For me, the New Forest has always evoked childhood memories of picnicking next to ponies, playing rounders with my cousins and splashing in fords. So when I heard about New Forest Safari Campers it was never going to be an especially tough sell!
By way of contrast, Mr SW is pretty ambivalent to camping, the outdoors and vintage automobiles. Could I get him excited about spending a weekend in a VW campervan in the depths of the New Forest for his birthday?
Getting him to spend three night away from the Wi-Fi was the first and most difficult hurdle. However, when we arrived to pick up our ride for the weekend his interest was well and truly piqued. Our carefully restored 1975 RHD Split-Screen – named “Flame” – is a beauty. It’s previous life had seen it painted in zebra stripes and touring around South Africa before being abandoned on the side of a sandy road. He was presented to us by the friendly team, repainted in vibrant red, complete with deluxe interior – including oven, fridge, 2-ring gas burner and just about everything you need for a mobile kitchen.
Something we learned quite quickly was that we weren’t the only ones to appreciate Flame’s charm. Everywhere we drove we felt the love from intrigued passers-by and VW enthusiasts. it seems that simply being at the wheel of a campervan makes you part of a very widespread and close-knit family!
Our campsite at Holmsley is one of 16b campsites in the woodlands of the Forestry commission across the UK. Fascinatingly, it occupies part of what used to be Holmsley Airfield in WWII – one of 12 New Forest wartime airfields and Advanced Learning Grounds. We booked an electric hook-up to make the most of Flame’s features. The site is surrounded by ancient trees on all sides and sites next to a large heathland with roaming ponies, donkeys and cows.
Being just down the road from New Forest Safari Campers’ HQ was a bonus – it meant we didn’t have to travel too far when learning how to handle our bus for the first time.
Our first night was about getting settled in and enjoying our surroundings; taking a wander around the fields full of ponies nearby, chatting to our neighbouring campers – a lovely bunch of people – and cooking a tasty Thai curry in our camper, glass of beer in hand, followed by some retro card games.
After a hearty breakfast we set out the next morning – Flame gave us the opportunity to tour the stunning New Forest, with everything we needed with us. On our first day, we headed over to Beaulieu, stopping on the edge of the river to take in the views across the Palace House and enjoying a spot of lunch in The Terrace at The Montagu Arms Hotel. This divine restaurant, designed with nods to the forest and French doors opening out to the mature gardens offers beautifully crafted dishes created by Roux Scholar, Matthew Tomkinson. Who says camping has to be about slumming it?!
I was keen to make the most of the great outdoors, so I’d booked us on a canoeing trip with New Forest Activities for after lunch. I thought I knew the New Forest fairly well, but paddling down the tidal Beaulieu river offers a whole new perspective! Our tour guide, Jake, was super knowledgeable about the area and the river’s marine life – pointing out the tiny jellyfish below us, oysters stuck to jetties, giant riverside mansions and how downstream Buckler’s Hard was once like something you’d see on Tom Hardy’s series, Taboo. We spent an hour and a half on the water, leisurely paddling, exploring and playing games with several other canoeists in the sunshine.
That evening, we plotted a route along the coast for the following day, over a bite to eat outside our camper (which had Mr SW seriously wondering ‘how on earth did 70s campervan owners survive without Google maps!?) One thing to note; the 4G is intermittent in the New Forest, so best not to rely on it completely – but that just adds to the fun, and New Forest Safari Campers provide a briefcase full of maps and local information.
We spent the next day touring Milford on Sea, Barton on Sea and Highcliffe. We walked along clifftops, stopped at quaint tea rooms and ice cream parlous, paddled on the beach, watched paragliders and walked for miles across the sand.
For me, driving through the forest with the wild animals walking free (and sometimes very close), having some beach time and getting back to nature hit all the right notes for me re-living my fond memories of such a special place. But for Mr SW? Well, he’s still no more or a camper than he ever was. But I did hear him whisper ‘goodbye’ to Flame when the time came to return him. It was too early in the morning to have been whiskey, so I’ll take it to mean that he’d had a good time too…
* A version of this article first appeared in Camper & Bus Magazine