Like many stressed city dwellers, I used to dream about a bolthole in the country where we could retreat at weekends. Just a teeny-tiny cottage where we could kick back and our children could get a taste of what it is to roam wild among nature. Fat chance. The most we could afford these days is a tent. Or perhaps we could stretch to… ? And that's how we came to buy Kirby, a 20-year-old Talbot Elddis motorhome, the compromise between my second-home fantasy and my partner's dream of a campervan.
Kirby is not like one of those cute VWs. There is nothing cool about a motorhome, but with a "wetroom" (ie, loo), kitchenette, a flat-screen television (we are not purists), plus two sofa seats and a cab over the driver's seat that between them convert into spacious sleeping for four, we reasoned this 19-foot vehicle would give us budget, year-round accommodation, anywhere we wanted. A beach one weekend, the heart of a forest the next. After lots of research, we finally found her on eBay. The kids named her Kirby, a cross between Herbie and campervan. She cost £6,500. Motorhomes are not cheap, even 20-year-old ones – but once you get inside you realise why.
We marvelled at the dolls-house interior. We packed the little kitchen cupboards with tins and crockery, tested out the fridge and oven, stuffed the lockers and wardrobe with clothes and quilts and wetsuits, DVDs and books. The idea was that we could leave her like this so we would be ready to leave at a moment's notice, whenever the sun was shining. Camping with mod cons and none of the hassle.
Our first trip was to Kelling Heath in north Norfolk, renowned in camping circles as Center Parcs on the cheap. There are great facilities including a pool, shop, restaurant and activities for children, with the emphasis on nature – no amusement arcades here. It was a nice place, but it was a freezing weekend. Kirby is a small space for any length of time and you can't spend every hour in the pool. So, lesson one: even with a motorhome you need decent weather, so you can be outside most of the time. Our year-round plans were going to need a tweak.
Having said that, curling up under thick quilts in our 6ft bed as the temperature dropped well below zero, the children, then ages seven and 11, in the bed above the cab, was a truly joyous experience. We slept a full 12 hours each night and you do feel different – you are closer to the elements, closer to nature. Best of all, in the morning, unlike the campers crawling out of their tents, we could put on the fan heater, fry up sausages on the hob and have breakfast in bed.
Driving home I marvelled at the road ahead – so clear for a bank holiday! We saw another motorhome coming in the opposite direction and swapped the conventional thumbs up, and as we passed I noticed that tailing it was a mile-long queue of frustrated drivers. I looked in the rear mirror and – yep, that explained it. Kirby's engine is only a two-litre, and she is a big girl, so life is very much in the slow lane – A-roads rather than motorways. But that has its own charm – driving her is an exercise in acceptance, for us if not always the people behind, who can get very irate. Oh well, what can you do?
The next trip was May half-term week on the south Devon coast at Old Cotmore farm. A rural site with lovely views, a mile from the coast, we alternated our days between walking, staying local and taking the van out for trips. This is a big issue with a motorhome. If you don't have alternative means of transport, you have to pack up everything every time you want to drive anywhere. It helped that we had brought a small kids' tent that we could chuck stuff into when we wanted to go out. Then it was a case of disconnecting electricity, winding up the awning, stowing away the van stabilisers and anything else that was going to fly around and off we went.
There is one big upside to all this repacking. Wherever you go, your home is there with you. So, a day on Blackpool Sands beach just west of Dartmouth involved no preparation. We got there, checked out the weather, changed into what we needed and walked out on to the sand. Fancy a nap? Just head back to the van. Lunch? Get something from the fridge. Need to go to the loo? There's no need to queue.
Next up: an overnighter at a certified site. There are thousands of these tiny sites across Britain, often on farms, and they are licensed to take just five motorhomes or caravans. They often have only very basic facilities and cost just a few pounds a night. For me, this was what it was all about. I had discovered quickly that there are two breeds of vanners – those who like the bigger, more social sites, and people like me, for whom the idea was peace and nature.
When I get a break from London, I want to get away from people; at the bigger sites you are likely to be surrounded by them. There are benefits of course – hot showers, playgrounds and activities for the children – but this site outside Thame in Oxfordshire was one for me. A large pretty field with willows. No toilets or washroom; just a tap, electric hook-up, water and waste disposal. We were allowed to pitch up where we wanted with tons of space around us. It was bliss.
Just time for a brilliant weekend on the Kent coast. We had something on that Saturday so only left London at 4pm, but by 7pm we were on the beach, eating sausages off the barbecue, looking out over the Channel from the top of the huge camping field at Kingsdown camp site.
Then we were gearing up for the big one. The plan was to drive to the Dordogne for our summer holiday at a fraction of the price of Eurocamp. I'd booked 10 nights at what looked like a great site for less than €300.
Day one took us by ferry to Calais and down through Normandy to a stopover campsite: supper in a converted barn and croissants for breakfast! By day two we were speeding through the Loire Valley. And then, disaster struck. She died.
The electrics just cut out completely. We pulled on to the hard shoulder, sat on the verge, and tried not to cry.
What to say? Well, first, never drive abroad without breakdown cover – without it we would have been thousands of pounds down by now and without the AA's language skills and support our little calamity would have been a nightmare. The problem turned out to be a small electrical fault on the LPG switch but four French garages failed to find or fix it. After two days in a hotel, as Kirby was transported from garage to garage, the AA allotted us a hire car. But of course we had no accommodation booked, just a pitch on a campsite, and this was peak season.
By spectacularly blowing our budget, we scrambled together a holiday of sorts, although I spent most of it on the phone. In our darker moments, we discussed getting Kirby fixed and selling her. But by the time she finally arrived home, a month after us, repatriated to our local garage, the memories were fading. We went to see her and just thought: no. OK, she's an old girl and she'll stay in the UK from now on, but we still love her. And the adventure has only just begun.
Kelling Heath, Norfolk (01263 588 181; kellingheath.co.uk). Caravan pitches from £18.65 per night, electric hook-up included.
Old Cotmore Farm, Devon (01548 580 240; oldcotmorefarm.co.uk). Caravan pitches from £14 per night, electric hook-up £3.
The Dairy Certified Site, Oxfordshire (01844 214075; ukcampsite.co.uk). Caravan pitches from £8 per night, electric hook-up £3.
Kingsdown, Kent (01304 373713; kingsdowncamping.co.uk). Caravan pitches from £8 per adult, electric hook-up £6.