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Camping and Caravan History: from Troy to Tipi

February 8, 2011
by Laura Canning | guides

That stellar lot at BBC4 repeated their documentary Caravans: A British Love Affair last month, which prompted us to have a muse about the history of sleeping under canvas or taking to the road in a vehicle with your own bed within. It's easy, inexpensive, flexible and just all round fab, and we just pity the fools who don't know that (yet). But when did it start becoming a proper industry?

We humans have been taking to the road pretty much since we came down from the trees – even the Iliad mentions the Achaeans setting up camp (or, lofty lodge ) near Troy. But sleeping under canvas until only about a century ago was mainly for reasons of war, economic necessity or Troy-bashing, and it was only at the start of the twentieth century that the leisure part of camping really took off. Soldiers relaxing by tent

This was mostly the idea of one Thomas Hiram Holding, a London tailor who had crossed the American prairies with his parents in 1853, and had had been bitten by the camping bug ever since. He started off the idea of cycling and camping, and wrote a book about doing this in Ireland . When readers interested in doing the same got in touch, he founded an Association of Cycle Campers , six of whom pitched up in an orchard in Berkshire in 1901. From there, the movement grew to hundreds by 1906, and the club's first permanent site was set up in Weybridge.

Around the same time some wise souls realised that taking a look at nomadic and travelling people's way of getting around could also provide an easy, comfortable and inexpensive way to travel at your own pace, much like those pioneers across the American plains the century before. What has now evolved into those £250,000 American RVs in 2011 started off in Britain in 1907 with the formation of The Caravan Club of Great Britain and Ireland, although caravans had been used in Europe and Britain by Romany groups for at least a century before. The term 'caravan' is even older, coming originally from the Moroccan 'karwan', or group of desert travellers, and dating back to Biblical times. It was first used in Britain to mean 'vehicle' around the 19th century.

Caravanning and camping has been an integral part of British life ever since, with the Caravan Club even providing caravans to the Red Cross in the First World War, and the rise of the scouting movement around this time bringing camping to thousands of households around the country. The 1930s and economic crisis saw many people roaming the country looking for seasonal or temporary work, and yet more tried camping for the first time to escape the bombs, danger and strict food rationing in London in the Second World War (rationing was not as strict in country areas where food was produced).

Butlin's: 75 Years of Fun It was after 1945 that camping and caravanning as leisure holidays really took off, as the government relaxed planning restrictions on a war-weary Britain and 'static' sites . The holiday group Butlin's went from three sites before 1939 to ten by 1966, and getting away from it all was affordable to families even on tight budgets. There had been holiday camps in Britain before Butlin's, but not as big or with as much entertainment, and by the 1960s Butlin's had a bigger share of the market than all the other holiday camps combined – at peak season a camp could serve up to 200,000 meals a week.

But by the 1970s, the rise of affordable package holidays meant that holiday camps and caravanning in Britain took a nosedive, and by the 1980s many campsites around the country had closed. But camping was never going to die out, and by the 1990s the rise in choices of accommodation such as heated lodges brought a new affluent type of customer to the industry. Today you can glamour camp, or 'glamp', at more than 200 sites all over the country , in tipis, yurts, wigwams, pods, lodges and more.

As of 2011, camping and caravanning is here to stay. The Camping and Caravanning Club now owns nearly 200 permanent ('Club') sites and licenses over 2,000 smaller Certificated Sites (CSs) in the UK, and has over 300,000 members. The Caravan Club has around 200 Club sites and licenses 2,500 Certified Locations (CLs) . In the past couple of years, staying in the UK for holidays on a 'staycation' has become increasingly popular as people realise that, while you can't do anything about the Great British Weather, there are at least a ton of cool things to see and do around the country, from beaches to birdwatching to festivals, and that camping can be glamorous if you want it to be. And with Pitchup.com, you can search for caravan and camping sites near all of them. What are you waiting for?

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