My ‘Right, that’s it. I’m going home’ moment came at exactly 4.58am on the Thursday morning of our week-long camper-vanning trip. After retiring to the upper bunk the night before, with just a few inches of headroom for manoeuvre, I had just performed a very contorted limbo over my husband Anthony’s sleeping body to try and get to the loo.
But the ladder had shifted. So as I made my way down, it slipped onto my 18-year-old daughter Lily on the bunk below, who was sleeping next to her 15-year-old sister Clio. Cue shouts of: “Ow, that hurt!,’ from Lily, ‘What’s going on?’ from Anthony and ‘That’s it I’ve had, enough,’ from me.
This was now the fifth day of feeling cramped and trekking to the shower block and it was all getting too real. So, after another disturbed night, the next morning we had a frank chat and agreed it wasn’t the holiday we thought it would be. We’d spend one day altogether on the beach at Camber Sands, then the girls could catch the train back to London and sleep in their own beds. While Camper-vanning holidays have surged 150 per cent post lockdown, we conceded, if you are going to take the children, they need to be less than half your size. Anthony and I would spend the last two nights alone.
Coronavirus has changed our lives in more ways than we can count, including how we go on holiday. Last year, I nonchalantly took summer breaks in the South of France and Venice, never imagining anything but time and money would hold me back from holidaying wherever I wanted.
Caravanning – an activity I had previously associated with retirees and hippies in search of the meaning of life– would never have crossed my mind in a million years.
But this year, it had seemed like the perfect solution.
It ticked every box. No air bridges or risk of cancellations. The complete freedom to explore corners of the UK I’d previously ignored in favour of Greek islands and European city breaks, all in a self-contained social bubble. It was no surprise at all to discover that requests for quotes to buy Volkswagen’s Grand California campervans, which cost more than £68,000 each, have shot up by 250 per cent in recent months.
I have always hated camping, knowing how damp and miserable it can be in the rain. But there’s no such worry with camper vans. which come watertight with built-in beds, as well pocket-sized on-board shower/toilets. Peter Vaughan, editor of Which Motorhome Magazine, says this renewed interest in the campervanning holiday is down to “the combination of people not wanting to holiday abroad, get on a plane or a cruise and looking for a safe and enjoyable holiday at home.’
As this is also the last summer before Lily leaves home for music college, I figured this could make for some memorable moments for what could be our last family holiday as us four. So, after lots of reminders about the importance of keeping a sense of humour and having reasonable expectations, we were out of the blocks the first weekend that campsites re-opened.
Our vehicle was a smart Fiat truck from Lovely Campervans, cleverly fitted out to fit everything in. That included a fridge, cooker and oven, as well as a dining table with an overhead TV, tiny shower room with a chemical loo and two tier bunks at the back.
And though it was dawning on us that we packed like a sardine on wheels, we drove off feeling convinced we had cracked the coronavirus holiday challenge. Teenagers, however, are at a tricky age. They are past the point of being enthralled by on-board gadgets – and not quite hardy enough to put up with discomfort or confined spaces.
And rather than getting away from it all, it wasn’t long before the van was a snake-pit of iPhone wires. The comments from the back were less about the passing landmarks, and more about whose turn it was to charge their phone next.
Being first out of the blocks was also not as brilliant an idea as I’d first hoped. A lot of the places we wanted to see – including Elgar’s birthplace (as the girls are violinists), as well as lots of cafés and restaurants, were still firmly shut.
True, the Malvern Hills were still there. But as we got closer, the full house of sun symbols on the long-range weather forecast were quickly morphing into pictures of rainy clouds– and soon it started bucketing down.
However the beauty of campervanning is that you can abruptly change direction and we decided to chase some sunshine by heading down to the Sussex coast. Wondering where to pitch up next, we put out a social media appeal to friends for ideas, and were advised to go further up the coast to Rye.
With the sun finally coming out, this just what we were looking for: quaint country pubs, an animal sanctuary the girls wanted to visit and the stunning spaciousness of Camber Sands.
Part of the thrill of the trip was that every day we set off in search of a new campsite, all costing around the £30 a night mark. We got better at it too. Our first campsite was a soul-less clinical complex with rows of white caravans laid out in grid, like a housing estate on wheels, but within a few days we had found a ‘woodland’ site, where we could park in little bays cut out into the forest.
And while yes, we quickly learned to check all drawers and cupboards were locked shut before we got on the move again because it didn’t take the smallest turn for even the smallest object to go flying, there were plenty of memorable moments too. Our cockapoo Honey’s helping to field the ball in our campsite rounder’s matches, her usefulness doubling as a hot water bottle when the temperature in the van dropped at night – and looking at the stars through the skylight over the top bunk. The best bit was knowing that wherever we went, our little temporary home – with all our belongings and food – was close by.
So would I do it again? Undoubtedly. But next time with just the two of us – the girls joining us for just a night or two if they fancy it.
I was sorry to say goodbye to them on the train back to St Pancras, but as it happened we had to join them the next day anyway when our kitten at home fell seriously ill – and so we needed to rush home to arrange an emergency operation.
We never did quite reach camper van nirvana you see in the adverts – opening the back doors from our bunk bed onto the perfect sunrise – or empty sand dunes. And I now know why people said Good Luck with an amused glint in their eye when we told them our holiday plans.
But with more experience, and the weather on our side, I believe we could manage to make our next mystery tour magical. And in the meantime, at least the dog enjoyed.
How to campervan as a family.
I over-packed everything, from badminton rackets to board games. So the most stressful moments was trying to stuff everything into every nook and cranny of the van. In the end we didn’t need any more than a pad of paper and a pack of cards.
Small touches make a difference
Take some bunting, to shout to the world you are having fun- it also double as a drying line – and some solar powered fairy lights for evenings.
Pare down your wardrobe
I imagined myself wafting around in a floral maxi dress, but sweat pants, a hoodie and flip flops for the shower blocks were the real essentials. Apart from fresh underwear, take as little as possible to wear and nothing that needs folding or hanging
Take outdoor furniture
The van worked best as a base – collapsible table and the camping chairs set up outside . Anthony, who is the chef in our family, cooked from the kitchen and passed the food down.
Take a real map
Don’t just rely on sat navs and google. A proper map will make it much easier to meander all over the country – and spot points of interest as you go. Plus phone batteries ran down much faster when we were on the road, and it was often difficult to get internet.
Practise three point turns
The van was easy enough to drive, but we did struggle on one occasion to free ourselves from a cramped pub car park, entertaining some amused drinkers in the process.
Tanith and Anthony hired their van from www.lovelycampervans.co.uk . From May to August the cost is £830 per week (£120 per day) and September – £730 per week (£105 per day)