Nigel Atherton chose the west country for his family’s maiden voyage in a classic Bay Window Viking Camper
For years I’ve harboured an ambition to take the family on a road trip in a Camper Van. I knew that the boys (Miles, 13 and Lucas, 9) would love it. Driving around with a living room in the back and a bed that pops out of the roof – what’s not to like? But my wife, Sharron, took a bit more convincing. Her idea of roughing it is staying at the Travelodge. I knew I’d never get her camping in a tent (she told me this just after I bought one), mostly because she might see a spider.
To be honest, it didn’t really have to be a VW Camper. A motorhome would be okay too, and more luxurious, but there’s something about them that would have made me feel like I’d taken another step towards that SAGA membership. VW Campers, on the other hand, are ageless. They’re cool. There’s all that history and those counter-culture overtones.
Eric the Viking
Eventually the nagging paid off, and we picked the May bank holiday weekend for an extended weekend trip. Sourcing one to hire for a few days didn’t prove a problem as, living in Brighton, there are several companies hiring them nearby, and we decided to go with new start-up, Camper Vanatics, who offered us ‘Eric’, a lovely 1979 Bay Window Viking, in happy orange, with original interior. As this particular model is one of the few with four beds in the pop top, there would be no arguing over who got to sleep in the roof, and we wouldn’t have to mess about converting the living area into a bed every night.
The next decision was where to go.
That was an easy one. I had long talked about taking the boys to see the area around Bath where I grew up, which also happens to be one the prettiest areas in England. As a photographer I knew I’d get some good shots, too. I planned an easily manageable triangular route, with Bath, Cheddar and Longleat as its corners. Since Longleat was closest, we would stop there first, at the Caravan Club site. What better place to spend our first ever night in a Camper than somewhere you can hear lions roaring at night? Having packed way too much stuff, we set off on the Saturday afternoon.
Driving Eric took a bit of getting used to, particularly the lack of power steering and the gearbox, which felt a bit like stirring porridge, but by the time we’d hit the M27 and received our first flash of headlights from another Bay coming the other direction, I’d got used to it. We arrived at Longleat campsite at dusk, and were shown to a grassy pitch right next to the toilets, which pleased Sharron. She’d been worrying about the bathroom facilities and had, I’m convinced, pictured herself making midnight treks in the dark to some muddy hole in the ground. As it turned out, the facilities were close by, immaculate, and as good as those at her gym. The site itself is beautifully landscaped, with lots of trees, and though it’s only a five-minute stroll from Longleat House, it feels like the middle of nowhere.
I did indeed wake in the small hours to the distant sound of roaring lions, not to mention the barking of the sea lions on the lake. In the morning we opened the sliding door to be greeted by a welcoming committee of ducks expecting, and getting, a bread breakfast, while we went for the easy option of cereal.
We spent most of Sunday getting lost in the maze, and driving through the safari park, though we skipped the monkeys – I’ve seen first hand the damage they do, and I was keen to return Eric with its windscreen wipers, aerial and rubber seals intact! Getting within a couple of metres of lions and tigers thrilled the kids, who were able to move freely around in the back to get the best views from all the windows.
From Longleat we headed to Wells and our campsite for that evening, stopping en route at the picturesque town of Frome, where I spent my teens, and the nearby village of Nunney – home to a small but lovely (and free!) moated castle that looks just like the Fisher Price one my kids had when they were younger.
Wookeys and Wells
Wells Holiday Park is just outside England’s smallest city, and within walking distance both of its incredible cathedral and the caves of Wookey Hole. The site, run by Jason and Debbie Wilton, is VW Camper friendly and Jason himself is the owner of a 1964 Split Screen Bus. That night I was awoken in the small hours by the sound of pounding rain hitting the canvas roof space, and I knew that we’d be in for a wet bank holiday Monday. After a spirit-lifting breakfast of bacon sandwiches, we spent the morning at the vast and impressive Wookey Hole caves, where the use of coloured lights and talk of witches gave a spooky twist that thrilled the kids. We then made the short drive down the road to Britain’s own modest version of the Grand Canyon, Cheddar Gorge. Driving through the limestone cliffs of the gorge we found an empty parking area, parked up and put the kettle on – one of the great luxuries of having a Camper. The rain had stopped now and the sun was poking through the clouds, so we decided to make the ascent up Jacob’s Ladder to the top of the cliffs. The view from the top is spine tingling – “the best view I’ve ever seen,” according to Lucas – and was only enhanced by the presence of wild goats weaving around among the ferns.
After two hours of climbing and walking it was little wonder that the kids slept in the back during the 45-minute drive to my childhood home of Bath. Our campsite here was the picturesque site of Newton Mill which, Sharron noted, has won an award for its toilet facilities – possibly due to the luxury option, for a small extra fee, of taking a bath. The wooded site sits in a valley on the edge of town and runs along the route of a stream, providing an ever-present soundtrack of ducks and trickling water. Newton Mill has a bar and restaurant, with live entertainment, but we cooked chilli dogs in the Camper while the boys explored the campsite’s playground.
The next morning we took Eric for a driving tour of Britain’s most picturesque city, taking him to see the Royal Crescent, The Circus and Pulteney Bridge, before parking up to continue on foot, and visit the Roman Baths. The word museum usually has a soporific effect on my kids but this place is different. The Romans were conquerors, they had gladiators and, in Bath, the most luxurious health spa in the world. Lucas had only recently studied the Romans at school and was amazed at how much had been preserved, while Miles was impressed how hot the natural spring water is. Sharron picked up a brochure for the luxury spa nearby, which uses the same thermal spring water as the Romans used.
We had just enough time to drop in on some old friends before re-tracing our route down the A36 and M27 back to Brighton. By the time we got home the boys were asleep in the back, and when they awoke the next day were disappointed to find themselves back in their own beds, with no canvas above their heads or wheels below them.
Back for more
It was no surprise that the boys loved our weekend in Eric and were eager to do it again, and Sharon enjoyed it a lot more than expected. In fact, she really took to Eric, and the fact that the campsites we stayed at all had great facilities and were immaculately maintained was a great relief, too. Most importantly, from our point of view, she wasn’t averse to repeating the experience. We hadn’t needed the bag of spare parts or AA membership card that Camper Vanatics had provided which, considering Eric’s age, I find pretty impressive. We’ll definitely hire a Camper again soon.
Where we stayed:
Longleat Caravan Club site
Warminster, Wiltshire, BA12 7NL
Tel: 01985 844663
Wells Holiday Park
Haybridge, Somerset BA5 1AJ
(NB this site is now adults only)
Newton Mill Holiday Park
Newton Road, Bath, Somerset, BA2 9JF
Tel: 0844 272 9503
Bus cost: £350 (four days in May, hired from Brighton’s campervanatics.co.uk)
Campsite costs: £18-£23 per night per pitch, (family of four with electric hook up)
Miles covered: 300
Fuel cost: £100
Admissions: approximately £200
Total spend: £650
Longleat Safari Park
Bath’s Georgian streets / architecture
Rainy day options
Wookey Hole caves
Bath Thermae Spa (adults only)
Local air-cooled Garage
The Old Dub Shop,
Unit 1, Cross Lanes Farm, Cross Lanes, Pill, Bristol. BS20 0JJ
Tel: 0781 1180549