It's midsummer day; a point on the calendar all too often accompanied by a hollow laugh in this country. This one is no exception. The rain pounded hard enough to wake the dead last night and the wind is now pummeling our little camper and making the trees all around us wave their big limbs as if warning us off. Tom is running around with a couple of kids he enlisted to play Frisbee with while P and I sit cosy in the VW with cups of instant coffee and books.
This is definitely the smallest camper van we have ever been in but perhaps the one that fits the name "camper van" most accurately. It really is like camping in a van. It does have a pop-up roof - so you can stand up - and a double-burner gas stove and a fridge and a small sink, but there is barely room to swing a kaftan.
The VW camper was always something of a motoring icon, but over the years the little hippie van seems to have attracted a personality cult. There are VW combis all over the place these days; its jaunty, squared-off silhouette plastered on everything from t-shirts, to egg-cups. The decades it has spent being photographed with surfboards and beaming twenty-somethings, have buffed its image to a warm and rosy glow that seems to promise sunshine and adventure. So it was in search of these very things that we picked up “Bertie” on Friday and drove to Warwickshire. Bertie was the name given by the rental company but actually Bertie is the very last name anyone should give a VW campervan. “Dylan” perhaps or “Sunny”, but "Bertie" is more the kind of name you would give to an ancient Bentley. Or an unfortunate cat. Anyway we threw in sleeping bags and ten-year-old and summoned the spirit of 60s Haight-Ashbury as we cruised the, er, M40 to Aston Cantlow.
The first thing you learn about a VW camper is that time has not been as kind to its driving prowess as it has to its image. Our van had been given a makeover by the Danbury company which churns out updated versions of the classic camper with modern engines and interiors, but sitting up behind the vast steering wheel and wrestling it into the middle of the lane at speed is an experience which requires both nerve and shoulder muscles. It feels rather like driving one of those big brown UPS vans. Its a utilitarian, take-no-prisoners experience in which every gear change is a battle of wills, and every stab of the brake pedal comes with a lurch in the stomach about what will happen next. The noise it makes on the motorway is the roar of a sixties classic protesting that it should be cruising gently up California’s Route One, not suffering the indignities of being sandwiched between Mondeos and Transits trying to beat the Friday night rush-hour on a drizzle-flecked motorway.
Our destination though is a lovely little slice of idyllic England. Aston Cantlow has an ancient village hall, rows of miniature brick cottages with tiny windows and pretty gardens, and the church where William Shakespeare's parents got married. Probably. It also has a handsome pub with excellent food... The Island Meadow campground too is exactly as it sounds - a lush pool of grass, scattered with caravans and campers. Fresh bread and croissants are available in the shop and the owner runs everything with great friendliness and energy. We hooked up the VW and joined Tom at the Frisbee session which seemed to fit the image of the whole thing, even if the weather did not.
The advantage of having an excellent pub ten minutes walk away is that we weren't obliged to huddle over the miniature double burner to try to cook a meal for three. So after spoiling ourselves at the Kings Head we returned in the windy twilight to convert the camper into bedrooms. Tom sleeps on a platform under the pop-up roof which, in that small boy way, he absolutely loves. Downstairs, the bench seat folds out into a bed. The trick is finding a place for the sleeping bags, clothes, folding chairs etc, while you perform the necessary mechanical maneuvering. Anyway once it was finally clicked into place we assumed the usual position; three of us in a line watching a movie (The Iron Giant) and feeling cosy as the wind gusted around us.
And so back down the towpath and through the fields, supper at the pub (again) and another movie. “The Truman Show” is a small masterpiece and one which our ten year old film critic said “really makes you think about what is real”.
Sunday morning cried out for a hearty breakfast so I poached eggs and just about blew my hand off trying to light the gas grill. T and P looked somewhat shocked as the camper filled with the acrid tang of burnt hair. I decided to turn the grill off and resorted to the £4 camping toaster which sits on a gas burner and which I bought for our big trip to Scandinavia in the summer. It worked a treat and we dined in style, all squashed up on the bench seat with our plates fighting for space on the tiny table which plugs into a hole in the floor. I think we felt like we were getting the hang of tiny-camper-camping. We packed everything away quickly too and somehow had a whole lot more space than we did on the drive up.
We started out on back roads and you know how occasionally you can get stuck behind a tractor driving in the countryside? We got stuck behind about twenty of them, driving to a fete in a nearby village. It wasn't a problem though, as from time to time the road opened out and the drivers waved us past. This is where the VW camper has an advantage actually - its narrower than many mid sized cars and can tuck right into a hedgerow if needs be. Its still like trying to drive a boat though. You turn the wheel, then wait a bit - go and have a coffee perhaps - and then the camper makes the turn. And it keeps turning until you correct it. Needless to say this can be somewhat alarming as you face a delivery track barreling down the road towards you. Anyway with a constant input of turn, wait, maneuver, turn, wait, maneuver, we eventually drove past a grand Tudor house with a parade of classic cars parked in front of it, so we turned around and went in.
The Singer Car Club was having a show at Charlecote Park. The grand front drive was lined with tiny little cars gleaming in the drizzle and being fussed over by serious grey haired men. It was a classic English event; low key but with a sense of quiet pride at the heritage on display. The magnificent Tudor building, the backdrop to a club celebrating Britain’s rich motoring history. P and I bought coffee from a tent and walked through the display choosing the ones we would have taken home (I liked the 1914 model with cart wheels).
Next stop, Edgehill, site of the first major battle of the English Civil War. On Sunday October 23rd 1642, thirty thousand Roundheads and Cavaliers fought each other to a standstill with swords, cannon and muskets. When it was over, some three thousand bodies were left scattered over the fields. The battlefield today is dominated by a large octagonal tower, which is said to be the spot where King Charles the First raised his standard. Its a rather good pub these days so we piled in for big sandwiches.
A short drive later we were back on the M40, leaving the rural idyll behind us and heading towards London. After unpacking everything at home I dropped the van back at the Classic Car Club. It was a great experience though I’m not sure I would want to do more than a weekend away in a VW camper. The romance of the idea of cruising in one is slightly overwhelmed by the practical realities of it. But if offered, say a month with one in its natural environment on the California coast, under blue skies, with sun streaming through its windows and surf crashing on the shore for miles ahead, I would take the keys.