The Building of Silver Stage 3: Bed and Pull-out Table

Things have moved on apace in the last two weeks. We have had some beautiful, if chilly, weather here and I think that helps. Having said that, Dave is absolutely stellar in getting out into the van every morning and he sometimes stays out there for most of the day. I think it is the new “man cave”. We have also really benefitted over the past week from the help of Jason. There have been many deep conversations and much pontification over the structure of the pull-out table and the bed but finally work started a week ago.

We have decided that one of the main purposes of van life is to be outside as much as possible. We already have a canopy, camping chairs, table and fire pit to facilitate that happening in all weathers. However, we have to acknowledge that there will be times when we will want to be in the van and so we will need a seating area of some kind and a table to eat and do other things at. We have had to compromise on this quite a bit in order to have a 2m bed and a shower so we have allowed a 1.2m bench seat where we can sit side-by side to eat (as we would at home on the sofa). This is not intended as a lounging area, as we will do most of that on the huge bed. You can see how the layout of the van is starting to take shape in the picture below.

A couple of months ago we acquired table sliders to allow us to build a table that will sit underneath the bed and pull out when we need it. The aim was to construct a table that would require no legs to support it. This was a challenge but we know it is doable as we have seen examples on other people’s van tours on YouTube. Now I have not been involved in this much, as it is above my pay grade, so I cannot explain the feats of engineering that have made this possible. I do know that the height of the table dictates the height of the bed as there is no point having a table that is too high or too low to use.

They worked long into the evening on Tuesday to produce this magnificent thing and have every reason to be very proud.

The bed structure has also been the subject of a lot of discussion. As I explained before, we are going for a fixed bed so that we can utilise the space underneath as storage. The fresh water tank and batteries for the solar power system will be stored in there as well as our bicycles (if we can fit them in) and other stuff that will not fit in the inside storage. The “garage” will be accessible from the rear doors but we also want it to be accessible to some extent from the inside of the van. We will have a laundry chute here and will need to get laundry out for example. There is enough space for a king size bed 150cm x 200cm but if we opt for a double bed we have an extra 15cm to play with. That does not sound like much but every little helps.We will be building cupboards to store clothes above the bed on one side and if we compromise with a double bed then we will also have more space for cupboards, which for me means more clothes. Yes to that!

Cupboards will be built to the right of the bed up to the ceiling but not on the left to avoid it feeling too claustrophobic and to allow us to lean back on the wall.

It was not an easy decision as we did not agree but once the basic structure was created it was apparent that a double bed would work better. As a standard double bed is only 190cm long though, we have opted to stick with 200cm in length and have a memory foam mattress made to fit 135cm x 200cm. Hopefully, it will arrive this week. Technically we could then use the van if we wanted to get away but it seems we might be moving into a full lockdown situation within the next week.

What you don’t anticipate when you take on a van build is just how many decisions there are to make each day and how tedious some of them are. For example this week I have been in the weeds researching the following.

  1. Memory foam vs sprung mattresses -which is best for the van? How deep does the mattress need to be and can we get a sprung mattress that shallow or not? Where can be source a bespoke memory foam mattress? Is memory foam too hot? if so then can we get a mattress topper to keep us cool? Will we be able to get one made to fit our bespoke bed size or can we manage with standard size topper? What are toppers made of and where do we source one?
  2. Shower mixers-shower components are made from brass and this is very heavy to support in a van shower cubicle. The thermostatic bar mixer we ordered from Screwfix was incredibly heavy and when we checked other options online, they seem to be just as if not more heavy. Can we get an old fashioned pair of taps that we mix at source? Can we find a set that does not include a bath mixer? Will it go on the wall? How does it work? What is a microswitch and is it relevant?
  3. Lining the ceiling – should we use 3mm furniture board, hardboard or plywood? How will we join the pieces for a smooth finish? How do you paint plywood for a good finish? Which is the best primer? Should we use trade paint? Where can we source this? Should we use acrylic, eggshell or water based paint?
  4. Shower cubicle-do we construct it from plywood and then use 3mm PVC sheets to line it or can we construct it from 10mm acrylic sheets alone? Where do we source the sheets? How do we cut it? Can we get sealant that colour matches to the blue we want to use?
  5. Kitchen cupboards and drawers-will we buy the doors already cut or make our own? What kind of catches should we have so they don’t come open when we are moving? Can we find marine catches (for boats) that we like the look of and can afford? What colour doors should we have? Should we go for a gloss or matt finish. Is all white boring? Should the kitchen cupboards be the same colour as the other cupboards/table or different. Could we build them ourselves and them cover them with a veneer? What is a veneer exactly? What colour options are there? Where do you buy them from and how much do they cost?
  6. Kitchen worktop-is wood the only option if we want to cut it to size ourselves? Will it be hardwearing enough? Which wood should we go for? How heavy will it be? Will a light colour get stained? Can we get samples so we can see it before we choose? Where do we get these from?
  7. Wall finish-should we paint the ply walls or finish with a wallpaper or vinyl. What options are there for each of these? Are there any we like? Can we get samples sent?
  8. Cab divider curtains-can we make these? How do we bend the curtain pole to make it fit? How do we attach the curtain to the walls so there is no gap for the cold and light to get through? Can we buy on ready-made? Where can we source this from? Will it fit our van?
  9. Blinds for cab-there is no metal around the windscreen so we cannot use magnetic blinds. Can we buy a metal strip to glue around the windscreen? Can we find one that will match the colour of the trim? Will a magnetic strip work or does it have to be a metal strip? If we cannot find one the right colour should we use suckers instead? If so then should we just buy one ready made or make our own?

Really this is just the tip of the iceberg. It takes up a lot of time each day looking into these things, discussing them and making decisions. We have still had time for an excursion to Denbigh Castle though and lunch sitting outside a cafe. As you can see, we both have new puffer jackets as we are only allowed at present to socialise out of doors so we are learning to wrap up for the cold. We ate a Thai takeaway in full thermal underwear, puffer coats and sheepskin lined boots on Wednesday evening. Apparently, the sale of fire pits and patio heaters has gone up 400% in the last month. It is going to be a very strange winter.

I have also been finishing up the garden for winter. The potatoes have finished flowering and are dying back so hopefully we will get some more to dig up in the next month.

I have a bed of kale, spinach and lettuces that have been doing well for months and I have filled in the gaps where I pulled up the carrots.

I have also put in a third bed of brassicas which I hope will grow over winter but if not will be ready for spring. Here I have pak choi, tsatsoi, spinach, ruby chard, mizuma and rocket. I love my greens!

