We have been known to drive to Southampton in the summertime for one and only reason: to board a luxury cruise liner and sail off into warmer climes. Things weren’t quite as glamorous this year and pulling away from Southampton and setting sail into the sunset was just not going to happen!

The route was almost identical but this time we made a left turn instead of a right and pulled into an industrial estate to the depot of VW Camper Van hire! With Covid on the rise, many of us are happy to take what we can get holiday-wise and at least this week we’re not staring at those usual four walls.

Also, at long last, my husband is getting to fulfil a desire on his bucket list that had been consuming him for years, seeing a little bit of England on a road trip in a VW camper van. We felt happy to get out into the great outdoors, to disconnect from our daily routines, get on the road and embark on a fresh adventure!

We are shown the features of our Volkswagen T5 California van. I explore the many clever compartments as my husband learns about how it all works. As a first-time campervanner I’m immediately struck by how amazingly compact the space is! Such a highly functional and organised design and style. I love watching the electric roof smoothly lift and discovering so many hidden corner compartments that are deceptively spacious.

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The van with the seats rotated and the roof up. Photos: Marisa Laycock

After going over the operating manual and checking the van over carefully for damage we set off.

Driving a large vehicle takes a little getting used to, so I’m very grateful for my seat belt in that first half hour! We arrive at our camp site. It seems friendly and the dogs are all pretty well-behaved and on leads. The weather’s still quite warm after the recent heatwave so we take our garden chairs out, make some tea and read our books. There is no rush and we can just do as we please for the next five days.

We then get ourselves organised and set up camp. I have switched off my phone and there is a nice feeling of being ‘off grid'. The fresh air is restorative. We are really not designed to stay indoors as much as we all do. Before dinner, I do a few yoga postures and get out my skipping rope as I have plenty of space.

I can see how the camper van became a cult symbol of an alternative lifestyle back in the sixties. Adopted by the hippie generation, it soon became the iconic dream car with its pop top and smiling face. The first ever Volkswagen Transporter van was launched at the Geneva Motor Show and developed in the 1950s. In 2003 the fifth generation Transporter was launched and only a few years ago the famous Volkswagen California camper celebrated its 25th anniversary, with more than 10,000 vans rolling off the production line.

Our motorhome feels cosy. Our mini fridge is filled with enough food for a few meals. I decide to rustle up a chili con carne. Delicious! We have two hobs, a small sink and running water. After our meal, we gather the plates and saucepans and walk to the facilities block in the dark. Fortunately, it is a cool dry night, and the campsite is quite well lit. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to leave the cosy camper van after a warming meal and a very nice bottle of red feeling so relaxed then having to trek out in the cold and wet.

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A hot dinner with real crockery and glasses

We watch a film on our mini DVD player, then look at a map of the area and plan which places we’d like to visit nearby. I look forward to the freedom of the open road tomorrow. At bedtime, being indoors really feels like a step up from just being in a tent and I get into my warm sleeping bag, curl up and read my book.

The next morning, I wake up early to the sound of birdsong. I open the blind and see lots of sheltering trees and the odd camper walking about. We stay in bed sipping our coffees. It’s my first ever morning as a campervanner and it feels weird and wonderful!

I get ready first as there is simply not enough room for us both to get ready at the same time. We push back the bed and make some space. My husband soon notices that I have not pared down my morning routine. “Why bother with all that here?” he asks. I respond with “I am on holiday!”

I refuse to walk around not looking my best just because I’m spending a few days in a camper van. I will wear my pretty blouse, do my hair and put on my pink lipstick.

“Wearing make-up and spraying on my perfume every morning is part of who I am,” I remind him. I end my routine with a few brush strokes of mascara as I watch a huge daddy long legs flying by!

Spending a week in such close proximity can be challenging to one’s privacy. I would not recommend becoming travelling companions if you are in the early stages of a relationship! It is not a glamorous situation and you may not feel comfortable enough yet with each other; as he watches you washing and moisturising your face or you watch him shaving and spraying on his deodorant.

We soon get on the road and head for Bournemouth beach. It’s a bright and breezy day and we stroll along the promenade and have a late lunch. Being on the move and seeing new places feels so refreshing after months in lockdown. The sea is invigorating, we walk along the pier and have a look around the town. I always wanted to live by the coast.

Every evening after we get back from our day trip, we link up the awning and organise our camp again for the evening. There’s plenty to do. You just have to be organised and make sure you have everything you need from food, bedding and clothing to a bottle opener! I soon realize that without our drive away awning at the side, we simply wouldn’t have had enough space.

Given all the discipline, effort and focus required to coexist in such a small space, I might think twice about doing it too often. There is simply no space for a little bit of mess. Having to snugly anchor everything to stop things cartwheeling when you turn a corner. Things need to be washed, cleaned, wiped and put away in their correct place. You can’t drive around with mugs and pots clattering about! Being on the move most of the time can be quite demanding, but it is an adventure after all and not a time for serenity and stillness I guess.

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Two mugs of tea on a wet day

I am enjoying the spontaneity of deciding on a destination that same morning, of feeling transient and enjoying the freedom to explore and roam freely. I am loving those cosy moments with the heater on, a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit on a wet and windy day.

It doesn’t take me long to realize that I have overpacked and brought enough clothing for two weeks. The Lonely Planet website assures us that “camper travel works better when the weather is playing ball”. That’s quite an understatement! Of course, it all depends to what extent you want to rough it. In a hot European climate you can drink beers under the stars until 2am, wake up with a hangover looking ‘unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed’, and wearing the same shorts, flip flops and creased Pink Floyd T-shirt most days. That’s fine if you do! But here in England you have to be prepared for all weathers so that means more kit and planning your trip so that you get to see as much of England as possible.

Our last day was pretty tough, simply because it rained all morning and then the wind picked up. We had to take down a wet awning and wipe it with towels, we couldn’t exercise, nor have breakfast in the sun. Campervanning shouldn’t be about survival but that’s how our last day felt, so we were eager to get back home. This trip has been both fun and a challenge, but I breathe a sigh of relief on our return, as I light a few scented candles and submerge my body into a bath full of cherry blossom bubbles soothing my aching muscles.

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at www.radioverulam.com/smallcitylife .