Jules is a bit busy at the moment so she’s asked me to do a blog. Please be warned there is a little bad language but I think you’ll agree it’s in context.
Growing up on our street of 8 houses, the only people to have a car were Tommy Anderson and his son Peter. In fact it wasn’t a car, but a Commer Camper Van. An exotic vehicle especially when it drove past as I held hands with my mam waiting for the bus.
It was that camper that was used to carry my first bike back from Leiths Bike sShop in Houghton. Peter driving, my dad and I sat in the back holding the bike. I remember being nervous that the pedals would scratch the wood panels either side.
It was Peter and his dad who would together wash the camper.
I’d sit on the kerb stone on their side of the street and would watch, entranced as the water ran along the edge and under my legs. It was a treat if I could get outside as they were setting up, as I’d have the sheer delight of watching the stream as it set off following the camber of the road.
In 1978 Peter and Tommy had a win on the pools, it was a source or conversation in our house, as no one knew how much was won, but that didn’t matter as you could imagine and dream with gut aching envy.
When the brand new T registered red and yellow Dodge Auto Sleeper Camper pulled up outside their house it was clear it had been a big win.
By now there were two more cars on the street but nothing as entrancing as the ’Ice cream van’ as other less reverential folks would refer to it. They were jealous and although I was too, it was never that spiteful resentful kind.
Peter was one of those quiet men, shy but knowledgable, the handy lad on the street, who knew how to fix the puncture on my bike and had the tool to do what ever job needed doing. His dad was braggy, funny and loud, the world according to Tommy Anderson and if you didn’t take note, you were the fool. Peter always seeming to hang in his shadow.
How many times did Tommy say to me “ Your dad could have one of these if he didn’t drink or smoke.” I knew he was right but I equally knew my dad would never speak like that to another man’s son.
As the years went by that camper was used to transport two more pedal bikes and on one occasion I rode in the front seat next to Peter driving.
I was 18 and he was being my knowledgable chaperone whilst I went to see a motorbike, but that is a story for another time.
I looked up to Peter and so admired the quiet way he got on with things.
What’s this got to do with camper vans, Julie and me? I hear you ask.
Well, I’m getting there.
Tommy, was a rather prescriptive man and Peter had his instructions, a lot more I imagine than I ever knew, but i was never allowed past the front door or inside the wondrous workshop, I’d knock on the garage door as a teenager and when it was opened ajar I’d say “Peter might you have a …… “ the door would close and open moments or minutes later with Peter kindly hand me the said request. I didn’t need to be told to return it, I’d dash, do what ever it was needed for and have it returned in a ridiculously anxiety inducing manner. I’m not much different today, I hate asking for a hand or to lend something.
Anyhow, Jules and I had been together 6 weeks when Tommy died. It was a sad time on my Mam’s street and his passing meant one of those old anchors was gone.
In hindsight it was perhaps a mistake, when, because Jules and I were skint, I bought a second hand three piece suite off Peter. It wasn’t my wisest moment when I happened to mention to my new prize, that Tommy died on the sofa. Needless to say that settee never made it into our home and languished in the garage. It was a superb piece and it wasn’t as if he’d oozed on it. Honestly, women!
No one had ever driven the camper except Peter and his dad, no one, it simply wasn’t allowed. So the fart from a passing gnat could have blown me over when in the summer of 1998 Peter asked me if I’d like to borrow the van to take Jules and Vicky off to a weekend in the lakes.
My mam had happened to mention to Peter we three were off camping.
Unbidden and certainly not as a result of a hint, the message came to me that Peter would like us to take his camper. I’ve no idea why and he wasn’t the type to curry favour, he had always been sweet on my mam and although she was 17 years older they made a lovely couple when they started courting in 2001.
I can’t tell you how nervous I was. This was a creaky wallowing land crab but with the promise of cosy magic. A country cottage on wheels, a park where you like, put the kettle on and admire the view mobile. It was Peters pride and joy and I was the first man in 20 years to drive it other than the two Anderson’s.
