Travel: Caravans: the new cool

Howard Byrom and his deeply ironic friends escaped b&b hell to create their own suburban retro chic in Cornwall

It was not difficult to work out why the English countryside was so horrible. It was the coal-effect gas fires. And the plastic flowers in the hanging baskets. And the air freshener and the floral duvet covers. It wasn't the English countryside but it was the pretentious b&bs that made me want to, well, commit suicide.

That was why I decided to go away in a caravan this year. At least caravans didn't issue compulsory life-threatening breakfasts. Yes, they were cheap. But they had style. Badly fitted cupboards and lino floors. It was a down- to-earth, functional style that my parents might have thought of as old- fashioned, but which I knew to be deeply ironic.

We were not typical caravan people, then (we were safe from that). We booked our holiday in a static caravan park in Cornwall in order to live it up on the money we were saving. And after loading our cars with expensive clarets, olives, Roquefort cheese and chilled lobsters we embarked on the long haul to Cornwall for a week of kitchen-sink camping. We would enjoy the spectacular North Cornish coast on our own terms, and not as the paying guest/slave of a matronly blow-in from Aldershot.

Situated within earshot of the surf at Polzeath beach, Lundynant could not have been more serene. Rare (I'm sure of it) breeds of domestic fowl roamed between the pitches and the rich fragrant hedgerows. Our profoundly unpretentious beige and brown 30ft aluminium stronghold was tucked away in a verdant fold, shaded by lofty pines and a thick carpet of lush daisy- flecked grass under foot. I hardly noticed that it was surrounded by identikit caravans in all directions.

Our caravan, "Saturn", placed neatly besides "Venus", reminded me that Cornwall was having a freakishly astronomical summer. But "Margaret's Den" on the other side reassured me that an Englishwoman's caravan, even in 1999, could still be her castle.

All right, the lace curtains, taupe colour scheme and wall- to-wall comfy couchettes would probably have given subscribers to Wallpaper magazine a coronary. But we were free. There were no prized collections of glass miniatures to worry about accidentally trashing. This was our very own two-bedroom, kitchen-cum-living-room, colour TV piece of suburbia, which we quickly rechristened Chislehurst. With two couples sharing, the place was intimate, but compared to cramped city apartments it was a veritable Manderlay.

We spent the next few days roaming the dramatic coastal path with all the fervour of Enid Blyton characters on a tartrazine rush. It was a case of cramming it all in before the good weather broke, as it surely must on a peninsula that bears the thrust of prevailing Atlantic south-westerlies.

Our caravan did not condemn us to slobbery. We put our faith in Karrimor and ventured forth: from the gentle dunes of Daymer Bay to the precipitous harbour of Port Isaac. Somewhere in between, we even found the Rumps, a twin-peaked outcrop cutting a buxom swathe into the ocean before plummeting dramatically from a height of 70 metres. Once the location of an Iron Age fort, it is now the most conducive place in Britain for putting the roses back into pasty, city-jaded cheeks.

But apart from pasty packed-lunches, most evening meals were eaten back at base camp. To demonstrate that living in a caravan had not deprived us of either class or taste, we intended to dine at TV chef Rick Stein's seafood restaurant, a ferry ride across the Camel estuary, in Padstow. Except that, having called a mere three weeks in advance, we could not get a table.

But what of that? We had the know-how, our caravan had the facilities, and nearby Port Isaac had the raw materials. There was no obligation to eat frozen fish fingers and processed peas just because our front door was made of aluminium. Stein's culinary theory was put into practice in the comfort of our own mobile home, and the results were a revelation. Each night we sat down to succulent scallops, perfectly flaky cod, exquisitely roasted sea bass, and whole steamed turbot, safe in the knowledge that they had been swimming around just hours before, and not a stone's throw away from where we were sat.

We gleefully toasted our trailer-trash lifestyle and our pledge that what we had saved on accommodation was to be put to better use subsidising the finer things in life. The fantastic perversity of consuming fresh lobster in a caravan and washing it down with a couple of bottles of chilled Perrier Jouet never, ever, lost its effect.

Amazingly, last year 16 per cent of all holiday expenditure in Britain was spent on caravan holidays - that's pounds 1.4bn. I was not alone in feeling that caravans and mobile homes had a future. Nikki Payne of the Caravan Club told me that the shoots of a trend are already in place. "Caravanning is becoming a cool leisure pursuit," she explained. "Especially in Cornwall. It's not just old people. Lots more young people are hitching up, packing their surfboards and wetsuits and heading for the beach."

And in these post-modern times, why not? Look at the facts: they ooze 1970s cut-price chic, they are cosy, they are dry, they are cheap. And you can enjoy the delights of the English countryside without risk to your sense of irony.

CARAVANNING

GETTING THERE

Howard Byrom and friends stayed at Lundynant Caravan and Camping Site, Polzeath, Cornwall (tel: 01208 862268). Prices start from pounds 120 per week, including gas and electricity. The beds have duvets, but bring your own sheets, towels - and all your favourite kitchen appliances.

Car Hire can be arranged by Holiday Autos (tel: 0870 400 4422).

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