Aires-and Grace’s Guide…

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Nowhere in Europe has motor-homing taken off more than in France and while just about every nation has its devotees, the French have thrown themselves with gusto into holiday-homes-on-wheels, the bigger the better.

You can generally guess the nationality of motorhome owners without glancing at the coded number plate. A German will drive a camper-van fabricated from a vehicle that had a former life as a fire engine/horse box/burger van/security van/army lorry and will have been furnished with a wood-burning stove and decorated with artistic graffiti. The French will drive white, shiny, gargantuan gas-guzzlers furnished with their beloved net curtains crocheted with images of kittens, roses or boats.

In response to the explosion in French motor-homes businesses and councils of almost every community have capitalised on these tourist convoys by providing overnight parking with or without services, sometimes for a few euros-sometimes with no charge at all. The idea is that by attracting camper-vans [‘camping cars’ as the French call them] to their town the owners will spend money in shops, bars and restaurants.

Aires vary. Some are landscaped with trees and verges. Most are basic car parks with marked spaces and the addition of a machine selling water [typically 2 euros to fill the vehicle’s fresh water tank] and providing an emptying slot, a ‘vidange’ for the toilet cartridge. You have to hope that your fellow motor-homers are conscientious about keeping loo and water hose outlets separate [hence my regular disinfection of our hosepipe!].

Many aires are part of a larger, town car park. For a large proportion entry is gained by way of a ticket machine-and there are various types with vastly different operating systems for entry and exit. Heaven help those who mislay their exit ticket or number!

The French are cunning about their use of aires and over-night their motor-homes just about anywhere, on pieces of scrub land, beside canals, in lay-bys or in town car parks. They’ll choose any spot with a view or that is convenient then come into an aire to use the services [especially if free of charge]. The powers-that-be are as laisser-faire about parking as the owners are gung-ho but we, the timorous foreigners tend towards towing the line and we park up carefully in a marked bay, whereupon subsequent travellers enter and take up any available spot as long as it isn’t next to us. We’ve grown used to this now-nobody wishing to have the Anglais for neighbours. Perhaps post-2019 we’ll be banned altogether?

In the morning there will often be a queue to empty and refill the vans-an opportunity to observe and to indulge in ‘compare and contrast’. You have to beware of ‘services rage’ or those who take a studied, unhurried approach to the task.

Of course other European countries provide stopover sites [although not the UK] but they are never so widespread as in France. Once we got the hang of using aires we never looked back. You wouldn’t want to use them all the time-although I suspect many French do; we use them for night stops and sometimes 2 nights if we want to visit a city. They are not to be confused with motorway ‘aires’-those landscaped picnic areas along the roadsides which are useful lunch stops but must never, never be used for overnight sleeping!

A Potted Driving History

I learned to drive when I was twenty four. It was the mid seventies and I had all my lessons in the dark of a snowy winter in London. As my first test approached the instructor suggested I have some lessons during the day because I’d had no experience of driving in daylight.

I hadn’t needed a car for work, as I walked there. I was motivated by a need to be independent. I remember going to a party, staying late and having no means of getting home to my shared flat in Putney. A man I’d been chatting to offered me a lift back to my flat, which I gratefully accepted. Feeling I should reciprocate, when we arrived I offered coffee-an offer that was rejected. He didn’t want coffee, but he did want sex. I considered myself worldly as a twenty something-having been a student through late sixties hippy-dom, the freedom of ‘the pill’ and beyond into laissez-faire student territory, nevertheless I was shocked that someone would offer a lift and expect sex in return.

I needed two tests, failing my first [in Guildford] and taking the second only two weeks later [in Teddington]. Neither test venue was familiar to me. While waiting for the second test, with a new, female instructor we got a coffee and she proceeded to regale me with a tearful discourse on the subject of her messy divorce, an experience that I later conjectured as a device to avert pre-driving test nerves.

I got a car, a classy Austin A40 with a steering wheel so enormous that simply rounding a bend almost wrenched my arms from their sockets and only one door that would open; this was the rear tailgate. Entering the vehicle involved climbing into it and diving to the front seat-not a dignified manoeuvre. None of this mattered. I had my independence.

I got to like driving-I still do, but roads, traffic and vehicles have changed in the intervening years. Here in the UK there are few major roads that don’t become clogged with traffic for at least some time during every day. A few days ago, sitting overlooking the M1 motorway at Leicester Forest services the road seemed like some future dystopian world where colossal titans spewing noxious gas had taken possession of the planet and had multiplied until every vestige of space and air were exhausted.

I’ve also noticed that age strips some driver confidence away, resulting in fearfulness of the speed and aggression you find amongst traffic in large conurbations or on five-lane motorways. I am spooked by angry hooting, vehicles cutting across mine at roundabouts or pushing out from junctions in front of me. ‘Be my guest’ I want to squeak, ‘you go first-if your need is so urgent you must terrify everyone else to satisfy it’.

Symptomatic of today’s society? Perhaps. In larger countries with more space and in less populated areas driving can be reminiscent of my early driving years. This is often true for travel away from the autoroutes in France, although time must be no object. How will it all pan out? I can only imagine the vehicles nose-to-tail habit will progress to being conjoined-and then what? Oh of course-railways.