M: As a child I grew up through the ‘Troubles’ and every weekend we were away in the caravan somewhere… somewhere beautiful in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t know what was going on in the rest of Belfast. I started caravanning as a child with my parents. But together we have been caravanning since 2002….15 years
D: I was a bit sceptical about it at first. I wasn’t that interested…too civilised. Before, I would have camped. Whenever we had young children that changed things because …where we live is grand, but it’s all traffic and buildings, whereas the caravan gives us freedom. We go out and stay somewhere nice, somewhere quite private in the countryside, and that gives us another dimension to our lives.
M: There is a designated committee in the Caravan and Motorhome Club. Everyone picks a site, plans a weekend of events. Everything is organised and you book in and say how many people are coming so that games, music or entertainment can be organised. Some of the members that I would have known as a child are still there.
D: So, it’s an instant social scene. It’s very well structured and regulated with the committee Rally Marshals and different events of interest over the weekend. There’s always a secure site, somewhere interesting…. It could be a field, playgrounds of a sports club, GAA, a rugby club or sometimes a stately home.
M: If it’s something that we want to head to we would hitch up and go. You have that flexibility. There are so many sites around the place that you could book in. We’ve also taken our caravan and stayed in people’s back gardens in New Year’s Eve – or if there’s something happening. We are independent and self-sufficient.
M: A brand new caravan could cost you £26-30,000
D: A good condition second-hand one less than £10,000.
M: The run-of-the-mill basic new van might be £18,000 or so upwards… A lot of people spend that money on a van and use it for 2 weeks in the summer and that’s all. But we get the value out of it. We are away a dozen -fifteen times a year.
We’ve had this particular one 5 years, and a different one for 10 years. We thought it was more modern, nice and bright open plan. This is 6.5-7 m. The other one was about the same size.
D: In the caravan you have all mod cons. We have a fantastic power shower, hot and cold running water, flushing toilet, cooking facilities.. gas, microwave, electric …wine rack.
It works off battery and gas and you can top up with solar panels. In the summer weather like this, with your battery, you can survive a week without mains power. You don’t need heat or light – which would use most of the energy. You can go to places where you don’t have to rely on mains electricity – as you would on commercial sites.
People think: ’oh we would be afraid to go away without mains power’ but it’s designed for you not to need mains.
We bought it second-hand but it was fairly new. It ticked all the boxes… all mod cons. It’s comfortable of course. It’s not that big but that doesn’t matter. When you’re going somewhere you’re closer to the outside world… somewhere a bit freer, open, greener.
For those who do go away it opens their eyes to the beauty of Northern Ireland, because there are so many beautiful places. The more you look, the more there are to find. It gives them a more rounded feel for the country that we live in…. and the people in the country, as well people from all arts and parts.
M: It has everything we need and a different layout to what we had when we had the family. Once kids turn 16, if not sooner, they have sports commitments at the weekend and… social things …Also the ‘want’ perhaps for electric and Wi-Fi means a lot of them tend to drift off.
D: We’ve been to England with the caravan, to the London Olympics. The Caravan and Motorhome Club organised a site, ‘Barley Fields’ in Essex. It was very professionally set up with power facilities, Craft Village and cafes. They certainly picked their site well and then we just went in and out to London every day to the Olympics.
To do justice to Northern Ireland.. to Ireland… to Scotland… to Wales there are so many beautiful places. By the time you’ve covered them your life would be over.
M: This converts to a double bed here … or you could have just two singles if you wished. And then this converts into a bunk, there is a curtain that pulls around it. This would be a 4 berth. The one we had before was 5 berth. At the end there was a sliding door a separate room,smaller than this, and we had this ( seating area) at one end and a smaller one at the other end which converted into a bunk and a double. The children would have had a separate room at the back so that when they went to bed at night we can stay up.
It was great for families, and if we were meeting up with friends the adults could sit here, the children could all go into the bunk and make it the ‘cinema’ with the portable TV, where they would watch DVDs.
Compared to a B&B… You are more self-sufficient…you are more ‘in’ the environments that you are visiting. You are more a part of it…. you experience more…. because you are more likely to be staying somewhere scenic. You’re not at the whim of regulated times to get up to eat and go to bed. Generally in a B&B you have to leave and come back later….. You can cook what you want to eat, when you want.
M: You don’t have to go away with the club. You can just hitch up and go anywhere. You can do your own thing and have a more chilled time ……. just go for short walks or read or sit out and look at the view. We just head off for the weekend going somewhere new, seeing a new part of the world and getting another angle on things. And going back to favourite spots.
D: My favourite spot would be a place called ‘The Rock’ outside Bryansford. It’s a little private caravan park. You set up your van and you have a view of the Mournes… the wall going over the peaks…. St. Johns point in the middle… beautiful sweep with countryside.. fields. I could sit there all day.
M: The Mournes…. It’s like watching a television: the changing light … cloud patterns… and the mountains. Stunning.
D: You set up your position so you get the panorama. You wake up in the morning, open up and then you’re looking at this glorious view. It’s just a lovely location with easy access to go further. We can sit on, maybe if it’s lovely weather, sit outside, eat …nice glass of wine, watch the sun go down with friends. What’s not to like?
When you arrive somewhere, for example… Rosses Point. We arrived there in the rain. Within 5 minutes the caravan was detached, stabilised, the children were sitting colouring in at the table at the back, the dinner was on. Instant home with a view above the beach, looking at the sea.
