Saturday, December 7, 2013

Journeys End!

We began our life changing journey to Andalucia in southern Spain on the last day of January 2005. After an uneventful and hitch-free sale of our property in the UK, we were feeling excited and optimistic about the long trip ahead of us. Just to add to the mix, we were travelling in an old Bedford TK horsebox in which we were transporting our two Shetland ponies, Amos & Gracie and our Border collie dog, Billy. Our pre travel preparations had all gone well. The animals were all micro chipped, inoculated and passported according to the relevant regulations, and we had in our possession their medical health certificates issued by our local vet just the day before.

I thought as we drove away from our smallholding in Lincolnshire where we had lived for six years that I would feel sad or upset, but I was surprisingly cheery and just looking forward to our new life ahead. We had planned our journey with military precision, and spent a fortune on a state of the art laptop PC, with the latest edition of 'Auto route' installed on it, so at least the responsibility for the navigation wouldn't fall onto me. Part of our master plan was not to hit Paris during the rush hour, not to have to take any mountain routes, and to stick to motorways as much as possible.

After spending some time saying our goodbyes to our son and daughter and their partners, we checked that the ponies were warm, and had food and water for at least the first leg of the trip to Dover where we were getting onto the ferry for Calais. The horsebox seemed to travel very slowly, but of course on top of the weight of the ponies, several bales of hay, and containers full of water, we had many of our own personal possessions with us, although all of our furniture had gone into storage. The plan was that when we reached our destination, we would then spend a good deal of time looking for the ideal property for our future. We had booked into a rural apartment which had land where we could graze the ponies' long term whilst we searched.

The weather was typical for the end of January and as we travelled further south, into the early evening it began to drizzle with rain. We were by this time on the M20 motorway at Maidstone in Kent and making good progress when all of a sudden, there was an almighty bang and we were shunted forward. At first we thought it was a tyre blowout at the rear, and we both looked in our side mirrors but could see nothing. Alan indicated and pulled over onto the hard shoulder, put on our four way hazard flashers and got out of the cab. Within a second or two, he pulled the door open, and shouted for me to phone for an ambulance, police and fire brigade. As I started to dial 999, I also jumped out of the cab to see what had happened so I could tell the emergency services. I walked round to the back of the horsebox, and froze in horror to see Alan with his fluorescent jacket out on the motorway waving it around his head, trying to alert oncoming traffic that there was an obstruction on the inside lane. At the same time, the operator was asking me what had happened. It was hard to describe, as everything happened so quick. She told me that the services were all on their way, and to my relief I could already hear sirens in the distance. Another car had pulled over to assist, and a man came up to me and asked if I was OK, but all I could do was nod and ask him to go and help Alan.

There was a small car, with the front end so badly smashed up that Alan was climbing through the back to try to get to the driver. He wasn't able to do anything as the driver was so badly trapped and he was obviously unconscious, so he couldn't be moved anyway. Luckily the fire brigade arrived at this point and took over, and told Alan to go and sit down in the horse box with me. We were both quite shaken up, and I felt a bit sick. Alan said he thought the driver was in a very bad way, and might even have been dead. It seems the car was going so fast that he slammed into the back of our horsebox. The hardest thing to believe was that the car was not a small hatchback as I thought, but a Vauxhall Vectra which is a big and powerful vehicle. After about an hour, the driver was cut out of the car, and was taken away by ambulance. During this time, we were concerned about how the ponies were, and realised that we both had very slight whiplash. We got out onto the inside of the hard shoulder, and tried to unlock the side door so we could get in and see how things were, but the door wouldn't open. It had been creased when the car ran into us, and the only other way in was through the ramp at the back. But we wondered how damaged that would be because of the impact. The police then came to talk to us, and said we couldn't drive the horsebox as there were now no rear lights and our number plate had been ripped off. We expressed our concern about the ponies, but were told that we couldn't try the rear door on the motorway, in case the ponies escaped, even thought they were in partitions. Of course we didn't know if they were still secure. The police told Alan to just pull forward a bit to see if the horse box could be driven, and then they would escort us to a breakdown recovery yard where the damage could be inspected. One police patrol car got in front and the other behind us with their hazard lights on and we were escorted off the motorway at the next junction, where a recovery vehicle was waiting to take us to their yard. By this time the shock of what had happened suddenly hit me and I had to go and throw up behind a tree! We thought about the driver, and asked the policeman how he was, and was told he really wasn't good and they didn't give much for his chances of survival.

