Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The joys of caravanning

This is what I like to do. This is a recent shot of my favourite site near Salisbury in Wiltshire, when it was nearly full up. It's on a farm, but as you can see it's well mown, has electricity to plug into, fresh air, peace, and as is often the case, a wide view from its elevated location up on the downs. And since the users are limited to a maximum of five, you can't feel crowded in by your neighbours.

It's a world away from the popular image of caravanning in static caravans in regimented ranks at Porthcawl  and elsewhere. And forget the sort of clapped-out caravans you see mocked on Top Gear: modern caravanning - or motorcaravanning - is strictly for the well-off. An average new caravan will cost at least £15,000, and you can pay over £20,000 for a well-equipped large one. And you need a suitable car to pull it, not necessarily a car like my Fiona (£40,000) but to get the right weight and power let's say at least £20,000. And it's quite usual to see upmarket towcars such as some version of the Range Rover or Discovery (£50,000 to £70,000). New motorcaravans start around £30,000, but realistically you'd be paying a lot more.

These are eye-watering prices. But it isn't camping in tents or in any way roughing it. It's having the comfort and convenience of a luxury apartment on wheels. And being mobile, you can tour, visiting a string of locations, but without constant packing and unpacking. You can follow the sun, or your whims. Advance booking is more necessary than it used to be - this way of seeing the country is getting more popular - but outside the main holiday times you can phone up in the morning, book a pitch somewhere and arrive the same afternoon.

And the payoff, once equipped, is a ludicrously cheap nightly rate. If you can make do without mains electricity, relying on your leisure battery and gas, you can find beautiful places that charge only £5 a night. £10 will get you mains electicity, and possibly some other facilities. Compare this with £30 or more for bed-and-breakfast at a guest house; or at least £70 a night at a half-decent hotel. The £80 I paid recently for two nights B&B in Devon would have paid for over a week's site fees if caravanning.

Did I say that this is strictly for the well-off? Well, that's not strictly true of course! You can still have the essential experience without a huge initial outlay by buying both caravan and towcar secondhand (or thirdhand). It's possible to find a really nice used caravan for under £1,000, and a decent 4x4 to haul it for maybe £3,000. But they will be up to ten years old, and you must know what you're doing. From around 2003, caravan decor and comfort and equipment took a massive leap forward, the builders offering a much more scandinavian and high-tech look and feel to the interiors. Before then - and this is where the cheap used stuff is - you will probably end up with something that offends the eye even if it doesn't offend the pocket. However, all of it can be uprated if you have DIY skills, although some reasons why I'd personally never look at an older caravan include the lack of good insulation, poor bathrooms, unluxurious seating and fittings, and possible water leaks.

I think many people take the same view, and buy new for the same reasons. At any rate, I meet and talk to a great many people who feel just like I do about caravanning. Perhaps we all end up on the same kind of sites! Birds of a feather and all that. Socially we like to wave hello and goodbye, and maybe have the quick word; but we don't intrude on each other's space, and most definitely don't sit around in a circle in shorts, guzzling cheap wine and boring each other to death in the name of bonhomie.

For me, caravanning is about communing with solitude, the wind and the sunset. I don't want to be part of a jolly holiday camp.

I like it when the day comes to a close, and the lights come on, and it's time to put together a nice meal. (Sea bass in this instance)

And eat it as the sun sets, because caravans are all windows.

I'm home now till mid-October, and I will probably set off again in mid-November. But not over Christmas. I want some winter cheer with family and local friends.

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