As regular readers may have gathered, I live for my holidays! And although I would, if I could afford it, enjoy all kinds of different holiday experiences, my resources are limited and a lot of possibilities are closed to me.
Even so, I've calculated that in 2014 I will spend almost £2,000 on providing myself with time away from home. That's not a small figure. It would buy two or three quite nice package holidays in Europe. It would buy a decent package holiday in Canada or the USA. It would even buy a cruise in the Mediterranean. But only for a smallish number of days. Let's say that, if the style and destination of the holiday were appealing, with accommodation to match, one would be purchasing 10 to 15 days away at most. And then be stuck at home for the other 350-odd days of the year.
Whereas £2,000 spent in 2014 out on the road in the caravan - the closely-estimated cost is actually £1,925 - taking it from place to place, will give me over two months away, broken down as follows:
# Towing mileage, just over 2,000 miles.
# Nights booked at caravan sites, 64 nights.
# Fuel cost, including the likely runabout mileage while pitched at a site, £1,125.
# Site fees, £800.
The most cost-effective way to do caravanning is to 'tour' - that is, not just to yo-yo from home to a single destination and back again, but to book a series of consecutive destinations, like pearls on a long string, and visit them one by one in the course of a big journey around the country. This minimises towing mileage, the most expensive element in any caravan holiday (because of the fuel cost). In that way, I can keep the combined cost of travel and pitching fees - and the likely cost of daily runabout mileage while I'm pitched at some spot - down to below £30 a day. My forthcoming 17 nights away, with North Devon as the farthest of three destinations, will cost me £475 for fuel and site fees. Which is £28 per night booked. You'll be hard put to get a comfortable room anywhere in the South West for £28 nowadays, and I've included the travel and runabout costs as well. The financial appeal of caravanning is obvious.
But there is however a big snag for anyone who doesn't already own a caravan. They cost a lot of money. A big new one can nowadays cost £20,000. Even something nearly as small as my own little caravan would set you back £14,000. My caravan cost £11,000 when bought new in November 2006, nearly eight years ago. Here it was, shouting 'Buy me!' at M--- and myself at the Sussex dealer that I still go to:
Eight years have not harmed it. There are some signs of wear and tear, of course. It must have covered at least 15,000 miles in that time, criss-crossing the entire length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales. The previous caravan went abroad, down to the Spanish border at one point, but not this one - yet. When I took it into the Sussex Caravan Centre at Ashington (that's the dealer) for its annual service the other day, it was looking pretty good. This was the scene on arrival - mine's the one in the sun:
They know me very well, and they know this caravan very well. When I came to pick it up, and Brian the Service Manager had finished with me, Martin - who handled Sales - had a word. He'd clearly been looking my caravan over with an eye to taking it off my hands in part-exchange for something newer.
He made the point that small and handy caravans like mine weren't now much made. They needed a non-standard chassis. They cost the manufacturer much the same to build as a larger model. Space considerations meant that it was difficult to design interiors that were not just iterations of one or two classic layouts. So, from year to year, significant upgrades to refresh the look were very hard to contrive. You couldn't charge £1,000 more, just for having nicer fabrics, a better fridge, and swish low-energy LED lighting. Profit margins were slim. In short, manufacturers throttled back on small-caravan production, which had a knock-on effect on the market. People wanted them, but couldn't get them.
There were many people around like me, usually couples without children of course, who wanted something compact - and easy to store once home. So much so, that a nice-condition two-berth caravan like mine was hot property on the secondhand market. If I were thinking of trading it in at any time during the next couple of years, Martin would be very keen to do a deal.
I knew he wasn't kidding. I'd looked at secondhand caravans whenever I happened to visit a dealer for something, and I'd noticed that used prices were holding up very well. But particularly for two-berth caravans, which seemed to be expensive for their size. Caravanning had boomed in the UK in recent years. Depreciation on used models was low.
My £11,000 caravan, nearly eight years old and well looked-after, was probably still worth several thousand pounds. I'd expect to get at least £3,000 in part-exchange. Once my State Pension began, I knew that I could accumulate £5,000 or more by the end of 2016. That put me in line for an £8,000 replacement caravan, if I wanted one. I decided to mention this to Martin. He would take me seriously if he understood that I'd already looked at the figures, and had a fresh source of income in the pipeline.
A series of caravans would come Martin's way as customers upgraded to a new model. Most of these traded-in caravans would be larger than I'd want. But, he said, how would it be if he gave me a ring, if a used caravan that would suit me did come in? I said that would be fine, provided he bore in mind that I'd have to get some cash together first, and that this deal might not be possible until late 2015 at the earliest. I'm sure he didn't mind hearing that. Lack of money in the bank did not preclude a deal. He'd have a tempting a finance package lined up to overcome any cash shortfall, on the basis that if I had the income for savings, then I could instead use it to service a loan. And if the caravan he wanted to sell me was stunning, and the trade-in irresistible...well, simple human nature might clinch the deal!
It was interesting, though, to learn that my present caravan was so much in demand, and still worth a bit. When I got home, I went online to see what (for instance) my bank would charge me for a personal loan. £6,000 repayable over 48 months would mean monthly repayments of £145. Hmmm. That £6,000 plus a £3,000 trade-in would put me into three-year-old used caravan territory - and some very nice caravans indeed!
Whether I really wanted to pay £145 to a bank for four years, instead of saving the money for other important things, was a separate question. It might make perfect sense, with caravanning holidays such a big thing in my life. On the other hand, it might be more sensible to hold on, until more had been put by.
And there was something else.
It was an emotional thing. It came on as I was putting things back into the caravan at home, as I do after any service. Not so much the utilitarian stuff like electric cables. It was the more homely items, the pots and pans, and in particular the soft fabrics that transformed the interior into a comfortable place to be, a little home on wheels:
The last item to go in, pending a full load-up for my holiday, was the caravan guard dog, Fang. Fang, a cuddly toy collie, was actually bought in a Salisbury shop called Lawleys Gifts in December 2009, and has faithfully guarded the caravan ever since. Some other caravanners (presumably with poor eyesight or limited experience of life) have told me that from outside the caravan, Fang looks like a real dog. Rather as Pinocchio looks like a real boy, one supposes. But if true, he must be an effective deterrent to any gang of International Thieves who might otherwise consider trying their luck. I am quite fond of him. Here we are, posing for a shot soon after the last of the cushions went back in:
Ah, my caravan seemed so nice and inviting! I pondered on all that had been done and said and thought within this little space over the last eight years. Happy things; and some very sad things. Some dreadfully awful words had been said to me while M--- shared the caravan outings with me - not at first, only when she realised that I was transitioning for real. But I also recalled many later, very contented moments, when pitched in a peaceful spot, when the sun streamed in through the windows, and life seemed not just bearable but positively sweet.
Tears came to my eyes. Could I possibly ever part with this cherished little world?
And yet, you know, nothing is forever. I will have to move on to a newer model at some point, just to maintain the quality experience I presently enjoy so much. The next caravan will be (of course) slightly bigger, but it will be better-equipped, better-insulated, better-lit, with more storage space and a nicer bathroom. And after a while I know that I will love it the same, and personalise it just as I have this one.
What in the end matters? The things you do. Caravanning is a form of doing. It's a way of seeing the wider world beyond your front door, finding new friends, and seeing beautiful paces. It stops you getting stale, because the 'road goes ever on and on', doesn't it? Who knows what may happen. That's the core appeal: the prospect of finding something life-changing. Something that can't come your way if stuck at home.