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Yeah, I知 the Wanderer . . .


Hate being stuck behind caravans? Robin Mead knows who to blame, as he recreates the first caravanning trip

ARE YOU already dreading those endless summer traffic queues, with a trundling caravan at their head? Irritated by the ranks of caravans infesting seaside beauty spots? Then heap the blame on the retired naval surgeon Dr William Gor-don Stables. He was the first holiday caravanner and he has an estimated one million imitators in Britain alone.

Dr Stables spent the summer of 1886 travelling in a horse-drawn caravan from his home, near Reading, to Inverness. His life at sea had left him with a taste for nautical terms, and he described his hand-built vehicle as 殿 land yacht and christened it the Wanderer.

He wrote a best-selling book, The Gentleman Gypsy, about his trip, which helped to popu-larise caravanning, and was a founder member of the Caravan Club, which celebrates its centenary this year. His enthusiasm was such that I, a caravanning novice, was tempted to follow his example and journey the length of Britain albeit in a modern motorhome.

But plenty has changed in the past 120 years. The admiring crowds gathering along the Wanderer痴 route to monitor the doctor痴 progress have gone, and so, it seems, have the local lairds queuing up to offer the traveller hospitality and a stopover site in the grounds of their stately homes. Caravanning has lost its cachet.

Even planning such a trip isn稚 as exciting as Dr Stables made it sound. His caravan was a mahogany monster weighing a couple of tons, with a crew and accessories. Mine was a borrowed and far from spacious motor-caravan.

Then there was the matter of companions. Dr Stables settled first on Peablossom and Cornflower, the horses charged with dragging his land yacht along the rutted roads of the time. A groom had to be engaged to look after them. Apparently the master needed a bit of looking after, too he was accompanied by his valet, John. A giant Newfoundland dog called Hurricane Bob stood guard and the crew was completed by a singing cockatoo named Polly.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, the social niceties of the day had to be observed. The doctor shared the caravan痴 saloon with Hurricane Bob and the cockatoo. John slept beneath the vehicle, and the groom, of course, bedded down with the horses.

Caravanners were undoubtedly rather strange back in 1886, and little has changed. It was raining when I arrived at Henley, my starting point, but that did not stop my neigh-bours from donning sou-west-ers, setting up tables outside their caravans, and serving themselves tea with slices of soggy fruit cake.

Noisy late-night parties, and a morning queue at the toilet block, were other hazards, but if Dr Stables could find adventure on Britain痴 highways, so could I.

I headed out of Henley with high hopes. In Pangbourne, I decided on a comfort call at The George, where Dr Stables stopped for refreshment more than 120 years ago. Did anyone know of the hotel痴 link with the great man? 典he manager痴 busy, and he痴 the only one who knows about the history of this building, said the receptionist, dismissively. She added, as if in explanation: 展e池e a Best Western now.

Many of the villages through which Dr Stables痴 strange procession once trundled have been bypassed by today痴 roads. Others you have to practically squeeze through: places full of tumbledown cottages, antique shops and badly parked cars.

We stopped in the very spot where the doctor called a halt, in Burcot, and brewed coffee. I harboured a faint hope that the owner of the stately home opposite might pop out to offer hospitality as his predecessor once did. In fact, the only visitors to my little lay-by were the occupants of a police car, and their sole offering was a demand that we move on.

There was another disappointment in Deddington, where the didactic doctor had a bit of an adventure. He camped in a field, heard intruders around his caravan in the night, and rushed outside with his cutlass in one hand and Hurricane Bob, straining at his leash, in the other. He found himself facing nothing more dangerous than a herd of cows.

Dr Stables also called in at Warwick, which now has a new statue of the boxing hero Randolph Turpin. Next morning, beyond the red ruins of Kenilworth Castle, blown up after the Battle of Edgehill in 1644, an attempt to emulate the doctor痴 drive to the battle site proved impossible: the access roads will not accommodate a modern motorhome.

My 21st-century expedition arrived in York, damp and depressed. The city痴 caravan site, beside the River Ouse, would be a haven if it didn稚 occasionally disappear beneath floodwaters. York railway station suddenly took on an unexpected allure.

Even Dr Stables got fed up when he reached Inverness, and took the train home. I shamefacedly followed his example, promising myself that I would complete the trip when the weather improved.

Then, on the train, I decided I wouldn稚 do anything of the sort. Try this kind of thing too often, and you could end up conversing animatedly with a musical parrot. The Wanderer, now restored, can be seen at the National Boat, Caravan and Outdoor Show (www.boatandcaravan.co.uk) at the NEC in Birmingham, February 17-25, and will feature at the Caravan Club痴 centenary national rally at Blenheim Palace in May (0800 3286635, www.caravanclub.co.uk). 

Caravans of love: luxury lodges and more by Dan Bennett

At Deepdale Farm in North Norfolk, choose to stay in your own tent, a tepee or the stables hostel. The farm is arable, so don稚 expect to be roused by an animal chorus, but there is a local petting farm for children. 01485 210256, www.deepdalefarm.co.uk

The Times - Journalist: Robin Mead
03/02/2007