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Contemporary Gypsies - supplement

We soon learned that insurers didn't like the van and “motorhome” combined use I have described above, so we now leave the accommodation units installed in the van permanently. In fact they take up so much room in the house, when removed, that we would leave them in the van anyway.

Building on the experience of several trial camping trips early last year, we made a succession of relatively small changes and one very large change. The former consisted of shortening the bunks: neither of us is tall, and I don't mind my feet hanging over the end of the bunk when stretched out. Few people sleep stretched out anyway, and I certainly don't. That enabled us to adopt a fixed driving and passenger seat position without our having to get out and alter the seats at bedtime. Fortunately the same seat position suits us both. I raised the large worktop, which also serves as a bedboard, to bunk level and this became a permanent feature in camping mode. In four-seater mode we remove this panel from the vehicle altogether, but everything else can stay in place. With the worktop and saddle removed in non-camping mode, the front seats can be adjusted to suit any driver.P1250481a

I refer to two rear seats whereas the vehicle was supplied with three. I have removed the third rear seat and used the space it took up, when folded, to accommodate a locker which can be accessed from the top. This saves us from having to jump up and down every time we want a frequently-used cooking item upon which one of us is sitting. The top of this locker lifts to comprise a raised back to the adjacent dinette seat.

A netting luggage rack fitted over the front seats is useful for keeping outdoor garments and spare bedding out of the living area, especially at night. Our Hi Vis safety jackets stow on the shelf under the net and remain in view. Making the net required me to add another trade to my repertoire, and I can now catch rabbits.

The traffic cone shown in the photo is not actually mounted on the bonnet, though this might be useful when disputing road space in France with the natives, who for some reason insist on driving on the wrong side of the road!

Exterior1The big change referred to above will be very evident from this picture. Boatbuilding being another of my some-time trades, we built a small plywood boat, sheathed it in g.r.p., and installed the “boat” upside-down on the roof. I cut out the roof under the boat to give us 180cm headroom , and more in way of the skylight. This has transformed the accommodation and there is even room for a bookcase each end. The raised roof is insulated, and we have experienced no condensation problems in the vehicle. I incorporated additional steel reinforcement into the roof structure in way of the penetration, and the increase in weight due to the raised roof, less what I have removed, is 25 kilos. Some of the previously exposed steelwork lower down in the vehicle is sheathed with wall carpeting, and we have microfibre curtains at the windows. We found we needed curtains to the upper windows as well as the lower ones, and in all we made and fitted 19 window curtains. We made three partition curtains in addition, as well as all the cushions. The cushions and backs are fitted with 50mm hard quality foam with fabric covering and piping, which is hard to do. Our Duvalays have 25mm memory foam bases, so this makes for 75mm of foam under the beds in total, which is sufficient.

Caught out in a frost early last year, with no heater and with summer-weight bedding, we resolved to fit a heater and equip our Duvalays with an extra 4.5 tog layer, which is removable, giving us the choice of 0, 4.5, 7.5 and 12 tog duvets in total. This should suit all circumstances. We also cut and remade the Duvalays to a narrower width to suit our bunks and take up less space. I've installed a Webasto diesel-fired heater which we use on cold evenings. On cold mornings I can turn it on from my bunk before getting up. We run the heater for short periods, which is ample, and we never leave it on overnight. At home we sleep with the window open throughout the year, anyway.

Some of the installation instructions and diagrams supplied by Webasto and two other equipment manufacturers including for the skylight - all German as it happens - are variously misleading and plain wrong. Some confidence, and liaison with the importers, is required to get the installation of these items right. The specified Webasto flue outlet for instance could set fire to dry grass under the vehicle, and the fuel connections supplied could fail to suck, or deny the engine fuel and cause it to stall - as has happened I am told (by the importers) to a BMW on a motorway. Not that we would ever drive with the van heater going. We take our fuel by standpipe through the top of the tank, independently from the engine fuel supply and I strongly recommend this practice.

