Le Mans to the D-Day Beaches.

June and time for what has almost become a regular sojourn to the north west corner of France. The key thing this year was to really try out the van, its facilities and usability, particularly with Aire/Stellpatz style stopovers, wild camping and being off-grid. Some of those who follow our travels will already know we have an affinity for this area. We have visited Brittany many times since I first holidayed in Mousterlin as a kid in 1967. We visited several times with friends and camping by motor bike and then staying in various Gites until in 2006 when we bought our hose in Treboul. We loved the house and the place that we enjoyed until 2012 when we sadly had to sell. We have been back again over the past few years camping in the viallage and usually celebrating Sue’s birthdays.

We had booked a late afternoon ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe so even though it was Le Mans week it was very quiet as it didn’t land until 22:30. Fred was as comfortable ever in his new van and slept all the way. It was an incredibly calm crossing and we enjoyed a picnic and a beer in the rear saloon as watching a fabulous sun set. Sadly as we got close to Dieppe we could see that the weather was grim with Acuweather telling us there were thunderstorms in the area. Our plan was to drive to La Mailleraye on Seine near Rouen. Here there is a vet and a good Aire so we could make an appointment for Fred’s worming on the return trip. The drive was mostly dry and we arrived at midnight to find the Aire was full and we couldn’t find another spot in the village so wild camping it was in a car park by the Pont de Brotonne. Actually we had a very quite night after we moved away from a pond full of noisy toads.

We drove back to La Mailleraye, took Fred for a walk along the river bank where huge ships were hiding in the fog on their way upstream to Rouen. We bought croissants and had breakfast while we waited for the vet to open and booked Fred an appointment for two weeks time.

Our next port of call was to be Le Mans for the 24 Hour Race, see my blog from there. We used the peace and not used to our larger van got a shock when the toll came to 48 euro – that is going to be a bit of a game changer.Before we went into the circuit we needed a big shop up at Auchean to fill the fridge and wine rack for the weekend. We stayed at the circuit from Wednesday until Monday morning before we headed west to Finistère.

The journey to Treboul took us longer than we have been used to, again the bigger van thing. I am quite happy though that we are getting over 30mpg on what is afterall a tight new motor. It was mid afternoon before we got to E’Leclecrc to do another shop. Stocked and refuelled we headed to Camping Trezulien for two nights. It is a nice quiet little site on a hill side surrounded by woods and 10 minutes walk into the village (port du plaisance and shops).

Tuesday was Sue’s birthday so first thing I marched Fred down to the boulangerie fro fresh croissants and pan aux chocolat. A morning walk around past our old house, a peek at the garden that has become so well established after we remodel it, and then down to Sables Blanc and around the headland into the port for lunch at La Griella. Now driving all that way for pizza may seem odd but they aren’t any old pizza, they are a paper thin base with wonderful toppings. We had our usual with our litre of house red and even our usual deserts. We have been going there since it first opened and the lady who owns and runs it remembers us from quiet winters evenings huddling in the warm around the same pizzas and a litre of house red.

We set out from Treboul not sure of where we would be pitching up and headed through low cloud on Mendez Homme to Morlaix and then the coast road to St Brieuc and Dinard. Frankly I expect a more sonic road along the Cote d’Amour but we hardly saw any of it. There does seem to be a lack of aires in Brittany but we eventually found a nice spot at St-Jacut-de-la-Mer, an interesting little village if we had been minded to stop and explore.

We were planning to a bit more of the D-Day beaches so we headed past St Malo, Mont St Michelle, Avranche and St LO before we got to the museum at Utah Beach. Incidentally we have been to St LO twice before, once in the ’80s when we stopped at the Hotel de l’Universe and again in the ’90s when we spent the day in A&E having been knocked of our bike. We took a look at the Aire at Utah beach which looked decidedly scruffy and they wanted paying. A couple we met there commented that it was the worst they had seen so we decided against staying and headed for Arromanches, Gold beach on D-Day, and the municipal camp site in the town centre. We were there at the same time last year but strangely the town was quieter despite it being just 2 weeks after the 75th anniversary events.

