We’re reluctantly back home today after a fantastic week campervanning through France. It seems I’ve got some incredible Team GB Olympic highlights to catch up on and I’m looking forward to the next series of Bake Off kicking off on Wednesday.
Just after we finished filming Bake Off in 2014, Sarah, the kids and I rented an old VW campervan and travelled through the Scottish Highlands, dropping in on my pal Norman in Buckie along the way (pictured above). Romantic as the retro van was, it wasn’t the easiest vehicle to drive: no power steering, seatbelts a bit rubbish, engine didn’t like going above 60mph, and if you turned at speed, petrol sloshed out of the tank! But ever since that holiday we’ve had a dream of getting our own campervan and going back on the road.
Back in February this year I was demonstrating how to make bread on a camping stove at the Telegraph Outdoor Show. On the stand next to me was the team from Spaceships campers and Daughter #2 spent the whole day playing in one of their campervans, taking herself on imaginary holidays. We got talking to the Spaceships team and they offered us a free campervan holiday this summer, result! I’m putting together a short video of our Spaceships trip now I’m back but in the meantime, here’s my verdict on their campervan and some of my top tips if you fancy hiring one yourself.
As a family of five, we took their Voyager camper, which is a super-pimped Ford Transit with room for our three daughters’ car seats and plenty of space to sleep us all, even if our kids (7, 4 and 8 months) were a few years older. The list of kit that comes as standard is under ‘what’s included’ here, but in addition I took the following:
- my own kitchen knives, as I’ve gone all chef-y these days and like to take my ones with me, but wasn’t really necessary as the knife in the van was good
- a large plastic salad bowl, I’d really recommend taking one – we used it with every meal
- bowls and spoons for our baby – if there are five of you travelling you’ll need extra crockery and cutlery as there are four of everything
- our small folding camping table to put the stoves on, this was very helpful as it kept the van’s table for eating and food prep
- our folding camping chairs, we didn’t really need these as we mainly used the two benches (pictured above) that came with the van’s table instead
- our Sat Nav with European maps on it – we couldn’t have done the trip without this
With hindsight I should have also taken my camping kettle as there was plenty of room for it, but boiling-up water using the van’s pan didn’t take too long. Luggage-wise we packed fairly light, with a small backpack, a folding pushchair, a large rucksack and a medium sized soft case. Even with our camping chairs (that weren’t necessary) there was still plenty of boot space, so we filled it with red wine from Burgundy and champagne from, erm, Champagne, from two of our stop overs.
I picked the campervan up in West London last Saturday morning, about half an hour away from me. It meant we wanted our first stop not too far from Calais, as with picking the van up, coming back home and loading up before heading to Dover, we didn’t get to France until about 5pm on the first day. My wife Sarah is an obsessive planner when it comes to holidays so campervanning was a bit of a test for her, as we only booked a place for the first night before hitting the open road and seeing where the wind would take us. We booked the first night (here) via the French website Bienvenue à la Ferme, which suggests sites all over France where you can stay on farms and sample their produce directly. I’d like to check out a few more of these places next time. This worked so well for the first night as the farm shop was brilliant for stocking up and we had a slap-up dinner and breakfast with what we bought.
Our only companion for the rest of the trip was the 2016 Michelin Camping Guide. We didn’t need to pre-book any camping sites, even during peak tourist season – just plugged the coordinates into the Sat Nav and we were off. The Spaceships campervan can have electric hook up but we didn’t need it as the engine charges an internal battery – plenty enough for charging our phones and camera overnight. Our stopovers cost between €25-40 per night and even though some were fairly basic, they were all clean, friendly, with play areas for the kids, fresh bread available for breakfast each morning and very conveniently located – walking distance from vineyards or short bus rides from city centres.
We headed to Saint Jorioz on Lake Annecy (the cleanest lake in Europe – perfect for our baby’s first swim) for a few days in the middle of the holiday to stay with Sarah’s sister and for the kids to spend time with their cousins. If we hadn’t have done that, I’d recommend booking a really nice campsite to stay for a few days in the middle of your trip so the kids can relax and explore or swim or play. Ours loved the campervan but were glad of a few days without long car journeys. If you’ve got any questions at all about holidaying in the van, feel free to drop me a line via my contact page or Twitter and I’ll try and answer them.
My only regret was taking the van away for just a week. A two week holiday would have been even better but it’s given us loads of ideas for where we’d want to go next summer. We really didn’t want to come home today and loved the flexibility of the van. As it’s Transit-sized, it’s pretty easy to manoeuvre and three-point turn. We were driving on the ring-road around Paris to our penultimate destination yesterday and decided rather than stopping at a service station for lunch, to stop in the city for a couple of hours and climb the Eiffel Tower for lunch (and some golden macarons!) instead.
Top tip: as we only had two hours’ parking, we skipped the very long lift queue and tackled the stairs up the Eiffel Tower, with the baby in her sling. We weren’t sure how our four year old would manage but she was fantastic. It only took about ten minutes to climb and was loads more fun than the lift.
Even with Paris’s narrow, busy roads we were able to find on-street parking a ten minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. It makes the campervan more versatile than a Motorhome or caravan – it’s pretty nippy to drive. We really enjoyed not knowing where we’d end up next. If it rained we drove a little further, if it was sunny we’d stop and take our time.
We’ve holidayed in France many times over the years but I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so well as we did this week. Cooking up fresh, local food on the camping stoves was really easy and a great way to experience France’s incredible produce in each region. It’s an affordable option with three kids and they loved choosing what to cook from the local markets. But we also ate out at some amazing restaurants and I’m now determined to learn more about French wine this year (if anyone in London wants to teach me, give me a shout!).
I’ve lost count of the number of boulangerie patisseries I’ve been in this week too – I can’t walk past one without a nose inside. I’m full of ideas now so can’t wait to get back in the kitchen and develop some new recipes this week. I’ve brought home a fair amount of fancy baking ingredients, just in time for the new series of the Great British Bake Off to get us all in the mood.
And in the interests of scientific research, I sampled quite a few custard tarts in France but I still think mine’s the best! The recipe for the one pictured above is in my book, B.I.Y. Bake It Yourself (only £4.99 with The Book People at the moment!), so why not give it a try and see if you agree? It’s a year ago this week that my book was released and it’s been such a fun year. I’m so proud of the positive reviews of B.I.Y. and how many people have sent me pictures of what they’ve made. If Bake Off is inspiring you this week, give the book a go as it walks you through all aspects of baking in different levels depending on your experience. I’ve also made a series of short videos for BT.com (featuring some cute assistants) with some of my top tips – check them out at the links below:
- Victoria sponge top tips
- White bloomer top tips
- Puff pastry sausage rolls top tips
- Shortcrust pastry custard tart top tips
I’m looking forward to getting to know the next bunch of Bake Off bakers (pictured above), most of whom I’ve just started following on Twitter. Join me on Twitter on Wednesday evening for a bit of a GBBO tweet along, it’s always a laugh. I’ll see if I’m any good at spotting this year’s winner. I’m still proud of my unbeaten five Star Baker record so I’ll be watching like a hawk to see if anyone’s nipping at my heels! No rest for the wicked so I’ve got another busy week ahead, with a particularly special cake planned for Saturday. Follow me on Instagram for a sneak preview as the week goes on, as I’m getting quite into Instagram Stories while I’m in the kitchen. Until next week, enjoy GBBO and Happy Baking!