image problem in the
US (Paula Jones, dumb
rednecks with guns).
Here 200,000 are proud
that an Englishman's
home is his caravan
As John Higgins lovingly tends the flowerbeds outside his Gretna home, there is nothing in his demeanour to suggest he sleeps with his close relations or slips into Klansman's robes for weekend relaxation. Nor, for that matter, does his wife Irene resemble a big-haired waitress who takes in serpents at her local church. Yet if the couple lived in the United States, rather than the Scottish borders, they would be suspected of all these things.
To use American parlance, the Higginses are trailer-trash. Their crime? They live in a mobile home.
Despite its origins among the Dust Bowl migrants of the Great Depression, the trailer park isn't a uniquely American phenomenon. The Castles' home, Cherry Tree Park, overlooking the Solway Firth, is among hundreds of residential sites across the UK providing low-cost housing for some 200,000 people.
Apart from the absence of plastic pink flamingoes cluttering their yards, the British trailer parks are largely identical to their Deep South counterparts. They are found at the end of quiet country lanes or on the outskirts of towns, lurking like outcasts from decent society, and populated by an uneasy mix of permanent home-owners and transients who rent by the week.
"There is a huge difference between the owners and renters," complains Irene, who moved to the park six years ago after selling her old-age residential home in Barrow. "We keep things spick and span and spend money on our homes, but the renters' places are absolutely horrendous. We don't mind them if they're decent people but most are just riff-raff. Drugs and fighting are the worst problems, We've had more drugs raids in the past month than ever before. But the owner doesn't care as long as his rent money keeps coming in."
Of the 40 trailers pitched at Cherry Tree Park, half are rented and half are owned. Wandering around, it's easy to distinguish between the two. The rented trailers, mostly used as DSS accommodation, stand unadorned, as homely as a row of Portaloos. Only a few have hot running water and their unkempt yards are littered with empty gas bottles.
The private properties, by contrast, display all their owners' middle- class pretensions. Some have added garages and conservatories. At Irene's, stone lions stand guard on her gateposts and gnomes jostle for space by a wooden wishing-well.
"We call our part Park Lane and the other part the Gorbals," says Geoffrey Salter, the Higgins's neighbour. "Look at that scrapheap over there. It's a damned disgrace. It devalues my property and there's nothing I can do about it. It would cost me pounds 4,000 to up sticks and move to another park - but what's the point? It would only be out of the frying pan and into the fire."
Geoffrey has been living at Cherry Tree Park for 11 years - and trying to get out for eight. But with the timber-and-plywood structures so cheap to manufacture, there's little re-sale value for second-hand trailers, even Geoffrey's "des res", decked out with a mock-pine facade "to give it the feel of a real Finnish log cabin".
Geoffrey's Nordic motif is just one example of the trailer's chameleon- like qualities. For all the aesthetic deficiencies of its ugly, design- free frame, there is a variety of optional extras to mask its bland uniformity, including bay windows and gables, as well as the standard brick "skirt" to hide its wheels.
At Cheshire's Haydock Park racecourse, the full range of mobile home accessories is on display at the industry's annual northern sales exhibition, where rival manufacturers have turned out in force to unveil their latest products.
With prices starting at just pounds 20,000 for the most basic, two-bedroom model, business is brisk. During the day, a stream of curious punters traipse through 30 "show centre" trailers erected around the site, each bearing optimistic names such as The Devon Cottage (fake beams and leaded uPVC windows) or The Chatsworth ("gold-finish curtain poles, brass TV-aerial point").
"Last year was awful," confides salesman Keith Griffiths, standing outside The Canford, its front door flanked by soaring pillars. "Princess Diana died on the day of the show. It really killed the figures."
As chief sales manager with Wessex Park Homes, Keith's job is difficult enough without the burden of untimely royal deaths. "Trailer park is a phrase we don't mention in this profession," he admonishes. "We prefer to call them residential park-home estates."
Such brazen re-branding appears to be working. Eighty per cent of trailer- dwellers are now retired or semi-retired, drawn to the mobile home as a cut-price alternative to buying a bungalow.
"We're looking to free up some capital by selling our house and buying something much cheaper," explains Roy Deegan from Wakefield, as he inspects The Alpine Lodge with his wife, Bonita. "Being retired, we just want a place with minimal up keep where we can get sonic peace and quiet. We're both very keen birdwatchers."
Once built, the Deegans' trailer will be towed to the park of their choice, hooked up to utilities and charged a weekly ground rent of between pounds 15 and pounds 25, with around pounds 10,000 of the trailer's price passed on to the park owners as a sitting cost. Cherry Tree Park is one of many sites owned and run by gypsies - though Romany plots are increasingly being bought out by specialist management companies, which redevelop them for pensioners by landscaping the grounds and banning children. "The parks used to be a place where disreputable types could lie low," says Keith. "They're gradually changing, but there are still a lot of nomads in the business."
British prejudice may never rival American trash-bashing, where jokes about Jerry Springer red-necks have reached government level ("Drag a dollar bill through a trailer park and there's no telling what you'll come up with," sneered Clinton aide James Carville about Paula Jones). The stigma of the trailer park is all-pervasive.
While the mobile-home population in the US has swollen to more than 18 million, the figure here has remained static for more than a decade, mainly due to restrictive planning policies passed by local councils. Effectively, the trailer's British advance has been stopped in its tracks. "There are a lot of old-fashioned attitudes towards the sector which has limited its growth," laments John Boston of the British Home Parks Association. "Councils won't grant us the same rights as ordinary builders to buy land, because they associate us with the old days."
At Clifton Park, near Luton, the prejudice lingers despite new ownership. "This place used to be a right old knocking-shop by all accounts," says Kenneth Baseley, a 74-year-old living at number 10. "Reputations are hard to get rid of. There's a gypo living at the top end of the field who's always outside fixing his motor. The locals can be a bit sniffy, and unfortunately we all get tarred with the same brush."
At Clifton, gentrification is nearly complete. The few remaining rented trailers have been banished to a remote corner, while every few days brand-new trailers are delivered to furnish the growing takeover by the Saga set. On a sunny day, as the Clifton residents prepare for the park's best-kept garden competition, the scene seems a long way from the truly menacing trailer parks of the Alabama badlands with their barbed-wire barricades. "My children were horrified when I told them I was moving here, but now they've seen the place they love it," chips in Ronald Broom, another retiree, pausing briefly from watering his geraniums. He is as neat and tidy as his house, his white socks as spotless as the carpet. Only his wiry hair makes a desperate bid for untidiness. "It's full of people just like myself," he says.