Family Campervanning for Beginners

We have some friends, call them Nick and Liz (those are their names, after all), who, when it comes to camping, always have the kit. When we first started going on family trips with them a few years ago, we had a threadbare bit of canvas; they had a sleek contraption that looked as if it had been designed by NASA. The next year they upgraded to an oh-so-fashionable cream bell tent with Moroccan-style scatter cushions. And last year they trumped us utterly, arriving for our annual camping weekend in a customised, red-leather-seated, gin & tonic-dispensing 1970s VW Camper. Grinning smugly.

I pretended not to care at the time, but already I knew that obviously, sooner or later, I was going to have some of that. After all, nothing is cooler than a VW Camper. For over 60 years they've been the vehicle of choice for surfers and searchers, guitarists and globetrotters.

OK, so our life these days is a bit more School Run than Surfin' Safari, but when I chanced upon Katy's Campers, a lovely one-woman company who hires out these dream machines for the weekend, I didn't hesitate. Here was my chance to try out the freewheeling, live-for-the-moment vanning lifestyle – and still be back in the office for Monday morning.

So one Friday afternoon, we met Katy at a lockup on the outskirts of Bristol, and took possession of Burt, a royal blue, 2011, VW type 2 Danbury conversion.

First impressions? Space, glorious space. Where normally our car is piled high with a tottering mountain of camping equipment, Burt had lockers galore to stash our gear. Our kids (7 and 5) were in heaven scampering around Burt's innards. And then there was all the stuff that was already packed in for us: duvets, a little storage tent, crockery, cutlery, a picnic rug and even– in our very own fridge – a couple of pre-mixed gin & tonics. Thanks Katy.

Second impressions? Wow, there's no power steering. And Burt handles like a truculent hippo. Manoeuvring out of Bristol in rush hour involved arm muscles I never knew existed, not to mention a grating relationship with a very tricksy third gear. Sorry Katy.

But soon we were thrumming along the motorway to the cliffs and beaches of north Devon, pulling up in darkness at Little Meadow campsite outside Ilfracombe. Out went the storage tent, up went the pop-up top, in went the kids, and down went the gin & tonics. We all slept wonderfully, warmer and quieter than in a tent, and lulled by the distant crash of waves.

The next morning, the sun rose over a spirited Bristol Channel, with sheep-grazed hills and crags plunging into the sea before us. Campsites don't get much more scenic than Little Meadow, and pulling back Burt's curtains and seeing that view was the stuff of vanners' dreams.

But soon the drawback of living in your transport became clear. We wanted to go to the beach. But first we had to pack up the beds, pull down the pop-up, reinstall the kids' car seats and unhook the electric. A couple of hours later, all thoughts of spontaneity cancelled, we trundled over to Woolacombe beach.

Woolacombe, like its neighbour Croyde, is all about the surfing, and though boogie boarding is the limit of my talents, we felt a certain bond with the wetsuited hordes bobbing in the swell. After all, they had campers too - they were all getting dressed and undressed in them in the car park.

We wolfed down a mighty brunch at Woolacombe's Beachcomber café, and then headed over to Croyde for a walk along the blustery Baggy Point, with its views out to the wildlife haven of Lundy Island. 

Then it was back in the van to Little Meadow, where we rehooked the electric, put on some tunes and made extensive use of that fridge. A proper cold beer on a campsite is a small miracle. Burt was earning his keep.

The next morning was a slow pack-up and then a day-long pootle back towards Bristol. And pootling is what campers do best, I soon realised. I nosed Burt down the steep but spectacular road to Lynmouth, then along the glorious A39 across the wide open spaces of Exmoor.  The miles unwound like cotton. On a whim, we dropped in on the fossil-strewn Kilve beach in Somerset, did some impromptu tyre-swinging across a stream, and finally trundled towards Bristol in twilight, the kids exhausted but happy in the back.

Our route home was via the Clifton Suspension Bridge, another piece of remarkable and graceful engineering that has stood the test of time. But as we approached the toll gate and prepared to cross, the attendant waved us to a standstill. I grimaced. No doubt we were over the weight or height limit for the Victorian bridge, and would have to backtrack for miles. I wound down the window.

"Is that a Danbury VW?" the attendant marvelled. "Is it as much fun as it looks?"

I could only, smugly, nod.

Exclusive Offer

To get you in the campervanning spirit, Katy is offering Cool Places users a complimentary campervan upgrade package.  Book any of Katy's campers and get the following add-ons completely free:

  • Breakfast hamper bacon, eggs, sausages, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, fresh bread and orange juice. (veggie option available)
  • Portaloo that fits into a small seat in the van
  • Travel DVD player
  • Sat Nav

The upgrade package does depend on availability, so check with Katy before you book. To claim your complimentary upgrade package, just send an email and quote 'COOL PLACES'. Offer expires end 30th April 2013.