Camper vans have always been cool. But it’s fair to say they’re having a bit of a moment, fuelled by Instagram’s booming #vanlife and the pandemic putting closer-to-home travel more on the map. Then there’s the sense of adventure van-tripping evokes, the allure of the open road.
“It’s a massive appeal,” agrees TV’s Jimmy Doherty. “I had no idea how big it all was. I’m aware of camper vans; I’ve got friends with vans and I live in Suffolk and see a lot of them.
But I had no idea there’s this whole world of people doing up random vehicles into camper vans. I was at a farm in Scotland speaking to a barn manager, and she was telling me how she no longer has horses, but she’s got an old horsebox she’s doing up.”
It’s stories like this that Doherty explores in his latest TV series – Jimmy Doherty’s Dream Builds On Wheels – alongside his friend and engineer, Jimmy de Ville.
It sees the pair set off on their own road trip, exploring the UK’s landscapes and meeting various characters who’ve done up vans.
“Some of the vehicles out there are phenomenal. Army trucks, old ambulances, four by fours…
There was one van that had a fairy house on the back, like ‘Gandalf’s getaway’, and an old army ambulance that was like a posh London gentleman’s club, all mahogany, and red leather… wow!”
For some van folk, the project is a big part of the appeal – something Doherty, whose other series include Food Unwrapped and Jimmy And Jamie’s Friday Night Feast, as well as a string of shows revolving around life on his Suffolk farm and wildlife park, can relate to.
“It’s the planning, it’s the learning of new skills, it’s the execution of those skills and making something that is going to change your life or bring you more joy.”
But there’s more to it than that, especially right now. “I think a lot of it’s come out of Covid and people wanting to just to change their life, thinking: ‘Do you know what, I’m bored of this, I feel restricted and we can’t go on holiday, so a camper van is the answer, this is what we’re going to do’,” adds Doherty, 46, who has four children with wife Michaela Furney.
He’s glad the series gives a good glimpse of the broad cross-section of the individuals, couples and families embracing van life, whether it’s a whole lifestyle or just weekend jaunts.
Did the van fans he met all share something in common though? “It’s hard to say,” Doherty reflects. “I mean, the idea of getting away, escaping for whatever reason…
The vehicles are there for different reasons but all of them bring joy and excitement and adventure. I think that’s what they had in common.”
Known for his conservation work and passion for farming and sustainability, wellbeing and adventure are threads that weave through Doherty’s life.
Having their own access to a van ignited something for his whole family, he says. “Even when our vehicle is parked up in the shed, the kids are in it all the time, even just to sit in it, or drive to a friend’s house, or going out to the coast to have a night away is lovely.
Even the idea of knowing you’ve got it parked there is good for the soul. There’s always that escape hatch.”
He recalls a special moment filming in the Yorkshire Dales. “I put a little platter of Wensleydale cheese, local meats, bits and bobs, we watched the break of the clouds as a storm finished and the sun came out, and we were in a spot no one else could really get to. It was just wonderful.”
How does he find those ‘escapes’ when he can’t hit the road? “I’m quite lucky in terms of the farm, so I can wander around and look at the animals.
There’s a great therapeutic effect animals can have, and ever since I was a kid – I always used to keep tropical fish – I’ve found that really relaxing.
“One thing I love to do, and it’s a very simple thing, early in the morning I get up, have a cup of tea or whatever, and if the weather’s alright, I go over to the pond and feed the fish.
Sitting there with a cup of tea, watching the fish and listening to the moorhens calling – and it’s just an hour, or half an hour or just 10 minutes – just collecting your thoughts to steady yourself before the rest of the day, really helps.”
He’s “always been obsessed with the natural world and going outdoors” and says trying to connect with the natural rhythms of nature is a personal priority.
“We’ve removed ourselves from the rhythm of nature, but as soon as we get back to that, we feel happier,” Doherty reflects. “We are constantly rushing around, constantly on our phone, rushing from one coffee shop to another, one meeting to another, whatever it is, must get this, must get that, constantly rushing and we format our lives around timetables.
The idea of just taking the dog for a walk and losing yourself for a while has a massive effect… Or watching a stream or watching the tide. It’s obvious in a way because we all are part of the natural world, being connected with it has a massive effect.”
Like everyone though, Doherty is no stranger to the ever-rolling challenge of work-life balance.
“I suppose my work-life balance, it’s all the same thing, because [if you] you get your joy while you’re at work – I think the difficult thing is the children and having the time to spend all together and do stuff that’s creating memories.”
They recently had a weekend in Brighton, a “magical time” exploring the beach and the pier. And who knows, more van trips might be in the mix…
“I think winter is quite a fun time, because that’s when it’s all about little stoves, keeping warm,” says Doherty. “So possibly winter trips could be on the cards, you never know.”
Jimmy Doherty’s Dream Builds On Wheels is currently showing on Quest and available to stream on discovery+