Finally, after a coronavirus lockdown that saw Mark and I trapped ‘in the brick’ for eight months, we are back on the road in The Beast, our new Volvo N10 expedition truck.
The conversion went entirely to plan. In fact, we finished the work early, which allowed us a couple of weeks to test all the systems and ensure everything was working perfectly when we finally set off.
Who am I kidding? This is Lambertshire. Nothing would ever go that smoothly with a brace of Truckin’ Idiots in charge!
Volvo means ‘I Roll’.
It is the first-person conjugation of the Latin verb volvere (think ‘revolve’), selected by a Swedish ball bearing manufacturer who wanted a simple, memorable name that was easy to pronounce. Yet for many months, even with six wheels on my wagon, only time was still rolling along.
Back in March, Mark collected The Beast from a dealer in Rotterdam. He drove it to ‘The Arthole’ for our mate Wayne to convert, ready for our planned departure for Mongolia in October.
In a fit of optimism, Wayne said, “I’ll have that done by July!”
Within weeks, Britain locked down because of the coronavirus pandemic, which trapped Mark and I in a ski resort in Italy. Shortages of materials didn’t get the conversion off to a good start and closure of government departments frustrated our attempts to register The Beast.
Unable to return to a locked-down UK, Mark and I had no option but to remain in Europe for the early part of the year. Wayne kept us informed of progress, and as England relaxed the rules in late summer, he promised to devote the whole of August to the build.
Throughout August, as Britain basked in a heatwave, Wayne’s Facebook page basked in photos of him and his kids on a sun-drenched Bournemouth beach.
“Fair enough!” Mark and I grinned at each other. “He’s a self-employed artisan who chose an alternative lifestyle to grant himself such liberties.”
With coronavirus cases rising sharply and the risk of borders closing, Mark and I cut our road trip short by a couple of months and rushed back to England a few months earlier than intended. Talk of a second wave of coronavirus made us sceptical about our October departure, but our relaxed attitude was just as well. When we returned at the end of August, very little had happened on the truck. Our first visit to the Arthole, Wayne’s yard, revealed she was partially insulated and lined, and had solar panels fitted, but that was about it.
Soon, Wayne complained, “I’ve more work than I know what to do with!”
“Don’t turn down business,” we urged.
We’d always intended the truck to be a guaranteed source of income for Wayne to fit in around other jobs. And sunbathing.
We pushed back our deadline to March, but as winter came, work slowed because,
“I need to make some stock for Christmas!”
Then it was actually Christmas, so nothing happened for weeks. Then January and February were wet, cold and frustrated by a third coronavirus lockdown.
In March, we passed our first Truckversary. Even with Mark helping, little progress had been made. Outdoor jobs such as welding had to be scheduled into windows of good weather. All too frequently, Mark would book tradespeople on a good forecast, only to turn up and find the Arthole deserted and locked. Wayne has a fabulous repertoire of stock phrases and on these occasions, would deploy, “LOOK AT YOUR PHONE!”
True, neither of us are good at checking texts, but the situation was exacerbated by the poor signal both at home and at the Arthole. Wayne’s messages were always last minute, and could arrive on any phone, depending which number he’d last used. One day, when Mark stayed home in response to a message received that morning, an outraged Wayne rang to enquire,
“Where the f@*! are you?”
Wayne’s text, sent two days previously, had only just arrived!
Wayne’s methods of communication also varied, regardless of how many times we told him we only picked up emails and Facebook messages when we opened our laptops. We never knew which device to check to avoid a wasted journey. Wayne started work at ten, but even if we checked everything as Mark left the house at 9.30 a.m., it did not guarantee Wayne would be there.
Wayne is a humorous, talented and generous guy; a brusque northerner with a tendency to call a spade a shovel. Happily, he helped us compile a list of his best catch phrases.
“I’m surrounded by f@*!n’ idiots!”
“That’s what you get if you employ office workers!”
“That’s too much!”
“That’s not enough!”
As you can see, whatever Mark did, it was wrong!
My particular favourite was, “We’ve made a feature out of a f@*! up!”
The Beast has quite a few of those. They add to her character, but more of that later.
Wayne and Mark work in very different ways. In the bad old days of work, Mark was a logistics manager, used to planning and managing multi-million-pound projects. Wayne’s modus operandi was to wing it, and only order things as and when they were needed. This even encompassed consumables like drill bits, screws and nails. Daily drive-rounds for essentials put Mark on first name terms with the staff of Screwfix, In-Excess and Castle’s Hardware.
“Be cool!” was Wayne’s response to the ten-week lead times quoted when we were ready to fit the door and windows.
Mark just about held it together after being sent to Southampton, a ninety-minute round trip, twice in one day. First for wood. Later, for metal.
