Nigel DonnellySee other Blog articles filed in ‘Travel and touring’ written by Nigel Donnelly
PC's NEWEST RECRUIT Clare Kelly wasn’t sure what to expect from her first towing experience, which as keen caravanners know, is probably for the best
I love Holby City. It's my favourite. But the other night, I was too busy to watch. I sat, clutching a screwdriver, trying to assemble my new Milenco towing mirrors so I was ready for my first ever caravan driving lesson the following morning. I heard the theme tune pulsing away in the living room, caught sight of my perplexed reflection and ignored it, determined to finish the task in hand. It might be baby steps in comparison to what I had ahead of me the following day, but getting those mirrors together felt like a vital rite of passage before I climbed behind the wheel the following day.
On Wednesday morning, brimful of excitement, I packed my mirrors (I’d suddenly become very possessive) into their own carry case and swung it over my shoulder in a fashion I hoped would not appear too novice. Karrimor walking shoes and a hi-vis vest completed my towing look.
To be fair, I was unlikely to outpose the car. PC's show-stopping Tornado Red VW Passat 170 Bluemotion estate was intended to shine but giving the nature of the subject, I regret to inform you, it could stop traffic. Hooking up the Elddis Avante 372 was straightforward enough, safety checks were carried out, would the mirrors withstand the journey? I tugged them hard. They didn’t fall off. That was a good sign. At this point, I was almost showing off.
I'd imagined my first towing experience might involve a leisurely, Sunday-style drive, but I was wrong. Very wrong indeed. I was meeting PC’s Nigel Donnelly and heading to Chobham test track to taste towing for the first time in the company of a supercar or two.
The track, nestled alongside the M3 motorway in Surrey was an MOD facility for testing tanks until the 1990s, when it opened for use as a general test track for the likes of Autocar magazine and McLaren F1. And for one day only, Clare Kelly and a caravan.
Getting a wiggle on
Nigel drove us to the track, explaining some simple caravan physics as we went and encouraging me to observe the Elddis as it bobbed along behind the Passat so I could see how it behaved. As soon as we arrived at the track however, the theory lesson stopped. We switched seats, my grip on the steering wheel was tight as we pulled out on to apron for my maiden voyage. Actually, voyage gives the impression that this was relaxing. It wasn’t. But if I was going to learn something, tickling the surface just wasn’t going to cut it.
I started getting a feel for the outfit by driving up and down, getting a wiggle on here and there just to see how it responded. There was relatively little backchat as both Elddis and Passat were yet to have a reason to complain.
I was getting comfortable driving around in wide circles but things were about to change. Nigel turned to me and said: ‘How about an emergency stop?” What followed next is technically known as dilly-dallying, I barely built up enough speed to warrant stopping at all. I tried again. I bottled it. I just didn't want to do it. By the third attempt, I was determined to do it properly. If you ask Nigel, he'll tell you that my expression changed. I was ready to do it.
Of course, the big advantage of learning the art of a towing at a test track means that you get time to learn and more importantly, the space to make mistakes. It would be unthinkable to attempt an emergency stop just to know what it felt like, out on the roads. At the track however, it would be a shame not to.
It feels like this — really heavy. Jam on the car's brakes and we started to slow down before a thud kicks in and you think there’s no way the caravan will stop. In fact, Nigel explains, the thump is the caravan stopping as its brakes come on. After a few of these, the heart is beating faster and I start to enjoy it. Sensing my growing confidence, my instructor calls a halt to the fun and points to the main circuit.
Pulling out on to the main circuit, I check my grip on the steering wheel, it’s tight again; a mixture of possession and determination. I build up speed slowly but even 50mph feels fast as I tuck into curves and pass through puddles. Achieving equilibrium, it’s then snatched away as I am introduced to the joys of the Alpine Track, which at one point, feels like chugging up the side of a giant Toblerone. What will await me on the other side, I already know, I will not like.
Straight down and heading into a bend, I lean into it just as you may pointlessly breathe in when a large vehicle passes you. It doesn’t make any difference but you feel as if it should. A pattern emerges, we take to the circuit, before turning left onto the Alpine Track repeatedly until something clicks into place just as the caravan and car did at the start of this adventure. It all feels a bit more natural.
Taking the outfit onto the roads is a different matter altogether but conquer it I must.
To find out how Clare got on taking to the road for the first time, click here
To see what is being said on the PC Forum, click here