At around the time this Big Garden & Croft blogsite got going – in August 2010, I was about to give notice to leave (what proved to be) my last ever ’employed’ status job – as a senior civil engineer with consultancy firm Mouchel. I worked in the management of the highway networks of Hertfordshire, Essex, and Greater London.
The 2008 financial crash had cut off the flow of big-ticket infrastructure projects which had kept me extremly busy for seven years as a freelance specialist designer. Having just completed building Carrick – The Blue House our finances were in a critical state, with very high mortgage repayments. I was lucky to get any work at all, but especially lucky that my employer was amenable to me working flexibly, so that I could build up flexi-hours to spend a week at home every month or so, not least to complete unfinished work at Carrick.
It was a very challenging period for Denise and I!
After three or four weeks at work, I’d drive to Birmingham International, leave the vehicle in a long-stay car park, then take flights to Glasgow and from there to Balivanich (on the island to the north of us – Benbecula), from where Denise would pick me up and we’d drive home in her car. The vehicle I had the use of down south in England was an Autosleeper Clubman GL motorhome, which as well as my transport was also a home-from-home.
The office was in Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire. Just as the name suggests, Welwyn is a very green and peaceful, but far from being a sprawling city it is actually a pocket-sized town. However its chief merit, from my point of view, is that there is, at the even leafier eastern edge of the town, a top quality Caravan Club campsite which is open all-year-round. Based there I could cycle to work in less than five minutes, or walk within fifteen. It was a pretty place to be in exile.
We’d acquired the motorhome ten years previously during another challenging period. It was bought with additional earnings from working flat-out on the management of the major road network in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, a job that involved a great deal of travel – by plane, train, hire car, ferries. It was whilst working for a few sunny days in the Isle of Skye that I caught my first glimpse of the Outer Hebrides – a line of purple and silver on the horizon, the bare rocks glittering in the sunshine. I well remember the shiver that ran down my spine, and phoning Denise to announce that that’s where we’d be going with our first big trip with the motorhome! Within six months of that trip we were living in the walled garden here in South Uist. And so that motorhome was truly a vehicle that carried us into a new life.
For some years or so I continued to use the motorhome for extended business trips away from home, working mostly in southern Scotland and the north of England, but also across the sea in Dublin. (For those Irish projects, the motorhome stayed at home!) But with my time ‘in exile’ – based at Welwyn Garden City – coming to an end, we were anticipating a few years – dependent solely on our own home-based enterprises – with an income much reduced, highly seasonal, and very uncertain. We needed to liquidate whatever capital assets we could spare, to give us more financial wiggle-room. Walking to the office one morning, someone called out to me from across the street : he’d often seen me driving the motorhome, he said, and asked if I’d consider selling it to him. We’ve never regretted doing just that!
Those of you who have been following us for a while will know that we are once again facing big changes to our lives – a period of transition. All of the many previous changes have been driven by a clear and immediate prospect of a new life, a new order of things : to university ; to our first jobs in Carlisle – and then a succession of new jobs in distant towns, unfamiliar countries and languages, into self-employment … all driven by the choices we’ve made, framed by our values and desires. This time, however, our perspective is more detached, the frame of view extends further – into older age, where choices are much more a question of practical necessity – regardless of ideals or preferences.
Where we are now, we’re still blessed with a fulfilling, satisfying and rewarding way of life ; but just as we are beginning to feel the constraints of age and health, we find we have, by now, very largely realized the hopes and dreams we’ve had since we decided to settle here. Yes, life still seems full and overflowing with hope and opportunity, but increasingly it’s to beyond the shores of these islands that our curiosity, imagination and plans are leading us.
Already, we’ve ‘established an outpost‘ in Navarra, in the same village – San Martìn de Unx – as our daughter Catherineand her own family. And now that Becky – our other daughter – is settling with Bob into their chapel in Ceredigion, west Wales, we’re thinking about having a base there, too. That is, however, dependent on selling Eight Askernish, reinvesting the proceeds in a similar business in Ceredigion – in partnership with Becky ; and it’s dependent too, on finding more flexible solutions to care of pets and livestock here at home in Uist. It’s a conundrum familiar to many with animals in their care and family far away ; but its especially a problem for those with crofts, smallholdings, backyard farms, homesteads, where even just the essential day-to-day tasks are too much to ask of a neighbour.
So, yes, there’s uncertainty, there’s complications, there’s one day after another with nothing resolved … and yet our experience tells us that there’s a solution out there, but one that just hasn’t found us yet.
If there’s one thing that’s certain, though, it’s that we’ll be travelling more often, and travelling long distances, too.
And if there’s just one other thing that’s equally certain, it’s that travelling by air involves a great deal more than sitting for a couple of hours at 30,000 feet. For a start, most of our journeys involve at least two flights, it could be three or even four (that’s just outbound!), plus trains, buses, hotels, parking, hire cars … Over the medium to longer term that we’re thinking about, it all adds up to a great deal of expense – and an over-sized carbon footprint. Repeating the same journey again and again, any novelty, fun or freedom quickly wears thin, and soon is seen to be utterly threadbare.
Is there a better alternative? Well, according to Denise, there is.
It took some persuading, but once I finally got J to think about it with an open mind, it was himself that spotted – amongst the thousands of ads on eBay alone – a motorhome that he said was ‘the one for us’. He’d previously set up spreadsheets that calculated the maximum outlay we could justify, along with estimated running costs, insurance and other costs. (That’s typical Jonathan!)
