The words ‘caravan holiday’ are synonymous with persistent rain, unappealing upholstery and mild claustrophobia. With an image about as stylish as socks and sandals, as a holiday experience it is not perhaps as easy a sell to your nearest and dearest as a long weekend in an elegant European capital. But to overlook the caravan holiday is a great mistake, because beneath the stuffy suburban veneer, the ultimate loafers mini break is waiting to be discovered.
Everybody knows someone who knows someone who owns a caravan. They are just keeping quiet about it.
The first stage is to establish your degree of separation from an available caravan by making mild-mannered enquiries, and then apply gentle pressure until it is offered to you for the weekend for free. Friends of parents are a likely source of caravans. Time to reconnect with your mum’s friend Joyce who has a caravan perched on the Filey coast (quite nice actually), in north Wales (less nice), or on the Norfolk coast (jackpot). Avoid offers of static caravans. Even when in beautiful locations they are generally arranged in rows that create the appearance and convivial atmosphere of a national service training camp.
The preparations required for a caravan holiday are minimal. Most important is that if you are going to holiday in Britain you must mentally prepare yourself for the weather to be terrible, so when it turns out any less terrible you’ll be rather pleased. Managing expectations is important caravan holiday groundwork, but in the days following your announcement of the caravan holiday to those that you are taking with you, expectations are probably so low that from this point onwards you can’t go far wrong. A corkscrew is the most important item you need to pack, followed by at least one pan. Beyond that you can shamelessly borrow kitchen equipment from your fellow caravaners once you arrive at your destination. These more professional caravaners will be amply equipped with tin openers and such like and will be touchingly agreeable to loaning them out for an hour.
If the caravan is in location already, on what is known as a seasonal pitch, then so much the better. Otherwise, you are going to have to tow it. A great deal of fuss is made about towing, but it’s a piece of cake as long as you are confident that you definitely attached the caravan properly, otherwise it’s torture driving along the M1 wondering if it is going to unhitch itself at any moment. On the motorway you are compelled to drive at 60mph, and with overtaking anything other than a horse and cart pretty much out of the question, you can relax into life in the slow lane. The last time we did this kind of driving this my husband played an audio book about mindfulness to pass the time. I would not recommend this. I became incredibly drowsy while simultaneously towing a tonne of caravan and trying to mindfully visualise the creases on the surface of a raisin. A dangerous combination.
Once you arrive at the caravan site, there will be a brief flurry of activity. Don’t be alarmed, this soon subsides, allowing a full weekend of idling to unfold before you. You plug the electrics in, fill up something called an Aquaroll which will supply your water, and do unmentionable things with the blue fluid that goes into the toilet cassette. The blue fluid is the alarming looking chemical that sits in the toilet waste cassette and does the sinister task of dissolving things. ‘Light use’ of the caravan toilet is an intention that everyone sets out with. You will crack within 24 hours. The occasional genteel pee will soon give way more robust use. Shortly, you will find yourself googling whether it’s best to open the hatch to the toilet waste tank before or after the event. Those who favour afterwards can get involved with the ‘petal technique’ which involves arranging toilet paper in the bowl in such a way that it makes a neat parcel when you open the waste hatch. This way, the contents leave no trace on the bowl, but descend into the blue water with a decisive splash that your partner, making a cup of tea thirty centimetres away on the other side of a piece of lightweight partition board, can definitely hear. There is no intimacy like caravan intimacy. Best to accept it, move on, and make sure you have an adequate supply of blue fluid. Try to think of this element as evocative of festival-going, but hopefully not of festival toilets. Setting up your temporary home is the most challenging part of the caravanning holiday, and the time that the risk of mutiny from the person you made come with you is at its greatest. These kinds of activity are to most people’s minds what caravanning is all about, a kind of mental and physical endurance that allows you to drag 41 litres of water across a muddy field in horizontal rain but still tell yourself that you are on holiday. At this point the words caravan and holiday seemed laughably mismatched.
This is the moment at which the drinks cabinet should be deployed.
Daytime drinking is not only completely acceptable on a caravan site, from glancing around you at your co-campers, you might start to wonder if it is compulsory. If you feel inhibited about opening a bottle of wine before 1pm, then enliven a pot of coffee or a cup of tea with a bracing nip of whisky. I personally favour Cinnamon Fireball Whisky (‘tastes like heaven, burns like hell’), and actually I consider a bottle of this stuff to be more of a caravaning essential than toilet roll. I find that it helps to get everyone relaxed into the caravan mindset by getting them fairly inebriated as early in the day as possible. Covertly medicating those of an age to drink is acceptable in this situation, as some people are mulishly resistant to drinking between breakfast and lunch. Relaxed in mind and body, the afternoon will pass in a pleasant haze, giving you time to sober up to the point where you are able to safely light the touch paper on a disposable barbeque.
