Our introduction to RV’ing was a little unusual to say the least.
I was on an international assignment in Sweden with my family in the mid to late 1970’s. In the spring of 1977 my wife and I thought we should take advantage of my many hours of accrued vacation time and spend our summer holiday in the UK. The summer of 1977 marked the Queens 25th Year Jubilee and there were many activities scheduled around the UK during those months. We thought it would be a once in a lifetime event.
After calculating the expenses of hotels, meals, and travel costs for our family of five we were soon discouraged and didn’t see how we could afford such a trip.
The next day, in talking with a colleague at my office in Stockholm about our hopes and disappointment, he said, “why don’t you hire a caravan”? I had a momentary vision of Barbara, I and our kids riding camels heading for the UK before I realized we had another “English” problem. In further questioning, I soon found a travel trailer is called a “caravan” in Europe…. at least where English is more or less used as a description, but certainly not the American English variety.
My colleague filled me in on caravan camping in Europe. Filled with hope, that evening my wife I talked about camping with a Caravan. The next day, after some coaching from my colleagues who did “caravan’ing” I found my way to a “caravan for hire” lot. I was a bit concerned whether our car, a Fiat 125 4 door sedan with a 1600 CC four cylinder engine was capable of hauling the weight of a travel trailer. In discussing my trepidation, the business owner (who spoke, as most Swedes, a beautiful Oxford English) stated I had little problems and explained how the European caravans were built extra light in comparison to those in the USA. Buoyed by his explanations I collected brochures and information to bring home to Barbara. The next day conveying our travel hopes I asked for the owner’s guidance, acknowledging we had no experience in camping or pulling a “caravan”. Seeing this “newbie”, he assured me I would be well tutored before leaving the lot with his property.
After looking over my car, he suggested a 5-meter (approximately 16 ft) caravan made in Czechoslovakian. It was a basic travel trailer unit with a single propane tank and conventional trailer hitch. At the trailers front end there was a dinette that made into a double bed. Fitting the tabletop between the seats with the cushions forming the (more or less) mattress. In the middle on one side of the trailer there were cabinets with a built in sink, a 2-burner stove and a small oven. On the other side was the door. At the back end of the trailer there were two sets of U brackets at either wall and a wide combination seat/storage-box the width of the trailer. Inside, the storage, there were 4 (roughly) 1 ½” iron pipes and two canvas sheets. The pipes looked as if they could have been made from plumbing pipe. Two of the pipes threaded through sewed sleeves in one of the canvas sheets. When the canvas was stretched with the two pipes fitting into the U brackets we had two canvas bunks for the two older kids.
When we made up the dinette bed, there was a tunnel under our “bed”. Our youngest, of 3 years, could snuggle into a sleeping bag inside the “tunnel”. One of the cabinet doors opened to a vertical cooler with a couple of horizontal shelves. The cooler was close to the size of what you’d find in a Coleman cooler of today.
Showers and toilet use was expected to be provided by the campgrounds. I found that most of the caravans at that time, had little more than a general-purpose sink. Bathrooms took space and weight and few of the European cars had engines over 2 litters. Hot water was obtained by manually pumping the sink faucet and heated in a pan on the stove burner. The sink faucet had a flat black plastic pump handle that you pressed down with your palm, much like the portable coffee urns you see today.
All around the baseboard of the caravan was radiators. After living in Sweden for a couple of years we fully expected the need for heat in the summer months. Northern Europe, even in the middle summer can get cool when a front rolls in off the north Atlantic with clouds a hundred meters in ceiling for a week. The caravans heating system worked on a gravity and convection system with a coolant that circulated around the baseboards. The heated fluid would flow out and pulling the colder fluid in to the furnace. It all worked without a power source other than basic fluid dynamics.
The caravan lot provided service for the hitch assembly and signal and brake lights electric hookup. Trailer braking was provided with a surge system which was something new to me. For those who’ve never seen how a surge system worked, it basically operated as an inertia system. As the car slowed the trailer interia would “surge” forward on the hitch assembly. As it surged forward a rod or cable would be levered to mechanically engage the brakes; the more inertia, the more braking power. Though it sounds a little strange, in the main the system worked fine; but more on that later.
My Fiat was due for the yearly safety certification mandated by the Swedish government. Confident there was no problem I scheduled my appointment for the safety check two days before we were to leave. Our trip was restricted somewhat in that we had a schedule to keep since we had two ferries to take, one across the Skaggerak between Sweden and Denmark and then the ferry between Ostend Belgium and Dover in the UK. During the summer I was advised, the ferries were full and required scheduling to get your space for a caravan.
True to Murphy’s Law, my Fiat flunked its’ safety test.
I was told the upper front ball joints were deemed unsafe and I could only drive the car to a repair station and back to be tested again. Any insurance was null and void without certification; not to mention getting the license plate tag for the year… I was trapped!
