Thursday, 17 August 2017

Lochs, beinns, and heading south

Most campsites in the highlands seem to be filled with cheap hired motorhomes and rows of gleaming plastic caravans, but Glenbrittle was noticeably different. Whilst we were there we saw a classic Unimog camper, a large and impressive overland camper build on a Steyr truck, and a couple of vintage land-rovers. I’m not sure what it is that puts off many of the traditional campers, but Glenbrittle has got everything we want from a campsite in abundance. The site is quiet and relaxed, there are no formal pitches or ugly patches of hardstanding, everywhere on the campsite is within 50m of the beach, and the views in all directions are outstanding. The view from the windscreen looked out onto Loch Brittle, with the isle of Rum visible in the distance, and the view from the bedroom and kitchen looked straight out onto the Black Cuillin.

Glenbrittle campsite, Skye

View from motorhome window at Glenbrittle campsite, Skye

We had planned to spend the following day climbing into the iconic Black Cuillin mountains. The rather foreboding mountains provide epic views over Skye and out to sea in good weather, but unfortunately good weather was in short supply whilst we were there, and everything above about 300 meters remained permanently in cloud whilst we were staying at Glenbrittle. There are many people for whom the sense of achievement when walking in the mountains is in reaching summit, but for me the enjoyment is in the views. I would get very little satisfaction from an experience which could be replicated by leaving a smoke machine on overnight in your living room, and doing a 900m climb on a stairmaster in the morning. Instead we walked south east along the coast to Rubha an Dùnain headland.

Boris the golden retriever looking out of Loch Brittle

The walk was gentle and took us to a rocky peninsula, with great views of several of the nearby islands including Rum and Canna. There is evidence all over the headland of ancient habitation, in a relatively small area there is a Viking canal linking a small loch to the sea, and iron age dun (fortification wall), the remains of a 19th century Clan McLeod village, and even Neolithic cairns. Boris was more interested in chasing sheep than looking for pre-historic remains, but I think he was most happy about doing a walk with very little altitude change.
We returned to the campsite as the heavens opened again, and we spent the rest of the day enjoying the views from the shelter of Jim.

The following day we got up early to leave for a drive to the Quiraing on the other side of Skye. Our experience driving past the Fairy Pools on the way to Glenbrittle campsite, had taught us that the car parks near popular attractions in Skye would be likely to get very busy during the day. In a small car there is normally a good chance that you can tuck yourself off the road somewhere, or wait on the verge for a free space, but in Jim this would be harder, and it is likely that a space vacated by a small car would be insufficient in which to park a big truck. To avoid parking chaos, we left early and enjoyed the drive north in almost complete solitude. The last stretch from Uig to the Quiraing involves a very tight hairpin (which we saw a coach requiring a 3-point turn to navigate), and a single track road which is short on passing places. I was glad to have done this drive before the 17 plate hire cars hit the roads en masse.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Narrow roads and lots of rain

Well it’s been more than two weeks since my last post, and our short trip is now over. Scotland is blessed with many things, but strong mobile data signal is not one of them, and consequently access to Blogger would have required lengthy detours too places we had no intention of going.

When I last posted we were leaving Dufton and heading for the border. The fells of the Lake District fell away as we headed north, but we were barely into Scotland before the terrain started getting more interesting. To break up our journey to Loch Lomond, we headed for the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall on the edge of Dumfries and Galloway, east of Moffat.

The A708 has a sign claiming its unsuitability for HGV’s, but in a move that would be repeated almost daily for the next 2 weeks, we ignored the advice and proceeded onwards. The road was a gentle introduction to Scottish roads, twisting and undulating with the terrain, as if somebody had unravelled a roll of tarmac on the ground. Whilst the road proclaimed to have a lane in each direction, the lanes were too narrow to accommodate a truck, and on the occasions that we met a large vehicle coming the opposite way, we had to put a wheel on the verge to allow each other to pass. Most of the time, other drivers gave way to Jim, but even Jim looks small when faced with a laden logging truck, and there were a few occasions where I did not have the upper hand.

We arrived at the waterfalls to be met with drizzling rain, something that we would have to get used to whilst in Scotland. Nevertheless we enjoyed the short but steep hike up the valley, and ate lunch in far more pleasant surroundings than we would have found on the M74.

