At last, we were sitting at Newhaven on Britain’s south coast, about to board the ferry to our next adventure. For many months, it had felt like a day that might never arrive.
Our previous year’s travels came to a screeching halt in October. I found out my elderly father was struggling to cope, so we set a course for Lancashire. Although he has plenty of room in his house, Dad has an almost pathological fear of dogs. With our pack of four, staying with him was impossible. The small campground we used when we toured in a caravan could not accommodate the majestic dimensions of The Beast, our 24.5 tonne truck. In Blackburn, an industrial former cotton milling town in a damp corner of north-west England, alternative campsite options were non-existent.
I recovered our van, Big Blue from storage in Bournemouth on the basis that Big Blue was a more practical runaround than The Beast. Mark drove to Blackburn on the basis we’d figure something out. The Beast has a top speed of 45mph, so I arrived hours before Mark and waited for him at Dad’s.
“I’m at a pub that does Park4Night,” he said when finally called to announce his arrival. “Do you want to join me and we’ll grab a bite to eat?”
Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the kindness of people. Like the Lady in the Van, featured in Alan Bennett’s excellent play (now a film starring Dame Maggie Smith), we turned up at the pub intending to stay for one night. Peter, the Landlord came out to inspect the behemoth that had just appeared on his car park. When we explained our situation, he replied immediately,
“I completely understand. I’ve just lost my mum. Stay as long as you like.”
With the pub only a ten minute drive from Dad’s, Peter’s offer was a lifesaver. At first, Dad needed someone with him at least four times a day; to get him up, get his meals, and help him to bed. After a few weeks, our day-to-day duties eased off when we got a care package sorted out for him, but we still had to fix up the house, which had not been maintained for decades. Amid appointments with workmen, we had all kinds of medical appointments and assessments to organise – vaccines, physio, chiropody, eye tests, and occupational health. Often, the practitioners could not give a firm time for house calls. Our longest wait was four hours.
In between, we had a few problems of our own to sort out. ‘Enough solar to power a rock festival’ proved woefully inadequate for a gloomy Lancashire winter. Thankfully, Peter let us plug into his electricity occasionally to top up our batteries, but to make ourselves sustainable in the long term, we disappeared on a Grand Tour, which incorporated a final check-up for Lani by the emergency vet in Cheltenham, dropping Mark’s new laptop back into the shop in Stratford for yet another fix, getting an LPG tank and my birthday present, a new passenger seat, fitted in Leicester, breaking our socket set trying to fix a flat tyre at Foxton Locks on Mark’s birthday, plus fitting a battery-to-battery charger and battery monitor in Sussex,
Then, we needed to source a second replacement windscreen for The Beast, since somebody appeared to have taken a pot shot at us with an air rifle.
On the previous August Bank Holiday weekend, after only two months in The Beast, we suffered our first broken windscreen. In another pub car park, opposite a children’s playground, someone, had deployed a projectile, perhaps a stick or stone, which left us with a conundrum. Where exactly do you source a windscreen for a 30-year-old army truck? No wonder nobody left a note, or lingered to admit liability!
In a panic, I made some enquiries with windscreen specialists near and far. They all gave the same answer.
“Not a CHANCE!”
Online, forum-loads of motorhomers regaled us with their tales of windscreen woe.
“It took four months to get a new screen for our motorhome!”
“That’s nothing. Ours took eight months! It had to be made especially, and shipped from Germany.”
Our insurers told us we must contact their approved supplier, Autoglass, or we were on our own. Mark and I looked at each other in dismay.
“Autoglass?! There’s no WAY Autoglass will be able to do a specialist job like this!”
On Bank Holiday Monday, a lady from Autoglass called us. “We have the windscreen in stock,” she said in a voice that felt like immersion in a bath of warm honey. “Our team will be out to fit it on Wednesday.”
We all know the saying, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’. Although her tone oozed succour and easement, I felt the need to clarify,
“You do know it’s a thirty-year-old Volvo N10 army lorry?”
“Oh yes,” she said, as lightly as a scented scatter of rose petals around my honey-filled tub.
I so wanted to allow my head to slip beneath cosy surface of her mellifluous reassurance, but once again, Mark and I caught each other’s eyes. We shared a look that conveyed, We’ll believe it when we see it…
I gave her our address; “The big green truck in a field near Carsington Water.” Well, Amazon pulled off a delivery to us there, so we chilled out and waited for Wednesday.
