Glamping is on the rise in Britain, and it's no longer just a posh tent in a field. Up and down the country, people are repurposing old vehicles into stunning boutique hotels. And now, a most unlikely person is about to join the fray...
Johnny Vegas wants to create a cool campsite. Together with his long-suffering assistant Bev, he sets about buying an old Maltese bus online. It seems a bargain, but all is not as it seems!
Across a new four-part Channel 4 series we follow Johnny, Bev and a gang of vintage vehicle enthusiasts as they attempt to bring new life to a collection of old vehicles as the clock is ticking to get the site open in time. And soon, anything that can go wrong does...
Tell us about the series, where did the idea come from?
Johnny: I used to have a camper van which I used a lot when I was writing my book years ago. I'm a big sucker for Amazing Spaces and all those shows and I'd always intended to replace the camper. I lost my dad and I think you go through that thing of going 'if not now, when?', and then I did what any sensible person would do - I got drunk, went online and bought an old Maltese bus. I didn't look for a bus in the UK, I didn't go that far down the searches.
Bev: That would have been far too easy.
Johnny: I thought 'Malta, that will be easy enough'. I shared it on social media and Plum Pictures got in touch and were like 'are you seriously considering this?' Then we took my mum on holiday to Beaumaris in Wales and we got talking to someone from the National Trust who said they had land they wanted to develop. Things just fit into place, so we went to the pub that night and bought the bus online. It all steamrollered from that to opening a campsite. It has accidentally turned into a business.
Have you always loved vintage buses and other vehicles?
Johnny: I do love vintage stuff, we've got an amazing transport museum here in St Helens. I'm not really a fan of brand-spanking new, I like things with a bit of character and I think what's drawn the other vehicles to the site. I love that we have this theme of rescuing vehicles that would have otherwise gone to scrap. We very nearly did have to scrap her [the Maltese bus, which Johnny has named Patricia].
Johnny, you're not a businessman but this series follows you embarking on a business. How hard has it been?
Johnny: I was so naïve. From transporting her over, to getting her to the yard to not fully realising, because I wasn't doing the work myself, the financial implications of fixing her up. At one point we had a make or break day of do we just scrap her and put it all down to a bad idea. But I've been very lucky, the general feedback from people who have seen the whole series is, 'you've had this crazy idea but you've somehow got people to follow you'. I'm more like a cult leader.
Bev: We changed the plan along the way.
Johnny: We're very lucky we found like-minded people. The search for finding land to put her on was difficult. I'm still not a great businessman, I'm not particularly running the site, I'll just be staying there. It's been a learning curve! Bev is the person who makes all the calls that need to be made.
Bev: The idea was to team up with people, it was originally going to be the National Trust, we'd provide the vehicles, they'd provide the land and they'd do all the bookings so it would have been in association with them. We never had the intention of starting a site from scratch, it was always the plan to find a partner who has something in place already.
There has been a string of disasters in getting the glampsite off the ground, did you ever think about throwing in the towel?
Johnny: It never started with the intention of opening a full-on site, but when we met the woman from the National Trust in Wales it suddenly seemed a viable thing. But there were so many disappointments. At one point I was trying to persuade them to make it a one-off episode where we just ended up with Patricia in the back garden and the whole thing would be a joke about my failed attempts at a glamping site. But we finally found the new land in Yorkshire and then the whole world ground to a halt with covid. I lost my mum, which was difficult. Over four episodes, it's quite the journey. We didn't just buy a bus and fix it up in two weeks.
Bev: It's been two years.
Johnny: It's been two years to see it to fruition. Bev had the nightmare of getting her [the bus] into the country and then it all had to be stripped down to the chassis. I could have bought a chassis online in England. Patricia has basically been built from the ground up to weatherproof her. It's been a genuine learning curve, but there's moments when you have little successes and it starts to pay off.
Getting Patricia, your Maltese bus, into the country was quite the mission, wasn't it?
