Rolling back to the 1960s… in a VW campervan: Touring Cornwall in a hippie favourite – and falling in love with a vintage lifestyle that never gets above 40mph

  •  The Mail on Sunday’s Toby Walne travelled around Cornwall in a VW campervan named Olive
  • ‘This year, with the uncertainty of international travel, a campervan makes for a perfect bubble’ he writes 
  • The road trip took him to the picture-postcard port of Mousehole and the tropical gardens of the Eden Project

Motorists wave as the vintage campervan rumbles into view. A warning that lights are on the blink or the exhaust is falling off? The latter seems most likely as there is a deep growl coming from an old engine lurking under the boot. But no, it’s just another friendly greeting from fellow free-spirited drivers who love the iconic Volkswagen bus.

This year, with the uncertainty of international travel, a campervan makes for a perfect bubble, without the need to bother with hotel rooms, and an ideal retreat, especially if you want to visit the Cornish hotspots.

The cult of the ‘Vee Dub’ began in the ‘flower power’ era of the Sixties, with its ability to transport motorists on a music-festival adventure providing a symbol of freedom. Yet its origins sprung from the ashes of Nazi Germany.

Tight squeeze: The picture-postcard port of Mousehole has a steep drive down to the harbour

The bus was unveiled at the 1949 Geneva Motor Show as an economic way to escape post-war austerity. Over the next four decades, five million campers rolled off the production line. The first models were nicknamed ‘splitties’ as the windscreen was made up of two panes of glass. The ‘bay window’ followed in 1967 and in 1979 a box-shaped ‘wedgie’ model arrived.

Our campervan Olive (they all have a name) is a 1973 bay window from near Falmouth in Cornwall. She is a two-litre Westfalia model, with a pop-up roof to add space. With a top bunk, the van sleeps up to four. Inside is a small kitchen – stove, cool-box fridge, sink, table, and lots of utensils. 

Adverts of the period show images of a wholesome family enjoying a carefree picnic beside the tiny show home on wheels. It harks back to a bygone era before motorway traffic jams, the internet and smartphones had been invented, and it is this nostalgic desire to unplug from modern life that lures enthusiasts.

Once settled in Olive, we take the 20-mile drive south to the wild coastline of Lizard Point for a cliff walk. Sitting in the driving-seat high chair with a steering wheel the size of a dustbin lid hovering above the lap, it takes a while to relax and go with the flow. Looking at the van clock, permanently fixed at a quarter to nine, time slows right down but does not actually stop.

Pootling along at little more than 40mph, you feel king of the road and you have a clear way ahead as you snake through narrow rural lanes – because other motorists must follow behind.

Olive offers a great budget adventure for one or two, plus there’s room for two youngsters to make for a fun family break.

‘Pootling along at little more than 40mph, you feel king of the road,’ writes The Mail on Sunday’s Toby Walne (pictured above)

Toby describes the van as having a ‘Tardis-like quality’. Pictured is a neat little kitchen area, revealed behind a sliding door

The hippy vibes of Henry’s Campsite at The Lizard encourage campers to sit around campfires and unwind. Rolling up as a couple, our pitch costs £32.

The thought of washing dishes at a campsite can be a turn-off for many. For us, the built-in gas stove is used for boiling the kettle and the ample food larder is turned into a gin palace. For meals, visits to pubs in easy walking distance are justified because of the savings made from not staying in a swanky hotel, Airbnb or bed-and-breakfast – all of which are already booked up.

A spur-of-the-moment decision to travel 30 miles north-west to the picture-postcard port of Mousehole is easy in a campervan – travelling like a snail with accommodation on board. But it still takes more than an hour to navigate the maze of hedge-lined paths, and a steady nerve for the steep drive down to the harbour. 

Rugged: Toby drove to the wild coastline of Lizard Point for a cliff walk and to soak up the stunning views 

An old sea-salt car-park attendant offers sage advice – reverse into a parking spot, rather than head-first, as otherwise it may be a struggle to leave. Fortunately, by now the art of finding reverse gear and managing the trombone-like handbrake is mastered.

Next stop is Padstow, where you can simply turn up at Dennis Cove Campsite and find a ‘wild’ place for £33. But to guarantee a space, you should always phone ahead. At the top of the hill overlooking the harbour there is no electricity to plug into or water tap – and the spotlessly clean toilet block is 200 yards away. Yet for tranquillity, this is a perfect pitch.

Padstow is a gastro delight and the Halfway House Inn at nearby St Jidgey offers something special: a £49 seven-course meal, each small but perfect dish paired with a different glass of beer from Sharp’s Brewery. A highlight is wild sea bass trawled from the sea that morning by the fisherman father of waitress Kelly, and washed down with Atlantic Pale Ale.

Toby spent a day at the tropical gardens of the Eden Project, which is one of Cornwall’s tourist hotspots 

There is a Tardis-like quality to the way Olive swallows up luggage yet still offers space to sit back and relax with a book on the retro green and white rear sofa. At night a ‘rocknroll’ mechanism means that it takes just a moment to turn this cosy couch into a double bed.

Following a day trip to the tropical gardens of the Eden Project, the Stay Wild campsite near Helston boasts private en suite luxury ideal for a modest camper but providing the best of both worlds. For £70, you get your own three-acre field and a shepherd hut-style annexe – inside which is a gleaming bathroom with roll-top bath, shower, two sinks and flushing loo.

The adventure over, it is finally time to rejoin the 21st Century and the joys of road congestion as we leave Cornwall. The only relief is an occasional sight of an old campervan – and with a wave, we wish the occupants peace and love.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Toby Walne was a guest of Camplify, which has details of more than 5,000 van owners worldwide who rent out their vehicles (camplify.co.uk). He was also a guest of Sharp’s Brewery. Olive came from Happy Days Camper Hire. Seven-night hire from £495 (happydayscamperhire.co.uk).

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