VW California SE
Having both experienced camping as children, it was only natural Sue and Paul should buy a campervan when they met…
Sue only owns the right to the driver’s seat, but that’s plenty
The address on my husband’s birth certificate is ‘The Caravan, Gellysifor Farm, South Wales’. Following their wedding in 1949, his parents couldn’t find a house they could afford, so his father built a caravan with the help of a local blacksmith.
I also lived in a caravan as a child. When I was nine, my parents acquired an old wreck of a house in Suffolk, and my family (five of us) lived in a static caravan in the garden for the three years it took to make our new home habitable. So perhaps we both developed a taste for life on wheels at an early age.
Paul and I met much later in life: I was in my late forties and he was in his early sixties. I’ve always enjoyed exploring, particularly the UK, and Paul had always wanted a campervan. We couldn’t have been more compatible, that's for sure.
One day I came home from work to discover that Paul had just bought a VW T5 California SE. After – unbeknownst to me – scrutinising secondhand campervan ads for several years, he’d apparently hunted down the perfect ‘van!
One previous owner, who purchased the ‘van brand-new 12 months previously for family holidays, but found his family weren’t so keen on the idea and sold the ‘van back to the dealership.
The ‘van had around 18,000 miles on the
clock. But the plastic covers were still on the seats and the hob was unused.
Fighting over the driver’s seat
We added up the cash in Paul’s piggy bank, and it turned out he was £4,000 short of the asking price, so I chipped in the difference. My take is that I purchased the rights to the driver’s seat, and Paul bought the rest of the campervan, which seems fair!
We both appreciated VW’S clever design features: the way the side sliding door panel could be removed and converted into a picnic table; the two picnic chairs tucked away inside the lining of the tailgate; the small but functional kitchen, with its double hob, sink and miniature fridge.
The compact size of the ‘van overall was also important to us.
Our plan was to sell our Mazda car and use the campervan as our only vehicle, so it was important that we could park it without difficulty on the London streets outside our home. And the relatively small footprint meant we’d be able to navigate narrow country lanes, which might be less accessible to a larger campervan.
The ’van came with a four-bike capacity tailgate rack fitted. Paul and I actually met through a local cycling group and we’re both keen cyclists, so it’s convenient to be able to pitch up and take off on two wheels. (An added bonus is that the bike rack doubles up, in sunny weather, as an outdoor clothes airer and washing line. Possibly not a function envisaged by VW.)
We’d set a date for our wedding the following year, so we were very excited about the prospect of honeymooning in our VW California.
But first we had to collect the ’van from Newcastle. It was a long drive from London. Fortuitously, my sister was hosting a family get-together in North Yorkshire for her birthday a few weeks hence.
We arranged for the dealer to hold the campervan until the following month, so we could pick it up while we were up north.
Even more fortuitously, my sister was on the lookout for a new car so we sold her our Mazda and swapped over to our new VW during the family holiday!
Paul and I noticed a campsite on a farm just down the road in Muker and decided we might as well extend our holiday by a few days to try out our new home from home. As it was now late November and there was a sprinkling of snow on the hills around us, we had no trouble at all booking a pitch. We wondered whether it might be a bit chilly sleeping in the pop-up roof, but we discovered that zipping two sleeping bags together, and topping them with a duvet, kept us warm at night. And the remotecontrolled heating system meant we could warm the ‘van to a comfortable temperature before emerging from our cosy cocoon each morning.
Usha Gap Campsite is smack in the middle of Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, so we made the most of opportunities to explore on foot.
The landlord of the local pub lent us a circular walk map and we set off one morning with glorious sunshine belying the time of year. It was a shock to experience a whiteout snowstorm as we headed back to the pub over the peaks.
The footpath disappeared under several inches of snow and we could barely make out the dry stone walls and, more importantly, the public footpath signs on the far side of each field. We ‘joked’ that it would be a shame if our first campervan trip ended with us getting lost and freezing to death, for all we knew just a few metres away from the welcoming pub where we’d started our walk.
A drive on the wild side
We were lucky to make it back in one piece and we took seriously the advice of locals not to risk driving over Buttertubs Pass to Hawes in Wensleydale until weather conditions had improved.
A few days later, we decided it was
probably safe to attempt the route over the top to Hardraw Force, England’s largest single-drop waterfall, just outside Hawes. The scenery was dramatic with sparkling white snowscapes extending in every direction, blending almost imperceptibly into white clouds suspended overhead in a vast blue sky.
