Cambridge Underground 1996 pp 26-32

Big Blue Rustbucket: European Tour of Self Destruction, 1995

An epic saga of courage, determination, and unrelenting tedium in garage forecourts, supermarket car parks, and especially at the side of Belgian motorways.

Told in three parts by Anthony Day

The story of THE TRAILER began in the Winter of 1995, when the expo trailer of three year's standing was misappropriated from Bill Miners' back garden. The search was then on for a replacement crap trailer which we could take to Austria, and a month before departure Wookey came up with the goods with a nice blue number which had been languishing outside his workplace. The specification that the trailer should be 'crap' proved to be a mistake, for this trailer more than lived up to this description.

At about the same time as the original trailer went missing, I made the mistake of buying a car - a Lada - and as expo approached it rapidly became apparent that this vehicle, designed by a man who got a set square for Christmas, was the only one available to tow THE TRAILER to and from Austria. Now, being a sensible sort of chap, I thought it would be wise to take THE TRAILER for a test run in England before towing it half way across Europe. However, I am also a caver, so this obviously didn't happen, and the first time I clapped eyes on the beast was the day we were due to leave.

And what a sight it was to behold: The old trailer had been noteworthy for the way the suspension on one of the wheels had poked up through a hole in the mudguard. The replacement neatly circumvented this problem by having no suspension at all, the wheels being fastened onto 4" long axles which were simply bolted onto the base. Nor did it have any mudguards worthy of the name, for the two rusty prominences on the sides which crumbled to the touch could only be described as token efforts. The wheels which they weren't protecting were comedically small, and the spare tyre, having no tread and containing even less air was a microcosm of the whole. However, the only thing that was actually wrong with it (i.e. the only thing that was going to stop us attempting to tow it 900 miles) was a broken indicator bulb, so we merrily filled it with rope and Mornflake, bought a new bulb, and headed off for Ramsgate that evening as planned. The first rainstorm to hit Cambridge in two months occurred while we were packing, and I suppose we should have taken this as an omen that everything was not going to go according to plan. Even so, I don't think either I or my co-driver, Nick, could have reasonably anticipated what was to follow. For this was no ordinary trailer. Oh no. This trailer had a mean streak, a sentient trailer with a grudge to bear and a whole host of nasty surprises up its sleeve. This was a trailer from Hell...

Part 1 - The Outward Journey

We arrived at Ramsgate ahead of time and successfully got on an earlier ferry which had previously been fully booked. Dangerous thoughts of arriving in Austria in the early evening and watching the sun go down whilst sipping cold Gösser flickered into our minds.

Nick took over the driving, successfully negotiated Brussels and headed on towards Luxembourg. We had noted that the car didn't appear to be pulling very well, but given the amount of shit it was carrying this didn't seem surprising. So when, at about 8.30am, a Belgian car overtook us hooting his horn and gesticulating wildly, we thought he was probably just pissed off that we'd been performing some slow overtaking manoeuvres, but we pulled onto the hard shoulder to check... and discovered that the passenger side tyre on THE TRAILER was looking extremely mangled.

Now, normally all we would have had to do is change over onto the spare wheel and carry on. But the spare tyre wasn't in much better shape than the one which had just blown, so the next bright idea was the National Breakdown. We decided that Nick would stay with THE TRAILER and I would head into a town and find a phone rather than ring the emergency phone on the motorway and risk alerting the Belgian police to our unroadworthy trailer. Ironic then, that two minutes after I disappeared from view, two Belgian policemen on enormous motorbikes should roll up. Their English was non existent, so a conversation then ensued in pidgin French. It seems that Nick was fairly successful in persuading them that he wasn't towing THE TRAILER down the Autoroute with his teeth, and that recovery was in hand, because they didn't come back.

Meanwhile, I had successfully located a phone. "Help is only one phonecall away" screams the bullshit in the National Breakdown handbook, so I set about the trivial task of contacting them. Laugh. The freephone number quoted for Belgium connected me to a recorded message in English, which might as well have been in Swahili for all the sense it made. A few more attempts and much head scratching later, it became apparent that this number was not going to work. Fortunately there is another phone number to ring the Strasbourg control centre direct. Unfortunately, this requires Belgian money to persuade the phone to work of which I had none, and I'd been messing around for almost an hour so I returned to Nick, who was successfully managing to have a snooze propped up against THE TRAILER (Belgian truckers with loud horns notwithstanding.)

