This has been a good summer for caravanning: membership of the Caravan Club has been rising at unprecedented rates, and an all-party parliamentary group was recently created to represent the interests of caravanners. Yes, they do still have a good deal of prejudice to put up with, nowhere better represented than in the appalling remarks made by me in this column a couple of years ago. No one, I stated, is in simultaneous possession of a caravan and a university degree. This brought a rather peeved telephone call from one of my own uncles, a former headmaster who has, as he told me, two degrees and two caravans.
But when I wrote that, I hadn't been caravanning myself, and I hadn't spoken to Trevor Watson, director general of the Caravan Club, two deficiencies I put right this summer.
The club headquarters are located, not perhaps surprisingly, in East Grinstead, and Watson's office includes a cuckoo clock that "goes off" every 15 minutes. Was this, I wondered, symptomatic of the whimsicality that prompts certain caravanners to put potted plants on collapsible tables under their caravan awnings? But the thought was soon banished by his trenchant rebuttal of my suspicions that caravanners were costive, lower middle class, tasteless and environmentally unaware.
"You use a lot less of everything - such as water - if you have to carry it about yourself," he began. "Also, most caravan sites are, in effect, nature reserves for six months of the year." And, far from being Little Englanders, it seems that our caravanners increasingly roam the world. "We've been offering travel insurance to Russia for the past 15 years," said Mr Watson.
He also insists that there is a large number of professionals among the club's membership - "and a great many teachers in particular". There are several caravanners in the House of Lords, and the Caravan Club is generally very happy to have aristocratic caravanners invoked . . . Mr Toad, for example. Mr Watson argues that Mr Toad was extremely pleasant during his (horse-drawn) caravanning phase. "Remember, he
didn't become obnoxious until he bought a motor car."
Mr Watson referred me to a book of 1886 called The Cruise of the Land Yacht 'Wanderer', by a naval officer and doctor called Gordon Stables who refers to himself as a gypsy, albeit a "gentleman gypsy". He was a pioneer of caravanning at a time when anti-industrial sentiments gave it Romantic appeal. In his introduction, he describes his rejection of a "too-civilised" existence in favour of the country and a "caravan life" but, as early as page eight, he risks blowing his credibility with the following sentences: "Under the rear door the broad steps are shipped, and at each side is a little mahogany flap table to let down. These the valet finds very handy when washing."
None the less, Stables is a totemic figure for the Caravan Club, because he proves that caravanning need not be naff. And the three days I spent this year occupying a smart Senator Carolina (made by Bailey's of Bristol) at a site near Bexhill-on-Sea confirmed that impression. Newspapers of every size were collected each morning from the camp shop by the caravanners, all of whom were exceptionally friendly. Well, all except one man, who told my sons not to run close to his caravan and who spent most of the day cleaning the thing. He kept everything immaculate and had clearly never committed the solecism of washing and preparing his vegetables outside the specially designated "vegetable washing and preparation area" near the toilet blocks. He transported the water from the site taps by means of a cylindrical water tank, which he pushed like a cricket roller, without breaking into a sweat, or a smile, and he confirmed all my prejudices against caravanners. But nobody else on the site came close to doing so.