Are you an eco-friendly minimalist, who loves Cornwall, adores adventures, fancies new experiences, and is not too bothered about ‘stuff’ (though wet wipes can be very handy)? Then a Cornish campervanning road trip might be just up your alley. Four hundred miles of craggy coastline, captivating countryside and superb surfing is just crying out to be explored in Cornwall on your camper van getaway. Find a fabulous spot to park. ideally overlooking spectacular scenery, and drink it all in. Not for you? Do not dismiss it just yet. Imagine something totally new and different. You might still fancy a total life/scene change for a few days or a week or two … chance to recharge those batteries and blow away life’s stresses. Take the chance to try out your sense of adventure in this ever-popular part of the West Country. There’s nothing like the freedom of the open road for sunny days, seriously stunning views, and starry nights. Wrap up warm, and hit the road to travel slow and easy, seeing all the sights in a seriously cool camper van.
First step: decide whether you are high spec such as these Redruth-based Redfish Mercedes campers with all mod cons and bespoke furniture, or want a charming vintage model.
Van life culture is evolving. Some are very comfortable and spacious, but the older, characterful ones are still very well-loved across the surfing communities of Cornwall, and better suited to our wild and winding country lanes, where all roads eventually lead to the sea. Be warned, if you go vintage, people will talk to you!
The iconic van is the Volkswagen Camper but actually it all started much earlier than that. Perhaps today’s camper vans have common ground with the old stage coaches of the Wild West – that sense of adventure, and pioneering spirit, surviving on basics kicks in when you try van life. Something we should all taste at least occasionally to really get away from it all, with Cornwall the perfect location to escape as you take to the open road.
What’s stopping you?
Give it a try.
What’s the worst thing that can happen? You decide it’s not for you.
And the best thing? You become a true fan and love your camper van getaways.
Think intrepid, like the inspired, visionary naval aristocrat, Captain Francis Dunn. In 1935, he shipped over from the USA the empty chassis of a Pontiac Six and had a team of local coachbuilders create a spectacular vehicle for his own, rather than commercial, use.
Sadly, he died in 1946 but his lovely wife turned the engine over on their beloved van every few days until her death in the 1990s.
There is great poignancy to his invention. Captain Dunn sadly contracted polio while on honeymoon, which left him in need of a wheelchair. Unstoppable, his invention of a quintessentially English house on wheels (complete with ramp) meant that he and his wife could travel together (which they loved) wherever they liked.
No expense was spared, for inside was a mahogany interior, gas oven and stove, a sofa bed and a toilet (though no, er, plumbing – use your imagination for that one). So, technically, this was the first motorhome in the UK, inspired by Dunn’s disability.
After World War II, a German company called Westfalia created kits to convert VW Transporters (called the Kombi, which had side windows and removable seats) into camper vans. The ‘cute but cool’ iconic VW Camper , much beloved by Cornish adventure seekers, was born in 1952.
Around this time, the Bedford Dormobile also came into play, effectively a bedroom on wheels although they later added a kitchen and a pop-up roof (which added two extra berths). It was similar in size to a car, but one you could sleep in.
It was the Bedford CA van in 1952, which provided conversion to add beds, a kitchenette and seating. Into the 1960s, Morris, Ford and even Land Rover joined the clamour for van life (although at that time speeds were limited to below that of a car). There were many bespoke adaptations, such as water pumps and side tents. Some camper vans were becoming very high spec but there was still a great demand for the DIY market, eventually leaving people spoiled for choice. The biggies of the ‘sixties’ decade had to be the Ford Thames 400E and the Morris J4. It was also the birth decade of the Ford Transit which makes a pretty decent camper van, too. Look at these Eco Wagon interiors you can get these days.
Those who remember the freedom-loving hippy days of the 60s (or even just the idea of peace and love culture) have a fond affection for the VW camper, but others love them, too. Flower-power and peace sign strewn vans epitomise the California dreaming hippy vibe of the time, when people wore flowers in their hair and life felt good. But who needs San Francisco when they have Cornwall on the doorstep?
You can recapture some of that freedom by following your own path around Cornwall. Believe the hype: in Cornwall, you really can go for a cool surf before breakfast and head back to the beach at 5pm to see the sun go down.
