‘That’s a beauty!’ Touring north Devon by vintage campervan | Travel

‘Ooh,” came a voice from a passing car as I parked by a sandy cove. “That’s a beauty!” He was referring to Noddy Windsor, our lime-green 1967 VW campervan, which caused a sensation everywhere it went in north Devon. After a day at the beach, we would come back to find crowds oohing and aahing. Strangers at petrol stations approached for a chat. And at Ilfracombe Harbour, after a swim in the rain, a man took selfies as we sat inside warming up and getting a brew on.

In the anxious new world of distancing and avoidance, it was a thrill to elicit such warmth and friendliness. Thanks to Noddy, we did more waving than the royals.

Our plans to go abroad for the summer had been scuppered by Covid-19. If we couldn’t go overseas, we decided, we wanted to do something different in the UK. This led us to O’Connors Campers, a rental company based in Okehampton with a fleet of classic and modern vans, most of them intriguingly named. Jackie Brown, a pale-lilac and white model from 1979, looked like a Swiss chocolate bar on wheels; I Am Spartacus, a yellow six-sleeper, echoed its cinematic namesake with promises of “freedom, escape and sandals”. But it was Noddy that won us over. After all, as the website revealed, he’s starred in a range of greetings cards, graced the cover of Camper magazine, and even crops up in The Camper Van Cookbook (page 270).



“Don’t even try to go up hills in fourth gear” is the advice … especially with a family on board. Photograph: Stuart Millar

Noddy’s striking lime-green finish is actually a Porsche colour but there the similarity ends. This was touring 1967-style, a time before touchscreens, aircon, power steering, central locking and gearsticks you barely have to nudge. Out on the open road, Noddy provided quite a workout. Changing the gears was like playing a set of tennis, steering like hauling in a fishing net. “This button is for the wipers,” Melissa from O’Connors had told me with a smile. “They don’t do much. If the rain’s really heavy, best to just pull over. And don’t even try to go up hills in fourth gear.” Noticing my expression, she added: “Don’t worry. You’ll pick it up.”

She was right. And when I did, driving something so unapologetically old-school began to feel like a truly authentic way to experience the many delights of north Devon. Gone was that sealed-off feeling modern cars strive to create. Instead, as Noddy chuntered up and down the winding roads, we all felt much closer to this ravishing landscape, the thatched cottages surrounded by agapanthuses, the spectacular tree-lined gorges, the rolling meadows descending to the sea. Who cares if a hill start brings you out in a sweat, or all you ever see in your mirrors is a 20-car tailback? It’s a small price to pay when you can stay at the beach in style and comfort till sunset and beyond – as we did at vast, mesmerising Putsborough night after night, bodies weary from surfing, sand crusted to our baked faces, bellies full from a campervan cook-out.

It wasn’t all beaches and driving though. The coastline is so ravined and rocky, we thought we’d give coasteering a go with Nick Thorn Surf School (£35pp). We arrived at Hele Bay carpark at 6pm on a breezy evening to catch the incoming tide at its best, and two thrilling hours in helmet, wetsuit, lifejacket and trainers followed. We swam, clambered up and leapt off huge rocky outcrops into a surging sea, going just far enough around the coast to see Verity, Damien Hirst’s giant statue of a sword-wielding pregnant woman, where it guards Ilfracombe harbour (which later became our favourite stop for a superb crab or lobster roll from the quayside shop).

Surfing on the north Devon coast.



Surfing on the north Devon coast. Photograph: Andrew Gilchrist

We’d had trouble booking campsites. Many of the larger places had reduced their capacity as a Covid precaution, and there had been an early-summer scramble to book, which meant most of the sites near beaches had limited availability. So we had to move more than we would have liked, even with Noddy as our wheels. But on the upside, we probably saw more of Devon that way – including the jaw-dropping Broadsands Beach near Watermouth Bay.

A 10-minute stroll from Mill Park, a superbly equipped campsite with its own lake, Broadsands is reached by a near-sheer set of steps that plunge to a strip of sand tightly enclosed by towering cliffs, deep dark caves and huge, sharply eroded rocks marching out to sea. It was like a James Bond location, a glorious sandy sun trap completely hidden from the road – though word had clearly got out: kids kayaked up and down, while a man propelled himself and a very excited labrador through the clear waters on an enormous paddleboard. How they got them down there was a mystery. Maybe they just threw them off the cliffs. But even so, the cove felt vibrant and secluded rather than spoiled and overrun, and the views in every direction were extraordinary.

By now, we’d got the knack of Noddy. With only a small amount of swearing, I could get the roof up and the kids’ swing-out beds ready in five minutes flat. And I knew to duck when I pinged open the rear boot, where the hinged square of wood that held up the downstairs bed was stored. Some might have called the results cramped but we regarded them as cosy, especially with the retro yellow-and-purple curtains drawn. And the kids loved it. Everyone slept soundly, perhaps because our days were so full-on.

Noddy on the coast near Croyde



Noddy on the coast near Croyde. Photograph: Andrew Gilchrist

The highlight was a two-night stop at surf hotspot Croyde. We stayed at Ocean Pitch, a campsite so close to the sea that, if I hadn’t pulled the handbrake lever all the way back, Noddy could have rolled on into the waves. After a few hours in the understandably renowned surf the following afternoon, I decided to take a walk to Baggy Point, the headland north of Croyde facing Lundy Island, glimmering in the blazing sun 12 miles out to sea. It was an exhilarating hike, starting out on grassy, daisy-strewn hills and climaxing at some dramatic rock faces battered by waves, with Putsborough and Woolacombe visible to the north.

On the return, I could make out Noddy as I descended the final hill. Draped in bunting, with wetsuits hanging off his roof-rack, he seemed in his element: as thrilled to be there as we were, facing the setting sun as the gulls swooped madly overhead and the surf fizzed up onto the sand.

“I used to own one of those,” said a guy strolling past when I finally got back to crack open a Proper Job, the West Country’s finest ale. He was pointing at Noddy, who seemed to glow with pride as the day’s last rays caught his bodywork. “Wish I’d never sold it,” he sighed. “What a gorgeous sight.”

Noddy Windsor costs £495 for a week during low season, rising to £925 in the summer holidays, details at oconnorscampers.co.uk . Short breaks and other vans are also available


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