So I mentioned the impending full lockdown. We expect to hear tomorrow that there will be a full period of “stay at home” in place by the end of the week for 2-3 weeks as a “circuit breaker”. This has meant that we need to make decisions about many van-related things now so that we can place orders before the non-essential shops close for what will hopefully be only 2-3 weeks but could be longer if the government does not have the courage to bring us out of the lockdown.

So that is where we are at present. We have a bed and a table. Dave has started working on the bench seat. We hope to install the MaxxFans in the ceiling this week if the rain holds off. Plus we now have a kitchen even more crowded with stuff waiting to be installed. At least we have plenty to keep us busy during the coming lockdown.

More soon I hope…

The Building of Silver Stage Two: Heating, Insulation and Flooring

Since the last post, it has been very slow progress with the van build but in the last week we have finally seen significant change. Why slow? Well we have been doing other things. Dave has spent a couple of days helping Jason build a “rum shack” in his garden.

Building the “Rum Shack”

We also had a few days away in the van on a beautiful campsite in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire.

We had a quick but wonderful trip to visit Dave’s family…

A typical British summer picnic in the rain

…and and I spent 5 days with mine in Lichfield, as my nephew prepared to leave for uni in Glasgow.

We also had a great day out on the motorbikes in mid-Wales with Jason and Ali in stunning scenery.

I have been busy writing my other blogs and had a couple of articles published in magazines and I have been working on the garden. So we have no doubt been occupied but, in truth, there has still been plenty of time for the van. I can offer up no reason as to why the build slowed to a snail’s pace. After fitting the windows, we just seemed unable to gain momentum. However, thankfully that seems to have changed over the last few days and we have now turned a corner. So where are we up to?

One of the most important tasks in converting a van for full time living is to ensure it is warm. We plan to use Silver in Scottish or alpine winters so it needs to be cosy and free of condensation. This means that it needs to be insulated and also have heating installed for the coldest nights. Dave began the process of installing heaters for both water and air about two months ago. This involved a lot of discussion with Jason and pontification which, I have learned over the last 27 years, is what happens when you put two engineers together. I can sustain interest in the conversation for about 20 minutes before giving up the will to live and drifting into the kitchen to wash up or sweep the floor or something equally more interesting. Eventually, after considering al the options. they concurred that we would have gas heaters fuelled by a propane tank installed underneath the van. The waste water tank also goes under the van so they had to make sure there was space for everything and that it could all be installed safely. This also involved cutting holes in the floor of the van in order to bring the heaters partially inside.

All of this seems to have taken many weeks to get right as the correct brackets and different bits and bobs (technical term) had to be ordered and installed. As with most things on a van conversion, you don’t get it right first time so there was inevitable delay as Dave sourced or crafted the right accessories. However, after weeks of delay, we finally completed installation of the heaters last week and brought them through into the van ready to install ducting/pipes at some point in the future and so insulation and the laying of an impermeable vapour barrier (i.e. plastic sheet) could finally be tackled.

Insulation is a real pig of a job. When asked which job they would least like to do again, many van lifers mention insulation. The floor, walls and ceiling all need to be insulated, with either 50mm insulation board or soft insulation, the same as you use in your loft, and then a vapour barrier is secured. Now our van in only just about tall enough for Dave to stand up in metal to metal. If we laid down 50mm of insulation on both the floor and ceiling, as most do, it would be 10cm too short for Dave, so this is not an option for us. It took a while to decide how to resolve this but we decided to add 25mm strips of insulation on the floor between the ridges so there would at least be some insulation but no loss of height (as seen in the photo above). The ceiling will be fully insulated so we will lose 4-5cm in all. The floor is not fully insulated and it remains to be seen if this will be a problem with cold coming up through the floor but with a gas heater installed, I am assured it will stay warm. It took Dave a while to cut and secure all the strips of 25mm insulation board and in the meantime I made a start with insulating the walls, which turned out to be much tricker than we both expected.

Dave cutting 25mm strips of insulation board

Insulation board is flat but the walls of a Sprinter are not. They come with various indentations, where windows can be added, and other channels and gulleys, which make installing flat insulation board very challenging. After one attempt to cut and install the board, which took up a whole morning, we both agreed that our work was not up to standard and needed to be redone. This was hard to accept, as the board isn’t cheap but mostly because the work is filthy and not something you want to do twice if it can be avoided. Sawing or cutting polystyrene is easy enough but it creates bits and dust that get everywhere, including onto your chest if you forget to wear a mask, and on a windy day it blows around the garden and over into the neighbours’ gardens. Our back lawn has a white tinge, almost as if it has lightly snowed. I have no idea how to get rid of it and it might be there forever.

The first tool we used on the insulation board and an example of forgetting to put on my mask

While accepting our work was shoddy, we were stuck as to how to make the board fit properly so we went back to the trusty YouTube videos to learn what others did. No-one seems to show the whole process, I suspect that’s because there is always an element of bodging involved that they don’t want subscribers to see. We picked up some tips though and started again the next day. I must admit that I had partly lost interest by then but Dave was dogged and did a stellar job sculpting and carving the board to fit the larger spaces.

The second tool…
…the third tool
A perfect fit

Around this time I departed for Lichfield for the best part of a week and when I returned Dave had completed all of the larger sections of wall insulation. That was not strategic on my part but worked well for me.

Insulation board in place just in time for our short break. We could not take a guitar camping on the motorbike.

Immediately upon my return to Wales, the weather became unexpectedly good so we decided to get away in Silver for a few days. Before we left we installed a sun canopy. Like everything else, the decision about which canopy to buy was not an easy one. We really wanted a Fiamma retractable awning, which is fitted to the van permanently and pulls out and retracts as needed. However, they cost around 800 quid and weigh 50kg. Although they are very popular, we decided that this was out of the question for us. We eventually settled on a Vango Sun Canopy, which we bought half price on eBay for 70 quid plus the cost of the awning rail which we had to glue to the roof of the van.

Installing the awning rail

We now have a 4m awning which gives both shade and protection from the rain at a bargain price. It does have to be attached to the rail each time we set up camp, which involves Dave climbing on the roof but we are happy enough with the choice we made.

We had a great few days away. Most people would view sleeping in the back of a van on an inflatable mattress as quite squalid (and from the photo of the inside of the van posted above, you can see that it was) but it felt like the height of luxury when compared to a tiny tent and motorbike. We could take everything we wanted, boxes of stuff. We had a comfy bed. As you get older Thermarest mattresses lose their appeal, although we found that an air bed does not keep the cold out in the same way as a closed cell foam mattress. We had chairs and a table rather than sitting on the ground.