After a brief discussion, we decided that I would go and get some money, try and get in touch with Strasbourg, and failing that try and get a local garage to do something, so off I trundled in search of a town with a bank. This wasn't too hard, but finding a bank that took credit cards was impossible, so I changed some British cash, bought a can of coke with the equivalent of a £20 note, and staggered off to a phone with my newly acquired welter of Belgian change. Once I realised that the instruction from the ever helpful National Breakdown Handbook that Belgian phones require one to wait for a second dialling tone was a complete lie, I was successfully connected to the control centre in Strasbourg.

...Well, maybe only partially successfully, for I spent the next fifteen minutes and all my Belgian change listening to a catchy jingle and the instruction to "Please hold the line" in half a dozen languages. So off I went to a different shop to generate some more change and try again. Several unsuccessful attempts later, I finally managed to get connected to a controller, who was commendably thorough about the amount of information he extracted from me: What was the problem? What make of car was it? What model, engine size, colour? When had I last changed my shreddies? Indeed, before my money ran out he gleaned almost everything anyone could possibly want to know about my breakdown, apart from where I actually was. AAAARGH! So off I went to ANOTHER shop to get some MORE Belgian change etc etc. At 11.45, the bloke told me that a mechanic would be with me within 45 minutes, so I went back to join Nick.

Thereafter it was all fairly straightforward. The mechanic didn't turn up until 13.10, but when he did he took one look at our tyre, told us it was broken (wise guy) and took that and our spare away. He returned at 14.50 with a new tyre on replacing the one that had blown, and some more tread cut into the spare (though given how thin it was I was surprised he'd managed to do this without cutting through it). We paid him with British money, and we were back on the road, six and a half hours after breaking down.

We must have gone all of 5km before a Belgian car overtook us hooting its horn and with the driver gesticulating wildly as we struggled up a gentle incline, and a terrible sense of déjà vu overcame us. The 6" gash in our brand new trailer tyre where the mud guard had gone through it gave us a clue as to what was wrong. This time however, we had a "serviceable" spare, so we were only delayed for half an hour while we changed the wheel and beat the crap out of the remnants of the mudguard to ensure there was no repeat performance.

That was the end of the excitement for that day. We were both so knackered when we got to Munich that we stopped for some sleep, and carried on to Austria early next morning. I had always been a bit nervous about the prospect of the Pötschen pass, just outside Bad Aussee, but the car seemed to be doing really well, until a rather ominous...


...did rent the air. Had there been a nearby meteorite impact? Had we driven over an unexploded shell? Had one of our trailer tyres just blown out? It really didn't take very long for us to decide.

Of course since we were now in Austria it was pissing buckets, so we hurriedly moved THE TRAILER to the side of the road and headed for a garage I knew about in Bad Aussee. We were told that the nearest replacement tyre place was in Liezen (40km away). By now we had had enough, so we went to cry on Hilda's shoulder. Karin instantly rang their garage in Bad Aussee who agreed to fetch THE TRAILER, and then drove us to the garage when it arrived with another trailer with which to cart all the shit to base camp. Plus we got some free coffee and a cheese roll - what stars!

It transpired that had we successfully got a new tyre it wouldn't have been an awful lot of use, because the rear two bolts that were supposed to be holding the axle on had sheared off. This looked expensive: "About 3000 Schillings (£200)" said the garage. "Bugger that" said we. But at least we'd arrived. The headache about how we were going to get all the gear back could wait for another day.

Part 2 - The Return Journey

News of our entertaining journey, and the gear relocation problems that were going to occur if we didn't fix or replace THE TRAILER, filtered back to Britain. The result of this was that those essential bits of gear without which no expedition can call itself properly equipped - a welder and some angle iron - came out to Austria. Mike TA welded both axles to the base of THE TRAILER, which was a considerable improvement, but the axle that had given us all the grief on the way out still looked unconvincing because it was by and large welded onto rust, so it was decided that a better fix was required. Unfortunately, the angle iron which had been so carefully brought out was carefully taken back to Britain again, so Wookey bodged a fix by welding a plate over the end of the offending axle. We were still reasonably happy that it looked convincing enough.