Feeling panic I quickly checked the auto repair shops only to be told the earliest I could get in was in five days. Feeling that my well ordered plan was unraveling and with no choice, I went to the Fiat dealer and bought the set of upper ball joints. That day, out in front of our row house, and in the rain, with my wife holding a trouble light in one hand and the umbrella in the other as it steadily poured down, I changed out the upper ball joints.
The next day with battered and cut knuckles, I drove to the Safety check station and was able to get my safety certificate and license tag. I then drove to the caravan lot and picked up the caravan without incident. The owner took extra pains to run me through the towing hookup and process; pointing out the safety chains and travel checklist.
Lastly, I bought the water container for the sink. As I noted, the sink faucet worked with a manual hand pump and a hose beneath in the cabinet that fit into the water tank. The Swedish law apparently required each caravan hired to have a new fresh water tank. The square opaque plastic tank fit into a fitted space in the cabinet under the sink faucet. The sink drain went into a gray water tank. There was a panel on the outside containing the hose for an emptying the gray water tank.
The next day, loaded up with 3 kids buckled in the backseat (Swedish law required seat belt use in the 70’s) and our camping locations guide for the countries we were driving through, we were off on our great adventure.
The trip from Stockholm to Helsingborg was uneventful other than the frequent “are we there yet” queries from the back seat. We caught our reservation in time on the ferry to Helsingor in Denmark. Driving across the island of Sjaelland, bypassing Copenhagen traffic, we crossed the bridge to Jutland.
We camped overnight at a campground in Denmark and had our first experience of an over night camp with the caravan. We also learned about European campground facilities and coin operated showers, no Danish Kronor coins, no hot water.
Our children quickly found other kids from other countries in the campgrounds to play with while Barbara and I set up the camper. Language for the kids didn’t seem to be a problem. By this time their English and Swedish seemed to be enough and for any kids from Germany or France or elsewhere, play didn’t seem to matter. Following a filling dinner from her meager stove top and oven, and more play, the kids quickly passed out from exhaustion. This was closely followed by Barbara and me. It had been a “full” day with my trepidation of driving with the trailer.
Getting up early the next day, we were off for our ferry appointment at Ostend Belgium. The drive across Germany and Holland was uneventful on well maintained motorways. Closely hugging the right lane I had cars and trucks pass me at speeds that seemed appropriate for the Indianapolis 500. We arrived in Ostend towards evening and were able to find (with difficulty) a spot in a campground. The caravans and pop top campers were closely packed in and it was apparent this was a highly used transient point for travelers using the ferries to many locations around the North Sea. The campground bathrooms were heavily used and a keen sense of smell was definitely a liability.
Early the next morning we packed up and got into the queue for the Ferry to Dover. We were directed by the loading gang to the tractor/trailer deck. There, surrounded and dwarfed by enormous double and triple bottom trailer rigs, we parked and walked through the maze of trucks and a few other campers to the upper passenger deck.
The Ferry trip was a few hours of sea travel and a “learning event” for parent and child. Since the ferries traveled outside of national boundaries and were “on the international sea”, there were slot machines lined up in the upper deck waiting rooms. Our eldest daughter age 10 years was intrigued by the one arm bandits. Thinking to give a “life’s lesson” and example of gambling, I gave in to her entreaties. I gave her one German mark “to throw away” in the slot machine. True to a parents “Murphy” she pulled the arm and three 7’s clicked into place. German Marks came tumbling into the bowl and she was now convinced the one armed bandits were misnamed.
One life’s lesson lost to Murphy.
Arriving in Dover, I asked and was directed to the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) office located outside of customs. There I bought a visitor membership and the RAC campgrounds guide. At the time, I don’t think we appreciated how valuable the guide would be as well as the mental comfort of the membership break down service.
I then faced the next challenge of driving on the left with a left drive automobile. Barbara became my passing lane “eyes” as I hugged the left lane while traffic zipped by at a speed considerably faster than my 90 KMH (about 56 MPH). Though it was infrequent, invariably we would encounter a double or triple bottom Lorry slowly pulling up an incline and requiring us to pass. Between Barbara’s eyes and my mirrors I had adrenaline moments trying to build up speed to get around while acutely aware of vehicles traveling well over 120 KPM in the passing lane.
Somehow we survived and made it to a caravan park and campground near Canterbury. The kids went outside to play while Barbara and I set up the caravan. Our son, the middle child of age 6 ran up to the door and breathlessly told us “the kids here speak ENGLISH dad”, promptly running back to play.
Barbara and I collapsed in the seats each nursing a beer from the cooler and I wondering what I had gotten myself into driving on the left with what seemed to be a large and imposing lump being towed behind.
