Rick Hurst Web Developer in Bristol, UK


Category: trips

Cool runnings – France 2014

T25 overheating

There’s a saying that people use after a successful trip in an old vehicle, something like: “I just did a 1000 mile trip and it didn’t miss a beat!”. At the end of July we did about 2000 miles round trip from Bristol down to southwest france and back and Rocky didn’t just miss a beat, but played the wrong song, pushed the drum kit off the stage and started to try to steal the guitars!

Before setting off to France with our new tdi engine conversion we covered 1500 miles in the UK without a hiccup, so I was confident that the engine was going to handle a similar distance on the continent. We decided to take the Plymouth – Roscoff ferry as we planned on travelling down the west side of france over a few days staying at Aires and municipal campsites to reach a family campsite in the Gers region.

On the approach to Plymouth, I noticed that the temperature gauge was a bit higher than usual, but it was a hot day, we were fully loaded and there were some steep hills. After the overnight ferry we headed off south, armed with the All the Aires in France book and a recommendation for a nice municipal site at Chatellerault. Once again, the temp gauge seemed to be a bit higher than usual (on test runs so far it had always sat mostly bang in the middle).

It was only when we came off the motorway and crawled through some roadworks near Cholet that things went seriously wrong. The temp gauge suddenly went to the top, the coolant light started flashing and we dived straight into a garden centre car park, switched off the engine and saw a plume of steam appear in the offside rear air vent.

One of the annoying things about a T25 is that to get to the engine when the van is fully loaded you need to remove the bikes from the rear rack, then all the stuff packed in the rear section to get to the engine lid. This was the first of many times I had to do this..

After letting the engine cool down a bit, I started looking for problems – it was clear that the coolant had vented off through the expansion tank pressure cap (the expansion tank is the one inside the engine bay – my tdi conversion doesn’t have the second top up tank behind the number plate). I couldn’t see any other leaks, so topped up the coolant and thought it would be a good idea to bleed the system. To do this you need to start the engine – but the starter motor was dead – nothing at all.

We had European breakdown cover, but I was determined only to use it as a last resort, as I know from experience that the first thing they are likely to do is tow your camper to a garage, where you won’t hear anything for days, leaving you homeless.

So I tried all the usual things – jump start from the leisure battery (ours is suitable for starting engines), running a live feed straight to the trigger wire on the solenoid (as taught to me by an AA man in Norfolk on our first road trip in Rocky). Nothing got any response, and the only thing I didn’t try at that point was the “screwdriver across the starter terminals” technique – I was a bit nervous about doing so, until I had consulted the forums to get a consensus whether that was a good idea.

As the engine was cool now, we managed to bump start Rocky, with my wife at the wheel and myself and our 10-year old kid pushing. I can confirm that a fully loaded T25 is a very heavy bus – if we weren’t on a slight slope I don’t think we would have managed it!

The temperature seemed stable so we decided to make some progress, and started picking out nearby “Aires de camping car” from the book. Just to clarify here – Aires de camping car are entirely different to the motorway aires – they are allocated spaces in towns and cities where motorhomes can overnight for a small charge, and luckily there are thousands of them across France.

We started overheating again on the slower roads, so stopped at a supermarket in Mauléon – parked on a slope, and I bought some more coolant and topped up again. Once again we had to bump start the van, but this time rather than heading straight off, I ran through the bleed procedure in case we had any airlocks in the system.

camping a Le Moulin de Chaligny near St. Amand sur Sevre

We headed for an Aire listed in the book, camping a Le Moulin de Chaligny near St. Amand sur Sevre, which turned out to be a really nice private campsite in the grounds of a bar/restaurant. Arriving in a cloud of steam, I picked a spot and parked up before enquiring if there was space, as I knew we weren’t going anywhere for a while! I would highly recommend it if you are passing by.

Luckily, the next morning the van started straight up, and has continued to do so every time since. My best theory is that the battery earth connection was bad and that the liberal soaking the battery and straps got during the first overheating episode was the cause?

