Former tennis champion Annabel Croft is picking a new kitchen, which requires a certain sort of stamina.
‘We’ve got the oven and hob sorted, and the cupboards, and we are just discussing how we can fit in a coffee-maker,’ she reveals.
Her husband Mel Coleman, a former international yachtsman, will install this kitchen himself. Life tip, ladies: round-the-world yachtsmen make very useful husbands. ‘They are used to being at sea and fixing anything that needs fixing. I had no idea that other people’s husbands weren’t as good at DIY,’ she says.
Because the new kitchen isn’t in their home, but is being installed in an old DPD parcel delivery van the pair bought, on a whim, with a view to converting it into a home-on-wheels.
Former tennis champion Annabel Croft (pictured here) has turned a postal truck into a mobile home
By the time this phase of lockdown ends, they hope to have taken off in their van, on a tantalising-sounding mid-life adventure around Britain.
As well as a full-kitchen, ‘Vannabel’, as Mel has dubbed the mobile home, will boast a shower, toilet, dining table and even a garage. A what?
‘Well, we call it a garage but it’s actually a section under the bed,’ says Annabel. ‘I think we will be able to fit a couple of bikes in there, and hopefully my yoga mats.
‘Doing yoga on Zoom has been a revelation during lockdown, but I now have this dream of opening the back of the van in the Scottish Highlands, or somewhere, and being able to do it al fresco.’ She pauses.
‘There might be an element of mid-life crisis to this. Some people have said, ‘You are doing what? Are you mad?’, but I love the idea of the freedom. Since we embarked on this, we’ve realised what is possible. There is a whole community of van-converters out there. It’s like a cult.’
She’s right. A quick browse on Instagram will confirm that the trend for turning a bog-standard van into a mobile-home-of-your-dreams is very much a thing.
Annabel, 54, and her husband are used to a life of travel. As a tennis player on the international circuit, living out of a suitcase was the norm, but even in the past few decades she has travelled constantly.
Her husband Mel Coleman, a former international yachtsman, helped her with the project. Pictured: She sits inside the empty van
The couple run a tennis school in Portugal, and Annabel also has commentating commitments. Or she did until lockdown grounded her.
The idea of ‘Vannabel’ was born at the start of this year, when Mel, 57, was looking for a ‘project’, she explains.
‘I think we all love a project and the idea of something DIY-based, which might also offer some travel opportunities was intriguing. Mel saw these vans online that people had converted into mobile homes and they were exquisite.
‘And the idea that we could do one ourselves, then take off, grabbed us. It’s about the freedom, the sense of adventure, going off-grid.’
When ‘Vannabel’ is finished, she will contain all the mod cons — including a TV and that all-important coffee-maker — but they will be run by solar power. A gas tank fitted underneath the van will provide the hot water.
When we speak, Annabel — who is keeping her social media followers up to date with their progress on Instagram — has been helping fit the loo.
‘It’s called a cassette toilet,’ she says, more thrilled at her new facilities than you can imagine any woman would be. ‘We’ve taken some advice and cut through the side of the van to install it. This means it can be removed easily and more hygienically, for emptying.’
By the time this phase of lockdown ends, they hope to have taken off in their van, on a tantalising-sounding mid-life adventure around Britain. Pictured: She gets to work on the van
Couldn’t they have just bought a campervan, which is already equipped?
‘Oh yes, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.’
Instead, they shelled out for an old parcel delivery van.
‘People do convert ordinary white vans, but the postage vans are longer so lend themselves to this more. Once you take out the bulkheads, where the parcels would have gone, you have a sizeable space. You can stand up in it.’
You can also lie down in it, although fitting in a bed has proved problematic, given that Mel is 6 ft 4 in. ‘Most people do fit a bed horizontally, but because of Mel’s height we’ve gone for one that goes lengthways and kind of slides away.’
The plan is for ‘Vannabel’ to be ready by April, around the time lockdown restrictions are eased. ‘Then we will be off,’ says Annabel. They will chart their adventure for Annabel’s social media followers.
Viewers will remember seeing her host a UK travel show, of sorts, when she took over from Anneka Rice on Treasure Hunt, but helicopters were involved then. ‘This will be a bit more meandering,’ she says.
Is their marriage ready for this? Most women want to kill their husbands after a year of lockdown, not bunk-up with them in an even smaller space than their home. She laughs.
‘I think we will be OK, given how long we have been together. It’s been a lovely thing working on this.
‘It’s quite romantic, the idea of just taking off.’
Covid-permitting, she still has work commitments this summer, when she will be commentating on Wimbledon for the BBC.
