Invasion of human snails

Let the petrolheads sneer: caravans are making a comeback.

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An inoffensive-looking object is at the centre of the increasingly ill-tempered battle for scarce space on Britain's roads: the caravan. The Caravan Club is enjoying record growth, with 57,000 new members recruited last year. And yet, on BBC2's Top Gear, they paint caravans brown, hoist them on to cranes and play giant conkers with them; or they set fire to them at Dorset campsites, accidentally on purpose, and drive off towing the burnt-out remains. These jolly japes are rooted in a politics that is far from trivial.

Ever since the Road Traffic Act 1930, which abolished the 20mph speed limit for cars but kept it for those pulling trailers, caravans have been vilified as "sheet-metal slugs" and "human snails". Yet your chances of being stuck behind a caravan are surprisingly small. They mainly come out in the summer, and their favoured habitats are holiday roads such as the M5 going down to the west, or the lanes of south-west Wales and East Anglia. Keepmoving.co.uk ("the drivers' voice") has helpfully listed the roads most likely to suffer from "caravan chaos" this summer (the A30 to Penzance and the A39 to Minehead, if you're interested).

The man chiefly responsible for this seasonal swarm is Sam Alper, who built his first caravan in 1947 entirely out of wartime salvage, using the undercarriage from a Spitfire and a roof made from barrage balloon material. A year later he designed the classic Sprite, an affordable (£199) caravan light enough to be towed by a small saloon. Alper's talent was to recognise that postwar families were companionate enough to make do with less space and fewer partitions. The Sprite pioneered the bunk bed for children, an obvious space-saving idea that soon caught on in homes.

Alper may have domesticated the caravan, but his own adventures in it were intrepid. He fearlessly dragged his Sprite across continents. In 1951, he won an intercontinental rally from Frankfurt to Florence, clocking up 4,400 miles in 11 days. Still more inspiring was his sprint around the Mediterranean the following year, covering 11,000 miles and 25 countries in just over a month. As well as turning Alper into a celebrity, the trip achieved its main aim: however cheap and flimsy it seemed, the Sprite had to be taken seriously. Another great caravanning evangelist was Alper's friend, a swashbuckling, high-society dentist called Ralph Lee, who in 1958 steered his caravan along Norwegian dirt roads all the way to the Arctic Circle - and founded the Order of Bluenosed Caravanners for those who achieved the same feat.

Caravanning truly became a mass activity in the 1960s - a decade when the Caravan Club's membership doubled and Sprite's Al pine, with its distinctive green waistband, became the bestselling model of all time. Apart from the rise in car ownership, a critical factor in this success was the decline of arable farming, which meant that it was often more profitable for farmers to grow caravans than crops. Caravanning introduced mass tourism to far-flung parts of Britain such as Devon and Cornwall. By 1970, caravans made up one-fifth of all holiday accommodation in the UK, a figure that has remained broadly the same ever since.

Soon, however, the caravan-baiters seemed to have history on their side. The Opec oil crisis of 1973, the introduction of VAT and rising inflation hit caravan sales hard. The seasonal nature of the industry had already forced Alper to diversify into other businesses such as the Little Chef roadside cafe chain - and in 1982 his firm, Caravans International, went bust. In the era of cheap flights, caravanning seemed plodding and stay-at-home. As cars became ever more powerful and motorway speeds crept up, trailers were too slow even for the slow lane.

In the 1990s, when everything from speed cameras to traffic cones fuelled the modern motorist's persecution complex, caravanners were caught in the crossfire. The Anti-Caravan Club, formed in 1992 after an advert in Private Eye, demanded that these "eyesores" be stored in already despoiled areas such as power stations and sewage works. It called for a compulsory road test for caravanners and a daylight curfew on all caravan movements from dawn till dusk. At its peak, the ACC had 27,000 members.

But the anti-caravanning lobby seems to have gone quiet lately. Outside of the motoring programmes, few car drivers can muster up much resentment towards their trailer-towing cousins. Modern-day caravans, which have sorted out the old problems of under braking and snaking, nip along at a fair old pace. And in any case, we seem to be rediscovering the virtues of slowness and localism over speed and distance. The Caravan Club recently celebrated its centenary in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, to only gently mocking press coverage.

Caravanning will probably never be trendy, because its devotees are creatures of habit and tradition. One reason those dinky, bubble-shaped caravan "pods" have never really caught on is that the market is buyer-led. Caravans are built only when a client orders one, and caravanners are practical sorts who want the headroom. There has always been an uneasy relationship between the conventional "tuggers" and the parvenu "chuggers" - the camper van drivers who have somehow managed to nurture a reverse public image as hippie-ish free spirits. Caravanning seems to be perennially caught between the camaraderie of an exclusive club and the egalitarianism of mass consumerism.

But if caravans aren't cool, no longer do they seem to have been left behind by an accelerated culture. They may look cumbersome on the motorway, but their carbon footprint is pretty dainty. What more planet-friendly holiday could you have than to take your living room along with you and share electricity and water with lots of other people? Being stuck behind them on the A38 seems a small price to pay.

Interviewed in 1999 shortly after receiving the MBE for services to caravanning at the age of 95, Ralph Lee's response to the impatient drivers behind him was stoical. "Some people," he sighed, "always have to be there yesterday."

Joe Moran is the author of "Queuing for Beginners" (Profile Books, £14.99)

This article appears in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time