“Oh to be in England /Now that April’s there…” wrote Robert Browning in his poem ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad‘. Like us, he happened to be in Northern Italy at the time.
However, on April Fools Day, after two years on the road, we arrived back in the UK. Never mind the chaffinch singing on the orchard bough, we were finding it quite novel to be staying in a house, rather than a caravan.
It had been an EPIC ski season in Monte Rosa and a record year for snowfall in the whole of the Alps. It was unbelievable that there was still snow in April. Last year, the skiing had finished by mid-March because the snow had gained the consistency of porridge. This year, we had beautiful, soft powder almost to the end of the extended season.
Our tenants had left in January, so we had decided to have a nice holiday at home. We drove all the way from Italy to Dorset in one go – opting to get ahead of the half metre of snow that was forecast in the Alps over the weekend. Winter tyres or no, we thought that it might hamper our progress…
To pass the time and practice my languages, I translated Pink Floyd’s ‘Welcome to the Machine’ into German “Willkommen in der Maschine…”
As you can tell, 15 hours in the van just flew by…!
We had been hoping for a Robert Browning Spring but arrived home to a month of torrential rain! I was forced to ask my friend Helen if I had actually fallen through a time warp and landed back in November. Having no outdoor distractions did make it easier to get on with the jobs that needed doing to rectify the trail of destruction left by our former tenants, however.
But our homecomings are never straightforward…
I have told you before that the course of caravanning never did run smooth. It was time to get the caravan out of storage. We had planned to take it up to visit my Dad for the weekend, but when we took off the hitch cover, this is what we found;
We had received a phone call in mid-February to say that there had been a break-in to the caravan storage compound while we were away. The storage company noticed that the door lock on our caravan had been forced, but we had left Kismet empty, so nothing was taken. However, it was clear now that the absolute schweinhunde who broke in had tried to steal Kismet – and had managed to do rather a lot of damage in the process. It was nice of them to put the hitch cover back on, though. We wouldn’t want the ruined hitch lock and charred stabilisers to get dirty – or be noticed… We suspected that like Arnie in ‘Terminator’, they had planned to be back.
We called our insurers and our day just got better and better. The insurers told us that because she now had no hitch lock or wheel lock, which are a condition of our insurance, Kismet was no longer insured. We nearly hit the roof! It wasn’t that we had forgotten to put them on, they had been cut off by thieves with an oxyacetylene torch! Isn’t this why we have insurance?!
It took a while to explain that clearly, since the bolt on the wheel lock had been cut, the remainder of the bolt was stuck in the receiver in the axle, preventing us from fitting a replacement lock, even if we bought one!
They finally agreed that our insurance cover would resume if we fitted a replacement hitch lock immediately. If not before.
Unsure as to how much damage had been caused to the wheel and hitch by the oxyacetylene cutting, we elected not to tow Kismet. We hastily purchased a new hitch lock. Unable to take advantage of internet discounts, we hoped that Kismet would not be stolen in the time it took to get to the nearest camping shop and back. Then we phoned and left messages with our Dealer to make an appointment to get Kismet checked over and sorted out.
I have mentioned before that I think that we’re on our Dealer’s ‘naughty list’ of problem customers. This has come about because we have been forced to raise issues with them that are not our fault, such as shoddy servicing and the dreaded axle problem. So of course, they didn’t return our calls.
The other issues did not mean that we had escaped the financial Armageddon that always accompanies our homecomings. It started with Eurotunnel charging us €88 to change our return booking. We had called about it the day before; they said that we could change the booking for the princely sum of €2.
I admit that they did say that ‘the price might go up a bit’ if we didn’t make the change ‘shortly’. During the heated argument that naturally ensued, they played back their recording of our phone call. Apparently, €88 is a fair price rise for changing a booking on the day of travel – and telling us that ‘the price might go up a bit…shortly’ constituted fair warning of a 4,500% price increase within no more than a few hours.
Then a parking ticket and two speeding fines (one was the infamous 70mph in a 70mph zone! Illegal in a van – unless it has windows and is called a ‘people carrier’. The other a ‘revenue raiser’; a mobile unit clocked us doing 35mph on a country road where there was a sudden and inexplicable change from a 40mph to 30mph limit!)