Bleeding a T25 radiator

We spent the next couple of days at that Aire, with me mostly working on the van. – after consulting the forums and using the “phone a friend” option, I removed the thermostat (to allow coolant to always flow to the radiator), and extensively bled the system.
A few test runs showed that although the problem wasn’t fixed, the van behaved OK at higher revs. We filled up the diesel tank (I had a new tank fitted by Jeff’s VW shack before the trip as the old one would leak if you filled it to the top – although he problem was just a breather, the old tank was very corroded so a new tank was fitted). Once on the motorway the temp stayed stable, so we ploughed on down to the campsite we had booked at La Romieu in the Gers region. Once off the motorway the temp started to rise again, so we pulled over and let it cool down, and topped up and re-bled the system – frustratingly only a few miles from our destination.

Pitched up at camp de florence

Safely pitched up on the campsite at La Romieu, the holiday continued, but short trips showed that the overheating issue hadn’t gone away. With the help of a French friend we tried to find a garage to take a look at it, but it seemed that every garage in the surrounding area was either closed or understaffed due to August holidays. We set up our tents (we bought enough camping gear with us this year, after our breakdown experience last year) and dropped Rocky off at the only open garage we could find. The next morning they phoned and said they didn’t understand old vw vans and could we please come and take it away (no charge)…

I was fairly sure at this point that the cause of the overheating was a faulty water pump. I’ll save you the suspense, and tell you that it definitely was. I didn’t have the tools with me to change a water pump, and having not changed one before, I was nervous of digging the hole deeper – taking a running but ill-behaving van and changing it to a non-running one with bits of engine missing. In retrospect, at that point I should have gone ahead and ordered one anyway, to be delivered to the campsite. In further retrospect, in preparation for the trip, the water pump should have been inspected and tested (I presumed I had a new one in there at the time of the engine swap, but there you go..).

I also connected a “chicken switch” to the radiator fan, so the fan could be switched on manually – I actually used one of my redundant mystery dashboard switches – on closer inspection I found some old wiring leading from near this switch down to the thermoswitch on the radiator, so i’m fairly sure this was the one-time purpose of the switch anyway!

Sunflower field at camp de florence

I’m missing out the good bits of the holiday here – campsite was great and the area was beautiful, it was very social, hung out with old friends and made some new friends, having a temperamental van that we didn’t want to take far from the campsite forced us to stop rushing around and enjoy the company, pool, ice creams, cheap rose wine, games and conversation (mostly about the van on my part, I have to admit).

Bar camp de florence

So at this point, the dilemma over the engine remained – call in the breakdown cover (i’m fairly sure they would just tow the van to the garage we had already tried) or struggle on. I then contacted the legendary John (aka “Sarran1955” -see his youtube channel here), as I knew he was only a few hours away in the Correze region, and had heard good things about him in the club 80-90 forum. It was arranged that we could visit him (if we could get there), camp on his land and he could help us out with tools and expertise.

Breakdown in Agen

The trip to Sarran didn’t start well, as we were approaching the town of Agen, the van started to struggle on hills and the turbo whistle had become very loud – we pulled over, offloaded the bikes and unpacked the back for the umpteenth time, to discover one of the silicone hoses for the intercooler had popped off. As the engine was hot and the pipe slippery from oil residue it took a while to reattach. About a mile down the road, as we accelerated onto the motorway, the same thing happened again, luckily as we passed a convenient Aire. Second time around I did a better job of re-attaching it and did a few hard acceleration test runs around the Aire (to the disapproval of several picnicking families).

Once on the motorway the intercooler hose stayed on this time and the van stayed at a stable temperature, but would rise quickly once on slower moving roads. We managed to reach the town of Sarran without any further breakdowns and met up with John at the Musée du président Jacques Chirac in Sarran. We were soon pitched up in a spot that will be familiar to several club 80-90 members, overlooking the surrounding landscape.

Pitched up in Sarran

I’ve already spoiled the story and told you that the overheating was caused by a failed water pump, but at this point we weren’t sure of this, so spent a few days investigating some other possible causes – we bled and re-bled the system, checked that water was flowing around the system, checked that there weren’t any leaks allowing air to get in. The confusion was caused by the intermittent nature of the water pump failure, so several times we came to the (wrong) conclusion that the water pump must be ok – it turned freely and we could observe water circulating in the expansion tank (most of the time). At one point we though it was solved and even did some fun hill climbs following John in his air-cooled T25 up to Puy de Sarran, the highest point in the area, without overheating, only to overheat on a leisurely drive a few hours later. In the end we decided that the water pump should be replaced anyway, even if just to rule it out as the cause.