I particularly relish waking up where it’s quiet and green, trees all around, preferably on grass. It’s a getaway.
M: You find you are more inclined to go out for a walk, even if it is a bit dull or drizzling; we like to investigate what’s around us. Whereas, in the house, if it’s a dull day you just say, ah well… I’ve washing… hoovering …. The house will always be there, so you will always want to be doing things. In the caravan you can go for a walk somewhere different
It never ceases to amaze you the places that you end up going to, somewhere that you didn’t know existed.
D: It’s a great way to get to know the country. Loughgall country park for example – a beautiful place in the middle of nowhere. All the vans lined up. Barbecue at 6pm. At 4.30pm everyone starts appearing… windbreaks …long tables… barbecue area.. tablecloths… come 6pm everyone’s food is ready. Maybe there’s a quiz and chat and afterwards maybe a few will stay out later to watch the sun go down.
By 9pm it’s all gone. And by 11pm it’s silence. It is a very particular aspect of the club, that it has rules and regulations that everyone respects – particularly that rule from 11 o’ clock at night: silence. So everyone has peace to go to bed. Certainly people can stay up and socialise in their own vans – quietly, no slamming doors, no talking outside. It becomes particularly apparent when you go to commercial sites. You could have a load of yahoos who party all weekend and they’re up shouting at 3am. If you do that you’re out of the club. The rules are very important.
There are insurance stipulations and guidelines for spacing. You have to be 6 m clear of the next van. They have to be well spaced to give everyone their own personal space, no squeezing everyone in. In fact, the regulations have tightened up. The spacings increased – which made it more difficult to get sites, because you can’t fit so many in.
M: Generally all caravans come fully equipped. If you were lucky enough to be in the position to order a caravan off the assembly line you can have a choice of fabrics and materials. Generally speaking you get everything with it. All you have to do is to get the racks that hold the mugs and plates. You buy what you want to put into the van. All we added was a couple of blankets to protect the cushions and extra cushions.
Before you set off you just take precautions and separate your mugs with fabric separators.. and you know not to leave your glass, glasses or bottles to clink together because obviously the shaking will break them.
D: Everything’s designed for it – because it is transport. You don’t want to overload the van either. It has to be stable, you have to be careful in your distribution, you don’t want a particularly heavy front or rear. You want to keep it as central over the axle as possible.
Along the side there is a pull-out canopy that you can set up to give you a covered outdoor area – if you want it. Some people bring a big awning, you can double the size. I’m not so keen on an awning because I like the fact that you can just walk out the door and you are in the fresh air. It might be small, but the outside is part of it. The closer you are to the outside the better.
You can caravan all year round. The coldest we caravanned in was minus 10.5 degrees.
M: In winter you would go through gas quicker. It heats up very quickly. A joke amongst our friends…. If you want to have a nice warm van going to bed at night- you ask people in. It heats up quickly.
D: Imagine having 10 people in here. That warms the van for you.
M: In the winter you just bring a blanket to be more snug- especially if you like a blanket on your bed or duvet at home. A lot of people have TVs. We have the electrics for a TV but we couldn’t be bothered.
D: What’s the point of going away and watching TV? I prefer reading, or just getting out and about. And also there are always functions organised, so there’s entertainment.
M: When we get up one or other of us will go into the shower while the other is putting their beds away. The kettle is on and we will sit down and have a breakfast.
After breakfast we tidy up to what will we do a walk or go and see the local sights.
D: I bring my bicycle as well. There’s a few of us, so we can go up and see even more of the country. When you’re staying somewhere you want to go out and see it.
If you’re running a rally event you’re not just organising yourself you’re organising everyone. If you are Rally Marshal you are making arrangements for access to the site – maybe organising functions and competitions. Being on the committee and helping to organise the event for others you’re picking the place and negotiating the rate for the weekend.
The standard of caravans is generally very good. The difference? It’s probably down to styling more than anything. You could have… blinds… open windows… curtains, spotlights and all sorts of lights all over.
M: Perhaps the exterior look and trim, and maybe a different layout of the windows.. more windows in the roof….
D: Instead of just having your rooflight modern ones have windows that will come all the way down. It’s more open, but you lose space
M: There are so many permutations with a caravans. They keep coming up with different layouts. You are limited to the shell so that it’s as lightweight as possible. Probably a modern heating system, panels in the walls, underground under floor. It’s essentially the same basic layout but everything is more electronic.
D: The technology has improved…the controls… LED lighting. With this van these are the sort of fixtures and fittings you get in your house. There’s no lightweight plastic or things like that. The taps are chrome so the standards are very good and it’s not difficult to maintain. You’re not slumming it when you go away in a caravan at all.
In a caravan you probably have to be tidier. You have to be more disciplined because you have a smaller amount of space. We’re not ‘that’ tidy, at all.
M: You have to be organised. You get into a more organised state of mind for going away. You always make sure that you put whatever it is away. You have your routine, things to-do. You have your list so you know what you’re bringing each time. It’s just a routine.
D: The children don’t caravan now but I’d say they really valued what it added to their childhood. It gave them more of an outdoor childhood -which they wouldn’t have had if they just grew up here. It was very good for children because they had another whole circle of friends, and freedom.
It’s also a great way to indulge hobbies. I used to fell run so I would run to the top of the nearest hill or bring a bicycle or photography. I love taking pictures and getting up early to see things…. So many inspiring places.
M. When we get home we’re just sad that the weekend is over. You are not looking forward to being back home….. You are looking forward to when you will be getting out again.