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Driving Miss Daisy

Published: 17/11/2010
Colene McKessick spent a weekend California dreaming

Get behind the gigantic wheel of a "traditional" vehicle

When I was a student, I always dreamed of packing up my bags and driving a classic VW campervan across the States – surfboard on the roof, and Beach Boys blaring from the stereo.

Pulling in to Classic Camper Holidays in Etterickbridge, Selkirk, on a cold, windy day, I knew my experience would be slightly different from my Californian fantasy.

My partner and I were going to be spending our weekend in the company of Daisy. Not a female of the Friesian variety, but a Danbury conversion of a 2010 VW T2 camper van. That's right, though she looks like a classic lady of the 1970s, Daisy is a relatively new kid on the block.

Seeing as neither my partner nor I were even a gleam in our parents' eyes in the 70s, we thought it best to opt for Daisy, with all of her retro styling and modern conveniences, over her vintage sister Heidi.

We were met by owner Mark Tuckwood, who talked us through Daisy's individual quirks and character traits. It all looked straightforward enough – the boot was packed full of every accessory you could possibly need including fold-out seats, a windbreaker, cooking utensils, wind-up lanterns and mats for sleeping. Inside, Daisy resembled a very retro studio flat, complete with gas hob, mini fridge (full of stove-friendly ingredients) and fold-down sofa bed, complete with Surfer Dude and Surfer Babe cushions. Oh yes, I thought, this is perfect.

Mark showed us the pop-up roof which could provide space for another bed, but seeing as my partner is 6ft 5in, we thought it would be better put to use as headroom for him. Mark asked if we'd brought bedding, and we told him that we'd brought a duvet with us. He hesitated for a moment and then swiftly showed us how the heater worked.

Everything explained to us, we packed all of our luggage into the back and prepared to leave. Mark had mentioned that should we need anything, there was a handbook in the glove box. Not that we'd need it, would we?

Approximately 10 miles down the road, we were rooting in the glove box. On leaving the base at Etterickbridge, we decided to make our way to Hawick, and found ourselves on a very windy single-lane road. Having just got behind the gigantic wheel of a "traditional" vehicle, I'd screamed roughly once every couple of minutes as a local sped past me, sure that I was going to be forced off the road. And so my partner demanded we pull over.

I yanked out the handbook and decided to familiarise myself with good ol' Daisy.

She has a 1.4-litre water-cooled petrol engine, and a four-speed manual gearbox. I'd noticed very quickly that the box was not sprung like a modern car – you really had to feel for the gears. If I failed to shove the stick fully into place, I was left hovering somewhere between second and third. Reverse was also a bit "tricky", as the guide put it, as the stick had to be pushed fully down and to the left, near where second would normally sit.

Otherwise, Daisy has disc brakes, and an auto choke, like modern cars. However, she had no power-assisted steering. That had become obvious as soon as we set off. The huge steering wheel travelled a fair bit right and left just to keep us in a straight line.

As we got back in, I took a glance at the "Stopping" section. "When you do brake, step on the pedal firmly – anything less will result in little braking response."

I didn't realise that I'd need to test that sentence a few yards down the road. As we approached a corner, we encountered some sheep at the side of the road, as we had done for the previous 20 miles. Instead of following the rest of its herd, however, one suicidal sheep leapt across the road as we appeared. One emergency stop, countless items thrown across the van, and two shaken passengers later, we continued on our journey.

We decided that because it was our first night in the van, perhaps staying at a camp site would be the best option. We parked up near the river at a campsite on the outskirts of Hawick, and settled down for the night. Stove on, pasta bubbling away, life in the van was cosy and relaxing. Having forgotten our laptop, we watched enviously as the camping pros next to us watched Saturday night TV on their LCD TV.

Curtains pulled tight, we bedded down for the night with the sounds of the river rushing past. I prayed that the dash-mounted handbrake wouldn't fail me, and that we'd still be on four wheels in the morning, and not sinking in the river below.

Sure enough, next morning, two very chilly campers awoke on dry, frosty land. Temperatures in sunny Scotland had dipped below freezing during the night, so our first stop on day two was to buy some thick sleeping bags.

On the road, I was finally starting to feel more confident behind the wheel of Daisy. We'd even started getting friendly waves from other drivers who smiled as they saw the retro-mobile. Driving west, we stopped in Gretna Green. While having a spot of lunch in the back of the van, we witnessing two wedding ceremonies at the famous Blacksmith's Cottage. Though Daisy would have made the perfect honeymoon getaway vehicle, we decided to leave matrimony for another day (sorry, Mum).

Later, we stopped in the centre of Dumfries, and I thought I'd been clever avoiding a multi-storey car park. What I'd not taken into consideration was a height limit barrier on an open car park. Cue a 25-point turn in a tiny space, with bewildered looks from passers-by. I couldn't feel my arms by the time we were facing the right direction again.

One of the major advantages of camping in Scotland is that it is legal to wild camp, unlike the rest of the UK. So long as you're sensible, park well off the road, and not on agricultural land, and leave the area as you found it, Scotland really is your oyster.

We passed through the town of Dalbeattie, and spotted a quiet woodland area with a clearing: perfect for the night. We parked up, took out the seats and enjoyed a rare spot of sun. We were enjoying the peace, and a pot of tea, when we were joined by a couple of inquisitive squirrels. It would appear VW Campers really do appeal to all.

As we took down our sun shades and opened the doors the next morning, my partner's culinary skills (illustrated by preparing a fry-up) enticed some local dog walkers. Initially attracted by the smell of bacon frying – the ultimate camping smell – they were overjoyed to meet Daisy and regaled us with tales of childhood camping holidays.

At our next stop, we began to feel like minor celebrities. Having worked our way round the Cream o' Galloway Visitor Centre, we decided to head back to the van to enjoy their delicious ice cream. However, when we arrived back at the car park, Daisy was nowhere to be seen. Instead, all we could see was a crowd of people gathered around her. As we approached, we were interrogated and forced to give an access all areas tour. I swear if this van had eyelashes, she would bat them at passers-by. As we drove through the Borders, the sun came out. And as I connected my iPod to the stereo, the Beach Boys booming out, I felt as though my student dream had come true. In fact, I was loath to make any stops as we made our way back to Selkirk for our final night. A flying visit to Moffat (I couldn't bypass the famous toffee shop, could I?), and a scenic break at St Mary's Lake, and we parked up at the sweetly named Honey Cottage near Selkirk.

Packing up our collapsing set of pans and whistling kettle, and pulling down our sofa bed for the final night, I realised that from my initial terrifying journey, to fighting over directions, and very nearly needing rescuing outside a car park, I'd come to love Daisy. Whether giggling each time I beeped the horn as I struggled to turn the huge wheel, or welcoming squirrels at dinnertime, we'd had a blast.

As we pulled in to the base at Ettrickbridge (much more smoothly than we took off, I must admit), I didn't want to hand back the keys. Looking back at our weekend, driving Miss Daisy had been an utter joy.

See the article online:
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