Thursday, 17 August 2017

Best Pier - Worst Park-Up

I've found a nice enough pub in Alton, Hampshire, to sit down and write this, while the rest of the family has gone to the cinema. There are plenty of pubs in this town, but this one - The George - seems to be the only one other than the 'Spoons (the intimidatingly huge, and hilariously-named Ivy House) that serves any beers suited to my discerning palate. This pub came with a recommendation from the man in the outdoor shop, which was also excellent, while I bought myself the most Dad pair of shorts I have ever owned, or probably ever will.  We've been in The Downs a few nights waiting for our new overcab window to arrive, and after tomorrow I hope to be able to write a glowing review of the work carried out by a man with a motorhome maintenance and repairs business not far from here. Why have we come so far from where it happened to get it done? He is literally the only man who appeared to want the job. So this blog, like the travels that are its subject, is not turning out much like I had expected. It doesn't seem to be realistic to drive to a town, see what we think of it and report back to you, because so many aspects of so many towns are so much like their counterparts elsewhere, and also because what we are looking for in each town is rarely the stuff of excellent subject matter. I could probably sum up most of the journey so far by telling you that there are an awful lot more branches of Waitrose in the South and East of England than a quarter century of living in London had led me to believe. So instead, I shall attempt a new approach, where here and occasionally hereafter I shall tell you about the best of something and the worst of something else that we have experienced so far. Best pier Southwold was our first. Here the 'Under the Pier Show' (which was on, not under) amused the boys for a while, despite mocking the authentic seaside amusement arcade experience with some arty pretensions and wry social commentary on the gentrification ship that sailed into that seaside town to stay some years ago. Next was Cromer's beautiful Alpha Papa denouement location, followed by Eastbourne's grand home to a Whack-a-Penguin game (bizarrely named 'Punku Tricks') and a Zoltar machine that had totally lost its shit. A hairy but semi-aquatic friend of Blues Night then kindly donated a Paddle Around The Pier (Brighton, I think?) sticker to cover an unsightly burn-blemish in the van. So we didn't even bother to visit the world's longest at Southend when in neighbouring Leigh, as we  decided there had been quite enough pier pressure. My favourite was the fit-for-purpose cold war construction at Deal that was absolutely heaving with fisherman on a hot and sunny afternoon, but the next day cut a brutalist line through pure turquoise sky and sea in a fine and mist-like rain, in such a way as to make me feel as if I were briefly visiting another planet. Admittedly I was off my tits on Sinutab at the time, but I think even the straightest square would've sensed something otherworldly. If they had been there too. Worst Park-Up I think it is fair to say that we are not even considering making our new home in any of the counties that dissolve into Greater London along one edge. We've spent more time in these than others so far, perhaps to eliminate them from our enquiries, or maybe for fear of nosebleeds if we stray too far from the mother's milk of polluted London air. Essex is one of those counties, no more and no less. Okay, so it has an old-fashioned reputation for badly-behaved, even vaguely menacing younger people with unsubtle tastes and educational shortcomings, but I've rarely seen evidence of these people myself. This is probably because I have spent more times in Essex's beautiful open spaces and rolling countryside, unaffected by the sights, sounds and smells of those who have given their county a bad name. Until last Thursday night.  A good old friend of Blues Night, himself a smart and sophisticated product of Essex (as is his partner) recommended Two Tree Island, way out in the raging waters of the Thames Estuary, for our overnight stay.  On our arrival, wind and rain was hammering at the walls and roof of the van, and our very brief excursion out into the long grey wetness revealed only a few other vehicles, whose occupants were presumably either quietly dogging or contemplating suicide. This remained the case until about eleven that evening, when the rain let up enough to encourage several carloads of people born around the turn of the century to blast music out while running about shouting, driving their cars around in circles, hitting their horns to the beat, and generally having a lovely time without any apparent concern for the feelings or sleep patterns of the family in the motorhome about fifty feet away. This was the only vaguely menacing aspect of their behaviour - their total disregard for what we, in this lone Other Vehicle, would make of it. Nevertheless, I had still decided to leave after about half an hour of twitching the curtain between cab and bed, as the shenanigans was impossible to ignore, and I was a little concerned that it might get worse, or one of these kids would get bored and decide to let our tyres down or something. I mean, I've seen friends of mine do that sort of thing. About 25 years ago. Then, all of a sudden, they left. I couldn't decide whether to be relieved or disappointed, as I had my clothes back on and the keys in my hand ready to go. I'd also sent a text to my Local Friend describing the situation on his much-loved nature reserve and he had already suggested we park up outside his house instead. So I drove off, relieved to not be making a spectacle of myself (or my van at least) while doing so, and almost pleased to have to pull in before crossing the bridge back to the mainland, assuming this was one of the groups of lads coming back for more. But it wasn't - it was the cops, and it had obviously been the sight of them passing Leigh-on-Sea railway station that led to a local lad calling his mate down on the island and all these asbomobiles driving off without delay. The last vehicle to leave was a motorhome with two children travelling (illegally) asleep in the overcab bed, a woman in the bed behind admonishing the driver for being such a wimp, and a driver whose nerves were frayed down to their last threads despite being well over the legal limit after a large bottle of an Imperial Stout. Thankfully the police didn't bother stopping this vehicle either, and its occupants were able to get an excellent night's sleep just a mile up the cliff from Two Tree Island. The lesson here was that residential streets are much more comfortable and inconspicuous places to park up for some stealth camping. You don't want to be on your own, away from modern civilisation, because you won't be for very long.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Sussex - Kent - Essex

