This summer, the young middle classes will be blocking the roads and lanes of Britain in their thousands, indulging in the latest, and strangest, of Yuppie dreams - caravanning.
Forget the traditional cloth cap and headscarf image. Caravanning is the "new cool" with a small army of 30-something couples fuelling a boom in sales of caravans and motor homes.
More than 21,000 caravans and 4,500 motor homes were sold in 1998, the first rise in 10 years. Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House of Commons, holidays in one while other celebrity caravanners include Laura Davies, the golfer, the Duke of Gloucester and the actors Linda Robson and Christopher Cazenove. Prince Philip is the patron of the Camping and Caravan Club.
Increasingly, caravans do not look like caravans. The younger breed of owners, uncomfortable with the traditional beige and white box shape - and too fond of creature comforts to pick up a VW camper - is creating a market for a new generation of "sporty" off-road models appealing to hikers and windsurfers.
Expected on the market soon is the two-berth Sydney, so called because of its resemblance to the Sydney Opera House. Designed by Ruth Cochrane, an industrial design student at Teesside University, the 15ft long, 10ft high model has hammocks for beds and a shower and kitchen. It will cost about pounds 10,000 - a fraction of the price of a country cottage.
"The idea was to get rid of the stigma attached to caravans which is of a middle-aged couple clogging up the road," said Ms Cochrane. "The normal caravan is such a bad design."
Figures from the Camping and Caravanning Club show that the 31- to 45- year-olds, who make up 26 per cent of all caravan owners, are poised for the first time to overtake the 46- to 55-year-olds as the second largest group of owners, behind the over-60s. This social shift is reflected by a surge in membership of the club, which, with 294,000 members, is growing by 6 per cent a year.
"We're pushing caravans as a link to a freedom lifestyle for the younger age group," said Richard White, marketing chairman of the Tourer Marketing Board, set up by the five leading caravan manufacturers.
The Caravan Club, Europe's premier touring organisation with 750,000 members, says the new generation of moneyed owners appreciates the freedom of caravans. "They are attracted by the freedom to set your own timetable, unlike in a hotel where you are tied to meal times," said the club's Nikki Payne.
But an image problem remains. A study by the English Tourist Board of caravan owners found many felt the external appearance of caravans created a "stuffy" image. "There are more younger people towing caravans than five years ago but the industry still has this slightly fuddy-duddy image," said Mr Craig.
But not for much longer. Not only is the Sydney on its way, attempts are being made to import Airstreams, the large "silver bullet" caravans popular in the US, though under UK regulations they will be restricted to 30mph.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
FITTED CARPETS, CD players, double glazing, shower units, central heating and L-shaped kitchens - the modern caravan has travelled a long way from the first commercial vehicle, the Wanderer, a horse-drawn wooden caravan introduced at the turn of the century and now residing in Bristol Industrial Museum. Since then, some 23,000 different models have been built.
Contrary to public perception, the Caravan Club claims that the average delay caused by being stuck behind a caravan on a single carriageway for five miles is just 0.6mph.
Today, the sleekest model twin-axle caravans are the most popular with the moneyed middle classes. This is partly because strict Department of Transport rules require a car to be heavier than the caravan it pulls, which means vehicles such as the Range Rover Discovery and Renault Espace have to be used.
The largest models include the Eccles Elite, Abbey Spectrum and Swift Conqueror, which can sleep up to six people, including bunk beds for children and a master double berth with en-suite shower. But when it comes to prices, size is not as important as quality. At the cheaper end of the market, around pounds 6,000 will buy a two-berth ABI Sprinter, while a Coachman VIP four-berth costs pounds 13,899. At the top of the range you can splash out pounds 19,990 on a four-berth Buccaneer Schooner.