John in Sarran

A nearby VW parts supplier was found, but to be sure we got the correct pump, he suggested we remove the existing water pump and bring it along for comparison. So we set about removing the water pump, but somewhere along the line deviated from the plan. I had read, and been told, that it is possible to remove the water pump on a 1z engine without disturbing the timing belt. It is possible, but you need to remove the whole assembly (including disconnecting the hoses). For the record (it’s easy when you know how!) to remove the water pump on a 1z engine without removing the timing belt:-

  • disconnect the battery (for safety reasons)
  • remove the auxiliary belt (rotate the tensioner arm with a wrench until the belt goes slack)
  • remove the alternator, and the mount/bracket that it is bolted to.
  • disconnect the hoses from the back of the water pump assembly (obviously coolant will go everywhere when you do this, so be prepared!)
  • remove the four bolts/ studs on top of the water pump assembly
  • you can then remove the assembly and detach the water pump and front plate from the housing

1Z waterpump fitted

However, we missed some key info here and ended up removing the timing belt. If you remove the timing belt, the water pump and the front plate can be separated from the water pump housing without removing the alternator etc. As water pumps are usually replaced at the same time as the timing belt, most people do it that way, but be warned – fitting a timing belt is a tricky job and an engine can be seriously damaged if the timing is out.

worn waterpump impeller

detached impeller

Once removed it was evident that there was a problem with the water pump – the plastic impeller showed signs of wear, so it must have been making contact with something, and we then noticed that the impeller could be rotated on the shaft (and easily removed, once out of the housing). This explained the intermittent nature of the overheating – sometimes the impeller would catch on the shaft and therefore be pumping correctly, other times it was slipping on the shaft and struggling to pump at all.

new waterpump ready to be fitted

The water pump was replaced with a new one – the whole assembly, as this is what the supplier in the nearby town had on the shelf, it was a bank holiday in france the next day and we needed to make our way back to the UK sooner or later! I’ve since thought about this, and realised that a potential “get us home” fix if we couldn’t source a pump, could have been to araldite the impeller back onto the shaft.

using bolts to help with timing belt tensioner

Next we fitted a new timing belt. We didn’t have the correct tools or time to source them. Notably missing was a timing belt tensioner tool. John came up with the ingenious solution of tapping (creating threads in) the holes in the tensioner so that we could screw in a couple of 4mm bolts. These bolts could be held by a wrench or pliers to rotate the tensioner and tension the belt.

The next challenge was timing – despite our best efforts to mark up the old belt and pulleys with paint marks, the timing was slightly out on first attempt, so that the engine wouldn’t start. We consulted the internet (youtube videos of processes such as these are gold-dust) and then went through the full timing set-up from scratch – we removed the rocker cover and locked the camshaft at Top Dead Centre (TDC), using a steel shim and some feeler gauges. We located TDC on the flywheel – my 1z conversion uses a JX flywheel and the TDC mark is actually on the clutch pressure plate – an arrow that can be found between two lugs. This can be spotted through the inspection hole on the bell housing, and needs to be lined up with a pointer on the housing. This can be locked in place by putting the van in gear.

fuel injection pump pulley

The bit that threw us was the fuel injection pump – this can be locked in the correct position using a tool pushed through the smallest hole on the pulley. We used a socket handle with tape to shim the difference in the size of the hole in the pulley and the corresponding hole in the plate behind. There was too much play, so first attempt again, the engine wouldn’t start. I should add here that before trying to start an engine with a new timing belt, always crank the engine over manually (using a socket on the crankshaft cog – take the engine out of gear and turn for two full revolutions), to check for any mechanical resistance – which would indicate something seriously out on the timing, probably leading to a very broken engine if you tried to start it like that.

Anyway, there is probably a whole blog post to be written on this process, and one that should be written by a mechanic rather than me! To cut a long story short, after a couple of false starts (fuel injection pump one tooth out) we succeeded in fitting and tensioning the new belt and the engine starting on the button as it should.

