That old caravan magic...

It gets the Foreign Secretary's vote, but caravanning doesn't appeal to everyone, says James Ruppert

The caravan has never had such a high-profile ambassador as our new Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. An unapologetic caravanner, Beckett can now explain the benefits and joys of tugging around what is little more than a well-appointed garden shed, to the whole world.

Certainly, she is in step with prevailing trends because, according to the European Caravan Federation, last year registrations for caravans and motor homes rose by 1.5 per cent, as sales topped 126,108. So Beckett won't need to spread the word in Europe, which has the three largest caravan markets: in Germany, France and Italy. The strongest growth rate of these three countries was achieved by the French market, with sales rising by 14.5 per cent - 13,000 vehicles - in 2005.

Meanwhile, the German market increased by 4.9 per cent, to 14,195 vehicles, and the Italian market by 1.1 per cent, to approximately 9,800 vehicles. That's a lot of caravans and motor homes, even though there has been a bit of a blip in the UK as registrations actually fell last year. Indeed, what Beckett could get stuck into is lobbying the European parliament about towing regulations, which could cramp our caravanners movement around the Continent.

According to the Caravan Club, in the Third European Driving Licence Directive the wording proposed in the new legislation allows a combined maximum authorised weight of 3.5 tons on a B- category licence. The club is disappointed that the weight limit for motor caravans on a B-category licence under the new directive won't be increased to 4.25 tons. That's because caravans are getting bigger and heavier, especially when combined with towing vehicles that are also piling on the pounds.

The Club also opposes the introduction of an additional test (to obtain a B+E licence) for drivers towing a trailer over 750kg. Obviously, the legislators want to protect us from rogue overloaded caravans, but as the Club points out, UK government statistics indicate that only 0.07 per cent of reported accidents involve caravans. More significantly, motor insurance companies don't increase premiums for cars towing caravans because the industry view is that most towcar drivers are safe and responsible. Certainly, many vehicles are now more able than ever in the towing department.

Every year, the Caravan Club designates its Towcar of the Year, taking over 40 cars to the Millbrook Proving Ground, in Bedfordshire, and subjecting them to high motorway speeds and a testing hill route with hairpin bends and sharp inclines. Indeed, part of the test process is to stop and restart on the hill. Marks are awarded for acceleration, stability, hill-starting, gearbox suitability, traction, handling, brakes and parking brake. In the entry-level £13,500-and-under category, a Kia Cerato 15 CRDi GS was selected because it was stable and had good gears that coped well with different driving conditions.

At the other end of the scale, in the full-sized 4x4 category, the £34,000 Volvo XC70 D5 was judged to be great to drive and hugely practical as it could cope with a full load. The huge ground clearance and four- wheel-drive system also make this is a very versatile towcar.

Slightly more affordable, though, was the £13,500- £16,500 winner, the Citroën C4 VTR 1.6 Hdi (£14,500), which cruised comfortably and had great brakes and suspension that could cope with a variety of towing weights. It would be perfect for Margaret Beckett, who, back in 1997, refused to answer when asked what car she used for towing, on security grounds.

For caravan sceptics such as me, who still prefer their vehicles untethered but are curious to find out more about the whole caravanning experience, there's the Caravan Channel, which describes itself as a broadband TV channel but to me is a website with some buttons to click to watch a video. Even so, it's a clever idea as you can look at new caravans, destinations, caravan parks in both the UK and Europe, and even the National Boat, Caravan & Outdoor Show, held at the Birmingham NEC back in February.

But a computer screen is probably as close as I'm going to get to a caravan these days, after enduring one too many minibreaks at the (admittedly static) family caravan on the south coast in the early 1960s. However, I do appreciate that caravanning has changed utterly since then, with double glazing, satellite TV, fridge freezers and all mod cons, and can certainly see the appeal of the self-styled "friendly" Camping and Caravanning Club, which, for a £33 family membership fee, offers over 4,000 places to camp in this country and across Europe.

As for Margaret Beckett, with her new responsibilities, she probably won't have so much time to tow now, but she could still share her caravanning experience with us, as the Caravan Channel invites anyone with suitable footage to send it in for possible broadcasting on the site. Beckett home movies. What fun.

Caravan sites

The Caravan Channel: www.caravanchannel.co.uk

The Motorhome Information Service: www.motorhomeinfo.co.uk

National Caravan Council: www.nationalcaravan.co.uk

The Motor Caravanners Club: www.motorcaravanners.org.uk

The Caravan Club: www.caravanclub.co.uk

The Camping & Caravanning Club: www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk

The International Caravanning Association: www.icacaravanning.org

The Caravan Registration and Identification Scheme: 01722 411 430

Towsafe: www.towsafe.co.uk

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