Dougal, Florence, Dylan, Zebby, Oliver and Compton. Old or new, all the campervans in the Fishbourne fleet have a name, many with a Magic Roundabout twist. In the beginning, there was an Ermentrude, too. Ours was Isla. As in Isla Wight. And she’s also white. Isla isn’t one of the classic models, but a 2013 version, with all the bells and whistles. She is also the only one we could take off the island, apart from Dylan who was otherwise occupied. The Oldies can’t hack the pace on the mainland motorways, apparently.
These gorgeous VW campervans are the pride and joy of Will & Jubee Samuelson, who own Isle of Wight Campers. As if we were borrowing one of their children, Will took us over every inch of the precious Isla before we were permitted to transfer our bags from Vivienne, our VW Tiguan, to Isla’s pristine interior. Then we had to examine every previous nudge and bump, before being warned, quite seriously, not to create any more. He didn’t quite say ‘on pain of death,’ but the implication was there.
And I can’t blame them for such parental anxiety, as I know I’d be exactly the same. There is something very anthropomorphic about a VW camper. Growing up in England, we had Bella Bus, and she was as much a part of the family as anyone else. Also white, she was perhaps a tad less shiny and modern than Isla, and I have to give full credit to our parents for surviving four weeks camping round Europe with Bella, four smallish kids and a very large rain cloud. To this day, my parents love nothing better than to head off into the bush with their current campervan, fifty-odd years after they traipsed through Europe as newlyweds in an old Bedford van.
For years, we have talked of following in their footsteps, of buying a camper. Of the joyous freedom of a nomadic life with your own portable bed, kitchen and wardrobe. Of no longer dragging suitcases across acres of airports or drinking rubbish coffee. Of moving on whenever we felt the urge, and wherever the wind or the road took us, without all the usual palaver of packing boxes and removal companies.
We also knew we had to hire one first; to try it on for size, quite literally. With the One & Only clocking the height chart at 6’2” and Yours Truly being clumsiness personified at the best of times, we had to make sure we had enough room to manoeuvre comfortably, or bruising and claustrophobia would inevitably put the kibosh on any further escapades. And I have done enough camping in my youth to know that my own particular preoccupation (bordering on mania) is bathrooms and toilets, and how to survive without them. Thus, ‘try before you buy’ would be a vital part of the process.
For years, it had never been quite the right moment. And then, out of the blue, the perfect opportunity presented itself. We had a birthday party on the mainland, and we needed accommodation. Why not try a campervan rather than a hotel this time? William had a small window in his booking schedule for a few days before the Isle of Wight festival. It was exactly the time slot we wanted. We were in business…
We gleefully boarded the ferry at Cowes, thrilled to think that our first night’s dinner was ensconced in the pocket-sized fridge- -one I prepared earlier – while a couple of bottles of wine were tucked safely into the cupboard, along with everything else we could possibly need on this mini adventure, thanks to the foresight of Jubee and Will. Not for us a built-in icebox à la Bella Bus, which kept the milk merely tepid, squatting in a pool of melt-water, but the Real McCoy. And a gas stove! I love cooking on gas and we haven’t had a gas stove in years. As we drove through Southampton, the weather report promised a grizzly weekend of monsoonal rain; a veritable Noah’s Flood. Minus a few dry moments between deluges, that’s pretty much what we got. Nothing daunted, we took it on the chin and headed east towards Portsmouth, aiming for the South Downs and a campsite in the woods near Petworth, thanking God we wouldn’t have to erect – or disembowel – a tent in a storm.
Passing The Badger and The Three Moles pubs – both names tempted us to pop in, for the sheer delight of their Wind-in-the-Willows monikers – we resisted temptation and drove on, down winding country lanes with their thick hawthorn ramparts, past an endless array of pretty stone cottages and forests. Eventually, unscathed by booze, badgers or hawthorn, we discovered the Graffham Club Campsite at the end of a single-lane farm track. It’s a fabulous campsite, wooded and shady, and we were cheerfully directed to a sandy parking spot, tucked up against a wall of rhododendrons. Despite our novice status, we soon had the roof raised, the deck chairs assembled and the wine poured. And, for the first night at least, we could eat al fresco, although the woodland fire rules forbade us to barbecue our IOW lamb chops. When at last the pasta was cooked, we had already emptied one bottle of Shiraz.
By bedtime, we had realized that the double bed wasn’t quite big enough for two – not the two of us anyway – but Will had provided enough bedding to make up the loft bed too. I suggested tossing a coin, but my chivalrous One & Only insisted that he was happy to clamber up to the top bunk, and who was I to argue? I woke sometime after midnight to the soft nattering of rain on the roof.
