I felt like Noel Gallagher was talking directly to me when he announced that the vast, adoring Latitude audience looked 'a bit middle class'. I was standing with my lovely wife of 25 years, about 40 yards back from the front of the Obelisk stage, where Gallagher was ripping his way through a gloriously accomplished yet edgy headline performance with his High Flying Birds. Gallagher's remark would have mortally offended my pre-married, younger self, but now, I knew he was right; it was 10pm on a Sunday evening and I was looking forward to a glass of chilled Chablis back at our campervan. You don't get much more middle class than that.
I was in the Scouts as a lad. Geoff, our leader, had been an outdoorsman all his life, so by the time I was 15, I knew how to dig a toilet pit, build a waterproof bivouac from natural woodland materials and skin a rabbit, before cooking it to perfection in a natural oven. Baden-Powell himself would have been proud. I'm sure I could still do all these things if I had to, but I don't have to. In fact, after years of encouraging my family to enjoy the wonders of 'rough camping' in a variety of rainy UK settings, I've got a new outdoor love that's more in keeping with my dodgy back and stiff knee joints.
My wife and I have spent much of our 25 years of married bliss talking about buying a camper. The idea of getting to the end of a hectic week and saying 'the hell with it; let's go off in the van' has sustained us through many overly busy and stressful work-life imbalances. But we never quite got round to actually making the purchase, mainly because with four kids, three dogs and two small businesses, we just haven't had the time or the money. As our 25th wedding anniversary approached, we began to talk seriously about how we might celebrate it. Exotic holidays, fancy restaurants, once-in-a-lifetime experiences; we considered them all. But when it came down to it, the thing we really wanted to do was hit the road in a campervan. And nowadays, there is a cost effective option; you simply hire one.
The destination wasn’t hard to come up with, either. Two of our best friends have spent each of the last ten years trying to get us to go to the Latitude festival with them. Getting our fill of comedy, music and street food without having to worry about early morning back stiffness, canvass condensation and slowly deflating airbeds seemed perfect.
And so it proved. Our 25-year-old image of the campervan was, unsurprisingly, an homage to the air-cooled bay or split windscreen VW vehicles, so beloved of surfers and other free-spirited folk the world over. The electric blue VW California SE we hired may not have quite the same classic lines as its illustrious and bohemian forebears, but it does have an electrically operated pop-top roof (I could stand easily in the cabin), a CD sound system, a 7-speed automatic gearbox with sports setting, a fridge that easily accommodates several bottles of overpriced French white wine and a fantastic little gas hob for those evening mugs of cocoa. It even has its own water supply and, glory be, a central heating system to help the less youthful camper stave off the effects of chilly outdoor evenings.
So packed is the California with gadgets that it took our lovely and very patient Euro Self Drive Hire representative about an hour to complete the familiarisation tour. A gas bottle cleverly hidden here, two futuristic and unbelievably comfortable lightweight chairs there, an outdoor table secreted in the sliding side door…how we marvelled at the ingenuity of those clever German designers.
We threw in our suitcases, bedding and wine and were soon out on the open road. The two-litre diesel engine coped effortlessly with the load and we were able to cruise along very happily indeed, flipping between radios 2, 3, 4 and 5 as the mood took us. Never has a tea-stop in a motorway service station been such fun. We swept majestically in to the car park, found a space with a pleasant outlook, then fired up the stove. Within moments, we were enjoying a perfect brew, just the way we like it. A Waitrose special-edition biscuit? Well, I don’t mind if I do. Envious glances from mere mortals in regular cars, before they (and their money) are swallowed up by the gleaming corporate service monster behind us.
It’s hard to express how joyful it is to arrive at a campsite, press one button (to raise the pop-top roof), then start holidaying. No standing around with hands on hips, wondering how the flysheet got that dirty. No sweating over bent tent pegs, sticky groundsheets and fusty bedroom liners. No manful wrestling against the wind as the structure slowly and chaotically rises from the ground. Simply a twist of the fingers, a flick of the wrist and voilà; two glasses of perfectly chilled Chablis.
But the biggest bonus of all came at bedtime. We had a choice of two sleeping locations; the main cabin, or the mezzanine in the pop-top. We chose the latter. A quick pull on the bed-end revealed a sleek, grey floor topped by a tidy-looking mattress. We ‘sheeted up’, unrolled our duvet and climbed in under the covers. Hang on a minute; this is comfortable…really comfortable…for the first time in my life, I achieved 7.5 hours’ uninterrupted sleep in an outdoor setting, something I’d long since thought to be an impossibility. And what’s more, my back didn’t ache in the morning.
Our friends were staying in a pre-pitched teepee meaning like us, they’d been spared the horrors of setting up camp after a long journey. But that’s where the similarity with our experience ended. They didn’t have a cooker, music, a fridge, lights, heating, or a comfortable lounge with four seats (the driver and front passenger seat swivel effortlessly through 180 degrees to face in to the cabin). Consequently, when we weren’t enjoying the festival together, they hung out with us at our campervan. For four days we talked, read, made coffee and bacon butties and drank chilled white wine with gay abandon.
The weather was great for the most part, meaning we were able to sit outside, under the terribly clever built-in awning. When it did rain, we simply hopped inside and pulled the door shut. Warm and dry. And red wine rather than chilled white, of course.
Before I begin to sound like an overly self-satisfied and smug middle-Englander with a perfect life, I should say that the California SE does require certain accommodations on the part of its inhabitants. You need to sit down to use the sink and cooker unless you’re very, very small indeed. There isn’t a huge amount of storage space, so it’s best not to pack all of your Prada. The fridge, whilst an excellent wine cooler, isn’t huge, so a coolbox and some ice blocks are a good idea for longer trips. And, amazingly for 2015, there’s no way to connect a music-playing device to the otherwise excellent sound system. And no DAB radio, either. Given we were at a festival that was packed with fantastic musical options, we didn’t really miss Radio 6 Music (digital only) or our Middle Aged Holiday Couple iPod mix. But if we’d have been in the Lakes, where every other day is an indoor day, we may well have ended up quarrelling due to ‘music choice deprivation’. The only other point to note is that getting in and out of the upper bed requires a certain degree of contortion; I now have the perfect incentive to make sure I retain what little suppleness I have left.
And so we’re home, bathing in the afterglow of a fabulous festival foray. We’ve flicked through our photos, discussed the best musical performance and funniest comedian. But the best act of all, the one that’s going to stay with us, the one that’s changed our lives, is the California SE. It’s rather nice to know that we could happily pick up a few promotionally priced bottles of Pouilly Fumé, call up the lovely people at Euro Self Drive and then hit the highway for another king-of-the-road glampervan-fest. Anybody want to buy a well-loved tent…?