First time caravan touring
Ron and Margaret Gwynne spill all about their first time touring in a caravan
Having watched our frame tent disintegrate in a fierce storm on the shores of Lake Garda, our young family retreated to the dry comfort of a static caravan.
Years later, we progressed from statics in Italy to villas in Greece, then family holidays waned as our kids progressed through the silences of adolescence into amiable young adulthood.
Freed from the constraints of child-rearing we, too, moved on. We bought an apartment by the sea in the Canaries to which we regularly retreated; then, 11 years later and approaching retirement, we sold up, as we wanted to explore the UK and Europe again. So, freshly retired, we decided to have a day out at a caravan show in the Malverns. It was an old interest rekindled, as we'd considered replacing the frame tent with a caravan years earlier, but we'd never fully committed. “How much if I pay cash today?” I asked.
Margaret cringed, but the delightful salesman reached for his calculator. All our best decisions in life have been impulsive, and we were on the brink of another. We’d looked in lots of caravans at the show and our appetites were whetted despite our ignorance of anything to do with caravanning.
This caravan was a one-year-old, special edition Elddis Xplore 574. The layout seemed just right and the extra equipment was ideal. Pete punched keys on his calculator and came up with a remarkable discount. In addition, he threw in a motor mover, Aquaroll, and an electric cable.
I reached for my wallet, but Margaret said we needed to talk, so we retreated to the tea wagon.
“Bring me a cup back and I’ll knock another hundred off,” called Pete as we walked away. The ‘domestic conference’ didn’t take long.
We hedged our bets and took two cups of tea back, one for Pete's assistant, too. Pete was as good as his word, an amicable deal was struck and a deposit paid. We owned a caravan! But how do we tow it?
My ageing Jag only did 23mpg at best, and that would be reduced with a massive load behind, while Margaret’s Astra didn’t seem big enough for the job. But, hey presto, there was a Ford dealer at the show, and we quickly part- exchanged the Astra for a sizeable, diesel Kuga with towbar.
Pete cautioned us against keeping the van at home. He highlighted that the caravan’s absence would signal that the house was unattended. He then put us in touch with a CaSSOA Gold-rated storage site only four miles from home. This again proved to be excellent advice for us naïve novices.
Excitement mounted as we drove to collect our new acquisition. The dealership, Pearman Briggs, was excellent and had us coupled up and briefed in no time. We even learned about gas cylinders and regulators. All the intricacies of the hook-up were explained, but these went clean over our heads as we displayed misplaced confidence.
“Just give it a wide berth when you turn left,” said Pete, as we buckled up ready to undertake our first tow. In trepidation we sallied forth. Having cleared our first roundabout, we relaxed a little, unaware of the huge build-up of traffic behind us – just then we were proud to be doing 30 miles an hour without incident or rear-end wobble.
We got home and gave the motor mover a whirl to park the caravan on the drive. This was a good plan, had we been able to uncouple the beast! After much heaving and tugging we eventually did it and the mover remote worked a treat as the great edifice was installed on our drive.
Down went the steadies as neighbours and friends appeared to inspect the latest Gwynne folly. We beamed with delight and they agreed, although body language indicated that they thought we had now lost all of our marbles.
Everything but the kitchen sink
What followed was an exciting few days of procuring all the equipment we could possibly need for a luxurious touring life. It was fun, as in went bedding, crockery, Nespresso machine and TV. We revelled in this and plotted our first trip to a lovely site, Poston Mill, in Herefordshire.
At last we were ready. Insurances in place, security sorted, CAMC membership and Caravan mag subscription bought. And so, with a flourish, we hitched up and treble-checked everything. And then it happened...
I swung out of the drive with huge confidence and the offside rear trim clouted the gatepost, detached and hung limply for all to see. Undaunted, we drove on, inwardly feeling embarrassed and upset at damaging our new van.
