Since The Only Way Is Essex featured a ‘glamping’ episode, camping has arguably become as much the preserve of the hen party as it has the boy scout.
This is a brave new world. And one where sleeping out in the Great Yonder no longer means waking up without a freshly-brewed espresso.
The rise of this industry over the last three or four years has been matched by a second trend in al fresco living: the street food truck.
From music festivals to urban high streets these mobile kitchens keep the nation caffeinated and dirty-fingered. That old adage about never being more than 10-feet from a rat in London? It’s now true of food trucks selling pulled pork.
And yet in amongst this new wave of 21st Century caravanning is a company that stands out as much for its discerning aesthetics, as a timeless feel that echoes an era that came before glamping, before Dub Box’s own inception six years ago, and before The Apprentice’s power-dressing airheads hawked it to a TV audience of 10 million.
We went to meet the man who makes campers and food trucks for the world from his rural Herefordshire workshop.
In an age where every blade of grass is mapped out by Google’s all-seeing eye, Woonton exists only through a collection of search results hinting at its presence.
A hamlet belied online only by a series of holiday lettings and a world-famous VW caravan workshop, the blindspot north-east of Leominster is found by an overgrown lane where chickens and dogs and children roam free.
And there’s something about being off the map that makes for a happy fit with a husband-and-wife company currently reimagining that great 20th-Century icon of The Wanderer, the VW Camper.
Matt Clay’s love affair with all things VW began a few moons ago, when as 15-year-old his father gave him £40 to buy his first car. He returned with a Beetle, which he did up and sold for more than four times that.
He bought another, and sold another. His third, he cut the roof off. There is photo of it pinned with pride in the Dub Box workshop. Matt, long-haired and grinning, sits in the driver’s seat.
“My old man went mad when I did that,” Matt laughs. “That’s probably my favourite. I could pretty much do what I wanted to them as long as didn’t make a mess.”
He moved from Beetles to Busses – “the engine and the gearboxes and all that are exactly the same, it was a natural progression” – and has since owned somewhere between 15 and 20, although he has lost count of the exact number.
“To be honest, they’re the only things I’ve ever owned for any time that haven’t lost money.”
When Matt and Becky’s family grew, the proud parents of three little girls wisely deemed their VW bus to be a little too cosy for the summer holidays.
And in this moment the Dub Box was born.
In essence, it is a trailer – a gorgeous, retro trailer – that were you to see it being towed down the A30, it could easily be mistaken for an impeccably-maintained VW Bus.
But in spite of appearances, this is no lump of iconic 1960s sheet metal. The Dub Box is fibreglass – Matt easily drags it across the yard with one hand – made from a mould that he created himself by chopping up two vintage VW ‘splitties’, a ’57 and a ’67 imported from the US.
The real trick however is inside. Liberated from the necessity of little things like an engine and four wheels, the Dub Box is cavernous when compared to its predecessor, with more than double the potential floor space.
This opens up all kinds of possibilities. Whether you need to fit in three small children, or an ice-cream machine and neon pink furnishings, you can do it.
“We’ve had families in their late-30s all the way up to Midge and John, who bought one last year. They’re in their early-80s.
“You can have anything inside, anything outside. It’s too much choice for some people. It can give me a right nosebleed.
“But I always get sent photos. People call it the VW family.
“Everybody relates to these. Everybody’s got a story about a VW camper. It always makes me think of summer – it’s difficult to say what – but it’s such an icon, going right back to the old hippy busses. And it sort of reinvents itself every now and again.
“There has been that retro revolution, and the hipsters, that we’ve noticed. Now it’s a bit of a status symbol. Some of the originals go for ridiculous money.”
VW stopped making the ‘hippy busses’ last year. Up until then Brazil had been the last place manufacturing them, but they no longer stood up to European crash test regulations and so they too halted production.
That decision has made owning an old VW a lucrative business – old splitscreen’s regularly go for £125, 000 – but it was not entirely surprising.
