Letter from the Knights of Avoirdupois 4
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Lighten load and lighting up!

It was late summer of 1969 and I was a twenty year old trainee Mechanical Engineer, living and working in Bristol, England. Recently qualified I was still very much in love with student life. I was also very much in love with a nice Polish student called Marlene Something-ending-in-‘ska’.

Marlene Somethingska and I shared a flat in Redland, the renowned student quarter of Bristol. A good time was had by all.

One day Marlene decided a holiday at Woolacombe, the well known surfing centre on the north Devon coast, would be a good wheeze. She told me we could borrow a tent and go camping there. I said I wasn’t very keen.

Marlene replied. “Oh that’s a pity because Jenny, Jill, and Sophie would like to come too and I think there would be just about enough room in the tent. Although it would be a bit of a tight squeeze.”

I said “What time do we leave?”

I ran a MGB sports car in those days. Only two seats. We all figured that would definitely be too tight a squeeze. Pity. Sophie ran a very old and battered Citroën Deux Chevaux though, so we decided to take that instead. Actually, on recollection I don’t think Sophie’s car was all that old, it’s just that the French used to build them that way in the first place. ‘Hen-house on Wheels’ was one of the affectionate terms used to describe them in the UK.

So we ‘borrowed’ the tent from Jill’s brother’s Scout Troop. She said they would never know and unlikely to miss it for a fortnight as school had already restarted. One early September morning we set off. The route we chose took us over Porlock Hill on the A39. In those days Porlock Hill was recorded as having the steepest incline in the country. In places it was only ‘One in Four’ or 25%. If you drove too near the inside curve of one bend it could be argued that it was even steeper than that as the road camber at that point and for a few feet at least took it almost to 33%.

The Citroën Deux Chevaux car, or ‘2CV’ as it was better known, was not noted for its performance. In fact after driving it with four giggling teenage girls along with a heavy Scout Tent and five toothbrushes on board (there was no further room left for such luxuries as clothes. Shame!) I had come to the conclusion the engine was only fitted by Citroën as an afterthought. Something to power the windscreen wiper (no, not plural. There was only one!) and the headlights and more about the lights later. That the engine was actually connected, for the most part anyway, to some sort of transmission system was certainly another afterthought. The gearbox most probably made by the French equivalent of Meccano, The clutch (excuse me whilst I snigger) had a centrifugally operated ‘safety’ device whereby if the engine’s dismal performance was insufficient at any time to continue the unequal battle of maintaining forward progress, then it would simply disengage itself. Automatically and without any warning. As I said, this was a ‘safety’ feature. The alternative to automatic disengagement being automatic total destruction of the engine of course.

We approached Porlock Hill. You’ll be ahead of me here now then won’t you?

We started up Porlock Hill and surprisingly we made steady progress up it at around 5 MPH. We were about halfway up when a large truck coming down from the other direction forced me into the inside of the bend where the camber exaggerated even that already buttock clenching steepness to almost 33% or ‘One in Three’!

2CV was having none of it and the clutch instantly disengaged. Now unfettered from its drive train the engine revs increased dramatically and the engine roared. Well more of a ‘miaow’ actually but certainly made enough of a din to alarm everyone on board. We started our descent. Backwards. I applied the brakes.

Brakes on a 2CV are not what one would describe as a ‘safety’ feature. Particularly as the makers had only ever anticipated their application when motoring in a generally forwards direction. Designed to the old fashioned drum brake principle with only two out of the four drums fitted with both ‘leading’ and ‘trailing' brake shoes thus meaning only they would work in both directions. The remaining pair of drums were only fitted with leading shoes, so would only serve to arrest forward motion.

An overloaded 2CV facing up the steepest incline in Britain, three hundred feet from the bottom, with totally ineffective brakes, no power and a young hot headed male driver, understandably keen to reach his destination and his ambitions, is not the place you would wish to place a heavy tent, five toothbrushes and your daughter. At least that I guess is what Sophie decided and whose Father had bought her the car for her eighteenth birthday present some months earlier. So she got out.

Another ‘safety’ feature of the Citroën 2CV is the rear hinged and thus forward opening doors. I had surmised these were rear hinged so as to form some sort of ‘air brake’ system. Should one ever find oneself hurtling towards traffic lights at velocities approaching the vehicle’s top speed of twenty-nine and a half miles per hour and the lights suddenly change to amber. As the foot brake is clearly useless all that would be required is throwing open the doors and air resistance will do the necessary. On this occasion however the fact that Sophie could open the passenger door and along with her knitting (she was six months pregnant at the time and making a woolly cardi for her expected) make hasty and safe egress, saved all of our lives. The sudden removal of her weight along with that of her unborn child was sufficient to allow the 2CV’s clutch to re-engage and recommence generally upward progress.

Thus I transported remaining passengers to the top of the hill whereupon I asked them to step out for a few minutes then I returned to collect the missing ballast from where we had left it, or rather her (or even 'them') halfway up.

We arrived at the campsite in Woolacombe. Another steep hill and this time covered in wet grass. My experience as a young driver had advanced considerably during the past hour and when the camp Kommandant asked me to drive to the bottom of the hill to pitch the tent I decided it would be best if the girls got out and walked.

We unpacked the tent and discovered it was actually reasonably large. Jill had thought that it was likely to be much smaller and had even warned me we might find ourselves sleeping on top of one another. I really don’t know how I would have coped with that. Well I do but I’m not about to describe it for you here. Due to our haste (my haste) to set off and before there was any danger anyone might change their minds we had arrived barely equipped for camping though. We had sleeping bags but that was about all. No cooking utensils or food and no torch. I soon rectified the basic food problem by driving up to the camp Kommandant’s shop at the top of the hill and asking him if I could cash a cheque. So as to purchase basic necessities and have a little cash left over. In those days and before the days of bank Cheque Guarantee Cards or Credit Cards this was a perfectly normal practice.

“Certainly Sir. No problem. Just write your name and address on the back please. How much do you need?” the nice man asked.

“Oh five Pounds should be enough thanks.” I replied. “I only need food for five of us for the next couple of weeks and with what’s left we can all go down to the pub this evening.” Readers will appreciate that five pounds was half a week’s wages in those days. Days when Britain was still a proper country and had a viable currency.

“You’re the chap camping down the hill with the four girls aren’t you?” Kommandant asked.

“Yes, that’s right.” I replied.

“And you think you need food and money as well!?” He enquired. Somewhat astonished.

I smiled by way of a reply, loaded up the 2CV and set off back to our tent.

The other thing we had forgotten was a torch. I was in the Boy Scouts however and so well able to ‘improvise and make do’. After returning that evening from the pub in the village I simply drove the 2CV up to face one side of the tent and switched on the headlights. This provided ample light for the girls to undress and climb into their respective sleeping bags. Me, being the perfect gentleman of course, went for a quick stroll around the campsite whilst all this was going on.

By the end of the week I was selling tickets to all the rest of the surfin’ dudes camped on the site.

I’ve finished lighting up now.

For the night anyway.