Tuesday: Rotterdam – Calais (By Accident)
Mark was in Rotterdam.
This was following THE most ill-fated, 26-hour overland journey from high in the Italian Alps to The Low Countries to collect The Beast, a 30-year old ex-army truck that is to become our new, all-terrain mobile home.
Lady Luck had already made it clear that she was not on our side. After all we’d been through just purchasing The Beast and getting Mark as far as Rotterdam to collect her, I was riddled with angst about whether she would even start, never mind be roadworthy. And it was a good few years since Mark had driven a truck.
My last update had been about midday, before Mark and The Beast had actually met. It was 9:00pm before I got a call to say,
“I’m about eighty miles from the Channel Tunnel,” which was a shame.
I had just paid a supplement for the ferry crossing that he had booked from Le Havre.
Our Brittany Ferries Club Voyage discount card is in my name. They emailed to inform me that, since I was at home puppy-sitting and not travelling with Mark, there was a £48 supplement. In order to help Mark in any way that I could with his horrendous journey, I had paid it straight away. After all, that was one less worry for him. Even though in actuality I had now added the worry of getting a refund for the supplement, as well as the original fare. I had been a great help!
Mark couldn’t chat because once again, the phone battery was almost flat, but I deduced from the context of the conversation that the truck had started and he had made such good time that he wanted to get an early crossing on the Tunnel. That wasn’t quite an accurate appraisal, so I will hand you over to Mark for the first hand account.
I grinned from ear to ear when I first heard the throaty roar of The Beast. She is a very beautiful truck. I had a driving lesson around the block. It was tough and I was absolute crap, which was a bit disheartening. I am used to driving a large vehicle; the van and caravan are the length of an artic., but it’s a while since I have driven a lorry. Sixteen gears (plus reverse!) takes a bit of getting used to, but it will soon come back… I hope.
I said my goodbyes to the kind folk at Jacaranda, who had been so helpful. I jumped into the cab to start my journey but all was not well. Although fully charged when I left home, the satnav was dead. I had no road map for Belgium and, after all the delays getting here, it was now approaching the evening rush hour. The weather was not looking great and I only got two hours sleep last night. The Beast has 24V electrics, which immediately thwarted any possibility of charging the phone or more importantly, the satnav. Jax had asked me to take loads of photos, since she couldn’t be present for the first meeting with The Beast, but even the camera wouldn’t work!
I had made a list of interim destinations to help me navigate, but as I left Rotterdam, there were no signs for any of the way points I had identified. I started to have doubts as to whether I was heading in the right direction, so I pulled off the main road to compose myself and decide whether to carry on blindly. It was a terrible idea!
I found myself on a single-track road, barely wider than The Beast. It was bordered by two slender ribbons of grass then two of Holland’s famous canals; one on each side. I had no choice but to continue along the causeway and after eight hundred yards, found myself in what looked like a leisure centre car park. Even better, it was full of cars and surrounded by a moat. The turning circle of The Beast makes HMS Ark Royal look agile, so I carried out a multi-point manouevre and followed my only option – back the way I came. Naturally, I met a car coming the other way. Somehow, I managed to ease on to a slightly wider piece of the grassy border without plunging into the canal, which gave him just enough room to squeeze past.
Out of ideas, I carried on blindly towards the centre of Rotterdam. Within thirty minutes, I picked up signs to Breda. Then, in the heaviest hailstorm I have ever experienced and the height of the rush hour, I drove an unfamiliar truck through the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and finally crossed into France at Lille.
I can summarise the journey as follows;
TRAFFIC – TRAFFIC – TRAFFIC – HAILSTORM – DOWNPOUR – TRAFFIC – LOST!
It was a baptism of fire. At Lille, I found myself in the pitch dark on the road to the Channel Tunnel rather than the ferry at Le Havre, so I thought, “Bugger it!” and carried on!
I stopped to go online and book a ticket. I got all the way through to payment – and then, the phone battery died. My last working piece of technology. Aaaarrrrggghhhh! I carried on regardless and got to The Tunnel around midnight. I went to the ‘Passenger’ check in, since I was not ‘Freight’.
“You’re too big to go in ‘ere, mate. You’ll have to go to Freight.”
“Will it cost me any extra?”
“Nah, mate. It’s still the same price; £130.”
