Wednesday this week saw me venture to the wilds of Birmingham and the 2019 Caravan, Camping and Motorhome Show. With so much on offer, my plan was to experience three things:
- Find out if there’s room for a campervan in my life
- Be inspired by a great line-up of speakers
- Soak up the atmosphere of all-things adventure
First things first, I’m always a little nervous of ‘Shows’. I’ve been to the Motor Show and the Great Yorkshire Show a few times and I remember lots of traffic, long queues and not being able to see much for crowds of people. Learning from past experience, I went with a clear game plan and set off early to beat the traffic.
At 10am, the gathering crowds were released and instantly swallowed up by the vastness of the NEC. I had about an hour before the first talk, so went into Hall 5 to get the campervan bug out of my system.
Is there room for a campervan in my life?
Some terminology before we begin. By “campervan”, I mean something like this:
Campervans have basic levels of equipment but their size gives you freedom to use them every day and create adventures at the drop of a hat.
This is a motorhome. Basically a caravan with an engine. Bigger and with more equipment, these can be more luxurious than the average family home. Their size means you’d need a separate car to use every day and more organisation/administration/hassle to take it away for the weekend.
With that cleared up, I entered a huge space containing every type of campervan imaginable. Ranging from Dirty Weekender’s classic VW camper conversion complete with bar area, beer pumps, coffee machine and subwoofer, to VW’s own debut of their new Grand California.
Despite the number of conversions on offer, I couldn’t help but feel they all lacked a certain finesse. They reminded me of most new-build houses. In ‘showroom’ conditions under bright lights, they are designed to look great but corners are inevitably cut and they invariably disappoint when exposed to the rigours of everyday use.
So I was left feeling cold, but a few offerings did stand out.
Hillside Leisure has a reputation for quality conversions and this was clear to see. Everything felt solid, like it wouldn’t start to rattle after driving a few hundred yards. The seats are comfortable and the range of options is extensive.
I was drawn to the Dalbury. A micro-campervan – about as small as you can get away with. It boasts a decent-sized bed, sink, gas hob, fridge and cupboard space. All in a vehicle not much bigger than a family car. The best part – you can pick up a brand new one for around £30k. Impressive for a campervan. For a young couple, it’d be ideal. I wish I’d have known about the Dalbury years ago.
Hillside’s Birchover range will make most sense for most people. A more traditional VW campervan layout without the eye-watering price tag of VW’s own California Ocean. There are some neat features, such as the L-shaped kitchen and well-thought-out storage space. If you are in the market for a full-blown campervan, it should definitely be on your shortlist.
By far the most attractive option for me came in the form of VW’s own California Beach. A stripped-back campervan, it doesn’t have the usual fridge, hob, sink and cupboard space of its peers. It was tucked away in the back corner of the arena, hidden from view by people queuing up to ogle at the shiny new Grand California.
What’s the point, you might think? Well, however nice the ‘proper’ campervans look, I do worry about their usability. Everything just feels a little fragile. Like a rubbish version of the real thing. If you want something with all the mod-cons, then a motorhome (or a house) would be the way to go. Squeezing these features in a campervan just feels like too much of a compromise.
There’s also a level of complexity, which I feel detracts from a good adventure. You’d have to fill up the water tanks and pump out the waste. There’s more to go wrong. You need to carry the kitchen sink with you (literally). It’s the same reason I prefer maps to GPS. Notebooks to notifications.
The Beach just makes so much sense. You can use it as a practical load-lugger, family vehicle or campervan. Take a portable stove, cool box and water carrier and you have everything you need. There’s less to go wrong but you still get the nifty features such as the table and chairs stowed in the boot and sliding door, pop-top roof, electric hook-up and awning. Its simplicity is the key to its versatility.
So despite all the swanky options available, I’d definitely take the simplest ‘van there. At just less than £50k brand new, though, I’d best get saving!
I’d chosen the Wednesday to visit the Show to see the man who first inspired me to get outside more – Alastair Humphreys. His Microadventures book should be prescribed on the NHS. A top bloke who I have much to thank for.
As the date neared, I was excited to see Foxy and Ollie (Jason Fox and Ollie Ollerton) from Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins in the line-up. The programme has just aired its fourth series and is rightly popular. I was keen to hear their stories.
Foxy and Ollie were up first and clearly the headline act. The Freedom To Go theatre was packed. Standing room only. Their slot took the form of a question and answer session, and they were clearly not amused by the compère’s attempts at banter!
Foxy talked about the show’s popularity. Unlike most military recruitment documentaries, it covers a diverse range of topics such as conquering demons, bullying and mental health.
Ollie brought up the idea of mental wealth. Forget about what’s happened in the past and invest some time in yourself. Do what makes you happy in the present and moving forward. To hear these tough blokes talk so openly about these issues was inspiring and they are obviously proud to use the show’s popularity as a platform for raising awareness.
They both mentioned adventures and the importance of the outdoors in all our lives. Foxy lives in a city but needs to get to the mountains on a regular basis to reset. This can be with mates, or on your own – Ollie preferring the latter because none of his mates can keep up with him!
Talked turned to their experiences of special forces selection. The hardest thing for both of them was battling internal demons. Thinking you are not good enough. They talked about the notion of ‘self-DSing’. Many candidates on the show convince themselves they are not doing well enough and start to self-assess, dropping out soon after. All too often do we fall victim to our own thoughts.
It was great to hear about their planned adventures in 2019 – Ollie climbing Mont Blanc and Foxy paddling down the Yukon river. Will be keen to hear the tales from those expeditions, as they are fantastic ambassadors for using adventure to combat everyday struggles.
Alastair first appeared on a panel of experts for a lunchtime drop-in clinic. Most of the questions concerned the intricacies of waste permits for touring around Germany, or the different types of licence required for a 4 tonne motorhome. It all sounded incredibly complex and at odds with Alastair’s microadventure philosophy!
Alastair had his own slot later in the afternoon, which wasn’t as well-attended as it should have been. He regaled the crowd with tales of his first proper adventure cycling around the world, on to crossing Iceland unsupported, rowing the Atlantic, walking across India and circumnavigating the M25!
His enthusiasm is infectious and he questioned what makes grown-ups so boring. Kids see everything as an adventure. But then we grow up and get ‘proper’ jobs and wish away our time until retirement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more of us could experience life with that child-like wonder? If more people followed Alastair’s philosophy, I’m sure we could.
You really should check out Alastair’s ‘teachings’. We don’t all have to climb Everest or trek to the South Pole – these things are never going to happen for the vast majority of us*. But, we can all make small changes to restore some balance and bring excitement back into our lives outside of work.
*unless you want them to, in which case, go out and do it!
Aside from the talks and fantasy-campervan shopping, I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of the show and be surrounded by all things adventure. There was a huge area dedicated to tents, ranging from your basic ‘use your bike as your tent poles’ design, right through to luxurious glamping options. The Show also had climbing walls, a Bear Grylls adventure area and an ice rink.
The tent section was geared towards family camping holidays, so there’s no better place if you want to see the latest designs in one place. My only reservation again comes back to simplicity. Some of the offerings were like miniature houses, with a price to match. The range of accessories, too, was incredible but it felt like some of the magic of camping was stripped away somehow.
What I will say is if these creature-comforts are what it takes to get people into the outdoors then that’s no bad thing. Even the smallest exposure to nature is beneficial so however you want to experience it, the important thing is just to make sure you do.
I had a great time at the Show and am keen to return with my family next year. February is often a time when it’s more difficult to get outside regularly, but events like this serve to build some excitement for your adventures to come. Judging by the Show’s popularity, I suspect one or two people might just agree with me.