Our ‘perfect’ motorhome.

So, we’d drawn up our list of requirements and we were searching for the motorhome that came closest to meeting all of them. We were still using the Compass 100, but it had a final sting in the tail. Actually, quite a few tails probably came into it.
We were still going on occasional short trips and, if ten days or so slipped by without our using it, I would drive to the Caravan Club storage compound, run the engine and give Van Diesel (I’m not sure if I’ve previously mentioned our pet name for it) an airing.
On one such visit I found Van Diesel to have a generous sprinkling of mouse droppings. They were everywhere: on the floor, on every surface, on the overcab bed, on the seats. The upholstery had been attacked, albeit in a rather strange way. The mice had focussed on the fabric covering the mattress buttons, scratching much of it off to reveal the plastic. I assumed that the material scratched off must have been used to make a nest(s), but when I searched every corner of the van I found nothing.
The owner of the caravan on the adjacent storage pitch arrived and confirmed that his van had also been attacked. Then the owner of the motorhome three pitches away turned up. He’d also been a victim, suffering several attacks in the recent past.
When I mentioned it to the wardens it was greeted with a sympathetic shrug. As they quite reasonably pointed out, the compound is in the countryside, surrounded by hedges and fields, and they could hardly try to poison every rodent in the neighbourhood.
I swept up the droppings, disinfected all hard surfaces, cleaned the carpets and used up a couple of cans of upholstery cleaner on the soft furnishings, then I set off for B&Q to buy half-a-dozen mousetraps and a perforated metal sheet of fine mesh size. Motorhomes have vents in various places both to allow for the escape of gas leaks and to help keep them aired. I cut the metal sheet into the required shapes and wired it in place over the vents to make them mouseproof while, hopefully still serving their intended purpose.
However, the impossibility of keeping them out was brought home to me when I opened the glove compartment in the cab. The door is a pretty tight fit – I can’t, for example, get near pushing the ignition key into the gap at any point – and yet the mice had been in. They had shredded the insurance documents I’d left in there and even eaten their way through the hard plastic cap on an aerosol can of windscreen cleaner. The thought of what damage they could be doing to the electrical wiring was disturbing.
I suppose it may just be possible to make a caravan mouseproof, but not a motorhome, there are just too many ways they can get in via the engine compartment: the air vents, gaps around the steering column and the foot pedals. They don’t even have to get into the habitation area; they can do a lot of damage within the engine compartment.
So, now we had two problems: we had to find the right motorhome and, having found it, we’d need somewhere else to store it, rather than in a mouse-infested compound.
We thought we’d have no problem tracking down the right motorhome. After all, we only wanted what we assumed everyone else wanted and it seemed obvious that motorhome makers would supply what people wanted. We were wrong. It quickly became apparent that either we were unusual in our requirements or the makers didn’t ask what their customers wanted and produced models that looked nice, but were impractical.
What were our hard-to-satisfy requirements? Here they are:
4 berth utilising the overcab bed layout (provides lots of storage space);
generous height above the overcab bed, so no need to be a contortionist to get in/out;
it must be possible to leave the ladder to the overcab bed in place when the dinette bed is made up;
must be able to move freely along the van when the dinette bed is made up;
a separate shower;
a gas and electric space heater;
a gas and electric water heater;
plenty of work surface;
a storage locker accessible from the outside;
maximum length 6.5m;
maximum weight 3500kg to meet driving licence rules;
preferably Mercedes or Ford based, rather than Fiat/Peugeot;
within our somewhat limited budget of £10,000 plus the Compass 100.

Let me explain a couple of those, starting with the shower. In many motorhomes the loo and basin are effectively inside the shower cubicle. That’s good for saving space, but have a shower and everything is wet and needs drying off.
The outside storage locker is important to us as it means we don’t have to bring wet/dirty items (such as the outside chairs/table that could have been standing on wet ground, or umbrellas/waterproofs/walking boots) into the van.
Strangely enough it wasn’t the budget that ruled out most models, even though we were operating at the bottom of the range where motorhomes are concerned; it was the lack of work surface. Even on models costing £50,000+, we frequently saw the sink right next to the hob with no work surface at all, except for the glass hob cover. Pile the dirty plates on there, wash them in the sink – and nowhere to put a drying rack. There often wasn’t even space to stand an electric kettle.