Photo, 7k jpeg, link
to 25k jpeg
THE TRAILER in the process of being repaired outside the potato hut in Austria. [Photo: Andy Waddington]

Steve, Kate, Duncan and myself were going on a two week trip to Hungary after expo, so the original plan was that we would tow THE TRAILER to Hungary thus avoiding having to return via Austria. There was also a scheme to break the return journey by spending a couple of days in Prague. All we needed now were a couple of new tyres. Needless to say we only arranged some new tyres right at the last minute, and this proved to be an error, for when we went to collect them the day before we were due to go to Hungary, it turned out that the garage had got tubeless tyres for us which were useless. Plan B was thus invoked, whereby we left THE TRAILER in Austria whilst the garage sorted out some suitable tyres, and would pick it up on our way back from Hungary.

However, we were all sufficiently pissed off with this that we were determined that THE TRAILER was not going to cost us our trip to Prague, so we returned from Hungary a few days early, picked up THE TRAILER complete with shiny new tyres and headed for the Czech Republic. Steve drove us to just inside the Czech border where we stopped at the first petrol station to fill up and change some money. It was 3pm. We thought we had better check that THE TRAILER was alright...

It wasn't. The wheel which had given us a hard time on the outward journey seven weeks earlier was lolling at a comedy angle. Closer inspection revealed that the axle was starting to bed into the heap of rust it was fastened to and the weld was starting to break at the rear. It was only a matter of time before it broke off again, and we certainly weren't going to get to Oostende. Time to ring the National Breakdown.

There is no freephone number from the Czech Republic, so each failed attempt to connect to Strasbourg cost money. Eventually I got connected, and was told that the Czech agent would be contacted. So after an hour and a half had elapsed with no sign of a breakdown truck, we suspected that some part of the plan had failed, and I started trying to contact Strasbourg again. It transpired that the Czechs had telephoned the garage outside which we were parked, the garage had told them that we didn't exist, and so they had done nothing. The controller asked me to ring back in ten minutes, which I did, surprisingly getting connected within half a dozen attempts. However, I was connected to a different controller this time, so had to retell all the details of our sorry plight. In the end he gave up and connected me direct to the agent in the nearest town, Ceske Budejovice. Unfortunately, the Czech agent was a bit of an arsehole: Having explained the problem, the next thing he wanted to know was what sort of trailer was it. The answer "A blue rusty one" was not acceptable, he wanted to know who made it for the purposes of getting spare parts: Renault? Volvo? Suspecting that he may not have heard of "Lynn Products, Marson Engineering, Ashford," I tried to explain, in an increasingly irate tone, that we were not an articulated lorry and that all the spare parts in the world weren't going to help since the problem was that what they were fastened to was unsound. He eventually (grudgingly) agreed to send a mechanic to find us. His next problem was that he thought we would be difficult to spot in a busy garage forecourt, British registered Ladas towing blue trailers being ten a penny in that corner of the Czech Republic. In the end it was sorted and I came off the phone. The irony of having spent fifteen minutes talking to a guy 40km up the road via Strasbourg was not lost on me as I paid the £25 bill for that single phone call.

Given that it was obvious that the Czechs were going to attempt to fix THE TRAILER rather than take it back to Britain, and that it was now too late to do it that day, we abandoned our plans to get to Prague and accepted the offer of a night in a hotel courtesy of National Breakdown. There was some more waiting around until the mechanic turned up at 7.30pm and towed us to Ceske Budejovice. This turned out to be quite a pleasant spot to be stranded in, especially for beer lovers - it turns out that the Germanic name for the same town is Budweis.

We managed to put off doing anything about getting our trailer back until 11am the following morning. With the help of the hotel receptionist and a fine artists impression of a trailer, we established the address of the garage and that THE TRAILER would be ready at 3pm. So that afternoon, after spending twenty minutes looking on the wrong half of the street, we found the garage and there, sitting in front of it, was THE TRAILER.

Our optimistic visions of a comprehensive repair were shattered on a cursory inspection of the axle. The Czechs had simply welded another plate over our original failed repair, only the piece of metal they had used was even smaller and was barely thicker than a Kit Kat wrapper. We did not fancy our chances of making it to Oostende, but had precious little option but to give it a go. Having abandoned any attempt to go to Prague, we headed off towards Plzen.

