“You can take that anywhere!”
As the crowds mobbed around our rig at the Adventure Overland Show in Stratford on Avon, the watchword was, “That’s definitely a ‘Go Anywhere’ truck!”
With four-wheel drive, the ability to climb slopes up to sixty-degrees, and anecdotal assurance that, “You could drive that on the moon!” we had absolute faith in the capabilities of The Beast, our fifteen-tonne Volvo N10.
We also had 1,200 watts of solar panels on our roof. The electrical fitter dismissed our questions about fitting a battery-to-battery charger to replenish our bank of leisure batteries as we drove.
“With that lot up top, you could power a rock festival!” he assured us.
But as the bright October days shortened, we realised he was referring to summer festivals only. We started to use more energy than we generated. Our AGM batteries dwindled to 10 volts; a level that could cause permanent damage. We desperately needed an electrical hookup.
The campground in Cheltenham was full, which wasn’t too convenient. Although Lani was now back with us after her near-death experience, she had to return to the vet in Cheltenham the following day for a check-up. That left us with no choice but to move to a campsite further away. Who knew what strife this would get us into?
Cornfields and us have a history.
In Romania, our satnav led us, caravan and all, across two cornfields – the definition of what constituted a road in Romania was a bit more malleable than in the rest of Europe. We didn’t expect to encounter such difficulties in Gloucestershire!
The satnav took us blithely into a lane that declared itself ‘Unsuitable for heavy goods vehicles’. Such signs are often advisory – my Dad frequently used a byway with a sign which asserted it ‘Unsuitable for motors’. It was so commonplace that, as kids, we often asked, “Are we going down ‘The Unsuitble’?” And we were still riding the wave of invincibility endowed by owning a ‘Go Anywhere’ truck’.
Mark and I chortled, “We drove up to Shooting Box, which was virtually on the summit of a mountain!”
How bad could it be?
The encroaching branches of mature trees started to meet above the narrow road. As they scraped along the roof and sides of The Beast, cold fingers of doubt began to creep into my mind. When the darkening green tunnel drew us down a single-track decline, as steep as the infamous Derby Bank at Hickstead. I lost my bottle.
“Mark, this road is about five miles long. What if it gets worse? I saw a sign back there that said the village it passes through is particularly unsuitable for HGVs.”
Fear is contagious. Looking at the sharp downhill and the invading branches, Mark’s faith deserted him too. We had gone much too far to reverse out, so we looked in vain for somewhere to turn around. When we saw two field entrances slightly offset and at the wrong angle, we were desperate. We jumped at the chance. It appeared to be our only option.
Mark reversed into the access on the left, ready to pull forward into the one opposite. In an instant, The Beast’s 15-tonne majesty sank immovably into Gloucestershire. In quick succession, my heart and stomach followed.
In a moment, our plight had transitioned from a slightly tricky situation into real trouble. I jumped out of the cab to see four huge knobbly drive tyres spinning in a rusty-red soup of slippery, sticky mud.
“We’re supposed to be able to ascend a sixty-degree gradient!” I lamented.
Unfortunately, not without traction. As Mark and I assessed our position, the cloying mud clung to the soles of our trainers. As we slid around like a pair of incompetent rookie skaters in Dancing on Ice, we identified the problem. Without grip, four-wheel drive could not even propel The Beast up a slight incline and over the lip of tarmac at the side of the road.
In times of trouble, I like to investigate all avenues.
“Why don’t you try the diff lock?” – this feature of a four-wheel-drive vehicle allows each wheel to act independently, so that if one is spinning, the others can still drive normally and utilise their grip. It made no difference. All the wheels were spinning. I checked out a track that led downhill through the cornfield, but it didn’t re-join the road at the bottom. We didn’t want to get ourselves further into the field, and further into trouble.
I sensed an eruption brewing and made myself scarce. In times of stress, Mark doesn’t always appreciate my assistance. One woman’s ‘help’ is another man’s ‘interference’, so I left him trying to find the sand ladders, or ‘waffle boards’, which help tyres to grip on slippery surfaces. They were buried in the back of the truck, so he had to take the bikes off, and unload most of our windsurfing gear into the mud. It was a lesson – stow your recovery equipment where it’s easily accessible!
