A campervan holiday on England's South coast

written by Aimee White

updated 27.08.2021

England’s south coast makes for an epic summer road trip, with the Jurassic Coast stretching from Exmouth to Old Harry Rocks; fishing villages tucked into ancient coves; and plenty of sandy beaches. As the old adage goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination, and what a journey I had on my first campervan holiday with three pals and a dog. To plan your own adventure on England's south coast, the Rough Guide to Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and the Rough Guides Staycations Devon and Cornwall are your essential guides.

Your writer on her campervan holiday companion: a VW Transporter

The campervan

Together, my friends and I covered Salcombe, Weymouth, Durdle Door, Poole and Sandbanks - read on to discover why you too should consider a road trip along England’s south coast – and how to do it on a budget.

We hired a Volkswagen Transporter from Kamperhire.co.uk and collected it from a local company in Portsmouth that we’d found listed in our Rough Guide to Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The campervan accommodated four people – the seats in the back folded down into a bed (aka ‘downstairs’) and the roof popped up to create another double-bed space (‘upstairs’).

There was also cupboard space, a fridge, sink and gas hobs. If four people travelling together wasn’t enough, we also had Betsie the French Bulldog with us as well; she, of course, had her choice of sleeping arrangement each night.

But why a motorhome? We found that it was an affordable way to take in a wedge of the south coast which, let’s face it, can be pricey if you want to visit multiple places - especially notoriously costly spots like Salcombe and Sandbanks. As we set off, we accepted this challenge and prepared ourselves for the next four nights and five days ahead of us. What could possibly go wrong?

Snoozing on the road: Betsie the dog

Day 1: Kingsbridge, South Devon

Setting off from Portsmouth, we made the 170 mile trip down to Kingsbridge in South Devon. We had decided to start with the longest part of the route first so that our journey back felt less tedious and more enjoyable. There were a few hold-ups along the three-and-a-half-hour journey – road closures, trailers coming off the back of caravans, but it was easy enough to stop for breaks or to let Betsie out for a drink.

After squeezing down a zig-zag of narrow country roads, we eventually reached our campsite, Karrageen, a family-run campsite in Kingsbridge. Kingsbridge is the closest camping spot to Salcombe, roughly a 15min drive away, but is only a five minute walk from Hope Cove, which contains two coves (one is dog-friendly), a post office and a pub.

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Kingsbridge Estuary Salcombe © David Hughes/Shutterstock

The view over Kingsbridge Estuary in Salcombe © David Hughes/Shutterstock

Karrageen campsite has 70 pitches spread out over a main camping field and the top field, and you are assigned a pitch when you check in at reception. There was a real community-like feel to this campsite, so if you’re looking to befriend your fellow campers, this is a good place to stay.

It’s also a good place for a first-night stay if you haven’t stocked up on food supplies; when we arrived (much later than planned), we had just missed the stone-baked pizza night which had taken place in the gazebo outside the reception. But, in true friendly Karrageen style, a very kind family of happy campers donated one of their pizzas to us.

That night, we stayed in the campervan and played card games while we listened to the rain pelt against the campervan. Betsie curled up and went to sleep downstairs.

Hope Cove in Summer, Devon, England © Andrew Roland/Shutterstock

Picturesque Hope Cove in Devon © Andrew Roland/Shutterstock

Day 2: Salcombe, South Devon

We were up early the next morning to collect our pre-ordered pastries from reception, and afterwards, we bundled into the other car and headed down to Salcombe Harbour Hotel & Spa.

The drive was short but the roads were narrow and hilly. As we drove down Fore Street – the ‘high street’ – we were glared at by the pedestrians who had practically reclaimed the street. That said, it was actually quite nice to see so many people and barely any cars, despite our stop-start drive.

At the very other end of Fore Street is the glamorous Salcombe Harbour Hotel & Spa, which offers superlative views over the picturesque estuary. While it might sound like a swanky option for a camping trip, it felt good to treat ourselves – and there are hacks to enjoy these places on a budget.