We also had a fire pit for the chilly evenings.

Dave goes for PJs while I prefer a cashmere blanket

We loved it all and it made us realise just how great it will be when Silver is eventually finished.

We returned from the trip with renewed purpose, determined to make more progress so we could enjoy more short trips away in the coming weeks (this was before we were placed into local lockdown but more about that later). We finished fitting the heaters under the van..

I found much to my surprise that I love being underneath the van…who knew?

and insulating the floor, allowing us to put down the vapour layer and restore the original floor as a base for the vinyl flooring. It turned out that my sewing skills in making 2D materials fit a 3D body finally came in handy and I was able to lay the vapour barrier, which is a sheet of plastic, around and over the wheel arches without too much difficulty.

We then set to completing the insulation of the walls using a soft insulation material made from recycled plastic bottles, which is much nicer to work with than the traditional glass fibre stuff and more environmentally friendly. Both walls were then covered with more sheets of plastic, definitely a two-man job but fairly satisfying to complete.

Silver was now ready to have walls installed. The nature of these walls has been the topic of much debate. Factory built motorhomes use board covered in wallpaper to achieve a professional finish, whereas the use of what is called 4-way stretch carpet on top of plywood is much more popular with VW owners and converters. However, the new breed of millennial van lifers much prefer to finish their walls with tongue and groove panels, which give a nice finish when painted or varnished and are easy to install. The drawback is that they are heavy. A Sprinter van has a maximum legal weight of 3.5 tonnes. Exceeding this weight, once the build is complete, and the mass of two adults, all their stuff, fuel and water is added, not only impacts on the safety of the vehicle but is liable to a hefty fine and impounding of the van. Many campervan owners dismiss this issue as not important but as motorcyclists and old duffers, we are always safety and legal first so we have committed to keep the build as light as possible. This precludes us from using tongue and groove and leaves us with the plywood option to create our walls and ceiling.

We discovered a couple of weeks ago that there are companies that sell ready-cut ply linings for Sprinter vans at a very reasonable price so we took delivery of the 6mm ply panels ready to install. The panels are not perfect but they are good enough and as 6mm ply retains some flexibility, they fit snug to the shell of the van without wasting crucial space.

We still have to decide what finish we will use but, given the visible joins between the panels and the visible screw heads, we are unlikely to paint them and more likely to use a neutral wallpaper. The jury is still out on that one.

With the walls installed we were ready to lay the flooring. We decided on industrial sheet vinyl flooring which is non-slip, waterproof and very hard-wearing. The design we chose comes with sparkly bits in show catch the light when the sun shines and prevents it from looking too much like the stuff used in mental hospitals. What we hadn’t bargained for is how hard the vinyl is to cut, especially when cold. It seemed to defeat the ordinary Stanley blade and the special hook-shaped Stanley blade but we soon discovered with the help of Google that heating the flooring with a hairdryer softened it and made it easier to cut.

I have laid vinyl a few times before but this was much harder to manage and manipulate and took us several hours to get it how we wanted it. It is great to see the first decorative finish of the van take shape though and the first indication that it is more than just a cargo van.

Our next job is to batten out the layout of the van interior, starting with the bed and then the shower, seating area and kitchen. Work begins on this tomorrow. But you haven’t insulated the ceiling yet, I hear you say. Well there is a reason for that. Before insulating the ceiling, we need to install a pair of MaxxFans in the roof to both suck and blow air, and keep us cool and ventilated. One of these fans will go directly over the shower cubicle, as there is already a hole in the roof and a small fan installed in that area and we do not want to cut an extra hole. However, we need to ensure that the placement of the MaxxFan is 100% accurate over the shower, rather than part in and part out of the cubicle but we cannot do this until the shower cubicle is battened out. This means that installation of the MaxxFans and insulation of the ceiling will take place after battening out the layout. This is a bit arse about face but was the best solution we could come up with. As I said, nothing is straightforward with a van build.

The MaxxFans have been sitting in the garage for 2 months but in preparation for the next exciting stage of the build we also now have the shower tray, Nature’s Head composting toilet, fridge and cooker purchased and taking up space in the bungalow.

I have also bought the materials to make blackout, insulating blinds for the windows and the foam for the seat cushion, which I will cover with old curtain fabric. So there is plenty to be getting on with as the nights draw in and the days get chillier. Hopefully I will report back more quickly next time as we continue to make more rapid progress.

Since Thursday, we are longer allowed to leave the county or mix indoors with anyone that we do not live with, under the new COVID restrictions for North Wales. It seems a bit daft that we cannot legally visit the garden of friends who live 20 minutes away in a different county but people from England can travel here freely. We don’t have a major DIY store within the boundaries of our county so that may pose problems in the coming weeks. Dave is also very upset that while he can visit Toolstation in Denbigh, he can no longer go to Screwfix in Mold, which is only 10 minutes further away…how will he cope? More importantly, a much looked forward to visit from Dave’s family to celebrate a birthday has also had to be cancelled. Nevertheless, we support the measures taken by the Welsh assembly to keep us safe and we will abide by the new rules despite the confusion and inconsistencies. We like our own and each other’s company and we have plenty of hobbies and interests to keep us occupied and plenty of food in supply in case things get worse. We also have the whole winter to finish and dream about using our van again.

The Building of Silver Stage 1-Strip Out and Windows

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It’s been about a month now since we brought (Son of) Silver home and during that time we have been very busy planning, ordering and doing. In between van stuff we have had many lovely visits from our local friends and a visit from my family, some trips out on sunny days to Llandudno, Llangollen and Chester as well as putting in work on the vegetable garden. All in all, this retirement business is pretty amazing. The only disappointment is that Dave’s family are in local lockdown in Lancashire and we have not been able to see them yet.

We are getting used to owning a van as our primary vehicle. It is massive but actually quite easy to drive, although I haven’t tried reversing it yet. It takes up two whole spaces end to end on a carpark and we are already developing an intimate knowledge of where we can and cannot park in most towns within a 30 mile radius.

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There’s a lot to be done to turn the van from an empty silver box into a comfortable and functional home that we may well live in for 2-3 years or more. We started by stripping out the lining back to the metal and removing the bulkhead to allow access from the cab into the back. What I am learning already, is that regardless of how many tools you have in the garage, you seldom have the correct tool in the right size to complete the job at hand. We have become regular visitors to a range of tools shops that I call Machinemartfixstation-those of you who are into tools will know the shops I mean. Fortunately, we have all the major tool shop chains within a 20 minute drive, which in rural North Wales is considered to be “around the corner” or “just down the road”.

