My beautiful overseas summer family holiday
A week touring Cornwall in a vintage Kombi with her husband and two teenagers delivered Pippa de Bruyn the happiest of holiday memories
‘I’m not spending another night sleeping in a flapping plastic bag,’ Tom said the first night we took the kids camping. At least I think he said flapping; it was hard to hear above the gale-force wind tunnelling through the Bainskloof cliffs, the weight of our bodies the only thing anchoring our newly purchased tent to terra firma. It wasn’t always thus – in the early days of our courtship we’d had a heady week camping wild in the Scottish Highlands, plunging into inky lochs and braaiing in fields of daffodils. Then there was the month travelling up through the Namib to Kaokoveld and east to the Caprivi, sleeping on the rooftop of the Toyota bakkie we’d crowdfunded with our wedding. But the yen for solitary escape wilted with the arrival of a baby, sleep deprivation, bath-time routines and a crushing sense of responsibility. Camping in the wilds didn’t seem quite so much fun any more. That’s not to say we didn’t try – there was that night in Bainskloof, and the time in England when our youngest manifested a pollen allergy in the tiny patch of shade we’d found amid the tall grass. The final straw was a jolly paenkindkamp held on the school athletics field. When Tom returned dishevelled at 1am with a sleepy daughter over his shoulder, I knew the tent would never see the sun again. We had other fine family holidays and weekends away – of course we did – but in retrospect, far too few. One minute the kids were small and in awe of us and the magic of the natural world;
the next they were rolling their eyes and making plans to trawl the mall. I should have put my foot down, should’ve slipped away on Friday afternoons, opened the hatch and escaped from the dreary demands of tidying rooms and packing away plates. But there was time enough, I thought. Besides, I wanted the intimacy and can-do atmosphere of camping combined with a road trip – the landscape rolling past, unbidden thoughts and conversations bubbling to the surface, discovering each other in the airing of interests and troubles of our unconscious minds. One day we’d overland to Kenya, or head off across the States, just the four of us. I’d look into home schooling, research the routes. I did nothing of the sort. I slipped into a kind of perverse laziness, one in which you work all the time – trying to make money, an impression, a legacy, I don’t know – while time contracts and 17 years later your daughter has a learner’s licence and you wake up rubbing your eyes like Sleeping Beauty, only without the beauty, blinking as you look around asking, ‘What the hell happened to the years?’ With those frayed apron strings dangling so loose, I started feeling by turns panicky and tearful. We had got to the point where we would soon play a small supporting role, largely financial, while our eldest headed into the sunset with her friends, preferably – she dropped hints so heavy they may as well have been lead – in a vintage Kombi. It was Tom who found it. He showed me the site late one night when I was whining about the fact that this July would be our last holiday with two dependent children: O’Connors Campers, a Devon-based company with a small fleet of vintage VW Kombis available for hire – even a few split-screens, the original Type 2 that first rolled off the Volkswagen factory floor in March 1950. O’Connors’ camper vans were seriously cute and looked in mint condition. ‘Shiny Norma’ caught my eye first because she was the exact baby-pink hue favoured by our eldest. But Shiny Norma slept five in a double bed, single bunk and two canvas bunks. The prospect of sharing a 1,5 x 6m space with our two teenage daughters was daunting enough; the debate on who got which bed would be psychologistfodder in years to come, and there was enough of that already. So we settled on buttercup-yellow ‘I Am Spartacus’. Spartacus offered a double bed and a choice of four solid bunks in its roof space, a fridge, gas plate, oven, all the kitchen equipment you could possibly need, cheerful lemon-patterned curtains and even some polka-dot bunting. We typed in our dates, paid the deposit and I experienced that bizarre semi-vicarious rush when you think you’re doing something that’s best for your children, when in fact you are the child. ...