The maximum length wasn’t set in stone, but it seemed about right. Much longer than that and we thought we’d have problems driving it through our narrow Westcountry lanes and parking it on public car parks.
Winter passed, spring was well underway and we were still scouring the Westcountry. We had to relax our requirements. What we dropped was our objection to a Fiat/Peugeot. We didn’t feel we had any alternative. We often called on retailers to find that every single 4-berth motorhome had a Fiat or Peugeot base vehicle.
P1000165Shortly after we’d made that decision, having searched from Bristol to Land’s End, we found exactly what we were looking for at Alan Kerr Leisure, just down the road in Paignton. It’s based on a Fiat Ducato, but we felt better about it as Alan Kerr has been a main dealer for commercial Fiats for many years and had maintained this particular example for several years, carrying out both the mechanical and habitation services. We were offered much more part exchange allowance than we’d been expecting, so we bought comfortably within our budget.
P1000164So what is this paragon among motorhomes? It’s a Bessacar e445, with the 2.3l turbo diesel engine and 5-speed box. Built in 2004, it had done only 20,000 miles with a lot of service history. It came with a full service, 12 months MOT, a 2-year AA warranty covering both the base vehicle and the habitation equipment, a bike rack and a roof ladder.
It’s only 6.13m long, which makes it easy to drive, particularly with the reversing camera. If we meet a caravan or tractor/trailer on a narrow lane we are happy to reverse. We can usually find some corner of a public car park where the space overhang isn’t a problem. It has a tall outside locker, called a ‘wet locker’ by Bessacar (a sink forms the base), which takes the folding seats/table, rotary dryer, umbrellas, fishing tackle, water hoses, electric hook-up cable, bike saddle bags and walking boots. But it was the inside layout and equipment that were the clincher.
P1000166At the rear, across the full width of the motorhome, is a large shower room that holds a full size separate shower cubicle, loo, sink, wardrobe, cupboard and shelves. The overcab bed is huge with good head height. There is plenty of work surface. There’s an area next to the sink big enough to take a drying rack. The area over the fridge/freezer takes the electric kettle and toaster, and still leaves enough space for food preparation. There’s another surface that takes, among other things, the television. We have a four-burner hob, a grill and a full oven.
P1000167 P1000168As the picture shows, when the dinette bed extensions are pulled out, it is still easy to walk up and down, and the overcab bed ladder can stay in place.
Both the space heater and water heater can operate on electricity or gas. The Compass gas locker took two 3.9kg cylinders that cost currently £13.65 to replace from Flogas. Our new locker takes two 6kg cylinders that cost £16.28, so our gas costs have fallen from £3.50 per kg to £2.71.
The cab passenger seat swivels. There are fly-screens on the windows and habitation door. The fresh water tank holds 100 litres – twice the size of the Compass tank. There’s a Fiamma awning.
It suits us perfectly – but it clearly can’t suit everyone or we’d all be driving the same unit.
Buying from a long-established dealer was a very different experience to buying privately – it was painless and worry-free. The sales staff at Alan Kerr were relaxed and helpful. They encouraged us to spend as long as we wanted checking out the van; urged us to take long test drives and asked for a list of any jobs we wanted doing before buying. We gave them the list, the jobs were cheerfully carried out and we bought a van so immaculately valeted that it felt like new.
The warranty gives peace of mind. In the three months we’ve owned Bessie (I’m sure all Bessacars are so named) the water pump and the fridge gas igniter have failed and been replaced without quibble. In that three months we’re covered more miles than in the whole twelve months we had the Compass.
Buying from Alan Kerr has solved our other problem – where to keep it. They have a storage compound for their own stock and the motorhomes in for service work, but they also have spaces they make available at modest charge to local buyers. We have now worked our way to the top of the short waiting list, but in the meantime we had a stroke of luck. A neighbour set off on a long tour of Europe in their motorhome which enabled us to use their space. By the time they return we should have a space of our own.
We are enjoying ourselves immensely, spending more time away than at home. If you spot us anywhere, please say hello.

The end of our first season of motorhomes.

One of our reasons for acquiring a motorhome was to provide our own accommodation at folk festivals. After Sidmouth in early August, we managed three more: Lyme Folk Festival at Lyme Regis (just a couple of weeks after Sidmouth); Cornwall Folk Festival at Wadebridge at the end of the month and the Swanage Folk Festival in mid-September. This part of the plan was working well.
