Rise of the 'glampervan' Financial Times review of GlamperRV

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Rise of the ‘glampervan’ (as published in Financial Times 15th August 2020)

Financial Times Review of GlamperRV, Simon Usborne:
Ideal for socially distanced, flight-free trips, motorhomes have never been more in demand — but can they be glamorous?

Perhaps it was foolhardy to embark on a tour of southern England on a rain-soaked weekend in a habitable lorry with a heavily pregnant wife and an excitable two-year-old. Perhaps Jess and I felt we hadn’t spent enough time in close confinement this year. It was no coincidence that, on day one of our trip, Jake began to parrot an approximation of a phrase I would utter more than once behind the wheel: “Fox ache!”

It didn’t help, stress wise, that I was driving a 3.5-tonne, 7.4-metre long luxury motorhome worth £100,000. It was fresh out of the paintshop, too — a tasteful grey — with only 80 miles on the clock. I was borrowing it from GlamperRV, a Buckinghamshire purveyor of posh motorhomes with a groaning waiting list.

I embarked on my road trip as a motorhome sceptic. It’s not that I’m not outdoorsy — it’s that I am. If I’m going to sleep with less than a full house between me and the stars, I’ll take a tent or a mountain hut over a giant rattly fridge. But I was hearing of surging demand this summer for nights on wheels and under canvas. Moreover, there were intriguing signs of an upmarket shift in Britain’s caravanning tradition.

As holidaymakers emerged, blinking and restive, after the rigours of full lockdown, foreign travel seemed ill-advised at best. Yet standard staycations no longer cut it. We now seek hygienic self-containment — and the chance to swing our limbs in the great outdoors. Where better than in a rolling home with its own bathroom and kitchen?

The Caravan and Motorhome Club says it is signing up 1,000 more members a week than normal, swelling its ranks to more than a million. Its sites, whose 19,000 pitches reopened in July, are booked up well into September. Vehicle rentals are flying. At Indie Campers, domestic bookings were up 350 per cent in July compared to last year.

Campsites all over the world are under siege. Illegal and irresponsible wild camping is rife in national parks and forests. There are grumblings among locals, meanwhile, about record traffic on the North Coast 500, a scenic route in northern Scotland.

Demand is also high in the US, natural habitat of the RV, and beyond the traditional market of pension splurgers. With summer camps cancelled, families are hitting the road. RV rental firms also report that 20-somethings chasing the #vanlife motorhome dream are looking for ways to do it that don’t involve lining a knackered Transit with plywood.

The fancier end of the market is well established in the US, where the swankiest RVs expand like giant Transformers and come with open fires and carports in their bellies. In June, Justin Bieber kicked back under the awning of an enormous RV in a Utah national park. The singer’s converted coach reportedly has a sauna and cost as much as $2.7m.

In fact the cancellation of rock and pop concerts in the US is making it easier for the general public to taste life in a truly over-the-top celebrity tour bus. Nashville-based company Hemphill Brothers has started to rent out its fleet of buses that would otherwise be in use on major stars’ tours.

Britain’s laws and lanes don’t favour American excess. My driving licence limits me to a 3.5-tonne motorhome, almost a third of the maximum in the US. But there is room for glamour at that size, as I discover when I pick up my GlamperRV at the company’s base just outside Aylesbury. With its gleaming black alloy wheels and grey exterior, it looks almost toy-like in its minimal boxiness. Inside it’s all plush leather and subtle strip lighting. The two double beds — one at the back and one that drops down above the front seats — are remarkably comfortable.

Lucy Caillé shows me how everything works. She launched GlamperRV with one van five years ago. She had also been sceptical. “I really wasn’t keen on the image of white boxes on wheels from the ’70s,” she says. But Lucy’s husband Raphael, a French motorsport engineer, wanted a place of his own to take to race tracks. He convinced Lucy, 49, that a motorhome would also be good for family holidays. A debate ensued. It couldn’t be white. It would need a coffee machine, a hair dryer . . . the list grew.

They should test the cool of Nasa recruits by making them do a three-point turn in a bus in a British village.

The result was an epiphany for Lucy in the Scottish Highlands. She loved the van’s comforts and that the kids could be immediately outdoors. She also fielded endless questions from admirers. Spotting a gap in the market, Caillé quickly quit her job as a sports consultant to import high-end motorhomes (mine is a German Dethleffs Trend A Class built on a Fiat truck chassis). She gets them painted and reupholstered and adds new curtains, luxury bedding and a Nespresso machine.

GlamperRV now has nine rental motorhomes and sells several more each year. It was already doing well, converting snobs by the busload. “Almost everyone asks at some point in the booking: ‘And it is the grey one, isn’t it?’” Caillé says. She’s too discreet to name her clients but I gather they include three Olympians and a foreign aristocrat whose daughter uses her RV while playing polo.