After dinner and more play with the sun still in the sky till late in the evening, the family fell into sleep. The campgrounds were quiet and we slept late the next day. We decided with the past days driving stress to a tight schedule, we would relax a day more in Canterbury. It would give me time to adapt to driving on the left with the car not pulling the trailer and we could do the tourist “thing”, as well as buying supplies and ice for the cooler.
After Canterbury we took the motorway to London. My plan was to take the outer ring road around the east side of London to go to the campgrounds south of St. Albans, and north of London. This campground put us close to the last underground station we could take into London. There was no way I’d brave the London traffic I thought.
Well, true to “Murphy’s law”, I took the wrong turn emerging from the Blackpool tunnel and found us driving into the outer suburbs of south London. With narrow streets no space to backup and turn around (a challenge in itself), I wandered through a residential area before finally finding a way through city traffic constantly reminding myself on turns and roundabouts to stay to the left. With map guidance from Barbara we found our way through London to an “A” road to St Albans. With white knuckles we found the campground we sought and a very harried and wrung out “me” parked the caravan in our spot. As I shakily set up the caravan I wondered what other driving challenges awaited me.
We spent some days at this campground, only using the car to drive to the underground parking lot and taking the “tube” into London for sightseeing. Conscious of the kid’s tolerance for museums and other “boring” places, we tried to balance our sightseeing with them in mind. Finally (and with some dread), it was time to get on the road and go north. After hooking up we followed the RAC guide to Nottinghamshire. I decided to take the “A” roads and avoid the Motorways. Driving leisurely at a 50 MPH pace through the countryside proved to be a less stressful drive. After navigating the roundabouts and turns I was gathering more confidence in the left lane.
We took the opportunity to see Nottingham castle; which proved to be a disappointment to the kids as it was a Baroque palace instead of a 12th century fortress the Sheriff of Nottingham would use as defense against Robin Hood.
After spending a day in Nottinghamshire we decided to go to the city of Durham, famous as the seat of the medieval fortress and cathedral. Durham was the bulwark against Scottish raids into England during those medieval years and promised to be full of interest to this history buff.
With the slow speeds and winding roads we decided to make it a 2 day trip to Durham, enjoying the scenery and lunch at a country pub. Deciding to make an early stop to give the back seat room to burn off energy, we encountered another adrenaline overdose and white knuckle on the steering wheel experience.
During our travels, we relied upon the RAC caravan park guide and directions to the caravan parks. Barbara and I had chuckles reading the RAC directions using landmarks such as “at the roundabout with the large oak tree on the road to East Redford, take the road to Harworth for 1.5 miles, turning left at the drive after “white rose cottage”. Using the Guide, we decided to go to a campground that had “a scenic view”.
We were now driving through the Northumberland countryside with dense foliage broken occasionally with fields of sheep and hidden lanes. The RAC directions had us take a turn off a roundabout lane where a country pub (I forget the pub’s name) fronted the road with “a large Oak tree”. As we drove down the road, it turned from two lanes into a one lane drive. On either side there were hedgerows brushing both of the caravans’ sides. I was worried we had somehow missed the road we were supposed to be on and had driven into some farms lane. With hedgerows on both sides and my limited skills in backing up I decided I should eventually find a place to turn around, apologizing to the farmer if we came to his house. After a mile or so, I was faced with a huge lorry (truck) coming in my direction. As we both came to a stop I got out of the car while the driver got out of his.
I pointed to the caravan behind the car and said “I haven’t a chance of backing up”.
“Not a problem Mate” said he, “there’s a pull out about a hundred yards behind me. Just give me some time to pull in and you can get by. Going to the caravan park are ye?”
I said I was and gave the campgrounds name, “is it far from here?” I asked?
“Aye, not far” he said, giving me a wink and “you need turn at the next drive on the right…and mind you, drive safe”.
A bit mystified at this parting statement, I slowly followed him as he backed up to a gap in the hedgerow and maneuvered the lorry off the road. Driving slowly, I came to the right turn he described, and turned into the lane carefully. It was a tight turn with the hedgerows but I was encouraged seeing the sign indicating the caravan park was close ahead.
Wondering aloud to Barbara what the “surprise view” was that the guide claimed, only to find the hedgerow bound lane turning and revealing the countryside wide open…. hundreds of feet below us with the lane being a very steep incline and what seemed to me to be close to being vertical. Having driven now many years in the Colorado mountains, I know what a 6 percent grade is and this was not a 6 percent grade.
Barbara grabbed my knee in one hand as she grabbed the door handle with the other and gave out a rather high pitched voice “you’re not driving down there are you”?
