Mo Laethanta Saoire: Danielle McLaughlin on the joys of caravans

The latest of our Laethanta Series of summer reads has the Cork author reflecting on happy days and stormy nights in Ardmore and beyond 
Mo Laethanta Saoire: Danielle McLaughlin on the joys of caravans
 Danielle McLaughlin with her dad and the family's Ford Capri. 

It’s the summer of 1979 and I am ten years old. I’m on holidays with my family in Ardmore, Co Waterford, and the campsite where we’re staying has been ambushed by a storm. