Campervan newbie Monty introduces the joy of camping to his family
Molly stood looking at the van quizzically, her head tilted to one side, causing her copper curls to tumble and glow in the evening sun. “Ashley,” she said finally, “he looks like an Ashley.” And so our camper van was christened, and as I surveyed his comforting foursquare appearance in our drive, I thought the new moniker rather suited him. He looked approachable, modest, friendly, and reliable. If Ashley was a bloke as opposed to chunk of metal, he’d be the sort that’d ultimately get the girl despite the attention of the flashier, well-muscled, loud-mouthed types. I rather warmed to him, and wanted to take him out for a pint. It was important that Ashley maintained his air of nonchalance and unflappability over the next four days, as his job was to transport us to Cornwall, and what’s more make sure we were all comfortable and happy throughout. This was a doubly onerous task, as we were bumbling rookies to the world of the campervan. This might seem surprising to some, as we had just returned from filming a second series of “My family and the Galapagos” for Channel 4, and as such a certain level of derring-do might seem to be built into the clan DNA. But sadly living on a remote island in the blistering sun for several months is very different to living in a van in the hammering rain for a few days. When it came to campervans, we were babes in the woods. “We” consisted of myself - Monty Halls, biologist, film-maker, and erstwhile traveller - my wife Tam, herself something of a nomad in her younger days, and our two wee lasses Isla and Molly. Isla is eight, and has an abiding love of the sea and wildlife. Molly is six, and is a truly wild Celt, a distillation of Tam’s Irish roots. It was no leap of the imagination at all to picture Moll’s running down a gorse covered hill, painted entirely in woad, gleefully dispatching quailing English settlers with a colossal shillelagh. The plan was simple. A gentle foray in to west Cornwall, our base an idyllic camp site within striking distance of numerous local beaches and tranquil forested walks. As we boarded Ashley, I felt nothing but a sense of keen anticipation, mixed with a heady whiff of the pioneer spirit. There’s something about a van - the heightened seating position, the larger wing mirrors, the width and weight - that makes you feel like you’re cracking a bull whip over a span of oxen. I was ready to lead my family west, to the land of promise and a new van-centric existence. Unfortunately as we drove west, hurtling east towards us from the Atlantic at breakneck speed was a rain storm that can only be described as Biblical. As we stopped for our first pastie (a cliche, but an essential one on crossing the border), a low pressure system was squaring its mighty grey shoulders off Lands End, pausing only to scoop up colossal amounts of seawater to deposit on the weak and the foolish. With a combined closing speed of seventy knots or so, we thundered towards each other, with us singing “If you’re happy and you know it…”, and it grumbling and strobing in apocalyptic rage.
We arrived at our mutual destination - Penrose Campsite - at precisely the same moment, with us duly fish tailing our way to our pitch, and the storm rolling and roaring overhead. I glanced in the rear view mirror to see the kids peering back at me wide-eyed as I steered our little ship over green fields and brown mud. Finally the engine stilled, the whip-whop of the wipers ceased, and with a suitably theatrical thunder-crack, we had arrived. And here we were introduced to one of the joys of the van. That feeling of security and invulnerability as you turn the front seats around, fire up the kettle, and set up your little table. Our van was supplied by Ventura, a bespoke company just up the road from us in Devon. The thing I particularly love about Ventura is that everyone who works there seems to be genuinely, completely over the moon that they are actually making campervans. Picking up the van for the holiday means chatting to several people who are more excited about the whole thing than you are. The storm raging outside meant that we could explore inside, which the girl set about with some gusto. There were - for a start - some multi-coloured interior lights that activated on the press of a button. A promising start to say the least. There was also the pop up roof that revealed a den (I did explain that this was actually a sleeping space, but plainly the folks who had designed it had a den in mind when they did so, any six year old would tell you that). What was even better that it created a haven in the storm, one that was soon occupied by various cuddly toys and colouring books. Tam and I bustled about making coffee and stuffing things into cupboards. This is when a powerful, essential theme of camper van life emerged, and one which now sees me throw myself upon the mercy of the reader. It’s a pressing issue, and we need help. Your help. Systems. To really, really enjoy life in a camper van you need systems. This became readily apparent as the storm moved on, releasing us from our incarceration onto a green field that now glistened like scattered emeralds. The kids were away, throwing open the door