While you can cook inside a caravan, to have the full outdoor experience you really should be grilling things. If there’s two of you, I suggest slinging a couple of good pieces of steak on the barbeque, and embracing black and blue. The more ambitious might want to do things like wrap fish in foil or rub Harissa paste into chicken thighs. For pudding, halve some stone fruit, drizzle with olive oil and throw them cut side down onto the grill. Rescue before inedibly charred. On the days that it rains, and it will rain, your options are to cook under an awning, if you have one, with the wind and rain cooling your dinner as fast as your little gas stove or barbeque can heat it, or transfer operations inside. For those who live in major cities, the amount of worksurface that a caravan kitchen offers may not be that disconcerting, but for those couples with Belfast sinks and island units, it is important to accept (ideally before cooking and arguments begin) that only one person at a time can be present in the cooking area. The other person can assist by flinging open the windows as the caravan quickly fills with fumes, steam or smoke, depending on your culinary style, and trying to create enough space so that the cook can rest the wooden spoon from time to time.
With dinner done there’s ample time to open (another) bottle of wine, and hopefully install yourself on a reclining chair in good time and in a good position to see what everyone else is up to. It is vital to allow a couple of hours for Man Watching from your chair. To prepare, you might want a copy of the 1978 classic Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behaviour at hand so you can work out the relationship dynamics. Some dynamics will not require explanation, as there is nothing like husband and wife working together to reverse a caravan onto a pitch to expose the cracks in a relationship. Take the opportunity to engage all passers-by in conversation, as caravan and camping sites are teeming with pleasingly eccentric people who are all in the mood to chat. In the space of one weekend at a campsite in Ireland I met a couple sharing their caravan with four huskies, listened to music from an accordion, the bagpipes and a harp, watched a mini towing a mini caravan, found the glass recycling full of champagne bottles, chatted with a New Zealander at the washing machine, borrowed a tin opener from Americans, and tested my limited language and considerable miming skills on baffled Swiss, Dutch, French, Germans and Austrians.
Sitting drink in hand, preferably outside in a good spot for monitoring the general activity, is the perfect time to chew over your plans for the coming weekend and for generally ruminating on the superiority of this easy-paced style of life. I find that I can no longer lower myself into a chair outside my caravan without saying, to no one in particular, this is the life. Even cooler evenings have their own charm, giving the opportunity to recreate the childhood feeling of hiding in a tiny nook. The cosiness that comes from a good book and a warm duvet is heightened if there is a good howling wind outside. Yorkshire and Ireland are ideal for this. Additional glow is achieved by contemplating the people in the camping area of your site who are spending the night in a tent.
As the day comes to an end, you can consider yourself properly on a caravan holiday and able to dispense unwanted advice to others about the use of jack pads and wheel wedges. However, a note of caution. If you find yourself considering buying a pair of crocs for the convenience of slipping on an off as you to and fro from the caravan, then you are getting too involved with a culture that you don’t fully understand. Beware, or you might end up doing things like primly coiling the electricity cable that leads from the mains electric to your caravan and placing a pot plant in front of it, or travelling with a small portable whirligig to dry your washing on. These totems of prim domesticity indicate that you are in too deep and are in danger of allowing the mundanities of regular life and their associated tasks to take hold. But as long as you are installed on your recliner gently pickling in alcohol from 11am onwards while continually flicking dry roasted peanuts into your mouth then you can be assured that you are getting the balance just right.
The success of the caravan holiday is due in part from being devoid of the pressure to extract every ounce of value that accompanies the more costly and conventional two weeks in the sun. With minimal expectations from all concerned, the smallest ray of sunshine triggers the immediate materialisation of ice creams and the energetic quaffing of questionable fizzy wine. All that’s left to do is decide how to tell people that you now holiday in the manner of a pensioner.
Caravans, A Buyers Guide
The budget option
Got pets or children? Avoid the misery of watching your caravan’s resale value tumble by buying one that has already depreciated to the point where you don’t care what happens to it. Your main requirements are that it’s water tight, and not stolen. A phone call to CRis (the Central Registration and Identification Scheme for caravans) allows you to use the serial number to check the name of the owner, if it’s reported stolen, is still being paid off on the never-never, or if it’s a write off. Prices start from 6 grand for a caravan from the current century.
Bugger the Budget
Get yourself to Tebay where the UK distributer for Airstream is based and blow 90 grand on a hulking silver beast that lets everyone know you are so serious about life on the open road that you have the two bathrooms on board and remote controlled LED lights to prove it. Yeah, you had to buy a new car so that you had the towing capacity, and you just worked out you need a new driving licence too, but you are living the American dream, or is that the dealer’s dream.
You have calibrated yourself the price of a new caravan (about 40 grand) but can’t see yourself on holiday in a beige plastic capsule? Bespoke is the way to go. Richard and Lynn of The English Caravan Company will hand build the caravan of your dreams. Still hankering after the Airstream shape, then Peter at Retro Rocket in Stourport has the answer. These guys built my caravan. They do metal riveting and aluminium to perfection.
Laura Gray is an art historian and flâneuse based in Yorkshire or India, depending on the season. As well as enjoying a semi-nomadic life with her husband, she is the world expert on the influence of sculpture on contemporary British ceramics. Her record length of stay in a caravan is nine months.