With 2021 not having the best of starts when it comes to getting out and about, I’m super excited to share some happier news. After years of talking about it, I’ve taken the plunge and bought a van!
OK, it’s not really a van. It’s more of a big car – technically a Multi-Purpose Vehicle, or MPV. Vanlife aficionados might well scoff but my pretend van could be the perfect vehicle for everyday adventurers who find themselves with at least one foot still in the sensible world of nine-to-fives, mortgages, family commitments and responsibilities.
I’ve always hankered after a camper van. A chance to slow down, stop regularly for walks, or simply idle away the day reading a book overlooking a remote Scottish loch. Doing this in your bog-standard hatchback isn’t quite the same.
I love the idea of chugging up and down the country in a 1960s VW. But I expect the reality of living with a classic Vee Dub is rather different from my romantic daydreaming. Old vehicles have a habit of breaking down. They aren’t particularly environmentally friendly and I imagine driving one isn’t especially relaxing.
What about a modern VW California? There’s certainly a case for it. They are beautiful things, with all the comforts of home in a smaller package. They are popular for a reason. But they are expensive. Really expensive. And however you dress it up, it’s still a van, so that means it won’t always slot seamlessly into everyday life. It won’t fit under the barriers in multi-storey car parks, for instance. And it can feel excessive lugging around a kitchen, gallons of water and a gas bottle on your trips to the shops. With my current lifestyle, I could only justify it as a second vehicle.
Camper vans have also attracted some bad press in the last year. Thousands flocked to popular beauty spots at the merest whiff of a relaxation of lockdown rules. And a minority turned up the music, annoyed the locals and left their rubbish as a leaving present. I’d feel a bit conspicuous these days pulling up in a modern VW van to rustle up a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea.
But try as I might, that itch just won’t go away. I needed an alternative. Something modern and reasonably priced, that I can use as a car in the week and live out my fantasies of van life at the weekend. A vehicle that’ll fit in a standard car parking space at the shops but with enough space to stretch out and gaze across that remote Scottish loch. One that’ll blend into the background, without attracting the suspicious gaze of an angry local.
These considerations all drew me to the Citroen Berlingo, one of a number of MPVs which are based on vans. This shared DNA makes these types of car the perfect adventure-mobile, and they’ve also gained a bit of a cult following when used as discreet ‘micro-campers’.
From impressive full-blown strip-outs and conversions, complete with leisure batteries, water pumps and rock-and-roll beds, to DIY efforts involving nothing more than folding the seats down and unrolling a camping mat, the versatility of this van-based-car is its strength.
I’ve opted for something in between, with a removable unit that sits in the boot. It’s effectively a plywood storage box, although the description hardly does it justice. There’s a drawer which pulls out to reveal an Aladdin’s cave of mugs, space for a camping stove and some tea bags. Panels fold out to create a small seating area, complete with table. Extend the sections fully and you have a solid platform for two to sleep on.
Throw in some camping chairs, a cool box and a sleeping bag and you begin to question why you’d ever need a camper van. When you’ve finished your adventures, pack it all away into the boot and sidle back into everyday life.
What are the advantages over a regular camper van?
There’s no denying that VW camper vans are the business and I still really (really) want one. But if you need more flexibility and are prepared to use your imagination, then something like the Berlingo might just be what you are looking for. It’s a superb family car, but you can pop the seats down to exploit the humongous boot: whether that’s for taking things to the tip; or simply stopping to gaze awhile, cook some pancakes and have a snooze.
It’s perfect for those stealthier overnight spots, where a camper van might be too obvious. And it’s a lot cheaper to buy and run than a VW California.
But for me, it somehow embodies the essence of camping more than a proper camper van. It’s about paring things back. The art of compromise. Cooking takes place outside in one pot on a camping stove. There’s no plumbed-in water system, or sink for washing up. It’s back-to-basics van life with an emphasis on discretion. It’s like comparing an overnight fast-and-light wild camp setup to a week’s campsite break with the family. Both involve sleeping under canvas but require very different levels of equipment.
Has it scratched the itch?
Don’t get me wrong, I still covet a Vee Dub. But my pretend van should scratch that itch for now. I’m looking forward to having a new companion for my everyday adventures.
As with all compromises, I guess only time will tell if Beryl the Berlingo takes me just one step closer to the real deal, or confirms she’s the perfect all-rounder I’ve yearned for all along.