“I first caravanned back in the 1970s, when I was eight or nine, with my parents and two sisters,” reveals Wendy. “We used to rally with the Mid-West Yorkshire Centre, part of the Caravan Club. We went to rallies all over Yorkshire, and we made lots of friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with.
“In the early days, our little Lissett Alpha caravan had gas lamps, a foot-pedal to pump water, and no bathroom. I remember my mum and dad doing it up, wallpapering it, and my dad building three bunk beds. It had glass windows, and when we got it, there were mushrooms going in the mould!”
How times have changed. Today we’re sitting in the luxurious lounge of Wendy’s 2018 Lunar Clubman CK, on a spacious pitch at the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s brilliant Ferry Meadows Site, in Peterborough.
I knew she’d love this spacious, wooded campsite, as would her dogs, Ginny, a Cavapoo, and Gerald, a Lhasapoo. There are hundreds of acres of parkland next door, plus a river, lakes, cafés and a steam railway.
Wendy and I went to school together in North Yorkshire, and she got in touch again when she saw my name in Practical Caravan.
Following the tragic loss of her husband, Andy, a couple of years ago, after just 19 months of marriage, Wendy has continued touring, solo. I was keen to find out how that was panning out, partly with the intention of inspiring others to discover the many advantages of solo caravanning for themselves.
“After I first got married in 1988, I didn’t caravan for years, and it’s only in the past six or seven years that I’ve got back into it,” explains Wendy. “To start with, Andy wanted a tent, so we got one. One time, we were away with friends who had a caravan, and we realised that with a van, we could holiday all year round.
“We started off with a lovely, 20-year-old caravan. It was so cosy and flowery. One day we were towing down the M62, after a weekend in Bridlington, when we lost a wing mirror. We took the van to storage and went to Yorkshire Caravans, near Doncaster, for some new mirrors – we came away with a new van, as you do! It was a Swift Challenger Sport with a fixed bed.”
While enjoying their frequent trips away in the van, unbeknownst to the pair, Andy had developed cancer. It had started with bowel cancer, but by the time it was diagnosed, it had spread. An initial positive prognosis was soon followed by the worst news.
“He looked and felt well, and he was active. He used to go walking, golfing and motorcycling,” says Wendy. “It was really sad to watch him deteriorate, especially because he looked young for his age. He hadn’t been married before – no kids, no stress, no lines!”
To save the effort of towing, the couple put the van on a seasonal pitch at one of their favourite campsites, near Pocklington in North Yorkshire, but sadly, Andy never made it there, as he passed away just days before the season started.
After he died, Wendy carried on going to the caravan on the seasonal pitch, with friends, or on her own with her two dogs, but she found that the desire to head out on the road wouldn’t go away.
Back on the road
“After Andy died, I started thinking about buying a small caravan that I would be able to tow on my own. My sister, Debbie, said: “Just do it. Try it. If you don’t like it, you can always sell it.” Lots of women friends said, ‘How can you? You’re so brave,’ but I thought, why not? Just have a go. None of it is that difficult.
“Before, I used to sit in the car and Andy did it all. I used to get the water, but I didn’t have a clue about the electrics or hitching up.
“My sister had shown me how to do everything, when Andy and I bought our first caravan. I wrote it all down, but after two or three times, I thought, ‘I don’t need this any more,’ and I got rid of the list.
“We had a fixed-bed caravan, which was lovely, but they’re that much bigger. So, with Andy gone, I bought a tiny Lunar Ariva. It was absolutely lovely and so easy to tow, but it was a bit too small, so I upsized to this Lunar Clubman. It’s perfect for me. It’s got a make-up front bed, but I don’t mind that. It means there’s more usable space, without the van being too long.
“It was quite hard on my own at first. I remember rocking up to one of our favourite sites for the first time without him. I fell to bits. But in the end, with the support of friends, I had a good New Year. We used to go away every New Year and I still do. I love it.”
So, what are the biggest barriers to solo caravanning?
