Posted in Travel

The Camper Van Salute

Orange-White Volkswagen T2 Camper Van with ope...
Have camper van, will travel (Image via Wikipedia)

We realise early on in our ownership of a camper van that there is a special action that drivers of such vehicles use to greet each other.  Whenever they approach each other on a road, they must slowly raise their right arm, not really in a wave, but more of a casual, off-duty salute.

It’s generally the duty of the driver to offer up the camper van salute.  But if the driver is engaged in a particularly tricky manoeuvre, the front seat passenger assumes responsibility.  And when both driver and passenger are in a particularly happy frame of mind, as at the start of a new trip, they may throw caution to the winds and both offer this distinctive cheery wave.

When we first latch on to this tradition, we hail our kindred spirits self-consciously, embarrassed if the approaching van driver does not reciprocate. But now we’re old hands at it, if you’ll pardon the pun, we’re expert.  And we rank salutees after they’ve passed us.  We’re pleased if we get a double response, dismissive if ignored.  When abroad, we check out the country sticker after they’ve passed.

“Ah, les Francais,” we murmur sagely, or “Nederlander”, “Italiano”, as appropriate,  if their nationality is the key to their response.

This harmless fun adds interest to a long journey.  It soon becomes a habit so ingrained that we sometimes forget that we are not in our van.  Pottering through Cotswold lanes in my little Ford Ka, I occasionally raise an arm in fellowship to an approaching motorhome towering above me.  Even more foolishly, I’ve done it once or twice on my pushbike.  In those circumstances, the camper van salute is about as likely to get noticed as a sailing dinghy hailing a cross-channel ferry (and we’ve all heard stories about ocean liners arriving at their destination with dinghies splattered across their bows like summer flies on a car windscreen).  But even if the drivers do notice my gaffe, I don’t suppose they mind.  We camperers are jolly, sociable types and we’re very forgiving.  I’m just slightly on my guard in case I ever do it to Germans: I’d hate them to get the wrong idea.

On my husband’s recent solo jaunt around the Scottish Highlands, (“This van is my passport to the Munros!”), he befriended a German camper van driver.  His new German friend, also travelling alone, confided in Gordon that he’d had an unpleasant experience the night before.  He’d just stopped for the night in an empty, isolated car park, when a group of boy racers turned up out of the blue.  They proceeded to drive menacingly around his camper van at high speed, shrieking and mocking.  Eventually they got bored and drove off, leaving him shaken but unharmed.

“I do not know why they do this,” he told Gordon plaintively.  “I worry that it is because of my German vehicle sticker.  They see that big D on my bumper and they think of what my country did in the war.”

My husband rushes to reassure him.

“Oh no, it won’t be that, I’m sure.  We’ve all forgotten about the war a long time ago.”

He wonders why the German is looking less than convinced.

It’s only an hour later, undressing back in our camper van, that Gordon realises he’s wearing a Dad’s Army t-shirt, bought for a snip in Stornoway at a Tesco’s post-Fathers’ Day sale.

So he’d mentioned the war, but this time I don’t think he got away with it.

Posted in Travel

Rage Against the Road Signs

Buffalo road sign at Delta Junction, Alaska
Image by Arthur Chapman via Flickr

“Please take care whilst overtaking.”

For the next few miles, I’m too busy thinking up less pompous alternatives to “whilst” to pay much attention to my driving technique.  (Any passing motorist from The Plain English Society would throw up their hands in horror at this road sign – never a good move behind the wheel of a car.)

Some distance north, another sign urges further caution: “Better late than never. Don’t speed.”

What nagging fishwife has been let loose in the signage department today? Whatever next?  “Driving like that won’t get you there any faster, will it?”

These aggravating signs are not confined to English roads.  A half-term trip to Scotland yields some prime examples. Driving out of Tyndrum, an area in which my mobile phone has no signal for some miles, I am implored to “Don’t text while driving – don’t risk it!” Chance would be a fine thing. On the M9 near Perth, I am bizarrely urged to “Think Bike!” – even though bikes aren’t allowed on motorways.  Heading home, as we near the border with England, we are advised to “Plan ahead – visit trafficscotland”.  Surely it would have made more sense to promote this service to visitors entering Scotland, rather than those about to leave?

I really question the value of these new motorway signs, whose big black gantries sprang up all over the country a few years ago, in a flurry of pre-recession investment by the Ministry of Transport.  A civil engineer friend enlightened me when I wondered why so many cables were being laid alongside the motorway.

