Daily Express, September 30, 20010

RYE SMILE FROM A CAMPERVAN CONVERT

DUNCAN CRAIG is won over by a new generation of campervan on a visit to Sussex’s 1066 Country

EVEN THE most ardent campervan enthusiast would have to concede that life on the open road is not always plain sailing. A certain amount of mechanical fallibility is all part of the charm, as are comfort levels that could never be confused with five-star accommodation.

However, Volkswagen has spawned a new generation that bears precious little resemblance to those vintage models. Out go the split screens, torn curtains, narrow bunks and hard shoulders. In come mood lighting and mezzanines, double-glazing, SatNav and genuine outside-lane credibility.

Forget chugging through the lanes leading a procession of quietly fuming motorists; this sprightly new breed will be sitting in your rear-view mirror.

The model I tested was the market-leading VW T5 California. Sounds exotic. Looks, well, inconspicuous. Fantastic. It’s all very well painting your campervan nine shades of fuchsia and lime but combine this with a guaranteed cargo of possessions and a reputation for being about as difficult to open as a can of Coke and you have a recipe for happy thieves, not campers.

To inconspicuous, add remarkably sturdy. The tendency of vintage models to splinter on impact like Wayne Rooney’s resolve at a Christmas party is gone.

My pick-up point was CamperVantastic in South-East London. Such was the unrelenting enthusiasm of owner Steve, I almost forgave him the pun.

The briefing was lengthy and, I’m convinced, largely for Steve’s benefit. The vehicle is consummately, ingeniously equipped, with everything you could require for a touring break squirrelled away in its own enveloping, rattle-free niche.

The dash-mounted display tells you which gear you should be in at any given time. So, much like a wife

While I was examining the TV/DVD player, overgrown surfer Steve was already breathlessly demonstrating the climate control, customised cutlery and rotating front seats.

First stop was to pick up my wife, Eleen. Conspicuously underwhelmed by the whole undertaking, she brightened up considerably as she climbed aboard. “Pretty cool, ” she said, surveying the sleek grey interior and slipping into what men of my vintage will always know as “BA’s seat”.

So where to? The coast of course. For us this meant East Sussex, and an area I’d always wanted to explore: 1066 Country (wonderfully British defeatism that). The T5 is a delight to drive, as comfortable tackling traffic as it is on the open road. This was my first taste of a six-speed gearbox, an experience aided by a dash-mounted display telling you which gear you should be in at any given time. So, much like a wife.

A disconcertingly short time after keying “Rye” into the TomTom, we found ourselves on the fringes of the picturesque Cinque Port. “Small enough to make you feel at home, large enough to hold secret treasures”. So said Eleen, as she read from Rye’s official guide.

Marketing guff, of course, but strolling its undeniably enchanting medieval streets, we happened on one such treasure: Simon the Pieman, a deliciously named tea shop just a Frisbeed Eccles cake from the Norman hilltop church of St Mary’s, whose tower provides the town’s best viewpoint.

Scaling this, we feasted our eyes on Rye’s radiating cobbled lanes, its watery fringes and, beyond, the desolate, eerily beautiful wetland area of Romney Marsh. The climb, we reasoned, justified a pitstop at the Pieman, and its quaint refreshments sustained us through an assault on the town’s plentiful antique shops.

Unlike its troubled airport terminal namesake, this T5 is actually designed to be slept in

Leaving Rye behind in a cloud of carefully filtered smoke, we drove the two miles to Winchelsea Beach. In the lee of the towering roadside sea wall, there was just a whisper of a breeze. A few feet the other side, hardy holidaymakers huddled around ferociously flapping windbreaks or chased items of clothing down the pebbly expanse. We didn’t stay long.

Romney Farm Caravan & Campsite is a popular, family-run establishment a few miles inland near Lydd, Kent’s most southerly town. We found a spot overlooking a cornfield burnished by the setting sun and delved into our box of tricks.

Awning was unravelled, table and chairs extracted from a compartment in the rear door, iPod connected and hob fired up. We cooked up a seafood extravaganza of shrimp and cockles bought from the locally renowned Sutton’s roadside stall, cracked open a bottle of red and then, in true camping tradition, turned in while it was still light.

The moment of truth. Any doubts lacked conviction; unlike its troubled airport terminal namesake, this T5 is designed to be slept in. Hold down the button above the driver’s seat and the roof rises into a hard-topped, canvas-sided wedge in seconds.

What it leaves behind is a miraculously comfortable double that can be eased up flush with the elevated roof like a hatchback boot for extra headroom. Below it, the back seats fold down into a second, equally spacious double/twin.

“Upstairs” got the nod. Quite literally. It was mid-morning before we woke, every one of our neighbours long since departed as we snoozed, oblivious and content.

* INFORMATION: CamperVantastic (0208 291 6800/www.campervantastic.com) offers three-night weekend hire from £355 or seven nights from £595. Price includes insurance and unlimited mileage.
Visit Sussex: 01243 263065/www.visitsussex.org