“I used to tow occasionally when Andy and I toured. I remember the first time. Andy had been diagnosed and we were towing back to Yorkshire from Devon, and he said: ‘I can’t drive. I’m too tired, you’re going to have to tow.’ We had a Vauxhall Insignia then, so I was chucked in at the deep end.”
She’s obviously a quick learner. Towing the Lunar with her new SsangYong Korando, Wendy is now adept at manoeuvring around a site and onto her pitch. “This car’s a bit heavier than my last one, a Vauxhall Mokka X. That makes it feel much more stable, and I’m more confident towing with it.”
Wendy is a whirlwind when it comes to pitching. She has the van on its pitch, unhitched and levelled in minutes. Only the Al-Ko stabiliser puts up any resistance, so she adopts the Olympic powerlifter approach to wrench it undone.
Next, the steadies come down, and the facilities are being connected. The power lead is unwound from its spool and connected to the van first – all the safety issues are addressed, then its over to the site tap to fill her two Aquarolls. She’s a Yorkshire lass and not afraid of a bit of graft!
Her much-loved dogs, Ginny and Gerald, are on long lines attached to the A-frame and go a bit crazy when Wendy wheels the water containers away, before working on their most forlorn looks as she disappears momentarily from sight. It’s quite heartbreaking, for about five minutes and 20 seconds, before normal service is resumed.
Finally, because the pitch is a little damp after a heavy shower, Wendy puts down the awning mat, to minimise any mud getting into the caravan. This is all very organised and efficient.
Snoozing on the sofa
At last it’s time for a cuppa and a chance to relax in the van. Ginny and Gerald are clearly at home and the masters of all they survey, keeping a watchful eye on the neighbours from the back of the sofa, before quietly settling down for a snooze.
“All the usual reasons why people love caravanning apply to me,” says Wendy, over a cup of Yorkshire’s finest. “You can get away at a moment’s notice, and have lots of breaks every year, all year round. It’s the perfect holiday for dog-lovers, too, and the people you meet are amazing. I’ve made life-long friends. Plus, you can also visit lots of brilliant new places… like Peterborough!”
It has to be said, Wendy makes a great ambassador for solo caravanning. I see her posts on Facebook ever month, and while she travels solo, she’s rarely alone in the pictures. There’s always a bunch of caravanning friends ready and willing to hitch up, hit the road and help her stay within her MTPLM limit, by reducing her wine-based payload! Everyone needs friends like that.
Wendy’s top tips for solo travel
- Just give it a go. Like my sister said: “If you don’t like it, you can always sell it.”
- I didn’t do a course, but I hear they are very good. If I could go back, I’d do a Caravan and Motorhome Club towing course before I started.
- On your first trip, stay near home. It’s an opportunity to get used to the van, learn the ropes and iron out any little issues. If there’s a problem, say with the heating, you can always head home ad try again another time.
- Don’t fear the loo! I don’t mind emptying it. It’s simple and civilised these days, and just part of caravanning.
- Go with friends. People are always very supportive – both caravanning friends and total strangers you meet on site.
- Get some gadgets. The motor mover is great, and takes any stress out of manoeuvring and parking up. So is the cordless drill for winding the steadies. Remember to keep it charged!
- Go often – that way, you don’t forget the details of how to do things, as you would if you only went once a year.
- The dogs are a big help – they are good company.
- Buy your caravan from a good dealership, with excellent customer service. They’ll help you make the right choice.
- Bring the first night’s meal with you, already prepped. This is especially good in winter, when it gets dark quickly.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. For example, the hitch head stabiliser is stiff and it takes all my strength to undo it. If you get stuck like that, just ask.
- Take advice on which caravan to buy. All the latest luxuries are very tempting, but they add size and weight to the van.
- Likewise, choose the right tow car. It needs a bit of substance, to make towing more comfortable, and safer.
- Allow for plenty of breaks, especially on long journeys. Even better, plan an overnighter on the way.
- Join a caravan club. You’ll meet some brilliant people.
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When I was a child, our caravan had glass windows. When we got it we found that there were mushrooms growing in the mould!