We certainly couldn’t afford the latest generation of vehicles, even a few years old ; not least because we need something with long and tall enough that allows J to stand up properly (not exacerbating his spine problems), and likewise to have a full length bed. And if we were obliged to buy something older, then we wanted a classic vehicle that was appreciated for its looks, build quality, and durability.
Autosleepers – the manufacturer of our previous motorhome – stopped making their signature GRP-monocoque coachbuilt motorhomes back in 2009, but the last generation of those vehicles is still young enough to offer plenty of useful life – if well looked-after ; but with its its sleekly curved lines and well-balanced proportions, remains a classic of English/British understatement.
The economic argument was based on the assumption that we make two journeys to Spain each year, taking the long ferry from Plymouth to Bilbao ; plus two journeys to Wales. Any additional journeys will only serve to strengthen its economic advantages.
We did our research into not only this model of motorhome – an Autosleeper Amethyst, but also the specific vehicle that was offered for sale.
It’s 6.9m long (with bike rack folded), almost 3m tall, and 2.4m wide with the wing mirrors out . The base vehicle is a Ford Transit, with 2.5 litre turbo-diesel, 5-speed gearbox and rear wheel drive. The Amethyst is designed for two people to travel in comfort.
Other key information is in the public domain – available online, and what we found there supported the seller’s claim that whilst the vehicle was first registered in 2004 – so 15 years old, it genuinely had only 26,000 miles ‘on the clock’ ! The price was reasonable – the sort of figure we’d expect to pay for a good car with the same mileage! We did our research on the seller, too ; a dealer in used high-spec’ motorhomes. We took a (literally!) calculated risk, and bought the vehicle unseen. We paid by bank transfer, and then made arrangements to collect the vehicle. That was why J flew to Bristol, six weeks ago – during that unseasonal heat-wave in early-mid May. The 760-mile journey home included a visit to Becky and Bob in Ceredigion.
Flight to Glasgow, then on to Bristol. Overnight at a hotel in the city centre. In the morning, I took a bus to out to Warmley – on the eastern edge of Bristol – to collect the vehicle. The handover didn’t take long and was straightforward. Next, to a nearby caravan centre to get various bits of equipment, not least a kettle and to get the empty gas cylinders swapped for full ones. After that, in a layby beside a very busy dual carriageway, I stopped for a while to get myself properly organized for the long drive, and to take the first pictures of the vehicle.
Then onto the extremely busy motorway network north of Bristol, across the M48 Severn Bridge (the original 1960s bridge) to Wales.
At Chepstow I stopped at a Tesco and stocked up with food for my leisurely journey back to Uist. My first night in a motorhome since late 2010 was in a layby near Lampeter. I was very comfortable and slept soundly : an important test passed with flying colours!
After a few days with Becky and Bob at the chapel, I set off for the 3-day journey back to Uist. Tregaron, Llandiloes, Newtown, Welshpool, and the A489 northwards and then the M56 to join the M6 near the Mersey viaduct. Then stops at Forton (near Lancaster) and overnighting between Penrith and Carlise. Then north again on the M74 and M8 to cross the River Clyde by the Erskine Bridge, and then the A82 to Loch Lomond for the night. The third day, I continued north along the A82 to Fort William, and then west to Mallaig.
The slow pace with frequent stops allowed plenty of time to get to know the vehicle inside and out, and establish if there was anything that needed fixing before I left the mainland. What I found was a few relatively minor faults which were not fairly represented in the sales prospectus, and which I successfully got the seller to pay for replacement parts. There were also a larger number of minor and largely cosmetic faults, which Denise and I would enjoy fixing over the coming weeks and months, and which would not add up to much of an expense.
It was a gloriously sunny and warm half day at Mallaig (a small fishing port on the west coast of the Scottish mainland) prior to boarding the ferry to Lochboisdale in South Uist. I explored the town on foot, stood with japanese tourists gawping at the ‘Hogwarts Express’ steam train, then returning to the van for lunch. After rambling the back lanes leading out into the hills behind the town, I walked back to the van for afternoon tea and a slice of cake. Then, finally, I drove around the bay to the marshalling yard to wait for the instruction to board the Lord of the Isles for the three-hour sailing to Uist.
I arrived home very late in the evening, around 10pm. It had turned cloudy and cold, but Denise helped me reverse down the drive to right by the house, which will be the vehicle’s temporary home until we have completed making better arrangements. Pickle was keen to explore too – it didn’t take her long to find the over-cab locker / fold-down bed.
Satisfied with our renovation efforts, we’ve now made our first trip away from home with the vehicle. Only to Berneray : as far as we can go in Uist without getting a ferry to somewhere else. And for one night only!
It rained most of the time, but just as we were ready to give up and head back home early, the skies cleared and – in glorious sunshine – we set off from Lochmaddy for a 4-mile circular walk. We started at the car park by the Sheriff’s Court, along the lane to the suspension bridge over the outlet from Loch Houram, and then to the remarkable Hut of The Shadows. That’s a chamber built of stone and with a turf roof which is arranged inside like a snail’s shell. In the centre, in complete darkness, there’s two stone niches to sit on, and as the eyes adjust to the darkness, a ghostly image of the seascape outside is seen on a section of white-washed wall opposite the niches : this is projected from a ‘pin-hole camera’ arrangement set into the walls of the chamber. It doesn’t seem much, describing it like that, but it’s now around 20 years old and is still popular with locals and visitors alike.
From Spònais we walked along the track that heads westward towards the main road near Loch na Buaile (Loch of the Village) to the junction at Sruth Mòr, and then along the minor road back to the van parked in Lochmaddy.
By the time we got home, we’d discovered a few more things to fix or arrange, but – overall – we’re very pleased with the vehicle.