Keith Drew sees Britain's Somerset in a different light from behind the wheel of a six-man motorhome.
Cotton-budded wisps of mist hung lazily above the water, the early morning sunlight glinting off the pools. Freshly brewed tea in hand, we settled down in chairs outside our motorhome to survey the reedbeds in front of us, looking for signs of life. There was nobody else around.
Dried bulrushes crackled in the breeze. Suddenly, a huge bird, perhaps startled by the silence, took flight from the water’s edge, angling up over us and only just clearing our overhead cab.
We had spent the last few days exploring a wildly scenic region of limestone gorges, rolling hills and now vast open marshland – wildlife-rich landscapes that took on a cinematic quality through the widescreen windows of a monster motorhome.
But this wasn’t California or Canada. This was somewhere far closer to home. This was Somerset.
Or more specifically, this was Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve in the Somerset Levels, a curious patchwork of rivers, rhynes, drains and ditches. This highly distinctive landscape is at its most evocative around the old peat workings of the Avalon Marshes, which have been carefully converted into a series of terrific nature reserves. Westhay was just the start.
At Shapwick Heath, we saw marsh harriers hunting around the reserve’s lakes, gracefully arcing back and forth in search of prey. At Ham Wall, we heard the “boom” of a bittern, brought back from near extinction in the mid-1990s. Further south, in Swell Wood, we spotted spikey-feathered heron chicks (“tiny pterodactyls”, according to our seven-year old) at one of the biggest heronries in the UK.
“This part of the county rewards patient exploration”
I’d grown up in north Somerset, but I soon discovered that this part of the county rewards patient exploration. We spent long days pottering around Hamstone villages and ambling along forgotten back roads – when you’re driving a house on wheels that is nearly 23 feet long and over 10 feet high, you certainly don’t rush.
Every now and then, as the novelty of riding up high with a bird’s-eye view over the hedges started to wane, we would pull over to light up the hob for a quick cup of tea or to make an occasional on-board loo stop.
Our aptly named Fiat Grande had more living space than my first flat, and any worries that our family of five would go stir crazy all holed up together vanished quicker than it took for the kids to decide who was sleeping on the top bunk.
Image courtesy of Bunk Campers
The convenience of ferrying around our own living quarters (complete with oven, fridge, freezer and shower) was matched by a freedom to explore and a happy balance of outdoor life and creature comfort.
One night, we parked up alone in an apple orchard in what can quite accurately be described as the middle of nowhere. Another, we squeezed amongst a field full of tents in the back garden of a village pub. Both nights, the kids played outside until darkness fell, and when the drizzle descended and the wind started whipping the canvas around us, we just flicked on our diesel heater and cranked the temperature up to a toasty twenty degrees.
“Craggy limestone cliffs tower 500ft above the snaking road”
We drove through Cheddar Gorge, the largest in Britain, where craggy limestone cliffs tower 500ft above the snaking road and Billy goats skitter about its upper ledges.
We stopped in Glastonbury, an intriguing little place built on a history of tall tales and religious lore and – outside of June, when the area is besieged by wellie-wearing festivalgoers – a quietly alternative town, predominantly populated by New Age mystics.
We nosed around the spectacular ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, the cradle of Christianity in the UK and the supposed final resting place of King Arthur and Guinevere, and peered through a thick fog of incense into shops bearing names such as Natural Earthling and The Wonky Broomstick.
We’d been told that nearly everyone has one at some point during their first road trip, where you suddenly feel that this is how you want to see the world and you do a few speculative sums and start trying to convince yourself that you might just about be able to afford a motorhome of your own.
After trundling along the dramatic coastal route, where the UK’s highest sea cliffs plunge down to the Bristol Channel, we had cut inland to a very different landscape of open moors that are home to Exmoor ponies and herds of red deer.
Pulling over for a cup of tea – there was clearly a running theme to our holiday – we looked up through the side window just in time to see a majestic stag, knee deep in heather, standing on the crest of the hill in front of us, his antlers silhouetted against the blue sky behind.
He paused for a couple of seconds and was gone. It was only a moment, but it was the moment.
Bunk Campers have depots in Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and near Gatwick Airport. Campervan hire starts from £35 per day for a two-berth “Roadie” and includes unlimited mileage and a comprehensive kitchen kit; bedding, outdoor table and chairs, and GPS can be hired at additional cost. Renting a six-berth Fiat Grande for four nights costs £775 in peak season. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.