Combi culture: They call them Wal, Jubal, The Beast .. At the tail end of their European adventure, antipodeans flock to Market Road, Islington, to sell their Volkswagen camper vans. For some, it's like parting with an old friend

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Islington person may not know it, but an unassuming corner of the borough has become world famous. Market Road, N7, is legendary in Australia and New Zealand as the launch pad for countless budget European tours.

In this nondescript street off Caledonian Road, antipodeans buy and sell mobile homes to tour the Continent. News of its existence has spread by word of mouth, and on a summer Saturday 40 camper vans can be seen for sale on the wide roadway.

Buyers, fresh off the plane or flush after several months working in Britain, wander up and down, keen to be on the move but anxious not to break down on the road to Dover.

Vendors, bronzed and mostly in their twenties, sit in collapsible chairs on the pavement swapping holiday anecdotes or reading blockbuster paperbacks. Many sport the travellers' uniform - shorts, shades, baseball cap. A few young children toddle about; a woman passes a tin mug of black tea to a man eating chips from the bag. Some take a few hours to close a deal, but the less fortunate end their European adventure with an enforced stay in the grimy street, nervously counting the days until their flight home.

The most popular campers, Volkswagens or 'Vee-dubs', go for about pounds 1,800, with purchasers able to sell them after their journey for roughly the same amount, despite the extra few thousand miles on the clock.

The vans seem to be indestructible. Decades-old specimens are driven across the Sahara, over the mountains of Austria and Switzerland, into the northernmost wilderness of Scandinavia. Like the VW Beetle, the 'combis - combined driving and accommodation - have air-cooled engines which, though short on power, are legendary for their reliability.

What the Vee-dubs also have is character, as New Zealander Sharon Meyer, 25, discovered during a four-month tour of Europe. She and boyfriend Jim Hill, 26, have just parked their orange van in Market Road with a price tag of pounds 1,950, but Sharon has been seduced by camper culture and is reluctant to sell.

'At first I thought people were crazy when they were telling me I'd give him a name, but after a while it was like travelling with another person. We called ours Wal, he's a character in a cartoon strip back home called Footrot Flats. I've grown so attached to him I don't mind if we don't sell him. I was getting tearful as I was writing the 'for sale' sign.

Journalist Sharon and Jim, a telephone engineer, bought Wal in April for pounds 1,000. The price reflected the pounds 600 worth of work that the van needed, but their gamble paid off - after the overhaul Wal purred for more than 6,000 miles through France, Italy, central Europe and the United Kingdom, needing only a pounds 5 set of points. The couple attribute their smooth journey in the 21-year-old camper to their garage's advice: never drive Vee-dubs above 50mph, and rest them every four hours.

Wal is a VW Westphalia, one of the most popular campers because of its concertina 'pop-top roof which ingeniously creates space for an extra double bunk.

Internal arrangements vary, but each Dormobile has fold-down tables, moveable gas rings and a fridge or coolbox. Washing facilities are limited, but use of campsite showers compensates.

Sharon demonstrates the combie's attributes like a first-time buyer proudly showing off her new home. 'We couldn't believe how much space there was. There's plenty of storage room under the seats which go flat to make a double bed. It was more comfortable than our water bed back home.

She and Jim only have five days before they fly home, but if Wal doesn't sell they'll leave him with friends and use him when they return next year.

But for Margi Hindmarsh, 23, and James McKinnon, 26, from Sydney, time is fast running out. The couple have lived for 16 days at Market Road trying to sell The Beast, their blue 1975 VW Devon, and are decidedly twitchy. With the holiday season part over, this is a buyer's market.

The pair have less than two weeks until their return flight and want to sell the van so that they can visit Scotland, birthplace of James's grandparents. Their heads turn anxiously as they track potential customers. Market Road also attracts professional dealers, but they would only pay about a quarter of the pounds 1,750 asking price for The Beast.

The consensus among others in the van village, who have dubbed the couple 'the grandparents because they have been there so long, is that they should drop their price, as their combi carries a few rusting battle scars.