We were taken to a local breakdown yard, which was behind locked gates, so we took the opportunity of trying to get to the ponies. Eventually with a lot of help from the police and the breakdown guys we managed to get the ramp down, and to our immense relief, both ponies seemed unhurt, just a little hot! We got them out and walked them around and let them have a good long drink, then tethered them to a couple of trees.

We had a very welcome cup of tea in the office and then sat down with the police to make statements about what had happened. The police view was that the driver was travelling at great speed, and had fallen asleep at the wheel and slammed into us. The car bonnet had actually gone under the rear of the horsebox with the impact, but as we were still moving at the time it had dislodged it, leaving it lying on the inside lane of the motorway once we had pulled onto the hard shoulder.

We weren't sure what was going to happen next - could we continue with our journey, or would we have to temporarily abandon our plans? About three hours later at 1am, the breakdown guy said he had managed to get the tailgate up and down, had attached some lights and made a new number plate for the rear. He had also had to change a rear tyre as it had been slightly damaged, and we would need to come back tomorrow after lunch to collect a spare. During our wait we had telephoned the local Holiday Inn and booked a room for at least one night as it was obvious we weren't able to continue at the present time. We loaded the ponies back in and drove round to the hotel, parked up and went to have some very much needed sleep. When we awoke, we showered and then while I ordered us both breakfast, Alan went to check on the ponies and take Billy for a walk around. We both felt better, and were optimistic that we could continue to the ferry after lunch, but whilst driving the horsebox back to the breakdown yard, a warning light started to flash on the dashboard. We continued as we only had to go around the corner, and the brakes appeared to be working fine. When the mechanic inspected the light coming on, he tried the brakes, found no fault, and suggested he disconnect the light, which he did and then after attaching the spare wheel, we drove off, thanking everyone for their help.

We were both so relieved to get to the ferry without any further problems, and actually the process of getting on the ferry was quite straight forward even though we were carrying livestock. No one asked to see their pet passports, or any other documentation, and we were waved onto the weigh bridge, given a receipt which confirmed we were well under our 7.5 tons at 6.9 tons. Once aboard the ferry, we had some lunch and sat and relaxed for the remainder of the short journey, and at Calais we drove off the ferry, out of the port, and at last I felt we were really on our way!

We eventually reached Paris - at a time when we didn't want to be there, with heavy traffic, and the main A1 route through diverted, but with no signs to where! We found ourselves going around in circles a couple of times, and then just took any old junction off to somewhere to try and get our bearings. Eventually we got back on track, taking the long way round, and found ourselves heading into Orleans on the motorway. There was a toll road ahead of us, and the Gendarme French police were making routine stops. We went towards a lane which looked like they were waving the traffic through - and got pulled over! We were having enough trouble learning Spanish en route, without having to try and understand any French! All I knew was what I learned at school over forty years ago, so I could probably say my name, ask how you are and what is the time? A female officer indicated us towards the weight bridge and of course we knew we were fine - after all we had the receipt from the ferry to prove it. She asked to see our vehicle documents, and seemed to be having great trouble working out the axle weight of the horsebox. She started to tell that the vehicle was too heavy, and was getting agitated when we kept pointing to the figures on the documents. She then wanted to see all the passports for the animals, our passports and any other documents we had, like the vehicle insurance green card. By this time we had been there for over half an hour and other vehicles were being waved through, until eventually a male officer took her to one side, and gestured at various bits of information on the documents. The female officer then came back, thrust all our papers at us, and waved us through. Without waiting to be told twice, we drove off, not looking back. It was only when we had been driving for some time further on and I was putting all the paperwork back into some order that I realised she hadn't given us back Billy the dogs pet passport! There was no way we were going back!

Sleeping in the cab of the horsebox proved to be another challenge. It was cramped, freezing cold and uncomfortable, but luckily we didn't have to do it too often!

We made slow progress down through France, mainly due to the fact that Auto route had decided to ignore all it's programming and seemed intent on taking us up every incline and mountain in France. As we approached Claremont Ferrand, I could tell Alan was getting tense, but assumed the long fraught journey was beginning to take its toll as he was doing all of the driving. The weather was getting colder the further south we travelled, but that was due to the fact that we were also travelling at a higher altitude. We stopped and rested for a short time, and then continued, wondering if we would ever get to Spain. It was dark and we started to go downhill, which was a relief for the poor horsebox which was struggling every time we came to an incline, when suddenly in the distance was a huge expanse of bright lights all in a row in the far distance. We didn't realise it at the time, but we were actually at Millau, where the world's longest suspension bridge had not long been constructed and opened. It was amazing to drive over it, and there was no other traffic in sight. Had we been in better spirits, we would have wanted to get out and photograph this wonderful sight. It's a shame it was at night, although that in itself was still a sight to behold.

