Having put our house on the market early in 1992, we received no interest in it at all until well into 1994. The property market had slumped and buyers were few and far between.
Then in the summer of 1994 we received four offers within a few weeks of each other. One was not really suitable and so we informed the other three that the first to exchange could have the property. This resulted in the farcical situation of a contract race after some eighteen months of stagnation. One prospective buyer dropped out after a few weeks but the other two were within hours of each other in exchanging contracts. We felt quite bad about this as we did not wish to disappoint either set of buyers, but did need to sell.
Since buying the house in Spain in June 1993, we had stayed there once in the October, ‘camping out’ in the property which of course now had no furniture in it, the previous owner having moved it all out. He had in fact also taken out the wood burning stove that Wendy did not like, and had removed all the light shades and most of the fittings. We were planning in any case to replaced the light fittings with special 12 volt low energy ones, but not of course until we moved. During our stay there that October we therefore had to live by candlelight and to quickly buy a new stove as the evenings were beginning to chill off.
Completion of our sale in Cumbria was finally fixed for the end of September 1994 and we set about getting ready to move.
We bought a second hand transit van to carry our goods in, and a caravan to sleep in on the journey. We were moving from a five bedroomed Cumbrian longhouse, used as a guesthouse, to a two bedroomed singly storey dwelling. We therefore arranged a house contents sale to a Penrith dealer, and loaded what we needed into the transit. My eldest son paid us a visit during this time and helped load up the van, which was tightly packed and also loaded on the roof. We had so much in the van that the springs were flat, even before the caravan was attached, giving fears of a failure en route. The last items to be loaded into the back of the van were an avocado tree and an orange tree, both of which had been grown on our Cumbrian windowsill. On the afternoon we left, I watered both trees in the back of the van and closed the door.
We had originally intended to travel to Dover, cross to Calais on the ferry and travel through France into Spain. This had to be changed at the last minute due to the bureaucracy of the English veterinary service. The story is ludicrous beyond belief and refutes the English belief that bureaucracy is a European not an English disease.
We contacted the Ministry of Agriculture in Carlisle and were told we had to have our dog immunised against rabies before travelling, and that a local vet in Hexham who was Ministry approved would advise us. On contacting these vets, we were told that they could carry out the injection but that we would have to find out all about it as they did not themselves know the procedure.
After ringing the Ministry several times, we finally managed to get the injection carried out. When the vet came to fill in the form that would give access to France, he rang us and said he could not fill it in as the injection was carried out less than 30 days before travel. He could do the form for entry into Spain, he explained, as that form did not have the same provision on it. If he had not carried out the immunisation, he further stated, he could have signed the form as it was not essential for animals to be immunised against rabies, but if they were it had to be done more than 30 days before travelling into France. So much for taking advice from the Ministry or their approved vets!
I then rang the French consulate and spoke to their veterinary officer. The French had no requirements at all, he told me, all the rules were ones written by the English, and we would have no trouble landing in Calais, however we might not be allowed out of Dover by the English customs. I then rang the Ministry of Agriculture in London to enquire of their veterinary section if, in view of this, they could let us travel. The senior officer there told me it was a French requirement, when I politely told him that was not so, he insisted it was and was very annoyed when I quoted the French vet to him, and he hung up.
We decided therefore to travel from Plymouth to Santander direct and the Hexham vet signed the necessary travel papers for Spain. I had in fact carefully read these by now and knew that in fact there was the same thirty days clause in them as the French ones, but neither he nor any of the Ministry vets seemed aware of that, and I did not enlighten them.
There was however a problem, the forms had to be signed three days before travel and it would not be possible to get to Plymouth in this time. The forms in fact said they had to be signed within three days of leaving the country, and that the forms were valid for ten days. Did we then have three, ten or even thirteen days in which to leave England after signature? We needed to know before paying for our fares.
When I asked the vet in Hexham who ‘specialised’ in this work, he predictably did not know. It was now after office hours, the day before we were to leave Cumbria, and we needed to know what the forms meant. The Ministry vet in Carlisle had of course gone home by then, but as he had an unusual name I looked him up in the phone book and rang him at home. I asked him to explain the contradiction on the forms, he could not, nor was he particularly inclined to be helpful. I threatened him with MPs, Citizen’s Charter and so on, and he promised to ring his Chief Officer and get back to me. Later that evening he called back, his Chief Officer also did not know what the meaning of the forms was or the solution to the contradiction they contained.
We were to go ahead and leave the country as soon as possible and, if challenged, refer the customs officials to him, by name, in the Carlisle office.
In the event, no one asked to see any papers at all, either leaving England or entering Spain, but the fact does not absolve the Ministry or the vets of inefficiency, misinformation and general bureaucratic nonsense.