So which one of us is Frances McDormand?” I ask my mum, as we drive a rented motorhome through the Somerset levels to north Devon, maize fields either side of us. “I thought we were Thelma and Louise?” she says.
Van life, documented in the extraordinary, Oscar-winning film Nomadland last year, has been the biggest staycationing trend of the past two years, and even as abroad opens up and the seasons change, it’s going nowhere. The fuel crisis hasn’t put us off — queues at van conversion companies are stretching to December. The hashtag #vanlife has 11.1 million posts on Instagram and on Camptoo, which is like Airbnb for vans, bookings are up 150 per cent this year on last.
At 31 and having been on my first #vanlife trip last month — a semi-slapstick tour of the UK’s north-east coast with two millennial mates — I’m hitting the road again, this time with my semi-retired mum, Caroline, 66. After a life of family holidays in which she organised (and paid for) everything, and with no breaks anywhere for the past two years, it was probably my turn to take her away. But comments about how my friends would fare on holiday with their own mothers (“I’d kill her”/“we’d kill each other”), suggest not many people would brave it.
Several agree they’d probably go on holiday with my mum, who is quite cool, even if she does make a daily joke about my bed looking like Tracey Emin’s when I’m at home. But more seriously, my brother and I have noticed in the past few years that my dad has slowed down completely, while she hasn’t, so it felt good to be able to whisk her away in a style he had lost the love of. Granted, “whisking” involves asking her to drive us both to Devon because I still don’t have a driving licence.
When we went to pick up the van, a 2007 Hymer from Camptoo, from a man called Roger, my mum stared at the 6.5 metre-long, three metre-high van and gulped. “Don’t worry about scratching it on country lanes,” Roger told us. “It’s seen a lot of adventure. We’ve been towed out of fields by tractors before!” My mum remained silent in horror.
I began unloading the IPAs I’ve been collecting for the trip; my mum decides eggs, ham and milk are better provisions. “I hope you’re not going to be bored with just me,” she says, as though I imagine we’re setting off to a mad festival and will try to persuade her to come raving.
The idea of going on holiday with your mum would have been more daunting if I’d not been living with my parents since the start of the pandemic, but at home we’d become close, living together as adults for a year for the first time. It was an unexpected joy of the pandemic, to really get to know my parents, partly because I was there to pick up all sorts of memories they voiced half-consciously when something reminded them of something, and I’d had such a sense of what might have been lost if we’d not had this time together.
Her initial anxieties that I’d be bored with just her on our trip made me sad because, to me, the only real difference between going on holiday with a mum you get on great with and friends, is that you stop drinking after one bottle of wine each evening, not three, and I knew it would be a real rest if anything. There are also perks for my mum. “It will be a relief not to be on a holiday revolving around food” (my dad’s style).
At the risk of sounding like one of those ghastly people who say their mum is their best friend, the new dynamic was a mixture of family and friendship
Ah, freedom, I thought as we soared down the motorway. “Devon has very red earth,” my mum offered. Then: “The first boy I ever kissed was called Vaughn.” “What?!” I screeched. “It wasn’t Dad?” “God, no,” she said. The trip remained an enlightening experience when we reached the campsite and got set up (plugging the van into the electricity; turning the gas on; switching the fridge onto the right power source) before deciding to eat fried egg sandwiches for dinner, with beer. “I love campsites,” my mum says, watching the lights gleaming in the open landscape in front of us and nomadic life unfolding in the dusk.
The next morning started with a bang as we drove into Saunton Sands carpark and almost wiped out the entire ticket booth with two tonnes of Hymer, and then I felt guilty, that I couldn’t share the driving, as we recovered with French toast and maple syrup in a nearby café. “Trauma patients are supposed to eat sugar,” I told her (not yet at the point where the crash was “funny”). “That woman in the booth looked like she was going to DIE,” I added. “Well, Thelma and Louise did kill someone,” she said.
That evening we had a beer beneath the dunes. That’s when I started to feel a combination of 31 and six years old, having grown up by the sea and spent most of my childhood on beaches with my mum wrapping me and my brother in towels after hours playing with us in the waves. If the adult children who’d moved home in the pandemic had picked up some old teenage habits, this was different — it was like living in a photo album with our former selves and I wondered why we hadn’t done more pilgrimages back to the sea together. We’d also been on driving holidays all around Europe and I saw that family holidays didn’t need to stop when you grew up, they could just morph.
At the risk of sounding like one of those ghastly people who say their mum is their best friend, the new dynamic was a mixture of family and friendship. We’d go out for dinner, drink rubbish wine, make each other laugh and then when I woke in the middle of the night, I’d turn and check she was still there like I was a tiny kid still scared of the dark.
Because I was in charge of half the van jobs (duties falling into the care of whoever was naturally better at what) she was also lighter and freer to have a holiday too, I realised, understanding how much she probably had to carry on family holidays in the past with two young kids oblivious to the effort and expense that went into a holiday and my dad, who was brilliant but needed to be constantly fed and who napped like a baby, too. She’d held our family together for so long that it was just a joy to be able to return the favour.
“When you get to a certain age you want to challenge yourself,” she said at one point. “Massive campervan, me the only driver, going to places unknown.” Fit for 66, I’d realised she was making comments about how my dad would “struggle with the ladders in and out of bed” and wondered if ageing was subconsciously in her mind. She was still capable of anything, but in 10 years I wondered if it would be me driving (finally).
We drove back to Roger’s to return our van, the scenery changing from misty country roads to fields of haybales. My mum was almost tearful when she thanked me for the trip. “I’ll remember it forever,” she said, and I knew I would, too.
Still, it wasn’t all easy riding. “Hey, let’s not tell Dad about the crash immediately, shall we?” she said. “Whatever you say, Thelma,” I replied.