Of course, we are not the first family to realise that there must be other places worth living in the UK. We have friends (at least they were the last time we checked) dotted all around the country, and have taken the chance in this first fortnight to check in with some of them. 

Because we have something fairly fundamental in common, there are some nice and obvious reasons why these friends they have chosen the localities in which they now live. We have been able to appreciate some lovely towns over the last week - Worthing, Eastbourne, Rye, Deal and Leigh on Sea all shared their food and blue waters, beers, records and excellent company before an unchecked over-cab window was stolen away from us by air resistance and smashed to smithereens. Getting it fixed is now Top Priority, pushing "Does A Leaky Skylight Over A Wet Room Matter?" and "Why Is The Toilet So Smelly So Soon?" back into Rhetorical Status.

While we are getting used to the van, and tied to a single very definite date on the south coast, we have still been awkwardly circling London - literally, in fact - we have driven almost every mile of the M25 anticlockwise already. We would all like to turn left and park up outside the Ivy House for a while, but need to see a lot more of Not London before we burst our way back into the old bubble. So long as we can keep the Northern Weather outside, it's probably time to brave it next week.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Bucks and Sussex

So we have been at it for a week now. A kind of Holiday of Readjustment, traipsing from place to place on the map in an absurdly haphazard way, bypassing cities and towns in which we might consider making our future home, in order to string together random locations that we would surely not. This wildly disorganised and expensive vacation season must surely give way to something more methodical soon, if only to spare the lungs of the people from the evils of our diesel fumes. We've clocked up over 500 miles, and yet have felt like we haven't really started.

After a visit to the small and weird Royston Cave left our children wondering what on earth it was that their parents were mistaking for something important, we spent the night in the car park opposite The Harrow, a nice-enough Chiltern Hills coaching inn with friendly staff, tasty chips and the most unremarkable beer offering imaginable. This was conveniently close to Great Missenden, where I sought the truths behind Roald Dahl's farmer and old lady of whom he told my friend Big H. But did not find them, of course.

We then moved on toward the South Coast. M has wanted to visit Charleston for some years, and so wasn't about to let the Philistine Men of her family ruin it for her. We remained in the van in the car park and made pasta, then I sat over E while he ate it, explaining in some detail why Making Himself A Sandwich Instead was no longer an option. 

We found such a good parking spot outside the fantastic Snowdrop Inn in Lewes that I was reluctant to leave, especially as they had all sorts of delights from Burning Sky and Wild Beer on the bar. It's pretty clear why Nice Families left East Dulwich in droves for the home of Harveys throughout the early 21st Century. Lewes is a very pleasant town indeed, apart from the shitbiscuit who hit his horn when we had to stop at a >6'6"< width warning and turn around. Perhaps I should have proceeded regardless and wedged my new home firmly into the thoroughfare in front of him, to see if he liked that any better.