It was after driving through Toulouse that things went seriously wrong as we approached the mountains at Carcassonne. At the time I was asleep, so what I am going to tell you next is from Alan's perspective. We were travelling southward, and climbing again. It was night time, pitch black and raining lightly. As we started to come downwards again, Alan depressed the brakes, and his foot went to the floor - nothing happened! He desperately pumped at the brake pedal, and managed to get a little pressure. So to gain more braking, he was revving the engine, to get the air pressure up in the air brake, whilst using the handbrake to slow down. We were hurtling downwards when the road started to narrow, and there was more traffic about. The road started to become more winding, so Alan had the added problem of trying to steer around sharper bends as well as everything else, which was impossible to do one handed. Suddenly as we came round a left hand bend, there were road works in front of us, with a chicane and a crossover onto the other carriageway. How Alan negotiated all of this whilst still trying to keep the brakes going with some kind of pressure is amazing! At several points he said it felt like the horsebox was just going to tip over on its side it was leaning so much. As he said later, it was a good job I was asleep when this all happened as he definitely wouldn't have been able to cope with my screaming as well! We were out through the worst of all this when I woke up to the smell of burning rubber, and couldn't believe what Alan told me had just happened. I soon realised what he meant when he showed me that we still had no brakes. He said he thought they were getting a bit spongy as we were travelling, but then thought maybe they were just getting a bit worn. We pulled over into a derelict petrol station forecourt, and just slept. Poor Alan's nerves were in shreds not unsurprisingly. We woke early in the morning freezing cold, and hungry, so Alan tried the brakes, but although there was a little pressure, it wouldn't be possible to continue far until they had some attention. We limped along the road very slowly, and came to Perpignan. There was a large industrial estate and we thought that maybe we could find a workshop or garage that would be able to help us. We found a couple, but of course the people we managed to communicate with wouldn't touch it, because not only was it British and they didn't have any spares, but also because of its age. We had to find someone who would be able to help, because it was dangerous to drive for any distance as things were. Despondently, we went across the other side of the road to the other part of the estate, to find another garage using only the handbrake to slow us, when this car overtook us, and then pulled in front and stopped. I don't know how we didn't run into it!

A lady got out and came round to my side window and I was just about to give her a mouthful, when an English voice said 'Do you need some help?' I could have kissed her!!

She said her and her husband had seen us limping around the industrial estate and guessed maybe we couldn't speak French, and very soon her husband (who was actually German) managed to ascertain that there was no hope for us. We explained that we were on our way to Spain, but now obviously not in our vehicle in its present state. Now, I don't believe in a God, but I do believe in fate. We must have done something right in our lives, because without these people rescuing us, I don't know what we would have done. Bless these lovely people - they took us back to their home which luckily was only about 5kms from where we were, and they had horses too. Their daughter is an international eventer and our little ponies thought they were in heaven when they were eventually let out into a magnificent fenced paddock full of fresh grass. They rolled around and jumped about like they had been locked away for years - it must have seemed that way to them, even though we had let them out regularly during the journey.

Later on that morning, Franz & Alan had a look to see what the problem was, and were astonished to find that the brake pipes on each side had been split. Not too much, but each time the brake was depressed, the brake fluid was leaking out, and because it was slow, that is why we were able to travel as far as we did! On hindsight, the car that ran into the back of us must have severed the pipes. That was also probably what the warning light on the dashboard was warning us of.

After hours of searching for someone who would repair or replace the pipes, it was obvious that this wasn't possible. We spent hours and hundreds of Euros on the phone trying to get in touch with our UK insurance company to sort something out. Needless to say, that was a waste of time, even after spending extra money for green card European cover and specific horse transport cover; we ended up with absolutely nothing from them. We looked at all other possibilities, such as hiring a vehicle from France to Spain, or getting a transport company to do it for us, but none of those options were viable. It would be cheaper to just buy another vehicle, but then what would we do with the Bedford? Eventually after a lot of haggling, Franz sold us one of his horseboxes, and kept our old one as a chicken house for his hens! The Merc was so luxurious compared to the Bedford, and I was actually looking forward to travelling in it. It was in good mechanical condition and well looked after, and had only had a new clutch fitted about six months previously. We spent a very enjoyable rest of the afternoon and evening with our new friends, and spent the night in their guest accommodation after going out for a meal in a local bistro.