The following morning we took a short drive to the gun battery at Longues. Four 150mm guns atop the cliff would have done a lot of damage and were seemingly taken care of quite quickly. Three are still fairly intact but the fourth must have taken a direct hit that penetrated the bunker. The resultant explosion within was catastrophic.

Our next stop was the British cemetery at Bayeaux, the beautifully kept resting place of some 4000 souls who gave their lives for a better Europe. We wanted to pay respect, to say thank you and finally to apologise for the unforgivable emayhem that is Brexit. Walking around the cemetery pondering the waste of youth was quite sobering. It is so sad the number of graves whose occupant is unknown and the memorial to the many hundreds who don’t have marked graves. Interesting to see the other nationalities, not just commonwealth but also Russians, Americans and many Poles. The cemetery is just one of several British but also of the large USA cemeteries, Canadians, French and of course Germans.

Back to Arromanches we parked on on the overnight cliff top Aire with a view out to sea. From there it was possible to put into perspective the extent and sheer genius of the mulberry harbour that for a few weeks landed many of the troops and a large proportion of the vehicles, equipment and supplies. It was clear from its position and topography why the location was chosen and the the Germans would have least been expecting it there. On the cliff top is a small memorial garden created for the anniversary. It is in 2 halves and represents Bill Pendell who landed as a solider and as an elderly D-Day veteran. The ghostly figures emerging from the surf have been very cleverly executed. The sunset lasted sometime and was quite spectaular as was the sunrise the following morning. As we were leaving we could not help but admire the absolutely mint and drop dead gorgeous Aston Martin DB4 Superleggera in the car park and nice to see it being used.

We headed next for Pegasus Bridge at Ouisterham stopping to look at the Canadian museum at Juno beach. We passed by the museum at Pegasus Bridge last year but decided to actually go in this year. It was the only one we had paid to go in and it was interesting enough to make it worthwhile. A short drive away took us the Melville Battery that was the farthest east of the D-Day landings. The gun batteries had been heavily targeted beforehand but the invaders, largely commandos and free Belgians, were surprised to find only old WW1 Yugoslavian field guns.

Our next task was to find somewhere for the night. We had mistakenly imagined that there would be plenty of Aires along the coast. There weren’t, and to make matters worse it was a very hot and busy Sunday so those few that there were (an they only had a handful of spaces each) were rammed. As a result we carried on all afternoon until we reached the large Aire at Honfleur. It too was rammed but a very kind Belgian camper offered to move over and make space for us. The next morning as people moved on we were pretty quick to grab a space on the waters edge. Although very touristique Honfleur has a certain “je ne said quoi” that we could never tire of. It was Saturday and very busy so we kept away and the following day Sunday we made do with a short amongst the throngs around town. Monday was much quieter but still oppressively hot as we took a walk into town for dinner. I think it was probably the same restaurant on the quayside that we ate in last year and the food was excellent helped by the atmospheric location.

From our pitch with a view across the river we were able to watch the otter and his family and the bird life in the roadbeds opposite. It was hot and sultry when we went to bed than night so we left the roof vents open. In the small hours a terrific electric storm blew up and deposited huge quantities of rain. I was vaguely aware of the storm until that is I started feeling rain inside the van. So great was the deluge that it had bounced up off the rood and back into the roof light. So here we were at X o’clock in the morning dancing around with towels and bowl trying to mop up while Fred eyed us sleepily from our bed where he had been since the first flash of lightning and rumble of thunder.

On the home stretch now we had to return to La Maileraye sur Seine for Fred’s passport appointment with the vet. We arrived at the Aire on the river bank in time for lunch and got a nice pitch with a view. It was another hot afternoon watching the odd ship and a few barges plying to and from Rouen before we took a stroll and Fred for his appointment. Now Fred doesn’t like vets but he entered willingly, probably because it was cool. However as sun as the vet pulled his top on Fred made for and sat by the door. He redeemed himself when told to get on the scales which he made straight for and sat down, that impressed the vet and his assistant. Next into the surgery without an argument but once on the table the image of the thermometer and the needle must have entered his head so he struggled until we put him back on the floor. And then the worming tablet, ooh a treat and that went straight down. Job done! Followed by a pleasant evening by the river, a bottle of wine and make up lost sleep the night before.