We also made a number of very enjoyable trips to events that were fun, but where we’d found local accommodation tricky/expensive to arrange in the past. With a motorhome it is so much easier to get to the Tiverton Balloon Festival, for example. The Minnows site, on the towpath of the Grand Western Canal, is a few miles outside Tiverton, but only a short walk to a bus stop.
Similarly, a day at Widecombe Fair can be enjoyed to the full when staying on a site a few minutes’ walk along the lane.
We also found some very pretty spots in North Devon, Dorset and Somerset. In late autumn we were able to watch the huge murmurations of starlings over the Somerset levels.
So, we’d reached the end of our first season of motorhoming. It was time to make a decision. Did we want to continue owning a motorhome? Was it worth the costs?
The answer was a resounding, ‘YES!’ We love it!
One thing I haven’t really mentioned in these posts is the issue of where to keep it. We’d deliberately searched for a small unit that we could keep at home, but we’d only had it a few weeks when we had to admit that really wasn’t acceptable. We live in a small cul-de-sac with only three houses in it. Those houses, and their gardens, are well-maintained. When turning into the cul-de-sac it’s an attractive aspect – helped by the sea view. With the motorhome outside our house there was no doubt that it was the motorhome that caught the eye. It was an eyesore – and there was no way to screen it.
We arranged a space on a secure storage site a few miles away. It was obviously less convenient, and it cost about £500 p.a., but it felt the right thing to do.
Shortly afterwards a rumour spread among users that the site, which is mainly used for secure storage in containers, was going to do away with the motorhome/caravan/boat storage and put in more containers. Just in case that was true (months later, it still hasn’t happened, and may never) we put ourselves on the waiting list for storage at a local Caravan Club site and after a few months we made the move.
The significant issue was that after making the move to storage, we were no longer restricted on the length of the unit.
The small size was causing us problems, mainly that we couldn’t put the dinette bed together with the overcab bed ladder in place – which we felt restricted our ability to take our young granddaughter away with us.
The Compass 100 had served its purpose. It had taught us that motorhoming appealed very strongly to some basic instincts.
We drew up a revised list of our requirements and spent the winter searching for our ideal model. We looked over dozens before finding our perfect motorhome.
Next time I’ll tell you what features were on our list and what model we eventually bought.

Fun trips in the motorhome.

I’ve been reminded that I’ve been very slow in posting this next instalment. My excuse is that we’ve been away in the motorhome so much that I’ve struggled to find the time. I’ll post this, and maybe one more, to cover the first twelve months of our motorhoming experiences.
So, there we were with our Compass Avantgarde 100, a bit on the small side, but in perfect working order, albeit with the knowledge that the next problem to develop in a non-watertight gearbox would probably prove terminal. The sun was shining, summer was upon us and we decided to get on with enjoying ourselves.
One of the most interesting places we visited was the Crossways Caravan Club site at Moreton, near Dorchester: a fascinating site of contrasts. It’s very attractive; the one-way site roadway meanders through woodland, passing through lovely glades that each contain a small number of pitches.
Deer live in the woodland and frequently put in an appearance. Campsites are the favoured venue of people who want to holiday with their dog and, as is usually the case, the majority of pitches had one or more dogs in residence. Amazingly, the deer seemed unfazed, unerringly picking out the dog-free units to be hand-fed morsels of salads. One hind was even confident enough to bring her fawn out into the open and ignore all the cameras pointed at them.
Two further advantages of the site are the pub only a couple of minutes walk from the gate, and the railway station opposite the pub. One of the things we look for in a site is easy access to public transport – that station certainly provides it as it is on the main line to Dorchester, only a 10-minute ride away.
The proximity of the railway line has its downside as at one of those glades it forms the boundary to the site. There’s a level crossing next to the station and passing express trains sound their horns as they approach – a very effective alarm at 6.00 a.m.
Another quirk of the site is the dry composting toilet facilities. The toilet seat looks conventional, but beneath it is a large dark hole. Children aren’t allowed to use the toilets unaccompanied, presumably because of the danger of falling in – a possibility too awful to contemplate. The loos worked fine, but they clearly didn’t suit everyone. I saw one chap emerge to be confronted by his wife and teenage daughter who angrily declared them unacceptable and demanded a move to another site. For me, the showers being in a separate block 100 yards away was more of a problem.
