Free Wheeling: Extolling the Joys of Homes on Wheels
Committed caravan lover Anna Hart reflects on her childhood caravan holidays and predicts a revival of holiday homes on wheels.
17 September, 2021
If there's one thing most avid travellers have in common, it is this: a cherished childhood caravan holiday memory. My first caravan holiday was in my cousin's one at Juniper Hill Holiday Park in Portstewart, Northern Ireland. The fact that my aunt and uncle owned a caravan - a home on wheels! - versus our soggy family tent, made them royalty to me. I loved every inch of it, from the bunks we slept in, to the vast curved beige sofa and secret cubby-holes that stashed windbreakers and boardgames.
To me, caravan life evoked escapism, adventure, freedom and enforced minimalism. Caravan life smelled like barbecues and salty sea air, and tasted like sweets from the tuckshop. Perhaps the primal spirit in me bristled with pride that in our little mobile cave we were fully self-sufficient: we could cook, sleep and entertain ourselves. Everything we needed was contained within these four fibreglass walls.
Every holiday park is a mini community, a pop-up village, and, as children, you make friends fast on a caravan site.
Caravans were comfortable and, to my 12-year-old eyes, positively luxurious, but they were also thrilling. I immediately became hooked on Mortal Kombat in the games room, and spent all my money on 15p Curly Wurlies and Frazzles. One of the boys I met playing minigolf took me fishing and I caught a mackerel, which we cooked over a barbecue that night, even though it didn't pair well with the bangers and mash my aunt dished out. Every holiday park is a mini community, a pop-up village, and, as children, you make friends fast on a caravan site.
This year, I've learned that adults make fast friends on a caravan site, too. Late last summer, during a weekly coffee session where we supported each other through the ups and downs that the Covid crisis had thrown into our career paths, two friends and I hit upon the idea of buying a caravan at our local caravan park and making it fabulous. Emma Jane Palin is an art consultant and interiors stylist; Whinnie Williams is an interior designer with her own company, Poodle and Blonde.
We'd been in a WhatsApp group for ages, sharing pics of mid-century homes in the likes of Palm Springs, LA, Tucson and Germany. Then, one day, I got a text from Emma: "Hey, wanna buy a caravan?" As soon as I read those words, I knew that this was a solid-gold idea.
We wanted to show what could be done with some creativity and craziness and a caravan. We wanted people to know they could have a fabulous holiday in dreamlike surroundings - even if they couldn't fly abroad. We also wanted to inspire travellers to consider holiday parks over
a holiday-home rental industry that - in oversubscribed areas such as Margate in summer - removes properties from the rental market and drives up prices for locals. When we bought our three-bedroom 2010 Willerby Bluebird, it simultaneously felt like the wildest and wisest decision we'd made during the pandemic.
So, our winter lockdown project began, in evenings and weekends, around our full-time jobs, stripping, painting, and lovingly converting our Bluebird into a decadent mid-century design den with echoes of the desert modernism architecture of 1960s Palm Springs. We each designed a bedroom, taking inspiration from the most fun themed hotel on the planet, the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California. Whinnie opted for a pink cowgirl moodboard, with her own Poodle and Blonde wallpaper on the walls and a vast light-rimmed, heart-shaped mirror to reflect the fabness. Emma went for all-out Studio 54 glamour, with a sequinned disco room and a mirrored ceiling. If Emma's room takes people to 1970s New York and Whinnie's takes people to an Arizona ranch, mine throws some kitschy tropical vibes into the mix. Based loosely on Elvis Presley's Jungle Room at Graceland, it's all bamboo and ridiculousness, and I feel transported across the world when I step into it, which is how I want guests to feel. After all, winter 2020/2021 felt pretty low on joy and fun and adventure, and this project kept us all sane.
I felt sure we could be part of a wider and long overdue caravan revival. In recent years there's been a proliferation of independent caravan manufacturers, such as Barefoot Caravans, which hand-builds adorably curvy, space age-esque towable pods, Dub Box, whose unashamedly retro caravans gleam in hues of chocolate brown, orange, mustard and teal, and Rocket Caravans, which sells a range of diminutive aluminium homages to the great American Airstream.
While I couldn't travel last year, I'd happily built up a robust memory bank of inspiration from visiting amazing trailer parks around the globe. In America, where I road-tripped around California, it was clear that caravans had been thoroughly revived: for creatives in cities like LA and San Francisco, a vintage aluminium Airstream is the most coveted of possessions. I made pilgrimages to hipster trailer parks like Hicksville in Joshua Tree, where Lana Del Rey filmed her recent White Dress music video, Kate's Lazy Meadow in upstate New York and Kate's Lazy Desert in Joshua Tree, both owned by the former B-52's singer Kate Pierson and her artist wife, Monica Nation.
Perhaps the coolest trailer park in the world, though, is El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas, which was created by the brilliant hotelier Liz Lambert. Every year it hosts a music festival (the last Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love was headlined by Orville Peck). El Cosmico is an almost utopian vision in this artsy desert enclave, with guests wafting around in a dreamlike state fresh from yoga, or making a beeline for the coffee cart or taco stand.
Back in Britain, however, caravans and caravan parks remained beige, both inside and in the public consciousness. Caravans are an anomaly because in recent years camping has become glamping, mid-range hotels have become boutique hotels and even treehouses and shepherd's huts have been pimped up, some to the point of becoming as aspirational as a night in Claridge's. But Britain actually has a truly glorious caravan heritage, which I researched thoroughly as soon as I became a caravan owner myself.
As long ago as the 1900s, caravan holidays were a go-getting holiday choice for a particular breed of bohemian gent, the so-called "gypsy gentlemen", who would have caravans transported by train to their holiday destination for what was called a "stay-put" holiday. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Riley family's Eccles Caravans cannily marketed the new concept of car-pulled caravans and began making them on a commercial scale. After the Second World War, during the 1950s and 1960s, everything became bigger, better and more design-oriented: caravans began featuring awnings to add space, and bunks as well as fold-out beds.
By the 1970s, static caravans - now affordable to the masses - were being modelled after holiday chalets, with companies like Bluebird, Willerby and Silverline producing models with pointed roofs, oral interiors and mock-teak panelling. In the 1980s, it was all about comfort, with carpeting, upholstered everything and chintzy floral furnishings. Caravan design continued to evolve, but even for caravan-loving travellers like myself, caravan holidays somehow sunk out of our daydreams, supplanted by more glossy offerings abroad like music festivals in Croatia, city breaks in Kraków and detox retreats in Thailand.
Now, the comeback of the caravan feels much like an old rock band suffering a couple of decades of being dismissed as uncool before winding up back on t-shirts and festival line-ups again. Millennials like myself, and younger travellers, are more connected to nature, perhaps, than previous generations, and more mindful of community impact. We also have a sense of adventure and thirst for novelty (and nostalgia) that makes caravans suddenly shine. As a caravan superfan, I'd say caravans have always been cool... but now, in 2021, we're finally ready for them.