I continued to scan the small ads online and in magazines. There were three main websites: eBay, Gumtree and Autotrader, the online version of the print magazine. Autotrader’s website allows you to type in your postcode and price range, and returns all campers with the distance from your own home and the owner’s phone number. The problem was that there were never any in my area, and all the advertisers I contacted had already sold their vans. The best site was Gumtree.com, which had only recently been bought by eBay and so was still run along simple, communitarian lines. Ads were free and divided geographically so I could restrict my search to London if I wanted to; the interface was simple, too, and prices were low. Gumtree had a smaller selection than eBay, but it felt more authentic, and when I was finally ready for my first actual visit to view a van, it came in response to a Gumtree advert.
I was ignoring anything Volkswagen. For some reason the VW Camper still carries an enormous cachet. The best-designed VWs have been collectors items for years, and by the time Jamie Oliver travelled to Italy in one (beautifully done up with a Cath Kidstone interior) for a TV series prices were topping 10,000 for a twenty-year-old vehicle. The people I know who have them tell me they break down often (as indeed happened during Jamie’s trip to Italy), they guzzle petrol, they are noisy and uncomfortable, and you cannot stand up in them. All in all they are a puzzling purchase, except for the fact that they look nice and retro.
The first likely candidate for me was an elderly Talbot. At 3,500, the price was right for a purpose-built camper with a double bed in a little protrusion that overhung the driver’s cab. Simon, the seller, lived in deepest north London and was moving back to Newcastle. Being shown around the van by its owner proved unexpectedly to be an unnerving experience, rather like being shown around someone’s home only more . . . intimate. The normal things you say to people when negotiating for a second-hand car sounded in the practice room of my mind like personal insults as I struggled for the right words. At last, I could see the point of estate agents. How do you tell someone that you find their (motor)home a mite depressing, that the oven is miserable, or that you can smell the musty odour of the curtains? When Simon showed me the heating system I was sure I could smell something else gas. It may be OK to buy second-hand electrical goods, but a leaky gas cooker? I don’t think so.
Simon wasn’t going to let me go without a struggle. I weakly agreed to a test drive my first in a camper van. Simon slid into the driver’s seat to show me how it all worked; I would take over on the return journey. We shot out of the drive and onto a windy back road as he proudly demonstrated the vehicle’s turn of speed. It was noisy and not ideal for long hours travelling across country. When it was time for me to assume the controls, I discovered another vital requirement power steering. This 1987 baby didn’t have it. Turning, parking, even rounding a corner needed concentrated effort, and since I was visiting obscure places on my trip, I realised that power steering would be as important as standing room. I thanked Simon and sank gratefully back onto my Honda 90.
I knew what my wife wanted, a large designer van, well proportioned, snug, solid, reliable and above all safe. With a child along on the trip, safety had to be the primary consideration. But a van that fulfilled those criteria would not come cheap 10,000 at least, judging by the ads I had seen. Viewing Simon’s Talbot was a useful trial run, though. It made me realise that the off-gridders I visited would judge me by the van I drove. Appearance is all, as Oscar Wilde said; what else is there to judge by? I reckoned the only people I would put at their ease with the Talbot would be other Talbot owners.
There was a whole class of campers built out of converted vans, and I figured one of these would be the best bet. Overall, they were at the low end of the price range, which was a big plus. I returned to my hunt for the mythical London street market where dazed Antipodeans sold their mobile homes for the price of a final multi-stop trip round the world. It didn’t exist. Months later a camper enthusiast explained that it had come to an end a few years before when the markets were overrun with sharks who shipped unsellable vehicles from around the country to palm off on the Aussies. A piece of carpet over a rusty hole in the floor; brakes that had no more than a few miles of life in them; that sort of thing. The police had decided to close the operation down. In earlier times the van sellers would have moved to another street, but simultaneously the Internet was becoming the market of choice for the Aussies, and just about everyone else. Why restrict yourself to a Sunday morning in the rain when you can do the whole thing from the comfort of your own keyboard before even arriving in the UK?