“The new driver information system,” he advised. “They’ll reduce road rage by keeping motorists informed.  It’s a good thing.”

Well, so far, they’ve not improved my mood.  The  only traffic-related messages I’ve seen on them have borne no relevance to my journey.  Each time I see them looming, my heart sinks, assuming they are preparing me for an imminent traffic jam. But driving from Bath to Bristol, they inform me of road closures in Devon.  Heading from Bristol to Bath, pile-ups on the M25 seems to be their main concern.  It’s as if the person responsible for updating the signs nationwide regularly drops their box of messages and inadvertently muddles them up, with the result that each message is input in the wrong location.  As I furrow my brow on the M4, are Devon drivers and M25 motorists puzzling over hold-ups affecting my route?

Then two weeks ago, after joining the M4 at Junction 19, for a single-hop journey home from Junction 18, I finally came across a message that was meaningful to me:  “Junction 18 closed – one night only – tonight!” The tone was proud and celebratory, as if this were a special offer and a cause for rejoicing.  Too late to change my route, I had to sail helplessly past the closed-off Junction 18, now cheerfully bedecked in orange traffic cones.  I had no choice but to continue London-bound, my home metaphorically receding in my rear-view mirror.  My twenty minute journey ended up taking over an hour, thanks to the unexpected diversion.

But I’ll not despair.  One day I’ll find a motorway sign that really hits the spot for me. And I know just what it will say:

“Caution: Irritating Road Sign Ahead”.

Posted in Travel

Have Sat Nav, Will Travel (Less)

Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) surv...
Image by Wessex Archaeology via Flickr

“What’s wrong with just using a map?”  has been my constant retort against sat navs.  I have always disputed the premise of the popular book title “Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps” (well, the bit about maps, anyway).

Several unfortunate experiences with the GPS belonging to Gadget Man (aka my husband) has left me disenchanted with this particular new technology.  It assumes one is always travelling either by car or on foot.  Nearly wedging our camper van in a progressively narrowing Welsh lane was enough to make me want to throw the thing out of the window. (In the end, we reversed out to safety).

But this week I’ve changed my tune.   Playing around with my mobile in an idle moment (which I get about once every 20 years), I decide my phone isn’t working hard enough for me.  This is ironic, because since Orange and T-Mobile joined forces, I’m now for the first time able to get a signal just about everywhere, even in my thick-walled Cotswold cottage.  So I’m using it much more than before.  But I decide to push the boundaries of technology and see what else it will do for me.

The answer: sat nav.  For just a few quid a month, it will tell me very politely how to get from A to B, with options to go via C, D, E and even X, Y and Z if I want it to.  Sure, there are a few technical hitches.

FIrst of all, it doesn’t recognise my house, because I don’t have a door number, just a house name.  So I’ve made my adoptive home my neighbour’s house opposite.  This confuses me on my first sat-nav’d journey home, as I forget I’ve done this, and it keeps telling me to veer away from my house, as if it suspects some unknown danger lurking there.

Secondly, it panics if I’m not on a registered road.  “GET ON THE ROAD!” it shouts in capital letters as I set off home from  a National Trust car park.  You can almost hear it sigh with relief as we hit the A46.

But apart from this, like a toddler, it appears to have no sense of fear, as I discover when using it on a return journey from my mum’s in Bristol.  I must have done this journey literally 1,000 times, both us having lived in our current homes for over 20 years, so I don’t actually need its guidance, I’m just curious to see which of my repertoire of routes it prefers.  I have a wide range and vary them according to my mood.  To my surprise, it takes me in completely the opposite direction to any of them, heading into the centre of Bristol and through the notoriously dangerous area of St Paul’s.

Years ago, driving to work that way, I pulled over to investigate the steam that was arising from under the bonnet of the car.  A policeman quickly pulled up behind me.

“I wouldn’t stop here, love,” he advised.  “Far too dangerous.”

And with that he jumped back into his panda car and sped off, leaving me stunned, pointing at the steam.  Too bad, I thought to myself, it’s a company car, and quickly followed him.

Instinctively I central-lock my doors and try not to make eye-contact with anyone as I follow the sat nav’s instructions.  I try not to think about my former colleague’s policeman ex-husband reporting going to a crime scene in St Paul’s where someone had their arms machete’d off.