“I LOVE the lorry!” he shoulted after me as The Beast and I executed another spectacular, multi-point U-turn, this time through an obstacle course of bollards designed to accommodate cars. It was like a dressage test for trucks. The exit spewed me out straight on to the motorway, heading away from the Tunnel. “Oh Shit!” I thought. In the dead of night, I negotiated several roundabouts and eventually found my way back to the Freight Terminal.
As part of my trip planning about a month ago, I had called Eurotunnel to check prices. I had given them full dimensions and details of The Beast. They too had quoted me £130 and assured me that she could travel as a motorhome. But at Freight, the price more than doubled.
I explained my call to Bookings and relayed my conversation at the Passenger Gate, just thirty minutes earlier.
“It’s easy to say that!” Mr Belligerant replied. It must have been a disappointment when he called the chap at the Passenger Gate, who confirmed that he had indeed told me that the price was £130 and wouldn’t change.
“It’s still £280,” came the obstinate response. Clearly, this wonderful human being had not phoned his colleague with any intention to clarify or re-evaluate his decision. His sole objective was to embarrass me and call me out as a liar.
“Surely there is someone who can give me the price I was quoted out of goodwill? I phoned to check and have driven all the way here on the basis of the information I was given, and with a fuel economy of 9mpg, that was not cheap…”
The answer that came back was succinct,
The intransigent response and flexible approach to pricing reflected the same sentiment of goodwill and outstanding customer service that we have experienced previously from Eurotunnel. I recalled the occasion when they hiked up the price to change a booking from £2 to £88 overnight. A mere 4,500%, which they assured us was justified because they had said, “If you wait, the price might go up a bit.” I wonder how much of a rise they would consider ‘a lot’.
Fed up – I left them to it. After wasting a couple of hours, my resolve to boycott Eurotunnel was redoubled. Rather like their prices.
Back en route to Le Havre, I stopped at around 3:00am for a sleep in the cab. About two hours later, I woke up frozen, so I drove on.
I made plenty of stops on the way for caffeine, chocolate and coissants and reached the ferry port at 9:00am. Wiser now, after the Channel Tunnel experience, I went to the Freight check-in, which was open. You guessed – on the ferry it was the opposite. By now, reversing was almost second nature. Like a pro, I backed out my eight metre pantechnicon and parked up by the Passenger check-in, which was closed until 3:00pm.
I sat for a couple of hours and then immobilised The Beast. The weather was pleasant, so I went for a walk. As I got to the far end of town, the wind and rain started.
Wet; cold; tired and miserable – I needed something to punch!
Wednesday: Le Havre – Bournemouth
I hadn’t had an easy night myself. Since Mark left, Rosie developed a habit of crying to go out several times each night. The Fab Four’s nocturnal requests are usually genuine, so to disregard their pleas is a game of Russian roulette with bodily functions. Even though on this occasion, I did suspect that she was stringing me along, ignoring Rosie was not an option. She simply whined until I let her out.
Bleary eyed in my PJs, I stood outside in the snow at 3:45, 4:45 and 5:15am, carrying Lani, who would bark if left alone. Then Mark called at 7:30am. I was surprised to learn that he was about eighty miles short of Le Havre, until he explained how, true to form, The Chunnel had once again let us down spectacularly. Nevertheless, he was brimming with excitement about our new purchase.
“I put €250 of fuel in The Beast and the gauge is still in the red! But that’s not the most unbelievable thing. How many miles do you think she has on the clock?”
A 30-year-old, ex-army truck. I considered for a moment.
“4,000km. That’s all. I asked Jacaranda if it was genuine and they said it was, but it has to be. She still has plastic sheets covering her seats like a new truck!”
It seems that, at the height of the Cold War, the Belgian Army had stocked up on equipment and trucks, which had since been mothballed on an airfield somewhere.
A few hours later, Mark phoned from the port of Le Havre.
“All the customs men have all come out to look at her. She gets more attention than The Fab Four! She’s a very beautiful truck.”
He told me lunch had been a less than successful affair. Mark and I are not fussy eaters and are frequently adventurous with food, even though this has rarely proved a winning strategy. Replete with rancid yak’s butter and greasy, salted tea, The Tibetan Breakfast remains an outstanding example of this – especially when the alternative was a fry up!
There are very few things that we don’t eat, but when pushed to admit our dislikes, our reply is always, “Spam and whelks.”
