Driving along in my cottage on wheels

Despite bad weather and breakdowns, the joy of owning a motorhome endures through the seasons. Just don't drive too far, says Elizabeth Heathcote

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.

Travel Essentials

Renting

Motorhome rental is available from a range of UK companies including: justgo.uk.com; wildhorizon.co.uk; mcrent.co.uk; and discover.co.uk.

Camping

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.

Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker