Wild and cosy winters

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Vince Van Go in Portugal, 2016

A few years ago I lived in a van. My husband joined me periodically; my cat was my constant companion. We trucked south and congratulated ourselves on avoiding a British winter. However, as much as we loved that season of chasing sunshine and stinky cheese, we have come to realise that we were unfairly harsh on our own wild shores.

Winter can be wonderful. There, I’ve said it.

There is a sparkling kind of light that you get on the best days of the season, a silvery glow that rests gently on naked trees. Crisp air shocks the lungs, making the entire body feel vital and alive. To stand on the land’s edge where mist and sea meet, not knowing which is which, is one of nature’s secret gifts. Winter is when the brave meet themselves outdoors.

But it’s also pretty chilly. Hardy winter travellers need to be well prepared. Billy Connolly said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. Get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.” A van is the ultimate vehicle for a seasonal adventure.

Our old camper, a converted 1994 Renault Master, had a piffling gas heater that I was mostly too afraid to use. Thankfully, rentals come with instructions.

Quirky Campers has a function for searching by ‘Woodburner’. Blubelle sleeps up to four adults and one child, and her woodburner is a chunky cauldron set against a copper surround. Vera is a mountain cabin on wheels, suitable for a couple. Her little red burner is the perfect size to keep toes toasty.

There are those who prefer a factory-built mobile home, like a traditional campervan or a sturdy motorhome. Bunk Campers have a comprehensive range, all fitted with diesel heating as standard. These might be a savvy option for those who are intimidated by gathering wood, but who still long to sip hot chocolate and gaze out at a stormy sea, entwined with a loved one.

A massive benefit to travelling within the UK is being able to pop to the supermarket to stock up on your family’s favourites. How many of us have stood in French supermarkets using half-forgotten GCSE French to translate ingredient lists, checking for dairy or gluten?

Another bonus to the low season: prices are lower, and companies are more flexible about the length of hire. Quirky Campers’ prices start at around £243 for a weekend, a saving of £168 against a summer hire. Bunk Campers start at £45 per day for a Bongo, making them a realistic budget getaway, especially if you bring Rover and save on kennel fees.

Popular destinations such as the North Coast 500 and the Lake District are busy during the summer and shoulder seasons, but their rugged beauty does not fade with the light. Visiting in winter gives you a good chance of getting that first-choice table at the window in a local restaurant, the personal touch on distillery tours (and perhaps a cheeky extra tasting).

One of the last trips we took in our camper was to the Outer Hebrides at the end of October. We packed bikes and surfboards, crates of craft ale, armloads of books. That holiday was one of the best I can remember. Strolling along wind-beaten beaches, running through the ruins of blackhouse villages; swimming in the nippy sea, warming up with whisky by the bonfire; reading, writing, surviving on homemade lentil soup and veggie sausage sandwiches. It felt as though we had the islands to ourselves.

To paraphrase the Big Yin: get yourself a hot water bottle and a sexy campervan and live a little.