Clara goes home from the Alsace

So, for the benefit of any newcomers or readers who have simply forgotten all the complicated details of my previous, somewhat lengthy, blog post. We’d had a rather eventful drive through Europe in Clara, our much loved, but rather temperamental VW campervan. Her starter-motor  (démarreur) had packed up on the morning of our ferry crossing (unbeknown to us) and we’d bump-started Clara all the way down to Alsace!!! We’d then spent most of our weeks stay waiting for Clara to get fixed. Our campsite had been truly idyllic, and we’d met some lovely and hugely helpful people. Sadly though, when Monday morning arrived and it was time for us to hit the road once more, it really felt like we’d had no real holiday at all.

Our original plan had been to begin our journey north on the Sunday. Giving us two days before our ferry crossing on Tuesday morning. Thanks to Clara’s woes, we’d extended our stay at the lovely La Sténiole campsite and now had a rather lengthy drive ahead of us. Clara did now have a shiny refurbished d?marreur and to make our journey north a little easier, we’d decided to book a hotel room in Lille for the night. With our Tuesday morning ferry crossing at 10:45, we basically needed to get as near to Calais as possible today. Lille was just an hour shy of Calais and according to Google a five hour drive from our current location. These timings and details would spectacularly change as our day unfolded, but for now we were not overly  fazed by the journey ahead. Our only real concern was having to say goodbye to our lovely campsite and all of the new friends we’d met. Maybe we’d return to La Sténiole again someday? Quite possibly in a more reliable campervan!

Just to add to the wrench of leaving, the weather as we hit the roads north was glorious. Easily the hottest day of our holiday so far. We meandered our way down from our forest campsite in the midday sun and soon hit the road north to Nancy, Metz and Luxembourg. Google had predicted a five hour drive today. Natalie, our trusty seldom used sat-nav, that gets dusted down for our European adventures predicted something a little closer to six hours. We figured Natalie was a little out of date and was maybe unaware of newer, faster roads. As it turned out Google and Natalie were both a long, long way from the truth.

After a few hours on the road we decided to pull into a rather shabby service-station just short of the Luxembourg border. We needed lunch. A spot of shade would’ve been nice, but all of that had been taken. A patch of grass with two picnic benches and a toilet block that resembled a military bunker. As French aires go, this was a pretty poor example. We parked Clara under the blazing sun, wound all the windows down to hopefully get a bit of breeze and settled down to our much welcomed lunch. I even used the toilet block. Maybe an abandoned military bunker would be a more accurate description 😯

Our stop had lengthened our journey time somewhat, but we felt confident we could claw some of that time back (even in Clara!) once back on the roads. Clara had other ideas and spluttered and died before we’d even made it out of the military bunker carpark!

Shit! What’s wrong?’ Tracy asked.

I knew instantly what the problem was… ‘It’s the fuel problem again.’

Clara’s ‘fuel problem’ had plagued us since the day we bought her almost three years ago. Something causes the engine to splutter and die. Fuel lines in the engine would be dry of petrol and the only way to restart her was to manually put a splash of fuel into the carburetor, or to pop a dirty fuel-pipe into my mouth and give it a good suck. Always pleasant 😯 I carry a syringe in Clara for these very moments. Moments like ‘Clara goes to Rochdale’, ‘Clara goes to Ripley‘, ‘Clara goes to Spain’ and ‘Clara goes to Staffordshire’. On every one of these stressful breakdowns, the problem had been the fuel and despite having replaced fuel-lines, fuel pump, fuel filters and battery, the problem clearly still existed! The only possible suspect part that we havent replaced is the fuel tank. Undoubtedly full of thirty years worth of gunk, swishing around inside the old tank and quite possibly causing the blockage of the fuel filters? We really didn’t know for sure if this was the cause, but did carry a few new fuel filters with us just in case.

With Clara pushed to the side of the road we dumped a weeks worth of luggage onto the grass. One of the few drawbacks with Clara’s rear engine. I then slid myself under Clara and set to work. It’s a job I’ve done way too many times. In fact, if Formula 1 cars every feel the need to replace their fuel filters during their lightening pit-stops, I’m your man. Most other jobs with a spanner and I’m definitely not. In no real time at all, one rather grubby fuel filter had been removed and replaced with a shiny new one. I’d even managed to fill a little jar with petrol without getting into too much mess. I had to throw much loved clothes away after the Rochdale incident! The syringe trick did work eventually, although it took a lot longer than it usually does and not without swallowing a bit of petrol too. Thanks Clara!!!

