So we are driving across the moors and I’m explaining to my boyfriend why a holiday in a caravan in Yorkshire with no running water, electricity or bathroom is actually a good thing. We’re all too jaded by luxury, I tell him. Identikit designer hotels with their Philippe Starck bathroom fittings, infinity pools, tanning butlers – we’re sick of them! We’ve taken luxury travel as far as it can go and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.
Warming to my theme, I tell him that the quaint, the homespun, the simple, has become the new exotic. And in an age of global warming, terrorism and carbon guilt, where are we going to find this holy grail? Why, on our own doorstep of course! It’s the rebirth of the Great British Holiday! How else do you explain the fact that one of the best-selling travel books of last year was a celebration of eccentric British days out? How else do you explain the fact that yurts and tipis are springing up all over the countryside like mushrooms? We’re downshifting our holidays in an attempt to recapture an innocence and simplicity which is missing from our twenty-first century lives. I pause for a moment, quite taken with my thesis.
‘Do you think they have Sky?’ he asks. ‘I want to watch the FA cup final.’
No they don’t have Sky but they do have sky. Lots of it. And grass and trees and cows and sheep. Hidden away at the end of a bumpy farm track deep in the North York Moors National Park, La Rosa bills itself as a ‘campsite extraordinaire’ and extraordinaire it is. We park up in the middle of a herd of cows and the owner, Amanda Boorman, leads us past the farmhouse, past a tiny caravan that has been converted into a sweet shop, past a Buddhist shrine, past an old funfair Waltzer carriage and into the field at the back.
All of the caravans here have been bought second-hand on ebay or from farmers or travellers and given a radical makeover. We are staying in the Tinker’s Trailer, a converted truck decorated in rustic style with painted enamel teapots and mugs, a wood-burning stove, horseshoes and lanterns. Ever since I read Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi as a girl I’ve fantasised about living in a gypsy caravan like Kizzy the heroine. I confide in Amanda that this is a bit of a dream come true and she points to a dog-eared copy of the book on the shelf. Obviously I’m not alone.
She takes me on a tour of the other caravans. There’s a classic chrome Roma van with wall-to-wall engraved mirrors kitted out like a burlesque star’s dressing room with pink curtains, velvet cushions, shawls, feathers and trinkets; the ‘Elvis’ van with its Vegas vibe and photos of the King; and an innocuous-looking white caravan which, once you step inside, reveals a kitsch Catholic cornucopia of madonnas, rosary beads and painted cherubs cavorting on the ceiling. ‘We bought this one from some Irish travellers,’ says Amanda. ‘They painted the ceiling themselves. We left it because we like the caravans to reflect the personality of the people who used to own them.’
The decor of the rest of the vans is similarly eclectic, running the gamut from 1950s beach hut to safari chic. The toilet is in a wooden fortune teller’s trailer and the shower is in a sheep byre which has a working wind-up gramophone should you wish to sing along while you scrub. It’s slightly mad and very kitsch and it doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that it’s a bit of a hit with hen parties. There’s a red-and-white striped circus tent in the top field where Amanda will organise tea parties and a dressing-up rail which guests are encouraged to raid.
Amanda rents the farmhouse and land from a local aristocrat and was granted planning permission on condition that the site would be low-impact. Only 16 people are allowed to stay at any one time, the water from the showers drains away to nearby reedbeds, the caravans are lit by candles and lanterns and there’s an eco-friendly compost toilet (complete with its own nesting wren). Pheasants strut around by day and at night you can hear owls calling. It’s very peaceful.
Despite Amanda’s efforts to minimise disturbance to the beautiful surroundings, the arrival of the caravans on site got locals into a bit of a lather. ‘I think they thought we were travellers setting up camp. Then somebody saw the word ‘burlesque’ on the website and accused me of running a brothel. I think they’ve calmed down a bit now,’ she says.
From the jars of barley sugars and jelly beans in the sweet shop to the old-fashioned eiderdowns on the beds, everything here will take you on a trip down memory lane. In the mornings we wake up to the gentle sound of steam trains chuffing past. The North Yorkshire Moors Railway starts at nearby Grosmont so we set off to walk the signposted Rail Trail to the station. It’s a lovely walk but we miss the train by five minutes. The next one is not for another two hours. Never mind, we’ll go to the pub. Except it’s closed. To the tea room then. Only they don’t take credit cards and we’ve got no cash. When I ask where the nearest cash machine is the waitress looks at me like I’ve gone mad. Just for a second, I feel like I really have time-travelled back to 1960s England.
Eventually the train heaves into the station with a long sigh. I’ve not been on a steam train since I was a child and I can barely contain my excitement as the whistle blows and we start to pootle across the moors. All too soon we arrive at Goathland station, with its old advertisements for Woodbines and obligatory trainspotters. The village doubles as Aidensfield in the Sunday-night nostalgia-fest that is Heartbeat and the locals seem to be making a nice living out of the connection. The shops are full of Aidensfield teatowels and fudge and you can pose with a vintage Anglia police car outside the petrol station.
