My recent blogging hiatus was primarily because we went on holiday to south-west France to a house quite high up in the Pyrenees with satellite internet which ran at a speed which would have made my old 14.4kbps dial-up modem hoot with derision. Then on getting home it was all hands to the pumps at the Army Officer Selection Board, where I work part-time, as several of our regular personnel had taken redundancy and are yet to be replaced, so I’ve been rather busy… but I digress.
It’s a truism that holidays aren’t often terribly restful. There’s a lot of stress associated with moving a family and its chattels from A to B via an international border in itself, and when things go wrong the stress levels rise exponentially. As it happens, our holiday could have been a disaster but I actually really enjoyed it and came back fully recharged. This is how it worked out.
We had rented a refurbed farmhouse in the French Pyrenees south of Perpignan and very close (actually about 500 metres) to the Spanish border. The idea was that we would drive down there in our normally reliable but getting-on-a-bit family estate car. The early assumption was that 19-year old son Robert – currently on his post-Eton gap ‘yah’ – would be off somewhere exotic with his girlfriend and would probably not be joining us for the whole holiday.
This assumption was soon dashed: ‘Why wouldn’t I want to come on a free holiday?’, was the gist of the filial response – oh and Nina (lovely Swiss GF) would be coming too.
The scheme of manoeuvre, worked out over cups of tea with Mary, was that we would drive down to Folkestone to get a very early ‘Le Shuttle’ on the first Saturday morning of the holiday, arriving in France at about 4.45am, and then drive through the day, arriving at our destination around 18.00. What could possibly go wrong with that?
About a fortnight before we were due to depart, I took the wreckage of an old bed and some other junk down to the Mortlake recycling centre. On the way back, I noticed one of the warning lights on the car dashboard had come on. As with most cars, ours has the normal selection of lights which tell you that fuel is getting low, you aren’t wearing your seatbelt and various other things, but it has two which are somewhat more vague: one relates to emissions and hints that the catalytic converter is probably playing up whilst the other is even more delphic: the onboard computer has recorded a fault. The light was on the emissions warning.
Realising that a healthy car leads to a happy holiday, we booked it in to our local Vauxhall dealership for a check up. All was fine, fluid levels were topped up and we were good to go but there was still a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. Last year, the head gasket on the car had developed a slight leak and, before we had it replaced, one of my military colleagues had delighted in telling me how at any moment it might lose all the engine coolant and seize the engine completely in a matter of seconds. This did not sound good and I’ve tended to keep a weather eye on the temperature gauge ever since.
A couple of days before our departure I got a message from my friend Guy Walters. Would I like to meet up with him and his wife Annabel (and a few other friends) at the Windsor Castle pub in Kensington for a few drinks on Friday evening, as a late celebration of Annabel’s birthday? The answer was yes – Guy and Annabel are always good company – but this led me to start thinking about the journey down to Perpignan. In order to make the shuttle terminal at Folkestone on time, I estimated we needed to leave Kensington by half past midnight on Saturday morning. Clearly a boozy pub night was a no-no but in reality, with everything else going on, was I going to be able to get any sleep at all before starting the drive? It looked unlikely.
As it happens, I spent a couple of hours snoozing fitfully before we set off and felt fine. The rest of the family dozed and/or bickered (except Mary obviously, who remained appropriately serene at all times, except when belabouring the sportive infants with her Louisville Slugger). We arrived at the Shuttle terminal on time, despite having a stop to fill up with petrol and allow Dido to throw up – she’s often car-sick – at a service station on the M20, and we duly chugged under the Channel to la belle France.
For the first few hours it all went terribly well. The obvious route would have been to drive down to Paris, whip round the peripherique and then head south via Clermont-Ferrand but this was the middle weekend of August and traffic was likely to be really shit. Instead, we decided to take a route via Reims, Dijon and Lyon which, although about 40 miles longer overall, promised to take about the same length of time. This all seemed to be working. We’d taken some drinks, sandwiches and snacks with us so apart from stopping from time to time for a leg stretch, loo break and to change drivers, we were making excellent time and were, according to Mary’s careful calculations, on target to make it to Perpignan at around 5.30pm.
Having said that, I was feeling pretty tired and found myself, at that stage, unable to put in more than about an hour and a half’s driving at a time before the yawns took over. Mary delved in her bag and came up with a big pack of Maynard’s wine gums which had a galvanic effect, I guess because of their sugar content, but even so I think that leaving in the middle of the night was a bad idea. In the past, we’ve set off the night before and stayed in a hotel on the way south which costs a bit more but is considerably more civilised and probably safer too. Anyway, we seemed to be in good order.
At which point it all went horribly wrong.
Our route required us to skirt round the outside of Lyon and we arrived there to find reasonably thick – though still mobile – traffic. We trundled steadily round the Lyon ‘rocade’ but as we were coming to our turn off to head on south, I glanced down at the temperature gauge and saw, to my horror, that it was heading inexorably into the red; even as I watched, the warning light came on: ‘Fuck, fuck, fuckity-fuck!’
