Tuesday, 24 March 2009

In Love with Caravans

Matt Kerry, who has recently submitted his PhD on The Holiday, Britishness and British Film, reflects on some of the highlights of BBC 4's Motoring season which has been televised over the past few weeks.

In Penelope Keith and The Fast Lady, Keith reconstructed Dorothy Levitt’s pioneering 1905 solo journey from London to Liverpool in a vintage Dion-Bouton car. In Touring Britain – The Classic Motorist’s Way historian David Heathcote followed the 1930s' editions of the Shell Guides to Dorset and Cornwall, and contrasted the ways in which a ban on non-residents’ cars from entering Polperro has both preserved the small fishing village, yet simultaneously constructed the port as a holiday-retreat full of second homes which sadly lie empty for half the year.

Of particular interest (to myself), however, was Caravans: A British Love Affair which focused on the boom in caravanning holidays in the postwar era. Caravans offered a rather romantic alternative to the mass holiday camp and seaside holidays which were also popular at the time. As Professor John Walton of Leeds Metropolitan University pointed out in the programme, ‘the caravan really pioneers this idea of the individual family carrying its house on its back, and carrying its possessions with it’.

During the interwar years the British caravan holiday was mainly the preserve of the upper-middle classes, with timber-framed models which were expensive and relatively immobile. Sam Alper changed all this when he launched the first mass-produced and affordable caravan, The Sprite in 1948 which sold for approximately £200. It would appear from the programme that Alper was an entrepreneur second only to Billy Butlin, and publicised the durability of The Sprite by taking it on a 10,000 mile motoring tour of the Mediterranean in 1952. (Incidentally, Alper’s company Caravans International supplied the caravans for Carry On Behind (1975)).

The documentary foregrounded the caravan as a space where women could take control of the family holiday. Interviewee Christine Fagg, for instance, bought her first caravan because she wanted her children to be free from the restrictions of set meal times imposed by Bed and Breakfast landladies. She had also lost patience with her husbands ‘maniacal’ fascination for sailing and exclaimed: ‘There are more ways to women’s lib than burning your bra! My escape from the kitchen sink lay in the open road, towing a caravan behind the family car.’

Something for us to think about before we book our time away in August….

1 comment:

  1. There's a whole cultural scene surrounding camper vans as well, with an aura of obsessive devotion to the upkeep and restoration of older models. This seems particularly intense in the world of the VW van (I've got a 28 yr old VW T25 Devon Moonraker conversion, in case you were wondering...). Picking up on the gender theme Matt raises above, and risking a provoking stereotype or two, I'd say that the van world seems to split along some fairly trad lines, with men spending their weekends lying underneath or under the bonnets, and women fitting out the insides...