ground –
else dandelion-clock-like, you blow away.
When you wake, you will wonder: were they true –
those careless nights and days which time fleeted
as though I walked in a magic-imbued
land, where world weariness is defeated?
If love is a dream of sky-kissing moors
Then I fell in love. Dartmoor: mon amour.

I’m back.

It’s been a little while since I wrote my blog, for a pretty good reason.

I’ve been away. I’ve got a lot to tell you about the things that I’ve been doing, but as a starting point, let me give you an overview of some of the great things that have been going on in my life.

Firstly, discovering France.

Okay, so I didn’t discover France; there are tens of million people there already. But really I discovered that France is okay. In fact, better than okay, it’s stupendous. I have become a Frogophile.

Then there was going up mountains, and jumping off them, and jumping into glacial meltwater and bobbing down rapids without any boat, and avoiding the rocks, and swirling in eddies and feeling the delicious joy of just cutting loose and finding out where the current takes me.

Cooking breakfast at the top of Monte Rose
Breakfast in high places

I found out more about the joyous sunshine that is caught in bottles of wine – and seeing how the genies that live in them grow on mountain slopes, on hills, in valleys – fattening in the summer sun, before that sunshine is trapped in a bottle and stoppered up with wood.

I ate snails before a thunderstorm and the next day watched others  promenade with their shells in the rain, and I stood eye to eye with oxen so big and so beautiful that they looked like drawings of animals; as if a cartoonist had thought: “Now, how do I make this creature look big, soft, huggable – and powerful all at once?”

I climbed into a volcano, and watched a silent sea of ice in its frozen flow down a mountainside. I saw the specks of mountain climbers and walkers moving beneath me on the ice as I hung from a cable above them.

I saw the palace a postman built straight out of his imagination, and the palace a river built from rain and lime, hidden in the darkest, clearest caves.

I have got so much to tell you about how life is amazing. And in due time I will do, now I’m back from my travels.

Thanks for bearing with me!

For Sale: One Motorhome Filled With Good Will

Okay, so there are pitfalls to buying online – and I guess this is my place to let you know all about it.

I’m always one for a deal.  I like to do deals, and I like to make a little bit of money.  The best deals are the ones where you make a phone call and you sell something you don’t yet have – they’re fun.  But then there are the other deals where you buy something, do it up a little bit, and move it on.

These usually go well for me.  But this one… well this one is one that I thought I’d let you know about so that you can maybe just learn a little lesson at my expense.

I saw the motorhome on the website Gumtree, at a great price. I had sold a few that year and had a nice little reserve of money to play with.  And this one was a beauty, judging from the photos.  Not the rusty hulks that I had been dealing in before, but a really nice van.

So, I gave the number a call, and I got through to this Irish woman called Kathleen, and she told me that I should ring another number because her boyfriend, Tony, was dealing with the sale.  I had a chat with him.  He seemed easygoing enough, and when I asked him to send me the chassis number, he did so straight away.  I did an HPI check on the van… all was well and good.  So, could I come and see it?  I had the address for the place off of Gumtree.

“Ah,” he said to me, nice as pie.  “The thing is, we’ve just moved and Kath has put up the wrong address.”  He gave me another address in North London, and I agreed to meet him later that day.

So, up I drove.  We were in a car park on a council estate, and I looked at it with a little bit of something niggling at the back of my mind.  Why was it on a council estate?  And why was it so cheap?

Before I could even answer the questions Tony filled in the background.  “The van used to belong to my dad.  I’ve had it for about a year now, but it’s expensive to run and it’s a bit big for me.”  I looked at the back of the van where the faring had got a little crack.  To confirm my thoughts he said: “You see, I don’t back up so well.”

He was a medium height guy, a bit taller than me, slightly fat with an unhealthy pale skin.  Tony told me all sorts of stuff: how he was a gardener, he didn’t earn much.  They had just been moved to the local area by the council, and they were in a tiny flat nearby.  He pointed to a building.  “What’s worse, I’ve got my little one in there, and he’s been running a temperature.  Don’t want to wake him.”

I looked over the van.  It was pretty clean and smart inside, and I liked the look of it.  Did he have the log book and the MOT?

“Oh, yes, got them just here.” He pulled them out for me to have a look at.  Yes, they all looked legit.  In all, a pretty nice motorhome at an affordable price.

“The truth is,” he said, “I just can’t keep taking days off work for people to come and have a look at it.  I’m up for selling it today, if the price is right.”

So, the paperwork was there, it all looked good enough for me.  And the address was for a different part of London – but – hey – they’d just moved, right?

My radar clearly wasn’t working that day.  In the end, I handed over the figure we agreed, in cash, and I asked for a receipt.  He looked embarrassed.

“I don’t write so well,” he said.  “Can you write one up for me?  I’ll sign it…”

So, sure, I would do that.  I felt kind of concerned for him.  You know, he clearly hadn’t been given the best breaks.  And when he asked me to fill in the Log Book too, I thought: “Great, I’ll just keep hold of this for a while. Won’t be long before I sell it, so why put on an extra owner?  I mean, I’ll have shifted it in the week – then I’ll be well ahead!”

And so the deal was done in quick order.  I drove it home and booked it into a body shop to get it tidied up – get the cracked faring sorted, get it valeted and get it sold.