My own aversion to this strange iteration of surf ‘n’ turf dates back to school. Spam in various forms was a persistent, puce presence in school dinners. I used to call it ‘Pink Plasticine’; since likening it to modelling clay provided a well-founded summation of all its major attributes, such as look, smell, texture and taste. Served cold with salad, it was repellent, but fried Spam with chips or Spam in batter, besides sounding like a Monty Python sketch, oozed with grease and packed such a Plasticine punch that, forty-odd years later, the mere thought of it still makes me feel queasy.
Whelks are an entirely different matter. I dissected one in a Biology class. I was both fascinated and repulsed by the seemingly boundless curtains of mucus that oozed and drooled from the naked mollusc, once twisted out of its shell. Whelk physiology has appropriated a large area of body surface to form a hypobranchial mucus gland. Remarkably, even armed with post-dissection foresight, I did still try to eat one once. A vulcanised rubber eraser would have had a softer texture and undoubtedly, much more flavour.
Most people overcook fish and seafood, which dries it out and does make things like squid rubbery. (There’s a very old joke about a Chinese waiter in there somewhere!) However, I am not sure that any form of scald, scorch or simmer could soften the pseudopodium of a Whelk.
Anyhow, that is the background. I will pass you over to Mark for the full synopsis of lunch;
I found a café to warm up and grab a bite to eat. They even let me charge the phone at reception. I have forgotten most of my French, so I ordered Fruits de Mer, so I got rubber in shells (whelks); gob on a shell (oysters) and some prawns. The prawns were OK, even though Jax’s favourite fact to share over a seafood dinner is, “Prawns are related to woodlice!” I did better with a main course of skate wing, followed by pear tart for dessert. Then coffee. Lots more coffee.
The whelks got their revenge. Mark finished our post-prandial phone call with a rather urgent,
“I’ve gotta go to the loo. Like NOW!”
I spent my morning skiing with fellow seasonal nomad, Graham. We stopped for coffee in the sunshine at one of our favourite mountain huts on the glorious, 8km Olen run down to Alagna. The hut’s real name is Der Schopf, but we sometimes call it ‘Pepé’s’, after one of its residents; a gorgeous, dappled English Setter. Stefano, the owner of both Pepé and Pepé’s told us that the town of Alagna was half empty. Concern about this Coronavirus thing was beginning to spread. Stefano also shared that Pepé was no longer in residence because of the wolves…
It was tiring spending the morning on skis and the afternoon walking the pups. I did not imagine how soon and how much I would miss having such an exhausting day outdoors.
Thursday: The Arthole
At 1:00am, Mark rang to tell me that he was in a B&B but had to get up early to move The Beast. Finding parking for such a large vehicle was tricky and she was partly blocking a drive, albeit one that looked disused.
“I just couldn’t face another night sleeping in the truck.”
At 8:00am, Mark called from The Arthole, our friend Wayne’s creative space; The Beast had arrived.
At last, the transformation could commence!
Concern about Coronavirus was growing, both in the UK and Italy.
“I went to Sainsbury’s and there’s nothing on the shelves!” Mark said. “You can’t get loo rolls for love nor money and there’s nothing else on the news. There is panic-mongering everywhere. Even on Radio 4!”
Since he was back in the UK, Mark had set aside a week or so to sort the fall out from the fire in our apartment block. It was an opportunity to co-ordinate the remedial work, put in the insurance claim, get our tenants re-settled and restore our income. As a responsible adult, he followed the guidelines and made sure to have no contact with anyone.
Our closest friend had refused to see him anyway and we all now thought it wise not to meet up with his brother, for whom we had returned early from our travels last year to nurse through leukaemia. Although he has a ‘clear’ diagnosis, he is still taking medication and his body has been through a lot.
Coming from Northern Italy, albeit an area unaffected by the virus, Mark cancelled all face-to-face appointments, ate his breakfast in his room and managed all the issues remotely. Then, on the morning of Sunday, 8th March 2020, the news broke;
Coronavirus: Northern Italy Quarantines 16 Million People
Fourteen provinces in Lombardy and Veneto were placed in lockdown until 3rd April. I got a worried call from Caroline and Graham, who had decided to evacuate immediately in case the restrictions were extended to Piedmont and our own county of Aosta. They kindly asked if I wanted to flee with them, but there was no way that I could single-handedly pack up the apartment and the caravan in a few hours. I explained that I was probably better off staying where I was, but I called Mark to suggest that he brought forward his return to Italy. I urged him to consider a flight, rather than chancing another overland debâcle; now with the added risk of borders closing.
