On a warm summer’s day in 1884, Dr William Gordon Stables, accompanied by his two daughters and a Newfoundland named Hurricane Bob, set off from his Berkshire home for what was to become the first British caravan holiday. ‘The man who is master of a caravan,’ Stables wrote in anticipation of his week-long wagon trip around the Home Counties, ‘enjoys the perfect freedom denied to the tourist, whose movements are governed by the timetable.’
More than 130 years on, millions of Britons still agree. Shunning the lure of low-cost air travel and package holidays, these libertines have been doing it all themselves for decades, and that won’t change soon. The Caravan Club – founded in 1907 to ‘bring together those interested in van life as a pastime’– currently has more than 2,500 badged sites, enough for an average of one for every 30 square miles of the country, and over a million paid-up members. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but it can always be improved by some wheels, it seems.
Last summer, the Bristol-based photographer Gareth Iwan Jones, 33, undertook a mission to capture the caravan community in its natural environment, in sites from the southern tip of England to the bitter lochs of Scotland. Hiring a three-birth motorhome (a 2010 Elddis Autoquest 180 Sunseeker) with his wife, Kim, also 33, Jones zigzagged 2,393 miles across the country, visiting 32 caravan sites, pausing at each to take portraits of the visitors and collect fragments of their stories.
Though he admits to being familiar with the taste of charred sausages and the dull drum of rain on metal from caravan holidays to Southwold as a child, Jones considered himself outside the culture when he began his journey. ‘It was all pretty new to me,’ he says.
The idea stemmed from his love of ‘hobbyists’; his previous projects have included ferret enthusiasts and child gymnasts. ‘Most of my work focuses on how people spend their leisure time, and I’ve always thought of caravanning as a wonderfully eccentric, colourful world full of quirky characters,’ he says. ‘It is, but I was humbled by how friendly and open everyone was. Not a single person declined.’
Managing to depict the minutiae of caravanning without appearing supercilious, Jones’s images, which feature a mixed cast befitting their itinerant theme, have now become a book, Caravan: A Great British Love Story.
‘Caravanning is not the easiest way to relax,’ Jones says. ‘There are obstacles to overcome at every turn. Even the morning expedition across cold wet fields to reach the shower block can feel like triumph over adversity. But the rewards for sticking with it and embracing the challenges are numerous.’
Just as the pursuit’s famous fans look like the unlikeliest of bedfellows (the former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, the England football captain Wayne Rooney and the thoughtless fictional amphibian Mr Toad are three well-known caravan owners), Jones insists there is no ‘typical’ enthusiast. Instead, regions attract their own, distinctive crowds. ‘I noticed that in the north of Scotland there was a much larger percentage of younger couples and families who had made the journey up there, while middle England tends to draw more over-60s, for some reason.’
Despite those differences, Jones found something common among his subjects’ motivations for hitting the road in the first place. ‘People love the quality of time with family and friends that caravanning affords,’ he says. ‘It appeals to our basic, hard-wired instincts, if it is for only a week.’
Caravan by Gareth Iwan Jones (Frances Lincoln, £12.99) is available for £10.99 plus £1.99 p&p from Telegraph Bookshop 0844-871 1514; http://www.books.telegraph.co.uk