At 10 a.m. sharp, the Autoglass Specials Team turned up bearing only a lever and a piece of string. In fewer than fifteen minutes, The Beast had a new windscreen. Oh, we of little faith! As The Specials finished off their cups of tea, (it took longer for the kettle to boil than it did to fit the windscreen!) they entertained us with tales of how they were often kept on standby at Shepperton Studios, to remove and replace windscreens so that unwanted reflections didn’t interfere with filming.
The wait for a replacement windscreen in Blackburn took a few weeks, but it didn’t trouble us, since we weren’t going anywhere. I guess we had exhausted Autoglass’ stock of 30-year-old Volvo N10 windscreens, but the repeat operation at our latest address, “A pub just off the M65 junction,” was equally straightforward. Mark and I left another 5* review for Autoglass, and high-fived our tardiness regarding our French Crit’Air emissions sticker. We hadn’t got around to fitting it to either of the broken windscreens, so we didn’t need to apply for a new one!
Although we hoped to get to Italy for at least part of our ski season, it took longer than we thought to get Dad into a safe and sustainable situation.
I can’t say he worked with us. He turned down every suggestion and refused all help, but I understood how hard it was for him to come to terms with his situation. Dad is an amazing guy – a mountaineer who inspired my love of nature and the outdoors; a mathematician who could solve puzzles so cryptic that I couldn’t even understand them when he gave me the answer; all he did was get old. It was heartbreaking for me to see.
Finally, we said our fond farewells. The pups were due a booster vaccination, which had to be administered by our vet in Bournemouth within a three-day window. France had opened up, and after completing this one last task, we planned to set off on our travels.
By now, the staff at the pub were like family. They gave us gifts and a great send off. Then, just as we were about to leave, an appointment came through for Dad’s cataract surgery. Originally, we were told the wait would be at least three months.
My brother had other arrangements, so I offered to stay with Dad at the house, take him to the hospital, and see him through the post op.
“You take the pups,” I said to Mark. “I can drive down after Dad’s op. and we can head off after that.”
Then, with fewer than 24-hours-notice, the hospital cancelled Dad’s procedure because his COVID test came back positive. The hospital said the operation could not be re-scheduled for a minimum of eight weeks. My brother agreed to take Dad, as and when the appointment came.
“I’ll stay until Dad’s recovered from COVID,” I said to Mark on the ‘phone.
“I might as well come back, then at least we can be together.”
Mark and I are triple-vaccinated, and tested negative for COVID throughout the time we cared for Dad, even when he tested positive.
We tried not to think about the fuel costs involved in a fruitless round trip from Blackburn to Bournemouth in The Beast, and I went to see Peter.
“I know we’ve left twice, but do you mind if we come back and stay a few more days…?”
“No problem,” he said. I don’t think it was through gritted teeth, despite us staging more comebacks than Britney Spears.
Except for Mark’s Bournemouth Bash and our Grand Tour in January, our one night stay on Peter’s car park had lasted on and off for nearly six months.
Of course, world events also conspired to keep us grounded. Due to coronavirus, governments around the world made holidays illegal, and the previous ski season had been cancelled. As a result, our winter gear had spent two years on vacation without us in a rental apartment in Italy to which we’d intended to return.
In December, a UK surge in cases of the Omicron variant caused the French to close their borders to British travellers for the Festive season and beyond. This made a road trip to a ski resort in Italy just about impossible. We posted a key to our friends, Carlos, and Ezio in the local ski shop, and pleaded with them to rescue our kit from the apartment’s locker, in case the landlord found a new tenant.
Then, on 24th February 2022, Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine, which had every hallmark of all-out war. Suddenly, we put our Mongolia plans on hold. A trip to Mongolia required us to travel through Russia. This seemed like a bad idea in a military vehicle with an uncomfortable resemblence to those in the convoys we saw on the news, closing in on Kyiv.
What to do? The very reason we bought The Beast was to circumvent the post-Brexit fall-out that limited UK citizens to a 90-in-180-day stay in the twenty-six countries that comprise Europe’s Schengen Visa Free Area. To continue our travels, we needed a haven other than Mongolia to accommodate us every three months, as we performed our Schengen Shuffle.
We settled on a Never Mind The Balkans tour, which would allow us to lavish our 90-day stay on France and Italy, then depart Schengen by crossing into Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia, where we could earn the right to re-enter Schengen in order to drive home.
After what seened like an endless winter, awash with mud and condensation, I still felt emotional and conflicted when we left Dad at the end of March.
“Mark and I can’t live on a pub car park for ever!” I told him, “And I think our ‘Lady in the Van’ credentials are wearing thin. They’ve already given us two send-offs, and two lots of leaving presents…
“If you need me, I’m only a phone call away, and I can fly back from Europe in less time than it would take us to drive here from Bournemouth.”