This is when I started having problems.  The first one was that the body shop took forever to get it into the shop.  And then it took forever to do the work.  I went down week after week – whenever I could – and the thing just didn’t have any work done on it.  Christmas came and went.  And then the new year came.  By February I was getting desperate.

And something else was going on, too.  It was that, every few weeks I would wake up from a dream with a really unpleasant feeling that there was something wrong with the van…  I did three more HPI checks, and it still showed as okay.  But I still wasn’t convinced.  I double checked the MOT.  It was also legitimate.  Then I double checked the mileage on the MOT.  It was wrong.  The MOT had an extra 30,000 miles on the clock reading.

I rang a mechanic friend of mine.  “There are lots of reasons why it might be wrong.  It could have been clocked – or the original odometer might have broken, so they got one from a scrappy.  I shouldn’t worry about it.”

But I did worry about it.  So I checked the VIN plate.  Except there wasn’t a VIN plate.  It had clearly been pulled off.

Once again, my mechanic friend was reassuring.  “Sometimes this comes off when the front cross bar has to be taken off.  Taking out a radiator, or the van having a knock on the front could do that.  It doesn’t mean it’s hooky.  But there is another chassis number stamped into the chassis by the driver’s side foot well.  There’s a cover there. Take it off.  You’ll see.

And sure enough, when I checked, there was the chassis number – correct as per the log book and the HPI check…

So why did I still wake up feeling so damned uncomfortable about it?

Eventually the body shop finished the job tidying up the paintwork and valetting the car.  I got it home and it looked a stunner.  A really nice van.  but once again the feeling had me waking up with a deep suspicion inside me.  I did one more HPI check.  This time something had changed.  The van showed 7 owners on the online check, whereas my logbook showed only 5 owners.  Now, something was wrong, and I knew it.

I took it to my mechanic friend again.  “Let me have a look at the chassis number,” he said.  He took a torch to it, and kept looking at it.  Something was clearly bugging him.

“I think we should take the footwell cover off,” he said.

We did so, and that’s when it all fitted together.  The chassis plate I hade been looking at had been stamped into a piece of metal that had been riveted over the real chassis number.  You couldn’t see what had been done unless you dismantled the footwell cover.  My friend looked at me:  “Oh dear,” he said to me.  “Matt, I’ve never seen anything like this before.  You paid a lot of money for it and… well, what can I say?  I feel for you…”

I had no idea what to do.  Someone had said to me previously when I had expressed doubts about it: “You bought it in good faith, you sell it in good faith.  If it’s hooky, it’s not your fault.”

But I knew that it was hooky, now.  I got in it, in a state of denial, took it back home, got in my other van and drove around for 20 minutes, wondering what to do.

It didn’t take me long to decide.  I’m not a criminal.  There had already been a lot of misery put into that van with its theft, and with my loss of money.  I didn’t think it would be fair to pass that misery and stress on.  It had to stop somewhere.  So, it was going to stop with me.

I walked into Havant nick with the logbook and the MOT certificate, rang the bell, and announced: “I’ve got a ringer for you.”

At first they didn’t believe me, until I told them all about how I bought it.  I had written down the real chassis number for them, and they checked it.  It did come back as belonging to a stolen van.

To cut a long story short, within the hour, a truck was towing it away to a pound.  And my investment of thousands was wiped out.  I looked at it as it was going up the road, and I started laughing.  The PC who was with me looked at me in surprise.

“You’re taking this very well,” he said.

“Well, it’s kind of a relief.  I mean, I took charge of this by coming into you and giving it up to you.  And that means quite a lot.  Besides, I’ve got two arms and two legs, and I know how to make money.  So these thousands I’ve spent on it I can earn back a different way.  The thing to do is focus on getting on with making it, rather than crying over spilt milk.”

Yes, I really did say that.  And I even meant it!

The officer was impressed.  A few hours later he rang me from the nick.

“I’ve done some enquiries,” he said.  “Turns out that the owner never claimed on the insurance.  I’ve spoken to him, and he wants to talk with you.  His name’s Malcolm Stewart.  He’s an ex-Met copper.”

I duly rang.  I liked Malcolm immediately I heard his voice.   He had a proposition for me:

“The thing is, I never reclaimed the insurance because I have been dealing with my mum, who hasn’t been well.  I always hoped I’d get it back.  But a few weeks ago I gave up and bought a replacement.  So, now I’ve got a spare van.  I’m going to sell the nicked one, do you want to buy it?  You can have it for 6 grand…”

It was tempting, but to be frank, I’d done my money on it.  I told him so.  “But,” I said, “If you agree to it, I’ll act as your agent, get you your 6 grand – and anything over, I’ll keep.”

“There it is,” he said.  “Sorted.”

It was an interesting scenario.  I had lost quite a lot of money, but I had a lot of good will from the owner.  I had a mental image of myself as a kind of psychological valet, taking all the misery out of the van, all the anger about the theft, all the disappointment about my loss of money – and filling the van with something bright and positive.  Good will.  I had filled the van with good will.

So, here it is: one van, secondhand, well used.  Great for holidays – and filled with something you don’t find too often.

Good feelings.

Now, where else can you buy those?