Salcombe in South Devon © Gordon Bell/Shutterstock

The harbour at Salcombe, South Devon © Gordon Bell/Shutterstock

After leaving the car with the valet driver, next to a Lamborghini, we ate lunch at the on-site restaurant, The Jetty. Here we tucked into starters (think whitebait with sriracha sauce, truffle mac’n’cheese) and shared a bottle of organic wine. And while you can book spa packages and treatments, it’s also possible to just use the spa facilities for £5 an hour (ring on the morning of your planned visit to reserve up to three hours) where you can enjoy a pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and sun loungers separated by long, white veils. Who needs Mykonos?

That afternoon, Betsie joined us as we mooched along Fore Street and passed by fellow dog walkers, wetsuit-clad teens and barefooted children. There are plenty of independent stores and high street names that serve the well-heeled locals of Salcombe, including the first Jack Wills store.

We sat in the outside section of the Victoria Inn pub, which was actually located in a car park – nicer than it sounds – with a pint of cider overlooking the estuary where RNLI coastguards, paddleboarders and kayakers alike weaved their way in between the moored fishing boats and dazzling yachts.

As the afternoon wore on, we made our way back to the campsite and enjoyed a barbecue on our pitch. Aside from accidentally setting the car alarm off enough times to wake up the rest of the campsite, we all enjoyed a good night’s rest. That night, Betsie the dog slept on the passenger seat.

Heading to England's glorious south coast? Discover the 15 best things to do Devon and Cornwall.

Early morning fog in the harbour on the beach at East Porttlemouth on the Kingsbridge Estuary on the coast of South Devon, England © Peter Turner Photography/Shutterstock

Early morning fog in the harbour at East Porttlemouth, Kingsbridge © Peter Turner Photography/Shutterstock

Day 3: Weymouth, Dorset

Day three started with another morning of rain. The great English weather wasn’t going to ruin our mood, though; it was the day of the Euros Final and we had a table booked at a pub in Weymouth. After packing up the van and disposing of our rubbish, we made the 160-mile drive to Weymouth, where the grey clouds loitered and Three Lions played on repeat.

We arrived at Rosewall Campsite, located in Osmington Mills in Weymouth, and offers a sea view from as soon as you enter the site. There’s also a horse stable nearby with riding opportunities, and further down is a lake which makes for a pleasant stroll around. The campsite itself spans 13 acres and we could choose our own pitch; there was plenty of room for Betsie to run around and greet the other dogs, too.

After setting up, we sat underneath the opened boot of the car and passed the afternoon in the most English way possible: rum in hand, raincoats on, watching the rain hit the grass around us.

That evening, we went to KIKABeach for dinner, a tapas bar with a beach theme and colourful cocktails. The restaurant was closing at 7pm for the Euros football final, so we headed to the pub and experienced a rollercoaster of emotions – congratulations, Italy. That night, we returned to the campsite with only a dampened spirit (and our other shoes that we’d forgotten to take in). Betsie the dog slept upstairs.

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View of Weymouth lifting bridge opening with a yacht passing through © allouphoto/Shutterstock

The Weymouth lifting bridge opens to allow a yacht to pass through © allouphoto/Shutterstock

Day 4: Durdle Door and Poole, Dorset

We awoke to near-silence, which was quite strange as we’d become somewhat used to the rain waking us up. The five of us walked down to the lake, passing the stables and a field where inquisitive horses trotted over to see who we were and what we were doing. After taking a slow walk around the lake, and making sure Betsie didn’t go in after any of the fish, we returned to the campsite and set off for our next stop.

It took roughly half an hour to drive to Dorset's iconic landmark and beauty spot, Durdle Door. I’d never been before, but had seen enough photos and read enough articles about it to want to visit. I was itching to see it for myself. We purposely picked a weekday to avoid the crowds, but it was still quite busy as we arrived at the upper car park, which costs £5 for an all-day ticket. We enjoyed a picnic on the field overlooking Durdle Door, amid a crowd of selfie-takers, before stomping our way down the steep hill and towards the flatter gravel path.

The gravel path provides a sweeping view down over Durdle Door, but if you carry on straight ahead you can also see the Man O’War Cove. There was hardly anyone at this cove despite the turquoise water glistening; it looked remarkably different from the dark-blue sea surrounding it. When the sun peeked out from between the clouds, it almost felt like we could be in Ibiza. Almost.