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One version of Machinemartfixstation

The removal of the final bolts that secure the bulkhead required the only size of a particular tool, of which we had many sizes, that we did not have, so my first experience of working on the van comprised of spending an hour undoing a load of bolts, only to have to do half of them up again to resecure the bulkhead so we could drive to Machinemartfixstation to acquire the right tool. I suspect this may become a familiar pattern.

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With the bulkhead

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Without the bulkhead

In his previous life, Silver was a Mercedes lease van working for a contractor to the NHS and he came with a heavy, steel ramp to load wheelchairs into the back. We were able to sell this on Ebay for a few hundred quid and enjoyed an hour in the company of Compo and Clegg from Last of the Summer Wine who arrived from Sheffield to collect it. Dressed in baggy singlets to make the most of the sunny weather, these septagenarians regaled Dave and our visitors with their tall stories, while they drank tea at an annoying leisurely pace before setting off for the four hour drive home. Having lived abroad for 20 years, I love these incidental encounters with people who speak the same language (well almost), that I really missed.

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The ramp in the rear doorway

It is unfortunate that when converting a van, one of the first jobs you have to complete is one of the trickiest, fitting the windows. Many “stealth” vanlifers who park up in towns each night forgo windows to maintain the appearance of being a normal, commercial vehicle. This means light sources are limited to the windscreen and any roof fans or skylights that they install. We decided to install windows in the sliding door and barn doors at the back. We ordered these from Van Pimps at a very reasonable price and decided to fit them ourselves as most vanlifers seem to. We spent a few days watching as many Youtube videos as we could of both professionals and vanlifers fitting windows. There is no one right way apparently so we decided on a scheme of work combining the best of what we had learned. We were a bit thrown when we discovered that our Van Build Guru, the ever sensible Greg Virgoe, did not fit his own windows but engaged the services of Glass4Vans, but we rallied and pressed on, after getting a last minute quote for professional fitting of 300 quid.

The thought of cutting a hole in the side of your van is pretty scary and I must admit that the stress of the day actually made me quite ill and almost spoilt the celebratory trip to the chippy that evening. However, I rallied when I saw that our lovely chippy man had given me free batter bits, or scraps as they call them up north to go with my chips, peas and curry sauce.

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Our first local chippy since 2005

Although Dave and I have been a couple for 26 years, we have never built something together, so we are experiencing something new. I am glad we waited until now as we are older, calmer and more patient with each other than we were in the past. Back in the early days, we couldn’t even put a tent up together without a blazing row and even to this day, Dave erects the tent on his own while I unpack the rest of the gear. It seems we have mellowed though and we got through a whole day of window fitting without a harsh word spoken. Now that is progress.

Vans come with recesses where windows are intended to go and the glass sits on top of those recesses, bonded to the metal, so it is not a question of cutting an aperture to the exact size of the glass, where 1mm could make the difference between the windows fitting or not. Once I realised this, it seemed less scary. However, we are both keen to do a good job. We want our van to look professional and not like a product of Odge Bodge and Codge Ltd. so we took our time, hoping to get it right. We started with the side window as the back windows, although smaller,  have to be done as a pair, to ensure they line up correctly.

The first stage was to remove the metal reinforcement from the window recess with an angle grinder. This involved a lot of noise and sparks and a quick cycle down to the builders merchants after 5 minutes of trying to cut using a grinding disc, to buy a cutting disc (see my earlier comment abut never having the right tools in there garage).

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Once the reinforcement was off, we made a rough cut of the aperture with a jigsaw.

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The hard part is getting the final cut the right size, as the recess that guides you is on the inside of the van but you have to cut from the outside. Professionals use special tools like electric shears that allow them to work from the outside while following the recess on the inside, while amateurs tend to create a template that they draw round on the outside of the van with a marker pen and then follow with the jigsaw. We came up with our own, more accurate, method which was to drill a number of holes from the inside following the line of the recess and then join these holes up with a marker pen on the outside. We drilled more holes around the curves to ensure they were accurate. This worked really well-mostly.

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We then applied Hammerite to the cut edge to rust-proof it and had some lunch while we waited for this to dry.

Once the final cut was done, we thought the worst was over but this was not the case. There as more stress to come. We cleaned the window and used what is called Window Activator-no idea what this is or what it does but it comes as a little wipe in a sachet with the fitting kit. The best part of this stage was lying a large sheet of bubble wrap on the kitchen floor to receive the window and then walking over the bubble wrap in heavy boots. What a great and terrifying noise it makes – try it. We then had to apply glass primer to both the edges of the glass and the metal. This dripped a bit in a way that it did not on the professional videos and got all over our hands as we stupidly did not use the plastic gloves provided. Ridiculously we made the same mistake again when we fitted the rear windows three days later.

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The glass bonding comes in tubes and is applied using a mastic gun. When Dave pierced the tube with a screwdriver, he did not pierce the whole thing and consequently struggled to squeeze the bonding out of the tube onto the metal-rookie error. We thought this would be the easy part-the professionals make it look very straightforward-but it was actually really hard to apply the bonding all around the large aperture in one smooth line.  Dave’s arms were aching from squeezing the bonding through the inadequate hole. Although we knew that the bonding does not form a skin for an hour, there was a sense of panic to get it done as quickly as possible.

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Finally, we offered up the window to the aperture and pressed it on. I was left holding on the window with both hands while Dave, seemingly at a snail’s pace, cut and applied the tape to hold it while it dried.

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It looked great and we felt really proud of our work…briefly.

From the outside it looked amazing and completely professional. Inside was a different story though, We realised on closer inspection that we should have cut the aperture to be completely  flush with the inner skin of the window recess. While we had done this on the most part, some areas of the aperture had 2-3mm of extra metal that should not be there. We presumed this would be covered by the rubber trim that had been supplied for this purpose. However, when Dave came to apply the trim it would not go on evenly over both skins and definitely had an air of Odge, Bodge and Friends about it, with a wavy finish. We removed the trim and found it went well over just the cut edge of the inner skin leaving unfinished edges on the outer skin where we had removed the reinforcement with the angle grinder. We decided to call it a day and take a walk to the chippy. Tomorrow was another day.

