It was a sign. Literally. A ‘Slow you Down’ placard greeting drivers at the start of the small village in North-Norfolk where I live. I’d returned there after completing a degree in Creative Writing, and had been working as a singer-songwriter, as well as doing a care job to help pay the bills. As I stared out of my window one day at the ‘Slow You Down’ sign during a brain-storming session to think of a tour idea to help promote my next album, for some reason the image of a milk float surfaced in my mind. I was always up for slightly mad-cap adventures to promote my albums, and for the last one had done a tour around Alaska and Canada, hitch-hiking my way through some wild and wonderful places along the way.
Nature is a big inspiration for my songwriting, and I started imagining driving a milk float through the remotest parts of Britain, having time to appreciate its varied landscape away from the hustle of modern life. I knew very little about milk floats except that they were slow, battery powered, and weren't used for delivering milk very much anymore. After doing some research online and posting on milk float forums (yes, they exist!), the general consensus was that it would be almost impossible to do the kind of trip I envisaged in a milk float, partly due to the weight of the batteries, which would also require a huge charger to be carried on-board. The owner of a dairy who'd attempted a road trip for charity in a milk float pessimistically replied to one of my forum posts, 'It will be a bloody miracle if you make it back in one piece'!
There's a stubborn part of me that doesn't like being told that I can't do something. Instead of taking the advice of the ‘experts’ I tried to think of the most unlikely places you might travel to in Britain by milk float. In a particularly inspired moment, I struck upon the idea of travelling to the Outer Hebrides. It was a place I'd always fancied visiting, which seemed a good enough reason to go! I now needed to find a milk float, and somebody suggested I try a company in Oxfordshire called CBL who specialised in converting milk floats. After speaking on the phone for a while, it seemed that John, the owner, didn't think I was completely insane as I told him about my tour idea. John said that he could fit some special lightweight chargers that I could use to charge the milk float up at campsites, and that if I had a decent set of batteries, the distances I wanted to travel should be achievable.
I arranged to make a visit to John’s workshop at Bampton, near Oxford, and turned up one lovely summer’s day a few weeks later. The workshop was tucked away down a small alleyway off the main street, with a milk float that looked like a Red Bull can standing at the entrance. John poked his head out from beneath an old-fashioned looking milk float that was in for repairs and a paint job, and came and shook my hand. Everywhere I looked there were milk floats of different shapes and sizes, in various states of decay and repair. There was a really smart milk float with a blue paint job and a catering hatch, and I wondered if this could be the one John had mentioned might be suitable for my tour. My heart fell slightly when I was shown instead a rusty former Madeley Parish Council vehicle that had fallen on hard times, with a punctured tyre, a cab cluttered with rubbish, and a set of dead batteries.
I tried to stay positive, and imagined instead what the milk float would look like once it had been converted. The back wasn't huge, but big enough to fit a small camping bed and some music equipment. It was much lower in height than I'd expected, about four and a half feet high inside, but with a hatch fitted to one side it would be possible to stand beneath to perform outdoors. After taking lots of measurements I went into John's office to discuss prices. The good news was that I could have the milk float for £1,500, but the bad news was that it would cost another £10,000 for a new set of batteries and to do the modifications that I wanted! I told John I'd think about it overnight, and went off to mull things over. I had no idea where I'd get that kind of money from, but I'm a firm believer in following my instincts, and the next day went back to John's workshop and put a £1,000 deposit down, feeling sure that somehow things would work out.
When I got home, I printed a big sign with 'Milk Float HQ' written on it and stuck it to the door of my spare bedroom, which became the centre of milk float tour planning over the next few months. After another long brain-storming session (I was getting good at these!), I came up with the idea of selling advertising space on the milk float. Undeterred by not yet owning a milk float, I printed some leaflets about my tour and started approaching local businesses for sponsorship. I managed to get some good publicity through my local newspaper, the North-Norfolk News, who were highly enthusiastic when I told them about the idea. They fixed up a photo shoot at Dairy Crest in Norwich, and filmed a video of me playing a song from a milk float. I couldn't believe it when my story made it onto the front page of the paper, with the headline 'Local Singer-Songwriter’s Milk Float Tour' plastered on billboards outside all the local newsagents.
I had a good relationship with BBC Radio Norfolk, having done several phone-ins for them during my tour of Alaska and Canada, and arranged an interview to go and talk about my latest plans. The first thing that presenter Stephen Bumfrey said to me on-air was, 'Has anybody ever told you that you're completely mad?'!