Johnny: It was. We had three attempts at getting it in the country and on the third attempt, the ferry caught fire.
But Patricia clearly means so much to you...
Johnny: I'm so proud of her, she's one of my greatest achievements. And it's the people we attracted to the project who made it happen, otherwise it would still be the docks in Malta. Everything we stripped off the bus we recycled. I've had a barbecue and bar area built with the seats that have come out of the original Patricia, I've commissioned a sign for the site with the last bit of panelling. I think what the producers liked is how you see the heart and the commitment that has gone into seeing this through.
Bev: Johnny actually makes the shower tiles, he makes the light fittings, so there are elements of Johnny in there as well.
Johnny: There are some very personal touches within Patricia. I just love that we picked up all these people along the way and every vehicle on there hasn't been built to purpose, it's been rescued. We've got an American school bus, we've got Billy the Snail, we've got a German fire truck and trailer and we converted the trailer into a separate children's bedroom. And we've got this bizarre Citroen bus that drives as one but then splits into two, so you've got a decking area on it.
I hope people get the sense from the show that it's a lot of different people's passions coming together and it didn't start out as a commercial venture. But the practicality of it is, she has to start paying her way. Everybody's suffered financial losses and work has been thinner on the ground so it's gone from being to a passion to now she does need to be a going venture. Everyone we show her to says they want to stay in her, so it's probably going to create a nightmare with family and friends!
Will you be staying on the site?
Johnny: I'll be staying there whenever I can. I want to stay on her a lot, she is an over ambitious replacement of my old camper van. I'm going through the diary and blocking time out for when I can be there.
Bev: You're not having peak weeks though!
Johnny: I'll take my family in December then. Actually she's got underfloor heating so we'll be grand. It was always somewhere that was going to be for me to go to. It's a small enough site with five vehicles so there's a sense of community but with plenty of space for folk to keep themselves to themselves. I can't work at home, especially if I've got writing to do, I need to move myself to a different space and I love that area. The toughest thing is leasing her out, there was a conversation at one point about paying ground rent and keeping her for myself, but she's turned out that well I genuinely want to share her with other people so they can get the joys and benefits of her. This is an investment, it's not just a mid-life crisis boy's toy.
Do you have more plans for the site?
Johnny: We've got plans down the line. We'll talk to Yorkshire Water because there's a beautiful reservoir at the bottom of the hill and I want to give some space and time to artists, I'd like to create a sculpture park around the reservoir and give them a short-term residency there.
Bev: We've also converted five horseboxes into individual bathrooms which mean, with Covid protocols, all the vehicles now have their own bathrooms, so we're able to open in early May.
Johnny: The horseboxes are great. This was a massive conversation point, when I had my campervan I never used the shower in there and most people don't because it takes most of your water. But I was browbeaten into putting a shower into Patricia to save people tramping across a field.
There are tributes to your mum and dad within in the glampsite, was that your plan from the outset?
Johnny: I found out my dad had always wanted a campervan. If I'd have known that I would have got him one. I don't think my mum could fully appreciate what we were planning and if she could see it, she'd be overwhelmed by it, especially her namesake bus. Trying to explain what glamping was to her, she couldn't get her head round it, I think she just pictured a mattress in a bus, so it would have been nice for her to see it. She'd have loved it. And I've named the bar after my dad, so they're both represented on site.
There's a lovely buddy road-trip element to the series, how would you describe your friendship?
Johnny: Beverly is one of my best friends, and long-suffering assistant. She basically runs my life. I said it was straightforward, just get the bus on the ferry!
Bev: It turned into a bit of a nightmare, but then it makes the show, I suppose.
Johnny: It's nice being on camera together. I think people pick up on the dynamic, Bev is basically home help. At the end of this, I think people will wonder how I manage to dress myself.
Bev: When people ask me what I do, I say I'm a carer for a man with challenging behaviour. I'm not a celebrity PA.
