Sunday, March 4, 2012

Starting the Journey, Failing to Start the Engine

Well already this map of where I plan to go is out of date!

I finally left home on Tuesday afternoon, with a very rushed packing up of essentials and a drive down to Bournemouth to briefly meet with my good friends and their new baby. They kindly put me up on their sofa and I traded ten minutes of babysitting for a deliciously hot shower before driving up the M3 into London.

Problems before we've even started

The VW Specialists in Ladbroke Grove took a look at my fuel gauge, which had been acting very oddly. It wasn't broken exactly but it no longer reflected accurately what was in the tank (something I discovered the painful way, by running out of petrol on the M4). It had also started 'dancing' whenever a blinking light such as an indicator was deployed. Anyway, they sent me off for the day while they investigated so I used a Groupon deal to get my hair done for cheap in West London.

Run out of fuel on the M4 one chilly evening (that's my sister under the duvet)

By 5:15pm I still hadn't heard any news so I called the garage. They told me that they'd ordered a replacement sender unit, to which I replied that I didn't think we really had time for that and that I'd rather just live with the problem than be stuck in the UK any longer. I caught the tube, a journey of 20 minutes, and found a different story on arrival: they had already replaced the sender unit at a cost of over £100. I jogged to a cashpoint and paid them, keen to move on.

Barely 10 minutes into central London traffic, a man in a van next to me opened his window and called across "Hey love, your tail light's out!". I sighed and shared, "I'm on my way back from the garage", which caused a few laughs and jibes about the reliability of a poor old campervan.

An unplanned stop

Rather than venture through the Eurotunnel and into a foreign country in the pitch dark with only one tail light, I drove out of London and spent the night in a MacDonald's service stop along the A20.

Next morning, I popped into a local Kwik Fit who confirmed what I suspected, that the bulb was fine. They recommended an auto electrician some 20 minutes away who turned out to be very helpful indeed (he was in fact a former T25 owner with plenty of experience of wiring them up). He changed two bust fuses and gave me a spare set for the future, sending me happily on my way.

So finally, at 15:20 on Wednesday afternoon, I boarded the train at Folkestone and went through the Eurotunnel. My carriage was empty save for one other vehicle containing a couple in the process of emigrating to Spain. I invited them to join me in the back of the camper for a gossip (we had to forgo the tea - there's no gas cooking allowed).

Arriving in a new country

From Calais, France, I drove for five hours to an Aire de Service near Le Mans and pulled out the bed for another sleep. Bright and early I used the Service facilities and got back on the road, heading for my parents' house in the South West.

Aire de Service - a popular place to stop for the night and meet fellow campers
Trundling along on Thursday morning listening to Radio 4 podcasts, I again became concerned about the fuel gauge. It was difficult to be sure of its accuracy but I was aware of it behaving like a financial investment, i.e. moving unpredictably down as well as up, and of it'dancing' more vigorously than ever when I indicated to overtake lorries. I made a note to have strong words with the London garage once I reached my destination.

Another unplanned stop

Between Poitiers and Limoges is the N147, a major single carriage road with roundabouts every 5 miles or so and changes of speed limit as it passes through towns. It was whilst climbing a hill on this road that things started to go quite seriously wrong. I was strolling along doing about 40mph in 4th gear when the engine began to splutter. I assumed the hill was too much for it and dropped down to 3rd gear but the struggle worsened - the camper was coughing and losing momentum so I popped the hazards on and pulled off the road onto a gravelly verge along the right hand side.

The engine had of course stalled so I applied the handbrake, switched everything off and then tried the ignition. Nothing. Not a sound, not a hiccup, not even a dash light. Uh-oh.

I called the RAC, donned my high-viz jacket, set out my warning triangle and put my feet up in the back of the bus with a good book. The recovery chap arrived an hour later and chose to communicate solely through facial expressions and hand gestures. I don't think he was actually mute but perhaps just a bit shy. He loaded the 'camping car' onto his truck and commuted us both to his garage in the next town.

After unloading, the chap had another go at the ignition. This time it started! I was flummoxed. Could there be nothing wrong after all? How terribly embarassing. Aah, until he took the key back out of the ignition and the horn went off "PAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARP!". He silenced it by replacing the key in the ignition and then tried again with the same result. This is not, we agreed through further exchange of facial expressions, a standard feature of the VW Camping Car.

We filled out some paperwork and I stood in reception (there were no chairs) for a little over an hour, half listening to the garage workers doing impressions of my camper's horn to each other, before wandering down the road to a hypermarche for coffee. On returning I learned that my ignition switch was faulty and that a number of wires had melted behind the dashboard. Could it be that is was the real cause of the fuel gauge's eccentricites?

Hmm. More notes for even stronger words.

Anyway the upshot is that they can't fix it right away - they needed to order a replacement ignition switch (15 Euros) and bring in a specialist to repair the wiring. So the RAC have sent me to a hotel back near Poitiers for the weekend. We'll try again Monday...

Where I've travelled to so far - click for details and updates

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