Revamping the German reddish brunette.

Until now most of the blog post, where stories about our summer kayak adventures. However, in the spring and autumn, we like to slow travel by car. Taking the bicycles and hiking boots somewhere into the landscape of northern France. To get some sleep in a French forest or field we use our car as a small mini camper.


Our Caddy Mini Camper for Breakfast

As you have read in Charlotte’s story “The divorce“, we had to give up our old and tired Peugeot Partner. This meant we had to buy and convert another vehicle. This was one of the reasons the flow of new stories was slow. There was a lot of work to do, in the few of weeks before our autumn trip.

Our Peugeot Partner, a small commercial van, was a simple camper conversion. There was an outer tent, consisting of a woven and PVC coated tarpaulin which rested on the rear barn doors with a frame of bend electric PVC pipe. There was also an inner tent to keep the warmth a little bit in the car. However, the cargo area of the car was hardly insulated and a clear night meant suffering and wearing all the clothes you can find. We also had an air mattress that was resting against the cold metal of the wheel arches and on top of a rubber mat. Especially in the autumn, this could result in a cold night in the car.


Mini camper van in the woods, our old Peugeot partner close to Saint-Malo this spring

When we returned with her from our Orkney kayak trip in August, we were driving with a screaming clutch. There were some other repairs required as well, and we felt that the car was not worth the costs of the reparation she required to run again. We also dreamed of an update on our camper van interior.

Charlotte did a lot of research to find a new car and we ended up with a choice. A Volkswagen Caddy was advertised as a small commercial van but when we showed up at the garage, it was an import from Germany that was not yet converted. In the end, we choose to keep it as a Multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) version which means that we have now windows in the back and are able to carry more people. The advantage of this type is that the rear benches, without any tools, are easily removed. And the colour, a reddish-brown, is excellent for stealth camping.

So for the mini camper, we had a few requirements:

  • It should be fast and easy to install or remove.
  • Loads of storage space. No more moving stuff to the front seats when making the bed.
  • It should be compact when not in use. An IKEA flat-pack concept for storage would be nice.
  • Getting a nice, comfortable and warm bed. The inflatable mattress should be a thing of the past, no more midnight leaks or cold asses. Not to mention the heap of plastic that remains when the bed is beyond repair.
  • An easy way to transport our bicycles, in a safe and compact manner.
  • We would like to make it nice looking, but also use as much reclaimed materials as possible.

With this in mind, we build our new mini camper and tested it in the last week of October. The building story became a bit long with a lot of pictures, so we created separate pages, just follow these links if you would like to see the results.

In the first two weeks, we had to design and build the removable compact camper unit. The work was mainly carpentry and a lot of measuring and re-measuring. I work at a University and they were redoing the World Soil Museum, so I did some dumpster diving and salvaged a lot of plywood. The plywood had served as the backdrop to their soil profiles. Except for some fixture holes on the back, there was very little damage to the sheets. We were able to cut most of the camper unit parts out of this material. All the hardware, metal threaded inserts for furniture and the Allen key bolts were salvaged from old office desks. Then, for the top, we used the phenolic plywood flooring with a slip-resistant pattern, which we salvaged from our Peugeot Partner.

All in all, we ended up with a double bed, 113 centimetres at the feet end, and a 120 cm wide from the hips up. We are not that tall, so with some narrow pillows, the 185 cm of length is more than enough for us. We bought a 120×200 cm HR foam or cold foam mattress with a thickness of 8 cm. After slicing it up in three pieces and bagging it into tricot sleeves, we took some old Jersey bedding sheets and made colourful covers. We sew the covers with the sewing machine, nice and tight and put zippers in sites. By having zippers we are still able to wash the covers. We salvaged some sturdy straps with Velcro from our home mattresses. These straps are used to transport the mattresses in an upright position.

For some privacy and insulation, we used yoga mats bought at the Decathlon sports shop, to create window covers. They were fixed in the windowsills with mini bungee cord and some home-made fixtures. We also created a ventilation bracket for the tailgate. This keeps a gap between the door and car while the door can still be locked.