After leaving Grey Mare’s Tail, we headed north, and after navigating Glasgow (a city not endowed with an effective ring road or bypass) we drove to Balmaha, and along the east shore of Loch Lomond to a campsite that we had booked. Loch Lomond is easily accessible for tourists flying into Glasgow, and as such has more visitors than many areas much more beautiful but more remote. To prevent chaos, camping around Loch Lomond is controlled and restricted in a way that it is not elsewhere in Scotland, and so to ensure that we could park in peace near the water’s edge, we chose to book a places at the Cashel campsite. The campsite was busy, but there is plenty of space between pitches, and you get fantastic views of the loch from almost anywhere on the site.

I had aspirations to rent a boat the following day, and visit some of the Loch’s islands, but the weather had other plans, and the rain was too heavy, and the showers too frequent to make such an endeavour enjoyable. Instead we took a short walk along a section of the West Highland Way, and smugly enjoyed returning to the warmth and dry of Jim, whilst the backpacked hikers doing the full length of the route trudged onwards.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

A short trip north

For several years Naomi and I have talked about visiting Scotland in Jim, but every year we end up changing plans. The urge to visit is strong, but faced with a 650 mile drive, we have always elected to head south instead, ending up in the sunshine on a beach in Spain or France. Not wishing to put it off any longer, this year was made the decision to forego guaranteed sunshine, and chose mountains and whiskey instead.

Being naturally lazy folk, I've seen a lot of the parts of England within an easy days journey from home, but anything more than few hours drive from London has been largely unexplored by me or Naomi. To break up the journey from London, we chose to spend a few days in Cumbria on the way up, which is an area I've not been to since I was a child. Though England is small, even Cumbria is more driving than I like to do in a day, and so we left late on Friday night, and drove for a few hours to make the following days drive a little easier.

Our first stop was at Cannock Chase, an area better known for murders and dogging than a pleasant rest, but it proved a quiet place to park for the night, an in the morning, gave us a large area of forest and heath to walk Boris and stretch our legs.

The next day, we made the rest of the journey to the lake district. As is is often the case when picking remote places to visit, the first 90% of the journey was quick and painless, spent almost entirely on the M6 motorway; however, the last 10% took the same time again, as we threaded our way around the edge of the hills, headed for Wasdale Head. There are not many roads heading into the heart of the Lake District, but the road to Wasdale Head takes you about as far as it is possible to drive. The last stretch of the road is wholly unsuited for a large truck, and the last stone bridge in particular is extremely narrow, with a tight turn straight after. I find it difficult to imagine that anything larger than Jim would be able to navigate this obstacle without getting a front wheel off the road  at this turn. Nevertheless, the road was quiet, and we took it slowly without causing much of an inconvenience.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Much needed repairs

I am aware that its been an extremely long time since I posted anything here, this is largely because Jim has been forlorn, inactive, an unattended to. We've taken a few small trips away in him, but nothing worth writing about unfortunately.

We're now in Cumbria, a few days into a two week holiday visiting the North of England and Scotland. In the run up to the trip, I attended to a couple of the growing list of repairs which Jim needs doing.

For a few years water has been getting into the back nearside corner of the cladding on Jim. Over time it has completely rotted through the plywood. I have known about it for a while but haven't had the motivation to deal with it. The damage has happened because one of the stainless steel capping pieces has started to separate from the truck body, and water has got behind the plywood.

The thin GRP skin is the only thing left in that corner, the plywood behind it had rotten away completely. The hole you can see in the photo is from me inadvertently sticking my finger through it when trying to ascertain how bad the damage was.

A few other corner trim pieces are loose and I will have to deal with these quickly so that the damage does not get as extensive as this section. I started by pulling away at the rotten wood to see how far the damage spread. Getting to this point took nothing more than a gentle tug with my hand.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Jim enjoys being home

Since we arrived back in England last year, we've covered a couple of thousand miles in Jim. Over the course of our trip through America and Mexico we got an average fuel economy of 9.96 miles per UK gallon (8.29 mpg US, 28.35 l/100km), but Jim seems to have rewarded us for bringing him home by giving us some his best fuel mileage to date. Much of the driving has been at 55 mph on the motorway, but the journeys have taken us through the rolling UK countryside and occasionally up some steep grades on A and B roads in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Since coming back to the UK,we have average 11.40 mpg UK (9.50 mpg US, 24.77 l/100km), still not great, but closer to what I expected when I bought Jim back in 2007.

