We got to Ghent on a Friday afternoon, and found the campsite close to the city centre. Big site, well organised and very helpful staff at check-in gave us a map and relevant details. The dogs were sleepy and happy to laze around so we thought we’d have a night out and check out some of the music bars. I took the guitar, just in case I got a chance to play a tune for whoever does the gig bookings – slim chance I know, but it was early evening and ‘shy bairns’ and all that. There was a bus into town, but we walked anyway, 30-40 mins through a big sports park. First stop Missy Sippy – really cool blues and americana bar near the centre. Had a few strong Belgian beers and a chat with the owners – really friendly but nothing doing gig wise. Maybe on our way back through Belgium in August. There is a big festival in July in Ghent, and the bar does its own ‘festival in a festival’ – looks great.
Some nice sights around the city. We liked it!
Next stop the Hot Club of Gent, a jazz haunt – liked the ‘no talking during the performances’ sign. Asked the lad behind the bar about rootsy blues gigs but he’s more into the ‘nightlife’ he says. On to Trefpunt. Again a nice bar, very strong beers, some local characters in. It has a venue attached and its own mini festival in July.
Stopped in at another bar on the wander back, for an 8.5% Charles Quint ale. Slept well!
On, down to Luxembourg, through snow and the dashboard showing -2° outside. Cheap diesel in Luxembourg – always worth filling up! Nice scenery, reminded us of the English Lakes. Stayed 2 nights in Enscherange but didn’t wander far. Toasty in the van though, got some jobs done, Bev sorting the bedroom curtains.
Back into France, started to head South, working out best way to get into Italy. Probably not over the mountain passes, given the amount of snow. A couple of nice stops on the way, including Arbois (home of Louis Pasteur) and Lac de Madine. Stayed at a nice site at Cerveyrieu and set up the dog stroller for a hike up to the cascade. Pretty tough going at times, uphill on cobbles and down a track blocked by a fallen tree, but we made it! Great views. I learned about ‘lavoirs’ which are a common sight in rural France – public areas for washing clothes, fed by streams or piped water. Apparently, there are over 17,000 of them, most in disrepair, some restored to their former glory, before launderettes and washing machines.
As our house was all packed up into storage, we’d slept in the new van every night since we got it but sleeping in the street outside your own home hardly counts as wild camping! Our definition would be: camping somewhere for free, with little or no facilities, just what you have with you. We set off 9th April and spent our first night at Bev’s auntie’s near Bedford – still doesn’t count! But it did mean we only had a short drive to the channel tunnel, via the Dartford Bridge. Short delay with the tunnel this time – fire safety alarms weren’t working properly on one train, so we had to drive in a big loop and get on another one. Still a pretty smooth operation, friendly staff and no real concerns tackling it with the bigger vehicle.
We didn’t drive too far into France that day. Bev found a Park4Night site outside Bergues, about 10km south of the beaches of Dunkirk. It’s basically just a car-park in the forest, by some running trails, dog-walks and fishing ponds. Slightly nervy as we got ready for the night, with those stories of wrong-uns gassing people in their campervans and robbing them in my mind. But another van turned up, and assuming they weren’t the wrong-uns, I thought we’d probably be ok.
It was great. Lovely, peaceful, wildlife all around and we had absolutely everything we needed in the van.
In the morning, we had an opportunity to try out Bev’s folding bike – She rode ahead to find a patisserie. I followed with the dog stroller, so Marra could climb in when he’d had enough of walking. He can only go so far these days, poor old lad!
I guess we did have a plan to start with. We fancied a change. Bev would finish work, we’d sell the house in Newcastle and move to Northumberland, get some chickens or alpacas and set up a music studio in the garage. But our house didn’t sell – buyers being cautious with Brexit maybe, or maybe just no-one saw what we saw in our house and garden. Then there came an opportunity for an exit scheme at my work – too good to miss. I applied and was successful – I’d finish 6th April and get a payout at the end of the month. New plan – never mind Brexit, let’s vote with our feet and get out.
Bev tidied up the house to rent it out and we started to sketch out a route through Europe. Our friends Andy and Ucci are building a house in Sweden so we’d aim to get there and say ‘Hi’ at some point, probably late July/early August.
We part-exchanged our VW campervan as a deposit for a larger motorhome and after a few worrying weeks in the run up to the 29th March Brexit deadline, decided to get a loan and pay off the balance for the new van early and get set off, in advance of the new ‘deadline’ of 12th April.
This meant a truly bonkers and exhausting week after finishing work, with my leaving do and farewell gig with the band, packing up the entire house into boxes, loading into a storage unit, trying to sort the rental, sorting road tax, insurance, etc, then collecting the new van from Scotland, sourcing a new acoustic amp, trying to pack all our kit in…
…and seeing friends to say goodbye. I barely had chance to reflect on leaving work after 15 years, leaving a good, solid day-job at the age of 45 to go off travelling, leaving the house we’d loved for 14 years, etc. Ah, well. It’s done now and we’re off. Bring it on 🙂
Bringing forward our departure meant that I hadn’t had time to put any effort into findings gigs in Europe either. So we really didn’t have anywhere particular to be. The only place I’d contacted was a bar in Ghent, Belgium, but I’d not heard anything. May as well head that way, you never know!