It felt marvellous to be back on the road. It was a bright sunny day, and as we set off, I bagged the photo I coveted of The Beast outside Carl Fogarty’s old house. (My enduring claim to fame is that as a child, I lived opposite World Superbike Champ ‘The Blackburn Bullet’, and once sat on a swing with him, when we were both aged about 9!)
I can’t say my family is supportive of our plans to travel abroad, but such choices are ones that everyone must make for themselves, according to their own particular circumstance. I mention this not to moan or make a point, but simply as an honest commentary about issues you may face if you choose an alternative lifestyle such as ours.
I feel happy with our decision to leave, because Dad is safe and cared for. My brother still works, but lives just a few hours away. Mark and I had completed all the heavy lifting with regard to modifying the house, and taking dad to appointments, and no longer felt we needed to be there 24-7. Dad likes a quiet life, and doesn’t hanker for company. He simply wants the comfort of knowing someone is there for him. We are, and will be back like a shot if he really needs us.
We dropped everything to be with him for the duration of this emergency, and would do so again, but we didn’t feel it was fair on us to have to put our lives on hold indefinitely. I saw no merit in hanging around mindlessly, simply because it gave everyone a warm and comfortable feeling. And if they felt so strongly about it, perhaps they could go and live on a car park for six months.
Mark and I have already lost three years of travelling through caring for Mark’s mum and brother. That involved a summer in a caravan on the front lawn of a Surrey bungalow, becuase his bruv was undergoing chemotherapy and couldn’t have contact with our dogs. After that, coronavirus struck.
We’re not getting any younger, and don’t know how much time we have left to follow our dreams. Running two households, plus dog walking and caring duties, left me too exhausted to write. I was forced to suspend my blog, and missed the deadline to launch my new book in time for Christmas.
Some view my writing as a hobby, not ‘a proper job’, but it is important to me. Mark and I put in years of effort, and made financial sacrifices to achieve the life we want. We feel our life choices are as valid as anyone else’s; particularly for those who work through choice, not necessity, to earn more money than they will ever need or spend.
Unfortunately, convention dictates that ‘normal’ lives and careers are viewed as much more valuable than a couple of truckin’ idiots who’ve opted out of the system to follow their dreams and preserve their mental health. I feel fortunate that we were able to stay with Dad for as long as he really needed us. I don’t resent it for a moment, but the aim was always to get Dad into a situation where he could live independently at home.
Another impact on Mark and I was that we had been tee total for nearly a year. This went right out of the window with a pub in our back garden! Of course, we could have repaid our host’s hospitality by drinking cranberry and soda with our roast dinners, but we are rather partial to a foaming pint of hand pulled bitter, particularly after a harrowing day aboard the emotional roller coaster of caring. The temptation was even greater because it was Wainwright’s; named for another Blackburn lad, Alfred, of mountain guidebook fame. The town has honoured both Alfred Wainwright and Carl Fogarty by naming dual carriageways after them. Wainwright even got his own bridge.
Nevertheless, only one of Blackburn’s famous sons can lay claim to having sat on a swing with me!
Despite the camaraderie of the very kind staff, a sodden north west winter on a car park, with a relentless series of storms passing through, including Eunice – a ‘thirty-year storm’ – was a fairly miserable experience. It is no exaggeration to say I can count on one hand the days it didn’t rain. And on some of the rain-free days, we got snow!
I remember saying to Mark, “I don’t know how I coped with this climate when I was growing up!” but of course, I didn’t know any different.
Although the weather was improving as we left, we still succeeded in discovering a muddy walk at Oakley Wood, our first park up. It was in a beautiful ancient woodland, next to a crematorium.
En route, we finally sorted out the saga of the cash passport, which had been ongoing for weeks. It had involved a plethora of interminable telephone conversations, lengthy holds, and Mark almost launching into the stratosphere when the call inevitably cut off during the hold sequence. With two important deadlines looming, it was not a subject we could ignore. In three days, we would board the ferry for France; and a month after that, all our credit cards would expire. Unlike Amazon and Autoglass, “The big green truck on a beach in Albania” is not an acceptable address for a credit card delivery, so working cash passports were essential.
“Please don’t hang up! Please don’t hang up!” I pleaded with the lady in Manila, who called while we were on the A50. The call was a surprise – a company honouring their promise of a call-back is rarer than a tub of sun-warmed honey surrounded by a flutter of rose petals, so I didn’t want to lose her. She couldn’t speak to me to sort the problem. My status as spouse meant nothing. It was Primary Account Holder or nothing.