Back on eBay, an ad for a Ford Transit caught my eye. It was unequivocal about the quality of the engine, and since that was the subject in which I was least qualified, it gave me some peace of mind. Here’s what you getran the ad:
N Reg Ford Transit 100 SWB Hi-Top Camper 2.5 Diesel 2 Berth (+ 1 small child at a push); MOT; Power Steering; CD Player (Speakers front and rear); TV (240V); DVD Player (240V Brand new, still under guarantee); Gas Cooker (4 Burner Hob & Grill); Paloma Gas Water Heater; Shower; Portable gas heater; Sink; Fresh water tank (40l Aquaroll) with pump; Portapotty Toilet; 3 Way Fridge (240V, 12V, Gas, a bit temperamental, could probably do with a new one to be honest); Front swivel seats; Leisure Battery; 2 x 12V to 240V Inverters; 25 Metre Mains Hook-up Cable; 12V and 240V lighting; Mul-T Lock; New brake pads and timing belt.
A small child, it said. I had one of those.
The van had not yet reached its 2,000 reserve in the auction, and with a few hours to go I sent an email offering 2,500. The sellers were from Nottingham and they did not react at first, hoping for a better bid online, but naively I overlooked this. Another bell tolled when, after they had accepted my bid and I had sent my deposit of 250, there was a long silence. As I had bought outside the auction I had lost the right to comment publicly on the seller’s performance, and thus any hold I might have had over them.
Before I could collect, I had to take out insurance. This proved to be a minefield of its own. Most mainstream insurance companies do not cover motorhomes unless they are professionally converted by a limited number of recognised businesses. After considerable research I found a broker that would take on the job, and they found an insurer that did not demur at my grimy east London postcode. For about 450 I was insured for a year, as long as I did not cover more than 5,000 miles.
The van vendors eventually got in touch and we arranged to meet at a convenient station, Wellingborough, chosen because it was about halfway on a direct line between Nottingham and London. Two hours after our meeting time I was still waiting at Wellingborough station. At that point I should have just taken the final train back to London and forgotten my 250, but I had already bought the insurance, and anyway, after two weeks of looking, this was my van of choice.
Martin from Nottingham arrived in the van just after the final train to London had departed. If I decided not to buy it, I reflected as he pulled up, he would be unlikely to offer me a lift home. He was trailed by his wife in an expensive-looking Subaru estate. They made a strange pair: Martin a gaunt, roll-up-smoking hippy, his wife the cheerful, chubby apologist. Martin was ready to spend all night going over the details of the van, but the bed was all I looked at carefully, and at about five feet eight inches long it was fine for Martin but too small for either me or Fiona to stretch out fully. It could be lengthened by spinning round the two front seats to add extra foot room, but that wasn’t much comfort. But it was now nearly 11 p.m., and after a cursory examination of the main points I was ready to make the purchase. Martin had already knocked 150 off because he had forgotten to bring along the Portapotty. He had also installed a new exhaust, as the receipt he pulled out of his top pocket proved, because the old one had fallen off that morning. The inside of the van was dirty and badly made, but that didn’t worry me as he knocked off a further 100.
I drove back to London relieved rather than delighted with my purchase. There were only two seats in front and therefore nowhere to put Caitlin. Never mind. My Internet research had turned up a removable Ford Galaxy chair with a built-in baby seat which would allow Caitlin to sit comfortably and safely in the back. At night the seat could be stowed outside, and the bed could be made. We would be a bit cramped when there were three of us, but when I was travelling alone and space was not an issue the low fuel consumption would come into its own. A yellow light with a picture of an oil lamp was blinking, but I did not pay any attention to that.
The following morning I took the Ford to a local mechanic who confirmed that the engine was in good condition, and had miraculously survived a long journey with almost no oil. He poured in twenty litres, and as far as I was concerned it was now time to head out on the road and live the off-grid life.