Finally returning to Dieppe we made the Aire on the sea front in time for lunch. There was an event, the end of a major sailing event, taking place on the quayside. We recalled the first times we had used Dieppe 25 years ago when the ferry went right into the old harbour to the liner terminal that used to be on this quayside before it was all redeveloped and the pavement restaurants and cafes prolifilated. It was a very windy evening kicking up dust and ozone that made it quite difficult. Nonetheless we ventured along the quay for our last meal out and of course it had to be Moules Frites, and very nice it was too.

So here we are, up early, tanks emptied and on the ferry home. Have we enjoyed ourselves – but of course – we can but hope circumstances continue ton allow us these trips. One way or another they will be that much more of an adventure after we relocate to Scotland. That in itself makes this trip more poignant as I have, we both have, enjoyed Le Mans, Brittany and Normandie, to the point of having a home in Brittany for several years, for the best part of 30 years. Living in Scotland might well mean that any trips across Europe we make will be farther and longer rather than just popping across to the nearest bit.

And how did the van perform? It was brilliant. Easy to drive and travel in and very comfortable to live in. Easy driving gave us a good 30+mpg and we had no problem getting in and out of places or parking despite its size. Apple CarPlay navigation was excellent and only managed to catch me out twice. The facilities we have installed; the kitchen, equipment, toilet / bathroom, bed and power systems all worked excellently. Even so there are a few things that aren’t quite right or quite simply failed but we wont worry about them until the summer is done and we can spend some thought and time to rectify or redo them.

And a foot note; Over the years we have done the 600km blast from Dieppe to the west of Brittany and Douarnenez many times. Firstly on bikes then in our C Coupe and 250CLK Mercs and finally in our V6 Vito and our T5 and T6 Transporters. Certainly by bike and car we paid scant attention to speed limits. I had 200mkph out of my FJ1200 and 250kph out of my 350CLK. WE have been flashed by many speed cameras and in particular one near Lorient and always joked that all they had was a picture ion Sue in the passenger seat. However with the VWs I have always intended, if not succeeded, to be good and now with the Crafter it really isn’t possible to be or much point in being anything else. The first night off the ferry as midnight approached I was get a little impatient to get to a stopping place for the night and finally I been caught for doing 87kph in an 80 limit.

A Trip to the Races

An important reason to have the van ready before June was our 24th visit in 30 years to the “Circuit de la Sarthe” for the Le Mans 24 Hour WEC Sportscar race. Over the years we have camped at the circuit off the back of a motorbike with the army of the great unwashed, at club camp sites away from the circuit, in the car on the main car parks and recently in our T5/T6 vans again at the circuit. And while conditions have improved by Saturday and Sunday they still become a bit unsavoury. So this year was luxury with our own comfortable facilities to the track.

Taking Fred is limiting as he is not allowed on Friday pit walk and while he is allowed in all the public areas it is not fair or right to take him in amongst the really tick crowds. Otherwise he is absolutely fine amongst the noise of the race cars and all night long as they roar past every few minutes. Unfortunately he is not that interested in the racing so we have to work to keep him occupied. What does bother him though is the camp site fireworks at night which tend to be worse on Friday and Sunday.

Despite the limitations we camp near Arnage. We can watch racing and qualifying from here and we walk in to the circuit and watch from the kart circuit just before the main straight and stands. We also enjoy a few walks around the pit village and all the concessions and of course a few gold plated beers and coffees. These days that have neat reusable plastic beakers and glasses with artwork for each year. They charge you €1 a piece but they are great souvenirs and perfectly usable afterwards.

This year a highlight of the pit village for me was on the Aston Martin stand. They had on display 2 of their new top end cars alongside the first of a limited edition of hand built DB4 Superleggera. Built as a track ready collectors car it is to say the least drop dead gorgeous. However if you want one you also have to buy the new modern version and as a pair they are £6M + VAT. The press are valuing the DB4 at least £3.1M +VAT.