to run shrieking through the wet grass, electrified by the storm, energised by the proximity of the sea and the appearance of a weak sun that peeked out from behind metallic clouds. Tam and I also emerged, and began to unpack. This scene was repeated around the field, but with one subtle difference. Everyone seems much better at it than we were. Systems you see. Systems. Our technique, ably assisted by Isla and Molls, was to unpack the entire van, then rummage about in the debris to find what we needed. Our neighbours, who swiftly gained god-like status in my eyes, merely moved from indoor mode to outdoor mode. Fire pits were produced and duly inflagrated (not sure that’s a real word, but I’m using it anyway). Containers were produced with Rooibos tea, clever foldy things were unfoldy’d (see brackets in previous sentence). Drying racks appeared, windbreaks unfurled, and a palpable air of calm and bonhomie descended on one and all. But not for the grubby newcomers - oh no. I couldn’t find the matches, which wasn’t actually that relevant as I’d forgotten the fire pit anyway. I had to crawl under the van to retrieve our frisbee, which made my jeans extremely wet. I tried drying them on a wing mirror, which instead made then form into a clammy lunge shape, gently steaming in the sunshine with accumulated man-gravy from the nervous last stages of the drive down. And it’s not like I’m new to outdoor living. I’ve run numerous expeditions to far flung corners of the globe over the years, but then again for these my team members weren’t two (sometimes three) mutinous girls who suspected that I was out of my depth. They say that nature abhors a vacuum, well I’ll elaborate on that by saying the little people abhor order and structure. My feeble attempts at imposing discipline and neatness were batted away with the contempt they undeniably deserved. So here is a question if I may? What five things would you say, as camper van veterans, are indispensable for newbies like us? Any responses gratefully received, for our adventure has only just begun and - if this first experience is anything to go by - will be one of many for decades to come. Because it was slowly dawning on me that all was not lost. Far from it - we were actually really, really beginning to enjoy ourselves. Our first night was rather lovely, as the rain and wind returned but we slept secure in the womb-like interior of Ashley. I even turned off all the lights, and put on a soundtrack of a wooden ship sailing through a stormy sea - all creaks and waves, with the odd whip crack of the rigging and the cry of a gull - and told the girls to imagine the voyage they were on. Ashley rocked gently in the gale, and yet the girls were asleep within minutes, riding their dreams to distant shores.
The next few days saw a foray in Ashley to Porthleven, where the lowest of low tides saw the girls looking at me reproachfully as they stood up to their wet suit clad knees in the harbour as I shrilly implored them to “look closely and there’s loads of crabs”. Porthkernow Beach provided cold Atlantic breakers into which the girls plunged, hastily followed by my good self as safety cover, with both of them hanging onto the manes of white horses as they reared and plunged towards the shore. Onwards to the Minnack Theatre, where the rain cleared just long enough for blue skies to show us to our seats, before a vast cloud sailed into view like a great, grey blimp, to pause overhead and open the bomb bays. And then onto the playground at Helston. This rose, Atlantis-like, from a puddle eight inches deep, which the girls decided was a cut price log-flume and thundered gleefully off the end of the slide fully clothed. As a final hurrah, Isla decided to attempt the largest of the metal slides, made slick by droplets in it’s smooth interior. Her exit at about 300 knots from the end was - happily - witnessed by daddy, as was her rictus gurn of pure terror. I did what all responsible parent would do in the same situation, by taking a photo and immediately posting it on twitter. It did gratifyingly well, hitting a record 112 likes, a fact somewhat lost on Isla as I picked her up from several yards away, at the end of a perfect furrow carved in the bark chippings of the playground floor. And all the while, waiting for us to come home, was Ashley. Our base camp for many a foray, our den, our haven, and our magic carpet as we trundled through the lanes of Cornwall. Systems did emerge by the end of the holiday, they just weren’t very good ones. But we will get better, under the benign tutelage of our friends who already have the camper van bug, and the wider nomadic community. No longer will our trips be defined by the strapline “Where did I put the….”. Ashley for his part give me the distinct feeling that he wants to stretch his legs, to show us the mountain and the moor, the cove and the copse. We will explore together. So the adventure begins. We’re hooked, although we ride on a wave of camper van innocence. That won’t stop us - as Ross Edgely memorably commented “You must be naive enough to start, and stubborn enough to finish” - but those five tips would speed us on our way. I’ll just nip off and check the email……
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