“In my splitscreen I can sit there and with my knee, bang it against the inside casing of a headlight. There are two layers of tin between you and whatever’s coming the other way,” Matt said.
“If you get a big bee hit the front you here a big ‘doiiiing’ all the way through.”
But, as Matt said, this symbol of 20th-century summers, of surfers and stoners and wanderers the world over, has a habit of reinventing itself. And the latest incarnation is the food truck.
Around half the caravans Dub Box now make at Woonton are Tuck Boxes, a modified version that allows you to fit anything from a Mr Whippy machine to a full commercial kitchen inside.
It allows you to park up, pop the top and start feeding the masses wherever and whenever you want.
In America, where a company have since bought a licence to make Dub Boxes, food trucks represent 85 percent of the models coming off the Portland production line.
In fact, it’s not just the USA’s Left Coast where you can find Matt’s handiwork. The international kings of kitsch, a company in Japan have also bought a license and will distribute across Asia. Even at HQ a Dub Box sits on the forecourt waiting for a German low-loader to come and pick it up – half Matt’s models go to the continent and beyond.
“New Zealand, Sweden, Burton-on-Trent,” he says.
“I’m holding it back to be honest. We’ve scaled it how we want it.”
Matt – who originally trained as a blacksmith – makes the Dub Box’s five-piece body, which then gets sent to the paint shop, and when it returns Becky creates bespoke soft-furnishing options for the interior.
Between them, they can produce around one a month.
When I meet Matt and Becky, it’s the school holidays. One of the girls is drumming next door to the workshop as Matt shows me around the each station. On one bench, among tools and VW guides, Matt shows me Dub Box’s first advert in one of the trade mags. It features the family, their story.
“I used to run a company at Shobdon that made everything from posh portaloos to display caravans for exhibitions. I employed 20 people.
“We’ve done this for the lifestyle, not for the kind of money that could buy a lifestyle. If you go away with the kids for a two-week holiday and you spend the first week sleeping because you’re so knackered, you’ve got to think ‘why the hell am I doing this?’”
“Now I’m making stuff, and that’s what I love doing. But the thing is I wouldn’t go chase anything.”
This is more than just a statement of North Herefordshire Zen.
In Dub Box’s relative infancy, BBC’s Dragon’s Den came calling. At Manchester Caravan Show, a rep told Matt to apply and they would fast-track the product straight on to the show.
“Everybody wanted a bit of this right at the start,” Matt said.
“I explained that I was a bit concerned about them judging the product – I know the product, and I love it, but not anyone’s going to buy one so I was concerned that some of the ferocious business people might not be so tuned in.
“We got politely pestered from them. And I just said ‘I’m busy’.”
This is not to say that the Clays are some Caravan Communists. They just know what’s right for their product.
When the Apprentice came knocking with a similar offer, they listened.
“On the Apprentice, we weren’t being judged. We were there as some eye candy on the tele for them to ruin. I wouldn’t trust any of them to get dressed properly themselves.
“There was a couple of nice people but they were just car-crash tele. They had no idea what they were doing, and they were shot down in flames.
“They didn’t sell anything. But you were never in a million years going to sell something like that if you’re wearing a suit and your mobile phone is ringing every five minutes and you’re trying to give someone a £300 discount. They’re not going to buy it because you’ve given them a deal, they are going to buy it because they can see themselves sat by the beach with a bottle of wine.”
If the laughable performance of their tie-pinned Apprentice sales team lost that week’s task, Dub Box emerged from the show a winner.
With his product thrust in to the living rooms of 10m Europeans, Matt sold four the next day. Dub Box was given the primo exhibition spot in the foyer of the World’s Biggest Caravan Show in Dusseldorf, and the rest is history.
“It opened doors. Suddenly you’re in Dusseldorf and you’re thinking ‘I need a bigger shed’.”
Some things, however, don’t change. Matt and Becky still pack up the VW and head for the coast – just now they have their Dub Box and three kids in tow, all riding in relative comfort.
“The little ones are fine as long as they are plugged in for the journey.”