The caravan break-in cost us over £1000 in repairs, replacement locks and additional security devices. With a £500 excess on our insurance, it was really not worth making a claim. Along with vet’s bills, new specs when the dogs scratched me varifocals and new brakes for the van, our budget for the year was well and truly blown!
Conclusion of the Boundary Dispute
“Land Grab from 95-year-old Widow Sanctioned by Local Council” was the gist of our campaign to fight for justice for Mark’s Mum, whose neighbor had built an extension on her land while we were away last summer. But there, you see, no-one is interested.
We had been in touch with the Council throughout the winter. For six months, the Council had assured us that it was all in hand. The neighbour admitted to building on the party wall line without permission (thus clearly breaking the law) and the Council identified that “the building exceeds the original plans” and “appears to be on the neighbour’s curtilage” ie – over the boundary.
The Planning Officer in charge of the case recommended that the neighbour’s application for retrospective planning permission be denied and enforcement action taken. In a meeting that would have taken fewer than ten minutes in the private sector, the waffling went on for an hour. Vehement points were made as to why enforcement action should be taken; the flagrant flouting of permissions; the huge dormer window that hadn’t been on the plans and had appeared after the ‘final’ inspection; then they took a vote – and APPROVED the retrospective permission!!!!! We wasted an hour of our lives watching the meeting on a podcast. We were flabbergasted!
We fought the decision, of course. The Council’s Planning Office told us that they couldn’t get involved in boundary issues, which are a matter for the civil courts (why had they waited six months to share that little nugget?!)
The MP couldn’t get involved in individual cases. He warned us strongly against repeating our solicitor’s assertion that “Planning is rife with back-handers” and questioning the curious coincidence of the matching ethnicity of the neighbour, his builder and the planning officers who had not spoken a word during the meeting, but all voted in favour of passing the retrospective permission.
As for the local and national press; Mark’s Mum was not upset enough. By not actually dying of shock, the story lacked that gripping emotional hook. And when we simply asked the question as to whether there could be any possibility of corruption – well, it was clear that we were just racist.
Consumer radio and TV programs thanked us for our interest but were not covering these subjects at this time.
Our solicitor advised that boundary disputes are notoriously lengthy and difficult to solve. You might be surprised to hear that in most cases, property boundaries are not recorded in detail by The Land Registry!
To fight the case, the solicitor would need £2000 up front for a consultation and professional survey – and that was just for starters. He was kind enough to advise us that “The courts take a dim view of complaints made after the building is completed.” Being 95, partially sighted and living alone with your son out of the country when the building was under construction was not sufficient reason for failing to raise an objection.
Sometimes the best way to win is just to walk away. It was clearly a losing battle, so we swallowed hard, abandoned our sense of justice and opted to let the neighbour get away with it.
Luckily, Mark’s cousin was able to nip over quickly one Sunday morning to supervise the fly-by-night erection of the new fence; clearly scheduled to take place while we were not around. As we suspected, the neighbour insisted that the new fence should be in line with his new extension, two feet over Mark’s Mum’s boundary. Thankfully, Mark’s cousin successfully insisted that it should not.
The neighbour was less than contrite when Mark’s cousin told him that he should be ashamed of himself for taking advantage of an elderly lady. But then, why should he be sorry? With property prices rising in the area, he had successfully flouted the law and made a small fortune.
The 11th Commandment According to The Local Council; Thou Shalt Not Covet thy Neighbour’s Ass – but it is perfectly fine to build an extension on their land.
So let’s raise a glass to our elected Public Bodies for their excellent work in protecting the elderly and vulnerable.
The chap who attacked Mark without provocation at the end of last year was already known to the police. We had two independent witnesses to the incident and photographs to identify him, along with a photo of the actual bodily harm that he caused when he punched Mark in the face. His behavior had been odd, so we were not surprised to find that he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.
We told the Police that we hoped that he could get the help that he clearly needed. Nevertheless, whatever his problems, it is not OK to pull out a weapon and attack members of the public without warning – particularly the woman we found out that he’d knocked to the ground in similar circumstances. She had been too afraid to press charges.
Also, one day, he would endanger himself by picking on the wrong person.
Bringing him to justice should have been straightforward. Except that he prevaricated by not answering phone calls from the police and failing to turn up to interviews for which a ‘competent adult’ had to be found each time to accompany him. And so, by playing the system, the time frame for pressing charges elapsed and he walked away scot-free. So he is out there folks and completely at liberty to do it again!