Had the original designers known that their utilitarian Kombinationskraftwagen would be anthropomorphised by surfers, hippies and middle-aged mothers, they may have tried to put things together slightly differently, but looking at Spartacus’ button-black wheel-nose and headlight-eyes peeking out of his bright yellow face, I feel an overwhelming fondness for what will be both chariot and home for the next four days. It’s a fairly lengthy process, the handover, but the sun is still shining when we finally set off from O’Connors’ workshop, bunting flapping, grinning at each other. Spartacus – tricky to corner and slow – does indeed come with everything bar the proverbial kitchen sink, like travelling in a neat little studio flat on wheels. But it’s when we pull into Henry’s Campsite that I know we’ve struck an alluvial stream far richer than any five-star lodge my job has on occasion introduced the family to. While Henry’s offers a host of facilities – a tiny but impressively stocked shop, restaurant, informal theatre, four groovy showers, seven toilets, charging facilities, laundry, braai areas, braziers, wood, gas, electricity – it is really like camping in a large sprawling garden, with hedges and colourful flower beds and views of green hills rolling down to the sea.
‘we shower and shop and cook and play games and talk in this gentle, generous, beautiful place’
Once parked in what is effectively our own mini-garden, we can’t see our neighbours and it’s hard to believe that Lizard village, with its pubs, shops, grocer, butcher, deli and fish ’n chips shop, is just a few minutes’ walk away. There’s a separate field where the pigs, chickens and goats live; ducks waddle past at feeding time. It’s a combination of wild and cultivated, rural and village, but there’s also a tangible generosity: the next morning we pick up free-range eggs placed in recycled egg cartons. They’re left on a shelf for campers to help themselves, next to an honesty box in which to deposit money. Henry’s shop is more often than not unmanned; you are simply expected to let them know what you have taken and pay what you owe. And everything is cheap – from the daily charge of £11 per person to the fabulous pair of vintage shoes that miraculously fit our youngest perfectly, and cost (when we could find someone to tell us) the grand ransom of two quid. Ad-hoc music evenings are held free of charge, and the evening we arrive we are told that ‘Dan Chapman and his boys’ are performing. Once Tom and I set up camp – which simply meant angling Sparty to my satisfaction and opening a bottle of wine – we join the girls at the communal indoor firepit, where Chapman’s haunting voice is anointing the motley array of travellers perched on benches around the large bonfire. He ends with a rendition of StrangeFruit that none of us will ever forget, and we leave clutching his CD, ready to enjoy our own fire under a star-filled sky. The next day we walk along the coastal path in a cleansing wind, then return to our little yellow home for breakfast in our garden. I feel happier than I have for years; the kind of happiness that recalibrates. A few days back Tom had accused me of being addicted to work. It angered me at the time, but for the first time in months I feel free, and my computer and phone remain untouched. We shower and shop and cook and play games and talk in this gentle, generous, beautiful place, and I feel alive and perfectly present in the relationships that familiarity can dull but are the most precious. We will be sad when we pack up to leave Henry’s, but this is a road trip so there are a few new adventures to look forward to. We will go to St Ives next, negotiating through the narrow lanes to see what the artists in Cornwall are producing. I will watch my eldest look wistfully at the kids lined up for a surfing lesson – another unrequited wish we both share, but I can still redeem for one of us – before setting off, now in heavy rain, for Loveland Farm. Here we will abandon our beloved Spartacus and sleep in one of Loveland’s big dry geo-tents; still together, the four of us in the one room, perhaps for the last time. Again we will cook and eat and prepare for bed, and I will no longer ponder the loss of all that I could have done, the missed opportunities, the times I could have been the parent I wanted to be. For now, we are together, the sound of our breathing sending us to sleep, content in this single shared space.
The enchanting Cornish coast from Lizard Point, close to Henry’s Campsite.
FROM ABOVE Henry’s is as much a garden as it is a campsite, with lots of lovely surprises, such as the tiny overgrown house (hidden in the bushes, at left) that only a child can enter; the quirky interior of Welcombe Pod at Loveland Farm.