First proper ‘wild’ camp

As our house was all packed up into storage, we’d slept in the new van every night since we got it but sleeping in the street outside your own home hardly counts as wild camping! Our definition would be: camping somewhere for free, with little or no facilities, just what you have with you. We set off 9th April and spent our first night at Bev’s auntie’s near Bedford – still doesn’t count! But it did mean we only had a short drive to the channel tunnel, via the Dartford Bridge. Short delay with the tunnel this time – fire safety alarms weren’t working properly on one train, so we had to drive in a big loop and get on another one. Still a pretty smooth operation, friendly staff and no real concerns tackling it with the bigger vehicle.

We didn’t drive too far into France that day. Bev found a Park4Night site outside Bergues, about 10km south of the beaches of Dunkirk. It’s basically just a car-park in the forest, by some running trails, dog-walks and fishing ponds. Slightly nervy as we got ready for the night, with those stories of wrong-uns gassing people in their campervans and robbing them in my mind. But another van turned up, and assuming they weren’t the wrong-uns, I thought we’d probably be ok.

It was great. Lovely, peaceful, wildlife all around and we had absolutely everything we needed in the van.

In the morning, we had an opportunity to try out Bev’s folding bike – She rode ahead to find a patisserie. I followed with the dog stroller, so Marra could climb in when he’d had enough of walking. He can only go so far these days, poor old lad!

Looking forward to more nights like this!

The plan is… There is no plan

I guess we did have a plan to start with. We fancied a change. Bev would finish work, we’d sell the house in Newcastle and move to Northumberland, get some chickens or alpacas and set up a music studio in the garage. But our house didn’t sell – buyers being cautious with Brexit maybe, or maybe just no-one saw what we saw in our house and garden. Then there came an opportunity for an exit scheme at my work – too good to miss. I applied and was successful – I’d finish 6th April and get a payout at the end of the month. New plan – never mind Brexit, let’s vote with our feet and get out.

Bev tidied up the house to rent it out and we started to sketch out a route through Europe. Our friends Andy and Ucci are building a house in Sweden so we’d aim to get there and say ‘Hi’ at some point, probably late July/early August.

We part-exchanged our VW campervan as a deposit for a larger motorhome and after a few worrying weeks in the run up to the 29th March Brexit deadline, decided to get a loan and pay off the balance for the new van early and get set off, in advance of the new ‘deadline’ of 12th April.

This meant a truly bonkers and exhausting week after finishing work, with my leaving do and farewell gig with the band, packing up the entire house into boxes, loading into a storage unit, trying to sort the rental, sorting road tax, insurance, etc, then collecting the new van from Scotland, sourcing a new acoustic amp, trying to pack all our kit in…

…and seeing friends to say goodbye. I barely had chance to reflect on leaving work after 15 years, leaving a good, solid day-job at the age of 45 to go off travelling, leaving the house we’d loved for 14 years, etc. Ah, well. It’s done now and we’re off. Bring it on 🙂

Bringing forward our departure meant that I hadn’t had time to put any effort into findings gigs in Europe either. So we really didn’t have anywhere particular to be. The only place I’d contacted was a bar in Ghent, Belgium, but I’d not heard anything. May as well head that way, you never know!

Choosing a motorhome

We’d had our campervan – a converted T5 transporter van, nicknamed “Voyager” – for 3 years and had some fantastic adventures. We really caught the bug. As well as regular weekend escapes, gigs and festivals, we’d done 2 longer trips around Europe – first for 2 weeks and then 3 weeks. We loved it and wanted to go further afield and stay away longer, much longer e.g. months.  On our last trip we found more wild camping sites – Bev’ll do a post on the Park4Night app at some point – and again loved the freedom (and low cost) and wanted to do more of that. For a few reasons, we started to think that a bigger van might be required:

Living and storage space

We’re not just thinking in terms of taking a long holiday, we want to take our lives on the road to some extent. We’ll look long and hard at what we need – we are downsizing after all – but it’s likely we’ll have to take more ‘stuff’ than we do currently. (And that already includes the dog’s beds/coats/food, Bev’s paddleboard, my guitars, etc.)

