Amidst the bustle and colour of last summer’s Lingfield Steam & Country Show in Surrey, I came across a real gem. In the back field, among caravans and firetrucks, was a showman’s ‘living wagon’, with beautiful details that made it more homely than any van I’d seen before. Dawn Field is the wagon’s current keeper. She and her late husband, Charlie, joined the long line of owners in the van’s colourful history in 2005.
“I feel lucky to be custodian of this van,” says Dawn, “Charlie knew that I would fall in love with her.”
The caravan’s story began in 1928, when clairvoyant Rose Fish commissioned a ‘hedgerow carpenter’ to build her a pair of caravans. They are thought to have been the only two vans that the carpenter, based in Whitchurch near Newport, Dyfed, ever built and were made with great skill. Rose even had special fish designs incorporated in the stained glass.
Rose was travelling with a circus, and it is thought that the vans would have been part of a baggage train, drawn by horses. Rose owned the caravans until 1940, when the army requisitioned them for use by the Home Guard as a coastal observation post.
The van’s history becomes hazy until it turned up as a drug-smuggling vehicle and was seized by the police. It was in poor condition when Reg and Miriam Arlidge bought it from the police and set about rebuilding it.
In 1995, Len Baker of Shepton Mallet became the next custodian. Along with Lofty Cole and John Head, Len began to exhibit the caravan at steam fairs across the country, including in Launton and Cornwall, where Dawn and her husband became friends with the group. At the shows, the van drew a lot of interest. People were asked to put a few coppers in a jar to view it, and the money raised was donated to Cancer Research. Sadly, the death of Lofty put a stop to the touring and the van was left parked at Len’s home.
When Dawn and Charlie heard that the wagon was no longer touring, they wanted to buy it, but it was a while before they persuaded Len to part with it. After a few visits, however, Len and his wife decided that the pair should be its next owners.
The van was towed by Teddy Harris, of the Harris Brothers Fun Fair, to its new home in East Sussex in October 2005. Dawn and Charlie took the living van back to work touring steam fairs.
“Now that Charlie is gone,” says Dawn, ‘Ted Harris tows the van for me with a 1974 GUY Big J truck, which I repainted from the original cream livery to maroon, to match the living van.” Both the lorry and the living van are ongoing projects that need a lot of tender loving care.
“It seems as if every time it rains, there is a new leak in the roof,” says Dawn. “I often repaint with a flexible rubber paint to keep the rain out. But she’s very comfortable to stay in.”
Dawn has no idea what happened to the sister caravan that Rose Fisher had built. In the late 1990s, at Stanton Drew rally, Len was approached by Robert Pile, who claimed to have the second smaller van of the pair, with matching stained glass. But the trail has gone cold, says Dawn.
“Charlie and I had some great times in our wagon,” says Dawn, “and loved spending a week at our friend’s place in Dorset, before heading to the Great Dorset Steam Fair. The wagon seemed to come to life when we entertained friends.”
The warm wood interior has a wood-burning stove, and a gas stove and grill in the small, well-equipped kitchen. The living area comprises bench seats and lots of floorspace for unexpected sleepovers, and the cosy bedroom has a double bed.
The real beauty of this van is in the detail. The brasses and knick-knacks are unpacked as soon as Dawn gets on site: “When I get to a new place, the first thing I do is put up the photos of Charlie and our old dog, Bisto, who loved to sit in the doorway. I love taking it to the shows, but she’s such a magnet for attention that I don’t get a chance to see the show.
“I always have such a great time when I’m away in her, and I like being able to share her history with people that are interested. She has such a friendly feel, so I’ll try to keep the wagon and lorry going for as long as I can.”
I love taking it to the shows – she's such a magnet for attention