Motorhomes can be great fun, but there are harsh lessons to learn along the way, finds Terry Kirby

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Let's take off, I thought, just myself and my sons and drive around France in a motorhome, stopping off here and there, enjoying the freedom and the open road. If only life were so simple.

I'm not one for roughing it. Pitching a tent in a field without access to necessities such as showers and a wine cellar is unthinkable.

So a motorhome seemed like an attractive compromise: they've got toilets and showers, together with the fridge, sound system, television, DVD player. Our Swift model was loaned to us by the Caravan Club, and it had everything you could want in a five-berth.

Swapping my car for the motorhome at a Caravan Club site near Gatwick Airport, we were given an all-too-brief rundown by the site warden - here's the chemical toilet, there's where you connect to mains electricity, etc. Yes, yes, I said, having done a little caravanning many years ago and thinking I knew it all. The boys, Leo, 14, and Max, 12, were enraptured. "A television! A fridge! Let's go!!"

Ten minutes later, we were heading for Portsmouth and the overnight ferry to Caen, from where we were going to drive to Brittany and south to the Charente-Maritime region, staying on camping sites.

Lesson one: if you are borrowing or begging a modern motorhome, familiarise yourself with the controls and the sheer size of the thing first. Most of us have never sat behind the wheel of anything so big. Our Kon-Tiki Vogue (from £46,550) was 7.5m long and 3m high.

Some familiarity would have prevented the hair-raising moments we had on the road to Portsmouth when I realised that we occupied a rather big place on the road, that stopping distances were longer, and that the end of the beast was still turning a corner several seconds after the driver.

We survived, but early the next morning, having taken a detour to see the Baueux tapestry and searching for a car park, I ended up in a narrow road meant for small cars and cyclists, trapped between a pavement café and some bollards. I just managed to sneak into a turning space. Or so I thought. "Dad?" inquired Max. "Did you know that you just knocked over a sign?" Indeed, the low-level signpost had been bent over by my rear end. But there was no damage to the Swift, and the plastic sign righted itself easily. Phew.

Then came lesson two: you can't park anywhere. As the car park filled up while we sorted things out, I realised that if someone parked behind me, I would not be able to manoeuvre out. I should have been in the coach/motorhome area. This can be very restricting.

On several occasions we had to drive miles out of our way to find a turning space. The Swift is fitted with a reversing camera on the dash, but peripheral vision was limited. Despite huge wing mirrors, I still needed guidance. Leo, grinning cheerfully on reverse-cam, urged me backwards with arm-swivelling abandon, while I gritted my teeth against the horrible crunching sound that I believed was coming.

And on to lesson three: you have to be organised. You can't nip anywhere. If you are parked on your campsite, it's no good thinking that you can just pop out to the nearest shop. Everything has to be packed up and stowed, all doors and cupboards have to be closed and latched, the gas turned off, the electric disconnected, before you can embark on even the shortest trip. Otherwise, the fridge door opens when you turn a corner, dislodging its contents. And when you brake without everything secured, you get showered with books, trainers and loose change.

Against all this, we had plenty of living, sleeping and storage space, although five adults might have been pushing it. I loved the high driving position, while there was room for the boys to stretch out and read while I drove. The Swift cruised beautifully at 60mph on the French motorways, although much above that and it began to sway. . When we did find a parking spot near the beach, at least all the towels were to hand, as well as our own toilet, changing rooms and café.

Once I found the instruction book and had made several calls to Swift dealers and the Caravan Club advice line, sophisticated "support systems" such as the water pump, fridge, cooker and lighting all worked well. And the French campsites, arranged courtesy of the Caravan Club, were all terrific.

Lesson four is that the motorhome can be restrictive. All the things you need to do just to go about your normal day add up to extra work, which counteracts the relaxation and spontaneity that make a good holiday. And I haven't even mentioned the chemical toilet. As Leo said afterwards: "That was a good holiday, Dad. But next time can we have less driving and messing about, and more time on the beach?"

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