Back on the road once more and our ETA in Lille was now well beyond 6:00PM. Clara’s normal pootle speed was abandoned for something a little quicker. Luxembourg came and went a lot faster than it had on our drive south, thanks largely to empty roads and Clara’s new urgency to actually get somewhere. What now lay before us was Belgium; a lot of Belgium too. As we approached Dinant the roadworks began and we joined the back of a rather long queue of traffic. Here we stayed for a painfully long time. Inching forwards like a snail. The twenty minutes that we’d managed to shave off our journey had now been put back on again. We’d managed to get under two hours away from Lille. With the look of the current traffic God only knows how many hours it would take to reach our illusive hotel now?

Signs indicated that our motorway was being reduced to just one lane. It was stupidly hot, the traffic was hideous and drivers were getting understandably tired. Normal motorway rules had been abandoned as some vehicles sped up the hard-shoulder to reach the next exit, or to simply jump the queue a little. Most other cars were stubbornly sticking to the outside lane until the last possible moment. I’d stuck Clara on the inside lane, with all the lorries and that’s where we’d been stuck for an age. We began to craw up a hill and the one lane reduction was still nowhere in sight. Clara was getting hot now; we all were. Every time we stopped Clara’s radiator fan would whir into life. One eye was now fixed to the little temperature gauge in front of me, which for now, was perfectly fine. We just desperately needed to get moving again. The painful crawl up the hill continued. Clara’s fan continued to whir, but there was still no sign of any real movement up ahead. And then Clara died 😯 In the middle of a packed motorway 😯

I desperately tried to get her going again, but Clara had simply had enough. The horns started almost immediately. A broken down campervan blocking an already blocked motorway was the last thing our fellow motorists want. They were far from impressed. I leapt out and began pushing our two tonne campervan, uphill and towards the hopefully empty hard-shoulder. Once there I peered under Clara to check out her newly fitted fuel filter. All was good and the filter was full of clean petrol. Why had she died? Was this something to do with the newly refurbished démarreur (starter motor)? Could we bump-start Clara? It had to be worth a try. So with the top of the hill in sight we began the back-breaking job of pushing Clara up the hill. It was impossible. Even with Tracy’s help and me steering and pushing, the task was simply too great. After the stressful ‘holiday’ we’d already endured, it was finally time to admit defeat and call for help. We therefore donned our high-viz jackets, plonked a warning triangle on the road and reached for the phone.

The sun continued to beat down. We’d grabbed whatever hats we could find and were all huddled in the shaded side of Clara. It was the only shade available. Tracy relayed our woes to our breakdown people. Details were exchanged and the breakdown people promised to call us back. They didn’t. We’d waited so long Clara’s shaded side was now her rear. Tracy called them back and even more details were exchanged. They promised to call us back. As we continued to wait for either a phonecall or the sight of a breakdown truck, our thoughts turned to our hotel in Lille and to our ferry home in the morning. Making either of these looked highly unlikely at the moment. Even if Clara was fixed right here, we’d still struggle to reach Lille at a sensible time. If we were towed to a garage, as I suspected would happen, then who knew where that would be, or how long we’d be there? With these uncertainties Lille was cancelled. We’d have to take our chances and find another hotel somewhere. As for the ferry? If we missed it, we’d simply have to buy another ticket. Not ideal, but we couldn’t really think of any other alternative.

If no idea exactly how long we followed the shade around Clara. An hour maybe? Two hours? I think the heat had started to melt our brains a little. Thankfully a breakdown truck did arrive. We somehow managed to cobble together enough french to explain the problem and sure enough our french mechanic suspected a probléme de carburant. The dreaded ‘fuel problem’ again 🙄 Clara was eventually hauled up onto the back of a truck and driven to a nearby petrol station, where I was asked to refuel her. From there it was a short drive to Monsieur Mechanic’s garage. Our luggage was once more discarded onto the floor while Monsieur Mechanic fiddled in the engine. Moments later Clara was alive and sounding healthy once more. I tried to ask what the problem had been, but all I got in return was ‘panne d’essence.’