Packed up and ready to roll south to our first overnight stop in the New Forest, I’m relieved to discover the RV is pretty easy to drive. It happily cruises at 70mph. We make short work of the A34 as it rises and dips through the North Wessex Downs. When we need a break and a coffee, we just pull over and swivel our seats.

GlamperRV DBL living area

Things get tighter when I reach Brockenhurst, a thronging tourist village of lanes and width restrictions that stands between us and our campsite. They should test the cool of Nasa recruits by making them do a three-point turn in a bus in a busy British village with cars backing up in both directions. I regret my cursing.

We get through to the wooded lane that leads to Black Knoll, a Caravan and Motorhome Club site (we’re made honorary members). The sun casts long shadows of the New Forest ponies that graze the national park, which William the Conqueror designated a royal forest almost a thousand years ago. At the site, a circular arrangement of otherwise white motorhomes and caravans in the middle of delightful countryside — a sort of motorhome henge — I put out the teak table and chairs that are stowed with our bikes in the roomy rear locker.

“Well that is very classy, isn’t it,” says Brian as he steps out of his Autosleeper Malvern. Sensing my greenness, he tries to caravansplain my awning (it’s a new model Thule, it turns out, Brian — works a bit differently). After dinner and a quick sunset ride through the woods, we begin the mission to convince Jake that bunks are for sleeping. Just as we’re ready to drift off, a platoon of tiny drummers marches on to the roof. The rain doesn’t let up for a good 24 hours.

Jake doesn’t care, so taken is he with life inside the “camp-fer fan”, as he calls it. Only the promise of ice cream lures him into Lime Wood, the country house hotel in the heart of the New Forest, where we seek shelter for lunch the next day. It takes some doing — and a few raised eyebrows under golf umbrellas — for me to park among the Range Rovers and charging Teslas. Yet somehow our bus doesn’t look out of place.

There was a time when guests here might have been natural caravanners. The rise of the motor engine more than a century ago gave new thrust and style to horse-drawn caravans. In the US, the wealthy Conklin family of New York helped launch the age of the RV in 1915, with a journey across America aboard their lavish “Gypsy van”. The converted bus included a phonograph and a “roof garden”. The New York Times was agog.

“If the well-known Haroun-al-Raschid, Commander of the Faithful, had ordered the most powerful Jinns . . . to produce out of thin air for his royal pleasure a vehicle which should have the power of motion and yet be a dwelling place fit for a Caliph, the result would have fallen far short of the actual house upon wheels which left New York yesterday for a trip to the Pacific Coast,” its report began.

There were similar vehicles in Britain. “This was an Edwardian gentleman’s pursuit,” says Nick Lomas, director general of the Caravan and Motorhome Club, which was founded in 1907. Early motorhomers called themselves “gentleman gypsies” and appointed valets and cooks who would camp in a tent outside.

As cars became more affordable, so the motorhome and trailer became democratised. Brands such as Airstream and Winnebago transformed the great American road trip. VW Campers, launched in 1949, were part of a postwar boom. The pursuit has remained popular in the UK, despite also becoming the object of derision. But Lomas now envisages a new golden age. “People really want that control over their environment,” he says.

Control has limits. For our second night we motor through the rain to Arundel, the West Sussex town in the South Downs with a medieval castle. I’d read on forums that the car park opposite the castle gates is unusual in allowing motorhomes to stay overnight. We arrive to discover a temporary height restriction, so we join dozens of vehicles that have stopped on the quiet road outside. I park under trees by the river and the ruins of a 13th-century priory.

All is golden in Sussex the next morning, and the river barely burbles as I skip out on to its banks before breakfast. Buoyed by the passing of rain, we take in the sites of Arundel, which includes wetlands and miles of footpaths, as well as the castle with its gardens.

The plan is to attempt a wilder stop for our final night. We’ll continue along the coast to Rye, Camber and the shingled nose of Dungeness. We’ll be lulled to sleep by waves and be first to the beach in the morning. But the forecast looks bad again — really bad — and we decide to retrieve our car early.

When I drop off my camper, Alastair MacLeod is doing the same. The chief executive of a tech company based in Zurich is returning from two weeks away with his family. He wisely booked in March, straight after cancelling their usual fortnight on a Greek island. “I hesitate to call myself snooty but we’re not really camper people,” MacLeod tells me. “But this really bridges the divide between the need for hair straighteners and the reality of a campsite in Carmarthenshire.”

MacLeod is now desperate to take a Glamper to Skye, where his ancestors are from. He may find they are far from alone. Caillé has cannily identified a growing niche. Like a reviewer returning to a promising restaurant after a tricky opening night, I feel as if I owe the experience a second chance. I’d put skis in the back and chase the snow for a couple of weeks, or use one as a base for hiking or biking in the wilds of Wales or Scotland. I’d wait for the kids to be older. I’d pray for less rain. And I’d avoid the narrow lanes of small villages.

Simon Usborne was a guest of GlamperRV. It rents its A Class motorhomes, which sleep four in two double beds, from £1,541 for seven nights in peak season, including insurance, mobile WiFi and outdoor furniture