The race itself was the usual mix of 4 classes of GTE cars in amongst Prototypes. The fast cars lap at around 3′ 20″ and the slower production based cars at around 3′ 50″ which makes for interesting racing once they get mixed up. The only way to follow the race is to listen to Radio Le Mans, an English language station that broadcast all week from qualifying to the end of the race. During the night we manage to get 6 hours sleep only woken when the pace car comes out and the cars bunch up and the engine note drops. Winning the race is about outright pace and good management – just think by 13:00 on Sunday the cars have basically completed 11 Grand Prix distances and still have one more to do and will have completed close to 4000 miles by the time they see the chequered flag.

So will we be back next year? Well the jury is out n that one as we have been so many times and it will be a long way from Scotland just for a weekend. Perhaps we will just have a Le Mans party instead.

Week Twenty – End of The Build

So here we are finally finished, or at least as finished as it ever will be because there always be something than needs doing, changing or repairing.

First thing this week the custom shower tray arrived from Henderson Plastics. It is a nice piece of work and very good value. I must have got something right because all it needed was a hole in the floor for the waste, a cut out around the fridge pipe and it dropped straight in. I had a plastic slatted insert ready and with a simple size adjustment it too dropped straight in. Delivery of the shower was followed by a large piece of acrylic mirror cut to size and shape with a cut out for the shower fitting. A little bit of work to trim and seal as best as possible and it is ready to go.

I also replaced the plastic sliding door track with an aluminium channel and a strip of PVC in the bottom to help it slide and added a couple of diagonals of tambour door tape. Now the door works as intended.

With that done there was one more big job which involved a trip to Glide-Rite in Liphook to have a Ride-Rite Semi Air Suspension system fitted. This involves 2 Firestone suspension bellows in place of the bump stops, a small compressor and a small control panel under the dash. So now we can adjust the rear ride height by about 75mm and the springs all the way from soft to rock hard. As the van will always be closer to its design weight this will help prevent the springs sagging, it will make the van more stable and we can adjust the height for camp site levelling and obstacles such as ferry ramps. Not a cheap option but given everything else we have done it seems like a worthwhile addition.

Other than that I have adjusted the tank position slightly to miss the below and shortened the fill and drain pipes. In addition I have made an alluvium tailpipe extension for the exhaust to direct it below the tank. Hot exhaust was already damaging the insulation I put on the tank so this seems a necessity. If this works then I will buy a short piece of 89mm SS tube and make a more permanent job. As I said at the start of this piece – there will always be something to do.

Putting on Weight

I said a few weeks ago that we knew it was getting heavy and when I weighed it it was already 3280kg so something had to be done.

I think the problem is that the original weight can be anywhere between 2150kg and 2450kg depending on the van spec. I have been assuming 3250kg but it looks like it was likely to have been hearer 2450kg. Another lesson, weigh the original vehicle before you start work. Although the van is plated at 3500kg (the limit that younger folk can drive without passing another test and the limit before a taco is required on a commercial vehicle) the front axle is rated at 1800kg and the rear 2100kg so potentially 3900kg. So on Tuesday I put in a call to SVTech who didn’t respond however John Ruffles at JR Consultancy did and with minimum fuss for £180 uprated the MGW (Max Gross Weight) to 3900kg.

I have popped it back on the weigh bridge with a full tank of fuel and all the camping equipment and got 3340kg total and 1740kg for the back axle only. That leaves a margin of 560kg for us, cloths, provisions, water etc. split 200/360kg between front and rear axles which should be plenty.

So now we are a 3900kg Motor Caravan. Things to remember / be aware of are;

  • over 3500kg you require a C1 driving license that those of us who passed our tests before 1994 have.
  • over 3050kg unladen weight speeds are once again restricted to vans, so 70mph on motorways, 60mph on dual carriage ways and 50mph on ordinary roads. Of course unless indicated otherwise lower.
  • Similar and even lower speed limits apply across Europe.

Go West Young Van

So the time came, exactly 4 months to the day the van was delivered and we were setting out on its first adventure. The naval term would be “Sea Trials” except were doing it on land. We had planned a week away to Cornwall and back visiting friends old and new on the way.