As for the break-in on the caravan. The police were called and – well… Have a guess! Absolutely nothing / nada / niente / rien du tout / gar nichts / nulta pulta / Fascinating Aida.
These incidents left us asking the question “Who does the law really protect?” Not the victim, it seems, if the perpetrator knows how to play the system.
However, before you lose faith in the Police and your Local Council completely, I can assure you that they are very, VERY efficient at collecting speeding fines and parking tickets!
In no way do I wish to imply that our speeding fines and parking fines were not just; technically, we had broken the law. The only point I wish to make here is that the weight of the law came swiftly and heavily down on us for very minor transgressions, while the really guilty all got away with it!
Finally – Spring has Sprung!
As we moved into May, at least things got a bit more Robert Browning. Instead of rain, two flaming hot May Bank Holidays in the UK has got to be a record – and ‘Phew! What a Scorcher!’ it was. Bournemouth Beach actually made it on to the national news as 100,000 people flocked there for the Great British Bank Holiday Getaway.
I don’t know why people do it. For my readers abroad, The Great British Bank Holiday Getaway constitutes sitting for hours in an epic traffic jam on the motorway; you pass the time by arguing with the kids, your spouse – or both. Then if your car doesn’t overheat and break down en route (or you give up completely and set up your picnic table in a lay by) you can drive for a few more hours around a packed seaside town, trying to find somewhere to park.
In the unlikely event that there is any Bank Holiday daylight remaining once you have managed to park, you can walk the ten miles or so to the beach – which is rammed with bodies – and try to squeeze on. Once there, you will have the time of your life; getting sunburnt, eating over-priced fish and chips or – if you didn’t polish it off in a lay by – you can enjoy your picnic. The picnic will be all the better for being filled with sand – and bacteria from those long hours in a hot car.
To round off your perfect Bank Holiday, you walk the ten miles back to your car and sit in another epic traffic jam all the way home, hoping that the kids will stop crying and won’t be sick from an overdose of ice cream and sand-filled food.
Alternatively, you could go to the beautiful beach at Southbourne, just east of Bournemouth, which is always pretty well deserted. Or do as we do and just refuse to leave the house!
It was only a couple of weeks, but we felt like we had been back for months. We had planned to spend the summer in our apartment, enjoying the beautiful Dorset coast and countryside in the better weather. However – literally within a week of arriving home – we both admitted to having itchy feet!
Despite unlimited access to curry and fry ups – and the daily novelty of a splash in a bathtub – we couldn’t wait to go away again. And we couldn’t BELIEVE how expensive it was to live in a house! Maintenance Charges, Gas, Water, Electricity, Council Tax – and no rental income coming in! We were well out of pocket.
A plan was hatched. We would rent out the house again, head to Brittany to windsurf for a couple of weeks and then tour Portugal and Spain, investigating gorgeous, remote villages and a world class windsurfing coastline.
It would also be a relief to get back into our bubble. Never mind the mini crime wave we had suffered, a homecoming is always a busy time; catching up with family, friends and maintenance; of the house, van, caravan, pups and ourselves.
We seemed to have had non-stop appointments – but there was nothing stopping us now. We had all passed our MOTs!
31st May – BACK ON WHEELS!
Needless to say, following a blistering, month-long heatwave, our first day back in the caravan was in rain so torrential that it filled the awning and broke one of our new carbon poles! (We replaced our alloy poles, which had all bent last year on the Rhine!)
However, the appearance of Duck Tape and Superglue heralded the advent of some serious DIY.
Being back in the caravan, we discovered a few additional consequences of the break-in. Battery disconnected, front lockers unscrewed and pulled out to disable any trackers – and the thieves had stolen the device for winding the legs up and down! Fortunately, Mark was able to improvise, producing some torque wrench or other with the right fitting from the depths of his Magic Man Bag and modifying it to the correct angle using the Duck Tape.
Still, despite all the problems, we felt an incredible lightening of spirit as we climbed back into our bubble – to embark once more on adventures with our Mutts and Bailey!
Join us next time as we embark on a Brief Bark Around Britain – taking in The Thames Path, The National Watersports Festival and ‘A Bit of a ‘Do”!