The boom in British holidays has brought a boom in the number of people getting campervans such as the Ford Nugget — but what are they like for those who've never holidayed in one? Toby Keel found out.
We’d been at the campsite for all of three minutes before we got stuck in the mud.
It wasn’t a great moment, to be honest — and it got worse before it got better. I found myself trying push three tonnes of campervan, luggage and children out of eight inches of utterly saturated East Sussex turf, with the wheels spinning and splattering me from inappropriately flimsy trainers to bright red face as if I was being filmed for a scene in Terry & June. The kids were crying — one with laughter, one in fear — and I could feel my other half’s blood pressure climbing even beyond the closed door. The things I do for Country Life.
The occasion for all these shenanigans was a between-lockdowns camping trip last Autumn, in a brilliantly orange campervan called a Ford Nugget, to a campsite on the outskirts of Pevensey. And I must point out that the problems were nothing to do with the campervan — we were fooled by the British weather. It was bright and sunny, and had been for a few days, but the clear skies had come at the tail end of one of the five wettest Octobers on record. The grass, seemingly a perfect sward ideal for end-of-season camping, was fine in parts. In other areas, it might as well have been quicksand.
If you’re going to get stuck in a vehicle, however, we’d highly recommend doing so in a Ford Nugget. Based on the perennially-popular Transit van, it’s a custom-made van that effortlessly sleeps four people, has a fridge, cooker and running hot and cold water. Kids will forgive you any amount of humiliation and disaster, as long as you have hot chocolate.
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As well as all those other attributes, the Nugget also has a towing hook — one which the campsite warden hooked up to his Land Rover to save us from the quagmire, and direct us to less bucolic, but much more solid pitch. We hooked up the electricity, unpacked the bags and settled in happily for the next few days.
Campervans have been booming since this time last year (sales last July were up more than 70% year-on-year) and it’s simple enough to see why. The only realistic holiday options open to most of us have involved staying within the UK, and that seems likely to be the case for a while. Overseas there are so many variables — varying vaccination rates, potential future surges, new Covid-19 variants — that most of us will probably be holidaying in the UK for 2021. Campervans bring an extra level of reassurance as well: you never know quite how clean a holiday let will be, but your own van is entirely within your own control.
Beyond all that, there’s another factor to add in: as working from home becomes the norm for more of us, it’s become possible to get rid of the car (or cars) and get a van instead. Several people we know have done just that; yes, popping down to Waitrose in a miniature house on wheels seems like overkill at first, but you do get used to it.
But which one to get? The original VW Camper has been so sickeningly hip for so long that it’s pretty much come out the other side, now seeming about as cool as a hipster moustache — and about as practical. The original models might have charm and nostalgia on their side, but they are slow, thirsty and cramped compared to more modern options.
You could go for one of the huge camper vans, of course, the sort of thing that you see on the A303 with something like a Peugeot 1007 attached to the rear. I’ve driven one of those in the past, and it was quite a machine — but that really is closer to a lorry than a car. I remember parking it outside my then-home in St Albans, where it took up two and half parking spaces. The neighbours were not impressed.
The Nugget, then, falls somewhere in between those options — with all the pros and cons you’d imagine.
Two of the four people who can sleep on board will be doing so beneath the pop-up roof; they’ll have a comfortable mattress and a reassuring metal above, but canvas tent-style walls and mesh fabric windows to the sides.
On a wild and windy night, those windows weren’t 100% weatherproof, and even the metal roof wasn’t without its drawbacks: a colossal hailstorm at 2.30am was so loud it was akin to being were trapped inside a snare drum being beaten furiously at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Downstairs, the sleeping arrangements involved a series of folding, rotating, clipping, unclipping, shoving, pulling and rearranging the seats within the vehicle — a sort of upholstery origami, and the sort of thing that takes you 45 minutes the first time you try it, but 90 seconds after a bit of practice. The only thing we still struggled with by the end of the week was making sure that all the canvas was tucked in properly when pulling the pop-up roof back down before getting on the road for the day.
Yes, it was a bit cramped, a bit fiddly and you need to be fit to get used to popping up and pulling the roof compartment back down, But it all worked well, and we kept warm and dry thanks to a rather superb climate control system that’s installed by Westfalia, the German engineering firm who have adapted the Transit with all manner of campervan-specific gizmos.
The Nugget has all the usual things you’d expect of a modern van (from parking cameras to a top-notch stereo), but it also has an entirely bespoke system that controls and tracks the extras such as heat, electricity, light and water supplies. For those really wanting to push the campervan out, there’s a Nugget Plus option — based on a Jumbo Transit — with its own toilet and shower.
You really could live in this thing — and that’ll be a tempting proposition in these days of remote working. Find a nice campsite, plug into the electricity, and set up a WiFi hotspot from an unlimited data sim on your phone, and you could probably work remotely from pretty much anywhere you like, all throughout the summer.
After waking from The Night of the Hailstorm, we packed up and headed to Hastings with the Nugget. Honestly, once on the road you really can drive the thing around like a normal vehicle. It’s bigger than a car, of course, but is at least as easy to drive as a normal Transit van, and probably more so thanks to the better visibility at the rear. Unless you’re one of those people who freaks out just getting behind the wheel of an estate car, you’ll be happily pootling around in minutes. The only thing that made us think twice was the 2.2m car park height restriction bar — as it happened we made it under with an inch or two to spare.
The bottom line, though: would we recommend it?
The answer is an absolute yes. A decent-sized estate car with a roof box and one of those inflatable tents would be substantially cheaper, but it wouldn’t be anything like as fun. In the space of three days pretty much everything went wrong that could go wrong in terms of weather; and by the time we were heading home we felt like we’d camped through Armageddon. But we came through it absolutely fine, and we still laugh about it even now. If you went in the height of summer rather than the last days of a damp Autumn, I’m certain you’d find the experience closer to Ford’s irresistibly perfect PR images than you’d ever have thought possible.
The Ford Nugget starts from around £56,000 — see more about it on the Ford Nugget website at ford.co.uk
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