After 24 hours of recriminations about the standard of our finish, I remembered watching our hero Greg Virgoe applying his window trim, after the professional fitted his glass, so I went back and rewatched the video. He refers to using 9mm trim to ensure it goes over both skins. We had 6mm trim. My superior and obsessive internet search skills came into play seeking out a trim that would work for us. We ordered some and waited but sadly when it came it didn’t fit.  However, I realised when examining photos of other vans on Pinterest that most people build a window frame around their windows to give a nicer finish so the trim does not show. So I have moved on and stopped worrying about it. We took the weekend off in between fitting the side and rear windows. The weather has been great so we enjoyed the rare Welsh sunshine and moved on to discuss the next stage of the build. On Monday we returned to window fitting, older and wiser. This time we were faster and it was much less stressful. We used the right disc on the angle grinder, made sure to cut the apertures flush with the outer skin, we pierced the bonding tube properly and found that the trim went over both inner and outer skin to give a perfect finish as there gap between the skins is less on the rear windows. However, we did apply a bit too much bonding on the offside window, a bit too close to the edge so we have some trimming to do with a Stanley knife when it is completely set. No harm done though.

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It’s great to have the windows in. They look so cool from the outside and they bring in much-needed light inside the van. So next we focus on installing the electrics and solar and gas systems. We have a heavy shopping list of expensive items for this. We also ordered the roof fans yesterday which are out of stock till the end of the month due to the huge demand. It seems the world and his dog are building a campervan this summer.  We also have to make a decision about the canopy/awning, which needs to be installed before the solar panels go on the roof. I am still in disbelief that a wind-out canopy costs around 700 quid, campervan accessories are so expensive but more about that next time.

 

 

 

 

 

Sawthingsclearer Reborn with a New Trusty Steed

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Many of you will recall the trip we did 5 years ago across the USA and Central America on our Triumph Tiger 955, Silver. It was without doubt the best experience of my life so far. Since then we have been living and working in the pressure cooker of Hong Kong. We have managed a few shorter motorcycle trips including two weeks on the North Island of  New Zealand in 2016 on a rented bike.

A month in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada in 2017 also on a rented bike…
…and quick trips to Ireland and Northern Spain/Portugal on our Triumph Tiger 800 bought in 2017 to fill the gap left by the sale of our glorious Silver.

The work-focused life in Hong Kong combined with some health problems has caused us to reflect on how we want to spend our future and a year ago we took the decision to retire from work this summer, buy a campervan and spend a few years travelling around Europe looking for the right place to eventually settle and buy a forever home. While motorcycling will always be part of our life together and we still have our  Triumph Tiger 800 here in the UK, we have found that long days spent on the bike and nights spent in a tent are taking an increasing toll on our middle-aged bodies and impacting negatively on our enjoyment of travelling. We always knew we would move over to a campervan one day but imagined that would not be until we were into our 70s. However, we find we want to travel and sleep in more comfort and be able to camp all year round, in all weathers, so we took the decision to move to a campervan and keep the bike for shorter jaunts.

The original plan, conceived a year ago, was to buy a professionally converted van. We had our eyes on a Swift Select 122. We love how light it is inside and the rear lounge layout, which allows you to lie on the sofa with the barn doors open, admiring the view. We spent the winter months in Hong Kong (yes they do have a winter there) obsessively checking Autotrader, fixating on vans generally and watching van life videos on Youtube.  We planned to purchase a Select 122 as soon as we arrived back in the UK in June and spend the first few weeks visiting family and friends before heading off for the continent. Then COVID 19 hit and the realisation gradually dawned upon us that this might not be the best plan. Back in March we were not sure how quickly borders would open up and we are still unsure about whether there might be a second or third wave that could cause borders to close again. I have a health condition that makes me more vulnerable to complications from the virus so we want to be as safe as possible. At first, it was a huge blow to acknowledge that our plans would have to change but like everyone else during this time, we have adapted and come up with a new idea.

Dave and I agreed that the safest option would be to return home to the UK for a period of at least 6 months to wait things out. We have not lived in the UK for 15 years so that was a big decision. At some point, and I cannot remember exactly when or how this happened if I am honest, we decided that, rather than buy a professionally converted van, we would build our own. Our reasons were threefold- firstly, it would give us something to do while we were waiting out the virus; secondly we could spec the van with higher quality components than you usually get in a shop bought vehicle, such as lithium batteries, bigger solar panels, an oven and a better fridge and finally, we could build a van with a fixed bed in the back which allows for a lot more storage space underneath than that offered by a Select 122. This will allow us to take all kinds of shit with us to enhance our life on the road, including an electric guitar and small amp (yes really).

So the decision was made and the next stage was to spend the remaining weeks of self-isolation in Hong Kong researching the kind of van we needed to meet our needs. A simple task you would think but nothing is ever easy in the world of the campervan when one of you is 192cm tall. We eventually realised that, in order for Dave to be able to lie flat in bed, we would have to position our bed along the length of the van rather than across the width, which means that, if we are to fit in a shower and kitchen, we will need a long van- what is called an L4. Also, in order for Dave to stand up in the van (or almost stand up) we would need a tall van- what is called an H3. While Mercedes Sprinters are the vans of choice for most larger van conversions these days, we were initially considering investing in a brand new Fiat Ducato or Citroen Relay as there were many bargains to be had during the lockdown in the UK, placing them around ten thousand pounds cheaper than a new Sprinter.

It was only by chance that one day less than a month ago I happened upon a vanlife forum post that referred to the impossibility of registering a right hand drive commercial vehicle on the continent of Europe, due to the sliding door being on the wrong side for safe use. We realised that, sadly but unavoidably, this van we plan to convert cannot be our forever van if we eventually move to Europe. When we move, we will need to sell the van either as a campervan conversion or deconstruct it and sell it as a van with windows and then possibly build another left hand drive vehicle for future use. It is just too risky to invest so much cash in the base vehicle if we are not going to be able to keep it forever and if there is uncertainty about how much we will get back on it in 3-4 years time. We did briefly consider sourcing a left hand drive van but it proved to be too complicated and expensive, so we pivoted again and decided to buy something secondhand to reduce the potential loss on resale.

The advantage of deciding to buy something used is that a Mercedes Sprinter was now on the table. They are generally considered to be much better vans than pretty much anything else on the market so this quickly became our first choice. On returning to the UK three and a half weeks ago, we had to wait out our quarantine before we could start looking. Our first trip out was to view a selection of ex-police vehicles at a dealer in the Midlands. Although they only had one Sprinter, we had high expectations and set off with Jason for a five hour round trip on a gloomy British summer’s day. We stopped for socially distanced tea and toast along the way as cafes in England are now open both outdoors and indoors. Our hopes of buying the first van we saw were dashed by the general poor quality of the vehicle which had clearly lived a hard life. It did come with a cell in the back though.