Now we are parked outside the boys' oldest friends' house, in Worthing, where they've lived for about a year. Toilet cassette and waste water emptied, the best broadband we've had in a week, and a gilt-edged parking voucher in the windscreen, we are getting pretty comfortable in a great town that has a bit of everything we are looking for. But there is an awful lot to see out there, and we do seem to be really getting started on it at last.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Norfolk - Suffolk - Cambs

We are gradually getting to grips with this vehicle. The water tank, which fills all of the space under the kids' seat, and takes about ten minutes to fill with my Dad's garden hose at full blast, only seems to last a couple of days' modest use. 

I filled it a second time using the AIR AND WATER machine at a BP garage near Lowestoft, which cost me about three quid in tokens and cramp in both hands, but seemed to work in the end. The toilet cassette, likewise, demands attention every couple of days, despite a whole-family commitment to keeping Materialisations of The Brown Lady for special occasions. On the suggestion of some bloke on the Internet, we've been using biological washing machine liquid instead of the blue stuff that is designed for the job, and the jury is still out on whether it is as effective. 

We've done another three nights without paying to camp. The first was in a council car park at Overstrand on the Norfolk coast, a gorgeous cliff walk to, and beach walk back from, Cromer, which is a much nicer town than one might ever have guessed from the expensive campsite of lost souls. 

The next night we drove to Knettishall Heath in Suffolk, en route to pick up a few eBay essentials (mains hook-up cable, another USB power bank, and a charging cable to connect this to the kids' 3DS) from my mum and dad's. We spent the night in a secluded muddy lay-by, and the nice fella who informed us the next morning that we are "not really supposed to" camp on the heath seemed to accept that there is very little that can be done to make the policing of it possible, and that even if there were, he certainly isn't being paid to do so. 

Last night we were as comfortable as we have been so far in a tiny cul-de-sac in Cambridgeshire. This was obviously all in the head - the fact that M's mum lives in one of these neat little bungalows wouldn't have made any difference to the way that passers-by looked at us, as nobody knew who we were, but we were confident in our right to be there. Maybe this frame of mind might serve us just as well when it is erroneous, too?

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Was it a good idea?

"I don't mind admitting, when you first told me about this, I thought it was A FUCK IDEA," my 74-year-old Dad is saying. He is rather drunk and making strange new use of rude language, but is also expressing his enthusiasm for our motorhome, which does indeed seem to possess all of the features required to make a life on the road quite possible. Later that evening he will walk out of his front door in total darkness, fall over and start talking to a frog that is sitting in one of his plant pots. 

Fast forward three days, and I'm lying in the strange extra-single bed space at the back of the van next to the bog. I got a bit pissed myself last night, on Dark Fruit Strongbow ("When In Rome...") in a horrible bar on a campsite near Cromer that occupies the elusive middle ground between the outdoor experience and Butlins. As a result, I wasn't confident to clamber over a sleeping M in the double bed, so I ended up here. 

This campsite cost us thirty quid for a small space on a steep slope that served to empty the sink onto the gas hob and has stopped one of the rings working. Admittedly I might've noticed this happening if I'd drunk less nasty cider, but then I would have suffered more from the soul-destroying awareness that campsites like this are no way of discovering the geographical area in which they exist. 

The night before, I got even less sleep as I was nervous. Our first night sleeping in the van, we were determined to go stealth or rogue or wild or whatever it is, and lay awake in a van that bounced and swayed through some truly awful weather in the enormous riverside car park at Walberswick. The famous old lady with a beard who ran the campsite next door is surely no more, and we wouldn't have been able to get the van down the narrow track to it anyway, but there is a perfect understanding throughout the family that this project won't work if we have to go looking for a place to park and sleep in each locality where nobody can come and tell us to piss off. 

Admittedly, the man with the gorgeous wood-and-glass-built home looking out to sea, who was our nearest neighbour that tumultuous night, would have been quite mad to brave these raging elements just to tell us to sling our hooks when he surely could not have seen or heard us, but a combination of new experiences meant we could not rest easy. We will get used to it, M and I, we expect, but we have some way to go before we give as little of a shit as the kids do. They slept like logs.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Ready for the off?

The move was about as smooth as it could be, although the removal men arrived at half seven in the morning when my brain was still sleeping, and I forgot to show them the loft. Predictably, they weren't best pleased when M remembered it, so I had to shift all the things up there myself and attempt to pass them down without sweating onto this muscly Polish bloke. I didn't have the heart to bother him with the three dozen ‘last few bits’ that were loose up there, as he had long been receiving boxes I could barely lift with his fingertips, a grimace and tightly-closed eyes.