We were lucky with the weather on our longer trips – it was sunny, dry and warm. I think if we’d had more rain, we’d have struggled a bit with wet coats, boots and 2 wet dogs! So, if we’re going to be away longer and we intend to keep on camping through winter, we should prepare for that.

Also, we love being outdoors and have the picnic table and chairs but we may also need space to ‘work’ indoors, especially through winter.

A made up bed

It might be part of the fun for some, making up a bed each night from the sofa but we love the idea of a separate space for sleeping. We’re both quite tall so sleeping widthways is not an option for us in a normal van. In Voyager, we came close by sleeping ‘upstairs’ – in the pop top. We could leave the bedding up there during the day and when driving. This also meant one of us could have a lie-in while the other got up to sort the dogs and make a cuppa in the morning. Of course, with the bed ‘down’ there isn’t much headroom so you have to do all this hunched over! We began to dream of doing this morning ritual without stooping and it became a ‘must-have’ for our new van.

Facilities for wild camping

Although the VW van was easy to drive on narrow roads and could get us into places that we’d never reach in a motorhome, there were a few drawbacks. The fresh water capacity in the conversion was a bit limiting at 12 litres, and it was fiddly to fill. So, more fresh water and an integrated waste tank were required. Having lived with 12v electrics and a Waeco CR50 compressor fridge and a Truma gas-only heater, we also knew we wanted more fuel/power options for storing food, cooking and heating the living area. Ideally, this would include solar.

Full winterisation for year-round travel

That means better insulation, decent heater, frost protection on the water supply, etc.

Although we’d got into to a fairly slick routine for setting up and packing up, we still imagined ways to make it easier. In an ideal world, it would be effortless to move from driving to camping modes – just pull up when we find the perfect spot and drive off whenever we felt like it. We began to look at motorhomes admiringly, and pondering… if we wanted to wild camp for days, we’d probably need a loo and a shower, so we’d need more water, and a built in waste tank, and what about the comfy captain’s chairs for driving long distances, that spin round to make a dining area with the adjustable table… And, ooh, built in cab-blinds… Classic van envy!

When you start looking at motorhomes, there’s a huge range of styles, layouts and of sizes. Some are absolute monsters. We decided on a few more criteria:  

Not too long!

Neither me nor Bev have much experience driving big vehicles and I’d already had a ‘minor altercation’ with an underground car park in Heidelberg. We don’t want to have to avoid back country roads entirely. The VW van was 5m and we knew a motorhome would be bigger, but ideally under 6m as we’d heard this can be a size limit for some ferries in Scotland and sometimes vans over this length get charged more.

Reasonable fuel efficiency

The VW was fantastic, averaging 36 mpg. We’d seen online some motorhomes did less than 20 mpg which seems boggling. Ideally, hoping for something around 25-30 mpg.

Of all the different brands, types or classes, and layout options, we soon homed in on just 2 layouts and there weren’t many options in our price range:

French Bed layout – fixed bed, with storage underneath accessible from outside, separate bathroom, kitchen area, lounge.

Transverse Bed – fixed bed, even more storage accessible from outside, separate bathroom, kitchen area, lounge.

A chance encounter at Marquis Motorhomes in Birtley, where Bev ambushed a chap bringing his motorhome in for it’s annual service and he generously showed us around, convinced us that there was only one make and model that would tick all the boxes…

Benimar Mileo 201

A low-profile coachbuilt motorhome with a transverse bed layout.

Benimar Mileo 201

Typically for us, we had to be even more particular – it had to be a late 2015 or later model, as the earliest versions weren’t fully winterised.

Elddis had a transverse bed model, which was a cheaper option, but it wasn’t winterised, didn’t seem as well finished, and even the brand new models just had a ‘dated’ look/feel to them, like your Granda’s old caravan.

Benimar have a French Bed model, the 231, but we saw that it lacked a preparation space in the kitchen – something Bev was keen on. (A cooking and baking post coming soon!) We also liked the L shaped lounge, thinking there’ll be a bit more room when the whippets want to climb on our laps.