To thank him for his kindness, we took Jim to the Adventure Overland Show in Stratford Upon Avon, to hang out with other trucks and make some friends.

The weather was perfect and the show was great fun. We got to meet a lot of interesting people, check out some awesome vehicles, and listen to talks from people who'd done many of the things I'd like to accomplish before I shuffle off this earth. Even Boris had a good time, meeting other well travelled dogs, and walking along the nearby Stratford Greenway walk. I'd heard mixed reviews about the show from previous years, but I'm glad we went along, not least as we had the chance to bump into a fantastic couple that we first met in Guanajato whilst they were travelling south in their Wesfalia Sprinter.

Whilst in the area, we also took the opportunity to visit Stratford Upon Avon itself. A picture perfect quintessentially English town.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Jim gets some exercise in Cornwall and Dartmoor

For the last nine months Jim has been acting as little more than a glorified spare room. He’s proved useful on multiple occasions, but you don’t need 230 horsepower in a garden guest room, and so both he and I have been a little frustrated. Thankfully I had a couple of opportunities to give him some exercise recently.

The first jaunt was a trip down the M3 to Winchester for a last minute trip to the Boomtown Fair music festival. I was working at the festival and consequently was allocated a space in the crew camping field. Most of the crew had been on the site for several days, if not weeks, and so when I arrived on the day the festival started, there were few spaces left in the field. This normally would not have been a problem, but the last remaining spaces were at the top of the field, which required me to navigate a steep slope that had been left muddy and slick after a day of heavy rain. I should have known I’d have problems, as before I’d locked the rear diff, I’d been sliding around the muddy access track down to the security gate the moment I’d left the tarmac.

On the first attempt to ascend the slope, I crawled up with the rear diff locked and made it less than half way up before motion stopped and the tyres began to chew up the field. I then tried a second time with a short run up, and made significantly more progress. On the third attempt I thought that I’d made it to the top, and slowed down to look about for a space, when I tried to pull forward I realised that my jubilation had been premature as my wheels span uselessly in the mud again. I was reversing back down the slope for a fourth attempt, when Jim began to slide sideways off the path, into a pristine VW camper parked adjacently. I managed to bring him under control but it was at this point that I realised that hooning an 18 tonne truck around a muddy field surrounded by drunk revellers and expensive motorhomes was potentially perilous, and looked for an alternative space to park where I wouldn't block access.

My options were limited as I couldn’t drive more than 10m forwards or backwards before hitting a slope and losing traction. There was one lane with space at the end but the slope was even steeper than that I’d got stuck on. Thankfully this path still had grass on it as it hadn’t been chewed up by spinning wheels, and so it provided sufficient traction to allow me to make it safely to the top without ruining anyone's pride and joy. The main issue with the spot I’d made it to, was that it would mean being parked at an absurd angle for the next few days.

I’ve parked Jim at some wild angles before, but this was certainly the most extreme. The shower tray overflowed before the water reached the plug hole, the kettle slid off the hob and needed to be held in position, and I woke up each morning pressed into the wall of the bedroom. Nevertheless I slept well and enjoyed the comfort of a good bed, and a hot shower and cooked breakfast each morning. By the time I came to leave the festival, the site had dried out, and Jim drove out of the field without hesitation.

The next week, Jim, got a second outing, this time all the way down to Looe in Cornwall. If I’d had more than four days off work, I would have preferred to have taken the A303 to Exeter; partly because it shares its name with the classic Roland synth that spawned acid techno, and partly because it takes you through some beautiful parts of the country. Instead, we took the boring trudge of the M4 and M5, passing such national treasures as Reading and Swindon. The drive was straightforward and reasonably fast, although it’s these long motorway jaunts which make me wonder whether something faster and more efficient than an 18 tonner might be more sensible.