To transport the bikes, I created a wooden bicycle stand. Which is secured to the car floor with a steel rod. With some help from a friend who is an excellent welder the bikes are firmly fixed to the chassis

So with most of the work done, it was time to test drive our labour. We went for a week to the French Ardennes. The weather was great, nice, dry weather during the day for all kind of activities, and a wide range of temperatures during the night. The pictures below give a good impression of the weather and our favourite camping spots. Very good for a nightly sleep test.

We are very happy with the result. We had a frosty night but it was not cold in the car. Of course there is still a wish list, but for now, we had fun.

Alexander Gannet

The divorce

Our blue mini campervan overlooking Maclean’s nose on Ardnamurchan

I felt a bit of a struggle coming up when we drove back from Orkney. The paddle of the clutch was not responding all that well. It kept sticking. Overall it sounded a bit unwell. I thought it caught a Scottish cold or something. The indicator lights didn’t flash up when needed and the headlight sometimes just switched off for no apparent reason. All signs that the car was definitely a bit under the weather. I opened up the hood to check for problems but no problem was found. I checked the wiring, everything was fine. Perhaps it is a bit of oxidation on some switch or whatever, of the Scottish salty air. Just like other years, the problem will wear off with use, I’m sure.

But when the door handle of the side door broke off while camping on the Black Isle, I really was concerned. Is the car shutting me out! Am I not taking good care of my car, did I leave it alone for too long in Scotland? Is it physical or a mental problem? After some checking the internet I found I could fix the door problem for 10 euro. Great stuff. All is well again.

As we drive to Hull to catch the ferry back to the Netherlands, we hear the car crying. A high pitched crying sound comes from under the bonnet. It probably does not want to go home. Just like Alexander, it’s got ‘going-home-blues’. With handkerchiefs, I try to comfort it. Some small oily tears are dripping out of the engine onto the pavement.
The engine sounds normal but the pain is in the gearbox. When squeezing the clutch the crying starts. We drive off the ferry and limp home in our injured car, hoping it will make it home.

Back home we must consult a car doctor. Luckily my brother in law is an excellent car doctor but the diagnosis is not encouraging. All the reparations costing well over 1500 euros!! OMG.

Well, uh, just that, €1500,00.
OK, that is too much reality all of a sudden.
What to do now? Do we repair the car or do we need a replacement?

But this car has been with us for ten years! She has brought us to France and Scotland. I felt safe in her while sleeping in the back and safe while driving on the motorway. I’ve got pictures of us together on our holiday. And she would start on cold wintery mornings without complaining. It is my lovely dependable blue car and I’m quite attached to it even though she is dented on all sides including the roof, she still looks lovable to me. Every dent and scratch has its own story to tell. What is 1500 euro in a friendship like this?

Our blue mini campervan used as a drying rack.
Our bleu mini campervan used as shelter for the rain.

But at the end of the day, I am looking out for a different vehicle while my little blue car stood hopelessly on the driveway. Looking at me with sad headlights and unable to stop me in my efforts to replace it.

The more I am looking out for a new car the more distance becomes between me and the blue car. It must have felt it because I noticed it had a flat tyre. Like it was the last thing it could do to get some attention, love and care from me. A bit annoyed, I change the tire and patience is running out. I have no time for a whining car, I need a working car!!

I took Alexander out to look at some new cars and found one that met all our needs!! How exciting!!!
We went out for a test drive, it felt great. She is a lovely German reddish brunette, slightly bigger than our blue car and it sits 5 people. Lots of windows and well insulated. It is love at first sight, butterflies in my stomach. The blue car is just a vague memory now.
We can not resist her good looks and comfort and decide to buy her. We sit down for the deal and the salesman starts talking about trading in the old car….

