Explore Essex: Life in the slow lane

(c) Constable Classic Campervans

(c) Constable Classic Campervans - Credit: Archant

Revealing the delights of things retro to his rather modern family, Nick Roberts explains why taking a step back in time has a very bright future

(c) Constable Classic Campervans

(c) Constable Classic Campervans - Credit: Archant

Old is the new cool, which is good news for someone approaching their 40th birthday!

A boom in the popularity of all things vintage has invigorated our love for anything that evokes the joys of a time gone by or has that warm fuzzy glow of being pre-loved.

So what’s the attraction? Whether it is the recycling bug that thrills us with re-using something that might once have been considered ready for the skip, or the temptation of engaging in a lifestyle from times past, this love of all things retro helps us take a break from the super-paced cyber world of today – and that is no bad thing, whether it means turning off the work emails or missing out on Minecraft for a few days.

Putting the brakes on can help us get back to what is important in life and it was this that motivated me to take the family on a weekend tour of the Essex coast in Ruby.

Ruby is a 1979 Devon Moonraker camper in bright red paintwork, with a lowered stance, tinted windows and alloy wheels – it was love at first sight! She is one of three campervans available to hire from Constable Classic Campervans, based just outside Sudbury. Constable Classic Campervans is owned and managed by Clare Churchill, who is rather a trailblazer when it comes to understanding the joys of the classic VW campervans, and she also knows the benefits of pulling into the slow lane every now and then.

Clare started her professional career working as a professional chef, serving in many top restaurants across Essex, Suffolk and kent, as well as in France, Austria, Switzerland and Sardinia. After taking a career break to raise her family, Clare started her own business making and selling home-cooked ready meals, but just a few years later, Clare was inspired to start a new business, built upon her love of VW Campervans.

(c) Constable Classic Campervans

(c) Constable Classic Campervans - Credit: Archant

Constable Classic Campervans was born, with Clare beginning by hiring out Beryl, her very own campervan. Today the business has expanded to offer three vans available for hire, Beryl, Ruby and Violet. All three campervans are different in appearance, but all of them are the original 1970s models.

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For us, Ruby was the ideal choice for a quick tour of the Essex coast over a May weekend. Ruby has a recently updated interior, with the addition of vinyl seat coverings, and she also features a full-length pop-up roof (which houses a double bed to sleep two or three young children or two adults), plus a 3/4 width rock and roll bed, just perfect for a young family.

Ruby’s other features include 240v sockets inside the van for ease of using or charging your electrical equipment (subject to campsite electric hook-up), plus a double burner hob and grill, a fridge and a sink.

Now, let’s be real here. We are not talking about lavish space and luxury accommodation, but that is rather the point. You have to be a family that will find the fun in squeezing by each other a bit or feeling dangling toes from the open roof-top around your ears. Fortunately, we certainly did. In fact, before you even set off, there is all the excitement of revealing all of the ingenious, if rather low-tech, solutions for where the top of the dining table lives or how you get the sink to work – an eyes-wide-open moment for our two young boys.

With imaginations ignited, it was time to escape to a place, and time one might argue, where TVs do not exist and tablets are redundant – if you pretend the campsite doesn’t have any wifi or 3G signal. Suddenly the holiday rush is instantly drawn back into a more leisurely third gear, and occasionally fourth, as that’s just what Ruby does best.

We began our two-night Essex tour at Grange Farm Campsite, in Thorpe le Soken. The campsite is situated within a working farm, with fabulous views of the countryside to provide the ideal spot for a quiet break. The site has a back to basics ethos with a focus on the peace and tranquillity of the countryside, and is also a predominately ‘adult only’ campsite with a limited number of pitches for families with children. Nevertheless, this felt in keeping with the ideals of our trip and it proved to be a great spot from which to explore the coastal resorts of Clacton on Sea, Walton on the Naze, and, our choice, Frinton on Sea.

Campervans Beryl, Violet and Ruby

Campervans Beryl, Violet and Ruby - Credit: Archant

With a reputation as an exclusive resort, Frinton retains an atmosphere of the 1920/30s, with tree-lined avenues sweeping down to the elegant Esplanade, the cliff-top greensward and colourful Victorian-style beach huts. With an early rise from the campsite, we were one of the first to the sandy beach, for a genteel walk to work off the full English orchestrated with some skill on Ruby’s double hob and grill, before a rather less genteel game of family cricket.

Even this family, with no fears of the traditional shorts and raincoats attire of a British summer, found the beach a little breezy, so we made an earlier than expected exit to head over to Mersea Island – home to our second stopover.

Mersea Island is the most easterly inhabited island in the UK, just nine miles southeast of Colchester. The island is approached by a causeway from the mainland, cut off at high spring tide, and totals just eight miles square. As you might expect, sailing is a huge part of island life, along with the colourful sails of windsurfers and kitesurfers.

We were heading initially for West Mersea, famous for its oysters, seafood and coastal pubs. In particularly, we pinned our hopes on trying out The Company Shed, famous for its fabulously fresh seafood served in very rustic surroundings – you bring your own bread and wine, but the seafood is just divine. It seemed the perfect place for lunch on our ‘slow lane’ weekend, but visit early to book a table on the day (you can’t book in advance) and even then be prepared for a wait – it is worth it, however.

After lunch, and having explored West Mersea, we were back in the campervan to head across the island to Fen Farm Caravan and Camping Site in East Mersea. This is a great campsite for people looking for a quiet family retreat, positioned next to the sea and close to Cudmore Grove Country Park. There are 90 fully serviced static owner occupied caravans on the park, as well as plenty of room for tourers, tents or motorhomes of any size. There is no club house and no pool, but instead there is a much-vaunted tranquil atmosphere in and around the site, which has been awarded the David Bellamy Gold Conservation Award for its work to protect the environment in and around the campsite, as well as an award-winning toilet and wash block.

Our final morning before heading home was spent at Cudmore Grove Country Park, a 20 minute walk from the campsite, or just a matter of moments if you have already packed up Ruby. Here you can enjoy a sandy beach, impressive views, grassland, meadows for relaxation and walks that will take you past interesting historical sites and an abundance of wildlife. The area is also rich in historic features, including World War II pillboxes and gun emplacements, the remains of a 16th century blockhouse fort and a cliff that has produced 300,000-year-old fossils, such as monkey, bear and bison.

We were in no hurry to return Ruby as the weekend drew to a close, but we knew that we had to leave plenty of time to wind our way back to Sudbury – happy to stay in the slow lane for just an hour or so more. If you believe in the principal that a change is as good as a rest, then exploring Essex by campervan is a very restful change. It forces you into a more serene pace of life and, therefore, a more serene state of mind. And who wouldn’t be keen to introduce their young family to more of that in their lives.

Visit the Constable Classic Camper Vans website here!

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