Caravans: a British Love Affair – Review

by Lynn Connolly

caravan old
Last night’s ‘Caravans: a British Love Affair’ on BBC4 was an absolute joy to watch. Now, this is not something that I care to admit often, but I just love caravanning. I don’t choose to admit it openly because those who love caravans are oft maligned and assumed to be anorak wearers and the sort of people who have those knitted Spanish dolly covers for their loo rolls – but I just love caravans… always have.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of holidays in caravans and the smell as you step into a caravan can transport me back to the days where the interiors always seemed to be upholstered in orange and all the furniture was faux teak and lino ran throughout…

Apropos of the smell of a caravan, if anyone knows just exactly what it is about the manufacture of the things that without exception gives off that smell, please do let me know!

The toilet, if you were lucky enough to have one in your van, was just about big enough for a skinny seven year old to use comfortably. Anyone taller, wider or just larger generally would have to clutch their knees to their chest just to shut the door… ah, happy times indeed!

In fact, I was quite surprised that little mention was made of caravan loos except by one lifelong caravanner who seemed to yearn for the times I’ve just described instead of the apparently odious convenient conveniences of flush toilets in modern day vans.

This joyous televisual romp into the history of the caravan described the evolution of the nation’s once favourite holiday accommodation; from the very earliest wooden models to modern day caravans which are often better equipped than most people’s homes; with full bathrooms, bedrooms you can move in without hitting your head or knees and kitchens you can turn around in, they’re a far cry from the models that Sam Alper, “The Henry Ford of caravans” as he was known, made available to your average family in the fifties.

Prior to his making the famous Sprite caravan an affordable holiday on wheels, caravans were the domain of the rich only but by halving the cost of the vans offered by his competitors, suddenly anyone with a car and a young family yearned for their own caravan and the freedom that it brought.

Dorrie Van Lachterop

Some fabulous home-movie footage of the fifties Sprites brought the simple joy of caravan ownership into context and a lady who featured in the documentary, Dorrie van Lachterop, bravely drove her car avec Sprite through Paris and still had the piccys to prove it. She talked about her first caravan with the same reverential tone that one might talk about a religious epiphany.

“I’ve seen things and done things that I’d never have done if I hadn’t had a caravan” she said. Me too Dorrie but we’d best not open that can of worms…

It wasn’t all jolly-what-ho memories though and we heard about the decline of the caravan that came just as quickly as the rise of it had. At one time, you could literally park up your caravan anywhere but, not unreasonably, this became problematic and restrictions on simply plonking it half on half off a pavement meant that a little bit of the much touted ‘freedom’ of caravanning was taken away.

Then along came package holidays and the increasingly popular holiday camps of the sixties such as Butlins, and although static caravan sites were – and still are – popular holiday choices, the production of caravans slowly declined, leading eventually to Alper’s company going bust.

However, apparently caravan ownership is seeing something of a resurgence in popularity and the documentary reported that around 70,000 people visited the annual Caravan Show last year.

Nonetheless, the best parts of this film for me were the recollections of those for whom the caravan was never more precious than when it first became the key ingredient in adventures all across Britain and – for those brave enough – Europe too. Misty eyed elderly ladies recalling their younger days made me misty eyed over mine too and made me want to go out and find a caravan that I could walk into and sniff…

That sounds alarmingly like a fetish, and I suppose if olfactory sensations that prompt joyous memories are a fetish then I’d have to include myself in that group…

All in all, this was a joy to watch and the fact that the story of the caravan was told primarily by those who love them made it that bit more special.

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Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.