The next morning we head into Whitby, a 15-minute drive away. Overlooked by the atmospheric ruins of an abbey and with an all-pervading smell of chip fat on the air, this handsome fishing town offers a beguiling mix of gravitas and low-rent seaside fun. From the goths haunting the clifftop graveyard (Whitby is where Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula and the association is a big draw for folk who like to wear black lipstick) to the scampi in a basket haunting the bar menus, the town seems to have ground to a halt somewhere around 1986. But in a good way.
Though there are a few seeds of gentrification sprouting up along the harbour front – a chi-chi furniture shop and a sleek champagne and oyster bar – they are forced to rub shoulders with an unashamedly tacky emporium selling buckets and spades and the Dracula Experience, a gloriously rubbish example of the sort of cardboard, homespun ‘attraction’ the British seaside does so well (think strobe lights, cobwebs and plastic dummies opening coffin lids).
We browse the second-hand shops, post some ‘famous Whitby kippers’ home to our parents from one of the seafood stalls on the quay and then sit on the harbour wall eating fish and chips and mushy peas from the Magpie Cafe while seagulls circle waiting for scraps. Across the road fortune-teller Lee Ester Alita Lee sits outside her kiosk drinking a cup of tea. The sign says she will predict your future, though I can’t help feeling this is a town that’s more at home in the past.
On our last night we walk to the local pub. Down through the forest, where the wild garlic is in bloom, across the stream and along the river until we come to the hamlet of Beck Hole. Stepping into the The Birch Hall Inn here is like stepping into an earlier century. A small room with wooden benches, an open log fire and a low-beamed ceiling. There’s no bar – just a small hole in the wall through which landlady Glenys will serve you real ale and pork pies made by the local butcher. We stumble back through the moonlit forest to find the camp fire blazing at La Rosa. We sit under the stars for a bit and listen to the owls.
Are vintage caravans the new boutique hotels? Probably not. But everyone should stay in a place like this at least once. Charming, eccentric and lots of fun – in short, everything a British holiday should be.
It costs £24 per person per night to stay in a caravan at La Rosa (07786 072 866; larosa.co.uk) including bedding, gas, candles and firewood.
Joanne O’Connor travelled from London to York by train with GNER (08457 225225; gner.co.uk). Advance purchase return fares start from £20 when booked online.
Car hire from York was supplied courtesy of carrentals.co.uk.
Five more retro gems
A taste of Uncle Sam
Lovers of all things retro will drool over this collection of vintage US Airstream trailers on the Isle of Wight. Five of these sleek, shiny mobile homes, sitting in a field on the south coast, have been restored to their 1960s glory. All are equipped with beds, kitchens and hot water. The ‘Tradewind’ even has a bathroom with a tub and shower. The decor is pure 1960s, with crocheted blankets, formica tables and chunky toasters – and if that isn’t enough nostalgia for you, the cupboards are filled with retro delights like Fuzzy Felt (remember that?).
· Book it: 07802 758113; vintagevacations.co.uk. A weekend costs £180; a week £450.
On the road
For a retro experience that moves, hire a vintage VW van in the heart of Devon and spend lazy days pootling along narrow country lanes, exploring the wilds of Dartmoor or checking out the pretty coastline. With names including Mr Orange and Uma, the vans have characters of their own (split-screen Kissinger has its original kitsch 1967 kitchen too), with two, four or six berths – and you can hitch on an awning for extra space. A week in high season costs £700, but you can hire a van for a day or for up to three months.
· Book it: 01837 659 599; oconnorscampers.co.uk
Sand between your toes
For a classic dose of seaside nostalgia you can’t do better than the Walpole Bay Hotel in Cliftonville, Kent. This Edwardian gem is a living museum. From the 1920s gated lift and potted palms in reception to the bedrooms with their flowery wallpaper, it’s the complete antithesis of a slick designer hotel. Browse the nick-nacks and old photographs in the corridors before settling down for a cream tea on the lovely art nouveau veranda watching a bowls tournament on the green opposite. Brash Margate with its seafront amusement arcades and enigmatic Shell Grotto is just a pebble’s throw away.
· Book it: 01843 221703, walpolebayhotel.co.uk. Double rooms from £70 a night
Wigwam, thank you ma’am
If you love the idea of camping but hate the thought of staying in a polythene ‘bungalow’ with plastic windows, go for the altogether more stylish option of a canvas tipi. For a real back-to-nature experience head to Cornwall where you will find 40 tipis, sleeping from three to six, on a site with a lake where you can swim, fish or take out a rowing boat. You can spot wildlife such as buzzards and rabbits without leaving camp, and rediscover the joy of chopping your own wood to build a campfire. Nearby are the surfing beaches of Polzeath and Daymer Bay.
· Book it: 01208 880781; cornish-tipi-holidays.co.uk. A week costs £495 for the smallest tipi, £745 for the largest
You may remember your childhood summers at Britain’s holiday camps with fondness, but reliving them as they actually were is a turn-off. The Shoreline hotel in the Butlins Bognor Regis Resort pulls off boutique style, with airy modern rooms and a cool bar, but has the camp’s ‘attractions’ – waterslides, tennis, Gala Bingo, close to hand. The place will still be packed with screaming kids, but a bit of wry humour and plenty of Blue Lagoon cocktails should help you to enjoy the antics of the Red Coats.
· Book it: 0870 242 1999; butlinsonline.co.uk. From £32 per person per night, based on four sharing a room
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