20km down the road, Duncan commented that THE TRAILER appeared to be sitting at a strange angle. To nobody's great surprise, the "repair" affected in Ceske Budejovice was starting to fail, and the axle was once again starting to sink in. We were back to square one. We decided to head for the next reasonable sized town on the map, Pisek, which was a further 20km.

As we arrived in Pisek, there was a minor diversion due to a puncture on the car. This was easily fixed in twenty minutes, but it was now obvious that THE TRAILER was shagged: The axle was starting to peel away from the base again, and we decided to give up while we were in a town rather than wait for it to fail in the middle of nowhere. Just down the road was a Billa supermarket with a payphone outside, so at 5pm we trundled into the car park and rang the National Breakdown.

It was at this point that our failure to get through to the Strasbourg control centre, which had been a feature of our previous breakdowns, scaled even sillier heights. For the next three hours, I tried to ring Strasbourg at ten minute intervals with absolutely no success. Since each phone call cost money, I couldn't afford to hold the line for twenty minutes at a time, and the supermarket cashiers were getting progressively more pissed off with our dashing into their shop to get change for the phone. We did make contact on a few occasions: The first time I got connected, the controller offered to ring me back, but since I am not a walking Czech telephone directory I couldn't tell him the STD code for Pisek, and he plainly couldn't find it out for himself because the return call never came. On another occasion a controller gave me a freephone number to try, but it didn't work - scarcely surprising when you consider that he had given me the freephone number that works in France. We even went to the lengths of phoning Wookey who contacted National Breakdown in Leeds, who said they would fax Strasbourg with our details. Wookey successfully contacted us at the payphone (we had by now discovered the STD code for Pisek written on the side of a van) but National Breakdown could not. At 8pm, a security guard came along to lock up the supermarket, and so we wandered off into town.

It took us a while to find another public phone, but we eventually found one on a grim tower block estate on the edge of town. Several abortive attempts to get in touch with Strasbourg followed: On the one occasion I got connected, a coin jammed as I frantically tried to feed more money into the phone and I got cut off. In desperation, I rang the Leeds control centre direct, and after shouting down the woman telling me it wasn't her job to deal with European claims, they eventually agreed to contact Strasbourg for us and would then call us back. It was now 9pm, and the question of where we were going to sleep that night reared its head. We had established in a conversation with a random Czech bloke, conducted largely in International Sign Language, that there were no nearby campsites, so Steve and Kate headed back into town to find somewhere to stay whilst Duncan and I stayed by the phone and awaited a return call.

At 9.02pm, a random Czech bint showed up and spent the next 20 minutes when we were most likely to receive a call from Strasbourg yabbering into the phone, so when Steve and Kate reappeared at 9.40 we were very very fed up. Fortunately, they had had a little more luck. First they found an English speaking receptionist at the most expensive looking hotel in town, which was full (we didn't want to stay there anyway), and were told that all the other hotels in town were also full. However, they were pointed in the direction of a hostel next to the municipal stadium which was used by sportsmen, and this turned out to be a result as they were reasonably cheap and had some space. The rooms were actually alright, so we watched an episode of MASH dubbed into Czech and then gave up for the night, still no nearer getting THE TRAILER fixed. "Help is only one phonecall away" seemed like a particularly sick joke that evening.

The following morning, we were up at 7am to give National Breakdown the maximum opportunity to be crap and still give us a chance of getting our ferry, for which we had to be in Oostende at 5am the following morning. We had by now decided that we wanted THE TRAILER to be repatriated rather than repaired. It only took me two attempts to get through to Strasbourg, who said that they would contact the Czech agent and ring us back, so Steve and Kate took the car and trailer back to the Billa car park whilst Duncan and I sat in the foyer of the hostel awaiting a return call.