‘Maybe I will be able to take Vannabel and park her outside, and use her as a green room,’ she jokes. It’s a most definite change of direction for a woman who has form with surprising us all.
In her teens, Annabel was the Golden Girl of the British tennis circuit who was propelled right to the top — then made the astonishing decision to quit the game, at the age of just 21.
The plan is for ‘Vannabel’ (pictured) to be ready by April, around the time lockdown restrictions are eased
Her story — which she now shares with youngsters in the hope that they might avoid some of the pitfalls — is a salutary one.
A string of childhood successes led to Annabel being theNo 1 female tennis player in the UK.
By her late teens, she was on the international circuit, locked into a relentless — yet ultimately lonely — existence.
‘It’s not a world you can make friends in. You study body language with a view to using it against someone, to win. You don’t confide in people. You don’t let them in, and if you do you risk them using it against you,’ she explains.
Perhaps it’s for the best that before she lost her sanity, she lost her love of tennis. Walking away was a cataclysmic decision.
‘At 21, you’ve got sponsors, lawyers, agents, managers, coaches, all sorts of stuff bearing down on you. But what I say to kids today is that if you think you are on the wrong path, you have to get off. It was a huge thing, though.’
There were massive financial implications, too. ‘I don’t remember money being a factor, but obviously the earnings then wouldn’t have been anything like they are today. Maybe now you could walk away at 21, and not have to worry about earning a living. Then, no.’
She did rebuild her life. Already a celebrity, she took part in all manner of media ventures, even doing panto.
She had very little to do with tennis until in more recent years, where she has returned as a pundit. She plays too: for fun, finally.
‘I’ve come full circle. I couldn’t play for a long time, but it — the love of the sport — came back.’
How long did that process take? She gives a big sigh.
‘For two years I didn’t lift a tennis racket as I explored other avenues like theatre and television.’ Meeting Mel, when she was 21 and he was 23, seems to have been the big turning point. By then he had quit his sporting career, too, and become an investment banker.
They married in 1993, having Charlie, 26, and Amber, 24, soon after. Lilly, now 22, completed the family. Her children have done all the ‘normal’ things children do, Annabel says, pointedly.
None wanted to go down the professional sports player route, ‘although my son Charlie did dabble with the idea, with golf’.
‘It didn’t happen, but I would have supported him. These things have to come from the kids, though. I see parents trying to push children, who just aren’t interested, and it’s terrible.’
Instead, all her children went off to university, which she rather wishes she’d had the chance to do. And it’s only recently that they’ve started to travel on their own.
‘I think that generation is quite mollycoddled, compared to ours,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t imagine them travelling by themselves.’ Mind you, the children now seem to be queuing up to have their own trip in ‘Vannabel’.
‘My daughter wants to go off on a road-trip with her boyfriend,’ she says. She will have to contend with her mother’s yoga mats first. Annabel reckons she is as strong physically now in her 50s as she was in her tennis-playing heyday.
‘I mean, there would be issues with stamina. If I played a five-hour match, I might start to flag in the fourth hour, but in terms of overall fitness, I’m fitter than I was when a professional player, which is the most bizarre thing to be saying. It’s true though.’
She’s more svelte at 54 than she was at 20, a fact that will make many women green with envy.
‘I weigh about about two-and-a-half to three stones less than I did when I was playing professionally, which again is extraordinary. My muscles are a completely different shape — more elongated.’
Could she simply be happier today, and less prone to something that sounds like comfort eating?
‘I’ve never quite got to the bottom of what happened, but when I was on the tour, I was definitely putting on weight.
‘I don’t know whether it was puppy fat, or nibbling, or unhappiness, but the upshot was that I was putting on weight, and a lot of it, which is extraordinary given that I was an athlete.
‘The weight melted away after I stopped professionally and it’s never gone back on again. It was almost like all of that angst and emotion was locked in this body.’
She’s spent the years since rebuilding her physique. Her approach gives hope to the rest of us that it’s possible to remodel your body during and after menopause. She’s a yoga enthusiast, is careful about nutrition, has embraced Chinese medicine and sought help for joint and menopause issues.
Quite how topsy turvy Annabel Croft’s life has been — ‘I’ve done things the wrong way round,’ she quips about her realisation of the link between mental and physical health — is brought home when she points out that her youngest daughter Lilly is now older than she was when she retired.
‘She is just starting out. I was already ending that chapter of my life. I may only have been 21, but I felt like I was 35.’
A new chapter awaits and she has the chemical toilet to show for it.
‘If this last year has taught us anything, it’s that we must grab adventure when we can,’ she says. ‘Yes, it might be a mid-life crisis, but bring it on.’
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