Full ahead ... at 25mph

Joe and Margaret Davies's ancient, lovingly restored caravan has become a stately show-stopper.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was the ultimate ignominy for a retired superintendent who had once headed one of Britain's largest police traffic departments. To be stopped for violating European speed restrictions was bad enough, but that the offence should be one of driving too slowly ...

It happened to Joe Davies while he was travelling along a motorway near Rotterdam at a sedate 25 miles per hour. Local traffic police recorded his speed at 13 mph below the legal minimum for the road, and waved him down to ask why he could not go any faster. The answer was obvious. A vintage, seven-ton fairground lorry is not fast - particularly when it is towing another four tons of authentic fairground caravan which is only just short of its 70th birthday.

At the time, Joe and his wife, Margaret, were making one of their rare visits to the Continent, in the course of seasonal journeyings they have undertaken over more than a decade. Every summer, they take to the road to live the lifestyle of between-the-wars showpeople, as they travel 3,000 miles throughout Wales, the Midlands and the West Country to exhibit their exquisitely restored living wagon at country shows, steam rallies, carnivals and village fetes.

It all started after Joe's retirement from the West Midlands Police after nearly 40 years' service. Because Margaret could never persuade him to go on holiday, she began searching for other ways of coaxing him from their Wolverhampton bungalow for more than a day at a time.

She discovered the answer at the Royal Bath and West Show, where she became friendly with the owners of a showman's caravan and thought how pleasant it would be if she and Joe could have one, and travel round the summer shows.

They found what they wanted on a smallholding near Yeovil. It was rotten throughout, and the roof was bowing, but the decorative cut glass and mirrors, which were the interior hallmark of the finest showmen's wagons, were miraculously intact. The history of the van, which was built at a Bristol boatyard in 1929 during a shipbuilding slump, was also available, and this was to be important during restoration.

Joe spent two years replacing the rotten woodwork and having the mirrors resilvered. He then traced one of the few surviving showmen decorators, who restored the caravan to mint condition after consulting the son of the original owner, who had been born and brought up in it.

There is no doubting that Joe and Margaret's equipage is a real head- turner, particularly since they have added to it a two-ton fairground organ which is towed behind the living wagon. At every show they attend, there is a steady queue of people who await their turn to peer over the half-door of the 17ft-long wagon at the living-area, with its coal-fired cooking range and original paraffin lamps; the partitioned bedroom; and the shining cut glass.

"I was lucky enough to be entertained to a cup of tea in a genuine showman's wagon when I was a young constable in the Forties, but the average person has never seen the interior of one, and that is why we hit on the idea of exhibiting ours at shows," says Joe.

"People are fascinated by it. We were completely inundated with visitors at Rhyl recently, and it caused quite a stir at another show last week when it was so cold that we lit the fire. Folk love to see the smoke going up the chimney."

The couple never charge sightseers, and accept only expenses from show organisers. Joe also has another unpaid sideline. He always takes with him a Thirties constable's uniform and police bicycle, which he uses when he is invited to lead parades of vintage tractors and other old vehicles.

The travelling Davieses cause even greater bemusement when they make overnight stops at caravan sites while journeying between shows. The Caravan Club owners of Swallow Tourers and Volvo Estates do tend to notice when 13 tons of vintage fairground road train pull on to the field, and the interest that follows their initial shock usually results in an impromptu viewing of the wagon.

"I like to do something a bit different," says Margaret, "and, because I got tired of being at home all the time, this was one method of getting us away. It was actually me who bought the fairground organ. I got it as a present for Joe's 70th birthday because it was so difficult to think of something new for a man who already had everything he wanted.

"We meet a lot of interesting people as we travel round the shows. Some of them originally came from fairground families, and they come to talk to us about how they spent their childhood living in wagons like ours."

The wagon does, however, have a couple of secrets. Margaret cooks on a modern portable gas stove rather than the range; the paraffin lamps have been converted to generator-fed electricity; and the original fold- away children's sleeping ledge is used as a kitchen. The lifestyle may be authentic, but it's not too rigorously so.

Joe and Margaret Davies can be seen with their wagon today at the Newport Show, Shropshire; tomorrow at the Royal Mail Open Day at the Walsall Arboretum, West Midlands and on 25-27 July at the steam rally at Welland, near Malvern, Worcestershire.