Happy campers: A four-wheeled weekend break

As the Volkswagen camper van celebrates 60 years of production, Emily Jenkinson goes on a very British road trip in one of their vintage vehicles

It takes just an hour by train from London’s Liverpool Street to get to Marks Tey in Essex, where Deb, co-founder of Nomad Living, is waiting in Colonel Mustard, a 1970s bright yellow Swedish camper van that I and my boyfriend Ollie have hired for the weekend. The Colonel cuts a dash in a car park filled with Golfs, Volvos, Mazdas and other such dullards, and we catch people sneaking looks at us as Deb drives back to Aldham village, the Nomad Living base, where a couple of other retro-looking camper vans are parked.

The sun is shining and we’re grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats as Deb's business partner Penny shows us where everything is and recommends Ollie (designated driver for the weekend) takes a couple of turns about the field before setting off. After a bit of trouble closing the door, he settles into the left-hand driving seat, with me in the passenger side, for his practice run. A couple of stalls and some problems reversing (the gear stick is quite vintage to say the least) and we’re off, trundling down the Essex county lanes to Manningtree, where we’re staying with family for the night.

The next morning, the weather has taken a turn for the worse. Nonetheless, after stocking up on supplies from Manningtree market, we set off once again. Ollie has great difficulty manoevering Colonel Mustard out of the tight driveway where we’ve parked him and heaves the wheel round with arms evidently weakened by the luxuries of power steering. Back on the road again, we head for Brick Kiln Farm in Campsea Ashe in Suffolk. It’s raining but Colonel Mustard is like a little ray of sunshine beating down the motorway, with bright plastic sunflowers, tied nattily to the roof rack, that flap in the wind.

Brick Kiln Cottage is a bed and breakfast run by the welcoming Tina Morford. In an exclusive offer to Nomad Living customers, she is allowing use of her field for £5 a night. We are the first to take her up on this since she launched the offer earlier this year and, while the location isn’t as rustic as it sounds, it is very private and not a motor home in sight.

After a cup of tea in Tina’s kitchen, we head out to the rainy field and drive to Snape Maltings, a Victorian barley mill on the Suffolk Heritage Coast, which has been revived over the last 40 years to include a world-class concert hall and a selection of locally made arts and crafts. The imposing red brick building sits on the River Alde and visitors can enjoy river walks, bird watching and boat trips, weather permitting. Unfortunately the weather was not permitting, so, after a half-hearted walk in the rain and pint in the Snape Maltings bar, we headed home to Tina’s field.

After attaching the awning to the side of the van, we start investigating the boxes of cooking utensils. The Colonel has been very well-equipped, we discover, with a table and two chairs, an excellent cooker, washing-up equipment, a vat of water, real plates, mugs, glasses, cutlery and even a garlic press. It might be raining, but this is definitely ‘glamping’ we decide – a notion cemented when we cook up the filet steaks purchased at Manningtree market and wash them down with a couple of bottles of red. By the time we tumble into bed – a good sized double mattress, with a proper duvet, sheet and pillows – it is long dark outside, so we switch on the fairy lights and fall sound asleep as they twinkle romantically and the rain lashes the awning.

The next morning, we have free use of Tina’s shower, before she cooks us up an enormous breakfast - Dorset Cereal Muesli, a full fry-up and toast with honey from the local farm (£7 each) – before being swept into a huge goodbye hug by Tina. Feeling full, we haul ourselves into the van and drive an hour to back to Essex and West Mersea, a pretty sea-side town on Mersey Island, where visitors can go sailing, windsurfing or try their hand at crabbing.

Despite arriving at around 11.30am, we put our name on the list for lunch at The Company Shed, a local fresh fish haunt that is famously busy but which refuses to take bookings. There’s some wait, so we take a walk along the harbour, watching children dangle baited lines of string into the sea and pull out crabs, which they then dump, unceremoniously, into plastic buckets that line the pier. By 1.30pm our table is ready, and armed with bread, mayonnaise, lemons and a bottle of wine, we settle down at the Formica tables to take our pick from the delicious selection of daily catches, which are laid out, fishmonger-style, on ice.

Another much-needed walk after lunch is followed by some lounging in the sun on Mersey Island, where there’s a food festival, before we’re back in Colonel Mustard, rumbling down the A12 to Debden Campsite, in the middle of Epping Forest.

We’re totally in the swing of this now and peep our horn, wave or make the peace sign back to other the camper vanners that greet us enthusiastically when we pass them. We’re a bit dubious about our campsite for the evening – Debden seems a bit close to London – but it’s lovely once we get there: clean and a really very pretty setting. It’s £7 each for a night in the non-firepit area and, though it’s not as private as at Tina’s, the other campers mind their own business, and we settle down to a light dinner of seasonal asparagus and cheese followed by one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.

We’re woken the next morning by more rain and gusts of wind threatening to blow our awning away. It’s British camping at its best, so we settle down to cup of tea before driving back up the A12 to the award-winning Compasses pub in the small village of Pattiswick, which we’ve chosen for its proximity to the Nomad Living drop-off.

Following a tasty lunch of moules mariniere, it’s crunch time. Our final journey in Colonel Mustard takes just 15 minutes before we’re back in Aldham at Nomad Living. It’s 60s Season on Radio 2 with Tony Blackburn and as we pull up to a waving Deb, The Beatles are singing “I want to hold your hand”. It’s all very sad, but with the on-going ash cloud threats and BA strikes threatening any holidays abroad, perhaps another English camping trip with Colonel Mustard isn’t too far away.

Travel facts

Nomad Living: VW camper vans cost from £495 for long weekend hire in peak season. Mileage is 75 miles a day with a 25p/ mile charge thereafter. Tel: 07982 525 888; www.nomadliving.co.uk

Getting there

Trains run from London Liverpool Street to Marks Tey. Nomad Living can arrange pick up and drop off at station.

Where to stay

Brick Kiln Farm, Campsea Ashe, Suffolk. £5 per person per night for use of the field. £7 each for home cooked breakfast. Use of showers and toilet inside. Contact Tina 01728 747281. www.brickkilnfarmsuffolk.co.uk

Debden House, Debden Green, Loughton, Essex. £7 per person per night for non-firepit field. Choice of seven different fields. Use of toilets and showers. Contact 0208 508 3008. www.debdenhouse.com

Deb or Penny from Nomad Living will send a full list of recommended campsites in the Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk area once you have booked your camper van.

Where to eat

The Company Shed, 129 Coast Road, West Mersea, Colchester, Essex. A meal for two, excluding drinks and service, costs approximately £20. Bring your own bread, wine, butter, mayonnaise. No booking in advance. Contact 01206 382700.

The Compasses, Essex. Gastro pub offering a three-course lunch for around £30 per person. Tel: 01376 561322; http://www.thejclarkgroup.co.uk/thecompasses/

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