Caravanning. You either get it, or you don’t. To some, it represents the open road, the opportunity to explore easily and cheaply, the chance to travel the highways and byways of this nation and beyond, while having all the comforts of home to hand. It has all the benefits of camping, without the need to sleep on the floor and cook over an open fire. Frankly, I’ve been on camping trips where I’d rather have cooked on the floor and slept over an open fire. Give me a caravan any day.
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Clearly I’m not alone in this preference. There are two million caravans in the UK – almost all of them going in the same direction as you at 5pm on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend. The Caravan Club has over a million members. This year, for the first time in its 108-year history, it is awarding a Caravanner of the Year prize to those most accomplished in the dark art of caravanning.
Because it would take several lifetimes to watch a series sift through all million members, the Caravan Club has helpfully whittled it down to a final six couples. Two are in traditional caravans, while (is that half-a-million snorts of derision and disgust I hear?) two are in motorhomes, and two are in VW Camper Vans. The six pairs will contest the semi-final, taking part in a series of challenges, before being whittled down to a final three, who will go for the title itself next week.
The action takes place at Ferry Meadows Caravan Club site near Peterborough, under the auspices of Club Chairman and chief judge Grenville Chamberlain. Chamberlain is a marvellously entertaining figure – a caravanning Captain Mainwaring, permanently ready to spring into action with his trusty tape measure and spirit level to ensure things are as symmetrical and horizontal as they should be.
The first task is a race to get the caravan set up, complete with awning. The clock stops when the awning is up, the deckchairs are out, and tea is served. Not for nothing, however, is an awning called ‘divorce in a bag’, and it’s not long before some world class bickering is resounding across Ferry Meadows.
David, the youngest competitor at 42, is particularly harsh on his mother, 81-year-old Gwyneth, who clearly has as much interest in caravanning as she does in breakdancing. Meanwhile, it’s a miracle Keith and Angela are ever able to get started on their awning, bearing in mind the enormous inventory checklist they have brought with them. Keith has also redesigned the manufacturer’s own assembly instructions of the awning to be more efficient, using a new colour-coding system. Keith is like that. I suspect he plugs in to the mains system to recharge at the end of each day.
The levels of bickering don’t improve during the next task – manoeuvring. David looks like he might intentionally run down poor Gwyneth at any moment, while more than one of the contestants breaks down in tears. Come on, stiff upper lip, chaps! This is caravanning, it’s not meant to be fun!
Finally, there’s the caravan beauty pageant, or Concours d’Elegance as it’s bafflingly known. Basically, everyone has to get their caravans looking as immaculate as possible. This is where Grenville really comes into his own as a judge. His eye for detail is remarkable. There’s the white glove test, both inside and out, and every nook and cranny is inspected in the utmost detail. It’s like US Customs after a flight from Colombia. He even notices whether the tins are all facing forwards in the cupboards, whether the underwear drawer has been colour-co-ordinated, and whether the wheel trim is the right way up, for goodness sake!
This is a funny and affectionate celebration of the august institution that is the Caravan Club, and of the occasionally eccentric and marvellously liberating pastime that is caravanning. I loved it (and I really, really want to hire a motorhome for my next holiday… Sorry, is that half-a-million snorts of derision I hear again?)
Caravanner of the Year, Wednesday 20th April, 8pm, BBC Two