So then onto the test running – I was still running without a thermostat (to be replaced before running in cold UK winter temps), and the temperature now stayed right near the bottom of the gauge however it was driven, so we confidently concluded that the overheating issue was now solved! We could happily have stayed with John for much longer and got to know the area better in a more relaxed way in our now cool-running van, but we had already been there five days at this point and time and money constraints meant that we needed to start heading north.

John suggested a great municipal site at Spay, near Le Mans as a good “halfway point” and phoned ahead for us to check we could get in after hours. That leg of the journey was fantastic, as I started to relax into driving without checking the temp gauge every few seconds. The campsite was great, just as described and we relaxed into our penultimate night in France.

We had booked a very early morning eurotunnel crossing the day after next as it worked out much cheaper than travelling at peak times and at the weekend. On the trip to Calais we had to stop several times when the intercooler hose came off yet again, but the temperature stayed very low. On arriving at Eurotunnel terminal, the machine offered us a midnight crossing at no extra charge, so rather then sleeping in the camper in the carpark as planned, we had only a short wait before boarding the shuttle train.

We then drove back to Bristol through the early hours without incident and parked up at about 4am, and spent our first night in a proper bed in nearly a month!

Ironically back in the UK Rocky is now behaving perfectly – I took some time to clean up and properly clamp the intercooler hoses, and tighten the mounting. I decided to take it off the road for a few months to give the body work some TLC and sort out a few other bits and pieces in time for spring. I don’t really want to take it off the road for the whole winter, but time and money constraints mean that I don’t have much choice, so Rocky us now resting up in a friend’s warehouse for the winter.

Rocky in the warehouse

Surviving a rainy campervan trip

rainy day in the campervan

I’m sat writing this in deepest Norfolk, using the passenger swivel seat as my office chair, while on the other side of the curtain (seperating the cab of the van from the back), my wife and kid watch a film on a laptop. Outside it’s persistent drizzle mixed with howling wind. Our bright orange sun canopy lays miserablly on the grass outside the van alongside the wet bag of charcoal and soggy camping chairs. Despite setting it up in “ridge tent” mode to cope with rain, the wind unravelled the granny-knots I used to attach the guy ropes and by morning it was hanging pathetically from the van.

We also made the mistake on this trip of not bringing any kind of tent/ standalone awning, so later on when we go for a drive, we have no choice other than to either take the soggy stuff with us in the van, or leave it on site to get soggier.

We don’t like the idea of a proper driveaway awning hitched right up to the van, we like to be able to sit in the doorway of the van and look out at the view rather than into a tent. We usually bring a Quechua seconds base pop-up shelter, which gets used as a kind of shed, and in this case even a small pop-up tent would be handy, but i’ve heard good things about the Coleman event shelter, and i’m now wondering if this could be the solution for a standalone rainproof canopy. I’ve heard good things about them and they are apparently very sturdy and hopefully won’t collapse in bad weather.

So we haven’t got it right with the canopy/awning/gazebo this time, but the things we have got right:-

  • We have electric hook-up on this site, so the electric fan heater is keeping us toasty. An oil filled radiator would be a less noisy solution. Without the hookup we could fall back on the propex heater. The fan heater can also be used to demist the front window before we go for a drive.
  • We have a full gas bottle, and the kettle is being used to it’s full potential.
  • Loads of films and tv-series on the laptop, there is no wifi and zero mobile reception here, so we couldn’t rely on streaming services or being able to download anything new.
  • As i’m doing a bit of work on this holiday, I made sure I had all I needed on my laptop to do the work without an internet connection – no point relying on cloud-based services. As rainy days are ideal times for fitting in a bit of work, we brought along a second laptop, so that work time for me can also be film-time for my family.
  • Board games! For when the films have run out.

Before we got Rocky, we did a lot of camping in tents, and I have to say after a couple of days of rain like this, we’d probably pack the soggy tents into the car and call it a day, but in a campervan, especially a warm leak-free campervan with a supply of food, tea and entertainment, we can still have an enjoyable trip.