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We were almost tempted to the ambulance but it had done 250,000 miles already

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Jason in his special car inspection outfit searching for rust

Over a very late fried breakfast at a classic greasy spoon, we identified a place nearby that specialised in selling on Sprinters that had been used by a courier company. The rain poured down as we were shown around a huge yard full of vehicles in the process of having liveries removed and being tarted up to sell. They were all in need of a lot more than a bit of TLC. We were shown one van covered in dents, with a partially ripped off front bumper and damaged rear doors. It came with no service history but the promise that damaged doors and bumpers would be replaced if we were interested. On the drive home, we decided we were not, the price was good but the van was not.

Fortunately, within a couple of days we located a dealer in Manchester that sold on ex lease vehicles for Mercedes Benz, most of which had been used by the health service. We viewed four Sprinters, none more than 5 years old, all in decent condition and chose a 2015 Silver Sprinter 313 cdi LWB. We drove it home that day.

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Dave managed to clip the van on his right with the back end as he pulled out. Not a good start.

So there we are, we have a van. It is sitting on the drive of our rented house in North Wales waiting for us to start work on it. We have taken it out for a drive today to do some chores and it seems great.

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Man in his van

It is big but Dave says it is easy to drive. I plan to have a go myself in the next few days. It is full of potential and the holder of our hopes and dreams. I can’t wait to get started but more about the next time.

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Son of Silver or “Silver” to his friends

 

NZ December 2017 Days 1 and 2-Auckland to Coromandel

We spent a quiet day in Auckland city centre after our flight arrived. Dave has been ill for a few days so it was a case of conserving energy and resting up.

Randal from Auckland Motorbike Rental came to collect us from the lovely Skycity Grand Hotel this morning and drive us 45 minutes to the coast to collect the bike. He was a friendly, chatty guy with more than 10 bikes in his garage. We were well prepared and managed to load up the bike in 30 minutes, with all the camping gear fitting in very easily, almost too easily. We have rented a Yamaha Super Tenere this time,as Dave wants to try it out with a view to trading in the Ducati in Hong Kong for something Japanese that is cheaper to maintain.

It was a brilliant blue sky day. The temperature was perfect. We rode along the coast from Maraetai to Thames, at the foot of the Coromandel Peninsula, where we stopped for tea.

The people were amazingly friendly and welcoming. Everyone raves about the road to Coromandel Township and warned us about the narrow, twisty bends. The road hugs the coast, right alongside the beach. It was really beautiful but we experienced a heavy shower and the sea turned grey for a while.

As we ascended up the mountain, the views down to the coast where stunning. It reminds me a bit of Ireland but the weather is much better and the flora is very different, in fact, unlike anything I have seen before.

The campsite at Long Bay is right on the beach. We pitched our tent about 15m from the water’s edge.

It became quite busy in the afternoon with locals swimming in the sea and relaxing. The atmosphere was good but much improved when only the campers were left at the end of the day. We cooked and fell asleep in the sunshine.

The time difference compared to Hong Kong, at this time of the year, is 5 hours, which works out well for us as the jet lag means we are able to stay awake till 10pm or later and get up as late as 8am. Like normal people.

First day review of the bike. Dave thinks it lacks power and is too heavy. I think it sounds like a tractor but it’s very comfy for a pillion. It is hard to get on when the side boxes are fitted though. Not very dignified.

The first night in the tent was not great as my body has to get used to it. I kept waking up with painful shoulders and turning over. I do love being in the tent though. There is something magical about getting into you nightie and snuggling down into the sleeping bag, while hearing the sound of the sea outside.

We went into town for a big breakfast, rather than cook and made contact with the internet.

We had planned to have an active day involving a walk but the weather closed in and it rained most of the day. It was fairly warm though. We stayed around the campsite reading and cooking and Dave had several naps.

Just as it looked like a totally uneventful day, magical happened just before bedtime. The sky began to slowly turn orange, then more orange and then some more (no filters or photoshop).

Seeing Things Clearer-USA, Mexico, Central America 2015-16

This is my final post of this trip. We left Berlin on 10th July last year, riding to London and flying from Heathrow on 17th July to Boston. We then rode 28,000 miles across the USA, Mexico and Central America to Panama and then back to the US border and onto Houston. 9 countries and 30 US states. It is good to get some perspective, a month after returning,to see the whole thing in its entirety. I can honestly say it is the best thing I have ever done in my life. It still feels painful to remember the best times. If I came into some money unexpectedly, I would go back and do it all again tomorrow, without a moment of hesitation, possibly indefinitely.

People have asked about the best places so here is a quick rundown and in no particular order.

Memphis, Tennesseegrace 1Big Sur, CaliforniaSAMSUNG CSCIdyllwild, CaliforniaSAMSUNG CSCBaja California, Mexicocropped-20151016024740_sam_1496.jpgGuanajuato, MexicoSAMSUNG CSCThe Highlands and Antigua Guatemalawp-1450816699515.jpgSAMSUNG CSCGranada, NicaraguaSAMSUNG CSCCosta Rica Beaches and WildlifeSAMSUNG CSCArizonaSAMSUNG CSCUtahhelen canyonlandsApart from these places, the things I loved the most were waking up feeling excited; the sense of incredible freedom; meeting friendly people (especially in the USA); speaking Spanish (badly); being outdoors all the time; going to sleep in the tent, in the darkness; riding through amazing landscapes; seeing creatures and of course, sharing it all with Dave. We have been together over 20 years but our bond is now stronger than ever.

The things that have left the biggest impression on me include the spring sunshine in Arizona with endless clear, blue skies and the fresh, mountain air at 6000 feet and above. I fell in love with one place above all-Idyllwild, California. The place where pine cones are as big as your foot and the town is thick with hippies. If a visa was possible, I would seriously retire there to a log cabin on the mountain. I can definitely see a future where we spend part of the year there. I can also see us driving an RV with a motorbike strapped to the back, spending winters in Arizona. I cannot imagine we will not go back to the USA. It is now part of me.

What have  I learned? Everything is possible if you plan and work hard at it. The countryside is where I am happiest. I am very lucky (but I knew that already). I am excited to return to this lifestyle eventually. I now know what retirement will look like but before that I have to go to Hong Kong and make some money. Until then though, I am definitely seeing things clearer.

The Last Leg-North Carolina to Houston 14th-21st May 2016

It is over a month now since we left the USA and flew to Hong Kong and then back to the UK. We have been briefly to both Berlin and Lanzarote since then and have travelled across England from London to Burnley and stopped over in North Wales for a night. It has all been a whirlwind and a hard transition; going from living like vagabonds, wild and free to assimilating back into a normal life. It is great to be able to catch up with so many people and also to rest. I only realised after the trip was over, just how exhausting it was.SAMSUNG CSCOur trusty steed Silver arrived back yesterday, having been on a ship for a few weeks and so it seemed the right time to conclude the blog; charge up the camera to retrieve the last few photos and draw a line, very regrettably under the whole thing.

