‘No overnight parking’.
‘No camping or caravanning’.
Anyone who spends much time in a campervan will be familiar with signs like this, which are popping up with increasing regularity around the country.
Local authorities from Caithness to Cornwall are attempting with ever increasing vigour to corral campervans onto camp sites, claiming that ‘wild camping’ leads to rubbish (and worse) being left on roadsides and at beauty spots, and to some degree they’re correct – there is a certain type of knucklehead who thinks it’s fine to avoid paying for a campsite and at the same time avoid taking their rubbish away with them when they move on.
But even without all the above bureaucracy making ‘van life’ ever less free-and-easy, real campervanning is pretty much a thing of the past these days, and nowhere more so than in the UK.
When I bought my first campervan way back in the eighties (a 1966 split-screen VW Combi; it would be worth a fortune now) I drove it all the way across Australia without once staying on a campsite, and even last year I was able to make a five-week trip through France, Italy and Switzerland with only one night in a campground (although I was moved on from my chosen ‘wild camping’ spot by gendarmes on two occasions, and threatened with a €130 fine).
That freedom to go where you want and sleep where you please has always been the attraction of campervanning for me and many others – no need to make plans or follow schedules because you’re self-contained and need nothing other than somewhere to occasionally fill up and/or drain water tanks and waste tanks.
In Europe the authorities provide ‘aires’, of course, basic camping sites where for a few Euros you can fill up with water, drain your tanks and recharge your batteries as well as stay overnight. I usually just use these facilities then move on in search of a ‘wild’ campsite (I hate that phrase; it makes it sound like you’re driving half-way up Everest when all you’re looking for is some peace and quite with – ideally – a nice view).
But in the UK no such facilities are available for campervanners, and the authorities insist you stay on a campsite, whether you need the facilities or not, and with the risk of prosecution if you don’t.
It has to be said that the majority of campervan and motorhome owners are happy to oblige, with apparently no interest in enjoying the freedom of the road – look at any campervan or motorhome magazine or website and the focus is invariably on where to find good campsites (which coincidentally will probably be advertising in said magazine or website) rather than on wild camping.
To me this totally defeats the object of owning a campervan – I use my van to get away from people, not to find myself parked up alongside rows of other vehicles, listening to the blare of a crappy soap coming from my neighbour’s TV, batting away the smoke from someone else’s barbecue and queuing up to use shower and toilet blocks despite the fact that I have both a shower and toilet in my van.
I’ve spent several thousand pounds installing these facilities along with a solar panel so I don’t need an electrical hook-up either, yet if I go away for two weeks and am forced to stay on a campsite every night that’s easily going to add £250 or more to my holiday – £250 I simply don’t see the need to spend.
That said, I could struggle to find a campsite this summer – it seems that the pandemic will result in most people taking their summer holiday in the UK this year, and given the 300 per cent rise in motorhome sales in 2020 (mainly due to fear of Covid-19 – having your own van ensures a certain amount of natural social distancing) it seems likely that spaces will be at a premium.
Indeed, campervanning has now become so popular that it’s in danger of eating itself to death – I dread to think what the narrow country lanes of places like Devon, Pembrokeshire and the Lakes will be like with convoys of vans heading in both directions down roads that are only just wide enough for one vehicle at a time.
So, from the freedom of the road that campervanning was once about, allowing you to camp gratis above your favourite surf beach or in the heart of the mountains, we’ve arrived at convoys of pristine vehicles worth considerably more than the first two houses I owned creating their own traffic jams on country lanes before finally rolling up to park in serried rows on a purpose built campsite offering every facility you could ever want other than space, isolation and a sense of adventure.
If this is what 21st century campervanning is all about then maybe it’s time I changed my van for a boat…