Durdle Door at the beach on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, UK © Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock

Durdle Door, the Jurassic Coast's most famous landmark © Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock

There are a series of wide steps leading down to Durdle Door, but it’s important to take great care as you make your way down – especially if it’s been raining, as the muddy sludge will ruin your shoes if you’re not careful. I felt a pang of sympathy for the girl in front of me who complained about this as she made her way down in socks and designer sliders.

The beach on Durdle Door is a pebble beach, and it’s easy to set yourself up for the day, whether you want a sunbathe, picnic or photoshoot. There were swimmers splashing around the iconic arch – although swimming around this point is advised against – but it has a very pleasant atmosphere, and dogs are welcomed.

Once we had spent a relaxing stretch of time here, we headed back up to the car park. It’s definitely a good idea to wear proper trainers or walking boots, especially for the steep sections for your grip and comfort. Before driving onto our next stop, we enjoyed an ice cream and then made the 27 mile route through Lulworth and onto Poole.

Poole Harbour at sunset © Joe Gough/Shutterstock

Poole Harbour at sunset © Joe Gough/Shutterstock

Poole felt like more of a return to a typical busy city, which already felt a world away from the pedestrianised ‘high streets’ of Salcombe and country roads through Lulworth. It goes to show, though, that this route will really appeal to those who want to combine a chill-out stay with more active adventures.

We parked up at Branksome Beach car park, just behind a fish and chips restaurant and mere metres from the sandy beach. The car park allows overnight stays so we made ourselves at home behind the row of beach huts, with a view of the caramel-coloured beach. We dashed into the nearest restaurant just in time to avoid the thrashing rain and noisy thunder and lightning.

Later that evening, the rain miraculously stopped, so we sat on the beach and watched a group of paddleboarders before walking along the promenade and counting the number of volleyball nets and checking out the beach gym. If you’re looking for beach fun and fitness, Poole’s the place to come. For our final night in the campervan, Betsie the dog curled up on the driver's seat.

Lulworth village with thatched houses and flower decoration, Dorset © SusaZoom/Shutterstock

Pretty thatched houses in Lulworth village, Dorset © SusaZoom/Shutterstock

Day 5: Sandbanks, Dorset

It was the last day of our road trip; we had the best weather for it and we were in the best place to embrace the sun. We got up early and drove ten minutes down to Sandbanks, an affluent part of Poole that is renowned for its pricey holidays pads – some of the most expensive in the country – and a gorgeous, sandy beach. As we set ourselves up on the beach, surrounding us was a lifeguard’s training session, a few early morning joggers and keen paddleboarders; otherwise, we practically had the beach to ourselves.

It was the perfect spot to practice yoga; the cooling breeze, the soft sand beneath our feet, the sun beaming down on us. Afterwards, we continued this relaxing experience with a coffee and bacon-and-cheese baguette from the kiosk along the beachfront.

This was a great way to end our road trip along the south coast, and we made the final leg of the journey before dropping the campervan back in one piece. If you’re thinking of heading out on a road trip of your own, my advice is to prepare for a bumpy ride – but it’s totally worth it!

Aerial view of Old Harry Rocks cliffs, Studland, Swanage, Dorset, UK © januszkurek.com/Shutterstock

Old Harry Rocks cliffs in Dorset © januszkurek.com/Shutterstock

Find out more about where to stay and what to see in Devon and Cornwall. Ready to plan your own adventure on England's south coast? Check out the Rough Guide to Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and the Rough Guides Staycations Devon and Cornwall.

The trip lowdown

Who we hired from: Kamperhire.co.uk

What we drove: VW California 6.1 Coast; sleeps 4

What we paid: £120 per day

Extra costs: £30 per dog

Aimee White

written by Aimee White

updated 27.08.2021

Aimee is an in-house Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and is the podcast host of The Rough Guide to Everywhere. She is also a freelance travel writer and has written for various online and print publications, including a guidebook to the Isle of Wight. Follow her on Twitter at @aimeefw.

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