European holiday road trip 2013

Rocky the T25 parked up at a campsite in La Romieu

At the end of July, we headed off in an unprecedented UK heatwave to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to Santander in the north of Spain. Despite the cost of the ferry, we decided that for Rocky’s maiden continental Europe voyage (under our ownership), we should get closer to our first destination under boat power, to ensure that if we got stuck, we’d get stuck in the north of Spain or south of France, rather than a few miles south of Calais.

I couldn’t help think back to the last time I caught a ferry to Spain in my old T25 – the van refused to start when the ferry started boarding, so people had to drive round me for a few minutes until it finally started and managed to get on board. No such problems this time, although I was one of the annoying people sat in the queue with the engine running way before I needed to start – partly because I have to go through the “disarm the immobiliser” + “wait for the glow plugs” routine very time I start so there is a good ten seconds between deciding to start the engine and actually starting it, which seems much longer when people are waiting behind!

The Santander ferry worked out really well – a 24-hour relaxing trip, in glorious sunny weather on calm seas, the holiday was truly started. After arriving, we took the short drive to our first campsite, at Cabo del Mayor above Santander. I had emailed the campsite trying to book a pitch, but they don’t take reservations for short bookings, so we took our chances and just turned up. Luckily they had space (though very tiny pitches compared to most french sites) so we parked up, opened some wine and relaxed.

If we had more time I would have liked to spend more time in Santander and the north of Spain, but we didn’t have that luxury, so after breakfast the next day, a coffee and stroll around the lighthouse at Cabo del Mayor, we started heading in the direction of France and found space at Camping Igueldo, high up in the hills above above Donostia San Sebastian. That night we sat and watched out of the van windows as our sun canopy buckled under the weight of water and ice thrown down by a massive thunderstorm. Luckily the canopy detached itself from the van before anything broke, and it all dried out in a couple of hours the next morning.

Heading off in the morning we experienced our first mechanical issue – Rocky suddenly lost power while heading through San Sebastian, and we found ourselves limping along at 20mph leaving a cloud of white smoke. so we pulled over at a bus stop, where he conked out. After reluctantly restarting, the engine seemed to be ok again, so we tried moving on, but after a couple of minutes the same thing happened again, this time while sat on a bridge over a railway. The inevitable despair set in – the thought of having to make the breakdown call, the thought that the engine would be in pieces, the thought that the van would be towed away leaving us stranded with nowhere to stay. As the camper was fully loaded including three bikes on the bike rack, it was going to take a good 20 minutes to get to the engine hatch to see if there was anything obviously wrong, so we decided to make one last push to try to get ourselves somewhere safer. We started the van again and limped through a short tunnel with no hard shoulder.

The engine seemed to be running fairly well again, so we made it through the tunnel and a couple of miles up the road before reaching a petrol station with car park, so we pulled over and decided what to do. The engine was running again, it wasn’t overheating, it wasn’t making any strange noises, no smoke, no oil or coolant puddles underneath, and there was nothing unusual hanging down from the engine from what I could see from underneath, so after a cup of tea we decided to wing it and carry on. A couple of hours later, after cruising at motorway speed faultlessly for about 100 miles, we pulled into our next campsite “Camping La Jaougotte” in a pine forest near Vielle-Saint-Girons, in the Aquitaine region of France. We put the power loss down as an “intermittent” fault, maybe caused by dirty fuel or a blockage of some kind.

Driving around the local area a couple of days later, on one of several trips to the beach and lake, the power loss happened again and this time the problem didn’t go away. Trying to diagnose the problem myself and with the help of a dutch T3 syncro-owning campsite neighbour, we spotted a tiny split in the fuel hose near the fuel pump. A gaffer-tape DIY fix looked promising, but didn’t stop the problem – possibly because it wasn’t a good seal or possibly because there was already too much air in the pipe. If i’d known at that point that the split was definitely the cause of the problem (it was) I would have persisted, and tried to bleed the air out of the system, but at that point I was stumped.