So I had to do an extra run to the lock-up at Jumbo's Safari Shithouse and didn't get back until
three o’clock on our last London morning. In an otherwise empty house, I found H blissfully asleep next to M on the inflatable mattress we’d borrowed, leaving me a foam dog-bed that was squashed completely flat under my weight, with a towel for a blanket. I got precisely three hours’ restlessness before getting up, seeing the boys off for their last day at school and making my testimonial visit to the dump. After overloading the Focus to the point that my tearful sons in scribbled-on uniforms had to sit cross-legged on piles of pillows, we headed for our bolthole in Suffolk, where my dad was pissed and my mum went to bed straight after Celebrity Mastermind.

Living with my folks again (four nights, so far, is my longest-ever stay with my whole family) has been surprisingly comfortable and easy. They are lovely old people who live a quiet life and have made space for us in a home that would usually make our ride out of Peckham look roomy. Both are fond of whisky - dad a little too much so, as evidenced by the loud banging we heard when M put a half-load of washing on yesterday morning. We stopped the machine and found mum had hidden a litre bottle of Lidl blended Scotch from dad under a towel in there.

We are picking up our van on Wednesday evening and are planning a short trip up to Cromer first, for that inevitable first-week breakdown. M has friends near there and my great aunt has a chalet that's  hardly ever used, so we have somewhere to stay while Norfolk’s least-reputable mechanics go mental rebuilding the entire bloody engine and giving us a bill that doubles the price we paid. They are probably Norwich fans, although they don’t actually exist yet.

My brother saw this van, a Hymer box on a Fiat Ducato, advertised on a noticeboard at work. This appealed to both M's instincts to get some kind of bargain that very few people would know about, and my instinct to hastily throw cash at the first thing that comes along. A couple in their fifties had been using it for the last SEVEN YEARS while getting their even-older-and-more-ridiculous camper fixed up. After a little conversation I had a lot of faith in them, and therefore their vehicle for sale. But I have been known to be wrong about these things.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

What’s Going On?

Um, not a lot. We are waiting out the final few weeks of the extension to the appendix of the over-run moving period, and are expecting to finally hit the road within twenty-eight days.

I’ve started moving my records back into my parents’ house. There are about six times as many of them as there were last time they lived there, so my aging ancestors weren’t that thrilled when the first carload arrived, but they do understand that valuable plastic and card can’t just go in the storage container next to the dual carriageway with everything else.

Meanwhile, I have been making a project of reducing my alcohol consumption, bringing it down to a respectable average of a pint a day over the last month. Or at least up until yesterday, when I enjoyed an afternoon at every place you can buy a drink on Borough Market, with an ex-colleague who holds the dubious honour of being the only teacher I have ever worked with who drinks more than I do. This requires a little more work before I enter into a new life that involves driving a large vehicle nearly every day.

The final details of the move are being tidied up, but I can’t deny that I have more time on my hands than I know what to do with. As evidence of this, what follows is an extract from an email I've just sent in response to a quick enquiry from the nice people who are buying our house:


A table 2m long would fit, sure, but would only leave about 40cm clearance at each end. This would be enough for me to squeeze through fairly comfortably (and I have frankly enormous buttocks), but my personal feeling is that such a table would be just a tad too long. However, we only actually use the other side of the table when we have guests to dinner (virtually never) and I'm guessing most of your guests would be more agile and less curvaceous than me.

Other factors to take into account are that our existing table has curved corners (has yours?) and that about three quarters of the table's width at each end will have more clearance, as the kitchen unit and the wall next to the back door will mostly be either side of the bench, not the table.

You may disagree with my assessment, of course, and I rather hope you do. I would hate myself if I had crushed your table dreams. The width and height are perfect. Maybe you should come and have a look at ours again before ordering anything. It is not out of the question that our existing table and bench may be available if you want them, but you might have your heart set on something different.

Okay, I'm ducking out now. This is the single greatest responsibility I have taken on in months, and I can't handle it.


So I think I have to accept that I started this blog too early, really. I mean, I wanted to write about the house sale and how we felt about leaving London as they are relevant to the rest of the unfolding story, but I can’t kid myself that anybody would want to read about this Dead Zone before the move. Please do check back in a few weeks though, as there’s sure to be some thrilling material about living with your parents again at the age of 44. Or perhaps we might have to just buy the first vaguely suitable vehicle we can find, and get going.