IT had been a long hard two-day slog through Spain and France and we were looking forward to a nice cup of tea at my mother’s.
Nearly 2,000 miles of driving and the M25 was the usual standard stuff: stop/start, stop/start. If anything, the overcast day and a dockers strike in Calais had made for a heavier than usual flow of traffic along the Westbound carriageway towards Gatwick.
And then the inexplicable. As we indicated and pulled the van into the slow lane at ten miles per hour, our turn off looming some 500 yards ahead, the car in front came to a sudden halt. I did the same, noting how my reaction times were still surprisingly quick after 24 hours at the wheel.
The problem though, was not in front. Behind – indeed three vehicles behind – was a truck driver. Whether half asleep, on his mobile, or just slow to react, we shall probably never know, but he failed to stop and ploughed two cars and our van into one nasty, grinding mess.
But it gets worse. For while the van did not appear to look that bad – at least compared to the poor guy behind, who stumbled out of his compressed car, having fought past the airbag – we suddenly noticed a trail of liquid from the radiator snaking its way across the hard shoulder. A sorry tale, and we were soon being towed off to a holding centre, somewhere near junction two. We called in home to explain we did not think we would be arriving on time and the team of removals people waiting on hand, with boxes and furniture packed, should probably go home.
So, there we were six hours later in a God-forsaken garage in the middle of nowhere – well just outside Hildenborough to be exact, two miles from Tonbridge. Trying to get the boss of the van hire company in Sevilla to sort out a quick repair. But it was simply not going to happen. The head mechanic took one look and told us the earliest he could even look at the van was tomorrow, and then to start repairs, assuming they had the parts, would be Thursday or Friday – three days hence. Had the mañana factor come to the UK ?
Either way, Pedro in Sevilla had made up his mind. With a rough estimate of the repairs coming to nearly 3,000 euros, he had decided repatriation was the only answer and informed us, through his contacts, he had located a Spanish lorry driver dropping off pallets of oranges in Birmingham. He would return via Tonbridge on Friday morning to take me and van back to Spain.
He informed me I could still get my things in the back of the van, assuming I could get them there, and when we get back to the main depot in Valencia they will swap my stuff into a new van.
The only problem then is how I get my stuff – two full size tables, a couple of sofas, chests of drawers, paintings, most importantly around 20 cases of wine – down to Tonbridge.
Easier and far cheaper said than done. But on Thursday I managed to acquire the services of a Luton van and two removal men to help me move my stuff the 100-odd miles around the M25. Charging by the hour, of course, it takes far longer to get our stuff out of our flat in Maida Vale and then all the other bits and bobs in Barnet. All in all it takes just over six hours to do the job, and at £75 plus VAT an hour, I am looking at a hefty £530 bill.
Van loaded, I have a job persuading the garage owner to at least park it off the street in their forecourt where there is a surveillance camera to ward off opportunists. My next problem is where to stay the night, with the van looking tempting to save money, if not to keep an eye on the stuff.
But common sense wins over. It is pretty parky and without a sleeping bag and blanket I know it is not an option so I take the only other choice: a soulless Travelodge, 500 yards up the road. It is not like I have much choice, I have no car, and I can hardly afford to start taking taxis back to central London. But, as anexperience, it is fascinating. Not only do I get to stay in one of corporate Britain’s most monolithic and staid hotels, but I also get to eat in a Harvester.
Avoiding such places like the plague before moving to Spain, I was intrigued to discover they are a cross between TGI Friday’s and the Disney Store on Oxford Street. All fake smiles, corny questions and a menu that must have more GM ingredients than a Pot Noodle.
I wake up to a beautiful clear blue sky and only have a seven-hour wait for the Spanish lorry driver, who turns up all smiles, explaining his mobile had not been working. The next problem is how to load up as he has no ramp to drive on the back. The garage amazingly has none and nobody is bothering to help find one. Being Friday afternoon at 3pm, it is not difficult to understand everyone is thinking of the weekend, but eventually I locate a firm that will bring a tow truck (cost: £80 plus VAT).