Heroes on the highway
Towing confidence increased as we towed west. Once on the motorway, we chatted away relaxed and full of excitement at the prospects ahead. I came to with a start on glancing at the speedo to find we were doing nearly 70mph. On went the brakes as I learned a lesson in concentration.
Speed and endurance increase with experience, but towing for more than two hours without a break is foolhardy. I tire more easily than with solo-car driving, as the degree of concentration is greater.
Also, I’ve found route preparation is all-important. I live in fear of situations where reversing is the only option. This became clear at the lovely Castlerigg Hall site in the Lakes, when faced with a flat remote battery. Only a fantastic site warden saved the day. He walked beside me telling me which way to steer, as I reversed the van up a slope and onto the tightly-angled pitch.
I should have learned how to reverse in advance.
We once set off for Devon, but a crunching noise as the caravan twisted on the rough lane out of our storage facility soon became intolerable.
We were convinced it would fade, but in fact, it got worse – a painful metal-on-metal groaning. After a while, we stopped to check. All seemed well, so we drove on, but with increasing anxiety. On site we sought advice. “Easy peasy,” said a mechanic. “Just clean the towball. Make sure it’s free from grease and dirt, then clean out the socket and all will be well.” Lesson learned and we've been crunch-free ever since.
From the off we were clear that only nice, serviced pitches were for us. Rolling water drums and emptying grey-water tanks were part of our youthful past. There are many such wonderful sites, but I long that the full-service-pitch option should be made more obvious in adverts and reviews. Surely it’s a key feature for caravanners in our age category?
Huffing and puffing
It’s a sad fact of ageing that caravanning can be hard work. What we did with ease 30 years ago, now takes effort. Reaching into the front locker to connect the regulator becomes a test of strength and flexibility, while manoeuvring past each other in the compact interior is almost better than yoga!
Our first few nights resulted in severe backache – a result of the unaccustomed physical activity and the standard foam mattresses. Without any ado, we tested, then bought, two bespoke mattresses from Jonic. What an instant difference they made. It's now as comfy as sleeping at home.
All this highlights that it takes time to adjust to living in a portable space a little bigger than the average garden shed. We find it takes us a few days to overcome the initial exertions and get used to living in this way. Once adjusted, everything is great – the key to success is being patient with one another, highly organised and scrupulously tidy.
Divorce in a bag
It’s a well-known cliché that awnings are ‘divorce in a bag’ and for us it came close to being true. To mitigate this, we inspected many awnings, before buying an Outdoor Revolution inflatable. “30 pumps and it’s up,” claimed the young salesman. We were convinced and bought one.
The first trial erection at the lovely South Lytchett Manor site was a near failure. Tempers flared and patience was tested. Only wine as a tranquiliser saved the day, but we persevered.
The next attempt, at Keal Lodge in Lincolnshire (one of our favourite sites), was marginally better. Our kindly site neighbour came to offer support.
“I know how it feels,” she said in a soothing refined northern accent. “When we first got ours, it was just the same and words were spoken”.
Whether or not these words were the sweat-laden expletives I had used, we shall never know! Now it all goes up with consummate ease and it’s one of our great assets, providing versatile and effective extra space.
A dog in the Dordogne
Gemi, the cockapoo, joined us shortly after the caravan. Our offspring were already thinking we were entering senility and the arrival of a dog seemed to confirm their worst fears! Unlike hotels or rented villas, caravanning is ideal for dog owners. Gemi has travelled all over with us and is sitting next to me as I write this at the lovely Le Capeyrou site on the banks of the Dordogne river. Last year she travelled with Eddy (our eldest son) and me to the Mosel and, before that, to the Isle of Skye. She's an essential part of our outfit and in many ways the making of it.
And so this tale of the unexpected comes to a close. My hope is that our reminiscences will fuel the enthusiasm of others to do what we've done. Being seniors, with no experience or knowledge should not put off fellow OAPs from caravanning. Yes, we’ve made mistakes, but that’s been part of the fun. Be brave, be risky, but mostly believe you can do it to! The rewards are immeasurable.