In my dreams, I was driving across vast American plains in a luxurious Winnebago. I was listening to Willie Nelson and watching the sun set beside the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore. In reality, I had a week-long adventure with my family in a VW Grand California motorhome, driving from London to Bath and back again, to the sound of my sons’ singing.
Day to day, I usually cycle around North London on a nifty road bike: driving a 3,500kg, 2.4m wide juggernaut was a challenge. If you were stuck in any tailbacks over the October half-term holiday then I apologise: there’s a good chance I was responsible.
For the utterly terrified driver, VW has built a user-friendly mobile home — although as we faced narrow country lanes rather than grand US highways, low bridges and width restrictions still gave me palpitations as we crawled through Berkshire and Wiltshire.
If you’re visualising a retro 1960s campervan, the Grand California is not the same beast: it’s a modern and incredibly well-equipped motorhome, in which it took us a couple of days to get the hang of the controls.
Our first and worst error was setting the campervan to the same temperature as the fridge. We had a couple of extremely cool nights until a superbly unflappable technician called Steve patiently explained over the phone how to reboot the system.
And after a week away, I’m a convert. Given the Covid restrictions at the time, a campervan was the perfect (and possibly only) way to have a packed family holiday. We stayed distanced but without losing the adventure.
I’m familiar with campsite etiquette from previous holidays — one of the few places where it is acceptable to wander around in pyjamas and eccentric hats — but caravanning sites are slightly different. There’s less washroom interaction as most people have their own on-board facilities and little reason to sit outside in the dark in October.
But to our surprise, despite its two double beds (including a pull-out one in the roof) and internal table, the Grand California still gave us all enough space to hang out in the evening and plan our next stop.
And there were plenty to choose from along the Great West Way. Launched in 2019, the route stretches across England from London to Bristol, roughly following the course of the Thames and the Kennet and Avon canal, designed to help people explore the big attractions and the picturesque towns en route.
It may not be as well-known as Route 66 but it packs in an extraordinary swathe of British landscape and history, with an online itinerary planner to do a lot of the work for you, suggesting the ideal destinations to visit and your route between.
If you’re not behind the wheel of your own motorhome, there are suggestions of where to stay and how to travel it by train, bus, boat, walking and cycling.
We started with a restful day in Henley, where the river meadows, walks, and lovely River and Rowing Museum were the ideal jumping-off point. The Wind in the Willows exhibition at the museum has been there for years but is delightful and it’s now accompanied by an audioguide telling an abridged version of the story, from first spotting Mole throwing down his whitewash brush to the overturning of the tables in the battle for Toad Hall.
The autumn weather didn’t dim our enthusiasm for counting boats and spotting crews on the river outside, before sheltering from the storm in the Chocolate Café, a stone’s throw away. If there is a heaven in Henley it is this café: chilli hot chocolate and samples of eight chocolate cakes was a holiday highlight.
Our next stop was the grandest of all: Windsor Castle. If you have never been, there is no excuse; it is every bit as impressive as you would hope and expect.
Our sons, aged five and seven, are not easy to awe but the magnificent rooms are packed with a mix of fearsome armour and truly remarkable bling, while getting to spot guardsmen in their bearskins was a bonus.
For our children, the highlight of the trip came next at Legoland. At one point in my career, I was a regular, dispatched whenever a new ride was unveiled, as unofficial Theme Park Correspondent for a national newspaper. Visiting Legoland as a family might be more exhausting but is infinitely more joyous.
If you want your children to believe you are the World’s Best Parent — even if only for one day — then book a visit. A new “Land” is due to join the current attractions in March 2021.
Alongside the excitement of the rides, Legoland’s Miniland, recreating famous monuments and landmarks with tens of thousands of bricks kept our kids utterly captivated. “Everything here is just so COOL,” announced our eldest, Sammy, as he inspected the Lego version of Stonehenge, our next stop.
The Lego version couldn’t prepare us for the awesome sight of the real thing, rising through the mist and drizzle as we made our way across the fields. The challenging weather made it feel like a real pilgrimage and — not for the last time on this trip — both our kids insisted on recording videos for their friends telling them all about it.
The stalwart volunteers demonstrating Neolithic tools, and the circular screen in the museum showing how the solstice sun would shine through the stones, just added to the experience.
A huge jump forward in history whisked us on to Roman Bath — the Great West Way often feels like a Greatest Hits of Britain tour — and the Roman Baths themselves.
With the children’s audioguide narrated by author Michael Rosen, it was easy for them to imagine themselves among the Roman priests, slaves and citizens who frequented them. Seeing the hot water gush out of the ground was a jaw-dropping moment for us all.
More natural wonder was available in spades at Westonbirt Arboretum, in all its autumnal glory — although we barely scratched the surface of the huge site as our boys followed the explorer’s map and ran along the walkway through the branches of some of the highest trees.
By the time we reached Malmesbury, once one of the greatest centres of learning in Europe, we’d earned a restful few days.
The first king of England, Athelstan, is buried there, and it’s also the birthplace of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and MP Walter Powell, principally known for vanishing at sea in a hot-air balloon in 1881. The town also has the peculiar distinction of being the burial site of Hannah Twynnoy who, in October 1703, became the first woman in Britain to be killed by a tiger.
You can also find a generous afternoon tea at The Old Bell Hotel, beside the magnificent 12th century Abbey, which claims the title of oldest hotel in England.
Heading back towards London we couldn’t resist a stop at the STEAM Museum of the Great Western Railway in Swindon, showcasing the engineering feats not only of the likes of Isambard Kingdom Brunel but of the ordinary people who worked on the railways.
You can try out shunting carriages, driving a simulated steam train, running model trains and — best of all — managing a mock-up of a real-life signal box, complete with real levers, to allow the Royal Train through a station.
Our Great West Way journey had come full circle: one huge advantage of motorhoming is that, without having to spend time packing and repacking, it feels easy to cram in day after day of activities.
We even managed a socially distanced stay with friends in Wiltshire: sleeping on-board, using only our own wetroom and socialising outside. In these Covid times, the freedom the Grand California gave us was a very precious thing.
We might have been motorhome amateurs at the start of the week, but by the end we felt like pros. I have a feeling this won’t be the last of our road trip adventures.
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