Eventually, a day later I swallowed my pride and made the breakdown call. A few hours later a man turned up with a truck and (after some half-hearted wiggling of spade connectors) towed Rocky away to a local garage. We decided to go to the campsite bar to commiserate. That’s when we spotted the warning that a heavy thunderstorm was forecast for that evening. Knowing that the van was very unlikely to return that night we started preparing to spend the night in our tent. We generally take the tent to use as a kind of shed – somewhere to store all the stuff we don’t want to keep in the van. Although we own a groundsheet and bedroom inner for it, they weren’t with us. It was quite depressing to think that we would have to squeeze ourselves and belongings into this tent and sit out a thunderstorm, potentially with water coming in from underneath. Luckily, our syncro-owning campsite neighbours bailed us out by loaning us a spare two person tent, so at least Jo and our kid would sleep in the dry!

We survived the night, and the thunderstorm, and the next morning was fairly depressing, because we had no means of boiling the kettle, and we were also contemplating what would happen if the garage decided that they couldn’t fix the problem. Our breakdown cover would in theory give us a hire car, so we could drive to a decathlon and pick up some camping gear and carry on our trip, but we already had too much stuff (bikes, camping tables, the mattresses from the camper etc.) to fit in a normal car, which could be problematic.

There was also paranoia over an issue many vintage camper van owners have faced when the vehicle can’t be fixed and the breakdown insurance company decide to ship the vehicle back to the UK – someone in an office somewhere will look up the “market price” of a stock 30 year old van in a database and decide it isn’t worth enough to have it repatriated back to the UK, even if you have proof of agreed value. They then offer to scrap it for you! Thankfully a few phone calls later (via 3rd parties, my french is nowhere near good enough to deal with this kind of thing), we established that the van was fixed and waiting for us to pick up, so luckily I never got to find out what would happen in the worst case scenario.

The garage had replaced a short section of fuel line next to fuel pump, and bled the system. A nervous test drive or two later, the problem didn’t show its head again, so we moved on the next day. A lot of worry over a very simple problem, and a very simple fix. I do however plan to have all the fuel lines replaced in the near future, following some wise advice given to me on the club 80 90 forum – if part of the fuel line failed, the rest can’t be far behind. I also need to address the related issue where the fuel tank overflows if you fill it all the way to the top.

We then spent a relaxing week or so at a campsite in the village of La Romieu, in the Gers region, chilling out, swimming, sunbathing and catching up with friends before eventually deciding we need to start moving north. We headed all the way up to Saumur in the Loire valley in one go – a long motorway trip, stopping only once to top up the oil (more on that later). We spent a few days at Camping Chantepie, before deciding that we would head to a site near Roscoff in Brittany for a couple of nights before catching the Roscoff to Plymouth ferry. We found Camping des Abers near Landeda, right on a beautiful beach.

After the uneventful crossing from Roscoff to Plymouth we headed back up to Bristol with no issues. Apart from the obligatory traffic jam two junctions before Bristol adding on an extra couple of hours..

One thing that became apparent on this trip is that the 1Y engine we had fitted earlier this year is using (or losing) far too much oil – on motorways it gets through nearly a litre over a hundred miles. I need to address this before I would do another long trip, whether that means a repair (new piston rings?), getting the engine reconditioned or even remanufactured (making it like new, but costly) or another engine swap. Luckily the van is still perfectly useable in the meantime, i’m happy to use it for shorter trips, as long as I keep topping up the oil, so there is no massive hurry.

Apart from the engine issues, if I was doing the trip again, i’d definitely take more camping gear for “emergencies” – the inner compartment/ groundsheet for the quechua base, a second tent and a portable stove, as insurance against the van being taken away again – hopefully something i’ll not need!

Turn up, Pop up and Cider I up

VW T25 on hill end campsite, gower peninsula, wales

Last weekend we decided we should absolutely not go away camping, as we have loads of life admin to sort out at home. But then some good friends told us that they were off to their favourite campsite on the Gower and that we should join them. With this glorious weather, we knew we’d regret it if we didn’t, so we headed down on the saturday afternoon, haggled our way into a packed site, minimal camping gear (change of clothes, sleeping bags, and a few supplies in the fridge), popped up the roof and was rewarded by an ice cold cider by our generous hosts.

A glorious weekend of socialising, handstand competitions and swimming ensued…

Bristol Volksfest 2013

sun setting behind Rocky the VW T25 parked up at Bristol Volksfest

A couple of weekends ago we headed over to Bristol Volksfest as it was on our doorstep and the weather was good, so it seemed rude not to really.

