Martin Gurdon

Paul Merton and the British obsession with motorhomes

Paul Merton and the British obsession with motorhomes
Motorhoming with Merton & Webster, Channel 5
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In the past couple of years successive lockdowns and the need for self-contained holidays meant record numbers of people embraced motorhomes and campervans for the first time. 16,608 new motorhomes were registered with the DVLA in 2021, topping the existing sales record by 8 per cent. But was this just a lockdown fad? Not if the latest sales figures are anything to go by. Even as the economy looks shaky, motorhome purchases are on the rise, with both new and second-hand vans commanding a premium.

One motorhome convert is comedian and writer Suki Webster. With husband Paul Merton, she co-hosted Motorhoming with Merton & Webster – an affable Channel 5 travelogue, which involved the couple visiting picturesque parts of the UK in an industrial unit-sized RollerTeam Pegaso 740 motorhome.

With filming sometimes lasting until 11pm you might think that booking into a hotel would be tempting, but the couple did the motorhoming bit for real, although they were hardly slumming it. Merton said the van had more room than some of the bedsits he endured in the 1980s.

‘It was plusher than I was expecting. The fridge was as good as the one we’ve got at home,’ says Webster, whose expectations were influenced by 1970s childhood holidays in static caravans with period facilities. And as for her least favourite feature; ‘the chemical toilet,’ although dealing with it was mitigated by the less-than-basic features found at the campsites where the couple stayed.

‘What I really loved was a sense of community. We chatted to everyone. People were going in and out of each other’s motorhomes to look at the fittings. You wouldn’t walk down the street, knock on doors and ask ‘where did you get that sofa?’' she observes.

Motorhoming with Merton & Webster (Channel 5) is about to shoot a new series

That community is expanding. Between April 2021 and the end of March new motorhome sales increased by 22 per cent, with buyers shelling out £50,000 plus for the posher ones. Used values shot up too, with dealers struggling to find good stock.

Despite the return of other forms of tourism and apparent economic Armageddon, demand for these homes on wheels has continued. Hampshire-based Colin Walker and his wife Helen own a large, 2014-built motorhome called a Swift Escape 664, bought for £35,000 two summers ago as a substitute for long haul continental breaks.

‘My wife was diagnosed with MS in 2009 and we did ‘the holidays of a lifetime’ thing, cruising the Nile and the Mekong river and travelling on Route 66. In 2020 we were going to travel on the canals between Moscow and St. Petersburg, but we could see that Covid was really serious and that we wouldn’t be going away,’ said Walker.

Campervans tend to be smaller and use the original van bodies for the camper bit. Motorhomes have larger, coach built bodies, and the couple decided that one of these with a fixed bedroom area was what they needed. They also wanted space for Murphy, their Labrador dog, whose kennel stays during their continental vacations had been a source of guilt.

The couple have used their motorhome for visits to ‘most of the South of England,’ taking in Devon and Dorset.

Walker described Sussex as ‘not motorhome friendly,’ thanks to height restrictions at many car parks, which forced the Walkers to park well away from places they wanted to visit and take taxis. A solution has been the fitment of a specialist towing bracket allowing them to hitch a venerable Citroen C1 city car behind the Swift and use that for gadding about.

This year the Walkers plan to visit the Northern Coast and Scotland, and the Swift often makes day trips to nice places that are nearer to home.

It’s parked sufficiently far from their home that its ‘leisure battery,’ which powers many of its creature comforts, can’t be charged up, and it’s been known to go flat. Colin Walker also councils against buying expensive accessories before actually using a vehicle and finding out if they’re needed, ruefully mentioning £1,000’s worth of inflatable awning that sits unused in his garage.

Glencoe and the Scottish Highlands are a popular destination for motorhomes (Alamy)

Rochdale-based Alan Sharkey would agree with this observation. He and wife Norma own a six wheeled motorhome leviathan called a Kontiki 659, which was bought because Norma is involved with the Scouting movement ‘and got sick of sleeping in a tent.’

The couple began searching for a small, second-hand campervan, but the ones they found were too small and too old. Then during last year’s lockdown, they came across the Kontiki, circa 2011, with 10,000 miles under its wheels.

‘It had only just arrived at the dealer, and hadn’t even been cleaned. We took it for a test drive. It was an enormous thing, but perfect,’ said Sharkey, for whom perfection included space to store electric bikes, ‘decent sleeping arrangements’ and a separate shower.

The couple, both early retirees from careers IT, paid £49,000 (‘and the dealer fitted solar panels and an alarm’).

Christened Jeeves, ‘because it serves up holidays and champagne,’ the van is used for weekday trips (Scouting taking up weekends) and has covered 4,000 miles with its current owners.

‘We can go on Tuesday and come back on Friday.’ Destinations are often chosen the week before using long range weather forecasts ‘to see where it’s going to be nice.’