Driving north once more Tracy found the translation. ‘He thinks we ran out of petrol.’

Unless Clara’s fuel gauge is way out (not beyond the realms!) we hadn’t remotely run out of fuel. The euphoria in getting Clara fixed was soon replaced by that awful uneasy feeling that Clara could conk out whenever she felt like it. We were still a long way from home, a long way from Calais, had no hotel for the night, had a very unpredictable campervan and we were all unbelievably tired. Getting anywhere near Lille was now completely out of the question. We decided that, assuming Clara didn’t breakdown again, anything within three hours of Calais was doable. Yes it would mean an early start and yes that’s just the thing we wanted to avoid, but we were tired, hungry and wanted to stop.

On the outskirts of Charleroi we pulled over and searched the Internet for an affordable hotel, that hopefully still offered food. We found the Balladins hotel. Not the nicest we’ve ever stayed in, but we cared not a jot. At just after 9:00PM we order pizzas and Belgium beers to be delivered to our room. Before the welcomed refreshments arrived, Tracy leapt into the shower while I went to grab a few more items from Clara. I also decided to move Clara into a better parking spot. I reversed out and Clara died 😯 The end of my tether had well and truly been reached. I just sat there, in the middle of the carpark and actually cried a little! Not many things make me do that. Losing my beloved dog, the end of ET and watching Derby County have all pushed my stubborn manly emotions over the edge. Balladins carpark can now be added to that very short list. A passing family helped to push Clara back into the parking bay I’d reversed out of and I dejectedly trudged back to our hotel room, formulating Clara’s Ebay listing as I went. Our much loved flowery campervan had pissed me off big time. The prospect of attempting to get Clara started again tonight was unthinkable. We were all just too shattered. We’d just have to get up even earlier than we’d already planned to. Oh joy!

Before sheer exhaustion forced my eyes to close, I unearthed some rather intriguing information on Google. The Internet is full of people who’s vehicles splutter and die in extremely hot conditions. Not just old campervans either. Apparently some fuel pumps simply can’t cope when they get very hot and this really got me thinking about all the other times we’d had our ‘fuel problem’. Rochdale, Ripley, Spain and even the Staffordshire incident had all been during times of very hot weather; just like today. The weather tomorrow was predicted to be wet and colder. We’ve never been happier with such a forecast!

Sleep that night was predictably restless and alarmingly short. The alarm sounded at 5:00AM. I’d spent the night attempting to fix Clara in José Mourinho’s office, while Jonathan Ross (in a shirt with detachable sleeves) had taken Tracy to a celeb party. Yesterday’s sun had clearly affected me more than I realised 😯 5:00AM is never a good time in my book and it’s usually much later than this before I can basically function. The prospect of swallowing petrol at 5:00AM wasn’t really helping to wake me up, but I really wanted to get Clara started asap. So before breakfast I slipped out of the room and went out into the cold, wet carpark to give Clara a try. She started first time 🙂 I almost cried again, but this time with sheer joy. Our ferry crossing, that had looked so lost yesterday, was now a very real prospect again.

Breakfast for me had never tasted sweeter. Safe in the knowledge that today’s weather was cold and pretty confident that the heat had been the cause of all our previous fuel problems. The local builders at the next table had an even sweeter breakfast, as theirs was being washed down with glasses of the local Belgium beer. It was 5:30 in the morning!!! And I’d been worried about swallowing a splash of petrol 😯 Before most of Charleroi had woken up, one rather troublesome VW campervan trundled through the city, before disappearing on its way north to Calais. Driver, co-pilot and passenger all praying that the gloomy wet weather continued.


And now it’s time to wrap this rather epic tale up… Somehow, we made it onto our ferry. I spent the entire crossing a little shell-shocked that we’d actually made it. Tracy and Sawyer spent what leftover holiday money we had on sweets and wine in the gift shop. Clara behaved beautifully all the way home and is now awaiting a new electric fuel pump, which will hopefully eradicate this bloody fuel problem for good.

Does anyone want to buy a campervan?