I first bumped into Hilde Thompson at the Practical Caravan Reader Rally, at Stowford Farm Meadows near Combe Martin in North Devon, over an early May Bank Holiday. It was a familiar whirring noise that drew my attention: a water pump that was sucking up air from an empty Aquaroll. I listened again: it wasn’t coming from my van, but the van adjacent – and it didn’t sound as though it was going to stop.
It was a rookie caravanner, I decided, and wandered over to find out whether I could help.
The lady who answered my knock had her hair wrapped in a towel; when I explained what the noise was, and that she should turn off her water pump until she had more water in the Aquaroll, she thanked me and went off in search of the controls.
That was three years ago, and Hilde is still caravanning – it was during that rally that she and her partner, Derek Galsworthy, were truly bitten by the caravanning bug. The couple, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, had borrowed a caravan for the rally, and really enjoyed their time away: that very social weekend reminded them both of camping holidays with their grandchildren.
I caught up with them again at this year’s event to see what they’d been up to since our previous meeting. This time they were in their own caravan, a 1992 Elddis Mistral XL, which they bought for £1400 from T Giles Caravans in Horsham, East Sussex. After the first rally, the couple had searched the local newspaper for small caravans for sale.
“We didn’t want to spend too much money in case we discovered that we didn’t like touring after all,” says Derek. “We found a suitable younger van, but it didn’t fit down the side of our house!”
But then luck struck, and they discovered the 23-year-old Elddis. Its £1400 price tag included a new battery, and the washroom had been refurbished. The couple loved it, and took the plunge back into our pastime.
Derek is not new to caravanning, though. His first forays into the hobby were 30 years ago when he and his family made annual trips to France, Spain and Greece in an 18ft Coachman. He vividly remembers that trip to Greece: it was in 1983, and they stopped in northern Italy where he took a day off from driving, before driving through what was then Yugoslavia. There, they saw people on tractors with trailers piled up with furniture.
“It was extraordinarily hot in Greece,” says Derek. He recalls stopping by the roadside on the coast with the caravan in tow, and walking into the sea fully clothed. “By the time we got back to the car we were dry.”
Some of his other caravanning memories weren’t so positive – he also remembers a gale in 1997, when the caravan was parked in a farmer’s field and was overturned by the wind!
The couple met 15 years ago. Hilde, it turned out, was a real ‘outdoorsy’ person, so they began camping with a four-berth tent that had a central living area and a sleeping pod on either side. The grandchildren loved it; they camped with them for 10 years until the teenagers began to lose interest, says Hilde.
But it was when Hilde and Derek met up with family at Stowford Farm Meadows for our Practical Caravan Reader Rally that their interest in the outdoor life was really rekindled – and they were won over by the luxury that caravanning can offer.
“It’s so nice to have hot water, gas heating and a cassette toilet,” says Hilde. “We also have a three-ring hob and a grill, and we bring our halogen oven.”
Since buying the caravan, the couple have really put their own stamp on it. Derek has made feet for the steadies and varnished wooden chocks, fitted a clock and TV aerial and made a table to clip onto the centre chest, using an old aluminium walking stick for the leg. This is where Chico, their one-eyed Cocker Spaniel, likes to sleep.
“Chico loves the van and travels well,” says Hilde.
Hilde, meanwhile, is handy with a sewing machine and has run up some colourful cushions and throws to brighten the interior of their home from home.
The couple have managed to get away in their van numerous times during their 18 months of ownership. So far they’ve been to the coast in South-East England and South-West England and Wales, as well as the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Goodwood Revival, both of which they love.
“Last year we stayed at a few places that only offered water facilities,” says Derek, “so we bought a spare battery. We prefer smaller sites that have no entertainment, though, and we like to move around rather than stay in one place.”
They tow their caravan with a Hyundai Santa Fe, which posts 25mpg when hitched-up, says Derek. “We don’t know that we have a caravan on the back. I was thinking about getting a special sat-nav that takes the caravan into account – we’ve never become stuck down a narrow lane, but we always pray nothing is coming the other way!” he says.
So are they happy they took the touring plunge? Yes, they tell me: the service costs were a bit of a shock, but they are delighted to be able to get out exploring a lot more now than before.
“And best of all,” says Hilde, “we can take the dog!”
Derek has made a table to clip onto the centre chest, using an old aluminium walking stick for the leg