We’d had our campervan – a converted T5 transporter van, nicknamed “Voyager” – for 3 years and had some fantastic adventures. We really caught the bug. As well as regular weekend escapes, gigs and festivals, we’d done 2 longer trips around Europe – first for 2 weeks and then 3 weeks. We loved it and wanted to go further afield and stay away longer, much longer e.g. months. On our last trip we found more wild camping sites – Bev’ll do a post on the Park4Night app at some point – and again loved the freedom (and low cost) and wanted to do more of that. For a few reasons, we started to think that a bigger van might be required:
Living and storage space. We’re not just thinking in terms of taking a long holiday, we want to take our lives on the road to some extent. We’ll look long and hard at what we need – we are downsizing after all – but it’s likely we’ll have to take more ‘stuff’ than we do currently. (And that already includes the dog’s beds/coats/food, Bev’s paddleboard, my guitars, etc.)
We were lucky with the weather on our longer trips – it was sunny, dry and warm. I think if we’d had more rain, we’d have struggled a bit with wet coats, boots and 2 wet dogs! So, if we’re going to be away longer and we intend to keep on camping through winter, we should prepare for that.
Also, we love being outdoors and have the picnic table and chairs but we may also need space to ‘work’ indoors, especially through winter.
A made up bed. It might be part of the fun for some, making up a bed each night from the sofa but we love the idea of a separate space for sleeping. We’re both quite tall so sleeping widthways is not an option for us in a normal van. In Voyager, we came close by sleeping ‘upstairs’ – in the pop top. We could leave the bedding up there during the day and when driving. This also meant one of us could have a lie-in while the other got up to sort the dogs and make a cuppa in the morning. Of course, with the bed ‘down’ there isn’t much headroom so you have to do all this hunched over! We began to dream of doing this morning ritual without stooping and it became a ‘must-have’ for our new van.
Facilities for wild camping. Although the VW van was easy to drive on narrow roads and could get us into places that we’d never reach in a motorhome, there were a few drawbacks. The fresh water capacity in the conversion was a bit limiting at 12 litres, and it was fiddly to fill. So, more fresh water and an integrated waste tank were required. Having lived with 12v electrics and a Waeco CR50 compressor fridge and a Truma gas-only heater, we also knew we wanted more fuel/power options for storing food, cooking and heating the living area. Ideally, this would include solar.
Full winterisation for year-round travel. That means better insulation, decent heater, frost protection on the water supply, etc.
Although we’d got into to a fairly slick routine for setting up and packing up, we still imagined ways to make it easier. In an ideal world, it would be effortless to move from driving to camping modes – just pull up when we find the perfect spot and drive off whenever we felt like it. We began to look at motorhomes admiringly, and pondering… if we wanted to wild camp for days, we’d probably need a loo and a shower, so we’d need more water, and a built in waste tank, and what about the comfy captain’s chairs for driving long distances, that spin round to make a dining area with the adjustable table… And, ooh, built in cab-blinds… Classic van envy!
When you start looking at motorhomes, there’s a huge range of styles, layouts and of sizes. Some are absolute monsters. We decided on a few more criteria:
Not too long! Neither me nor Bev have much experience driving big vehicles and I’d already had a ‘minor altercation’ with an underground car park in Heidelberg. We don’t want to have to avoid back country roads entirely. The van was 5m and we knew this would be bigger, but ideally under 6m as we’d heard this can be a size limit for some ferries in Scotland and sometimes vans over this length get charged more.
Reasonable fuel efficiency. The VW was fantastic, averaging 36 mpg. We’d seen online some motorhomes did less than 20 mpg which seems boggling. Ideally, hoping for something around 25-30 mpg.
Of all the different brands, types or classes, and layout options, we soon homed in on just 2 layouts and there weren’t many options in our price range:
French Bed layout – fixed bed, with storage underneath accessible from outside, separate bathroom, kitchen area, lounge.
Transverse Bed – fixed bed, even more storage accessible from outside, separate bathroom, kitchen area, lounge.
A chance encounter at Marquis Motorhomes in Birtley, where Bev ambushed a chap bringing his motorhome in for it’s annual service and he generously showed us around, convinced us that there was only one make and model that would tick all the boxes – the Benimar Mileo 201, a low-profile coachbuilt motorhome with a transverse bed layout.
Typically for us, we had to be even more particular – it had to be a late 2015 or later model, as the earliest versions weren’t fully winterised.
Elddis had a transverse bed model, which was a cheaper option, but it wasn’t winterised, didn’t seem as well finished, and even the brand new models just had a ‘dated’ look/feel to them, like your Granda’s old caravan.
Benimar have a French Bed model, the 231, but we saw that it lacked a preparation space in the kitchen – something Bev was keen on. (A cooking and baking post coming soon!) We also liked the L shaped lounge, thinking there’ll be a bit more room when the whippets want to climb on our laps.
There’s a review of the early 201 models here. We watched this video countless times, despite the terrible spanish puns, while we scoured the second hand sites for a decent late-2015 201 to come up.