Nobody seems to love our old Bedford campervan like we do. Enraged drivers, stuck behind us for several hours, overtake at breakneck speed, shaking their fists; residents of small villages stare disapprovingly as we crush a couple of flower-stands trying to manoeuvre through their tiny streets. We understand, but nothing can quell our pleasure in it.
As the trend for camping abates somewhat under the relentless grey skies of the English summer, campervan sales have spiralled. Let it rain! We stay tucked up nicely enjoying a cup of tea, peering at the view through the clouds and tutting with sympathy as campers run to secure guy ropes. The moment the sun comes out, so do we, stretching and yawning, off for a game of Frisbee before bed.
'There is something rather wonderful, it must be admitted, about sleeping under the stars listening to the crackle of your fire. But as campervanners, we get the choice – we carry a small tent with us and if the night is fine, we too can opt to lie on cold, damp earth with nylon sheets flapping hysterically around us.'
You can enjoy just as much wild countryside from a camper as a tent, and most campsites are open to tents and motorhomes. And if/when you just cannot bear one more minute in the wilderness, you can pop off to a more civilised site (a Caravan Club or Camping & Caravanning Club), where you can wash clothes and revel in the manicured lawns and immaculate facilities.
Tent campers, campervanners and motorhome owners belong to very different but select groups. Tent campers are typically there for the shortest time; arriving for a weekend break or a week in the school holidays, they often have an inordinate amount of stuff but still emerge in the morning with cricked necks and cold feet. There is something rather wonderful, it must be admitted, about sleeping under the stars listening to the crackle of your fire. But as campervanners, we get the choice – we carry a small tent with us and if the night is fine, we too can opt to lie on cold, damp earth with nylon sheets flapping hysterically around us.
On arrival in a new place, a motorhome owner will typically spread a patio-sized groundsheet outside their front door and pull a loggia from the side of their van before putting up a tent or two for extra storage. A gas-powered barbecue might come next, followed by a large family dining table with an oilcloth and wine glasses and cutlery and lanterns. The TV satellite dish is hoisted and aligned, windbreaks and hammocks are pegged down and strung out. Then the outdoor lifestyle gear can be brought down from the van: mountain-bikes, inflatable boats and lilos, kayaks, even motorbikes. Only when the grass is almost invisible beneath the mass of equipment can a plot truly be called home.
Campervanners, by which I really mean VW campers – although my Bedford van aspires to be in this group – are by far the coolest. The children who travel by VW often have flowers in their hair and young parents. The vans have attractive customised interiors and pirate flags dangling from their aerials. VW vans always look as if they’ve just been to a festival and are now off to the sea for some serious surfing. Indeed, festivals with your family are much, much better in a campervan – it brings some level of stability and comfort to an otherwise crazy time and you can be much more adventurous when it comes to where you go.
Campervanners don’t seem to carry ridiculous amounts of stuff with them (there’s no room) but they are still Tardis-like in their ability to conceal old-fashioned deckchairs, fire-pits, bunting and surfboards. Indeed, you can pack up the mountain-bikes, surfboards, binoculars or hang-gliders and take off to some choice spots to indulge in whatever your passion may be. On one campsite this summer I was sandwiched between a family of scuba-divers and a family of windsurfers. Their campervans carried all their equipment and they arrived back every evening for a hot shower and an evening by their fire.
Campervanning can also be a good way of seeing cities on a budget – park your camper in a campsite on the outskirts of the city and get in by train or bus. You could also try wild or stealth camping in the middle of the city, but make absolutely sure it’s okay before you do so as traffic wardens don’t seem to sleep. On the other hand, I’ve parked in residential streets and got away with it if it looked as if the van belonged to someone on the street (you might have to leave quite early in the morning, though…)
Wild camping is in theory much easier to do in a campervan than in a tent, but you still have to pick your places carefully. If you’re desperate, lay-bys will have to do – or Tesco allows campervanners to spend the whole night in a store car-parks (very convenient if you’ve also run out of essentials!).
If your camper looks like an actual van, then it’s much easier to park in most places – as long as you don’t erect an awning or start a BBQ, then staying overnight is acceptable in lots of places (having said which, don’t advertise your presence unnecessarily). Avoid all Forestry Commission places and anywhere owned by the National Trust. The best places to stay are generally beach car-parks or beside facilities such as pubs – tell staff you’re there and go in for dinner, and they’ll generally be happy to see you. Depending on where you are, do think about security – some people put on their own wheel-clamps for the night.
In the end, simply touring is probably what my son and I enjoy most about campervanning; driving the Bedford along country lanes, the wind in our hair and the crackly old radio on…
Read our tips on motorhoming holidays with kids.