For James (pictured on our cover) and Margi, the highlight of the last fortnight was finding a Chinese takeaway on Caledonian Road. They have showered at Islington Tennis Centre across the road for pounds 2. A discretionary charge for the toilets makes the neighbouring park's bushes a preferred option though, and this has angered local residents.

Market Road is far cry from running with the bulls at Pamplona, the highlight of James and Margi's European adventure.

'Pamplona was pretty major, Margi recalls, smiling. 'We hadn't seen so many Aussies and Kiwis for months, it was wild. People would party all night then run with the bulls at 8am. Some guys climbed up the fountain and jumped off the top; there were a couple of deaths.

This kind of drunken machismo is anathema to Heather Payne, 47, a mother-of-three who emigrated to Australia from England 20 years ago. She is now divorced, and has abandonded her career as a librarian to join an alternative lifestyle commune near Brisbane.

'I had built my house, planted the orchard and got the vegetable garden started, so I thought it was time to go, she says.

Heather and a male friend embarked on a four-month journey in a 21-year-old Westphalia (called Jubal (after its registration, JUB 924L). In contrast to the usual antipodean whistlestop tour - 10 countries in as many weeks is the norm - the pair restricted the number of countries they visited, choosing instead to spend seven weeks in a Greek fishing village and make a leisurely tour of Britain.

Heather arrived at Market Road on Saturday morning, confident of selling Jubal quickly for pounds 1,600: 'I'm putting out good vibes; the universe is going to send me a buyer] It may have been cosmic forces, or it may have been that the price was right, but within six hours Jubal was the property of two Kiwis.

A few doors along, chef Tara Brogan, a chef and her husband Geoff, a designer, waited with their daughter Ella, five, to sell Molly, their maroon VW van, which has been their home on and off for 18 months. They travelled around Europe and North Africa and spent six months near Nice restoring a farmhouse.

They are selling the 16-year-old vehicle prior to returning to New Zealand, Geoff's homeland, on 19 August.

After five days at Market Road, the Brogans have dropped their price from pounds 1,650 to pounds 1,500. 'We're not worried, my brother lives here so if we can't sell her he can, says Tara, 27, who left Ireland for New Zealand seven years ago.

They want to return there before Ella reaches school age. 'We have been teaching her from early-learning books, but it's time to go back to Auckland; she wants to go home, says Tara.

Suddenly Margi from The Beast runs up, her earlier listlessness vanished. 'Hey guys, we've done it, we've sold the van, she whoops, to cheers and applause. The buyers are five Aussie lads won over by The Beast's clip-on tent which will provide extra sleeping space. After some haggling, the couple accepted pounds 1,600, and James is preparing to celebrate: 'Let's get the beers in]

ANTIPODEAN ADVENTURE TRAIL

For Australians and New Zealanders touring Europe by road, the season starts in March and April. Demand for vans increases steadily till the end of June as Aussies and Kiwis head for Pamplona's bull-running festival in early July, considered an essential stop by many. The trip ends only after they have tried to drink the Munich Oktoberfest dry.

A typical three- or four-month visit also takes in France, Italy, Greece,

Austria, Switzerland and Benelux. Central European countries such as Hungary are becoming increasingly popular, while the more affluent travellers include a few weeks in Scandinavia or Ireland.

Seasonal demand is reflected in van prices, which are on average 20 per cent higher between March and June than in July and August. As winter approaches, buyers can strike a hard bargain with sellers desperate for the southern hemisphere's sun.

Market Road has taken over from previous unofficial trading centres at Waterloo and Hackney which were dispersed during the late Eighties by police. Word has it that one ousted convoy of camper vans found itself in Market Road and pulled over, instantly creating a new trading ground.

There are no parking restrictions on the street - although Islington council may consider introducing them next year - but using it as a mass sales area is technically illegal, with 2ft signs warning vendors they can face prosecution. In practice, the rapid turnover of sellers and the fact that most live overseas makes legal action difficult.

(Photographs omitted)

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