We’d strongly recommend a visit to this area – there’s so much to see and do. Dorchester is not to be missed. A lot of redevelopment has taken place around the station. Many top class restaurants and shops have appeared, but the old town is only a few minutes walk away. There we found the Dorset County Museum, the Tutankhamun Exhibition, the Dinosaur Museum, the Terracotta Warriors Exhibition, the Teddy Bear Museum and The Mummies Exhibition – so plenty to do if it rains. When the sun shines guided walk leaflets from the TIC provide a good tour of the town. As this is Thomas Hardy territory you’ll find frequent references to his work.
Dorchester isn’t the only attraction. You can change trains there and head for the seaside delights of Weymouth. Close by, there’s also the Tolpuddle Martyrs museum, Clouds Hill (the cottage of T E Lawrence) and the Tank Museum at Bovington Camp.
We spent a week in the area and could easily have stayed a lot longer.
One minor problem had become apparent with the Compass. We used the overcab bed for storage and slept in the double bed made up each night from the dinette. That bed is put together from six mattresses: the two seats and two backs of the dinette benches and two small mattresses that fit onto the pull-out extension. Having six components means a lot of joins, each of which can open up a little in use. In the interest of comfort we bought two of these, although we went for two-inch thickness, two-feet wide size. Problem solved.
One of our most notable trips in that first year was to the Sidmouth Folk Festival. Attending such events was one of the main reasons for our buying a motorhome. The festival (or Folk Week as it’s now called) was great fun, as usual. Staying on the over-crowded official, temporary campsite was an interesting experience. At the time I wrote a post about both the event and the camping which you can find under the Folk Festivals sections of this blog.
Bath is one of our favourite cities, so it was a treat to discover the Bath Caravan Park. It’s alongside the River Avon about two miles from the city centre, which is easily accessed by walking/cycling along the riverbank or by bus from the adjacent park & ride. The site is open all year and has sixty-four pitches all with hardstanding and ehu. Under the Interesting Places section of this blog you’ll find three posts that will help explain why we like the city so much.

Later this week I’ll put up another post covering the remainder of our first motorhoming year and the decisions we made at the end of it.

The Highs and Lows of Motorhoming

After our first one-night trip we were happily planning more, but first I wanted to make a small addition to our Compass. The door lock to the habitation area felt insecure to me. In fact, more than one of the keys could be used to open the door. On the site at Dornafield I’d spotted a number of motorhomes with additional door security, so I bought and fitted one of these Fiamma locks. I have to say that I felt better with it in place.
For our next trip we ventured a little further afield and went to the Exe Valley Caravan Site, details here. This place is an absolute delight. It’s a long narrow site in a wooded valley with the River Exe flowing down one side and a mill leat down the other. It’s ‘adults only’ as neither the river nor the leat is fenced. There’s a good pub a very short walk away. The charming owners live on site in the converted mill building. On Sunday mornings they give guided tours of their fascinating home which has been created around the still-functioning mill machinery. We intended using the site as a base for excursions onto Exmoor, but we never left the site – apart from strolling to the pub. We spent several totally relaxing days on the riverbank doing nothing apart from soaking up the peace and quiet. We decided that motorhoming had a great deal going for it.
It seemed like the right time to join one of the two clubs that could provide help with choosing campsites, advice and support. There didn’t seem much to choose between the Caravan Club and the Camping & Caravanning Club. We joined the former solely on the basis that the website seemed easier to navigate around. We’ve been pleased with our choice. Every Club site we’ve visited has been excellent, the website/forum has been useful, the newsy emails interesting and I look forward to the monthly magazine dropping through the door.
A number of other short trips to fairly local sites followed, including attending Teignmouth Folk Festival.
Folk festivals have grown in popularity so much in recent years that arranging nearby accommodation has become difficult. Teignmouth is only about an hour’s drive for us so in the past we’ve driven home after a day’s entertainment, but driving means no drinking, and enjoying folk music without a pint in my hand just doesn’t feel right. The organisers arrange space for tents at a sports ground and motorhome parking at a school. There are no facilities, but being self-sufficient for a weekend isn’t a problem and it’s a very short walk into the centre of town where the main venues are. We had a great time, enjoying both the music and the ale.
