When I was a child, the family at the bottom of the street had a beautiful old VW campervan that they used all summer to go on adventures around the UK and further afield. One summer when I was about six or seven, something like that anyway, they did something I thought – and still think – was the most amazing thing ever. They headed over to New Zealand for a road trip. 30 years on and I’m still dreaming of my own campervan trip around the world, the idea of vanlife filling my head with opportunities for the slow life, the travel life, and a life full of amazing views and experiences.
I’m told that in order to fulfil a dream you must take baby steps in its general direction every single day, and because the vanlife one has been a little elusive over the years, I decided to make a concerted effort this year by adding “spend the night in a campervan” to my 38 Things For 38 Years list. I figured that if I don’t have the cash resources to just head out and buy one, I would at least give it a go one way or another, if not only to find out if the dream is worth the effort. I can happily say that the act of writing it down did its job, and a couple of weekends ago I borrowed a VW T5, campervan, drove it down to Devon, and spent a couple of days living my best life out of a van.
Goboony, the Airbnb of Campervans
Goboony are an online catalogue of other people’s motorhomes and campervans that you can hire for your own road trips and campouts. They got in touch to see whether they could help me with this bucket list tick and I was naturally very happy to oblige – and you’ll see by the end of this post how I was able to use this bucket list tick to grab another one at the same time. A reasonably new company, the premise is very similar to Airbnb in that motorhome and campervan owners can list their vehicle on the website and hire it out to others to make a bit of money from it when they’re not using it themselves.
Anyone wanting to hire a van can search the site for their ideal size, style and location of vehicle, along with additional features such as whether pets are allowed or if the owner will let you take it to a festival, and can request to book it. There are a whole host of vehicles to hire, some more quirky than others, it’s fun just being nosey at all the listings. In the same way as if you hire a car, there is a rental fee to pay along with a security deposit which is returned assuming you return the van in the same condition that you picked it up (you can choose to pay an insurance fee to waive this if you prefer). All communications go through Goboony, they act for both the hirer and the owner to make everything as smooth as possible.
And I have to say at this point in my blog post, the system works. Goboony put me in touch with Frank, who owned this blue Volkswagen T5 campervan I was hiring, he was happy to answer all my questions, and we arranged collection and drop off well in advance. It was all very simple. On arrival at Frank’s home in Bristol we did some quick paperwork (checking the vehicle over just as you would if you were hiring a car), loaded our gear into the van, and headed off on our little adventure.
Once I’d made my way through Bristol, which was a little daunting considering this was probably the biggest vehicle I’d ever driven and it was hired from a lovely chap I’d met on the internet, we were on the motorway and starting our first vanlife experience. Unfortunately for us the weather was promising to be a little difficult for the weekend – March is never particularly predictable is it – but I was excited and ready for an adventure. We headed into Devon on one of my favourite roads in the country – the Atlantic Coast Highway, but sadly the views didn’t really come out to play for us. Thankfully the van had enough torque to make it up Porloch Hill and then Lynmouth Hill, and we made our way just into Cornwall to Bude for our first night in the van. I am planning a short post on the three campsites we used on this road trip another day, so keep an eye out for that if you’re interested in where we chose to stay and why.
Tors, Cream Teas and Weather
One of the other entries in my 38 Things for 38 Years list was to revisit some of the places from my childhood, including Budleigh Salterton. My grandparents lived in Budleigh in south Devon do for a few years, and when we lived in Plymouth we would spend a lot of our time exploring Devon and Cornwall at the weekends and on holidays. I remember being taught to read a map on Dartmoor, scrambling up tors, and wandering the streets of chocolate box villages. Using this opportunity with Goboony to revisit some of those places seemed like an excellent use of this weekend road trip, and so we chose to base ourselves at Bude, Princetown and Budleigh Salterton on our three nights away from home.
In my head we would be heading off into the sunshine, you know, like all the vanlife videos I’ve ever watched in which it never rains or gets cold. But our first night and full day in this Goboony campervan was quite an interesting test of whether vanlife is for us or not. The wind was strong (up to 70 mile an hour gusts), the rain heavy and sideways, and the visibility poor. If we’d have been in a tent we’d have given up and gone home on Friday night, no doubt about that. But the van meant we were safe, dry, warm, and had tea whenever we wanted it, which was at least something.
I’d planned to spend Saturday hiking on Dartmoor, topping a few tors, and exploring the area in the van. But this wasn’t to be. When we set off from Bude towards the National Park we thought we had a good couple of hours before the worst of the weather hit, but unfortunately for us it arrived with a bang almost as soon as we crossed the cattle grid just outside Tavistock. We stopped in a couple of great parking spots but were not treated to the views I had hoped for and I knew that hiking any distance from the van would be an incredibly silly decision. Instead we headed into Princetown to regroup over a traditional pasty and Devon cream tea at the Fox Tor Café, hiding from the atrocious weather and wondering if we would get any outdoors time at all during the weekend.