Loaded up at around 3750kg the van travelled well and made for easy driving. Aiming for Devon and Exmouth the first night would provide a mix of single and dual A road as a well as a bit of motorway without having to push it. Clearly silly season is upon us when we tried to stop for coffee on the A27 and the lay-by we normally use was blocked by a 40 tonne artic – not his fault though – it was the idiot with the caravan that had literals pulled into the entrance and parked up with his legs and step down. It makes you wonder if they should be allowed…

We were hoping to try a mix of camping including pub stop overs. So the first night we looked for a small Camping and Caravaning Club certified site. The first one we found, Grindlebrook Farm, looked dreadful and we turned around straight away but a trip down a nearby lane took us to Forringdon Caravan Site. A nice property with adequate facilities and although their listing says no dogs Fred was quite welcome. The following morning we popped down to Exmouth and parked up on the sea from for coffee. The Social Media links on our back door worked their magic and we got messages on Facebook and our Blog.

Our next stop was a visit to Dartmoor and an afternoon and evening with Tim and Carole, we haven’t seen Tim for 35 years or more. Getting the van in and out of their tight driveway was a lesson of what is to come but we managed. We ate at the Old Inn at Widicombe in the Moor and tasted our first experience of pub car park camping. A very peaceful night with the odd owl and a cuckoo in the morning. We were sold on it.

The next morning we headed into Totnes for a quick shop and a cup of coffee before heading for Cornwall and and a beach for Fred. The Camping and Caravan Club site at Westgate bay provided a perfect location although the staff were a bit difficult about providing a decent sized grass pitch without electric but relented in the end. The surf was busy and there was plenty of beach for Fred to run around on.

We had a couple of visits to do in Cornwall. First we were keen to show the van off to Mirko at Premium Camper in Wadebridge. Mirko did the California Roof and the furniture for Van Blanc, our T6, and he has been following our build of this van. Suffice to say he seemed impressed.

Our second visit was to see Steve and Sue Rogers who recently retired to St Agnes. Dinner with them was at their local, the Victory Inn and another night of pub stopovers. After dinner we had a stroll across the heath toward the coast and the settled to watch a crimson sunset from the comfort of the van. The following morning we took a drive into Penzance to buy lunch and dinner and stopped by Marazion for coffee and to let Fred have dip in the sea.

We headed for a CC&C site at Tavistock but were disappointed by the unfriendly welcome so we left. A fairly quick drive across Dartmoor found us at California Cross near Kingsbridge where another and this time friendly CC&C site restored our faith in the club.

From California Cross we headed East for West Bay at Bridport in Dorset where we were meeting cousin Stuart and Marina for pizza lunch at our favourite Watch House Cafe. Before lunch we were able to talk along the beach under the Dorset Jursaic cliffs. It was a glorious morning with a flat calm sea with clear views as far as the Isle of Wight. The first car park would not allow Camper Vans but looking further just around the corner was a car park with bays specially for Motorhomes, we had arrived.

Our last night was at the C&CC site in Salisbury before a visit to Jason at Absolute Audio. In a couple of weeks time they are going to have a poke around the VCDS for me and see if we can change a couple of things. On the way home we payed a visit to another company who are going to do a bit of work for us in a couple of week but lets keep that a surprise. Unfortunately they have some large speed bumps in their access road and our side step bottomed on it and is badly damaged. I knew it was low so it needs looking at.

Week Eighteen

Well there you have it – the finished product – well almost. The van was delivered to us on 17th of January and here we are on 17th of May setting out on our first journey. Registered as a Motor Caravan and up-plated to 3900kg it is massively spacious inside and really looks the part

I say almost finished because there is the showers tray to fit in a couple of weeks and then we can trim and seal the toilet / shower. There are a few trim jobs to do and no doubt there will be a few things to sort after our shake down run out.

This week it has been time to catch up on a lot of small jobs; The threshold strip at the sliding door, adjusting and levelling cupboard and locker doors, fit the sliding toilet door, trimming and sealing the bathroom sink and the roof vent, wallpaper Fred’s kennel with sticky back plastic and several other small jobs.

A few weeks ago I put the van on a weigh bridge and as I suspected it was a wee bit heavier than I imagined at 3280kg. While I was watching the weight I think my starting point was wrong. VW say 2060-2460kg depending on specification and I have been thinking it was about 2250kg. In reality it was probably closer to the higher figure especially with that tow bar. Lesson for everyone else – the first job in any big conversion should be a trip to the weigh bridge.