So we’d had a number of highs, but a big low was to follow.
I’d been reluctant to buy a motorhome on a Fiat/Peugeot base vehicle. As far as I can tell there is no significant difference between the two, both being built on the same production line of the Sevel plant in Italy. They have a poor reputation for reliability, particularly involving the minor electrical components. I actually thought that the Peugeot Boxer on which our Compass is based was so old that we might avoid the usual problems. For example, we wind the windows with cute little handles and there is no central-locking. However, it wasn’t a little problem that struck.
On the way back from Teignmouth I was forced to admit that the gearbox needed attention. I had receipts showing that a new clutch had been fitted and the gearbox re-built only 2,000 miles previously. I had been conning myself that ‘notchiness’ when changing into second was a stiffness that would resolve itself with use, but it was definitely getting worse.
I phoned my local, trustworthy garage and was dismayed to hear that they couldn’t help as their workshop isn’t high enough to get a motorhome up on a ramp. I started phoning businesses that advertised transmission services for commercial vehicles. The conversations took on a pattern.
Me, “I’ve got a problem with the gearbox on my motorhome.”
Garage, “What’s the base vehicle?”
Me, “A 2002 Peugeot Boxer.”
Garage, “It’ll be second gear then.”
Me, “Yes.”
Garage, “Can you read out the VIN.”
I read out the number. There’s the sound of fingers hitting a keyboard.
Garage, “Sorry, the manufacturer no longer supplies spare parts for that box. We can’t help.”
After a few of those I was starting to have a nightmare vision of scouring breakers’ yards and fitting a box that would turn out to be no better than the existing one.
Fortunately, I eventually found Torquay Transmissions. They’ve been in business for a very long time and carry a large stock of spares. This time the conversation went differently. A cheerful voice assured me that they had shelves full of the bits that might be needed. They replaced second gear, and spotting that fifth was looking sad, they replaced that as well. The real shock came when I asked if they could explain why the box should fail so soon after the previous re-build.
I’ve no doubt that some of you reading this will already know the answer; this is, after all, a common engine/gearbox combination on motorhomes of this age. The rest of you may find what I was told hard to believe – I know I did.
This gearbox isn’t watertight. Let me say that again – the gearbox isn’t watertight!
Opinions vary. Water could be getting in via the gasket, the gear change mechanism or even the wiring for the reverse warning – or via all three. What isn’t in dispute is that water gets in there somehow. The mechanic who did the work reckoned there was at least a pint of water in there. He also pointed out something that had made the problem worse in our case.
Most of the water running off the large windscreen passes through a grille into what is known as the scuttle, runs to the low point (in front of the passenger seat) and discharges out of a spout. There is supposed to be a rubber hose attached to the spout to lead away the water, but in our case, in typical Fiat/Peugeot style, the spout had rusted away and disappeared together with the tube. This meant that water from the scuttle was pouring onto the gearbox located directly beneath the scuttle drain point – a gearbox that let in water.
I drove to our local garage where the bodywork department fabricated a lining for the scuttle together with a new spout and fitted a long tube to carry the water well away.
Unfortunately, it didn’t mean that the problem was completely solved. Not all of the rain hitting the front of the vehicle runs into the scuttle. Some goes into the channel that runs around the engine compartment. If we park facing uphill, with a slope towards the passenger side, rain builds up in the channel, overflows and heads towards the gearbox. Actually, I suspect that simply driving in heavy rain means the box gets a soaking.
I may be doing them an injustice, but it did occur to me that the couple who sold us the Compass might have known all about the problem. They could have had the gearbox re-built, spotted that gear-changing was again becoming difficult, returned to the garage to be told that the gearbox was probably filling with water and that spares were no longer available. Maybe they then put it on the market at a low price, hoping for a mug – and I turned up.
Anyway, there we were at the beginning of summer with a long list of folk festivals to be attended and an even longer list of sites we wanted to visit. We had a clean and tidy motorhome, apparently mechanically reliable, and with a gearbox that was (at least for the moment) smooth and slick. We decided to just say, “What the hell,” and get on with enjoying it.
Some nine months later the gearbox is still fine and we’ve had fun. More about that next time.

