We’ve reached the final, epic part of this trilogy. This is a long one. Do stick with it…
So after 16 days, 1,500 miles and countless bottles of vino tinto our time in Contamina had come to an end. We’d seen the sights, befriended the locals and sampled the local wares. Frodo had cast the ring of power into the flames of Mordor and Orcs had been slain. What lay ahead was the simple task of crossing the Misty Mountains and driving the entire length of France in just over two days, before our boat left for Blighty on the Sunday morning. We knew we’d left ourselves a painfully long slog of a journey. We had briefly toyed with the idea of leaving lovely Contamina a day earlier to make things a little easier, but we’d soon dismissed that silly idea 😯 We’d just have to ‘man up’ and get on with it… If only we’d known what was to come…
It was around 8.30 AM by the time we finally said our goodbyes to lovely Contamina. The pueblo was mostly still asleep when Clara trundled down the main street. Flags rustled gently in the breeze and the temporary stage in the tiny square stood empty. All of that would soon change. The weekend fiesta would leap noisily into life later today, but for us it was goodbye. Until the next time. We had 900 miles between us and Calais and the more of those we could cover today the better the rest of our journey home would be. Our aim, which was a tad ambitious, was to get as near to the campsite we’d previously visited in Poitiers (500 miles away according to Natalia!!!). We weren’t overly optimistic of reaching Poitiers, but we’d just have to see how far north we could get before; (a) we got too tired, or (b) it got too late to find a campsite.
Clara swept through northern Spain without any issue. The roads were blissfully quiet and even our errant Natalia had directed us quite well (mostly!!!). The only real hold-up we had was crossing the border into France. We queued for a fair while and sadly it was just a taster of what was to come. Things were about to get a lot worse 🙁 The French autoroutes were crammed packed with traffic. Progress was slow and erratic. At times you’d be happily cruising along at 70mph and then you’d be sat stationary. This stop start pattern continued as we inched our way north towards Bordeaux. Time was ticking on now, we were already tired and we’d not even reached Bordeaux. We had to at least get beyond Bordeaux. We’d been stationary for so long now that motorists had started to get out of their vehicles to stretch their weary limbs. It was just crazy and in all the years we’d visited France, we’d never known traffic to be as bad as this 😯 If we didn’t have a boat to catch on Sunday morning we would have definitely pulled off the stupid autoroute and found a campsite. But we just couldn’t. We had to break the back of our long journey home today, to make tomorrow & Sunday less painful.
Unfortunately we failed on all of those previous points. We did finally get beyond Bordeaux, but fell well short of Poitiers. After 10 painful hours we simply couldn’t take any more. We rolled into a campsite and just prayed that the next day would be better. It wasn’t!!! It was a carbon copy of Friday. Just over 9 torturous hours on the road before we rolled into another campsite just south of Rouen. Two of the most horrendous days driving I’d ever had. We were now, thankfully, only a few hours from Calais, but I had another worry. It was Clara.
We’d noticed a few little splutters over the last two days. Clara had never done this before and when we rolled into our final campsite Clara’s engine suddenly died as I was talking to a guy on the campsite! She started up again straight away, but why had the engine died? I was a tad concerned to say the least and just hoped that things would be ok in the morning. We were up early (very early) and thankfully they were; Clara started just fine. So we made our way across northern France, through the rain towards Calais. Once more Clara gave us a few little splutters, but apart from that all was good. It was so good we even arrived in Calais early. We parked up at the docks in our lane and waited for our boat to arrive. We had so much time that we even managed to cook up some lunch. It was all going so well…
With our ferry now docked and emptied the cars around us all started their engines in readiness to board the boat. We did the same. We sat with Clara’s engine running for about five minutes waiting to be waved onto the ferry, and the engine died 😯 I quickly turned the key, but nothing. Clara wouldn’t start. I tried and tried and tried, but Clara had decided that enough was enough. She was going no further 😯 We were then waved onto the boat but could go nowhere. As cars streamed past us we frantically unloaded our luggage to be able to get a look into Clara’s engine bay. In desperation I reached for our trusty can of cure all ‘Easy-start’, but even that didn’t get Clara started. A French dock worker gave the engine a few knowing prods and pronounced a fuel problem. For whatever reason petrol was not getting into the engine. Had we run out of fuel? Did we have a leak? Was our fuel-pump knackered? We didn’t know. We knew we were fairly low on fuel, but Clara’s supremely accurate (!!!) gauge had read just below a quarter. In a last ditched attempt another dock working offered to give me a lift into Calais to get some more fuel. It was Sunday and Calais was shut. I returned empty handed and our ferry had now gone. Clara sat alone in the vast Calais docks. It was time to call our European breakdown people. And until our legal dispute is resolved I’m not going to name them…
It’s daunting enough taking a relatively new vehicle around Europe. Clara will be thirty years old next year, which is why we’d hunted out an insurance company that specialises in old ‘classic’ vehicles. I called them and was immediately met with negativity. ‘Where have you broken-down, in the docks? You might not be covered there…’ We were, but it hadn’t been the best of starts. I then explained what had happened and answered a barrage of questions, and said something that I really wish I hadn’t… Just to confirm how amazingly reliable our beloved Clara is for such an old vehicle, I said that Clara had failed to start just once since we’d bought her. She’d been sat unused in extreme heat for almost a month which had caused her fuel-lines to evaporate. I’d just waved a great big red rag into the face of our breakdown bull…
‘Oh so you knew your vehicle had a fault?’