We have full motorhome facilities except for 240 volts, which I abhor. We use a 12 volt coolbox which is stowed under the worktop. The large electrical load of this item is incompatible with the heater which requires a full battery to fire up and run. In practice we always run the coolbox when driving in camping mode, and in cold weather when we need the heater we don't need to supply the coolbox, and vice versa. So these items can co-exist. We have a 25 litres can of fresh water plumbed in and I've added an electric pump to the foot pump. I have moved the latter to reduce occasions for unexpected squirts when we move about (“walk about” is hardly the right term).

Lighting is provided by two very adequate and economical LED striplights, so we are comfortable throughout the year, but cramped. We have to negotiate for knee-space under the table for instance. As a designer more than a builder I think: “What if I were to convert a Fiat Scudo for instance to the same layout, but with a bit more room?”. After all, the perceived need for more space than we can get in a Doblo was the reason for starting the folding caravan project before we decided to convert the Doblo.P1250483a

Objectives with a raised-roof Scudo, or similar, would be: extra length to the dinette to be more comfortable; scope to use the Porta Potty at night without having to dismantle the bunk above it as we do now; reversed galley unit, so that the wash basin is directly opposite the WC; a three-way fridge; room for a Gaslow bottle instead of the present two Gaz bottles (a 907 and a 901), with external filler connection; Propex gas heating, which is cheaper to install and run than using road diesel; a level floor giving access to the cab, with both front seats revolving so they can be used for guests who could be supplied with drinkies (more likely juice and French pastries in our case), on little tables mounted on the folded two remaining rear seats; the rear of the vehicle fully insulated, with caravan-type double-glazed side and rear windows; a small rear entry and exit door which does not scoop in the whole of the Arctic when opened; and a thick multi-layer thermal curtain between the cab and the accommodation. This might need a slightly larger vehicle than the Scudo.

This slightly larger vehicle would be more comfortable internally but less easy to drive along the by-roads we seek out. These byroads frequently have no passing places and sometimes we end up in fields. Our present vehicle Doblo7 is economical and a joy to drive, even in confined places, and is unobtrusive on the driveway. Doblo7 is efficient and we are self-sufficient, so the more remote the camping place the better, preferably with a tap somewhere. In our view hook-ups ruin a campsite and I am disappointed to see so many campervan owners using them and causing site owners to destroy the very amenity we want, which is seclusion and quiet. Perhaps we are snobs. If this is so, I wish there were more of us to defend the status of the diminishing number of “Hideaway” sites the Camping and Caravan Club still lists.

All work is complete on Doblo7, so there will be no more dustsheets and Workmate in the living room, and plywood in front of the piano. Eileen hopes.

We toured northern France last Autumn and loved it, and we are booked for a return visit this Spring. A great attraction is that perfectly-adequate and free campervan sites with few or no facilities are available in many small French towns. We tend to move from one to another frequently, via lovely countryside, and stopping at these sites which are usually strategically placed enables us to explore our surroundings and obtain fresh French bread (and sometimes other tasty things) first thing most mornings from the patisserie, which is likely to be just round one or more nearby corners. We find these sites to be an acceptable urban equivalent to the Hideway sites we enjoy in the UK.

We have a rear awning that we've only used once. When we are out of the van, or on the move each day, or we are based in an (albeit usually scenic) lorry park, there's no point putting up the awning even if this were possible. So the awning and its box may stay at home for our next French trip which will allow us to use the galley and loo when parked by the roadside, or when waiting at the ferry or Tunnel for instance without having to remove the box. While waiting at the Ferry or Chunnel terminus one has to be ready to drive at any moment, and can't risk putting the box outside. We also feel anxious when putting the box/step outside in more public sites where it might be nicked or at least arouse comment.

A tricky part of the arrangements for forthcoming trips is to schedule them clear of French holidays, so far as possible, while enabling us to be at home for vital tasks in the greenhouse and the allotment. Let's hope for a better growing season than last!


We are grateful to forum member Doblo7 for this excellent informative article.


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