Early Days

So, there we were in West Cornwall about to drive home in our newly-purchased Compass 100 Avantgarde based on a 2002 Peugeot Boxer 1.9 td. I always find the first trip in a secondhand vehicle a bit of a tense experience – who knows what problems went undetected in the short test drive?
In the event the drive went smoothly, except for one incident that was alarming at the time, if amusing in the recollection. We left the A30 at Carminnow on the outskirts of Bodmin, turning off the roundabout onto the A38 travelling at walking pace in heavy traffic. Suddenly there was a loud noise of steam escaping under pressure. The temperature gauge was showing normal, but the noise was getting louder. I was experiencing wild thoughts involving the heating being left on in the hot water tank and a failed thermostat. My wife had her seat belt undone and was opening the door to leap out when through the undergrowth I spotted a steam train keeping pace with us only a few yards away on the line of the Bodmin & Wenford Steam Railway.
Apart from that, it went well. The gearbox was indeed a bit notchy, particularly when changing down into second, but I told myself it would probably loosen up when we’d clocked up more miles after its recent re-build.
The only advantage of buying privately is the much lower price, but I’d suggest that it has to be MUCH lower to make up for the disadvantages. In our experience established dealers are totally relaxed about the time that potential customers spend checking out their stock; they will happily demonstrate how everything works and have a full habitation check/service carried out on sale. The couple that we bought from hadn’t owned the Compass for very long and we got the impression that they didn’t really know much about it. Their story was that they had decided to switch from a caravan to a motorhome, but quickly decided that they had made a mistake on the basis that they found they much preferred to travel to an area, unhitch the ‘van and have the use of the car to get around, rather than struggle to find somewhere to park a motorhome in unfamiliar towns and villages.
The potential saving of around £5,000 under dealer price had persuaded us to take the chance. We felt we had some protection in that we already knew Steve Radford, owner of Pride & Joy Caravan Services. The first thing we did was phone Steve who carried out a detailed check including damp readings throughout. The only fault he found was with a gas valve on the fridge. He replaced it and gave us a training course – total charge only £100.
Steve also put us in touch with Tow2Tow. Andrew came out and fitted reversing sensors – another £100.
So, for a total of £11,700 we were the relieved owners of a Compass 100 with a clean bill of health – we were feeling pleased with ourselves. We then had to get it ready for our use.
The curtains went to a dry-cleaners and I used up a couple of aerosol cans of upholstery cleaner on the cushions. Tucked away under the bench seat we found a solar panel, which was a nice bonus.
The unit came with two 3.9kg gas bottles – both empty. The bottles bore the unfamiliar name of Flogas. A few phone calls later I’d learned that: Flogas and Calor bottles are not interchangeable at suppliers; Flogas is significantly cheaper; most Flogas stockists do not keep bottles as small as 3.9kg. Fortunately, Flogas has one of its own depots 15 miles away in Buckfastleigh and delivery is free – even for an order as small as one bottle.
We drew up a list of what we thought we needed by way of cutlery/crockery/pans/bedding etc and bought it. I sterilised the water system, filled the cold water tank, sorted the loo and we were ready for our first trip.
Knowing that we were bound to have forgotten something, and probably something vital, we booked just one night at Dornafield, near Ipplepen, only a few miles away. It’s an award-winning, family-owned site affiliated to the Caravan Club. It may only have been for one night, but it proved a remarkable experience.
I was going to put up some photos, but Dornafield’s own website has a gallery that does the job much better than I could. The buildings are beautiful and the site immaculate.
We hadn’t been on a campsite for more than 30 years. To say I was gobsmacked wouldn’t come close. A hillbilly from the Appalachians parachuted into Las Vegas couldn’t have been more bemused. The toilet blocks left me open-mouthed. I’ve been in five star hotels with facilities that couldn’t compare – comprehensively equipped, everything gleaming, underfloor heating, air-conditioning, soft music playing. The floors looked clean enough to eat off. The last campsite toilet block I’d seen looked as if a hundred people already had eaten their dinner off the floor.
The pitch was fully serviced with electrical hook-up, water tap, waste water drain, chemical toilet disposal point and refuse bin all alongside. To top it all the site shop has a daily delivery of still-hot croissants from the local bakery. We were giving ourselves a very gentle introduction to the world of motorhoming.