We had a fabulous weekend, we three.
I wasn’t to know what part worn tyres were. I’d heard the term but never got round to trying them. Peter, forever the economist,make do and mend man was a huge fan of them, after all, why pay £50 new when you can pay £5 at the car boot and yours are the skills to fit them.
I knew I was being enthusiastic trying to overtake the van.
There was a bang.
As the steering lunged left to right and back again and the rear end whipped and cracked back in Six-Million-Dollar-Man slow motion, with me at the wheel and my two new girls in the van. My throat swelled, stomach heaved and arse did more than twitch as the Police advanced training on the skid pan kicked in from 10 years earlier. Reverse lock, counter reverse lock, is this bloody thing ever going to stop.
“Fuck me, please stop, stop soon, stop soon…. Jesus Christ what the fuck was that? Sorry Vicky, eerrr…” shaking. Thank god we did not crash, we were alive and so was Peters van.
I was the first out of the van and had to sit on the kerbstone. Jules and Vicks were supremely chipper. How were they to know what my heart, head and guts had been through? The only clue being my colourful outburst. I was a blamange but as the minutes passed I took on more solid form.
That overtake going down hill on the A66 not long before the Barny turn off was one spurt over 50 mph too much for that rear near side tyre.
That experience stays with me today, do you know your tyres have a set of easliy found and deciphered numbers on their walls telling you when they were made? They do, allow me to be a little Tommy Anderson-ish and if they are over three years old, please replace them. I do.
Back to campers. Two years later and one year into caring for Julie’s newly disabled dad, I decided either Jules and I were probably going to end up at a divorce court or we were going to end up in the countryside.
A camper van was just what we needed. One weekend a month, Vicks would be minded by Bill, and Jules and I would have two nights away, anywhere along as it was alone.
£1100 later and Jules and I had a Creamy white 1982 VW camper. (Not the classic shape, I’m the man who looked at a 1971 model, one owner selling for £3000 and said, “I’m not paying that”. Anyhow, I digress.)
We didn’t know the term “wild camping” but all we really did was follow Peter’s lead. Our first spot was Stape, a sleepy area on the North Yorkshire moors by a stream. His favourite and by default mine and ours.
That 120 mile-an-hour heart aching race down the A19 in the twilight of July 20th 2011 answering my mothers call of “ I think somethings wrong with Peter” was longer than that bloody blow-out, but much much more terrifying.
There sat in his chair by the fire was my old friend, not much older than I, but a father and brother a man to me, some one I’d loved for years. Once again my Police training kicked in. I knew what to do. How many deaths had I been witness to? I knew what to do for my friend.
So why do we do what we do?
Jules and I stayed away from those divorce courts. The five campers we have had have all been our friends, they have taken us far and wide. Sheltered us from many storms and given us a perspective that we would never see any other way.
We get ourselves in some arse twitchy situations, over reaching the van’s traction or dimensions, all in the search for that great spot. That slice of heaven, the spot where no one else is – it belongs to us and woe betide any bugger who wants to park alongside.
When in May last year, Jules said to me:
“Michael, I think we should build our own van”. My reaction was that of dread and
“Are you mad woman?”
But build our newest friend we did and I must say, so long as our other vans aren’t listening, this one is our favourite.
How many times over the years have I said to Jules “Peter would love this…” In making this van I’d have loved to have involved him, but in truth I have, in so many ways. When ever I see a passing brook or stand by water I think of him. I take off my shoes and rest in the cool water, and I’m by that kerb stone all over again.
My wife is usually right about most things, she’s the blue-sky thinker, I’m the one who’ll put the fire on, set the kettle and start with tea. When she comes out with a crazy idea, I usually recoil but the strength of my resistance is often due to the fact I know she’s right.
So what do I do when the latest idea is a move to Spain..?