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Caravan capers: good or bad for country life?

Friday 15 September 2006

As the number of caravans on our roads reaches the one million mark, our countryside commentator John Sheard painfully confesses that he owns one - a static - but reveals why he sometimes loses his rag with the towing types

OK. The truth is out. I am, and have been, a caravan owner for the past 18 years and feel half ashamed to admit it. But it is a static caravan, used more or less as my fishing lodge, because like many folk who make their living driving around the Yorkshire Dales, towed caravans - or, more accurately, their owners - often drive me to the point of distraction.

I started my camping career, like many of my generation, as a boy scout and loved it from my very first day - even though on that Easter morning, we woke to find our canvas under six inches of snow! We had real winters in those days, of course.

Caravans: Curse or bonus?
Photo: Caravan Club

As impecunious newly-weds, my wife and I bought a second hand frame tent which leaked more rain than it fended off. When kiddies arrived, we graduated to a trailer tent and then, with a bit more cash in hand, a second-hand motor caravan.

When that had to go, clapped out as it was after some ten years, we briefly considered buying a tourer - but then rejected the idea out of hand. Reason: in those days, I drove some 30,000 miles a year - which meant I spent days, perhaps even weeks, stuck in tailbacks behind towed caravans, often travelling in convoys in total contempt of the motorists fuming behind them.

We couldn't afford a second home near where I fish in Cumbria (who can?) without selling up the family home and I was already writing in national newspapers about the damage being done to country life by rich offcumdens snatching up rural cottages. So our first static caravan, hidden away from view by high trees, was our compromise. And we are now on our second.

I recount this because, earlier this week, the Caravan Club announced that in August, it had recruited more members than in any previous month in its history, taking its total membership to almost one million, a figure it expects to exceed next year.

It also came out with some mind-bending statistics: caravanning now accounts for 17% of all holidays taken in Britain, which makes the hobby into a billion-pound-plus industry. And the good thing about that, for country folk, is that a huge proportion of that is spent in the countryside.

Six years ago, I wouldn't have written this, because caravans on Dales roads are undoubtedly a damn nuisance. But then came foot and mouth and the devastating realisation that thousands of small rural businesses were totally dependent on the tourist trade - and tens of thousands of them come by caravan.

Even the planners, notoriously anti-caravan, began to relax their rules to allow more small camp sites - because, without them, dozens of farmers would have gone broke. So if we locals want our restaurants, village shops and pubs to still be there come winter, we must accept that the cash caravans bring in during the summer helps business through the lean times.

That said; please do not think I have gone all dewy-eyed about tourers. And the reason for that is that most of the nearly one-million-members of the Caravan Club are either a) ignorant of the their own rules or choose b) wilfully to ignore them.

The last time I enquired, the club advised tourer owners to pull over if a queue of more than four other vehicles has built up behind them. And they should never, ever, travel in convoys of two or more vans without ample space for overtaking between them.

What a joke! I have been travelling the A65 since 1971 and, in that time, I recall a caravan pulling over just once! I was so excited about it that I actually wrote a short piece in the Craven Herald: Caravan makes news!

If simply courtesy doesn't work - and it patently doesn't - it could be time for the iron fist. Last week, I was in a huge queue behind a single caravan for the 32 miles from Kirkby Lonsdale to Skipton. Had the police wished to break up this (slowly) mobile traffic jam, they could have stopped the driver and charged him with inconsiderate driving; an offence I have never known prosecuted in this context.

And better still; the ever tax-hungry Gordon Brown should impose a separate road tax on caravans, which take up as much road space as commercial vehicles paying hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds in excise duties. That way, he could take some of the £200-plus a year tax he has just imposed on my small, efficient 1600 cc 4 x 4 which earns its living in the Yorkshire Dales, not on the King's Road, Chelsea.

Your views:

  • Caravans are also exempt from MOT tests, which is a little worrying to say the least, especially as there are 4 (sometimes more) tyres on most caravans.

    Anonymous (name supplied)

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