It was hard for me just to sit in the cab with four scared pups and the branch of a blackthorn bush poking into the driver’s side window. The blackthorn was heavy with juicy ripe sloe berries, but I couldn’t even summon enthusiasm to think about them, never mind harvest them. Even though home-made sloe gin is one of my favourite things; cherry-red, bittersweet and almost vaporous on my palate…
A fortifying nip of alcohol would have been most welcome, but there were more pressing matters to consider. How were we going to get a 15-tonne truck out of a muddy field? Lani had to be back at the vet’s the following day. We could rent a car, but that would mean leaving our home and all our possessions bogged down in somebody’s field! We could call a lorry recovery company, but would a suitably powerful recovery vehicle even get to us down the lane? And first things first. To summon recovery or a hire car, how would we give our location? Other than ‘in a cornfield down an unnamed road, somewhere between Cheltenham and Cirencester’, we had no idea where we were.
Apps are new to me. I had loaded and used my first app, Park4Night, in anger a few weeks before. A road-closure prevented us from reaching our proposed park up, so we had to find an alternative quickly, before darkness fell. I had heard of a potentially useful app called What3Words, which pinpoints your location anywhere on earth to within a three-metre square; handy for skiing or hiking in the back country.
Like Park4Night, it was something I always thought might be useful, but had never quite got around to looking into. So, while Mark skated in a lake of terracotta-coloured clay, I decided it was time to download and achieve mastery of What3Words, while keeping one eye open for a passing farmer, who might have a big tractor.
Mark prised the muck out of the tyre treads with our tyre lever and put the sand ladders down in front of each of the rear drive wheels. After an hour of hard labour, The Beast lurched forward in three short bursts of one metre; the length of a sand ladder. After each brief but hope-infused advance, we picked up a mud-encrusted sand ladder and moved it forward, to the front of each wheel. Yet, the mass of relief that flooded into me as we got our drive wheels on tarmac evaporated just as quickly when Mark drove slightly uphill into the field entrance opposite. He was still determined to turn around.
“I checked the onward route on the map while you were getting out the sand ladders. There is a way to avoid the village and rejoin a main road.”
I stayed outside to guide him and generally direct traffic on the lane. There was a grassy bank about three feet high in the way of him reversing around the corner. Our ‘Go Anywhere’ truck mounted it, but was then stuck with two drive wheels off the ground. Then, as the wheels slithered off the bank and fifteen tonnes bounced back down on to terra firma, the whole wagon lurched to the left. I looked on, helpless, as The Beast’s nose slewed downhill on another slick of mud. My mouth felt as dry as Death Valley; I thought the whole truck was going to overturn. I had been so relieved to get out of the first field. Now, the nightmare had re-started, and had upped its game. I was so distraught, I couldn’t bring myself to take photos or film.
Mark couldn’t steer around the bank, so there was no way to turn around. At least in this slippery field, we had gravity on our side. Eventually, Mark reversed down the incline back onto the road, facing in the original direction. I pleaded with him just to carry on down the hill.
After our second foray into a field, our tyres were once again slick with mud. Mark jerked the truck left and right in the narrow confines of the lane to clear the treads. On the map, the hill had the telltale double arrows to indicate its spectacularly steep gradient; I was terrified we would just slide straight down it, like an oversized, NATO green toboggan.
Once we reached the campsite, I could have wept with relief and exhaustion. Mark resembled a mud-encrusted gargoyle. I felt as hollow and depleted as a burnt-out corpse. At least we could charge up our batteries – and do some laundry.
We both felt so foolish getting our ‘Go Anywhere’ truck stuck, but that in itself was a lesson. Even a ‘Go Anywhere’ truck has limitations! At least it happened somewhere where help was readily available, and we’d proven that we could self-rescue, using those pieces of equipment you carry, but hope never to use.
Over a home-cooked lamb curry, we reflected on how a single, insignificant problem always seems to compound itself into a major crisis.
Our batteries were low, so we needed a campsite. The site in Cheltenham was full, which forced us to go to Cirencester. We were so stressed and upset because Lani had nearly died that we forgot to double check the satnav’s chosen route on a map. So, we got stuck in a field, with a deadline to get our precious darling back to the vet.
At least I saw some humour in the situation as I told Mark the name of our What3Words’ location.
“It was Sinkhole.Tiles.Sorted. If you think of the sand ladders as tiles, that is the whole sorry tale abridged into three words!”