I pulled the car onto the hard shoulder and stopped the engine. Phew. It hadn’t seized. We’d lashed out on a continental breakdown kit from Amazon so I got out the warning triangle and set it up, and put on the hi visibility waistcoat whilst Mary and the children sat on the embankment. Fortunately, we had decided, despite having had the car serviced, to take out European breakdown cover and so we actually only waited about half an hour for a ‘depannage’ truck to show up to whisk us away. During this time the only odd event was that after we’d been on the hard shoulder about ten minutes, with the warning sign set out and everyone off the roadway, a car containing a French family went by, honking their horn loudly and making the international looney sign (finger whirled round at temple, if you don’t know). God alone knows why they were doing it: nobody else had; and although I was trying to maintain an outward calm – it never does to frighten your own children – my inner Celtic berserker was awakened. Had the weaselly little toad stopped I would have torn him limb from limb and drop-kicked his mangled body parts across the Rhone.
The tow truck already had a vehicle under tow – a Breton family as it happens – but their car was quickly loaded onto the back of the truck and we were attached to the tow bar and hauled off to a lot in the southern suburbs of Lyon.
I’ve always got on fine with French people. I can speak moderate French – albeit with a disgusting Parisian teenage accent picked up from my French exchange in the late 70s – and I find that if you make the effort to communicate with them they are usually helpful. The ‘depannage’ crew were no different, in fact, over the next couple of hours, they genuinely went the extra mile to help fix us up with a hire-vehicle and the means to get us to it.
It’s fair to say that we don’t travel light on holiday and all that seemed to be available on the hire front were medium-sized family saloons and hatchbacks which clearly weren’t going to work out, but after about half an hour of phoning around, the breakdown guy found a hire company in Vienne – a town a little south of Lyon – which had a diesel minibus which was due to be dropped off in Lyon between 6 and 6.30pm: would that do? For want of anything better, we agreed: we both have ‘grandfather rights’ to drive minibuses on our licences and I’ve driven them from time to time over the years. The breakdown guy called a cab to get us to the hire depot which was in Lyon town centre and off we headed.
By the time we reached the hire place it was about 4pm. The people were friendly and pleasant but, of course, the minibus wasn’t there yet so we had some waiting to do. They let us leave our luggage in a back room and we found a cafe where we were able to fill up on ham baguettes and Orangina.
We got back to the hire depot at about 5.30pm and mooched around, waiting for the return of the minibus. It finally showed just before 6.30 and after the hire people had given it a quick once over, we headed off, leaving Lyon at around 7pm. There isn’t a lot to say about the rest of the journey. The minibus was an Opel Vivaro with a powerful 3 litre diesel engine which went like shit off a shovel and we made good time towards Perpignan; there was a lot of room in the back despite our massive luggage collection; and it was quite comfortable and nice to drive. Result.
We got to Perpignan just before 11pm and continued over the border into Spain. The instructions from the landlord of our house were to turn off at the border town of La Jonquera and head up into the mountains where we were to meet him in a village called La Vajol and he would then lead us back over the border into France on a back route. The drive from La Jonquera was interesting! The road was an extremely steep switchback, seemingly composed of hairpin bend after hairpin bend and I found myself thinking ‘thank goodness I’m not doing this in our poor old car’.
We reached La Vajol after about 25 minutes of this and met Roger the landlord outside ‘Conxita’s Cafe’ as arranged. He then took us a further 5km up into the hills, with the tarmac-ed road eventually changing into a rough unmade country track. We finally arrived just before midnight. Phew.
Despite 24 and a half hours of travel, we made it in one piece. I was pretty tired from having done most of the driving, Mary was tired from having done most of the navigating and the kids were tired from lounging around in the back of the minibus listening to their iPods. With stunning foresight we’d brought a carton of UHT milk and a box of PG Tips with us so we were able to have a nice cup of tea when we got there, ready for the next stage of the adventure.
But we had learned some lessons:
1. French people are nice and helpful.
2. Get breakdown cover if you’re going to Europe.
3. Leaving home at 0030 hrs is not necessarily a great idea when you have a 15 hour drive ahead.
4. A minibus is more comfortable than a Vauxhall Omega if you’ve got two adults, two hulking teenaged boys, a not inconsiderable 11 year old girl and enough luggage to stock Harrods.
So, as the Weales arrive at our destination: our car is in a garage somewhere south of Lyon; Rob’s girlfriend is due to set off from her home in Switzerland to join us; we have three-quarters of a carton of skimmed UHT milk and 237 PG Tips teabags to keep us from starvation; and we’re in possession of a white Opel van. What wackiness could possibly ensue?
Should you happen to be in or passing through the USA in the near future, I’m delighted to say that the US paperback edition of my history of the SS (it’s called ‘Army of Evil’ over there) is now available in paperback…
…and if you happen to fancy importing one to the UK in order to read the slightly different introduction to the US edition and try to spot all the other small changes that have been made, then you can order one here: amazon