Camping it up with Heidi

Sunday Herald Motoring Section – 25/07/2010
by Alasdair Reid

Relaxing in a VW conversion is fun for all the family, plunging babies included.
It’s difficult to describe in precise terms what it feels like to have a baby land on your head. At least it is from an adult perspective. Eight-month old Josie’s view of the experience was that it felt something like “Wawawawawawwwhhhh!”

Kids eh? You can take them off on a real-life adventure and all they do is complain about the piffling details. Because as far as I’m concerned she got by far the better end of the bargain when she toppled out of bed the other morning and landed on my head. Had the roles been reversed she would really have had something to moan about.

In fairness to young Josie she did spend most of our two-day road trip through Dumfriesshire making much the same happy gurgling noises as could be heard from the back end of Heidi, the 1972 VW camper van that was our transport for the journey. And in fairness to not-so-young Heidi, Josie’s impromptu decent had nothing to do with her unfortunate genetic inheritance of catastrophically clumsy parents.

But the secret of happy camping – under canvas or beneath Heidi’s clever pop-up roof – is that you shrug off the little difficulties and carry on. Even the most technically advanced and eye-wateringly modern motor-home will present a few practical challenges along the way, but the general idea of those things is that you take to the road in search of freedom, not convenience. And, in Heidi’s case, fun.

As a general rule I’m a bit of a curmudgeon about the anthropomorphic tendency to give vehicles human names, but Heidi oozed such character that it would have been rude to use any other appellation. It – sorry, she – came into being as a Danbury conversion 38 years ago, put in 20 years of heroic service, and then spent another 14 years resting in a barn.

Bought by Mark Tuckwood, who with his wife Verity runs Classic Camper Holidays from Ettrickbridge near Selkirk, she then had a ground-up restoration and complete refit. Throughout, the principle of the rebuild was to remain true to Heidi’s original era, even to the extent of tracking down the early-1970sgas cooker that sits neatly behind the passenger seat.

Classic Camper Holidays have another two vans on their books. Bluebell is a 1975 conversion for those who need more room to move as it comes with a large done tent, a folding table and chairs and a free standing gas stove. At the other end of the spectrum, Daisy is a brand-new van, based on the VW Kombi platform which is still produced in Brazil – albeit now with a water-cooled engine – and converted to camper-van trim by Danbury, the renowned Bristol-based specialist.

But we’re nothing if not hard-core, so we only had eyes for Heidi. Tuckwood provided a guided tour of the vehicle’s main features, the most essential of which was the guidebook, which, for the benefit of those of us with the attention spans of distracted goats, helpfully repeating everything he had said. That little tome became our bible for the next two days, its most valuable section being the origami instruction for tuning the back seat into a remarkably comfortable bed. Well, for me at least.

“My bum’s in the groove,” said my wife as she lay down on the first night. Now as I had just returned from covering The Open at St Andrews, and as professional golfers are prone to using the same form of words about their swing/game/mindset, the ambiguity of this comment was rather alarming. But not half as alarming as the wake-up call of a baby landing on my head a few hours later.

Perhaps the least helpful part of Heidi’s guide was the bit that said she should not be driven at more than 65mph. Frankly, it might as well have cautioned drivers against attempting a moon landing or a transatlantic crossing, for 65mph was a territory that Heidi would only ever reach with a 45-degree downhill slope, a decent following wind and a couple of days to build up speed. But part of the joy of driving such a vehicle is that it obliges you to take things at a pace where you can actually appreciate the landscape around you.

I’ve always been of the opinion that the most important camping accessory is a decent restaurant guide, but Dumfries is a bit of a desert on that front and the best we could do was fill up at a cheerless fish-and-chip shop in the centre of town. From there, we headed west, setting camp in the achingly lovely surroundings of Glenkiln and in the surreally improbable company of Rodin’s statue of John the Baptist, which overlooks the reservoir there.

Breaking camp turned out to be a lot easier than setting things up. Josie might disagree, but we we’re a pretty slick operation when we want to be, and in 20 minutes of folding this here and stowing that there we were mobile again.

For our second night, we decided to go for the comforts of a campsite, so set off for the coast near Kippford, a magical slice of Scotland that could kid you into thinking you had been teleported to one of the more attractive coves of Devon. By now, we were old hands at turning our mode of transport into our boudoir.

But all too soon, we were handing Heidi back to her rightful owners. We had a covered about 200 miles, an experience that demolished completely my suspicion that VW campervans are solely for fashion victims. If you want to spend some time in life’s slow lane, there’s no better way of doing it than this.