We both hoped that our horrible week was over, but sadly, life is never like that. The murky mires of Gloucestershire were not done with us and our recovery gear yet.
The following morning, as we rushed to pack up and get Lani to her vet appointment, a couple approached us.
“Our motorhome is stuck in the mud. Can you tow us off?”
Like good Samaritans, we made time for them, even though we had a deadline. They were in the same position as we had been yesterday – wheels skidding in a sea of red mud. We were embarrassed when we told them what happened to us the previous day.
“What? You got THAT stuck! Surely, it’s a ‘Go Anywhere’ truck!”
It didn’t take long. We had a kinetic recovery rope and a whole array of shackles, now stored in an accessible location!
They thanked us profusely, and we all went on our way.
Half an hour later, I took a phone call.
“Can I call you back? We’re driving and I can’t hear you over the engine noise.”
“Okay. Just hang on a second and we’ll find somewhere to pull over.”
I thought it might be the vet, so it came as a shock to discover an irate campsite owner on the other end of the line.
“You’ve caused damage to our campsite and driven off without saying anything!”
“I wasn’t aware that we’d caused any damage,” I said, “and we certainly wouldn’t have driven off if we knew we had. If we have caused any damage, we’re sorry, and we will certainly pay for it.”
“You’ve damaged our grass and knocked over a post. You should know better than to drive a vehicle like that on the grass after all this rain!””
“We didn’t drive over the grass. We were careful to stay on the tarmac. If we have caused any damage, I’m sorry, but we didn’t notice.”
“You can’t possibly have not noticed!”
His tone was starting to get my back up, but I remained calm as I reiterated my position,
“We didn’t drive on the grass, and we didn’t notice any damage. As I said, if we had, we would not have driven off!”
We went around in the same circle for at least five minutes. He repeated his accusations; I apologised, but unfortunately, the stress of the last few days caught up with me and eventually, I lost my cool.
“Okay. You’re accusing me of being dishonest by driving off; lying about damage I didn’t realise we’d caused; and being stupid by saying we should know better than to drive on grass, which we didn’t! Let me just get this straight. What we did was a good turn. For you, and for a couple who asked us to tow them off because they were stuck on their pitch. We could have done without it, because have a vet appointment in Cheltenham. Like I said, we’ll pay for any damage we’ve caused. That’s what you’re getting at, isn’t it? You want money out of us.” My voice started to achieve the pitch of fishwife. I finished with, “My dog nearly died two days ago. We’re on the way to the vet, and you’re delaying us.”
I unleashed a scream of frustration and anguish as I hung up. I’m not sure the telephone was fully disconnected, but I hope he heard the reaction he’d caused over his bloody grass and a toppled pole that he couldn’t confirm was split, or fixable, or how much it would cost to put right.
Somehow, I had restrained myself from saying he should have had more sense than to put a motorhome on a grass pitch after all that rain. However, now, I’d made up my mind. In the light of his appalling attitude, I would not be paying for anything, unless he proved beyond doubt we were responsible, which would take some time, because I had no intention of responding to any further communications. He had really turned the situation round!
I saved his number under a rude name, so that we would have prior warning if he called, but he didn’t contact us again. Either he heard me howl like a banshee and felt remorse for causing such pain and distress, or more likely decided he was dealing with a complete nutcase, and thought it best to leave it. I think he simply wanted to vent his anger on somebody about the mess the motorhome made of his pitch – which was nothing to do with us.
It reminded me why we no longer stay on campsites. The greater the separation between us and petty-minded jobsworths, the better.
Back at our free and easy park-up in Cheltenham, our new doggie walking friends all greeted us warmly and asked after Lani. She sailed through her checkup and our magical little minx was returned to us with a clean bill of health.
Then, one last catastrophe spelled the end of our travels.
I spoke to my dad, who sounded very odd and distant. I had not seen him for two years – we spoke regularly on the phone, but he repeatedly told me not to visit, “because of coronavirus”. He is a proud man, so I had my suspicions about his motives. Sadly, my worst fears turned out to be true. At 86, he was hiding behind coronavirus to conceal a number of age-related problems, and he desperately needed help.
As we did two years previously for Mark’s mum and brother, we dropped everything to answer the call of caring duties, and set our course for Lancashire.
*Note I have changed the What3Words location name ever-so-slightly while keeping the sense, so that we don’t get pursued by an irate farmer for driving over his grass!
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