But the sun is shining and people here are in holiday mood.  The worst that happens is a man at the roadside holds up a placard to me telling me to “Beep if you don’t like Tesco’s“. I don’t like Tesco’s, but I don’t beep either.  I don’t want to disturb the peace.  I tell myself times have changed and not to be so foolish, though I admit to relief when we hit the motorway. We make it safely home, disobeying the sat nav only to turn into the right house in my lane.

Next day, at my sister’s, we watch the local news.  There are scenes of overturned, torched cars and smashed windows (Tesco’s).  I recognise the street: I passed through it in St Paul’s on my journey home the day before.  They cut to night-time footage of fires and violence.  Oh my God.  The sat nav is fearful of a National Trust carpark, but thinks nothing of taking me through crime scenes.

Suddenly I feel, Dorothy-like, that there’s no place like home.  I think I’ll be spending the rest of the holiday weekend at home now.  Even if the sat nav does think I’m in the wrong house.

Posted in Family, Travel

Running to Stand Still

Rush Hour traffic on the DVP.
Image by Aubrey Arenas via Flickr

Tonight we drive home from Grandma’s house, hitting the M4 motorway at about 7pm.  It is surprisingly empty for this time of year.  Secure in the child seat behind me, Laura has finished the bag of Butterkist she was given for the journey and is starting to wonder “Are we nearly there yet?”

“About half way,” I tell her, wondering why she really needs to ask.  Laura’s done this journey literally hundreds of times. As she was born in Southmead Hospital, just a couple of miles from my mum’s house, this was the route of the first car journey she ever made.  I remember passing through the hospital gates in my husband’s car the day we were discharged, tears of joy streaming down my face, tempered with incredulity that I was expected to know how to look after a baby so soon after the birth.   On that journey home, we played the CD that had been the soundtrack for her delivery by Caesarean – “Songs from the Auvergne”.  No wonder there wasn’t a dry eye in the car.

“Just how long is it from Grandma’s house to ours?” she asks me now.

“Usually just half an hour, darling,” I reply.  “Unless we’re driving through the rush hour.”

“Oh,” she says without a pause, “so I expect in the rush hour it would be just 15 minutes.”

Many thousands of Bristol-bound commuters must wish that was the case.

Posted in Personal life

It’s So Last Century

My sister-in-law Janet’s famed theory (“The best way to get something done is to do something else”) strikes again today as I take my car to the garage for repairs.

My objective: to cure the car of making an odd scraping sound that suggests the exhaust might be about to fall off. While the mechanics try to diagnose the cause, I’m restricted to a range within walking distance of the garage. So I hit Chipping Sodbury High Street with nothing to do but keep an eye on my phone for an update on my car’s welfare.

My achievement: one new skirt, one new waistcoat, one new jacket, one new blouse, plus a bill for £68 (so a bit of a bargain, then). This is, of course, excluding the garage costs.

A frequent target for comedians as the ultimate in rural backwaters, Chipping Sodbury High Street is actually quite a pretty place, with an old-fashioned marketplace centre and a range of shops untouched by the global brands that dominate most other high streets. Until I ran out of cats, my most frequent missions to Sodbury were for the sake of the veterinary surgery. Until the wonderful Mr Riley retired a few years ago, he seemed to spend almost as much time with my menagerie as I did. He particularly looked forward to appointments with Floyd, whom he pronounced “the most amiable cat I’ve ever met”. Even when taking an animal on a one-way trip to the vet, I always enjoyed the fact that Mr Riley’s surgery was situated in Horse Street.

Our house now being a feline-free zone, I spend today’s visit meandering down the High Street. I check out the charity shops, as you do, before wandering into a clothes shop that I’d never been into before. Having previously written it off as a shop for old ladies, I soon find myself enthusiastically trying on half the shop. At one point another customer asks my permission to try on a dress. I am carrying so many clothes that she thinks I must work there. I leave with a surprisingly full carrier bag, trying not to consider the possibility that the chief reason I nowlike this shop is that I’ve evolved into an old lady.

My car, incidentally, does not get fixed. The required part will not arrive until Monday. So my sole achievement this morning is to revitalise my wardrobe.

This comes not a moment before time. Recently I rearranged my clothes. Usually I oscillate between hanging them in order of colour and pairing them up in outfits, in between the odd bout of chaos. I flirted with the idea of putting them in order by date of purchase, until I realised that a shocking proportion of items were bought before the turn of the millenium. Never mind them being “so last year” – “so last century” was nearer the mark. Carbon-dating would not go amiss.

But one thing’s for sure: Janet’s theory is proven beyond all doubt.