For the ultimate family-friendly adventure, take a VW Campervan
away with you for a weekend of fresh air, fun and freedom in North Devon, says
mum of two Alexandra Shakespeare
I have always harboured a little dream to drive a VW camper van. Although I have no real idea why, they seem to evoke some kind of longing - more so now I've two young children and am edging ever closer to OLD. I have a few hazy memories of me and VWs, and that's all I have to go on. I remember a gorgeous guy posing in a convertible Beetle on an Athena poster, stuck on my teenage self’s bedroom wall; several student surf trips to Woolacombe wishing my boyfriend's VW was a Van and not a Golf; and a patchy story about my distant dad, aged 20 something, fleeing in a camper to a new life sanding surfboards in Jersey. You see what the mere thought of a VW can do? It gathers up a few loose threads of a few tatty old dreams, made-up memories and passed-down stories and it plants a little seed in your heart. Out of nowhere. When I discover Freddie, a cute 1972 metallic blue Devon Moonraker, complete with retro denim curtains and a pop-up roof so a family of four can sleep comfortably, the whole lifestyle still seemed to resonate with me. Borrow for a day, a weekend or a week away, it’s kitted out with all the basics bar sleeping bags. Add the idyllic Devonshire beaches, surfboards, your favourite people (in my case my partner Mark and our children Florence, 3 and a half, and Gabriel, 14 months, and my sister Ananda), plus a little dash of those silly old dreams and you’ve got a weekend packed with a good, old wholesome adventure. Cheaper than camping in France, and perfect for the kids (like one big baby change bag on wheels, so you can almost rediscover spontaneity), we were soon on our way to pick up Freddie en route in Taunton before heading to North Devon. Once we’d swapped our car for Freddie, and forced in a couple of ill-fitting baby car seats, jammed our Bugaboo in the back, and loaded up the mini fridge with milk and beers, I started to feel a teensy bit guilty about hijacking Freddie from his owners Ann and Edward and their adorable oversized black poodle, on what was a very sunny weekend. Having personalised the Van almost too beautifully for strangers (the hand-sewn cushions sporting their initials said it all), and given us a detailed A-Z of Freddie’s quirks, we started to wonder if my dreams really qualified us to actually drive a campervan. Setting off with Mark frantically wiggling the gear stick searching for a gear - any gear - for the first fifteen minutes, the fantasy started to fizzle. But we soon had the wonky 'H' shaped gearbox cracked and the faux handbrake sussed (don't rely on it, was our motto), and we were whooping and wooing all the way to the coast. Even Florence and Gabriel were laughing hysterically in the back with the look of a roller coaster ride about them. With the speedometer barely pushing 60mph, we decided B roads would be best. 'It's all part of the fun of driving a classic car', I blare above the blur of the engine and the various rattles and whirring noises. Mark started to realise that it’s best to build up a relationship with Freddie to truly feel at ease with him and so we nominated him the main driver for the rest of the journey (that was my excuse, and I’m sticking to it). Pleased as punch with the fun of it, we reached our en route pub lunch pit stop, with constant admiring glances (the Van, not us!), we were feeling really rather smug. It had all been quite effortless so far and with a quick browse of the North Devon website beforehand, we had even lined up some leads for a decent campsite, along with some children's rainy day activities and one or two child-friendly restaurants to roll up at should we get bored of baked beans (but hey, packed with protein!). When we arrived at Hidden Valley Holiday Park, we tried not to let the huge home-from-home caravans (4-piece suites, TVs, toilets, pool tables… who knew?) spoil our rustic camping experience and we cracked open the soup, warmed the babies' milk and settled the toddler up in the cosy roof bed. Florence, enjoying Where’s Wally by torchlight in her ready-made den, was having a blast. Gabriel, however, had other plans besides sleeping... Up early the next morning, fuelled on a breakfast of freshly baked croissants from the campsite shop, we headed 20 minutes away into the gorgeous Devonshire countryside to Combe Martin where a brilliant sea lion show awaited us at the local wildlife park. Lions, monkeys, llamas, wolves, rabbits, parrots, pigs and even automated dinosaurs, too. It was the ideal combo of animals, garden walks and silly stuff to satisfy the whole family. Talking of which, the next day’s activities involved a castle stuffed with curios, a village of gnomes and Victorian fairground rides. Honestly, only in England would you find such brilliant eccentricities! We’d left Freddie admiring the views of Watermouth Cove, and once the children were all merry go-rounded out, we rejoined him and headed to the beach just down the road at Ilfracombe to join the bucket and spade parade. We ended the day with chilli nachos at Cook Island where a soft playroom, further zonked the kids out – just enough to guarantee a better night’s sleep. Making our way home at the end of a lovely weekend - all rosy cheeked and matted hair - we passed another Van, pottleing along that bit slower than us. They waved knowingly and finally, thanks to Freddie, I was now a fully-fledged member of the the v-dub club - minus the surfboard on the roof (there's always next year!). And then we drove off into the sunset… Ok, so that bit was in my dreams! Do North Devon in three days - with kids! DRIVE: Freddie at Forever Campervans, 12 Cann Street, Taunton, TA1 4EH A metallic blue (natch) 1972 Type 2 Devon Moonraker with new diesel engine, sleeps four and includes National Trust membership, 2 chairs, tent, cooking gas and various kitchen utensils. Just bring sleeping bag, pillows and an adventureous spirit. Weekend hire from £199. CAMP: Hidden Valley Park, West Down, Nr Ilfracombe, EX34 8NUCafe and shop with goods as cheap as Tesco and freshly baked goodies. Plus well-kept pitches, a great wooden play area and baths for those that want them. From £9 per pitch per night. EAT: Cook Island, Mullacott Cross EX34 8NY (A361) A family-run restaurant with all-day carvery plus a full menu ranging from Italian to Indian food. Something for everyone. 01271 865500. VISIT: Watermouth Family Theme Park & Castle, Ilfracombe North, EX34 9SL (A399 coast road or bus no. 30; for timetables call 0871 200 2233)A Victorian Castle full of eclectic treasures, nostalgic displays and curios. Plus a theme park including rides and play areas, and beautiful landscaped gardens, overlooking the picturesque Watermouth Cove. VISIT: Wildlife and Dinosaur Park and Botanical Gardens, Combe Martin, EX34 0NG (A399 coast road) Over 28 acres of spectacular gardens within the North Devon Area of OutstandingNatural Beauty where you can experience at close hand many amazing animals including a sea lion show, a life-sized dinosaur spectacular and more. VISIT: The Big Sheep, Bideford, EX39 5AP Pony rides, tractor track, go karts, farm safari and more - fun options for children in all weathers.
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