Unfortunately, I am the world’s most nervous passenger on the best of days, so the steeper sections of the journey had me hanging onto the dashboard by my fingernails. We were both wondering if we should have added four-wheel drive to our list of campervan essentials, but we made it safely across and down the other side to Wensleydale, thankful that our first campervan trip together had provided such unforgettable memories.
In between that first trip and our wedding, we went for a couple more short breaks, including one memorable trip to Borrowdale, near Keswick in the Lake District, where we’d failed to notice the small print specifying no toilet block.
When we arrived and realised, we almost cancelled our pitch to search for a site with more facilities, but the location was so stunning, we winged it with regular visits to the local hotel bar (for luxury loos) and a handily located public toilet. Keen not to repeat this particular experience, when we got back home, we invested in a Porta Potti for emergency campervan use.
Honeymoon on wheels: a love affair with the Loire
For our honeymoon, we decided to spend a couple of weeks in France.
The Loire Valley seemed like a romantic destination, with its numerous vineyards and ancient chateaux, and we were also both keen to explore the stunning, rugged coastline of Brittany.
A French friend of ours, familiar with both regions, helped us plan our route and put together an itinerary.
We decided to book our first few nights on a municipal campsite on Île d'or, a small island in the middle of the Loire River in the town of Amboise.
We couldn’t have picked a better spot. The view over the river to the town was gorgeous, especially at night when the vaulted arch bridge spanning the Loire over to the town, and the Château d’amboise, was lit up with pale mauve spotlights.
One thing puzzled us about the site: early each morning, we woke up to a mysterious roaring noise. Unzipping the ventilation flap to investigate, we realised that the field adjacent to our campsite was the launch spot, around dawn, for hot air balloons. Luckily, the company had capacity for a last-minute booking so we spent our final evening in Amboise soaring over our island campsite and floating serenely over the surrounding countryside, finally landing to enjoy a glass of champagne in a field somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
We’ve had numerous trips away since then, all equally memorable in their own way. We did wonder initially whether it would challenge our relationship to share such a small space for extended periods of time, but we’ve taken to it like ducks to water. Some people prefer to take their home comforts with them, but we enjoy the adventure of ‘roughing it’ a little bit, making do with fewer possessions for a few weeks.
We like sleeping in the top berth in the pop-up roof and it also means we can leave downstairs set up purely as a kitchen and living room area, meaning there’s no need to rearrange seats and the bed at the beginning and end of each day. And we love waking up to sunlight filtering through the canvas, feeling a light breeze on our faces, and listening, from close proximity, to the dawn chorus in full swing.
We enjoy each other’s company and we’re equally happy whether we’re outside exploring or inside the campervan just reading, cooking and chatting.
We’re both keen cooks so Paul has made a point of seeking out compact cooking tools: a miniature cheese grater (retrieved from a Christmas cracker!), camping saucepans with folding handles for easy stacking, a tiny electric espresso machine and a Remoska, which functions as a small and very economical oven.
Owning a campervan has been a way for us to indulge in exploring the UK, sharing our love of the countryside and wildlife, and the pleasure of discovering regional foods and ingredients.
On the other hand, we’ve also discovered the joys of social weekends away with campervan-owning friends.
In particular, we’ve taken to seeking out riverside campsites where we can enjoy wild swimming and convivial group barbecues and long chats over a bottle of wine (or two!) with like-minded friends.
We’re also enjoying opportunities to spend relaxed quality time away with family.
We took our granddaughter, Gwen, for a long weekend away at Camber Sands when her little brother was born, and she absolutely loved it! So we're continuing the family tradition of introduction to life on wheels at an early age. Perhaps she will have a campervan of her own one day.
Our home from home
More recently, our campervan has taken on an unanticipated role in our lives.
When our new home purchase fell through unexpectedly on the date of exchange, we decided to take the risk of proceeding with our own house sale regardless.
We spent several months staying with friends and family, and also living in our campervan, mainly at the Caravan and Motorhome Club Crystal Palace site, which is handily located for cycling to my workplace in central London.
Having both spent our early years living in a caravan, we quite enjoyed living in our California for a while – it almost felt as if we’d come full circle.
We enjoy the adventure of ‘roughing it’ a little bit, making do with fewer possessions