' I like to think I'm perfectly normal for me,' I quipped back.
Stephen was definitely tickled by my idea, and said that I could pop into the studio whenever I wanted, which would help to keep the project in the public eye. Determined to strike while the iron was hot, I put a box full of leaflets in the back of my car and spent the next week traipsing round all the shops and businesses within a 30-mile radius of my home. Things didn't go as well as I'd hoped as I reeled off my spiel to one shop owner after the other about the benefits of taking out advertising space on my (still non-existent) milk float. Sometimes all that is required to make an idea grow is a small act of faith, and mine came one rainy autumn afternoon, when I phoned Sheringham artist Brian Lewis from Milk Float HQ.
'Yes, I'll take an advert on the milk float,’ Brian told me straight away when I explained who I was. I knew Brian vaguely, as he'd bought the hall where my mum had run a children's nursery group, which Brian now used as his studio. My mum had sadly passed away several years earlier, but I felt that somehow she was looking over me, and that it was a good omen that my first sponsor was connected to her. The next day I went to visit Brian, who took me for a spin in his TESLA electric car. When we got back to his studio Brian offered to write me a cheque, and we shook hands on the deal.
It turned out to be a good few days, as I also got my first gig booked for the tour at the Green Britain Centre in Swaffham. Penny, the manager, had been really enthusiastic about the environmentally-friendly element of the tour, as I’d be using solar panels to power my music gear, and generating low carbon-emissions through travelling by battery power. After meeting Penny and being treated to a guided tour to the top of their wind turbine (at the time the only one in Europe with a viewing platform), we set a provisional date for me to perform there at the start of June. Over the coming weeks I gradually gained more sponsors, and started looking into applying for funding from Arts Council England. I'd been in contact with a lady called Helen Meissner who ran an independent record label called Folkstock Records. We met up to discuss her helping to promote the tour, and between us we came up with a plan that we felt might appeal to the Arts Council, offering support slots to up-and-coming singer-songwriters, and running song writing workshops on the days of my gigs.
I'd been working hard on gaining more tour bookings, and now had about 20 provisional dates in England and Scotland. I suddenly realised that I'd be in Scotland around the time of the Edinburgh Fringe, and thought it would be great if I could culminate the tour with some shows there. After making enquiries about places to perform, I was put in touch with a company called Essential Edinburgh, who organised outdoor events on George Street, one of the busiest festival areas. They loved the concept of the milk float, and booked me to play daily for the final two weeks of August. In an inspired moment I decided to call the tour 'Floating to the Fringe'. All I needed now was a milk float!
I put in a huge amount of work into getting my grant application together for Arts Council England, and finally hit the send button on my computer. I now had sponsorship from Roland UK, who were contributing music gear, and I'd also managed to get my ferry tickets paid for by Caledonian MacBrayne, the Scottish ferry company. I'd phoned up the marketing department at CalMac and spoken to a guy called Peter, who turned out to be a total music buff. After talking about music for an hour or so, Peter said he was keen to support the tour, and that I'd need to fill out a sponsorship form on the CalMac website. The next day I had an email back saying that CalMac would be paying for my tickets to travel with the milk float all the way up the west coast of Scotland as far as the Isle of Skye. I couldn't believe my luck!
The Scottish dates were coming together nicely, with bookings to play on the Isle of Arran, Islay (where I'd always wanted to visit because Donovan had written and recorded an album there), Colonsay, the Outer Hebrides, and the Isle of Skye. I also had a booking to play on the Isle of Rum, where vehicles aren’t normally allowed due to being a sensitive natural environment. It made my day when a permit came through for me to travel by ferry to Rum, with 'Type of Vehicle - Milk Float!' written on it, and a big warning in red letters saying that there was 'A speed limit of 15mph in Kinloch Village'. I somehow didn't think that would be a problem in my milk float!
I also had several bookings in the Scottish Highlands, thanks to a music promoter called Rob Ellen, who I'd contacted after finding a website he runs for connecting musicians with 'House Concert' hosts. The idea is that somebody with a large enough space in their house to put on a show invites their friends along to watch a touring musician or band play, and at the end of the night everyone donates some money to the band. It's a great way for people to meet with artists on a more personal level, and acts often use it as a means of filling mid-week dates that more traditional venues might not book. After a fruitful Skype conversation one afternoon, Rob said he'd send me some more booking contacts and put the word out about my tour.
