Tin cans on wheels go vogue

It's end of season on the English "riviera" here in southwest England, but not everyone is battening down the hatches. Sure there's an autumnal nip in the air, the sea is turning angry, and the yachts are shivering in the boatyard. But up on the hills in the camper parks that overlook the cove, they're doing brisk business.

"It's been a busy year," says Dorothy White, in a delightful burr heard deep in England's rugged southwest. "We've had more guests than ever," she says gesturing at the jolly white blobs of caravans, or trailers, on the fields of the Little Cotton Caravan Park, "but you can only take as much as the space you've got."

Caravaning is back in a big way in Britain. More and more people are "hitching and pitching," exploring the country with their homes behind them. Statistics show that caravan production hit an all-time high last year at more than 28,000 - up 14 percent on the previous year. More nights were spent in caravans than in hotels in 2003.

Jump on the main highway southwest at the weekend, and the revival is apparent. The inside lane is one long white blur of towed vehicles bobbing about amiably behind their Volvos, Range Rovers, and station wagons.

Typically at the wheel are that new demographic of baby boomers who have taken early retirement and want afford- able travel and modest adventure. Pete and Sylvia Joyce take their eight-year-old Swift Classic out on the road half a dozen times a year. As Sylvia prepares the cabin for another night in a scenic woodland park on the fringes of the glorious Dartmoor wilderness, Pete wonders what is behind the new caravan fad.

"It's taking off because it's a cheap alternative," he ventures. "And it's not just people like us; there are more younger people doing it because of the cost."

"The great thing about caravaning is that you can have more short breaks than you would otherwise. People are still having their two weeks' holiday but they can get away from Friday-Sunday maybe five or six times a year. And because caravans are more sophisticated - shower, hot and cold water, heating - they're fully equipped for winter. So a lot of people will go away until late in the year right up to Christmas even."

Indeed, caravans have come a long way since their early incarnation as a porous, single-paned, gas-lit tin can on wheels. Though an integral feature of the British holiday landscape since the 1960s, the caravan holiday of a generation ago could be a dispiriting affair: a windswept "park" with few facilities, poky accommodation, limited horizons, and of course the often-dreary summer British weather. Hardly a recipe for happy families.

So it was no surprise that the industry fell on hard times when foreign holidays became affordable 20 years ago and then downright cheap in the 1990s. Caravaning slumped. Britain gave up its preeminent place in Europe and fell behind Germany and the Netherlands. Spain's Costa del Sol and the vistas of Tuscany proved more appealing than a wet week in Wales.

"When tourism really started to take off 30 years ago, caravaning was a big thing, but then domestic holidays did slacken off as overseas destinations opened up and the fares from low-cost flights came down," says Elliot Frisby of the VisitBritain tourist authority.

He says the entire domestic tourism scene has had to sharpen its act to compete. Caravaning was no exception.

Soon enough, those sheds on wheels evolved, tempting customers with a true home-away-from-home, replete with domestic appliances, color televisions, and luxury kitchens - not to mention modern bathrooms.

Caravan parks upgraded as well. Instead of a barren field with a concrete toilet block, now you find imaginative sites with adventure playparks, swimming pools, kids' clubs, golf courses, quality shower facilities, and even wireless networking hookups.

"One very big thing is the quality of the parks has come up to scratch now," says Alastair Franks, whose family has run the award-winning Oakdown site a few miles north of here for more than 30 years. "It's basically usable as a hotel now." He says families packed out the 100-pitch site in July and August, making 2004 a record year.

"The fashion changed and holidays abroad became more popular, but now it's changed back again."

The statistics bear this out. Britain is once again Europe's top caravaning nation. Registrations here outnumbered those of Spain by 10 to one last year, and those in France by three to one. Taken together, caravans and the less popular but proliferating motorhomes (RVs) number more than 600,000 - one for every 100 people in Britain. The market is worth nearly 2 billion pounds ($3.6 million dollars) annually.

Such is the volume of traffic on the roads that tow vehicles have been requested to stick to the inside lane on busy highways. More and more niche sites are setting up - for everyone from golfers in Scotland to rafters and mountaineers in Wales, surfers in the southwest, and anglers pretty much everywhere.

"For people who like outdoor sports, it's an inexpensive way of having somewhere to stop and stay close by," says Louise Wood of the National Caravan Council, an industry association.

But there's still the weather to contend with. Mr. Franks says some caravaners still quit his site before the end of their week's visit, disappointed by monotonous rain. VisitBritain representatives argue cheerfully that on average it only rains on one in three days in Britain. But that's little comfort to those who picked the wrong week in what has been a wretched summer.

"There's not much we can do about the weather," says Mr. Frisby, "but it does give us the landscape we have. And we wouldn't have the lushness and greenness and the rolling valley and hills without the climate we have.

"We are a heritage destination, with scenic countryside, and caravaning is an ideal way to see it all."

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