20th December 2017
Campervan newbie Steve Tooze takes his kids on tour of the Scottish Borders in search of the wild
It’s a commonly held belief that our island home is packed to the gills with people, barely able to accommodate the arrival of another single living soul. Perhaps from the viewpoint of the busy cities and towns where most of us pass our lives that might feel a bit true to even the most cosmopolitan souls.
But jump behind the wheel of a motorhome, and you quickly discover that there are vast areas of Britain that feel as remote, unpopulated and, frankly, wild, as you could possibly dare to hope for.
My children, Scarlett, 13, Fin, 10, and I came to that happy realisation parked up on the banks of a reservoir in the Scottish Borders, sipping steaming mugs of hot chocolate as the sun rose over a vast bowl of heather-shrouded hills and stained the mirror-still expanse of waters before us in a thousand shades of red, orange, pink and gold.
The day before, we had wound our way up a tiny precipitous road through a valley in which waterfalls fell hundreds of feet into pools below, and had seen only two other cars for the whole time.
We’d spent the night wild camping – all legal and above board in Scotland – parked up in a pretty little roadside pull-in spot, overlooking the Talla reservoir, cosy and warm in our beds as a very, very dark night fell outside.
Now, as we tucked into hot drinks and croissants at a little pull-out table on the grass, an eagle wheeled lazily in the sky above, and the only sounds were the whisper of the wind in the conifers and the distant sheep bleating.
Not a single car had passed our van during the night and we had not caught sight nor sound of another human being for more than 10 hours. ‘Wow,’ said Scarlett, caught somewhere between excitement and being slightly spooked. ‘It feels like we are the only people in the whole world.’
That moment in the middle of nowhere was giddy enough. But to be honest the entire trip had been an adventure and a journey of discover for three of us, complete newbies to the world of UK motorhome holidays, since we had set out five days before with our particular set of preconceptions.
Well, at least I had. In my heart of hearts, I was expecting our week in the Borders – that much-storied and fought-over strip of hills, lakes, rivers and forests that stretches from Northumbria, north of Newcastle, to the countryside south of Edinburgh – to be a testing combination of cramped living conditions, and the scary manoeuvring of a large, unfamiliar vehicle along narrow country roads. I was preparing my game face to avoid unsettling the kids with own nervousness.
But my fears began to evaporate as soon as our Swift Escape 695 motorhome was delivered to us in Edinburgh, especially once Scarlett and Fin had discovered, with whoops of joy, the mezzanine pull-down bed where they would be spending their nights, and the cute window table where they could play cards and chat as I did the driving.
The Swift was anything but uncomfortable. Instead, it was spacious and homely, with seating areas we could transform into beds in a couple of minutes, a nifty little galley kitchen, complete with crockery and cutlery, high-tech controls for the lights and heating, and bathroom with a chemical toilet and shower.
Driving was also far easier than I’d anticipated. By the time we got out of the city, I’d grown used to the extra height and length of the motorhome and felt like I was behind the wheel of a very large estate car.
We all quickly slipped into a life-on-the-open-road rhythm, working as a team as we slid into our pitch at each new Camping and Caravanning Club site, hooking up the electric cables, refilling the fresh-water tank and emptying the grey-water tank, before preparing and eating dinner under a big, beautiful Scottish sky. And we learned to savour the very different feel of each site as we drove a circuit through the Borders, taking in North Berwick, Lauder, Jedburgh, Moffat and back to Edinburgh.
Our favourite was Lauder, with its bubbling stream that Scarlett and Fin played in for hours, long walks through the stunning surrounding hills, a pub that served tasty (and affordable) evening meals, and lots of advice and support for newbies from Brian, the jovial manager, and his equally friendly wife.
Fin summed it up best: ‘This is like glamping on wheels.’ He was right. We slept under the stars, but in comfy beds, with central heating and a flushing toilet, then set off on an adventure the next day without any tiresome packing up of sleeping bags and tents.
One morning, our tent on wheels took us for an adrenalin-packed scramble through the tops of the trees at Go Ape! in Kielder Forest, back on the English side of the border.
For over an hour, we traversed a network of high wires, rope swings, zipwires and nets suspended from trees high above a river valley. Continuously clipped onto an ingenious system of steel safety wires, you are never in any danger of falling more than a few feet.
But while my head knew I wasn’t in any danger, my pounding heart and sweaty palms begged to differ as I edged out along another wobbling steel rope across a dizzying drop.
The kids, of course, made it all look easy, racing ahead, and screeching delightedly: ‘C’mon, Dad, get a move on.’ And by the end of the last exhilarating zipline, I, like them, was ready to do the whole thing again.
On other days, our motorhome enabled us to travel to get up close with owls and eagles at the Kielder Water Bird of Prey centre, to eat a sunny, giggly picnic on a deserted white beach near North Berwick with barely a soul in sight, and to explore the cool forest trails of beautiful Dawyck Botanic Garden.
There were challenges – reversing sweatily into very tight parking spaces, attempting to deal single-handedly with a punctured tyre, keeping the slightly cranky chemical loo working smoothly, fighting off the notorious Scottish midges, and trying to sleep through the cacophony of occasional late-night rain showers on the motorhome’s metal roof.
But they were far outweighed by the intense feelings of independence and freedom. Of knowing you could set off anywhere, at any time – and always brew a nice hot cup of tea when you got there.
How to book your campervan and campsites
Typical prices for motorhome hire start at around £500 per week in low season, £900 per week in peak season.
The Camping and Caravanning Club has 106 club sites around the UK. Pitches start at £23.50 per night.
Wild camping in Scotland is legal if you don’t mind sacrificing the usual day-to-day conveniences and want to explore the areas of Scotland that very few visit. Be sure to familiarise yourself with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. It’s not complicated – basically, campers should follow a policy of ‘leave no trace’.
Go Ape Tree Top Adventure costs £33 (16+ years), £25 (10-15 years)
Kielder Water Bird of Prey Centre, adults £7, children £4.50
Dawyck Botanic Garden, adults £6.50, children £5.50