“Where’ve you been for that? F@*!ing Mongolia?” did nothing to assuage the tension when Mark was held up in traffic on the second return journey.
Then came our baptism of fire in dealing with fabricators. Week after week, we chased up our stainless-steel shower tray, deflector bars and roof lights. Twice, we drove to Wareham, another ninety-minute round trip, to collect items on the agreed date, only to be told, “We’ve lost the drawings, mate!” then, “We forgot about it and now you’re at the back of the queue!” To ensure they answered our phone calls, we learned to call from numbers they didn’t recognise.
During the UK’s second and third lockdowns, supplies of materials dried up. Then, when the transition period ended on 1st January, Brexit, the gift that keeps giving, kicked in. Sourcing items like the Sikaflex adhesive we needed for the windows was impossible. European companies refused to ship goods to the UK because of the red tape involved, and import duties doubled the price.
Then our electrician walked off the job and our welder texted to say he was having a nervous breakdown. I thought Mark might be about to follow.
Mark and I had lost much of our last two years of pre-Brexit freedom of movement; first when we had to return home to nurse his mum and brother through illness; then because of coronavirus. For fear of squandering a further year of travel, we had to draw a line in the sand. The UK’s third lockdown put paid to our March departure, but we set Wayne an immovable deadline of 1st July and gave our landlords notice. Ready or not, we had to vacate.
By now, we had sold our apartment, but were renting it back. Thankfully, our landlords were very understanding of the catchphrase we’d evolved,
“The truck’s not ready. Can we stay one more month?”
They were also staggeringly cool about the mutiny staged by the property once it was sold. Embarrassment made us exceedingly tolerant of three weeks with no heating, no shower and no flushing loo. Then the cooker started to fuse the electrics every time we switched it on. When the bath had to be removed to access a valve under the floor the day the Agent did a viewing with a prospective tenant, I almost succumbed to hysteria. Somehow, he saw the charm amid the chaos and signed on the dotted line.
All of a sudden, our dealine was very real.
The global pandemic and Wayne’s relaxed attitude were not our only issues with the build. Andy, our electrician, was a van-dweller who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. Unable to drive, we were happy to give him lifts, food, support and a lot of leeway, because he needed the companionship as well as the work. His illness had positives – he was fastidious to the point of compulsion, but negative in the sense that he had regular melt-downs, and wired up The Beast to the sort of secure standard consistent with the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
A pale, bowed figure, always surrounded by a heavy black coat and an aura of kerosene from the heater in his van, Andy was like a paranoid character from the comedy Secret Army.
“Don’t take my photograph. I don’t exist!” he demanded of camera-happy me. Needless to say, I have not used his real name.
One night when I was driving him home, he radioed his own van,
“Calling home base. Calling home base.”
I realised it was part of his elaborate security system and managed not to giggle. Just.
He and Wayne bickered constantly, which was not without entertainment value, although it would inevitably end in tears.
I often returned to the yard to collect Andy and Mark after walking the dogs, only to hear Wayne complaining vociferously,
“This is why I get f@*k all done, babysitting this pair all day. Laurel and Hardy!”
Andy’s other aura was a cacophony of electronic rave music, blasted out of a boom box. He’d composed and recorded it himself, presumably while in search of a tune. Between claims that he invented the CE Mark and had single-handedly kept the UK’s National Health Service afloat throughout the 1980s, Andy filmed the build. Latterly, he used our video camera, which we donated to quell the explosion that occurred when his broke.
When we discovered the fan in the shower was wired up back to front, and sucked air in, rather than expelling it, Andy told Wayne,
“I didn’t fit that fan. I wasn’t even here that day, and I have a video to prove it!”
A video he’d taken of the fan being fitted…
“T’volcano” and “T’brick” were crafted to accommodate USB ports where insufficient space had been left in the sofa’s frame. These particular “Features from a f@*! up” were all captured on film by Andy, presumably while he wasn’t there!
We settled into a routine. Andy would take a week to do a day’s work, have a flare up with Wayne, quit in a huff, then require at least a week of pleading and negotiation from Mark to persuade him back. On every occasion, Mark had to offer mediation services between Wayne and Andy, both of whom had an immovable red line that the other should apologise.
About half-way through the project, Andy threatened to ruin Wayne’s business on Facebook and Wayne threatened to throw Andy’s stuff that he’d been storing for free in the river. According to Andy, the trigger was that Wayne wouldn’t let him pull a wire through a conduit with a piece of string.
Andy walked off the job for good and we needed Einstein to figure out what he’d done with the electrics.