We did not lose momentum during the last 10 days, we hung on to every last minute. We dipped into South Carolin and then North Carolina, spending a night in Asheville. A hip city that seemed very liveable. We stayed in a cute Airbnb and sat out on the porch in true southern style listening to the cicadas and enjoying the warm evening air.SAMSUNG CSCThe Great Smoky Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world and they are stunningly green. It was sad to leave them.SAMSUNG CSCWe managed a last night of camping at another stunning lake.

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Then we headed to Savannah, Georgia. What a great place this is. The residential architecture is very unique and in many places quite run down but there is loads of atmosphere and the people are very friendly. We stayed in another cool Airbnb.

SAMSUNG CSCThe city was astonishing though in that is was so reminiscent of London. I felt the historical presence of the British more than I have anywhere in the USASAMSUNG CSC

SAMSUNG CSCWe spent a couple of hours in the evening wandering around the stunning squares of amazing architecture against a backdrop of oak trees dripping with moss.SAMSUNG CSCWe then move onto Jacksonville, Florida for a couple of nights. The city is nothing special but we had tickets to see one of our heroes, comedian and political commentator Bill Maher. It was great to see him in the flesh. We then headed to New Orleans. We had hoped to arrive there earlier and spend more time but we had spent so much time in the Deep South dodging thunder storms and time ran out. However, we spent one night and saw a fair bit as well as enjoying 2 or 3 bars.2016-05-16 21.17.39-2SAMSUNG CSCNew Orleans is extraordinary and is a place I would like to return. The buildings in the centre are stunning and the place has a party atmosphere, even on a Monday night.SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSC2016-05-16 22.51.19What I liked more though was the residential area where we stayed, about 15 minutes walk from the French Quarter. The streets are lined with shotgun shacks, painted in bright colours and there are plenty of cool bars and cafes to sit outside.

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The roads are full of potholes and the place has a shabby feeling (it is not that safe late at night) but the atmosphere is unforgettable.

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And so we set off for our last, long ride from New Orleans to Houston-about 350 miles. We stopped at our last Starbucks. We must have frequented more Starbucks across the USA than anyone else over the last 10 months. We have enjoyed their free WiFi and English Breakfast Tea and they have always been a port in a storm-sometimes literally.

SAMSUNG CSCHouston is a massive city. It felt quite overwhelming.SAMSUNG CSCWe made it to our accommodation safely, feeling very relieved.

2016-05-17 21.55.06We had booked an apartment for 4 nights where we could have easy access to shopping malls and hairdressers to enable us to transition into school teachers for the visit to Hong Kong.SAMSUNG CSCWe rode Silver to the warehouse and waved him goodbye.wp-1463690132432.jpgAnd so it was over. 28,000 miles, 10 months, 9 countries. A trip of a lifetime.  I will blog a final summary in the next couple of days and will save my closing comments for then.

 

The Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee-May 6-9th, 2016

So after much doubt and hassle, we finally made it to the Great Smoky Mountains. We were rained off here last August and it felt like unfinished business, plus this is one of the best places in the country to see black bears. So it was worth a visit and a last attempt to see bears before we leave. Dave managed to fix the surging problem with the bike, although it was touch and go and we nearly turned back towards Houston. We passed very near the other Birmingham (Alabama) on the way, which felt strange.

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It has been a busy weekend, due to Mother’s Day but we had booked the campsite in advance and they gave us by far the best spot, right on the river. Although all the gushing did keep us awake at night.

SAMSUNG CSCAlthough the mountains here are pretty small, I cannot remember ever having been anywhere greener (and that includes North Wales).

SAMSUNG CSCThe mountains are impressively forested.

SAMSUNG CSCSo what you all want to know is did we see a bear? The answer is no. We saw 7!! We waited till after the weekend rush and rode up into the national park this morning. As we approached the car park at Cades Cove, there was a crowd of people on the grass verge, all looking into the forest. I jumped off the bike and joined them. I saw three bears, two climbing a tree about 50m away. Three rangers were trying to keep the people at a safe distance and sounding horns to scare the bears away. The bears were quite small and very black. We rode on, scanning the meadows (seen in the photo above). We saw a few wild turkeys. Two or three cars in front of us then stopped and seemed to be pointing to the right. I couldn’t see anything and we nearly drove on when Dave pointed to the undergrowth on the left, literally only 5 feet away from the bike, there was a small, brownish bear, tucking into what looked like clover. He was so intent on what he was doing and did not seem to notice us.

SAMSUNG CSCHe looked just like Paddington (I know he is a Spectacled Bear from Peru), with very tiny eyes, that made him look quite vulnerable. It was really thrilling.We followed the same three cars for the next 8 miles, painfully slowly, scanning the meadows and trees. We saw some deer.

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Just before we arrived at the end of the loop we saw a group of cars parked along the road and people with cameras. There in the forest about 20m away was another group of three bears, what looked like a mother and two large cubs. They were walking towards us. We were safe in the knowledge that we could ride away on the bike but everyone else was on foot, probably stupidly close (all the signs tell you to stand at least 50 yards away).

SAMSUNG CSCSo we were really lucky. After several near bear encounters last year, we finally saw bears in our last few days. I remember the day I saw a wild tiger in India, like it was yesterday and I know I will remember this day forever.

Jackson, Mississippi to Huntsville, Alabama1st-6th May 2016

It has been an odd week with little achieved, due to problems with the bike and the weather. We ended up in Jackson, Mississippi for 4 nights while Dave sorted out a change of the steering head bearings and we waited for thunderstorms to pass. We moved from the scary downtown area to a posh part of town to the north and got a good deal on a hotel suite where we could cook. We watched lots of TV and cooked lots of curries and got a lot of sleep.

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Dave did well with the bearings, sourcing a similar bearing  that is used in a Toyota car from AutoZone and changing it on the carpark in the pouring rain. He managed to get it in with the help of a shed load of grease.

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We moved on to a wonderful campsite on a lake in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in northern Mississippi.

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This must be the furthest away from traffic we have camped the whole trip. There was no distant car noise and at night the place was truly magical with only the sounds of owls in the trees and fish jumping in the lake.

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It was also a great place for yoga.

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We managed out cheapest day of the trip at $37, including the cost of doing the laundry.

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The next day we travelled via Tupelo to visit Elvis’s birthplace. Tupelo is now a huge town and it was hard to get a feeling for what the area would have been like when Elvis lived there but is was good to see the shack he grew up in and get a feel for what his life was like as a child.