“We need to pull over, so my husband can come to the phone. We’re driving a truck, and it’s difficult to hear over the engine noise.”
Of course, there’s never a layby when you want one, so I chit chatted with her about British springtime, and told a little white lie about how much I enjoyed visiting Manila. (The truth was, Manila Bay was an open sewer; I have never seen such grinding poverty in my life; and one week to the second after we were there, the café where we stopped for a coffee was blown up by terrorists. I also thought it was perhaps wise not to mention my appreciation of the Philippines’ spiritual leader at the time: one Cardinal J. Sin!)
She added the new cards to our account before Mark detonated like the Manila café. The chap who sold us the cards had typed in Mark’s email address, and his mum’s maiden name incorrectly. Unsurprisingly, when we tried to activate them, there was a slight mismatch in the security information.
Friends frequently mock us for the amount of leeway we plan into our deadlines. I would like to point out which of us misses their planes (John), or turns up at the airport sweating (John again – plus Paul, Graham, and Dave) while we tuck into a leisurely cooked breakfast at Garfunkels, having got there three or more hours early.
We had a peaceful night in the dead centre of Oakley Wood. The only spirits that troubled us were in a bottle of homemade sloe gin; but it was not a peaceful morning. Our ‘loads of leeway’ strategy paid off when Mark noticed a slick of oily fluid pooling beneath the business end of The Beast.
“I think the new clutch slave cylinder might be leaking, but we’re not too far from Dave Crouch Recovery,” he said.
We made yet another emergency appointment with our most treasured “Get out of Sh** quick” company, and therefore got a bonus night at nearby Foxton Locks, which had become one of our favourite stopovers, discovered while getting out of sh**. (Our previous sojourn at Foxton involved the flat tyre on Mark’s birthday. Thankfully, Foxton is fortuitously close to JB Rubber, seemingly the only company in the UK who know how to change a tyre on our Trilex wheels!)
A visit to Crouch Recovery is always a delight. There is invariably a warm welcome, and something interesting to see, although Wink, the engineer, complained to me,
“It’s been nearly a year since you made me a brew. Don’t leave it so long next time!”
He confirmed our ‘leak’ was simply a breather pipe from the engine, which had done a superb job of splattering fluid around in the manner of a clutch slave cylinder that had drained itself.
“There’s nothing to worry about!” he told us, which was reassuring at the start of a long trip.
An expert in vintage trucks, Dave Crouch himself also shared with us one other extremely valuable nugget of information.
“Euro 3 or 4 trucks can’t go through the Mont Blanc tunnel,” he said, alluding to The Beast’s emissions rating.
Further research revealed that even if we could go through Mont Blanc, three axles bumped up the price of a single traverse to an eye-watering £390-ish – nearly double what we paid for ten-trip pass with the caravan!
The same prohibitions applied to the Frejus tunnel, and we discovered that many of the mountain passes were closed until May, which limited our options to cross from France into northern Italy to recover our skis. Dave’s suggestion of taking the long way round, using the coast road through the South of France, began to look like a good shout!
Other than a nagging concern regarding rumours that customs on the European side of the Channel were refusing admission to British pets on French pet passports, (another of our Brexit-busting strategies), we settled ourselves on the beach at Newhaven. Despite setbacks, we’d arrived two days ahead of our deadline. Something that John, Paul, Graham and Dave could never understand, let alone achieve!
We had a view of a lighthouse, and could relax and enjoy a beautiful south coast sunset.
Mark and I got married in a lighthouse.
It had to be a good omen.
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It takes lots of time to craft these blog posts, so my blog is always a little behind. I have just started using Polarsteps, where you can track our progress right up to our previous stopover. For security, I don’t post our actual whereabouts publicly!
5 thoughts on “Never Mind The Balkans Tour Step 1 – Blackburn to Newhaven”
So much to like about this post. What an interesting life. Love the map of ‘where we are’.
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Thank you so much, Jacqui. I was worried this post was a bit long-winded, as it’s a bit of a catch up.
We love our life and consider ourselves very fortunate!
Thank you for stopping by.
Really enjoyed your post, a great read.. love it when an email updating me about your latest amazing adventures in the beast with the four pups drops. Scott (we met briefly in iron bridge)
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Hi Scott – thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Now we’re away again and I’ve got the whole book launch thing out of the way, I hope to post at least weekly!
I remember meeting you at Ironbridge. 🙂 We had such a wonderful time there!
Wishing you all the best and do keep in touch! xx