In May, as we raced to the finish, Wayne told us he’d been offered eight weeks of lucrative work that he couldn’t turn down. Never one to overreact, I felt like screaming loudly into a hopeless void of despair before drowning myself in a vat of malmsey wine. He’d had the truck for fourteen months and his invoices, although refreshingly honest, showed he’d completed around six weeks work.
Wayne knows everyone, however, and enlisted a community army to come and help. For the next two months, Mark and Rob the Roadie worked seven days a week, with Wayne joining in at weekends. Henry did the plumbing and the gas, while Rob and Alex ripped out and replaced three-quarters of Andy’s electrical spaghetti. Katie, who helped Mark to insulate the cab and re-cover the headliner, shared her interactions with Andy, which very much mirrored our own,
“We’ve all driven to Poole to get him kerosene, taken him to the vape shop and Sainsbury’s. I got him a bag of shopping and the next day, he was on the van life forum saying he was all on his own and no-one helps him!”
“You took him to Stonehenge for his friend’s funeral, didn’t you?” Wayne said to us.
“Yes!” I replied. “And gave him £100 of food to see him through Christmas, bought him lunch every day, carried jerry cans of water to save his bad back, took him out for walks at the weekends so he wasn’t alone in his van…”
I still resent nothing we did for Andy, because he needed the help. He never thanked us once, nor has he offered us the video footage of our build that he took on the camera we gifted to him.
On D-Day (Departure Day), our plan was to pack up at leisure, then leave around midday for a slow meander to a self-build campervan get-together in Wantage, Oxfordshire. The logic behind our first stop was not just social. We reasoned that if anything went wrong with The Beast, there would be someone around who knew which bit to clobber with a spanner. We’d also been told there was a film crew there who were very interested in The Beast.
At 8.30 p.m. on D-Day, we were still working on the truck, fitting in finishing touches around clearing our apartment for the last time, returning keys, and collecting The Beast’s upholstery, which wasn’t ready until 4 p.m. Foolishly, I had said to Mark,
“It doesn’t matter if we haven’t finished some cosmetics, so long as we have the basics; electricity, gas and water.”
On D-Day, we had electricity. With his full-time job, Henry was unable to come and sort out the remaining issues with the plumbing.
Yet we had no option but to move into The Beast. We had nowhere else to go.
In a strange parallel with the day five years ago when we packed up to start touring full time in Caravan Kismet, we departed hours late and drove only 1.5 miles from base.
In 1945, the original D-Day was delayed twenty-four hours due to the weather. We missed our first night at the South Central Self Build Get Together, along with our shot at stardom; an interview for the Channel 5 documentary ‘Million Pound Motorhomes’.
Site rules forbade overnight stays at the Arthole. Tears pricked my eyes. We were now truly homeless and since we wouldn’t make our planned first stop, had no idea where we could park our gigantic pantechnicon. Perhaps feeling a stab of pity, Wayne guided us to his secret wild camping spot in the New Forest.
There, Mark and I cracked open a bottle of wine and watched a hobby, a rare bird of prey, hunt in the field opposite.
The Beast is fully self-sufficient and much more versatile than Caravan Kismet, which needed the facilities of a campsite. Parked in a beautiful location, everything didn’t seem so bad, other than the water not working and the smell of gas under the hob.
Well, we had electricity, and fortunately, I had the foresight to bring along emergency H2O.
On the morning of D-Day-plus-one, Wayne showed us how to locate a gas leak using dishwashing liquid.
“Put LOADS on. Where you see it bubbling, tighten the joint, ‘cos there’s your leak.”
Gradually, our services came on line. By day two, we had cold running water and were cooking on gas. By day six, three gas leaks and two water leaks into our travels, we managed a much-appreciated hot shower. We didn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning, although I had been keeping the windows open. Just in case.
An immense military aircraft; a C17 Globemaster, overflew us several times on our first morning. Either he was practising ‘touch and gos’ at Bournemouth airport, or it was the Russians checking us out to make sure we were not an invading force.
Our first morning also brought our first disapproving look. A passing cyclist failed to appreciate the beauty that is The Beast. He turned up his nose when we proffered a friendly “Hi”. Despite our residence being the mansion house of motorhomes, we were now travelling folk. Officially on the wrong side of conventional society.
The divide between, “Oh WOW! Good for you! You’re Living the Dream!” and “You’re a worthless didicoy whom I automatically despise!” is slight.
Volvo’s symbol, a circle crossed with an arrow, represents masculinity, the Roman god Mars, and the alchemical symbol for iron. It’s designed to represent ‘rolling strength’.
To my disgust a few months previously, Mark had ventured,
“I don’t think you’ll be able to drive The Beast.”
That was like a red rag to a bull.
“I can fly a feckin’ plane,” I growled. “There’s no reason I can’t drive a truck!”