Not usually one to heed my advice, I got a call back by 10:00am to tell me that his flight to Turin was booked at 6:40am on Monday, the following day. I was so happy! But Mark’s misadventures were still not over.
I got myself to Gatwick around 8:00pm on Sunday night and amazingly, the B.A. check in accepted my baggage. (We had woefully underestimated the quantity of PG Tips and Bisto needed to last us until October, so I had filled a case with emergency supplies!) They gave me an emergency exit seat for no extra charge, which was a bonus. Planes are not designed for someone my height; on most flights, my legs don’t even fit behind the seat in front!
So, with just carry-on luggage, I called Jax from a restaurant to make her jealous of my pie and a pint. Her favourite! After an aimless wander around the airport, I found a bench seat tucked away behind a barrier. I curled up and got about three hours of reasonably comfortable sleep – you understand that the reference to comfort is relative to some of the nights I had spent recently! Around 2:00am, I awoke needing a pee, as you do at my time in life. Fewer than ten minutes later, I returned to find my bench usurped. I was forced to spend the next three hours on the cold, tiled floor with a very hard rucksack as a pillow. A couple of staff woke me to get to the door of their cleaning cupboard. Since it was only about an hour until my alarm, I gave up and went through security.
I returned to Turin on a 200-seater plane with eighteen other passengers. I think everyone had an emergency exit seat. It explains why there was no charge!
The Fab Four and I drove down to collect Mark from the train at Pont St Martin. He looked shattered! On the way back up the hairpins, we agreed that after four months in Monte Rosa, we both had severly itchy feet. We pledged to pack up and leave with the caravan on Thursday 12th (with our luck, not Friday 13th!) to tour Poland and The Baltics. But what a difference a day makes.
The following morning, Tuesday 10th March 2020, the headline had changed;
Coronavirus: Italy extends emergency measures nationwide
Our time had run out. Italy was closed and we were trapped. We were just so grateful that Mark had made it back before the country was locked down. At least our little family could sit it out together – and since Mark’s return, Rosie has not got us up once during the night.
And the other good news? I got an email from ERNIE to say that I had won a premium bond. That £25 will be really helpful when €250 of fuel doesn’t get The Beast’s fuel gauge out of the red!
The message from HMRC stating that we were due to pay a second lot of VAT on The Beast was less welcome.
“If the mileage is under 6000km, the vehicle is considered new,” they declared.
“We paid 21% VAT in Belgium when we bought her. We were assured that, since the UK is still effectively part of the EU, we would not need to pay VAT again when she was imported into the UK. The truck was manufactured in 1990. She is thirty years old. She is anything but new! The mileage reading I gave you was before I drove her back to the UK, so it will have increased – and we have no guarantees that the mileage is genuine…”
We’re uncertain which argument won the day, but to our intense relief, HMRC eventually confirmed that we did not need to hand over a quarter of our conversion budget as a second load of tax. Having just had the double whammy of losing more than a month’s rent AND being forced to pay for alternate accommodation for our tenants due to a fire that was not our fault, we had embarked once again on a yet another novel and completely-impossible-to-predict collision course with Financial Armageddon.
Out of interest, we asked Wayne to check The Beast’s odometer. The journey from Belgium to Blighty had taken her mileage to… 5,703km.
Our 30-year-old spring chicken was 297km short of being considered ‘not new’. The potential tax implications associated with each one of those 185 miles made her disastrous fuel economy look like the bargain of the century!
Getting The Beast this far has been a journey of many ups and downs. All we can hope is that from here, the only way is up!
Mark and I care very deeply about the environment. We considered The Beast’s fuel economy very carefully, but are satisfied that it is more than offset by our very low-carbon lifestyle. To read our rationale, please see Carbon Footprints & The Beast.
I will post updates on The Beast’s conversion. To stay in touch on this and our other adventures, please follow my blog. Click ‘Follow’ if you are a WordPress user, or enter your email address in the box on the right hand side of the page. No spam guaranteed!
My friend Wayne is the creative genius behind Surfmirrors, beautiful, handmade driftwood or surfboard-shaped mirrors and wooden lamps, signs and wine racks. Like many small businesses at this time, he would appreciate your support, so if you’re looking for a unique gift for that special someone, please do get in touch.