VW versions to check out:
The vintage version of the VW Camper has a split screen, and is the ultimate in cool. These are the iconic classics, and there were 3 types:
Splitties: with a vertical strut down the middle of the windscreen. 1950-1967. Did you know the VW badge on the front of the Splittie lent itself to being easily changed to the anti-war symbol, a popular piece of customisation at the height of the Vietnam War?
Vee-dubs: the bay window version, known as Bays (late and early bay). 1967-1979.
Wedges/Bricks – the 3rd generation models from 1979.
In the 1970s, surfers took up the camper van vibe, which has never left them. They loved it as their boards could be strapped to the roof.
Places to check out for surfers include Perranporth (perfect waves for beginners), where you can live the dream, visiting The Watering Hole bar, right on the beach. Perfect also for Tunes in the Dunes Festival.
Then try Praa Sands, 45 minutes’ drive away, when you are intermediate or advanced standard. There are plenty of campsites nearby.
The VW camper was the festival van of choice because it could easily be customised with psychedelia. It was a favourite at Woodstock, 1969, an Aquarian experience of peace, music and counter-culture. VW campers even made the covers of albums by Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys; they were also associated with fans of The Grateful Dead. If all this is ancient history to you, never mind. Once you get your van, you will know what we mean.
These days, the annual BusFest held at the Malvern Showground in Worcestershire attracts 25,000 owners a year from up to 40 different countries.
Today, in Cornwall, prestigious Festivals reign supreme: over to the east in Bude, you can find Leopallooza Festival where you can take your van, while Newquay offers 5 days of music, surf and adventure camping tickets at Boardmasters. Surfing, vans, music – somehow, they just go together and make a festival way more fun.
The Caravan Club recommends popular pop-top campervans for their versatility and driveability (it feels like a car), perfect for narrow and twisting Cornish country lanes. Take warm clothes and sleeping bags for night time as they do cool down.
High-top campervans offer greater comfort and storage space, so perfect for a holiday with kids and all their kit. The height can mean some places are restricted, however, and the length is longer than a car, but they are more spacious inside.
Classic camper vans are iconic and often feel part of a community, but they may cost more to run and may struggle on certain roads due to older technology. However, you will never be short of conversation because everyone loves a classic camper aesthetic.
O’Connors Campers comes Telegraph recommended (top 10 camper van hire companies) to enable you to pick your own from the eye-catching lime green splitty, Noddy, to the easy-going blue boy, Bill. All their vans come fully equipped with super-cool interiors, cafetieres and camping chairs. They are also carbon neutral.
You might even decide you want your own, forever. Try Big Wave Campers near Bude for sales of used vans.
Campervans are used for all sorts of events in Cornwall, not least weddings. Strawberry Leisure specialises in wedding camper van hire. Their seductive camper vans even have names, Lola and Layla (very Kinks and Derek and the Dominos) and can be spruced up to your bespoke requirements.
There are a few hazards. No motorways, narrow country lanes (with passing places) and high hedges, plus some very narrow roads in villages, such as Port Isaac and Mousehole. Take the scenic route, to savour the superb setting, slowly as you go. Try using a paper map to explore back roads for hidden gems.
Spring and autumn are great times to try camper van life in the Duchy.
If you are hiring a camper van in Cornwall, ditch the car and think about taking the train down if it stops near your hire company.
There are some free, out of the way sites for ‘wild camping’ but if you prefer a few extra comforts from a holiday park/campsite, then why not try:
Tehidy near Redruth
Heligan, above Mevagissey Bay
Sennen Cove Campsite, close to the Minack
Trevella Park at Crantock, near Newquay
and many other superb eco-friendly, farms and interesting options like amateur football pitches such as this site at Mousehole AFC.
Or try Tintagel. Across the road from the Old Post Office in Tintagel Village, King Arthur’s Car Park is licensed for motorhomes to stay overnight. There’s a small fee but no facilities and the toilets are closed overnight. Best to arrive after 4 pm as the car park is busy during the day.
There are down sides:
However, this 2018 survey reveals why camper vans are increasingly popular.