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I particularly enjoyed reading accounts of people who knew him back then, describing him as shy and also recounting how, when he received his first guitar for his birthday, he really wanted an air rifle. We both got to sit on the swing on the porch. I am sure it is not the same swing but it was still fun. SAMSUNG CSC

Unfortunately, the weather turned bad again and we had to seek refuge in a hotel for the night in Huntsville, Alabama. The rain poured down, in a tropical fashion, while we stayed cosy indoors and ordered takeout food from the local Chinese restaurant. I love the fact that it is the normal thing here to order food into your hotel room. All rooms also have microwaves for heating leftovers.

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This dog enjoyed barking at us as he drove past

Yesterday we left on the final leg of the journey to the Great Smoky Mountains. The bike has been “surging” for a few days and Dave has been trying to sort it out (suspected transmission problem of some kind). After 40 minutes on the road, he decided it was too serious to continue and we had to head back to Huntsville and check into another hotel. Another takeaway meal, a few episodes of Masterchef and a bottle of wine helped to ease the disappointment. So today, we have to make a decision about whether we are going to make it to the mountains or not. The journey back to Houston (where both us and the bike depart from), via New Orleans, is about 800 miles but if we head to the mountains and then back it is 1600 miles. The weather is set to be great for the next few days and whatever decision we make we will try to make the most of it. Just 17 days till we fly out.

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Dallas, Texas to Jackson, Mississippi 23rd-29th April 2016

Of the three days we spent in Dallas, we worked for two of them and at the end I delivered 47,000 words to my two thesis supervisors.  I am now applying for permission to deliver my thesis early. Fingers crossed this is granted. On the third day, we went to visit the assassination site of JFK. This was one of only two things that Dave specifically want to do in the whole of the USA. We had a lovely lunch in a great New York style deli and then wandered over to the site. On the way we passed the memorial to JFK. It felt underwhelming.

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The first thing that strikes you about the assassination site is how much smaller, closer and compact it is than it appears on the footage. The Book Depository and the “grassy knoll” are just a few metres away from where the bullets struck.

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The Book Depository

Neither Dave nor I are supporters of the “single gunman” theory or the findings of the Warren Report. For this reason we agonised about whether to go into the museum on the 6th floor of the former Book Depository which, apparently, fails to mention at all that there may be other theories about how the President died. Some campaigners on the internet ask you to boycott this museum. In the end our minds were made  up for us by the long queues (even on a Monday).

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The road where the assassination took place

It is very sad and moving standing there looking at the piece of road where JFK was shot. I don’t automatically feel sad at these kinds of places but I did here. I wondered whether the world would be different now if JFK had lived and likely served two terms. We will never know.

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The grassy knoll to the left under the trees

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The site of the assassination with the Book Depository in the background on the left

The centre of Dallas reminded me a lot of Manchester close up. There are quite a few redbrick buildings,  very reminiscent of the town centre around China Town in Manchester and they have the same tram system. The skyline is quite different though. I found it to be a low key place. We enjoyed our few days there.

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We have had to be flexible since we left Dallas as there has been a lot of bad weather which we have successfully dodged. We don’t mind a bit of rain or even a light thunderstorm but we do not want the tent to be blown away in a tornado and we have managed to avoid the worst of the weather using the internet. We did see a great couple of dust devils on the road though.

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We are now out of the desert and cannot believe how green it is here. The landscape is just like home. The grass pollen is very high, however, and I have suffered a bit with hay fever.

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Over the last three days we have passed through Louisiana and Mississippi. It is very interesting here. There are lots of shacks. Many sell crawfish, catfish and jumbo shrimp but many are also lived in by poor people, mostly African-Americans. The poverty is more akin to what you see in Asia and I have certainly not seen anything like it in western Europe. It is very sad. The people are amazingly friendly though. Everyone is interested in us and I come  out of every shop or gas station with a huge grin.

One of the two highlights of the past few days has been Natchez. This is a town on the banks of the Mississippi. The motto of this state is “The Birthplace of America’s Music” which is reference to the blues which grew out of the Mississippi delta.

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We crossed the Mississippi back in August when we left Memphis and it was good to see it again.

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Natchez was once one of the richest towns in the USA and there are more plantation homes here than anywhere else in the country.

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The centre of town is very Georgian looking and I kept thinking I was in Leominster or somewhere similar in the UK.

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We had a great night out there, met a few other travellers, had a few beers and a Thai meal. I am very interested in architecture and wanted to visit some Antebellum homes, from the 1830-1860 period but when I researched them I felt a little uncomfortable to see how these houses are visited just for their beauty with no reference to the historical context of slavery, the exploitation from which this great wealth developed. Sadly this has put me off wanting to visit any of the big plantation homes. I did learn in my research that the British were mostly responsible for bringing slaves to the USA, firstly to support tobacco production in the Virginias and later with sugar cane and cotton in the Deep South. The biggest slave owners were mostly of British descent, some owning over 1000 slaves. Three quarters of people who lived in the south did not own slaves, however.

Our best day this week was yesterday, as this was the only day we have had guaranteed good weather and been able to camp. We passed through a town called Waterproof. There was a prison there and the whole scene was reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption. The area was quite poor and very remote and I was a bit concerned about staying there at first but the campsite was stunning and well used.

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We had our own little part of the lake to look out on.

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We saw quite a bit of wildlife, including large egrets, red and yellow birds, squirrels and anole lizards that puff their throats up red like they are blowing bubbles with gum. On the road today we also helped a terrapin, the size of a large tortoise that was stranded trying to cross  (in British English we have three words-tortoise, terrapin and turtle, whereas Americans seem to only use turtle). I also saw a large dead armadillo being eaten by vultures.

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Dave enjoyed the break. Reading his book in various positions.

SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSCThis campsite is owned by Louisiana state parks and includes electricity at each site, your own water tap, free WiFi and a laundry-all for just over 20 quid a night. We loved it there and felt very happy to be back sleeping in the outdoors.

So finally, we are today in Jackson, Mississippi. We need steering head bearings for the bike and managed to source some here but they will not arrive till tomorrow so we had to stay overnight. The people are lovely but the whole place is slightly scary. Two locals advised us not to stay here, including one skinny guy wearing a camouflage jumpsuit who looked like an archetypal methhead and chatted with me for quite a while outside AutoZone. So we are ensconced in our safe chain hotel the Comfort Inn, with our takeaway food waiting for tomorrow to arrive.

Our plans for the next few days are loose because of the weather but we are heading towards the Great Smoky Mountains. It would be good to be there in three days but who knows?