So really it could do with a few extra kg, perhaps 100-200kg and while it is registered as 3500kg the axles are rated at 1800/2100kg which given that our heaviest stuff is between the two should work nicely gaining an MGW of 3900kg. Here is a benefit of our age as both our licences have C1. I called SVTech and filled in their forms only to never hear back from them. On the other hand John Ruffles, JRConsultancy, have turned it round in a week and apparently it is in the post to me.

Another weight that would have been useful in respect of speed limits would have been the Unladen Gross Weight. Motor Caravans weighing less than 3050kg can do car speeds whereas those that weigh more are restricted to van speeds. In addition Motorhomes heavier than 3500kg are generally limited to van speeds throughout Europe. Ho hum – we will just have to do more relaxed speeds which was always the theory in our other vans but not always the practice.

Let the adventure begin!

Week Seventeen

What a week it has been but I can safely say that now the van is ready for the road. OK so there are still a few things to do, mostly titivating and nothing that if it isn’t done in the next few days will stop us going on a trail run to Cornwall on Friday.

It took a couple of days but the revised hot water system was plumbed and tested and on Wednesday the replacement exhaust and combustion pipes for the water heater arrived and got fitted. It fired up straight away and we have HOT water. I think I should read the instructions this week, go through the the settings and give it a longish burn.

When the toilet was going to be right at the back I bought a shower tray for it but now it is by a wheel arch the tray won’t fit. I’ve contemplated several possibilities including resizing the tray which bit the dust today. Instead I have found a Henderson Plastics who will make a custom one for us from 5mm white polypropylene that also covers the wheel arch for a very reasonable price. They will take 3 weeks so it will get installed before we go to Le Mans.

Meanwhile the toilet has been installed, the sink secured and connected and the sliding door fitted. Fitting the toilet required a vent through the floor to remove smells – something the literature doesn’t tell you about. Of course we couldn’t go straight through the floor so I had to create a dog leg with some 40mm waste pipe and fittings. Otherwise it was all pretty straight forward although there will be a lot of trimming and sealing to do once we fit the tray. You can see we have fitted a Bulldog shower even though they are meant for outside the van. The advantage is that we can use one shower head in two places, it has a trigger so won’t use masses of water and we don’t need it dangling in the toilet all the time.

Now on to more important things – Fred’s kennel. Right at the back of the van with an opening in the back wall is Fred’s own space into which will go his bed. It is pretty much the same size as his kennel in the utility at home. However access to the toilet cassette is through the side of the kennel so the back and side panels simply side out to give access. I have also made the side by all the services easy to slide out in case of the need to get at the pump and heater. At the same time I have put the mains hook op though the floor with the 16A plug fixed under the bumper. Usefully the flat hose for filling the water fits neatly under the kennel floor. Just one small job to do – Fablon the inside of the kennel to make it wipe clean.

Storage being important in a confined space I finished the week off by panelling the rear doors. Getting the shape right was actually not as bad as I expected and they turned out well. So now with the doors panelled I could top them off with the hooks and bungees for the the deck chairs. All I need to do now is stop the outdoor table falling off the step every time I open the door. I also need to store the Silver Screens – they are a bit bigger than the old ones for our T5&6, something I didn’t consider.

You can see we have packed a lot in. The clothes drier and ramps are held by bungees and the awning rafter and wind out handle have their own clips. There is also a “Hela” 12V rocket into which we can plug our outdoor LED strip that will hang from the rafter. The tray above the fridge compressor box has space for all manner of odds and ends and there is a Bulldog shower outlet for outdoor / dog use.

Meanwhile Sue began deep cleaning and getting rid of dust and dirty marks all of which there are lot of. She has been sealing the panel edges paying attention to getting a fine finish and it does look good. As well she has reduced a spare topper in size and made it fitted for the bed and been organising storage in the cupboards and especially trays and containers without which everything rattles and slides around when we are on the road.

And finally this week we got the V5c back from DVSA – we are now officially and legacy a Motor Caravan.