You will not be surprised to learn that the return call never materialised, and so I tried to get hold of Strasbourg again, finally succeeding at 10.30. The controller promised me that they would ring the Czech agent again, and then try and contact me at the phone outside the Billa. In a startling break with recent precedents, this actually happened. The Czech agent claimed that a "Problem with the computer" in France had meant that none of my details had been transferred to Prague. (I considered that suggesting they invest in a fleet of carrier pigeons to improve the efficiency of their communications might be regarded as flippant, so I refrained.) My argument that they should just give up trying to repair it and just take it back to Britain fell on deaf ears: She insisted that a mechanic should look at first, and said she would arrange for a breakdown truck to come and find us. I came off the phone at 11.10.

So we sat around in the Billa car park... then sat around a bit more... and a bit more. When after an hour and a half no breakdown truck had put in an appearance, we were starting to get despondent again, so I tried to get in touch with Strasbourg. The usual routine of repeatedly being put on hold then ensued, but at 1pm I finally got through to a French controller with some brains. At first she too insisted that a mechanic should look at THE TRAILER, but when I explained about our impending ferry deadline, she agreed to talk to her supervisor and ring me back. The supervisor agreed that THE TRAILER would be repatriated, and that a breakdown truck would be with us within half an hour. Success at last! We had to hurriedly search through the Bier Book for a repatriation address, eventually hitting on Kate's house in Harrow. We were told that repatriation would take three weeks.

But the breakdown truck didn't appear in half an hour, nor in an hour, and we were getting depressed again when it finally rolled up at 2.30pm. We did wonder whether the truck had maybe had to come a vast distance, but it had in fact come the princely total of 2km. They spent ten minutes inspecting THE TRAILER, but wouldn't put it on their truck so we had to tow THE TRAILER ourselves to their garage. On arriving, the mechanic's daughter, who was the closest approximation to an English speaker, rushed out to greet us. With the aid of lots of hand waving and drawing of pictures, we managed to persuade them that we didn't want THE TRAILER repairing, but we did want it to be taken back to Britain, and somebody else was going to pay. At least we hoped we had persuaded them of this when we sloped off at 3.10 pm en route for the port leaving THE TRAILER behind. From initial contact with National Breakdown to being back on the road had taken seven and a half hours.

Part 3 - Farewell to THE TRAILER

As we pulled out of Pisek, we were optimistic that we might be able to make it to Oostende in time for our ferry - we had fourteen hours in which to do this - provided we didn't hang around and there were no further mechanical disasters. Given that we had got rid of THE TRAILER, this seemed a reasonable assumption. Fat chance. By now, the evil influence of THE TRAILER had permeated every fibre of our being, and with hindsight what followed seems sadly inevitable.

I drove to the Czech border in two hours, but an hour long wait to get across it seemed to have blown our chances of making the ferry. However, once we got onto the German Autobahn, we made reasonable time, and I drove as far as Frankfurt before handing over to Steve.

Fifteen minutes after changing drivers, the following conversation ensued:

Steve: "There's a bit of a problem."
Anthony: "What?"
Steve: "I think I've got a migraine coming on, I can't see anything down my right hand side."

Now, driving on a busy German Autobahn at night is crap at the best of times, but driving on a busy German Autobahn at night with rapidly deteriorating vision is dire. Steve couldn't have picked a worse moment for his first migraine in six years. After a very nervous 6km we pulled in at the next Rasthof, some agonised cries of "Left a bit, right a bit" to our blind driver narrowly avoided a collision with a bollard, and I was back behind the wheel again.

My first aim was to try and get to Cologne, 150km away, but in fact I made it to Liège in Belgium where we stopped for petrol at 1am. Things were looking rosy again: We estimated that it would take us two hours of driving time to get to Oostende and we had four hours in which to do it, so I stopped for half an hour's rest before continuing.

As we pulled back onto the motorway, I was thinking "I hope that remould we fitted in Pisek yesterday holds out."

As we pulled back onto the motorway, Duncan was thinking "I hope that remould we fitted in Pisek yesterday holds out."

Silly really. We shouldn't have let such dangerous thoughts enter our heads. Maybe then the tyre would not have blown out ten minutes later. We had not replaced the spare tyre which we had used earlier in the Czech Republic, because we had dared not leave THE TRAILER for a minute in case a breakdown truck appeared, and since setting off for the ferry we hadn't had the time. So here I was again, broken down at the side of a Belgian motorway.

