Mark Andrews: Wet holidays, van-tastic memories
It was only a fleeting glimpse. One minute it was in front of me, a few moments later a silver-grey dot in the rear-view mirror. But my mind was whirring like a food processor. What were they thinking about?
Bowling down the M6 to a classic car show in Lincolnshire, I had just overtaken a vehicle combination of the like I had never seen before. You see all sorts on the way to these events – usually other old crocks like mine – but this was different. Little and Large, this was the strangest thing I had ever seen: a thundering great motorhome, the size of a small bungalow, towing a tiny Smart car behind it.
I know it pays to prepare for your holidays, but that does seem to be taking things a little far. Camera? Check. Sun cream? Check. Small city runabout? Oh yes, nearly forgot, now where's my sunglasses?
More to the point, why would anybody who had already chosen to buy a motorhome, also want to take their car with them as well? Surely the whole point of buying a such a vehicle – and the term ‘campervan’ really did not do this one justice – is that it is a car and caravan all in one. You can just get in and drive it, without the hassle of having to hitch a dirty great trailer behind you.
No doubt there would have been some good reason. Maybe it’s a couple who don’t actually like one another very much, and want to spend as little time together as possible. So each morning one of them goes to Mablethorpe in the car, the other to Skegness in the van. Trouble is, if they hate one another that much, they would probably argue over who has which vehicle.
But then again, if you’re going to look at these things logically, it is pretty hard to justify caravanning in the first place.
It is certainly not an economic choice. Why would anybody spend upwards of 25-grand on a something they will only use for a few weeks each year? Then there are the site fees, the petrol costs, the Calor-gas cylinders and all the must-haves that any self-respecting 'vanner will demand. And, being 21st century Britain, I suppose you’ve got to have the Chelsea Tractor to pull it as well. For a fraction of this cost you can enjoy regular holidays in five-star luxury.
And then, of course, there are the limitations on where you can go. Unless you have a masochistic streak, not to mention a spare fortnight to spend towing your tourer halfway across the world, a bit of winter sunshine in the Canaries or the Caribbean is out of the question.
Still, I’m hardly in a position to lecture anybody about logic. I drove past the motorhome-and-car combo in a 43-year-old car that does 10mpg on a good day, takes up two spaces in the car park, and costs me about the same as a secondhand Smart car every time it needs a service. And then there’s the range anxiety (caused by the aforementioned thirst for fuel) which means any journey of significant length inevitably results in a few white knuckles. But who cares? I’m in the middle of an extended mid-life crisis, and it’s a lot more comfortable than a Harley Davidson.
As for caravanning, while I’m not quite ready to head down to Don Amott’s for the latest Eccles Voyager, I do understand the appeal.
Maybe it’s the childhood memories of bombing down the M5 to Devon, Dorset and Wales in the big blue family Rover with the Monza 1400S trailing in its wake. I can’t remember the ‘S’ was for, but it would have been something important. Keeping one step ahead of the Jones’s, having the best-equipped caravan and the smartest garden furniture seemed to pretty central to caravan-park culture back then.
What I do remember, though, was the sense of freedom, the feeling of liberation for a 12-year-old of not having to watch my ‘Ps and Qs’ in hotel restaurants, and being able to take my dog with me. The freedom to explore the campsite, ambling down to the site shop to peruse the range of fire extinguishers, camping stoves and extendable door mirrors, or sniggering at the middle-aged medallion men titivating themselves in the washrooms. And watching On The Buses on a portable black-and-white television every time it rained. Which it usually did.
Ultimately, though, it was the Great British summer which brought to an end my family’s brief flirtation with caravanning. It was in Weymouth, towards the end of August, when a hurricane swept the south of England, and the limitations of sleeping in a small aluminium box were laid bare. A heavy gust inflated the awning like a balloon, lifting the caravan off its retractable legs, and rocking it from side-to-side like a see-saw.
And that was that, it was too much for us fair-weather caravanners, and it was back to sensible holidays, minus the labrador, the next year.
Caravanning, like classic car ownership, is not for the feint-hearted. It requires commitment, willpower, and a stubborn determination not to run with the herd. But the world would be a much duller place without people who want to plough their own furrow.
So if you do plan to spend this weekend sleeping in a field, if you’re getting ready to hitch up your tourer – or link up your Smart car to your Winnebago – I really hope you have a wonderful time and that the sun shines on you. As long as I’m not stuck behind you on the motorway.