It is a tricky manoeuvre in which Spanish trucker Luis drives on board only to discover he cannot get out of the side of the van. As he cannot reverse – the pick up truck has by now left – the only option is to slide open the roof of his lorry and climb out from above. All sounds straight forward until you try and work out which lever does what and, in the combination of muffled Spanish and not knowing what I am doing, I almost lose three fingers as the roof snaps open. It is not an auspicious start to our journey.
But two hours later we are in the queue for the Eurotunnel, which due to the continuing strikes in Calais is running with four hour delays. And then I have the bizarre experience of getting in a special train compartment with two dozen truck drivers (I soon discover truck driving must be the smelliest profession in the world). In the weird capsule, in which everyone sits in total silence (obviously nobody knows each other), they have a disgusting packaged dinner and probably have no idea how much they reek.
The next problem is getting to the Spanish border before 10pm Saturday as the French, due to new regulations, have banned lorries from using the roads on Sundays. It means any trucker from around Europe still in France at the cut off point has an enforced 24-hour wait in a lay-by. And because we are only able to drive at 80 kilometres per hour (due to an intervention on the accelerator preventing the lorry going any faster) we have to get to Tours before we can stop.
Things seem to be going to plan until around midnight when, only 30 minutes from our destination, we suddenly see sirens in the wing mirrors. It is bad news. The trio of gendarmes are bored and hell bent on getting us for something.
They go through Luis’ tachographs with a fine tooth comb. And having decided he has driven at least a day and a half more than he should this week (strict regulations insist he can only drive five eight-hour
days in a row and must then take two days rest) they take him off to the police station. Convinced I am on my own for the night, I lie back and think of England, and how much easier it would have been if I had just let someone else do the removal.
But incredibly less than an hour later, there is a roar and the motor starts up. Luis is back at the wheel with a smile on his face. We are off. Although he has managed to get going – he has promised the police he is going to stop for the weekend in Tours – he has been fined 250 euros for discrepancies in his tachographs.
We stop the night in a pretty dreary Ibis hotel and next day are up and off at 10am. We are now up against it to make the near 1,000 kilometres to Irún in northern Spain. On top of that, we are not meant to be driving and the police have left messages on his mobile and phoned his bosses in Spain asking where he is. But Luis is no pussy. He sees this as a challenge and has no intention of spending the weekend in “La Puta Francia.”
It is like Smokey and the Bandit as he gets on the CB radio to cuss the police with numerous of his fellow compatriots who are all also racing for the border deadline. Sensibly keeping his mobile switched well off, we take a couple of excellent straight back roads, saving a few quid on tolls in the process. Incredibly
we are nearing Bordeaux by 8pm.
By 8.30pm we are on the final stretch, and praying there are no accidents or police checkpoints. At exactly 9.45pm we arrive in Irún. But then there is another problem: we have only two hours to get out of the Basque country as they too have a Sunday curfew. Once again Luis comes up trumps, with an incredible mountain road heading directly south into the mountains towards Pamplona. It is terrifying, particularly in the dark, as Luis tells me how many lorries have gone over the edge here. However, the most important thing is we are still on the road and… trucking!
After a half decent night’s sleep in a truckers hotel near Pamplona we are up early on the long haul back to Valencia, right the way through the middle of Navarra and Aragon. We go through the amazing village of Daroca and through the area>truckers call “the desert” for it is nearly 40 kilometres of nothing. We get to base just outside Valencia by 7pm on Sunday. It has been a 12-hour marathon but seeing some amazing countryside… and confirming why Spain is easily the prettiest, most beautiful country in Europe.
Poor Luis now has the job of helping me load my stuff into a new van so I can get on my way. I fill up the tank and am home near Ronda by nearly midnight – four days from leaving London.
The total cost was nearly 3,000 euros and with a sore behind to boot. Salute to truckers the world over, but next time I am staying at home by the pool and letting the professionals do the work.