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I'd already noticed their ads appearing on my site. And then they contacted me and very kindly offered to give me the use of one of their camper vans for two nights. How could I refuse?
The pick-up was arranged for the evening of Friday 16 June 2006. I had to postpone till the next day due to a photo assignment in a hot air balloon early the next morning. We arrived on the afternoon of Saturday 17 June 2006.
Snail Trail are located down a lane around half a mile off the A1. It's a family business, run by husband and wife team Lucy and Steven Lord. They greeted us on arrival at their idyllic cottage. 'Betty' the VW Camper Van was waiting for us outside and I think that for most people it would be 'love at first sight'. It was for us. The gleaming pale blue and cream camper van with its old fashioned bumpers and benign smiling face was an irresistable sight.
The amazing thing was, this was a brand new 06 registered vehicle with only around 4000 miles on the clock, a Danbury conversion of a Brazilian-manufactured VW van, the post 1967 type with a bay window. This 2006 van had many mod cons including modern style seat belts, VW Golf seats and a 1600cc injection engine that runs on unleaded fuel.
The interior was beautifully crafted with wood flooring and cupboards, and new good quality upholstery. Lucy had added charming individual features including curtains, crochet 60's style blanket and Cath Kidston retro soft furnishings.
Despite the retro design, this van was equipped for today, with a Tom Tom satellite navigation unit powered from the cigarette lighter, and an anti-theft device for the steering wheel. There was a gas hob, sink, electric powered tap, water container, a full set of crockery and a fridge or coolbox in which a bottle of 2004 Jacob's Creek Chardonnay had thoughtfully been placed. I was in a good mood already.
After chatting for a while, we transferred our bags to the van, then drove in convoy down the lane to the shed where our family Skoda Fabia would be stored while we were away.
The only formalities remaining were for me to show my dog-eared UK driving licence, and to sign the insurance agreement.
One thing I noticed was that there was an excess of 1000 pounds. This is no ordinary hire vehicle. If you write off an Astra, they can simply send for another one. Not so with these VW camper vans, which are imported from Brazil, and individually converted by Danbury. The insurance is quite strict, and rightly so. Drivers under 25 are not accepted. There is a Collision Damage Waiver available at £20 per day which reduces your excess to £0 in the event of a traffic accident.
For me it was reassuring that Snail Trail is a company founded on 20 years experience with conventional car hire. Vehicle hire is 'in the family' at Snail Trail.
That experience and professionalism shows in the way the van was prepared and presented, and in the way the paperwork and formalities were dealt with.
And so, all packed and ready to go, wife and daughter strapped in, and me perched up high on the seat, arms spread wide around the steering wheel, I turned the ignition, and it was off down the lane, and there I got a shock.
Used to the precise power assisted steering wheel on a modern vehicle, I was taken aback by how much play there was in the camper van steering wheel, nearly a quarter of a turn.
But this is of course normal for a vehicle of this type. The 1963 split screen camper van we owned 10 years ago had similar steering, and so had my beloved 1971 VW Beetle. You become spoilt when driving a hypersensitive modern vehicle.
It took me some time to grow accustomed to the action of rotating the wheel back and forth, compensating for the minute amounts of veer, and maintaining a straight path. Everything about the van felt great, including the pleasant growl of the air-cooled engine at the rear, which delivered plenty of power. I should add that the tracking was spot on, and the brakes were efficient, if a little prone to screech.
The longer I drove, the more accustomed I grew to the van. Compared to our 1963 Split, the larger bay windscreen is a huge improvement for me. No need to duck down to see the traffic lights. The gear stick was pretty easy to operate. The only problem was the handbrake, which seemed flimsy. You pull it back towards you to engage it, a tooth catches on a ratchet. To release you turn it to one side. It took a bit of getting used to.
Driving through Cambridge around the ring road, I was growing more confident and my gear changes were becoming smoother. Soon it was time to stop at a Little Chef and get something to eat.
Getting out of the Camper Van for the first time, I had to go round and check each individual lock, accustomed as I am to central locking. Though this was a low-risk location, I put on the security lock, after spending a few minutes figuring out how it fits on the steering wheel.
After the meal we returned to continue our journey. It was starting to get dark. I decided to make use of the Tom Tom satnav. This was the first time I'd ever used it.
I've always been dismissive of satnav devices, regarding them as something for people with a less than masculine sense of direction. I have a satnav in my head - well, at least for Manchester.
But here in East Anglia, I have to admit, it was reassuring to have it there, at my side, and I reckon that negotiating the Peripherique in Paris or London's Hanger Lane roundabout, it could save a lot of time and effort. The sound was set to low, I hadnít yet figured out how to turn it up.
Chugging along at around 50 mph, the happy growl of the air-cooled engine coming from the rear, with Ann and 4 year old Adele on the back seat doing a duet of 'A Whole New World', this was definitely a case of Living The Camper Van Dream.
When we arrived at the campsite it was after 10pm and nearly dark. The camp warden cheerfully directed us to our pitch, and I switched off Betty's engine.
Now it was time to open the popup roof and pull out the bed - no problem at all. I hooked Betty up to the mains using the cable provided, and we now had 240 volts coming through the two twin sockets. I'd brought a double adapter but it wasn't needed. Now I could recharge my PowerBook G4, or plug-in Adeleís older PowerBook for her to watch Care Bears or Sonic.
Unlike the roof of our 1963 van which was hinged at the side, this van had a popup roof, which extends the height of the van by an extra 16 inches (40cm) or so. Hinged boards fold out to make the surface of the bed, which is wide enough to accommodate two adults.
Adele wanted to sleep up there, and we inflated her Bratz inflatable sleepover bed. She wanted me to climb up there too and read a story. For a six foot tall and not exactly rubber-limbed 48 year old, a bit of agility is required, but once you're in a horizontal position, the headroom is just about adequate, though there's no lamp to read the story by. In any case she was off to sleep almost at once.
Down below, another bed is formed at the back by simply pulling out the rock n' roll. As on a small boat, every inch of the camper is ingeniously put to use.
It struck me that the lack of space on the VW Camper Van might not suit everyone.
This isn't a 'J.Lo' kind of experience. I can't imagine Miss Lopez would 'do' the pop up roof. Too much contortion and no room for bodyguards.
But there is one pop star of sorts who drives a VW camper van. That's Fatboy Slim, who has used one as transport on his UK tour. See the photo of Fatboy Slim's Bay camper van.
Happily inserted into the popup roof, we drifted off into Camper Van slumber, with the chugging of an air-cooled engine ringing in our minds.
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