Great weekend, great vibe, even if we did make the slight mistake of squeezing into the family camping next to the noisiest family on the site (but hey, it was a festival!) – next time I think we’ll take our chances with the party animals in the general camping!

Enjoyed looking around the arena, bought another vintage deckchair and a vintage windbreak, looking at interiors and paint-jobs of other people’s vans to get ideas of what we might do to Rocky in the future.

On the sunday, rather than join the queues to leave the site, we drove into an empty spot in the general camping and chilled out with a cup of tea and enjoyed the rest of the sunshine.

Another sunny North Devon weekend (well, mostly..)

Rocky the T25 in a sunny devon field

We lucked out again with a sunny bank holiday weekend in North Devon, chilling out with friends in a field and on the beach for a couple of days, before they had to head off on the Sunday.

We got to try out the new funky leisure canopy, and it worked really well, although I have since noticed (from looking at the pictures on that web page) that we forgot to add the pole extensions which would have made it a bit higher. We also managed to burn a couple of small holes in it, with sparks from our nearby fire – something worth bearing in mind!

Despite rain being forecast for the monday, we decided to sit it out rather than head home – setting up the van for a day of film watching, tea drinking and board game playing. It was worth it for the sunny tuesday morning parked up at putsborough beach for some skim-boarding and more tea drinking!

The 1Y engine is still going really well, though i’m a bit concerned about the amount of oil it is using – there’s no smoke or leaks, but there are drips from the top of the dipstick when running which end up splatting up on the tailgate. This could be from overfilling – the short dipstick means that i’m constantly topping it up so that I can get an idea of the level, which only just appears on the end of the dipstick when full. I can’t always check it on level ground, so am potentially overfilling it each time. A custom dipstick is on the cards – when the level is low I need to know exactly how low, so I can properly monitor it.

A windswept Vanwest 2013

camping in our T25 at vanwest 2013

Last weekend we went to our second Vanwest event at Brean sands. Unfortunately we didn’t get the previous weekends amazing weather and it was ridiculously windy, with frequent rainstorms. I didn’t get a chance to try out our new canopy/ awning as it nearly blew away while I was trying. Our Quechua base seconds also nearly flew away when the pegs worked their way loose – before we got the van, we managed to camp in many a wind storm without that happening, so it’s safe to say it was definitely very windy!

The gale force winds were a good test of how feasible it is to use the Devon side elevating pop-top in strong wind – at one point I shut it, worried at how much the canvas side was bending in. I wondered if i’d have to test out the contingency plan of making a bed across the front seats for our 9-year old kid. However after turning the van round so that the back was facing the wind, it was much less of an issue, so with a couple of pieces of wood wedged in and cable-tied in place, the upstairs bed was fine to use.

We spent a lot of time hiding away in the van watching films, listening to music and drinking tea – pretty much the same as we would have ended up doing at home in Bristol on a rainy weekend. Between rain storms we headed down to the arena and had a nose round the “show and shine” vehicles and stalls, picking up a vintage deckchair and LED reading lamp, amongst other things.

A good fun event – just a shame that the bad weather dampened the BBQ/ socialising vibe!

Idyllic bank holiday weekend

Rocky the VW T25 parked up looking over Putsborough Sands

This is exactly what I had in mind when we decided to buy a camper van. A rare coincidence of fantastic weather and bank holiday weekend in the UK. Camping at our favourite “secret” Devon camping spot with friends, the first time there in Rocky, our T25 camper, surfing and lazing around in the sun.

We left on friday night, fully aware that we may get snarled up in bank-holiday traffic, but it actually turned out to be not too bad. This was the first proper road test for the new engine – fully laden camper and a motorway run before taking on some of North Devon’s finest A-road hills. The 1Y engine handled it all with no complaints, with no sign of overheating or (excessive!) smoke.

We arrived at the camping spot before it got dark. We made some new friends, who kindly shared their fire and wine, as we weren’t really prepared with these necessities!

The next day we got some time to work out what other kit we think we need for longer camping trips, what works and what doesn’t work. I got the 3-way fridge working on gas, which is ideal for spots like these where there is no electric hookup. I think for longer trips where there is hook-up, we’ll also take our powered coolbox, as there isn’t exactly much room in the fridge.

