Crashing vans, juggling 11 balls, etc. (Ten Years Ago Today)

Last year I wrote a blog post called “Ten Years Ago Today” in which I shared the story of a life-changing event; attending my first large juggling convention.

So today a friend mentioned that he’d just bought a car using eBay, without seeing it first. This reminded me of how I did the same, for my very first campervan purchase. This led to another life-changing event for me! And it happened almost exactly 10 years ago (May 21st 2001), so I thought I’d share it here too.

(I don’t know about you, but I love the fact that the last decade of my life has been documented (by me) in such detail with words and images and videos. Most people are doing that now, through Facebook, and in ten years I hope they’ll still have access to it all. Thankfully I have archives of my websites and blogs and diaries, and get the benefit already.)

Anyway, here’s the dramatic post from ten years ago. A “flash” in juggling terms is one cycle of a pattern, with each ball thrown and caught once.

How I Flashed Eleven

A short story on how I flashed eleven balls for the first time ever one Monday afternoon this spring:

A few weeks ago I decided to buy myself a campervan. I wanted to buy a VW Combivan type thing so I searched around locally, then nationally and finally on the net. On Ebay.co,uk I found an auction for a Fiat campervan and snapped it up for just over 300 pounds. I had a mechanic check it over and popped down to Wales to pick it up.

And this is what I got:

There was a bit of rust on the bottom of the doors so I patched that up, hence the white bits on the door you can see in the above picture. The only other thing that was wrong with it was the choke cable was snapped but I wasn’t in much hurry to fix that as it started fine without it.

The van was MOT’ed until October so I insured it via work and bought myself some tax. I was going to paint it and re-decorate the insides. The plan was to make it look a bit like Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine:

I took the “before” photo ready for comparison with the final product. I was going to do a short feature on it at this website so I even put a story of my brother and I hitch-hiking across Europe as an alternative transport thingy. I had big plans for my little van, I was going to take it to the European Juggling Convention and everything.

After a busy time with university and at work I had 5 days spare so I decided to drive over to my parents home and catch up with the family, maybe take my sister out for a ride in my new vehicle. So, it was on a sunny Monday afternoon I set off for the 80 mile trip from Scarborough to Barnard Castle.

I was thinking of going via York to do a bit of shopping but in the end I decided to take the more direct route, via:

missing image of the Sutton Bank Sign

That’s right, the Notorious Sutton Bank, the steepest stretch of road in England. On the map it doesn’t use the word “Notorious” but I think it should. It’s not often they put statistics on road signs to get the point across so I guess it must be a bad spot. Look at that, 178 lorries got stuck on the hill in 1 year. That’s over 3 a week!

Hmmm… I think HCV means lorries. I’ve always thought they were HGV’s, for Heavy Goods Vehicles. Maybe the C is a spelling mistake.

Anyway, that sign is at the bottom of the hill. I approached from the top were there are about a thousand signs saying “Test your brakes!“, “Steep hill ahead!” and “You’re in a caravan? Don’t even think about it!“. I have driven up and down The Notorious Sutton Bank many times in the past so I knew what to expect as I turned the first switchback and faced the long, steep straight at about 10mph.

Keeping in third gear and keeping my foot on the brakes I continued down the hill. And then, as the slope gets steeper just before a switchback to the right, I stepped a bit harder on the brakes.

And I didn’t slow down.

I put a bit more pressure on the brake pedal and if anything I started speeding up.

Then it dawned on me: I was driving down the Steepest Road, the Notorious Sutton Bank, and my brakes had failed. Every drivers worst nightmare and it was happening to to me in my brand new 22 year old campervan. Just my luck.

I pumped my foot up and down on the brake and slammed it into second gear. At this point I had to make a decision. Do I;
A – try and get around the corner at high speed in a very narrow, top heavy vehicle;
B – see if I can aim for a narrow track that lead off the road between a gap in the crash barrier, with no idea about how much chance I’d have of stopping before hitting a hefty gate or shooting off the edge of the cliff or;
C – pulling on the handbrake and seeing if I could avoid skidding out of control which could easily have flipped the van over the crash barrier to a drop down the cliff.

I took option A and tried my best to make it round the corner without even a hint of a working brake. I felt a couple of wheels leave the road and the next thing I knew I hand come to a stop, campervan on its side, but still on the road.

It went a little bit like that. I didn’t get a photo of the van on in the middle of the road but you get the picture. It was still on the road, round most of the corner but not quite the right way up. I brushed the broken glass out of my hair, opened the driver’s door and jumped out. I felt slightly shaken but strangely, I find car crashes highly exciting. I had survived this one and experienced all the sensations of a rollercoaster with none of the predictable, boring safeness. I’ve managed to survive three vehicle write-offs now. In the first, someone drove straight up my rear end and destroyed my Nova (but I claimed compensation and bought my camcorder with my winnings) and the second I lost control on an icy bridge and plowed into a brick wall. And now this. I’m good, me.

I landed on the road grinning at myself and I heard some cars pull up behind me. In no time a group of men had lifted my van back upright and we pushed it up to the side of the road so it would be out of the way of passing traffic.

Here’s a nice view of some of the damage. It’s a good job there was nobody is the passenger seat, they could easily have been killed.

Here is a view from the inside, again you see that it was quite mashed.

One man who had called the police stayed with me until a car arrived. The PC took my details and called a recovery vehicle. He then got back in the car and buggered off, leaving me beside the road licking my wounds. I wasn’t badly injured at all, just some scratches resulting from wearing shorts and flipflops.

It was at this point I felt the first signs of shock coming on. I had emptied most of my gear out of the van so I decided to use my available juggling equipment to relieve the oncoming stress and work off the adrenalin still pumping around my body.

And I flashed 11 balls.

I did it. I used eleven B4’s (Ben Beever Barnesy Bags) and got it on my first try after one or two flashes of nine.

I know that it might be a while before I catch it on video or even do it again but that isn’t the point. I flashed eleven. To put that in perspective, only five other people have done it. In the whole world. Ever. Not bad, eh?

I think the car crash definitely had something to do with it, my hands were shaking from shock and my heart was still beating double time. I strongly suggest to anyone wanting to smash their personal juggling bests that they should have a go at losing their brakes while driving down a very steep hill, it worked wonders for me.

Still, there you go. That was the whole point of the story but I’ll continue to a conclusion….


This is a pick up truck that came out to provided some flashing light support and a rear view of my van about to be loaded onto the back of a lorry. I signed it over to the recovery company and gave them a bit of money to take it to a scrap yard for me. No sense in me pretending I could do anything with it. Soon my father arrived and gave me a lift for the rest of the journey. Thank goodness for mobile phones.

And the thing that annoys me most? Well, when the van was lifted back upright, a door fell off and out dropped a bag. As there were no brakes, the van rolled back slightly and came to rest against the curb. Unfortunately it rolled over the bag, the bag that contained my laptop.

missing photo of broken laptop

A cracked screen and a jammed floppy drive. Not to worry, the laptop only cost me 30 quid.