The A38 from Exeter going west was easy going, and it wasn't until we turned off onto the smaller roads to Looe that things started to get interesting. I take a kind of morbid pleasure in taking a totally unsuited vehicle to places I really shouldn't, and I can’t deny the enjoyment I got from crawling along the steep and narrow Cornish back roads at 20mph, with a tail of frustrated tourist behind me. There were a couple of grades that had us down to second gear, and there was more than one occasion where I saw a look of undisguised fear on the face of a driver having flown around a corner to be confronted by Jim. The weather had got progressively worse as we headed west, and by the time we arrived at West Wayland Caravan Park we were firmly inside a cloud.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Why you should always listen to your own advice...

It's been a while since a spent any time using Jim, or doing any work on him but with two trips planned I decided to tick a couple of items off of the list of repairs and modifications I'd accumulated whilst travelling around America and Mexico. Almost all of the items on the list are either permanent fixes to small field repairs, or modifications which would make things work better, but one of the items needed proper attention before it caused further damage.

I mentioned in this blog whilst converting Jim into a motorhome, that I was trying as far as possible to avoid using fixtures and fittings from caravan and motorhome suppliers, partly because they tend to be fugly (technical term), and partly because they have the resilience of a chocolate tea pot. In general I managed to stick to this ambition, and I largely used parts from marine and industrial suppliers. In the bathroom however, I broke my pledge, and bought a series of matching plastic pieces that combine to make a reasonably attractive moulded bathroom suite. To replicate the appearance and functionality of these items in something tougher like fibreglass would have taken me a significant chunk of time, and so I took the lazy option. Below is a photo taken whilst I was installing the items in May 2012.

Thetford C400 toilet and matching bathroom fittings in Jim the overland motorhome

As soon as I picked up the shower tray component of this suite, I knew the decision would bite me on the arse, but I thought that a hefty amount of plywood and sikaflex reinforcement would be enough to prevent it from falling apart. I bonded a sheet of plywood across the bottom of the tray, and supported all four edges with a plywood upstand. In hindsight I completely underestimated the utter uselessness of the original product. I hate calling anyone out without giving them a chance to defend themselves but in this case the shower tray that I bought from CAK Tanks to match the C400 type Thetford cassette toilet was so appallingly low quality that I feel compelled to advise others to either not waste their time, or to simply use it as a mould to make a better version out of fibreglass.

Crack in CAK Tanks Thetford C400 type shower tray

Even supported completely by a sheet of plywood, the base of the shower tray developed a series of cracks all over within a few months of use. It’s difficult to comprehend how this is even possible but I suppose that the tiny amount of flexibility in the adhesive used to bond the plywood to the shower tray was enough to allow the tray to flex and crack. The cracks started off as ugly, but not intrinsically problematic, but after a year of full-time living in the truck, I could see beads of dirty water squeezing out of the cracks as I stepped on the tray. In addition, the radiused corners of the tray, which I had presumed would be safe as one doesn’t stand on them, also started to crack. Without intervention, I would have had water ending up in places where it shouldn’t, potentially rusting the floor, rotting the plywood furniture and causing corrosion in wiring.

Crack in CAK Tanks Thetford C400 type shower tray

Crack in CAK Tanks Thetford C400 type shower tray

I must acknowledge the awesome abilities of the CT1 adhesive that I used as a temporary repair to the tray whilst we were travelling. It is described as a hybrid polymer adhesive sealant, and it worked remarkably well to seal all of the damage and prevent water leaking into the area under the tray. When I first used it, I expected it peel off, as the cracks flexed. But it stuck the tray far better than the Sikaflex I used to bond the reinforcement pieces, and remained flexible enough to absorb the significant movement in the cracks around the edge of the tray. Unfortunately as well as it worked to prevent leaks, it made the shower tray look shabby, and ultimately I couldn’t live with the shame of such a visible bodge.

Cracks in CAK Tanks Thetford C400 type shower tray repaired using CT1

The way in which I constructed the bathroom in Jim would make it a massive ball ache to remove and replace the shower tray, and whilst I acknowledge that this may be in my future, I decided to first try and repair/rebuild the shower tray in-situ. The easiest way that I could think to repair the damage, was to fibreglass over the existing shower, effectively building a new tray inside the old one. The only snag in this plan was finding a way to get the new tray to bond effectively to the old one. Having a fair amount of epoxy resin left in the shed, I decided to use this for the fibrglassing, but I knew from experience that there are many plastics that epoxy does not effectively adhere to. My first step was to try to find out which plastic the tray was made from.