On the last day, we took Rocky down to the beach car park at Putsborough and were lucky enough to grab a spot overlooking the beach. It might be a bit of a cliche, but being able to sit in the van having a coffee, with the music on watching the sunset, really is living the camper van dream. If only overnight camping was allowed in that spot! There are a few camper van overnight spots at the back of the car park, which we might try another time.

One thing we did decide that Rocky would benefit from is window tints in the rear – although we have curtains and thermal blinds, it takes quite a lot of effort to make the van private enough to quickly get changed at the beach. I’ve also had that “being in a goldfish bowl” feeling when I use the van as a mobile office – it would be good to make it so people have to make more of an effort to be nosey.

The run back saw us caught in the predictable bank holiday traffic jam. Looking on the bright side this was a good chance to see if the engine cooling system works properly – which, i’m happy to say, it did. Being stuck in traffic is always a pain, but so much more bearable if you aren’t worrying about the engine overheating, have some decent tunes on the stereo and cold drinks in the fridge!

February in the Forest

camping at Christchurch campsite in Forest of Dean

(First guest post by Jo!)

I’ve never been camping in February before, but with the sun shining and an electric heater promising to blow warm air onto our cold tootsies in the evening, I could hardly say no. Plus, last year all we had to keep us from the elements was a pop up tent, and I’ve been camping in April in Devon on a warm day and been absolutely frozen at night. This time though we had our T25 – Rocky.

Not particularly planned, we booked an electric hook up site on Friday night and spent Saturday morning stressing and dashing around the house trying to work out what we needed to put in the camper (lots of bedding) and what we already had in there (not a lot). We took way too long, and got on the road at lunchtime, but being the first camping trip of the year, we were out of practice, out of petrol and quickly out of patience with each other. We’ll get this packing lark down to a fine art eventually. From house to van in half an hour would be good. A a flippin’ miracle, but good.

We opted for a forestry commission site in the Forest of Dean and despite not having a bike rack, we rammed in 3 bikes in as well, angled to still leave elbow room for putting the handbrake on. I’m still getting used to the freedom of camping with space to pack. After years of tent camping and fitting everything into the tiny boot of a VW beetle, it’s a novelty to be able to take board games, pillows, fairy lights and still have room for a nine year old in the back. The site was fine, no tents in site (unsurprisingly) but plenty of motorhomes scattered around and still space to choose from. We parked, threw up the pop up tent that was once our camping bedroom and plonked the bikes inside. We then set about doing the most important thing we do in our campervan – make a cup of tea.

We did a bit of cycling in the woods, played some baseball with a newly purchased foam bat and ball, but pretty much tucked ourselves into the van with the heater on. I’m not that hardy, I like being warm and well caffeinated. With the heater on, the thermal covers on the windows and a film on the laptop, we were totally cosy and warm. The hot water bottles remained unused, it was an unusually still night too which probably helped keep the cold out, and overall, we drove home to Bristol with a gorgeous sunset shining into the van and three very relaxed campers bopping along to some cool tunes. Roll on Spring!

Out to lunch

lunch in cwncarn forest in out vw camper

Much as i’d like to be on an epic year-long road trip, or even just a weekend away, life often gets in the way. The British winter isn’t helping, and i’m counting down the wet, cold, dark, miserable days until we can head off on our next camping trip in Rocky. Owning a camper doesn’t have to be all about sleeping in one though – with a cooker, seating and even heating available it can become your private portable dining room in any weather.

At the start of December last year, desperate to use the van, even though we couldn’t get away for the night, we headed off to Cwmcarn forest in Wales, to give the van a run after having the coolant changed and bled. The first thing to note is that camper vans are classed as cars on the Severn Bridge toll – not sure if self-converted “stealth” camper vans would get away with that, unless they look sufficiently campervan-like? If you can get it through as a car it is virtually half the price of a van.

The Cwmcarn forest drive is a private road so you can park up anywhere convenient for a few hours and explore, before shutting yourself in the van, sticking some music on and having lunch or coffee in comfort. I’m not sure how busy it gets at other times of the year, but we hardly saw anyone except the odd mountain biker riding the trails, or the mountain bike truck and trailer whizzing past occasionally.