It wasn’t just the site that impressed, it was also the motorhomes and caravans on display. We had just got ourselves settled when a stunning motorhome pulled onto the pitch opposite. We knew from our recent searches that we were looking at £70,000+. The couple settled onto their pitch and the lady set off towards the site shop. I was momentarily taken aback to see the chap appear with a bucket/sponge/long-handled brush and start to wash the already-shiny unit. It dawned on me that if I’d just laid out that sort of money I’d not only be doing the same, but I’d then be covering it with a giant plastic sheet to keep it spotless.
A few pitches along, an elderly couple were making preparations to leave with their caravan. We’d seen him moving about the site on a mobility scooter. Out of it he clearly had problems walking. We were imagining all sorts of problems and were ready to offer assistance – but they were set up to cope competently and efficiently. First he parked the scooter behind their opened hatchback. A remotely-controlled hoist appeared from the boot, the arm swung over the scooter, three chains were clipped into place and the hoist lifted the scooter and swung it into car. One task easily completed, but how were they going to move the caravan and hitch it? We suddenly realised that the caravan was moving while the couple stood watching. Then we spotted the remote-control unit in the lady’s hand. The caravan moved smoothly off the pitch and lined up perfectly behind the car on the roadway.
That was our first sight of a caravan motor mover. We’ve seen many since, but the entertainment value of watching one at work hasn’t reduced.
And how were we doing in our bargain basement unit? It wasn’t all good news. We were pleased with the feeling of quality in the Compass. Catches and hinges all still worked like new and we were impressed with the amount of storage, especially in the many overhead lockers. We were also pleased with ourselves as we didn’t seem to have forgotten to bring anything significant. But we were kicking ourselves for not having spotted a couple of irritating deficiencies before buying.
The height from the mattress of the overcab bed to the roof is inadequate for us. We’re not as flexible as we used to be and the contortions needed to get from the bed to the ladder, while bent double, are a bit much.
We deliberately chose the shortest motorhome that offered us what we thought we wanted, but that lack of length brings its own problems. The bench seat opposite the dinette is too short to act as a single bed, so to sleep two ‘downstairs’ we have to convert the dinette to a double bed. When we do that the gap between the bed and the bench seat is only three inches, making it very difficult to move freely enough to make up the bed without slipping a disc or bruising shins. Also, the double bed can only be put together with the ladder to the overcab bed removed. We wanted to take our granddaughter on trips and have her sleep in the overcab bed, but it doesn’t feel right to remove her means of escape.
As there was nothing to be done about the size of the unit there was no point in worrying about it. The Compass was ours, everything seemed to work fine and we resolved to make the best of it. Brief as it was, we enjoyed our first trip and as soon as we were home we began planning more.
We managed a couple before more serious problems became apparent. More about that next time.

Buying the new toy.

Many, many years ago, before the children came along, we had a campervan. Ever since they left home, (that is now also many years ago) we’ve been talking about getting another. Maybe there’s a bit of gypsy in me, but there is something very appealing about moving from place to place, taking my home with me. Last year (2014) we finally decided to take the plunge. We’ve kept a log of our experiences, good and bad, and as so many people seem drawn to this sort of holidaying, I thought I’d upload that log to this blog.
Perhaps I should say more about our reasons for buying a motorhome – there was more to it than holidays. We enjoy going to folk festivals. There are lots of them and they are very popular. So popular that finding accommodation near an event is becoming very difficult, but there is usually a campsite nearby. In fact, many of the larger festivals arrange their own temporary site. We also thought that one would make visiting more distant friends easy and give extra accommodation when all of the family come to stay.
After justifying the decision to ourselves, the first problem was the bewildering array of vehicles available. What’s the difference between a campervan and a motorhome? What do the terms coachbuilt and A-Class mean? We found out.
8990With a campervan a manufacturer has taken a commercial van as the starting point, cut out windows, lined the inside and fitted the kitchen and sleeping units. The initial van is still easily identified when looking at the finished vehicle. In this example of a campervan by Autotrail, the shape of the Fiat Ducato base van is unchanged.