Kate, as our best French speaker, went to the emergency phone. The voice at the other end told us to wait with the vehicle. So we did. How we chortled at the bitter irony of the latest problemette to manifest itself. All except Steve, who by this point wasn't in much of a state to do any chortling, and just laid out on the hard shoulder looking like death warmed up, awakening briefly to chunder his guts up over the verge. As the minutes ticked by, it became obvious that we were going to miss the ferry, until after an hour and half, a van from the Touring Club of Belgium turned up.

The first thing he wanted to know was were we in the RAC, to which the answer was "No, but I am in the National Breakdown." I might as well have been in the Tufty Club for all the use that was, so Mr Mechanic demanded 2400 Belgian Francs (£44) for being called out in the middle of the night. None of us had any Belgian money. Does he take VISA? No. Will he take us to a cashpoint? No. Basically, it appears that unless you are in the RAC or are carrying enough money, the Touring Club of Belgium are fucking useless and are perfectly happy to leave you stranded at the side of their motorway. The mechanic's only suggestion was that we could drive on the rim and come off at the next junction (200m away) where there was a Gendarmerie where we might be able to get help. With that he pissed off, so, muttering darkly, I trundled off the motorway and parked in a layby adjacent to the junction. Kate and I went to find the Gendarmerie, but it was shut, and it was now 3.30am, so we gave up for the night. Kate and Steve slept at the side of the road, but mine and Duncan's pits were buried in the depths of my extremely efficiently packed boot, so we had to sleep in the car.

At 8am the following morning, it was time to get something fixed. I discovered that one of the towns on the signpost at the junction, Awans, was big enough to be on my map of Europe and was only 2km away, so Kate and I headed off to look for a bank, on the basis that if we had some local currency we could persuade some Belgians to do things for us. A random woman in the street directed us to the bank, but after failing to find it for a bit, we wandered into a bakery. We established the location of the bank, but since it was Saturday we were told it wouldn't be open, and it didn't have a cashpoint. So next Kate asked about garages. After short discussion amongst the customers it transpired that there was a garage which was probably open. Moreover there were two volunteers to drive us there, despite the fact that we looked thoroughly bedraggled and hadn't washed for two months - what a result!

The garage man was similarly helpful. He didn't take cards either, but was prepared to take a combination of British and Austrian cash. He took us back to the car, took away our two knackered tyres, and repaired them for £30 and 100 Austrian Schillings, and we were back on theroad at 11am. (If we'd phoned the National Breakdown, we'd probably have been two hours short of getting through to them at that stage.) So the moral of the story is, if you're going to break down in Belgium, break down in Awans: it is a town populated by complete stars.

Thereafter, the journey was mercifully uneventful. We arrived at Oostende at 1pm, and paid a supplement of £24.50 to get back to Britain on the 1.50pm sailing rather than wait until midnight - we thought we'd done quite enough waiting around. We stopped over at Kate's house that night, and Duncan and I made it back to our respective homes the following evening.

You will recall that we had been told that THE TRAILER would be repatriated within three weeks, but given our previous experiences, nobody was holding their breath. There was a minor hiccup when I got a phonecall two and a half weeks later, saying that THE TRAILER was stuck on the Austrian border because there were no "papers" with it. This didn't make much sense, but it transpires that the controller thought we were repatriating a car. Eventually THE TRAILER turned up in Harrow only a week and a half late on the back of a breakdown truck that had come from... Cambridge, so for an extra £30 he took it back again and dumped it outside Wookey's house where it had started off eleven weeks earlier. It was fixed a little bit and quietly returned to the owners, so with a bit of luck I'll never see it again.

In the 1992 journal, following his own motoring disasters in the Summer of 1991, Wookey offered the following tips to ensure trouble free European motoring:

1. Don't break down if you are carrying more shit than can be fitted into a large estate car.
2. Don't break down in Italy if you have an ancient Volvo and don't speak Italian.

I would like to make the following additions to this list:

3. Don't lumber yourself with the job of towing an overfull and obviously decrepit trailer half away across Europe. Especially don't lumber yourself with the job of towing it back again as well.
4. Don't break down in the Czech Republic at all.

However, when all said and done, despite all the tedium and multiple breakdowns on the return journey, we arrived back in Britain only eight hours late. So it can't have been a proper epic, can it?