Turning into the tiny village of Blanefield, you may wonder where a campsite might fit. But head up an old farm road, and you’ll see the West Highland Way Campsite come into view. Directly on the footpath of the West Highland Way, in an idyllic country setting, sits Ardoch House – situated on the Edmonstone family estate.
You can tell straight away that this is not like other campsites, although you can’t quite put your finger on why. There is a freeness about the place: people of different nationalities are gathered around tables, chatting; dogs are playing with children between the tents; visitors are coming and going from the main house, helping themselves to tea and coffee. It feels more like a community than a traditional campsite.
And that’s precisely what Dru Edmonstone, the man behind the campsite, is aiming for. When I arrive, he is sitting chatting with some visitors, and introduces them as some of his van life guests. There is, he explains, a diverse community of van lifers here.
On the Appalachian Trail
Importantly, these van lifers are staying here for free. It’s all part of Dru’s Trail Angel ethos – a concept ‘borrowed’ from his experience in the US:
“I went to university in Atlanta, Georgia 1990, and lived in Marietta, which is at the start of the Appalachian Way. That’s where I first heard of the Trail Angel camps. People walking the Appalachian Way could stay at campsites with simple wooden lodges and basic facilities.
Whilst most would pay for their stay, those walking for charity could stop over for free. However, anyone who had fallen on hard times was also welcome at the camp, often helping out around the site or tidying rubbish from the trail. In 1993 the world was in a very deep recession, with many left jobless and homeless, and this camp was a safe haven for those who needed it most.”
Upon returning to the UK, the experience stayed with Dru.
“I worked in banking and specialised in financing small to mid-sized gold mines worldwide. On one occasion, I was sent to Northern California to meet a business owner running a gold mine. He also had a Trail Angel camp on the Pacific Trail, and on visiting it, I couldn’t believe how busy it was; there was a sea of motorhomes and campervans, Harley-Davidsons, Mustangs – every type of vehicle you could imagine. The Pacific Crest Trail is an arduous journey which spans 2650 miles from Southern California through to the Canadian Border, and this camp was a well-known place for those on the trail to stop and rest. But it was also a welcome place for van lifers to stay for free.”
Building a Community of Van Lifers
As a man of business, Dru was intrigued about what inspired a successful gold mine owner to provide for van lifers. (Name) told him that he earned as much from mining the hills as he did from those on the trail. Most, he explained, were making the journey in pickup trucks with roof tents and paying for their stay. And this enabled him to provide refuge for those who were struggling.
“It was philanthropy and good business at its best”, explains Dru; “- and it’s needed here, now. This is a difficult time for many here in the UK. People are losing their homes because of the banking crisis and are forced to make choices that they may not otherwise have made. However, Covid has also created a huge shift in our values, leading to an unprecedented upsurge in those choosing the freedom of van life over the often stifling reality of the ‘suburban dream’.
As a result, the van life community is incredibly diverse. We have remote workers from tech professionals and online counsellors to gardeners and labourers who come here, as well as musicians, artists and writers. And the basic human need for connection creates a wonderfully warm environment for those who stay, guests and van lifers, alike.”
Trail Angel on the West Highland Way
So what inspired Dru to follow in the same vein and create the West Highland Way Campsite community?
“I had struggles in life, despite being ‘born lucky’, and my private life is an open book. Having seen the vibrant communities in these Trail Angel camps, and the good it does, I finally realised what I wanted to do. And so I created this place from nothing. It took about 4 years to get planning consent, but the dream has always been to create the UK’s first Vanlife retreat.
“Those who pay to stay here as hotel or camping guests, afford us the privilege of allowing van lifers to stay for free. Whether chosen freely, or forced into van life through a life event, a bereavement or job loss – it’s not so easy in the UK. We offer a haven of nature for van lifers to recuperate and to enjoy a real sense of community.”
A Van Life Retreat for All
Looking ahead, Dru is certain that the Trail Angel concept will continue to flourish, but there is still a lot of work to do:
“We have bell tents, camping pitches and EHU pitches for motorhomes – as well as our hotel, so we are always working to expand and improve what we offer – both to guests and van lifers. There have been some bumps along the way, as this is a fairly new concept over here, so it’s understandable. We are, after all, the UK’s first-ever van life retreat, surrounded by nature – and yet just 20 mins from a major city!”
Just then, a young man beside me – a self-employed van life gardener, gets up, and promptly returns with cups of tea for us from the open dining room.
The sense of community spirit is tangible here, and the vibrant mix of guests creates it; Dru Edmonstone is definitely onto something…