There is this interesting mix of emotions going on within me:

  • All excitement of the buying of the new and much better car and spending lots of money.
  • This is how it must feel when you get into a midlife crisis. Replacing the old model to a new one. There is a little guild in the background.
  • No feelings for the old car, flog it for the best positive price. The car is a thing, not a person where I might have emotional feelings for!!
  • But how do you say goodbye to a trusted friend who brought us to all our holiday destination? I just don’t know….

It makes me feel a bit giddy.
Even though I try to talk positively about the blue car, the nice bright colour, the low mileage, the air conditioning and the neatness of the interior, it doesn’t weigh up to the engine problems and the dent and scratch issues.
And my feelings towards my little blue car change from affection to business-like cold hard cash.

Next week we go to pick up our nice new lovely car. I talk to the blue car one last time.
‘Now listen blue car, I am going to bring you to a nice matchmaker who will take good care of you. He will put you on Car Tinder and you will be speed dating in no time. Don’t cry!! In the end you will be much happier in a new relationship!’

Our blue minicampervan at twilight

Combat de la Rouge-Mare

Slow Traveling is exciting because it is not about the big and expected stories of visiting major landmarks or tourist traps, but rather the surprise of an unexpected small and beautiful story around a not well-known monument or place.


Walking to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy

Last week we visited the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. Quite an achievement for us, because of the many kilometres travelling by car. We had pushed it a bit because we were tired at the start of the holiday. It was nice but also very busy and not so surprising. Everywhere you see the postcards and images, and it is almost of you already saw the best bit before you got there. Going around, the beauty of the island has to compete with the tourist shops screaming “buy my stuff!!”.

Now we are on the way back and trying to find a place to park our mini camper, relax a bit and get a good night sleep. We drive through this string of small county roads reading the landscape. We like the mix of forest and agricultural landscapes because the edges give good opportunities for nice stealthy camping spots. Then we see this old tourist sign. It is probably of placed in the 50’s, based on the look of the lettering of the enamel sign. “Monument de la Rouge Mare” reads the text. We follow the little lane into the forest and end up at a huge monument. It’s a good place for the night and I start drawing.

Rougemare 04

The monument reads “Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants” and just the names of 4 men and Octavie Delacour, almost the name of a Harry Potter character. Another old tourist sign reads “Embuscade Allemande (16 Septembre 1914)”. My French is not too good but this sounds like an ambush of Germans. While drawing, I get more and more intrigued. We are far south of the Great War frontline, Germans here??

There is no info panel so the research starts at home. I won’t go over the full story, but in short, it is a German raid on the Seine. Three German vehicles with sappers were loaded with 500 kg of explosives and en-route to the bridges of the Seine near Rouen. They are able to drive through France just because people think they are English soldiers, although they are in there German uniforms and drive cars with German licence plates. As one of the vehicles breaks down, the farmers in the area offer their help to the “English”, who answer them in English and bad French. After the repair, and after shaking hands with the French farmers they drive on.

This, I find the first funny fact. It would be impossible nowadays, with the internet, television and travelling. You would recognise a Brit or German just by their posture and accent alone. But in those days they never did hear a foreign language or saw a foreigner.
Then the Germans halt in a forest, hiding for the day. This is where the 56-year-old lady, Octavie Delacour comes in the picture. She walks through the same forest and is temporarily halted by the Germans. The let her go probably convinced that the pass as Brits again. However, she recognises the Prussians from the 1870 war who had occupied the area, when she was just 12 years old.

Walking to the nearest village, she informs the brigade commander of the Gendarmerie in Gournay-en-Bray. He, however, is not taking her completely seriously. In the end, he sends some men but they go ill prepared. The spot the German sentinel but three gendarmes are killed instantly and the local guide is fatally wounded. Is this what happens if you take half your population not serious in matters of war?

Pencil drawing on brown paper by Alexander of the Monument of Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants. In France

Drawing the Monument of Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants.

In the end, the commando is arrested, the bridges are saved and Octavie becomes a hero. Honoured with a monument somewhere hidden in a French forest. And for me, it might be a story that leaves a bigger imprint in my memory than the grandeur of Mont-Saint-Michel.




Story on wiki (in French)