Norma drives, as she’s less enthused by navigating, and her husband has map read them to Berwick in the north and ‘as far south as Norfolk.’ They’ve also used the vehicle to see grandchildren in Great Yarmouth. Cornwall is not on their wish list, as the couple didn’t fancy squeezing Jeeves down the county’s narrow, high banked lanes.

What are the cons? An exploding fuel filter left them stranded at the roadside needing professional rescue, and fuel is expensive. When a filling station diesel pump reached £100 Jeeves’ tank still wasn’t sated.

Sharkey has researched younger motorhomes whose engines that meet ‘Euro 6’ exhaust emissions standards, so avoiding the Clean Air Zone charges being introduced in cities such as Bath and Oxford; ‘but they’d cost another £30,000. You’d have to visit an awful lot of clean air zones to get that back,’ he said.

East Midlands-based Andrew Clarke’s two-year-old Bailey Autograph 75-2 (motorhomes have rather random names), is young enough to have a Euro 6 motor.

Its owner grew up with caravan holidays, so they’re a repository for childhood memories. ‘I’m in my forties and lost both my parents to Covid. I needed to build in a bit of time for life.’

He and partner Jamie Wilson initially bought a caravan, but saw the ease with which motorhomes came and went at campsites, and decided to join them, investing £50,000 in a vehicle now known as ‘Betty,’ buying it before values really started to rise. ‘There’s a lounge at the front and a fixed bed in the rear, a washroom with a large shower and full heating. It’s a home from home.’

Clarke, who works in education, uses Betty an alternate weekends, and for longer, school holiday tours. These UK-based trips, with dogs Orio and Zorro ‘who like to see where we’re going,’ have made him see the UK with fresh eyes and chronicle Betty’s peregrinations in an Instagram diary.

‘This has given balance to our lives. After what we’ve been through, that’s important.’

Kent-based Nicola Davy also owns a campervan called Betty, but paid £5,000 rather than £50,000 for it. Dating from 1989 and resplendent in beige coachwork, it’s a Talbot Express Auto Sleeper Rambler, bought because she and husband Mario wanted to provide ‘family time’ for daughter Charlotte. She was enamoured with Betty’s roof space sleeping area.

‘We’ve some lovely memories of visiting the New Forest, Lincolnshire and Hertfordshire,’ says Nicola.

She is grateful that this venerable vehicle was retro-fitted with power steering, and describes a rear view camera system as ‘a godsend’ on motorways.

During lockdown, the van was moved into Charlotte’s grandparents garden. ‘Betty was our summerhouse and kept us sane,’ said Nicola Davy. The van also became a venue for home schooling during a nature project, where mother and daughter identified wild animals they could hear.

Even Blanket, the family car is a fan. ‘He adores Betty and gets the hump if we don’t let him in to curl up and sleep in her.’

This squared off modern antique is clearly greatly loved, but despite this Betty is currently for sale. Post lockdown weekends have become busy with other things, and Charlotte has grown to such an extent that Betty’s ‘upstairs’ bed eyrie has become a bit cramped. ‘We’re not using her to her full potential. Someone else could enjoy her more,’ said Nicola Davy.

Cambridge-based engineer David Schwarz has no intention of parting with the 2016 Volkswagen California campervan he and his wife Helen bought new, waiting six months for it to arrive. He understands the waiting list has since doubled.

The California is unusual in that VW makes the vehicle itself, rather than farming out the work to a coachbuilder.

‘It uses aluminium for things like the kitchen, which is strong and light. Converted campers often use wood, which is heavy, and some really struggle with the weight,’ admits Schwarz, whose 2.0 diesel camper cost £47,000. If sold now he reckons it would be worth about £40,000, but this is still a big investment. What made him make it? ‘We’d sold the car and liked the idea of ‘lazy camping.’’

The California has a similar footprint to a large 4x4, and an electric folding ‘concertina’ roof that creates more headroom and can be converted into a sleeping area. When folded it allows the van to slide underneath car park height restricting bars.

Schwarz invested in an ingenious boot travel box, which slides out on rails, giving access to all its contents, and also has a tailgate mounted travel bag for more goods and chattels.

The California has a diesel fuel heater, making it usable off season. The couple travel with Charlie and Maggie, a pair of Boarder terriers. ‘When it’s raining and we’re all inside floor space is at a premium,’ said Schwarz. ‘The van will sleep four people, but that would be crowded.’

On longer trips away he uses a large tent as a sleeping area, making the van accessible for driving or use as a sitting room. ‘It’s given us a degree of freedom, particularly with the animals,’ says Schwarz. ‘If we want to spend a night or two at the seaside, we just pack and go.’

Perhaps they will meet Paul Merton and Suki Webster, who are about to start filming the second series of their motorhome odyssey. One thing is clear, they have clearly tapped into a trend that's here to stay.