Then I showed the van to Fiona. She could not have been more disappointed. It was, as she immediately pointed out, too small. Small was beautiful, manoeuvrable, economical, I argued. The sort of people I was planning to visit might not be too impressed if we turned up in a glossy love-wagon. And some of the narrow dirt tracks I was anticipating would be impassable to larger vehicles. The killer criticisms I could not overcome were that the van had no space for the baby seat, and it had been converted by someone who was both visually illiterate and incompetent at DIY. The shower area, with its doorway made of surplus architrave from a building job on a gated community somewhere in the north-west, was perhaps the most pointless feature since there was nowhere for the water to run off. I dared not test the fridge and the cooker as I would have been too depressed had they failed to work. The ugly wall tiles, the pointless shower area and the dirty old fridge would have to go; Fiona also insisted on the replacement of the ceramic floor tiles (in a camper van?), which were cracked and therefore dangerous for Caitlin. Never mind the time it would take to do the work, I thought, the cost could well be on the way to another thousand pounds. And whatever improvements we made would never be enough. When arriving to stay with friends, or at a small, select literary festival we were planning to attend over the summer, I could sense Fiona’s rising fear that she would be judged by my bad taste.
Months later I was vindicated when a lifelong van dweller called Adrian, who had spent twenty years studying the question, including measuring vans in the street, concluded that the Ford Transit and its short wheelbase is the best vehicle for long-distance off-gridding. But after just a few days of domestic negotiation it became clear I had made a serious error and had better put the van back on the market immediately. I returned the Ford Galaxy seat to the breaker’s yard where I had bought it a few days earlier for a ton, and accepted 75 back. Then I wearily turned on the computer, posted pictures of the Transit on Gumtree making sure that I stressed the deficiencies to deter all but the most seriously interested and went back to eBay’s camper-van section, a website I had thought I would not need to look at again for at least a year.
This time we got lucky. Within a few minutes we had found a van we both liked a Renault Master converted hospital bus that had just been refitted by James, a carpenter whose hobby was . . . refitting camper vans. It looked great, and it had three seats in front, so Caitlin would be up there with us in the cab. The bidding had ended at 3,500, but that was not enough to secure the van because James had set the reserve at 4,000. I had to have it. I just could not stand another weekend in London, nor the thought of another week looking at tiny photos of camper vans taken from careful angles. A quick phone call to James and an offer of his full asking price was enough to seal the deal. Because I was still within the fourteen-day cooling-off period, the insurance I’d bought for the Ford Transit was transferred to the new vehicle at no extra cost, so it remained only to make the trip to Clacton-on-Sea and hand over the cash. Again I was buying outside the auction system with little or no recourse if things went wrong.
A few days later, with the scent of sea air and fish and chips in my nostrils, I was shown around my new motorhome. This time there was no doubt in my mind. It was the Ikea of campers, with tasteful cork-tile flooring, cream curtains sewn by James’s mum, and hessian-style cushion coverings. It was noisy, but I had now seen enough vans to know that in the trade-off between price and desirability, I had done well for the money. Most importantly, Fiona would love it. The sink and cooker were stainless steel and brand new, and the fridge was free of others smears and stains. It was twice as long as the Transit so long that I scraped its gleaming white panel against the side of a Ford Escort as I turned a corner the very next day. It also consumed double the fuel of the Transit, but at least it was diesel, so I could try to run it on vegetable oil. Numerous websites assured me this was possible. It had an oil-powered heater that would keep us warm as toast and two big ventilation panels in the roof. The stereo had four speakers wired in under the roof insulation. The small water tank meant we would be carrying little excess weight and the water would not go stale and brackish in the summer heat. Sure enough, Fiona approved, and she soon got to work, adding silver foil camping blankets as backing to the curtains, to insulate us against the cold night air, and see-through black blinds against the daytime sun. She also began a search on eBay for a camper-van awning. There was no shower or loo, so we would depend on pubs, garages and the countryside for our toiletary needs, and rivers, the sea, municipal showers or the people we visited for a proper wash every few days.
The engine was good and the van was running perfectly, but I still took it round to my local garage for a service. Mistake. Inner-city garages don’t really get diesel camper vans, as they freely admitted after I had paid the bill. And although they charged me a fortune, it was several days before I was back on the road. From then on I always took it to little roadside garages well away from towns, and had faults dealt with when I could fit them in.