Family holidays

Why a caravan break with the in-laws is the greatest holiday you'll ever have

Just hear me out...
Just hear me out... Credit: jlcst - Fotolia/James Lawrence Clarke

It is a measure of the love I have for my other half that she was the first person ever to get me to go on holiday in a caravan. I was nearly 40 and until then had nursed all the usual prejudices about the caravan-dwelling classes.

Caravans were the sort of place that people who couldn't afford Pontins would holiday in. The sort of place that might blow sky-high if you drunkenly lit a cigarette near the gas bottles or the leaky chemical toilets. The sort of place that... my missus and her family have gone on holiday every Easter without fail.

"We're staying in a caravan at Budleigh Salterton in Devon," she told me one day, about six months after we got together. "A family tradition. Would you like to come?"

I gulped. I'd seen pictures of her there as a child, sporting a pudding bowl haircut that made her look like the missing blonde member of the Ramones.

Judging by the tone of her voice, we might have been acting out the long-lost "caravanning scene" from The Godfather, in which Don Corleone makes an offer that can't be refused. Besides, she reassured me, these were fixed caravans, rather than ones we had to drag down the M4 ourselves.

Then, however, she spelt out the small print.

First, the annual caravan bash is alway rigidly timed for the Easter bank holiday which, in Britain, is supposed to mark the start of spring, but usually has weather like the tail end of winter.

Secondly, we would be in the company not just my in-laws, but various friends of theirs and their respective offspring, none of whom I knew. In more generous minds, that might mean a fabulous inter-generational adventure, The Famous Five meets Saga Holidays.

But I am little more than an overgrown teenager myself; the prospect summoned visions of awkward conversations with "grown-ups".

Indeed, I spent the entire way down the first time sulking like a 14-year-old. "I'm giving it a try because you want me to," I explained. "But don't expect me to enjoy it." I really did say that.

That was back in 2008. Eight years - and two children of our own - further down the line, I look forward to it every year.

For a start, caravan design has come a long way since the cramped, mould-encrusted models of the Seventies. There are reliable flushing toilets and working showers, plus a nice sitting-area-cum-kitchenette with wide-screen TV and Wi-Fi.

What could be better than Devon in a caravan? Credit: Paul J Martin +44 (0)7450825575/Paul J Martin +44 (0)7450825575

And while a mobile home might not seem the ideal place to be during one of those Easters dominated by rain and gales, its very compactness can make it better than many a drafty holiday cottage: turn on the central heating and you're warm in two minutes, not two hours. Indeed, there's something rather cosy about sitting inside with a mug of tea, listening to the rain drum the roof and watching storm clouds scud past.

The caravan site we go to is at Ladram Bay on South Devon's Jurassic Coast.

It's been there since the Fifties, next to the pretty thatched village of Otterton, which sits on the River Otter and has a pub that sells Otter Ale. You get the idea. The caravan site has its own private beach at the bottom of some spectacular cliffs, and its own set of sea stacks that look like the Old Man of Hoy's little brothers. And best of all, for the benefit of snobs like me, it turns out that even the caravan world has its own class system.

At the front of Ladram Bay are the most expensive caravans, commanding a sea view and an optional jacuzzi. Behind them are near-identical ones, but minus the prime view and the complimentary bottle of wine. And so it goes on in descending order of status, spilling up the hill from the beach, until you reach a campsite where some poor souls are slumming it in tents, all of which means that I can get up in the mornings, open the door of my caravan and feel like I am lord and master of all I survey (assuming the wind off the sea doesn't slam the door right back in my face).

My other half's parents and their friends have been coming here since the dawn of time - around 1975 - bringing children who are now grown up. Some years, there can be as many as 25 people there, many of whom I still only know as "the Lady with the Brown Hair" or "the Bloke who I owe a Pint from Last Time".

For reasons I’ve never got round to asking about, several of them play musical instruments, and so most nights after dinner, everyone piles into to one caravan or another for a sing-song involving guitars, fiddles, penny whistles and the like. It sounds the sort of thing The Waltons might do on holiday, but it's actually rather fun when washed down with loads of malt whisky. Sometimes a jam session will go on, Grateful Dead-style, right into the small hours. Were it not for my insistence on joining in ineptly with my own guitar playing, we could probably make a CD to sell in the on-site shop.

Despite these odd pleasures, my other half's family still do their best to make it an SAS-style endurance feat. The crowning experience is an evening barbecue on the beach, which takes place no matter how grim the weather. We sit down by the sea, under the light of the Easter Moon, wrapped up in winter gear and huddling round the fire like cavemen. There is, however, a silver lining: the caravans seem even more welcoming when we finally stagger back up from the beach.

Music and boozing aside, there's plenty to do for the children as well, all satisfyingly in the tradition of the great British seaside entertainment.

Unlike many places in Devon these days, Ladram Bay is not one of these resorts peopled exclusively by hipsters. There's no organic honey-making lessons, no children's poetry workshops, no getting your kids face-painted as Sir John Gielgud or Melvyn Bragg.

Instead, there's a big swimming pool with waterslides, a football pitch, a massive games arcade, and a Butlin's-style club that does discos for youngsters, plus a Phoenix Nights-style talent contest for the adults. In equally old-school fashion, an excellent on-site cafe does chips and pizza. We tuck in with gusto on the last night we're there - not a tub of hummus to be seen.

"When you've had enough of socialising, you can retreat back into the privacy of your own mobile home" Credit: © Image Source / Alamy Stock Photo/Image Source / Alamy Stock Photo

I ought to finish by saying, of course, that the best thing about this particular holiday is the chance to get to know my partner's family and friends, and how wonderful they all turned out to be. Which, as it happens, would also be true (and I am not just saying that because I will have to face them again next month).

It is also wise to point out that, if you're ever dragged into an extended family holiday yourself, caravan sites are ideal because, when you've had enough of socialising, you can retreat back into the privacy of your own mobile home - making it a far better option than sharing one great big house together. Not only are you spared hungover small talk at breakfast with folk whose names you can't remember, but you can have the odd night in to yourself. This, of course, offers you the chance to argue in peace with your other half about how bloody freezing the weather in England is, and to make the case for renting a villa in Marbella next Easter like normal people.