I was working away when I got a phone call from my dad, who I’d asked to check my post, as I was expecting a decision letter from the Arts Council any day.
'I've got the letter here. Shall I read it for you?’ my dad said.
‘Go on, then,’ I replied.
‘I'm sorry to inform you,' he continued, 'but this time your application has been unsuccessful...oh, wait a minute...it says, we're pleased to inform you that your application has been successful.'
I could have strangled my dad for his little joke! After asking him several times, 'So, I've definitely got it then?', I started shouting 'Yes! Yes!', and jumping around my hotel room. So much work had gone into a project that up until that point had still been just a dream, but at last I knew it would become a reality. Admittedly, it was a very strange reality that would involve travelling almost 1,500 miles at 10mph to the furthest reaches of the British Isles, but I was well and truly ready for the challenge.
I'd been keeping John at CBL updated on the progress of my funding application, and organised another visit to his workshop. When I arrived, John said that he'd got another milk float in stock that he thought would be perfect for my tour. It was designed by the engineers at Bluebird, the company that had built the vehicle that set the world land speed record with Donald Campbell. I couldn't help but smile at the irony of a milk float designed by Bluebird, and had a good feeling that this could be my tour vehicle. The milk float was parked at a farm about 10 miles from John's workshop, and one of John's mechanics, Chris, offered to drive me there to view it. I took the opportunity on the way to pick Chris's brains about the potential downfalls of travelling the country in a milk float.
'Not a lot can go wrong except for the motor burning out...oh, and they can catch alight if you travel downhill too quickly and the motor sticks,' he said cheerfully.
As soon as the Bluebird milk float came into view, I knew it was the one for me. Bigger than an average-sized milk float, it had a modern, almost futuristic design, with lovely curved glass doors, retro wheel-arches, and a long back section that would be perfect for converting into a living / performance space. Chris said I could take the milk float for a test-drive, and I felt quite nervous as I turned the ignition key and heard the motor whirring into life. There was a small green button between the seats that you had to push downwards to engage forward motion, or press upwards for reverse, which triggered a loud reversing alarm.
As I put my foot down on the accelerator for the first time, I was surprised at how quickly the float pulled away. I drove to the end of the farm track and a short distance up the road, feeling like a small child in an over-sized dodgem. There were only two foot-pedals, one for accelerating and the other for braking. Turning round was quite tricky as there was no rear-view mirror, and I had to rely instead on the large wing-mirrors. Luckily there was no traffic about to witness my 7-point turn, although the farmer whose yard John was using seemed to find my maiden voyage quite amusing.
'Do you want to buy a horse instead?' he joked as I returned to the yard.
I tried not to show Chris how keen I was on the float as we drove back to CBL to discuss prices. John said the Bluebird milk float was going to cost a lot more than the first one I’d put a deposit on, but if the batteries were ok, it would still work out about the same overall. We eventually settled on a price that would include all the conversion work, plus fitting some leisure batteries and an inverter that I could wire solar-panels into for powering my music equipment.
I still had a huge amount to do before I left on tour. My album needed the final mixes doing, the covers designing, and the CDs printed. I had tour posters to design and print, and they needed sending out to the venues. I was also negotiating booking terms with many of the venues and trying to fill in gaps in my schedule, which meant phone calls and emails to constantly chase-up, and I still hadn't worked out where I'd be staying in between gigs. I'd advertised support-slots for the tour on the Arts Council jobs website, and had hundreds of replies to wade through.
Eventually I short-listed the acts whose music I liked, and that I felt would fit best with the ethos of the tour. I also had a couple of artists from Folkstock Records playing some dates, and had met with one of them, Daria Kulesh, a Russian singer-songwriter now living in England. Daria was really keen on playing some dates in the Isle of Skye, but I only had funding from the Arts Council for the English part of the tour. I agreed to guarantee Daria a few support slots on Skye, and also offered all the acts who were playing in England the chance to come and perform in Edinburgh.
It was around this time that my dad received the devastating news that he'd got cancer. We didn't know if he'd have to undergo chemotherapy, and I seriously considered putting a halt to the tour, as he'd need a lot of support during the months ahead. Luckily, I have two caring brothers who offered to help out as much as they could, and I was touched that my whole family, including my dad, insisted that I do the tour no matter what happened.