There’s a review of the early 201 models here. We watched this video countless times, despite the terrible spanish puns, while we scoured the second hand sites for a decent late-2015 201 to come up.

Live at the Brandling Villa

On Saturday 30th March, we played our ‘farewell’ gig with the band before I set off with Bev on our travels. It’s always a good night at the Brandling, but even better with some friends from work come to see us off, including Iqbal who came up from London. Photos and videos by Bev and our mate Paul Curry.

How much does it cost to run a campervan?

Campervan costs might be less than you think!

Mixed feelings as I dropped off ‘Voyager’, our trusty VW campervan, a few weekends ago, in part-ex for the new motorhome. On the train home, I got to pondering. We’d had the van a touch under 3 years, say 35 months, and the difference between what we paid and what we got in part-ex was £4,000. Does that make the depreciation cost about £115 a month? Not bad, I thought, well worth it! For the freedom of Friday night escapes to the countryside, so many long weekends around England and Scotland, 2 amazing trips to Europe, not to mention using the van as a regular runabout.

Of course, that figure doesn’t include diesel, or insurance, or this and that… Turns out the total cost averaged out over the months is quite a lot! Well it sounds a lot, but you have to compare this figure to the cost of running a ‘normal’ car, regular weekends away (caravan/B&B?) and 5 weeks holiday around Europe. Still well worth it! And the feeling of escaping the 9-5, the freedom to follow the sunny weather or to take on new gigs and festivals up and down the country – that is absolutely priceless.     

Priceless in one sense, but certainly measurable in other senses – and the inner analyst/geek’s curiosity was piqued. So, here’s the facts and figures of our campervan costs. It may be useful for someone considering taking the plunge but don’t be put off until you’ve made that full and fair comparison. And bear in mind you could probably do it cheaper for example, we had agreed value insurance, breakdown cover, worldwide multi-trip travel insurance and so on.  

Average Monthly Campervan Costs

Average monthly cost over 3 years of owning a VW campervan: £410

  • 82 trips (day trips, camping, touring, gigs and festivals) plus regular short journeys/commuting.
  • Total miles 19,379: 17,887 on trips and 1,492 miles commuting.
  • 2,454 litres of diesel, averaging 36 mpg (min 33 mpg, max 42 mpg).
  • 9 countries: UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Spain
  • Longest journey: 3,228 miles through France and Northern Spain.
  • Most visited: Kielder Forest, Alwinton (Clennell Hall), Workington, Druridge Bay, Tynemouth

Breaking it down:

Average monthly van costs: £234

Including depreciation, insurance (up to 6,000 miles per year), road tax, servicing and repairs, diesel for occasional commuting.

Additional average monthly costs for our camping/holidays: £176

Including diesel, site fees, camping accessories, new leisure battery, gas tanks, camping club memberships, travel insurance, extra cost for insurance up to 10,000 miles in 2018, tolls and vignettes, 2 pet passports, 1 insurance claim excess.

Let’s see how much the newer, bigger motorhome ends up costing…

UPDATE January 2020: Update on Van Life Costs

Trying the new camera

For a special birthday treat this year, and thinking ahead to our upcoming tour, I got a new digital camera. We’ve had a Panasonic TZ20 for years – great pictures in good light, good zoom, really compact – but it had some fluff in the lens that we couldn’t shift and the zoom motor was starting to play up. Low light performance was not great – my newer mobile (Samsung S7) took better indoor and night-time shots. As ever, I pondered long and hard over what to get – a good all rounder, for photo and video, not too bulky, not too expensive.

In the end we stuck with Panasonic, and the simplicity of a fixed lens, and went for the FZ2000, described as a super-zoom bridge camera. It has 20x zoom, 1 inch sensor, better low light perfomance, 4k video, good battery life and a host of other features like 4k photo, built in neutral density filters and much more to be discovered I’m sure.

Very pleased with the results so far. Got a lot to learn but hoping for some great photo mementos from our trip. These are from our fantastic trip to Mauritius. The .jpg sizes are normally around 6-8Mb (20Mp) so I’ve had to resize/shrink them here.