The 'Off' in caravanning parlance is the moment when, after hitching your caravan to the car, and a last check around the house, you start up the engine and tow the caravan off your drive, and then out onto the open road. It's always a wonderful moment: a surge of freedom, the sure knowledge that in two or three hours you will be pitched in the open air Somewhere Else. Hopefully enjoying the afternoon's sunshine, with a fine sunset to follow. But in any case, whatever the weather, a nice cup of tea and something tasty out of the oven. Ah, perfect! And all for £10 per night.
During the last week my caravan has had its annual service and a thorough spring clean. Did you know that caravans need a service? It's not compulsory, but it's worth it for safety's sake - there are electrical, gas, water and sound systems to check, as well as brakes and tyres and other mechanical bits. And besides, ordinary wear and tear means that there are often things to adjust or mend that need a professional hand. A loose bit of trim, a sticking bathroom door, a spotlight with a stiff switch, things like that.
As for the spring clean, my poor caravan didn't get comprehensive attention last year, because I simply wasn't capable of it after the op. I did manage to sweep it out, and wield a damp cloth here and there: that was all. This year, a proper deep clean. The roof and all exterior surfaces done with the right materials, very carefully - five hours' work all told. Inside, a complete vacuum everywhere; then a wash. Even the paper lining on the base of the drawers and cupboards has been renewed. The little plastic boxes that hold salt and pepper and cooking oil and herbs and gravy granules and anything else that might shift around and spill if not contained, have all been washed and dried and put back. I hate any hint of mess and muckiness.
The fridge and cooker look fine, but of course I'll deep clean them too, and the bathroom needs a special job, even though it seems as spotless and hygienic as my bathroom at home. And this year I'll finally shorten those irritatingly long cables on the free-standing lamps from IKEA. I always overlook that job, which has been nagging at me for years, but not this time.
And it's good to see the fabrics back in place too, all aired out. The side seats that double as single beds to luxuriate in (or one vast double bed, if you so wish). The cushions. The fitted carpet.
It's all pleasant on the eye and very comfortable. About ten years ago caravan manufacturers finally twigged that purchasers do not want loud, tasteless fabric designs and dreadful twee light fittings. They want muted colours and a clean, Scandinavian look. Subtle lighting to create the right mood. And spotlights you can read by. And as many windows and skylights as possible, to let in air and sunshine, with blinds and flyscreens naturally. Plus (in the larger caravans) a separate bedroom with a permanent double bed, realistic wardrobe space, and a bathroom to die for. So new caravans have gradually left the past behind and embraced all the trappings of stylish modernity, with swish body shells and interior fittings that might easily put one's own home to shame.
I bought my little caravan at the very end of 2006 (it was the '2007' model) and it has a luxury feel that was absent from its predecessor. But it's not up to the amazing standard of this year's models. However, it'll be many a year before I can afford to trade in and upgrade. So looking after what I have is a top priority, and, I admit, something of a labour of love. It is, after all, an extension of my home. Just as Fiona is. And all three have to look good, and work properly, and be very, very, nice places to inhabit.
I've already booked twelve nights away, in two locations, and I set off soon. It'll be my usual spot in Wiltshire first, then a week down near Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. Sea, fine countryside, shops, pubs, fossil-hunting on the Jurassic Coast. I can't wait!
Here are two shots of what the setup can be like on the farm sites I usually go to. The first shot was taken in 2003 (in my J--- days) at Ansty, in Wiltshire, and shows the previous caravan and the previous car:
The second shot was taken in 2011 at Coombe Bissett, also in Wiltsire. It's my favourite site in the area, and the picture shows my current caravan next to Fiona:
Wiltshire has some really good sites. M--- and I used to go to a place at Pitton. The owner, a former farmer, bred racehorses and retained his own jockey. One year I had the chance to photograph the jockey 'trying out' a horse:
You don't get informal photo opportunities like this at some hotel at Llandudno, now do you?
One thing I will say against caravanning is that it can be physically demanding. Turning the caravan around on my drive at home, or nudging it into position by hand on site is getting beyond my girly muscles. The caravan, when laden, weighs over a ton, and I can't shift it on soft grass. So I'm relying on Fiona to pull and push it into position more and more, which isn't easy if you've ever struggled to get a trailer to go where you want when reversing. A caravan-mover will be the eventual answer. This is an electric device, operated with a remote control, that moves the wheels and allows you to edge the caravan precisely into position. But it will cost me £1,000 to fit one.
And there is something of a gender issue too. Most caravanners do it as a couple. And (guess what) they fall into roles! So you see the man doing the driving. The man sets the caravan up on site. The man sees to the outside chores, such as fetching water or filling the water barrel, tipping away the waste water, and emptying the toilet cassette. Meanwhile the woman busies herself indoors, just as it is at home, making the tea, cooking the meals, dusting and polishing and cleaning and wiping. At least this is true of the older generation of caravanners, of which I must be one.
And so I get surprised looks as I drive along (What, a woman towing a caravan on her own? Good God!), and surprised looks as I set up and do all the man's work. (Where's your husband, my dear? Is he ill?) Sometimes I am offered gallant assistance from chaps who leap forward to assist, or offer well-intentioned advice. Well, they can't know that I've been doing this for eleven years, and may have learned a thing or two! I meekly listen and accept their help - usually. Why not? If men want to be men, why not?
I suppose everyone else decides that I'm a mildly odd but brave girl who copes marvellously. I'm not alone. Widows who lost their husbands when still young enough to be active write in to the caravan club magazines and say how they've discovered that you can go caravanning alone - although it's usually to add that they've met their second husband (a widower) that way. It's nice to hear of outcomes like that. Mind you, I haven't found myself beseiged by older men looking for love and companionship, even though it's absolutely usual to drop into friendly but casual conversation at some point. If you seem to be pleasant, you'll rarely be ignored.
In fact I'd say that, if you really want it, caravanning is a much more sociable activity than staying at the average hotel. Caravanners love to talk about the places they go to, the places they've found to eat out at, and to show you their gear. And while many caravanners slop around in any old tatty clothes, some do the whole thing in style. It's actually a big kick to emerge from one's caravan glammed up for a posh restaurant, or an evening at the opera. Long dresses and farm gates don't usually mix! But that onboard wardrobe means you can bring all your best stuff along, doll yourself up properly, and be the butterfly. And how good it feels.