How to escape cities and 'take your home with you'

James Ruppert explores why caravans and motor-homes have become so popular among British holidaymakers

Monday 10 October 2011 10:32

"It's a love of the outdoors," said Samantha Hill at The Camping and Caravanning Club, as she explained the existence of caravans and caravanners. At last count, membership of this club was up 10 per cent to 400,000 and they have 4,000 caravan parks to choose from.

"It's a love of the outdoors," said Samantha Hill at The Camping and Caravanning Club, as she explained the existence of caravans and caravanners. At last count, membership of this club was up 10 per cent to 400,000 and they have 4,000 caravan parks to choose from.

There is no escaping caravans, especially when there are 500,000 parked in suburban gardens. There are more than 110,000 motor homes and 335,000 static caravans. And the impressive numbers continue to grow. More nights are spent in caravans than in hotel rooms during holidays in the UK; 30,000 caravans were sold last year, making it a £3 billion industry.

Caravans are an easy target, not least because they are big, slow and rectangular. But I'm not going to take any cheap shots because I accept that some people like to holiday this way. All the committed caravanners I've ever spoken with emphasise how strong their community spirit is. According to Nikki Nichol of the Caravan Club: "Caravanners are a very sociable bunch. Life-long friendships are made through caravan holidays, and of course it's much easier to meet up with people for a weekend".

Unfortunately, what causes the most trouble is the "taking your house with you" element of caravanning, to use Ms Hill's words. That isn't getting away from it all in my eyes, and caravans also seem to get in everybody's way, especially during the summer months. Short of a legally enforced caravan curfew banning them from roads during daylight hours, the best that caravanners can do is improve their driving skills.

Skill is needed to drive a caravan safely and The Camping and Caravanning Club offers manoeuvring courses that cost £75 for members and £104 for non-members. Pass the course and you will be exempted from part of the advanced driving test. Then again, you could do as the Premiership footballer Nicky Butt has done and get yourself a static caravan. Technically still caravans, they can be luxurious and change hands for up to £500,000, depending on location. But they are not as mobile as the touring caravans, unless you have a flatbed lorry. The appeal of having your second home right behind you gets my attention.

"It's just a matter of whether you want to hitch up your bottom or not," Ruth de Mierre said with a laugh at the Motorhome Information Service, as I tried to discover if there was any antagonism between caravanners and motor home users. "Not at all, it is personal preference," Ms de Mierre said. "But I like the idea that on a Friday night you simply get in and turn the key, whereas you need to plan ahead a lot more with a caravan. The biggest appeal is that it is now part of a lifestyle. Just look at the car park at motor sport events, windsurfers and watersporters all have them." Ms de Mierre has noticed a big change in the users of motor homes. "It's no longer simply for holidays and the average age has dropped from the recently retired down to the 30s. In the 1960s, camper vans were the in thing for the young and we now see people escaping the cities so that they can go to festivals, concerts and all sorts of events.

"Probably the biggest growth area is amongst the 40-year-olds who never had a gap year and now need a break in their career. What better way to go off and enjoy yourself but in a camper van." She's not wrong and the motor home statistics speak for themselves. In the past year there has been a 25 per cent increase in registrations. If that were new-car registrations it would be front-page news, but it is easy to understand the attraction. "Going to the airport is a nightmare now and even after checking in early for a flight it will probably be delayed. And by that time you could be in France enjoying yourself," Ms de Mierre said.

Alan Freeman, the sales manager of Barrons, one of the UK's largest retailers of motor homes, said: "New models range from £24,000 to £62,000, but you can get a good second-hand example in the £15,000 to £16,000 range. We rarely have anything below £10,000." Mr Freeman is quick to justify the prices. "You have to look long-term view because you are paying the equivalent of a second-hand Porsche or several cruises in one go," he said. "Five years later though, you are enjoying minimal-cost holidays and breaks."

Mr Freeman is right; the residual values hold more firmly than cars and compared with even a decade ago, the specifications are incredible with showers, televisions and fully-fitted kitchens. Caravans are also becoming better equipped and it is easy to avoid buying a bad caravan because the National Caravan Council, which represents the industry, has a certification scheme so that you know yours was built to the highest European standards.

Caravans are a rare manufacturing success story, with 28,000 being built in the UK last year. It is too easy to buy a dangerous and scruffy used caravan out of the free ads for a few hundred pounds. Unlike motor homes, no MOT is required. Ideally, buy from a true enthusiast who may be trading up or a well-established dealer. At least it is possible to check that the caravan or motor home you are considering is not stolen, still on finance or an insurance write-off. HPI operates the Caravan Registration and Identification Scheme (Cris) for touring caravans and the Minder scheme for motor homes.

What many first-time buyers get wrong is not matching their caravans to their cars. The caravan should be at most 85 per cent of the car's weight. There are also suspension issues and the size of engine to consider. Diesels offer better economy and pulling power, while any petrol engine below 2.0 litres will struggle. If you are buying a static holiday home then check the view, because it will cost to have it moved and there are pitch fees.

If you have never stayed in a caravan before, you can visit a static one at hundreds of sites in the country. You can hire a motor home and take it almost anywhere you want. Hire companies can sort out all the details. The one thing you won't be when you decide to go caravanning or out in a motor home is alone. There are millions of others who are in it together and will help and support each other. They'll be glad to have you as another member.

Motorhome Information Service

National caravan Council

The Caravan Club

Motor Caravanners Club

Camping & Caravanning Club

International Caravanning Association

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