‘It wasn’t a fault.’
‘And you just get your mates to come round and do repairs?’
‘There weren’t any repairs to do. We sprayed it with Easy-start and she started. It wasn’t a fault.’
‘You knew you had a fault, yet you recklessly drove all the way to Spain?’
‘IT WASN’T A FAULT!!!’
‘You can’t expect to be covered if you’re getting ‘mates’ to come and repair your vehicle.’
‘IT WASN’T A FAULT!!! We bought our van in February with a full year’s service, full MOT and a ‘safe & well-being’ check.’
‘But that was 6 months ago…’
‘WHAT???!!! Am I supposed to get a new service every time I use the vehicle? Look this is getting silly. We just want to get home’
‘We can do it just this once, but we’ll have to charge you.’
‘What do you mean you’ll have to charge us?’
‘You’ll have to pay for the recovery.’
‘Why? We have European breakdown cover with you people.’
‘Because you knew your vehicle had a fault, you didn’t get it repaired professionally and yet you still drove to Spain.’
‘BUT IT WASN’T A FAULT. THERE WAS NO REPAIR…’
And this went on and on and on. More ferries came and went, while I got increasingly more irate with our insurance company. I doubt this blog has capital letters big enough for my level of rage 😯 In the end we agreed to pay. We had no other choice really. And the insurance company agreed to refund all of our costs if we can prove that our breakdown is a different fault to Clara’s only other non-start. It took almost seven hours and three missed ferries to reach this point. We had arguments with our ferry company (DFDS) who refused to tow us onto the boat. We were told at one point that even if we did manage to get onto a boat DFDS would refuse to tow us off and we’d end up back in Calais again. We even found ourselves on the back of a French tow-truck waiting to board a ferry, but DFDS refused to let the tow-truck on. It was beyond farcical. Eventually DFDS agreed to tow us on and off their 8.00PM ferry. We’d now been sat in Calais docks for eight hours!!! And just to rub a little Gaelic salt into our sore wounds, a car next to us in the queue also broke-down as we began to board. DFDS promptly towed their car onto the ferry and agreed to tow them off too. Why, why, why they’d not done this with us eight hours earlier is beyond me 🙄
Even though we were now safely on the ferry, our long journey home was far from over, but I’m going to wind things up. It’s been a mighty long blog-post already. In short, we were loaded onto the back of a breakdown truck in Dover at 11.30PM, arrived in the breakdown depot in Luton at 3.00AM, unpacked Clara into a large courtesy van and finally arrived home at 5.00AM. We’d spent 22 hours getting home 😯 Clara was delivered back to us the following day.
As for our insurance company; our long and to the point letter is almost ready to send. A diagnosis of Clara’s breakdown has revealed a fuel-filter with large lumps of rust & debris inside. This debris can restrict the flow of petrol into the engine (which would explain the splutters) and can sometimes completely block the flow of fuel altogether. I will name and shame our so called ‘classic’ vehicle insurance company when they’ve decided whether to pay us our money back or not…