With a ‘coachbuilt motorhome’ the manufacturer buys as the base vehicle the cab, engine, chassis and running gear of a commercial van and then builds M9047.jpg ford coachbuiltonto it a new structure that often includes an overcab bed. In this example Trigano has built a motorhome onto the cab and chassis of a Ford Transit resulting in a vehicle of different shape, but sit in the cab and you’d think you were in a Transit.
With an ‘A-Class motorhome’ the manufacturer buys just the engine, chassis and running gear, but no cab, of a commercial van and builds a complete structure. In this example of topic-515744.jpg A-class a Burstner A-Class it is impossible to tell from the appearance that the base vehicle was a Fiat Ducato. A-Class models are generally reckoned to be the most spacious and luxurious, but they can have some quirky features. We came across one that had no opening doors from the outside to the area with the driver and passenger seats. The only access into, and out of, the vehicle was through what is known as the ‘habitation’ door towards the rear, which really didn’t feel safe.
Incidentally, officially there is no difference between a campervan and a motorhome. Looking on the DVLA site to check on levels of road tax, we found that the terms aren’t recognised. Legally they are neither campervans nor motorhomes, but ‘motor caravans’ and we’ve since met people who painstakingly refer to their vehicle as a motor caravan and their hobby as motor caravanning.
Well, that was a small amount of progress – at least we knew what the ads meant – but we still had to somehow sift through the huge range of models available. We needed a list of priorities. A glance at the price tags attached to these things makes it clear that top of the list had to be the maximum price we were prepared to pay. After that came number of berths, number of seat belts, internal layout and length. As these are essentially motor vehicles then the usual service history, MOT and mileage had to be taken into account.
We considered renting different models for holidays to see how we got on with them, but the models available for hire are less than three years old. As we couldn’t afford to buy one that new we thought that trying out such a model, and then looking at much older models to buy, would make any purchase feel a let-down from the start.
Although there would usually be just the two of us, we decided on a 4-berth model thinking that we’d find the extra space valuable on a long trip. There were also the possibilities of taking our granddaughter on trips, or lending it to our son to use for family holidays.
At this stage we came across something that still strikes us as very peculiar. A large proportion of the motor caravans with three, four or five berths only have two seats fitted with seatbelts – the driver and front passenger seats. In these safety-conscious days it feels unacceptable to design a vehicle that doesn’t have a seatbelt for all of the passengers. Of the various internal layouts only the one with a central dinette (two bench seats and a table) comes with two forward-facing belted seats. As much as the rear lounge layout appealed, it never comes with belted seats at the back.
That was two decisions made: 4-berth with a central dinette layout – and we wanted a minimal amount of work to convert from day use to sleeping layout.
When it came to length we wanted the shortest that met our requirements, partly because we have limited parking space at home, but mainly because of suspected problems on trips. Spaces in public car parks seem to be getting tighter and we thought that anything significantly longer than a large car would prove difficult to park in towns.
4-berth combined with short length meant going for a model with an overcab bed, which is also the design that involves least hassle when preparing beds.
dsc_8691_128.jpeg Compass 100Now we had a pretty good idea of what we thought we wanted. The short models that seemed to crop up most often on dealers’ forecourts were the Compass Avangarde 100 and the Elddis Autoquest 100, which turned out to be made by sister companies and differed only in the badge.
The less money we had to part with the better. What was very striking was the difference between buying from a dealer and buying privately. There were seven suitable models for sale from southwest dealers dating from 2001-2003 ranging in price from £16,500 to £17,995. We found a 2002 Compass for sale privately. It had 24,000 miles on the clock, full service history, 12 months MOT (with all advisories done) and looked to be in sound, clean condition. The service history showed that a new clutch had been fitted, and the gearbox re-built, within the last 2,000 miles. The gearbox felt a bit notchy, but otherwise it drove fine. I know there are risks attached to buying vehicles privately, even more so with a motorhome than a car as there are so many more functioning components – shower, cooker, fridge, loo – but with a saving of around £6,000 I thought it was a chance worth taking. We bought it for £11,500.
I phoned around for insurance quotes and was amazed at how cheap it is to insure a motorhome. Saga quoted just £163 p.a. Although it was a new policy with no existing no claims bonus to utilise, Saga allowed the same full N.C.B. that we have on our car policy.
Insurance arranged, we travelled by train to collect it from West Cornwall.
Next time I’ll describe our early experiences – and why we soon decided that we’d made a mistake.