Johnny: Bev basically runs my life. The series really shows how much work Bev puts into this and how well she absorbs my ideas. She swallows her frustrations and get things done.
Johnny, you say Bev runs your life, but you managed to pull off a massive surprise for her, didn't you?
Johnny: All the best deals are done in pubs. I bought a bus in Doncaster in a pub car park and it was the hardest secret to keep because Bev runs my entire life and we had to smuggle it from Doncaster to the yard, we broke down, we had to smuggle it to St Helens. Normally I ring Bev and ask her to do something, but I couldn't. It turned out I'd accidentally bought one of a kind, an extremely rare 1958 Austin Paralanian. I presented Bev with it and I've never seen her so lost for words. Bev is always amazing but over the last five years, it was tough losing both parents, so I wanted to do a special thank you, because the site wouldn't be possible without her. We hid it in plain sight in St Helens transport museum and sneaked it back to the field.
Bev: I was so lost for words, totally overwhelmed. I had no idea. Apparently, there have been a few occasions where people had slipped up about it, but I didn't twig. Even my family were in on it. They've kept quiet for a year!
Johnny: Here's the irony, Patricia cost a fortune, Bev could sell hers for double what I paid for it tomorrow.
Did you ever envisage, through all the ups and downs, that you'd get to this point of being ready to open a glampsite in a few weeks' time?
Bev: No, never!
Johnny: I quietly suspect that Bev thought I wouldn't even buy a bus and that it was one of those drunken things. There were times I genuinely thought 'should we have got involved?' We'd bitten off more than we could chew. I don't think we would have had that push without it being filmed for TV.
Johnny: It was all a battle until we met Louise and Richard. The day we had to make a decision on whether to scrap her, sites falling through, I didn't think it was going to happen.
Bev: It was disheartening.
Johnny: But Louise and Richard already had experience, they'd already thought of stuff we hadn't. I had no doubt Patricia was going to be incredible wherever she landed, I had full faith, but meeting them it was suddenly going to happen. They had answers to everything.
Bev: We made a promise to each other. After the first lockdown lifted, they'd been severely impacted, Johnny's work had been impacted, it was a make or break for us and we had to have a frank conversation. We said 'you know what, we've got this window now, we can work within Covid protocols', it was just Louise and Richard and me and Johnny and we spurred each other on, I think that did light a fire under us. It was a hectic three months.
Johnny: Because we realised how committed they were, we didn't want to be the circus coming to town and then leave two days later. We're as equally committed.
Johnny, this is quite a departure in terms of what we're used to seeing you do on TV, do you think viewers will be surprised to see this side of you?
Johnny: Hopefully people will see someone who doesn't just go on TV and shout a lot and can see a project through. I do have passions, I'm creative and there are other things I want to do. I think that's coming from a creative background.
And we see you go on a really personal and emotional journey over these four episodes don't we?
Johnny: Getting Patricia was a really positive thing to do after losing my dad, I was just getting over that and this was a positive thing. No one could foresee what was coming, we still had me mum when we started and after losing me mum it was really hard to get motivated. I know that I can be proactive for a couple of days then I want to hide from the world for a week and that's where Bev is really good at knowing how much to push me. On a good day I will promise everything, then others...
Bev: You went from losing your mum into the pandemic and it was a really tough time coming out of it and asking whether we could actually make this site work. It gave us a purpose.
Johnny: There was also an element, with Covid, when we had to question whether it was the right time to be fixing up a bus and whether we should be putting our money into other things. We didn't know if we'd end up living on the bus at the end of the it with Bev going 'this is another fine mess you've got us into'!
What do you want viewers to take away from the series?
Johnny: We never set out to make a TV show, but we've ended up with this amazing way of telling people about the site. And I think the journey getting there and the stories behind the buses sells it as much as how beautiful the site is.
So what's the plan now? Are these first five buses just the start?
Johnny: Hopefully if people like it enough we do a Series 2 where we're doing treehouses as helicopters.
Bev: Oh no we're not!