Night Two, and after a cultural day at Petworth House, we drove east to Crowborough, where I had located a campsite not far from the friends we were meeting for lunch the following day. Crowborough is situated seven miles south-west of Tunbridge Wells, on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, so I was also hoping to visit Pooh Corner and the Pooh Sticks bridge while we were in the area, but sadly, the unpredictable weather put us off the idea of trekking through a dripping and soggy forest. We got a lovely surprise at the campsite, though, which was located on a terraced hillside facing north, with glorious views over the Weald of Kent.
By now, we were experts at raising the roof, swivelling the front seat, turning on the gas, setting up the table and plugging in the electric cable. Dinner was underway in a matter of minutes, and the first glass of wine had been poured while we waited for the stew to warm up. After dinner, in an interlude between rain showers, we discovered a huge recreation park above the campsite, where the vast skies stretched to infinity and beyond, over this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We exclaimed at the space and the sky and the baby rabbits that had emerged from a coppice for silflay (xref ‘Watership Down’). The rain began again at nine thirty, but the sun was setting, and we were heading for bed anyway…
My long-held gripe with camping in tents or smaller camper vans is the somewhat sadistic tendency of park staff to send those of us without mobile bathrooms to the furthest reaches of the campsite, ensuring that a midnight call to the loo involves a long-distance marathon. And at my age, that has become a major aggravation. But so far so good. This trip we were able to ensure that the van was parked no more than 100 metres from the facilities, so that even in the rain, I could make it there and back without drowning.
Night Three, and we were even closer to a bathroom. Dropping by to visit our friends in Horsmonden, we defied the weather to attend the annual fair on the village green across the road. After some Morris Dancing, a sing-along with a ukulele band, and a bottle or two of wine – do you see a common theme here? – we ended up camping outside our friends’ front door, with the key in our possession for emergency access to the loo. This also meant we were virtually in the marquee with the local bands that played on merrily till midnight, which made for an unusual lullaby.
Night Four found us back on the South Downs. Neither woodland, nor township, we were now in a huge field below Ditchling Beacon. Our neighbours were few, but the rain was mizzling, so after a postprandial lap of the extensive and almost empty campsite, we retired early. It was my turn in the top bunk, after three nights grace on the firm but cosy bed below. At this point, admiration for the stoicism of my One & Only reached celestial heights. Now nesting right under the roof, the rain was suddenly thumping in my ears as if I were curled up beside last night’s drummer. And I know I’m a bit of a Princess when it comes to mattresses, but I like a soft mattress if I’m not going to wake up like a fierce and cranky Goldilocks. While there is plenty of room upstairs, I felt this upper bunk was better suited to more supple bones than mine. And more agile ones, too, as I almost propelled myself through the windscreen trying to clamber down in the dark for that midnight dash. Not surprising then, that our final night found me in my cousin’s spare bed with a hot water bottle, while the One & Only claimed the luxury of the bottom bunk and slept uncomplaining and cosy in the driveway…
So, while the weather wasn’t ideal, our test run was a great success, and really good fun. We learned an awful lot about the pros and cons of living in a campervan, and my childhood fantasy for the life of a gypsy is still alive and well. The layout of seating and cupboards proved excellent, and there was plenty of storage. We even got the hang of the front passenger seat that sashays around to face the back for dining. But I would definitely like a thicker mattress for the loft bed. And perhaps an annex of some sort, for housing wet coats and muddy boots in bad weather, and, ideally, a porta-potty!
Apart from these few simple adaptations, we are now inspired to invest in our own camper. We both love the flexibility and freedom a campervan provides, and we thoroughly enjoyed joining the ranks of the light-hearted, liberated and friendly camping community who showered us with encouragement, useful information, and wondrous tales of a truly nomadic life. Top marks, too, to all the campsites we stayed at, where the facilities were spotless and not at all the nasty experience I remember from my childhood camping trips. Adventuring with a VW campervan is so much easier – and warmer – than it was with the tent and numerous boxes of camping gear we lugged around last summer, and of course it’s a much dryer port in a storm. For several long moments we even forgot that we had to return dear Isla to her proud parents and considered heading off into the sunset – and possibly warmer climes – never to return. Maybe next time…
PS Both Isla & I returned to the island with no additional bumps or bruises, despite the flooded roads, some severely pot-holed lanes and minimal suspension. Not to mention having to scale the heights to reach the loft bed! In truth, I only knocked over the coffee pot once, when my elbows got in the way, and I think that’s a record. If you’d like to meet Isla and her friends, check out: www.isleofwightcampers.co.uk/