Looking back at the hedgerows and lane I saw little choice and said “I’ve got nowhere else to go Barb”. She turned around and told the kids to cinch up their seat belts, and I engaged first gear. Slowly, I drove over the lip of the lane and down the hill. The lane was of a rough macadam construction providing a good grip to the tires. Down we went, the caravan bouncing back and forth as the surge brake was engaged and disengaged and giving distinct bumps to my little Fiat as we crept down the hill. Along either side of this precipitous lane, turn offs and driveways were terraced into the side of the hill with caravans parked into parallel slots alongside the driveways.
Focusing on my braking and feeling the on/off surge push from the caravan behind the car I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles as we “surged” our way down the slope.
“OOOhh, it’s a pretty view Daddy” came from the backseat. Unable to appreciate the aesthetics of the view at that time, all I could do was grunt an acknowledgment while Barbara told the kids to “don’t bother daddy now please”.
Finally, we arrived at the bottom of the slope and at the caravan park office. Extricating my “white knuckle grip” from the steering wheel my wife and I looked at each other with could only be sighs of relief.
I shakily opened the car door and walked up to the building’s office door. There I found the sign saying, “gone to the village, back at 5PM, find yourself a spot”. Coming back to the car, I told Barbara what the sign said on the office door. She looked back up the slope with some concern, and a little tremor in her voice and asked “Do we have to go back up there”?
I said unless we planned on staying there for the rest of our lives, that I didn’t see an alternative. Visually marking an open spot on one of the terraced pull offs, I got back into the car. Through a number of back and forth maneuvers I finally was pointing back up the lane. Slowly driving up the lane in first gear and feeling in tune with all 1600 CC’s of the little Fiats engine laboring up the hill I found the turn off and carefully pulled into the parking spot. After setting up the leveling jacks and firmly chocking the caravan tires (tyres?) and firmly pulling up the Fiat’s emergency brake I was able to take in the view.
“Surprise view” was an apt description; the land fell away from what appeared to be an upper plateau with a drop of many hundreds of feet. Those of you who have driven I90 in South Dakota from Wall Drug to points east can appreciate the feeling as the land drops away from the upper plateau. At the top of the plateau, you can see the prairie below you for miles and miles. Today, years after, the “surprise view” vertical distance in Northumberland still seems to be a breathtaking height.
At 5PM I walked down the lane to pay our park fee. I had a five-minute conversation with the park owner where I must admit I couldn’t fathom what he was saying. He seemed to understand my American English just fine whereas his Northumbrian accent was beyond my understanding. He could have just as well been speaking Greek to me. Giving a “uh-huh” or an “I see” at his pauses I diplomatically avoided any embarrassment from acknowledging I couldn’t understand a word he said. Finally, saying “thank you, we’ll be leaving in the morning” I walked away wondering if Northumbrian was English or left over Anglo Saxon?
From “surprise view” my driving experiences with the caravan merged into the ordinary. We decided we would stay at the caravan park at Finchale Abbey, just outside the village of “Pity Me”. I see on the internet this caravan park has come to the 21st century and has a web site. They describe the Finchale Abbey caravan park and surroundings much better than I can. (http://www.finchaleabbey.co.uk/ ).
The Abbey is a carefully maintained ruin of a monastery used by the Durham Cathedral monks as an R&R location from the hustle and bustle of Durham town. The abbey and caravan park is located in a bend of the river Wear. In the evening, the sounds of the gentle rapids and the quiet of the campgrounds proved to be a powerful lull to sleep.
For those who have the opportunity to RV in the UK, I highly recommend this caravan park. Just 4 miles from Durham, Finchale Abbey seems to be in a world of its’ own, quiet and peaceful with the age and history of the abbey ruins giving a sense of timelessness and peace. Finchale is a great place to sit outside your caravan at dusk and savor the sound of the river and birds. Durham of course is loaded for the history buff. Those who remember their high school European history, the cathedral is the final resting place of the “Venerable Bede” and the launching point for King Edward, the “hammer of the Scots” war on Scotland where Edward is the villain in Mel Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace in the movie “Braveheart”.
The remaining days of our trip had many sights such as Morris dancers at a village celebrating the Queens Jubilee, visiting Hadrian’s Wall, many visits to country pubs, and much to the groans of the kids, museums, castles, and cathedrals. Our RV experience in the UK involved learning new words of English-English describing foods and descriptions of the landscape. Driving through what is now known as James Herriot’s country in Yorkshire is as interesting and beautifully rugged as his books describe.
Our weeks finally running out, we returned through the English lake country, avoiding London, and ending up at the Canterbury campground before catching the return Ferry to Ostend and back to Sweden.
At the end of the trip we considered ourselves to be Caravan’ing veterans. Years later now, our travel experiences in the states, first with a travel trailer, and ending up with our motorhome are a study in contrast from that first trip. Though our camping trips are enjoyable our first RV learning experience with the little Fiat and the Czechoslovakian caravan seems to be the one that stays firmly in our memory.
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