It had a leaking roof and a cold shower but Edwina Currie fell in love with her new camper van

By Edwina Currie
Last updated at 1:25 AM on 08th July 2008

A year on and the smoking ban has had dozens of consequences: 400,000 people have given up, 175 million fewer pints have been drunk in British pubs - and my husband and I have bought a camper van.

I may be a retired health minister, but my husband, John, remains a dedicated smoker and insists on being able to puff in comfort when he is on holiday.

Not for him sneaking out of the hotel for a quiet ciggie in the rain. This summer, he told me, we would have to find a smoke-friendly getaway.

Cosy and cheap: Edwina Currie has grown to love her camper van 'Vanessa'

And so that is why we found ourselves at Glossop Caravans, perusing the very latest in mobile homes. After all, John had reasoned, how better to get around the ban than by buying a mobile home in which he could light up at leisure.

What's more, he added, we'd be able to take cheaper, greener holidays - a major bonus in this age of crunched credit and global warming.

At first, I couldn't believe my husband was suggesting we holiday in a souped-up van just so he could indulge his bad habit.

But I started to come round when I laid eyes on Vanessa - as we named her - an all-singing, all-dancing camper van, festooned with gadgets, from a satellite dish and a rear-view camera, to central heating and a built-in awning.

We were sold on her, and after a quick tutorial on how to work her various gadgets and gizmos - which went in one ear and out the other - we were merrily driving home in a £20,000, second-hand Benimar Anthus.

The honeymoon didn't last. A tank of diesel cost us a whopping £90, the dogs didn't warm to the cramped conditions and began to sulk, and my husband struggled terribly with the chemical toilet, opting for a nearby bush instead.

And that was before we'd even set off on holiday. Perhaps we could live with the smoking ban after all, I suggested.

After going over an atlas and some debate, we decided we'd lose our camper virginity in Ireland. So we set off with everything from fishing rods to DVDs clattering around in the back.

Camper vans are perfectly comfortable if you know how to operate them and desperately uncomfortable if you don't. We were completely out of our depth.

Stopping en route to the ferry in South Wales, we failed to switch on the various contraptions that make mobile living tolerable. The result was a cold shower, a warm fridge and no gas. We might as well have been camping.

The next morning, I couldn't find the cereal bowls I'd bought on eBay, so we had to eat our breakfast out of a mug.

The rain was hammering down like a machine gun on the roof, which was leaking (I hadn't shut the skylight properly) and our cramped living quarters smelled of the wet dogs. It was a gruelling initiation.

At the Fishguard ferry terminal we had to be weighed - and it was bad news. Vanessa was declared too obese for the fast ferry, so we were relegated to the old tub which takes twice as long to cross the Irish Sea.

By the time we arrived at our pretty campsite in County Wicklow, we were ragged, dirty wrecks.

Unfortunately, the water tank was empty. Before we could have a wash or flush the loo, we'd have to fill it. But we couldn't get the cap off the inlet pipe, so we had to dismantle the side of the van and fill up the tank by hand using a bucket instead.

I gave up and used the grubby campsite toilets - a truly traumatic experience.

But the real misery of camper van life is that you can't dry anything out. Our towels were soon as sodden and sorry as the dogs and everything smelled damp.

Britain may have a smoking ban but Edwina's husband John (pictured) refused to go on a holiday where he couldn't have a cigarette
Were we really going to be able to survive a fortnight of this? It was during one of these moments of despair that I discovered the shower had stopped draining.

Without my specs and stark naked, I found a screwdriver and set about trying to unblock the plug - all the while, I soon discovered, in full view of a child staring at me from the caravan next door.

The indignities stacked up by the hour. Next it was a stray dog who took advantage of the van's flimsy door, barged his way in, and then 'marked his territory' by the driver's seat.

After this, we decided nothing else could possibly go wrong. But then we went exploring for the day, carefully leaving our 'This pitch is reserved' notice on our plot. We returned to discover somebody had casually driven right over it and pinched our spot.

Powerscourt Waterfall: Part of County Wicklow's beautiful scenery

After another night of being eaten alive by the midges, we decided to move on.

'Moving on' in a camper van is also more difficult than it sounds. Everything that isn't packed away bounces around and turns into a potentially lethal projectile - and the dogs hated the way Vanessa lurched and lolled along the winding roads of rural Ireland.

But just as we thought we couldn't have picked a worse holiday, the sun came out. We found a new campsite, my husband started tinkering with his fishing gear and I started planning a bike ride.

Life slowed down and I began to feel unusually, blissfully lazy. Despite all our beginners' mishaps, I was really starting to enjoy myself.
I found the missing bowls - and filled them with a half-decent spaghetti bolognese.

Then we began to work out how to operate the toilet and the shower. I got used to the broken nails, the grimy feet and the frizzy hair. I also began to appreciate quite how friendly and helpful our fellow campers were. Most importantly, I began to feel at home.

Given the credit crunch, I also began to appreciate how cheap it was - at least compared to a hotel.

Irish campsites charge a pittance and are in lovely locations. By contrast, the splendid guest house at Bantry in County Cork, which we'd booked when I'd had enough of the soggy towels and broken toilets, cost us a small fortune - although the warm bath was worth every cent.

But Vanessa did have one more surprise to spring on us: she is a devil to park. It's not her fault: the power-steering is brilliant and the rearview camera allows you to see whatever's lurking behind. The problem was that nearly all public car parks have a height limit and we just couldn't squeeze her in.

After touring a number of car parks - all with the same height restrictions - we gave up and made for the beach. There, my husband got out his fishing rod, tried his luck with the local sea bass, and asked a fellow angler about the car park problem. Apparently, it's all down to gipsies. Nobody wants them to park up overnight.

This seems mighty unfair - both on the travellers, and on tourists like us, who are simply looking for a place to fill up the chemical toilet and unblock the drain in the nude.

In any event, by the time we presented ourselves at the ferry port to return home, we were seasoned campers, if a little wild in appearance.
I've managed to repair the breakages, blank out the less pleasant memories, and found my way around Vanessa. The dogs have discovered their favourite sleeping spots and so have we, curled up like mice in the cosy bunk.

We have been cheap, green - and John has been able to smoke with impunity.

I think we might do it again.

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© 2008 Associated Newspapers Ltd

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