January 06

Love in their Campervan

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I fancied getting away from the e-mail world, so I took Victor the Volvo to Bexhill, not far from Hastings, for a day out at the English seaside. Bexhill is famous for two things – it’s elderly population and its fabulous 1930’s De La Warr Pavilion with its sweeps of glass. On a sunny day, this building can be a paradise, a hidden gem that few people know about.

The sun was shining when I arrived so I parked Victor and walked to the seafront. The view across the water from the pavilion was incredible. Sitting on a bench looking out to a glorious blue sea was an older couple. I thought “How relaxing it is just sitting there holding hands without a care in the world”.

But I couldn’t resist it. This was a moment of tranquility that I wanted to capture forever so I ran back to Victor to get a camera. First of all, I shot the couple from behind, then, I went up to them and said:

‘Hello there, what a fabulous view. This is like heaven!’ Their names were Arthur and Irene. ‘Arthur’, I said, ‘where did you meet this gorgeous babe?’

He smiled back at me, ‘Well, it’s a bit of a long story…’

Apparently, both of them had been married before and both couples had been friends with each other for a long time. But, after their long-term partners had passed away, Arthur and Irene had fallen in love. I couldn’t help thinking that their long-term partners would’ve been pleased they’d found happiness together.

‘That’s wonderful’, I said. ‘How about a love shot?’

‘Ooo, OK. What’s that?’, asked Arthur.

I put their arms around each other and said, ‘This is a love shot.’  They were laughing and I got them to walk towards me as I tried to capture their true love in a photograph.

Later in the afternoon, after a short drive in Victor and a swim, I started shooting various seaside scenes, but just couldn’t somehow seem to get a great photo. As you know, that’s what I’m on the look out for every minute of the day – it’s almost like an illness. It looked like I’d be heading home without that key photo and that’s not like me, normally I come across something.

As I drove away from the beach, I noticed a road heading up a hill overlooking the sea. A sign by the side of it said ‘Dead End’. It was almost as if I was being drawn to drive up it. At the top was a tiny, circular, very empty car park. I got out of the car and the view over the beaches was just magical.

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I’d just taken a few pictures and was returning to Victor when I noticed an old Volkswagen camper van tucked to one side looking abandoned. A tiny window had been left open, so I walked over and took a look inside.

What a picture! A man, I guessed, in his 50’s or 60’s, with a huge belly, fast asleep in his pants and snoring like a foghorn.

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Beside him was a lady with a Jackie Collins novel on her lap, also fast asleep. Such a great photo! I grabbed my camera but in order to capture them while they slept I needed to slide the window open a little further to get my camera inside. If this very English moment wasn’t to escape me, I needed to do it carefully.

Because it was dark in the van with the curtains closed, I had to guess the exposure and shutter speed. It was like a military assault. Poking my camera through the small window, offering me no more than an 8-inch gap, I turned it to wide-angle setting and shot off a few frames. When I withdrew it to check the exposure, I found that the setting was nearly right, so I began shooting again, hoping the noise the shutter was making wouldn’t wake them.

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I was a metre away from his belly and this was a once in a lifetime photo. By the time he woke up, I’d taken about 20 more frames. He started looking around him and I pulled my camera out of the window and pretended I was just shooting general views.

When I started to walk back to Victor, I noticed he was laughing at me. I’d got caught and was just about to sneak away when my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know who they were and what they were doing there in that tiny, tucked away, car park.

It was now 5:30 in the afternoon and I thought I’d just pop over and say a quick hello. I told them who I was and said that their van looked very cosy. Then, I asked them if they were in love. Right away they started laughing and said,

‘What? After 45 years?!’

Next thing you know, they invited me inside for a cup of tea and – can you believe it? – three hours later I was still there chatting to them.

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They were called John and Sylvia and it was clear they were true soul mates.

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They lived in Felixstowe and every year for the past 25 they followed the same route down the A259 to spend six weeks on holiday with Jimmy, their dog. Their current camper van was 15 years old VW and they told me they always parked by the roadside or in car parks, not like the sheep that go to caravan sites. Every year they parked in the same places for 2 -3 days, even the police had got to know them and would pop in for cup of tea.

They told me they had two children, used to run a coach company, and that throughout their lives they’d seen plenty of ups and downs, as indeed each of us have or will.

They both looked so young but John was 83 and Sylvia 77. John had a horrific scar on his leg and when I asked him about it, he told me that six years ago he’d gone into hospital for a routine knee operation and picked up an MRSA infection that’d almost killed him. He spent six months in hospital and undergone six operations before they could rebuild his leg with the result he will never walk again. He had tears in his eyes while he told me the story. He said he’d now put on so much weight he can’t fit into the driving seat anymore, so he sits on a large bench in the back while Sylvia has to drive everywhere.

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During the three hours we talked, Sylvia served me four cups of tea with some very posh cakes. She made tea the old way in a nice teapot.

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I can’t tell you the pleasure they both gave me. In all, I took around 300 photos while we talked and I even got them to pose together for some love shots.

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When I left them, I had a huge warm glow in my heart. We hugged and swapped telephone numbers before I took a final shot of Sylvia outside on John’s little scooter.

She said, ‘Please visit us again and bring your family with you!”

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A week later, I did just that, this time they were on the beach at Brighton.

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John told me so many stories, I was in heaven.

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Crikey, the ‘Wonderful Sylvia And John – one of Great Britain’s friendliest couples. This is why our wonderful older generation and  I continually say we have to celebrate our fabulous oldies now not at their obituaries. People like Sylvie and John have nearly 150 years of life and wisdom between them both to offer us all.

Sadly, John’s heart gave up and he recently went up to heaven. Bless you John. You gave me a day I will never forget in those sexy pants and the wonderful love you showed Sylvie. John is now in a happier place with some of his old friends.

Sylvie is as chatty as ever and has just sold that fabulous camper van and bought herself a tiny car to putter about in.

Bless them both. I hope this tale inspires you to say hello to an fabulous oldie. A hello will make your day and make their day better too.

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