A century ago, holidaying in a caravan over the winter months would have been unthinkable for most, with caravan touring being reserved as a summer pursuit. Yet by the 1930s a number of intrepid caravanners were determined to prove that the hobby could be enjoyed in any weather. As we head into the festive period Angela Willis, Curator of the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection, takes a look back at some of the earliest Christmas caravanning rallies.
In the early twentieth century, when horse-drawn caravan holidays were in vogue with the wealthy, touring was the preserve of the summer months. Travelling the winter roads of Britain would have proven far from the relaxing pastime sought by the ‘Gentleman Gypsies’, who would have faced potholed and sometimes impassible highways.
Yet within 30 years there had been huge changes. After the First World War, a widespread shift from horse-drawn travel to horsepower took place. To cater for the increasingly widespread use of the motor vehicle, a mass programme of road improvement was undertaken. Coupled with the introduction of the trailer caravan, and gradual improvements to their design, by the 1930s we see the first stories of Christmas caravan gatherings.
Here at the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s Collection, hosted at the National Motor Museum, we are fortunate to hold original copies of The Caravan magazine, first published in 1933 and still running to this day. Contained within these pages are fabulous tales of intrepid caravanners and Club members who journeyed in all conditions to celebrate Christmas together.
The first reported Christmas gathering of caravans took place in 1933, two years before The Caravan magazine took over the running of the then Caravan Club from its ageing founder J Harris Stone. The event was held at two locations, carefully selected for year-round conditions, at the fully tarmacked Hatfield Aerodrome and at Virginia Water. It was very much a promotional exercise driven by the magazine to demonstrate the practicality of caravanning in winter. As such, Major Fleming Williams, the founder of Car Cruiser caravans and Norman Wilkinson-Cox, founder of Raven formed the twelve outfits who braved the elements.
Starting at Hatfield, the attendees posed for a photo call from the numerous press fascinated by the winter caravanners, followed by a Dinner and Dance at the adjacent clubhouse. Next, on Christmas morning the whole party set out in convoy towards a second pitch at Virginia Water, taking a lap of Marble Arch en-route. At the destination, the few remaining caravanners (their numbers had somewhat dwindled!) enjoyed Christmas dinner in the warmth of a local hotel.
The following year, the event was not quite so much of a success, with the owner of The Caravan magazine Mit Harris reporting that the Christmas pitch was chosen “In some bleak Heathland in Hampshire”, before it was decided far too boggy for caravans and the party moved to a site outside Bournemouth. To everyone’s relief the new pitch had a shed which housed a large oven fit to cook a turkey, and all the trimmings were cooked in various caravans.
Perhaps the greatest battle of the elements came in 1938, at the Club’s London Centre Christmas Rally. The chosen location was at Moat Farm in Wrotham, Kent, which had a hard standing car park for the caravans to pitch and a roadhouse built from a converted barn in which to hold the main celebrations. The idea of the event was met most enthusiastically in the months that led up to it, but by the 19th December interest waned as one of the twentieth century’s heaviest Christmas snowfall began to cover most of the UK.
Some rally goers were undeterred, with the first attendee arriving after a snowy 130 mile journey from King’s Lynn in Norfolk. On safe arrival, the party quickly departed again for some Christmas shopping in London. Later that day, the organisers received a telephone call from member Mr Robinson who had travelled all the way from Portsmouth but was now stuck in his Eccles caravan on a hill twenty miles away. A rescue party immediately set out in two cars with towing tackle, sand and grit amidst heavy snowfall. Finally after an hour of throwing rugs under Mr Robinson’s wheels he sailed free! Other members were reported to have taken a different option on seeing the snowy weather unfold, leaving their ´vans at home and booking into a nearby inn.
For those who safely arrived at the rally, it had a packed programme of entertainment with a Christmas Eve Dance in the Moat Farm roadhouse, followed by a snowball fight outside the caravans on Christmas morning. In the midst of the battle arrived member Squadron-Leader S.J. Bailey who had met such heavy snowfall on his journey that he spent the night before Christmas in his caravan on the roadside ten miles away, having dug himself out in the morning! He joined the other seventy five rally goers for Christmas Dinner followed by games of musical chairs, balloon bursting contests and potato races. Before bedtime the children were treated to a Punch and Judy show and a viewing of Popeye the Sailor Man on a projector. The adults continued socialising into the early hours.
On Boxing Day, once everyone had recovered from the celebrations of the night before, the group enjoyed a Dinner and Dance with the party continuing for some until 4:30 am. By the next day it had finally stopped snowing as the members set off home, while some of the late risers woke to find that they were being towed in their caravans out of the snowy car park!
For many, the London Centre’s 1938 event had been their first experience of caravanning in winter and despite the three feet long icicles forming on their caravans, most immediately signed up for the event the following year. On departure, each attendee was handed a commemorative plaque, marked ‘Wrotham, Xmas, 1938’ which The Caravan magazine remarked would always be prized possessions due to the snowy conditions endured. After uncovering this wonderful story, the plaque from the event held in the Club’s Collection, which belonged to the late Mr Gowing, has taken on a whole new meaning.
For the following Christmas however, fate was to play a hand when life changed beyond recognition on the outbreak of the Second World War. With the threat of enemy bombing, many caravan owners initially evacuated from towns and cities, and as the war continued caravans helped to fill the housing shortage created by the blitz. By the time the war had ended year-round caravanning had become a commonplace necessity rather than a novelty. As a result, manufacturers and the caravan inhabitants themselves had developed improvements in heating and insulation while seeking new ways to reduce damp and condensation. This paved the way for more comfortable Christmas caravanning when petrol rationing was finally relaxed, and holidays could be enjoyed once more.
From the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection we wish you all a very Merry Christmas!
Find out more about the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s Collection here.