[tl:gallery size=460×345]One of the many things I love about caravanning is the fact that people you’ve never met before are so ready and willing to drop their Aquarolls, barbecue tongs or shatterproof glasses of Pinot Grigio at a moment’s notice to help out with any problems you may be having.


I’m still talking van-related issues here. I don’t think either seasoned caravanners or site wardens are yet qualified to dispense marriage guidance or offer advice on how to manage a hedge-fund, although one lady at Clumber Park did come close.


It is always reassuring to see on the forums and letters pages the heartfelt gratitude expressed by newbies to knights in shining twin-axles who have helped them reverse onto pitches with a gradient of Everest, grapple with a myriad of awning poles and guy ropes or work out why they can only get hot water on a Friday.


However in my experience any fellow caravanner who has approached us, hands in pockets, whistling a chirpy tune and ready to dish out all kinds of advice on which direction the antenna should face so we can get “Murder She Wrote”, usually takes one look at M’s face and then backs away with the look of someone who has come out to retrieve the milk from the doorstep only to find a large grizzly bear pouring his semi-skimmed over a bowl of cornflakes.

I’m probably being a bit unfair there; M is never rude to people offering help; it’s just that He Can Do It All Himself. Apparently.


Accepting help is like admitting defeat, in the same way that asking for directions is a form of cheating, hence how we ended up on an industrial park/ red light district in Northern France when looking for Disneyland Paris. And so as we begin to unload the back of the Sedona, people on pitches all around retreat hastily into their vans, lock the doors behind them and put the kettle on, ready to enjoy the spectacle that is Us Putting the Awning Up.


Even writing those words bring me out in a cold sweat. I know there will be people out there who will read this and wonder what all the fuss is about, that if a bunch of seven-year-olds answering to someone called Brown Owl can put up an acre of canvas in under 20 minutes then why can’t a couple of agile, professional grown-ups do likewise? I don’t know.


It’s always been the same, even from being a child when my parents tried to put up a third-hand awning to go with the second-hand Sprite without any instructions, or gin (my mother recently revealed that two gin and tonics was the answer to awning-related bickering). As a result, my sister and I learned all the swear words needed to see us through later life and spent our holiday with what can only be described as a deflated circus big top attached to the van.


Our first caravan as a happily-married couple was a brand new Lunar Zenith, complete with brand new Bradcot awning. Our first outing with both threatened to be the last time I would ever use the words “happily” and “married” in the same sentence. The van was pristine; its smooth white sides reflecting the brilliant glare of a sunny Flamborough day.


The awning was a neat square of green canvas that unfolded into something large enough to wrap around one of Jupiter’s moons and took on the aerodynamic properties of a Harrier when encouraged by the slightest breeze. And we were pitched on a cliff edge.


So we started with the obligatory mutterings of, “The instructions must be wrong”, and “There’s definitely a bit missing” that accompany any feat of construction in our household, moving through to growling and grinding of teeth before arriving finally at full-blown cursing with attempts to launch Bradcot’s finest into the North Sea.


At one point, my job was to hold three metal poles upright at the same time, and several feet apart, whilst trying to dodge the ones that were falling from the roof and slamming into the side of the van. Several hours later, we were rewarded with an awning where all but one side almost came into contact with the ground, three dents in the side of the van, two in the side of my head and a stony silence all round.


Fortunately we didn’t need to speak to each other for the rest of the evening, as we were able to observe the elderly couple opposite who arrived just before sunset and were sat in their perfectly erected awning forty minutes later eating a Fray Bentos pie. There were no dints in their van, her head looked to be healthy and they even appeared to be smiling. I can’t prove it, but I suspect gin.


It was difficult enough when there was just the two of us, now with two small boys it is practically impossible. Despite the awning poles being laid out according to the colour-coded stickers applied by M to facilitate a speedy assembly the boys are gleefully swapping the stickers around to see how red they can make him go before his head finally explodes, whilst using the poles they have decided are “spare” to joust with. The final nail in the awning came two years ago when we swapped the Lunar for a Bailey Ranger.


Once again it was pristine, and once again it now has a set of dents at regular intervals along the side. “It gives it character,” I offer pathetically as M looks like he may do a Basil Fawlty with a corner pole.


And so we abandoned the Bradcot for the sake of marital harmony and possible further neurological damage to myself and bought a porch awning; a brilliant move until the time we ventured outside after a particularly stormy night in Cromer to discover the remaining shreds of nylon flapping miserably around a twisted pole and our belongings strewn around the play park.


M has just suggested that we may get the Bradcot out of retirement for our upcoming two weeks in Cornwall. I am now on the lookout for any two-for-one gin offers at the supermarkets. And a crash helmet.


By Suzanne Asquith