However, riding in the cab for the first time, I saw what Mark meant. Driving The Beast certainly required some rolling strength. With huge knobbly tyres and limited power assistance, steering was very physical, and gear changes required two feet of travel.
My role as passenger was equally interactive. Through the narrow lanes in a four-metre-tall, left-hand-drive vehicle, my running commentary was worthy of a co-pilot in a rally car,
“Low-hanging branches right. Sharp left turn fifty yards; clear. Road narrows ahead; large vehicle approaching. Pedestrian left. Ten percent gradient with hairpins, Oncoming cyclist…”
We stopped at the first service station on our route. After covering just twenty miles, we were both exhausted, and with no water or gas, we really needed our first coffee of the day!
Finally, we Volvo’d in to the Self Build meet in the late afternoon. A two-point shuffle got us in through the narrow gates and the cab rode through the canopies of an avenue of trees. A welcoming committee filmed and photographed our spectacular entrance, so there was no pressure when Mark had to reverse around a corner on to our pitch through a second narrow gateway, while avoiding an inopportunely placed post that interrupted our swing trajectory. He did it perfectly, which was not bad, first time out.
Just as we’d set up, Nev, our neighbour whose large motorhome was now blocked in behind us, came and asked,
“Can you move that, mate? I need to get out!”
As with Wayne, that’s just the sort of inflammatory banter that kicks off a firm friendship.
Mark and I have many amazing talents, but the technicalities of self-build campervans are not among them. In truth, we’re as green as our truck. The conversation between Mark and Darren, the organiser, reminded me of the scene in Home Alone where Macauley Culkin quizzes John Candy,
“What Make is she?”
“How big’s the engine?”
“V6 or V12”
“Errr, not sure…”
“What configuration is the intermittent sprocket flange ball?”
“Now, you’ve lost me…”
At least when Alex the electrician stopped by to say ‘Hi’, he fixed our water pump – it was just a fuse.
When the awed crowd asked where we intended to go in such a magnificent vehicle, we had to admit that, due to covid, our plans were a bit more Margate than Mongolia. However, the UK is a beautiful country and we were looking forward to exploring all those places we had been saving for our frail dotage, when we’re too old and knackered to overland across Kazakhstan.
There is a saying, ‘Shoot for the moon and even if you miss, you’re still among the stars’.
It’s not true, of course.
For a start, the moon is 252,088 miles away, while our nearest star, the sun, is 93,000,000 miles. I won’t even mention the next one, Proxima Centauri. (Okay, I will. It’s 24,984,092,807,519 miles or 4.3 light years.)
Who said science isn’t fun? However, even without this obvious and irritating inaccuracy, had anyone said that to me over the last eighteen months, I would have taken the trouble to find my intermittent sprocket flange ball and disembowelled them with it.
Building your own home in the back end of a truck is always going to be a long and winding road, yet despite all the hiccups, we were delighted with the result.
In a backlash against Caravan Kismet’s tastefully inoffensive and neutrally unprovocative ‘fifty shades of beige’ interior, we’d gone for an ‘explosion in a paint factory’ look. Aquamarine walls and ceiling gave the decor an ‘underwater’ feel, complemented by sunny coral and ochre cupboards in hand-stained wood. I felt our ‘tequila sunrise’ shower cubicle and Italian camo upholstery in retina-searing hues of indigo, tangerine and turquoise were a triumph. Perhaps it’s lucky for the Fab Four that dogs are red-green colourblind.
A steady stream of self-builders filed in to view our living quarters at the get together. It was easy to read the facial expressions of those who appreciated the kaleidoscopic exuberance, and those whose first reaction to the polychromatic pumelling was a jaw-flooring, “WTF?!”
The build had tested our mettle. In and of itself, it was a tough journey, but living under covid lockdowns had also been harsh. At times, I felt so depressed I couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to even open a book or watch TV.
Wayne’s stunning craftmanship makes The Beast a striking one-off, and he certainly helped us bring in the project at a fraction of what it would otherwise have cost.
Getting back on the road re-ignited my mojo and I felt elated.
To paraphrase Jack Kerouac, there is nowhere to go but everywhere, so we will just keep rolling under the stars.
To see ‘Those Weirdos’ heading to Portugal in a yellow van with one child, two dogs and two cats, plus my truck twin David, who bought his truck at the same time as us – and almost bought the blue sister of The Beast – check out Series 2, Episode 4 of Million Pound Motorhomes on Channel 5. The producer said they might feature us in the next series, if they make one, of course!
I have published four books about our previous travels across Europe with Caravan Kismet and book 5 is on its way. Recently, Rafting The Zambezi – The River of the Gods was published in the travel anthology Itchy Feet which is now available on Amazon. For more details, click here.
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All characters and anecdotes written here are true, although some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.