It took quite a leap of faith to trust the 825 with our holiday transportation needs. There was myself and my girlfriend, a substantial tent, a weeks worth of clothing, cooking apparatus and all the other tat that a week of camping usually entails. The boot swallowed most of it, the remainder spilling out onto the rear bench seat, and when loaded the rear end squatted down sending the headlamps beaming into the sky, illuminating satellites and space debris.
We had a choice of two other cars to take, both proven to be reliable, economical and practical. Either the Peugeot or the Audi would have been a sensible choice. But, then, that wouldn’t have been a challenge, would it? Here was a chance for the Rover to prove that it could still cut it where it counts:-
I sought to prove that a 1997 Rover 825 Si is good at being a car.
On Saturday the 13th August, 4 AM, the Rover fired up on the first twist of the key. That was a good start. It pulled away from the driveway and pretty soon was on the A12, heading south, together with the thousands of other holidaymakers who thought they could beat the traffic by leaving early.
Inside, we were in comfort. The DAB radio was set to BBC6 and the cabin temperature was set to 22 degrees. We were in convoy with my parents, who were also going on a camping holiday. Their BMW 540i was also heavily laden with the two of them, another even bigger tent belonging to Nic and I and a bewildering array of camping accessories. All bulky, all heavy, but with 286hp to call on, Dad had no concerns.
He had a 111 horsepower advantage over us, and rear wheel drive, but at the 80mph amble we had settled at, it didn’t make a blind bit of difference. We had thought to arrange a 2-way radio setup between the cars, so we were able to synchronise rest stops and share route information, and both cars were able to benefit from our one radar detector. By our first stop we had dispatched the whole of the A12 and M25, and were part way down the M3, at Fleet Services. Here was an excellent opportunity to partake in McDonalds breakfast Hash Browns, a culinary treat new to my parents.
Unmoved by the experience, we continued on our way. The traffic had thickened and we had to deal with the inconsistent flow along the A303, digging ever deeper through the rustic English west country.
So far, so good. We were making good time, the temperature gauge was fine, everything seemed to be going so well. I was searching for something, anything to go wrong, better now than later. Fortunately, as we pulled to a halt at Exeter Service station, I found something to be at least mildly concerned about.
With a little bit of right hand lock wound on, a noise was emitted from the front right corner, sounding a little like a worn CV joint. It was only faint, but it was there. I didn’t mention it to Nicola, she had her reservations about the car from the outset, but I mentioned it to my Dad, essentially to ready him for helping me out in the workshop on our return.
As we continued on our journey, I let these thoughts fade to the back of my mind. My father was intent on going across the wild expanse of Dartmoor, and possibly stopping to brew up some coffee, but Nic and I were conscious of just how much bloody time that would take, and we had some hope of reaching our destination in a fit state to enjoy the evening. Dad yielded to the pressure, and we took the A38 instead.
Bad call on our part. Mysterious forces had screwed the A38 as we approached Bodmin Moor, and we were stuck fast in a queue of gridlocked caravans and tractors. Time was getting on, so my Father had “A Great Idea” and called on some of this innate expertise at getting from one side of the moors to the other. We turned off past the Jamaica Inn, and took the tiny road past Tollisford lake.
It turned out to have not been the road Dad actually thought it was, but no matter. We had avoided the line of stricken holidaymakers, and were now in Cornwall proper, just the wrong end of it. By lucky hap, we were only a few miles from Trago Mills, where we elected to stop for “Breakfast”.
Trago Mills, on the site of a former explosives factory near Liskeard, is a huge, slightly rustic shopping complex, selling all manner of peculiar, bulk-purchased oddities. There’s always a bargain to be had, and I found a book, "Classic Dormobile Camper Vans", at the Trago Only price of £6.20. Bargain. I also bought a Lens cleaning disc to try to amend the CD Changers annoying skipping habit, but totally forgot to use it during the rest of the trip. And we all had a lovely, greasy, life-shortening fried brunch. Thus energised, we drove on.
Nic and I had the goal of reaching the campsite, erecting the tent and relaxing with a cold beer. My mother, though, had a further trick up her sleeve to lengthen the journey. Near Penzance is a recently opened retail park, home to an enormous branch of Marks and Spencers. Now, it’s my Mums sworn objective to visit every branch of M&S in the universe, and to buy a delightful blouse in every single one.
We protested. Why the hell cater for your shopping fetish now, when you have the whole week ahead of you? A new cloud of grumpiness befell Nicola and I. We needed rest and or caffeine, and were powerless to go on as only they knew where the campsite was. Eventually, Mum relented. We would buy only the bare essentials for the coming evening. Milk, Bread, and Crisps on board, we hastened back onto the road.
It was the “home” stretch. Somewhere, over those hills, was the grassy patch we would call home for the next few nights. It was near St Ives, and the distance to that town dropped with every signpost we approached. And then it started to increase again. Confused, I checked with Dad over the Radio, and he confirmed that the campsite was actually the other side of the town, accessible only from the North.
We passed numerous campsites on route, ranging from simple open-gated fields where you were free to pitch among the cowpats, to huge, family-centric holiday-resorts with static caravans, Kidz-Clubs and evening discos. Our hearts sank at the prospect of it being one of these, with entertainment being forced down our throats at every opportunity. We like the quiet life too much.
The roads became winding once more, and we entered the hamlet of Halsetown. A one pub town, it all looked very earnest, very tranquil, and very basic. But then, down the tiniest of roads, we saw the sign for Polmanter.
Polmanter, it turns out, was the name of the campsite. We parked and I escorted Dad to book the cars in and learn more about our surroundings. There was a separate reception office, where people spoke in hushed tones and two busy looking, uniformed ladies sat at computer terminals, booking people in and out of the site with military precision. It was all very organised and all a little clinical, to the extent that cars were allowed in and out of the site only if they were logged by the number-plate recognition cameras.
Nevertheless, it seemed nice enough, and we drove through the automated barriers along landscaped paths to plot 112, an unserviced, square pitch with a privet hedge border. For extra cash you could have all services laid on, not just electricity and water, but TV, internet and full sewage plumbing. We, though, are celebrated for our tightness and were perfectly happy to collect our own water, use the communal toilets and make do with batteries.
Not too long after arrival, and after Mum had prepared quite the worst cup of tea I had ever experienced, we had constructed the tent, a giant eight man tunnel arrangement with a sleeping area at each end, each of which can be divided to sleep up to four in cramped, sweaty conditions, or two with ample room for stretching and stuff.
We could then assemble the array of extra bits and pieces, not just the folding chairs but also the collapsible table; a full height, canvas larder and, the jewel in the crown; a complete field kitchen with work surface and storage below. It seemed unlikely that Nic and I would have this much furniture in our first house when we get it, this was surely as well-appointed as camping comes.
So, our first day was over. There had been no dramas, we did have that cold beer, the rain stayed away just long enough to keep us dry during construction. But best of all, the car had safely brought us all the way from Essex to Cornwall, without really missing a beat, despite it being at the mercy of mine and my Fathers combined tinkering.
But, so far, it had been easy. Constant speed, good roads, hardly broke a sweat. The real test would start tomorrow; surely Cornwall had more in store to throw at us.