Motorhome: not a pretty word, is it? And nor are the associations it conjures up of hideously converted vans driven by ageing obsessives, oblivious to the aroma of their leaking chemical toilets. Nevertheless, the possibility of being able to prepare your evening meal in a lay-by is proving irresistible to more and more of us. Around 8,500 new motorhomes and campervans were sold in the UK last year, a 65 per cent rise since 2000. And despite rising road congestion fuel prices and road-use costs, the boom in motorhomes continues.
You've probably seen (and overtaken) evidence of this during the past couple of summers: there are currently thought to be about 118,000 active motorhome users in the UK. "Motorhomes were a dead market in the early Eighties," said John de Mierre, a spokesman for the Motorhome Information Service. "We can all recollect those Dormobiles with stripes down the side and rising roofs. Since then, they've gradually become pretty good vehicles: they now drive like cars and many have turbo-diesel engines. They're also more comfortable."
The motorhome market divides between "conversion" and "coach-built" vehicles. Old VW campers fall into the former group of smaller, cheaper "day-vans", while the latter comprises bigger, better-equipped touring vehicles. A budget of £25,000 will get you a decent entry-level model in either category, but those intent on an "A-Class" coach-built motorhome won't get much change from £50,000. That's a lot of money, but Britain's healthy economy has buoyed up what Mr De Mierre called the "aspirational" coach-built sector. "People are getting wealthier and the rise of contract work means they can take six months off to go off on mid-life sabbaticals around Europe," he said.
Many members of the 50-plus age group can now be seen chasing the sun up and down Europe's autoroutes in plush motorhomes. "There has also been a big growth in independent travel," said Mr de Mierre. "People like being in command and the motorhome is flexible, they're not tied to one place."
Recently, more couples in their twenties and thirties have begun to buy conversion motorhomes - before having children, they're putting their energies into active pursuits and want campervans as weekend bases for their hobbies. The industry, for example, has felt the benefit of the recent resurgence of surfing.
Traditionally, independent coachbuilders and converters have adapted existing vehicles, but now Volkswagen, Renault and Ford are bypassing this link in the retail chain to launch basic day-van variations of their commercial vans, with a simple sink and hob.
Could it be that the motorhome is becoming cool? It was time for me to find out. A mere day-van, however, was not what I required for my first motorhome experience. A friend and I had been planning a mountain-bike trip to the 7Stanes network of cycle centres ( www.7stanes.gov.uk) in the Scottish Borders. Which is how we came to be driving north in an Ace Roma.
The Roma is the only motorhome of the Ace range with an integrated "garage-style" locker, which easily swallowed two bikes and assorted gear. The rest of the Roma swallowed us just as easily - based on the Fiat Ducato van, this seven-metre battlebus is advertised as a six-berth motorhome. But, though it looked as if you'd need an HGV licence to drive it, the Roma handled surprisingly well, even on the narrower lanes in the Tweed Valley. Thanks to a chunky 2.8-litre turbo-diesel engine, we made the 350-mile trip in seven hours and, got through about three tanks of fuel in a total of 900 miles.
The Roma is a handsome example of graphic and interior design, circa 1985. But it's easy to forgive the exterior's pastel-swish detailing and the interior's peaches'n'cream theme, because the Roma makes life on the road much more comfortable than I thought it would. It's competently laid out and spacious, with good beds, lots of storage, a 100 litre water tank, electric oven and four-ring hob, an excellent shower and - oh joy - a simple-to-use chemical toilet. Also, for £10 a day, most of the better campsites will offer you a pitch with a full electrical point. If there is a drawback, it is the build quality, which doesn't look like it would take much wear and tear.
The Roma, then, was perfect for our long weekend - but cool? Had "cred" rather than comfort been our priority, we would have been better off in something less shiny at Britain's most popular mountain-bike centre, Glentress Forest on the outskirts of Peebles, or its neighbour at Innerleithen (we fitted in a little better at the more genteel Mabie Forest centre near Dumfries).
The market in used motorhomes is strong. "A motorhome will happily trot on for 20 years or more, because people use them relatively sparingly," said Mr de Mierre. The average cost of a used motorhome is around £16,000 but a basic, sound campervan can be picked up for less than £5,000 (either way, a lot less than the £35,000 price tag on the Roma).
Then again, you can always rent. The high-season rate for the Roma is about £600 a week. But there's plenty of nostalgic fun to be had for less money. Kamperhire is one of several firms renting classic "type two" VW campers from the Seventies. Its proprietor, Mark Daysh, started the business three years ago with just two vehicles and now has eight fully-equipped, brightly coloured vans in Wickham, Hampshire. A seven-day rental in high-season costs £400, and comes with all cooking utensils, stove, fridge, separate chairs and table, and CD player.
People take them not only to the West Country, but to the dedicated campervan areas for which many summer music festivals now sell tickets. And there's the cultish cachet of the type-two VW itself. "When you're driving one, you get a lot of people smiling and waving at you. When you arrive, people come over. They want to know about the van. They want to talk to you," said Mr Daysh. But the travelling, as much as the arriving, is the point of a VW camper - a virtue you could well apply to most motorhomes. "A lot of people come down from London, pick up a van, and all you can do is drive along at 55mph," he said. "You have to slow down and relax."
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Mike Higgins travelled around Scotland courtesy of the Motorhome Information Service (01444 458889; www.motorhomeinfo.co.uk).
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