The next morning, we were up early, unloaded the Bedford's contents into the Mercedes, loaded up the ponies (who were understandably reluctant) and set off on the rest of our journey.

Perpignan is about 60kms from the Spanish border, and as we crossed it, we were giving thanks that at last we were going to make it. We came through yet another toll booth, and as Alan started to pull away, we realised there was a problem. The clutch was slipping very badly, and only just engaging, so we pulled into a turning just off the road. As we did so, a uniformed man came to us and spoke a tiny bit of English, and we explained what happened and asked if it was alright for us to park up until we could sort something. He was very helpful, and even phoned the Mercedes dealer for us to come out. He suggested we get the ponies out and tether them to a tree where they could graze whilst waiting. We called Franz and told him what happened, and he assured us he had the receipt for the clutch and that it was guaranteed for a year. He arranged to come out with the pony trailer and collect the ponies and me and take us back to France. As we finished the call, a plain white mini bus pulled alongside us, and out got several uniformed and armed police officers. We then realised we were parked at the entrance to the HQ of the national terrorist police! What happened next was quite surreal. Several of the officers had mobile phones with cameras, and they took it in turns to pose next to these little Shetland ponies, standing upright with their arms crossed and smirking into the camera. They were even picking handfuls of grass to feed them! One of them was a female officer and she looked like something out of a Sly Stallone movie - blonde long hair, tied back in a ponytail, dark wrap around sunglasses and chewing gum. I wouldn't want to argue with her! After a short time, they all got back in their mini bus and drove into the compound. It must have been about twenty minutes later that an alarm sounded, and the same mini bus speeded back out past us, parked crossways in front of the toll booth, and threw stingers down onto the road. They then all drew their weapons and stood facing the now closed down toll booths. All I could think of was that if they started shooting, the ponies could get hurt, and I was urging Alan to put them back into the horsebox, when this car came through and was escorted through the toll. There were four men of Moroccan persuasion in the vehicle and they were dragged out by four of the armed officers, and thrown onto the ground. While all this was going on, I was searching for the video camera to film it all. Then I thought maybe not such a good idea!

The men all had their hands tied behind their backs with plastic cable ties and stood up in a row. Their car was ripped apart - everything came out, including the seats, but obviously what they were looking for wasn't found. One of the men made a comment to the female police officer in front of him. She pulled back her rifle and used the butt of it to hit him full in the face. At this point I was convinced we were all going to be killed! I got further behind the horsebox, all the while still trying to see what was going on. After a few more minutes the police untied all of the men, and let them go without another word. After relaying this story to a Spanish friend some time later, he said that is normal practice with the terrorist police - and no one argues with them!

We were just getting over the excitement of the entire goings on, when the same mini bus again pulled alongside us, and the same officers got out again having another play with the ponies!

Franz and the Mercedes breakdown people arrived at the same time, and we departed our temporary parking spot. I was so relieved!

Alan went with the horsebox, and I went back to Perpignan, and then Franz came back and collected Alan and brought him back too. All of this happened on a Friday, so we weren't expecting to get the vehicle back until Monday or possible Tuesday. We had an enjoyable weekend relaxing and chilling out. A bit of retail therapy always works for me. On the Monday morning, we got a call to say the horsebox was ready for collection - along with a bill for close to a thousand Euros. We explained that it was under warranty, only to be told that that was in France. We could recover the money, but would have to pay it initially - and we never did get it back!

Well, that's almost concludes our story - except that...Our trip had taken so long, that the accommodation we had booked months earlier had been given to someone else!

Update Four years on. Alan & I are now happily settled in our little homestead just outside of the Village of Fuente Vera. Amos and Gracie have been joined by seven other horses and Alan runs a riding club and a Horse riding holiday centre, using our three bed roomed cave home as accommodation for our guests. We live in a small bungalow we had built on the site.

We also use the Cave home for self catering family holidays. After our eventful start to our lives in Spain we have now settled into life here and have many friends in our little village. The children of the village come and ride our horses when we don't have guests and we also let them use the small swimming pool as the village doesn't have its own. Alan had a little scare when he had to go into hospital for a triple heart by pass operation, but the treatment and the hospitals here were fantastic and looked after him very well. He is now fully recovered and has been taking rides out from five weeks after the op, much to his consultant's horror.