the lure of the open road

Tow To Tow

31st July 2015

Heather Harris talks to those who like to holiday tow to tow

‘Caravanning helps children perform better at school.’

That’s all it took. One headline and I was heading for the brochures faster than you could say, ‘chemical toilet’.

In my defence, this reaction took place during that pre-exam time when, frankly, if someone had suggested feeding worms to my GCSE and A-Level offspring and suspending them upside down, I would have gladly done it. In the world of A stars we are all driven to desperate measures – and, believe me, caravanning is high up there in the desperation stakes.

I did try it once, and am still mentally – and physically –scarred, having burnt myself on the ‘easy to operate’ hob while trying to dry my clothes during our week long holiday in Skegness (Lincolnshire’s answer to Newquay, but without the palm trees, surfing and sunshine). Cramped into a small white tin with net curtains, five of us bickered and sobbed our way through seven days of virgin caravanning.

But times have really changed. According to the National Caravan Council (NCC), ‘The industry is now generating around £6 billion a year and has never been more popular – with around half a million people in the UK owning tourers, 205,000 owning motorhomes and 300,000 with caravan holiday homes.”

For the uninitiated, those for whom a caravan is just a caravan – the first type is the one you see being towed behind a car (and usually stuck nose to tail on the A30); the second is more of a massive campervan (think Yellowstone National Park) and the third is static, often with a picket fence, decking area and underused barbecue.

Laurian Clemence of Google UK said in May this year, “According to our search trends, we see that globally, Britain does more searches for caravanning, camping and caravanning clubs than any country in the world.”

Faced with these positive statistics and the news that ‘Four our of five parents believed that holidaying in the great outdoors had a positive effect on their children’s success at school,’ according to a study by Plymouth University into camping and caravanning – I was forced to give this great British pastime a second look.

The first obvious step was to speak to the holidaymakers themselves – if I could catch them at home. Kathy Rance, single mother of 17-year-old twins, was keen to extol its therapeutic virtues. “When my husband died and I was left with two young children, I needed somewhere to escape. I tried a caravan holiday and was hooked. Ten years later, I am on my second static van and my teenagers and I spend every spare weekend at our Dorset site.”

The benefits are countless, and, as Kathy points out, harmonious. “It forces us to do more things together as a family rather than sitting in separate rooms on different devices.”

Few can argue that anything that gets children away from screens must be a good thing. So my advice would always be to check first to make sure the caravan site has no WiFi.

According to one site owner I spoke to, after an initial period of cold turkey where children are seen standing on their tip toes on the top of the nearby cliff to try and get a signal, it’s amazing how quickly they settle down to swap microchips for fish and chips – freshly caught by their own fair hands that day.

As president of the Camping and Caravanning Club, TV presenter Julia Bradbury agrees. “It’s a brilliant way of getting kids out in the fresh air, away from the TV and computers – developing their brains and teaching them to interact with each other and the countryside in different ways.”
There is also the cost issue. During the days of double – or was it triple? – dip recession, the term ‘staycation’ became the new buzzword (together with various unprintable expletives about bankers). More and more Britons chose to ‘stay’ at home for their holidays and the trend has continued.

According to wonderfully named Pitchup.com, in 2013 £2.43bn was spent on UK caravan holidays and more than 71 million bed nights were dozed away in caravans, tents and motorhomes. The average length of trip was 4.5 nights and average spend per trip was £159 per person.

Sales of caravans also increased. And that’s more good news for the economy, as 95 per cent of those in use in the UK are made here, generating employment for 130,000 people.

Paul Mauerhoff, from the NCC, explained that, “Touring caravans cost on average between £8,000 and £10,000 second hand, but new are upwards of £15,000 and even more for the real top of the range!”

For this much I’d expect an indoor Jacuzzi and cinema – and I’m not far off. “Nowadays caravans are light years away from your Skegness experience. They have all the mod cons from central heating to ensuite bathrooms, SKY TV – and the fully equipped kitchens are better than mine at home.”

The latest futuristic model is the snappily named Knaus Tabbert Caravisio prototype. Costing £500,000 (and that doesn’t include a Ferrari to tow it), it is based on a luxury yacht design and is 9m (29.5ft) long and 2.5m (8.2ft) wide.

It also uses all the latest technology, including fingerprint recognition entry system (tricky when stumbling home late with a handful of chips), a specialised wine cooler, a smart glass screen which allows the TV to be projected outside and a rear wall which can be turned into a giant cinema. Its bullet shaped front means it’s more aerodynamic, should you manage to avoid the holiday jams. But it still can’t guarantee sunshine – surely the requirement of any successful campsite trip.

“There’s nothing better than playing board games with the children while listening to the rain outside. It’s far more fun that being stuck in a hotel room,” Louise Thomas told me, adding that she, her husband and two young children have towed their caravan all over the UK, “including to Longleat where we were right next door to the sea lion enclosure!”

Caravanning is in her blood. She remembers her parents taking her for a trip to London and parking their caravan on a site just outside the capital and travelling in to see all the tourist attractions. “I always felt safe on caravan sites and wanted this same sense of freedom for my own children.”

This fact could explain the change in demographics of the caravan enthusiast. A copy of Caravan Times would previously only be seen in retirement homes; now this publication is attracting a far younger readership.

“Three of us are taking our young children away on a caravan holiday this summer as it offers far more flexibility but without the hassle of camping. There’s a shop and restaurant on site so we can choose whether to cook or not,” said Mary Joyce, after admitting that her family usually go abroad but got tired of the stress of today’s airports.

Cheryl Taylor agrees. She and her husband have been towing their ‘home from home’ all over the country since 1993 and as their boys have grown they’ve upgraded their vans. “You get on site, put down the caravan legs, put the kettle on and instantly relax. It’s hard to explain why this feels so good!”

Some celebrities have already cottoned on. The Rooneys recently holidayed in a caravan in North Wales, Jamie Oliver famously enjoys motor-caravanning and singer Lily Allen has a suitably retro motorhome for her and her toddlers during festival season. At Glastonbury, Wimbledon and Ascot sites are booked up by caravanners well in advance, as visitors avoid costly hotels and mud!

Clearly with such endorsements my previous misgivings have to be parked once and for all – on the hard shoulder. I might even give Skegness another go – all I need to do is save up half a million pounds. When it comes to caravanning I am definitely a Caravision kind of girl.

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