The great thing about having a van and not a tent, though, was that we could continue with our road trip and enjoy a different kind of day out without losing the tent in a gale or having to fork out for a hotel. We spent some time in the Dartmoor National Park Visitor’s Centre in Princetown looking at all the displays, and visited the Dartmoor Prison Museum which was absolutely full to bursting with exhibits about the prison’s history and inmates. We attempted to catch a break in the weather and went looking for the famous Dartmoor ponies, but as soon as I was a few feet from the van the rain started again and I was soaked through in a few seconds. Honestly, the van was so handy, much more so than a normal car would have been; I could get in, dry off, make a cuppa, and sit and warm up with the diesel heater on whilst listening to music and reading a magazine.
Over dinner that evening, which we ate in The Plume of Feathers in Princetown (thanks to Two Blondes Walking for their recommendation – seriously good homemade pies if you’re ever in the area), we took a look at the forecast and while we were in for a windy and damp night, the weather was due to be significantly better the following day (other than a little snowfall in the morning…), and so we rearranged our plans and decided to stick around Dartmoor for at least the morning to see if we could head up at least a tor or two before we continued on our journey. It did snow a little overnight, but we flicked the heater on and pulled a blanket over, and didn’t worry about it. We chose a shorter hike than the one we’d originally planned, just three miles from a large parking area close to Cox Tor, and while we did get caught in three separate hail showers during our wander, it was such a good decision to hang around the area and wait for a weather window.
That cream tea at the Fox Tor Café the previous day had been so good (and I mean good, possibly the best I have ever had), we headed back there after our short hike to “refuel” before driving to Buckfast for a wander around the Abbey and then onto Budleigh Salterton for the final stop of the road trip. We even got to see some Dartmoor ponies on our way through the National Park – this little carpark was full of them, they’ve clearly been fed here before as they were most certainly looking for morsels from us!
The Sea in Budleigh Salterton
The drive over to Budleigh Salterton was full of memories in itself. I recognised so many of the places we drove through, and even knew my way, which considering I couldn’t drive when my Grandparents lived here is quite something. The good thing about choosing a van rather than a larger motorhome was that we had no trouble with the width of Devon’s country lanes, which are often flanked by tall hedges, or the width or height of its bridges, which are often narrow and low. It was also small enough to fit in a normal parking space and so we never had to worry about parking it either on the street or in a car park, and the turning circle was such that we weren’t concerned about turning it around.
After checking into our campsite, our only site of the trip with electric hook-up, we walked the mile or so down the hill to check the sea was still there. Standing on the pebbly beach looking at the muddy sea at Budleigh Salterton as the sun set was a very special moment for me. Apart from there being fewer beach huts along the promenade, the seafront at Budleigh had hardly changed from what I remember, and it was an absolute pleasure to be there. It’s the most unassuming of places, but having the opportunity to go with the simple aim of checking the sea is still there, was just wonderful.
Vanlife First Impressions
This has turned into a very long post, and I’m sure I could have been a bit more selective in the things I mentioned, but hopefully you get a sense of what the weekend was like for me as a first experience of this vanlife dream. I’ve got another post coming soon which speaks about how my big bucket list item of owning a campervan has changed (and hasn’t changed) now that I’ve actually slept in one and driven one, but in the mean time I will simply say that the dream of camping in a van is still alive and well for me. I absolutely loved it.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, the weather really did try and stop us having any kind of fun, but I guess that all helped make my first vanlife experience a particularly real one. The biggest benefit of the van over a tent was that this trip could actually go ahead – and we were able to stay warm, dry and properly refreshed throughout. I would like sunshine next time, though, please.
I was very pleased to be able to use this opportunity to tick two things off my 38 Things for 38 Years list, especially to revisit some of my favourite childhood memories and create some new ones. And I think that is the key; the romantic idea of vanlife for me is all about creating memories. I might have had to give this one back (which was as easy as picking it up), but the dream of having my own one day is still alive. I just love squeezing little adventures like this into my busy life – planning them and going on them makes me very happy.
If you’re looking to give vanlife a go, or you already know you love it but don’t own your own, I would definitely recommend checking out Goboony to rent one from another owner. It’s a great idea, the process was super simple, and I would absolutely do it again for another trip.
Goboony got in touch to offer me the hire of this campervan for free in order to help me tick two things off my 38 Things for 38 Years list, and I am unbelievably grateful for that opportunity. I’ve included my Goboony affiliate links on this page; if you register/book through my link you will get £20 credit to get you started and I might eventually be able to hire a van for another weekend!