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Trailer trash and Calor gas

Chemical loos, damp sleeping bags and boring games; why are the stars turning to caravanning?

Kathryn Hughes
Saturday June 3, 2006
The Guardian

Matthew McConaughey, the Hollywood film star, has announced that this summer he will be taking his actress girlfriend, Penélope Cruz, on a caravanning holiday. Not for this almost A-list couple the pleasure of a boutique hotel stocked with 400-thread Egyptian sheets, hot and cold running butler and anorexic plasma screens. Instead they can look forward to sleeping bags that never quite get dry and emptying their own loo.

They are not the only ones, apparently. Caravanning has never been so trendy. Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue and Catherine Zeta-Jones have all recently been spotted enjoying the pleasures of a mobile mini-break, which seems, frankly, delusional. All over the country, if various style magazines are to be trusted, families who might otherwise be hightailing off for a luxurious long weekend complete with childcare are choosing to lumber around the English lanes in light industrial vehicles that rarely break 50mph.

Anyone who spent their childhood holidays playing Scrabble in a tin box in a wet field on the south coast while their friends jetted off to Spain will know just how unlikely the whole idea of voluntary caravanning must be. My parents insisted upon it because they were middle-class poor and any other kind of holiday was out of the question. Yet, to be fair, other members of the Motor Caravanners' Club, alongside whom we camped most weekends in fields from Bognor to Blackpool, seemed to be there because they positively enjoyed spending their leisure time shivering around a single Calor gas burner.

There were the Misses Buddicom, elderly Fabian ladies, one of whom was rumoured to have had an affair with George Orwell, who seemed to regard caravanning as a political act. There was Commander Rees, who wore khaki shorts and whose caravan resembled a tank that had seen service in the north African desert. And our MC, our cheeky chappie of the caravan site, was a postman from Horsham called Rick who always wore a fez (when Tommy Cooper was still a visible cultural force).

And there was us, my brother and me - as far as I can remember, the only children in this oddly assorted crew (presumably because all the other potential little caravanners had taken one look at the facilities on offer and insisted on being taken to Butlins for their holidays instead). Together we, the Motor Caravanners' Club, South Eastern Division, trundled around Britain setting up temporary home in wet fields before settling down to hours of board/bored games. Just once, in 1967, we hit the headlines when we set off on a "caravanserai" - a long, lumbering, autobahn-blocking sausage of thirty Dormobiles - to what was then Yugoslavia.

I'd like to say that my caravanning days left me with an abiding love of the freedom of the road. But all they have done is make me determined never to be so shabby, so uncomfortable, so make-do-and-mendish ever again. The horror of the whole portable-loo experience means that to this day I have a near-phobia about sharing a lavatory with anyone. And I refuse, categorically, to go anywhere that involves me eating a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pudding out of a tin, the only food that ever seemed to issue from our caravan's "kitchenette". If Penélope, Kate, Kylie and Catherine can bear all this, and indeed find it fun, then they are better women than I could ever be.

· Kathryn Hughes is the author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton


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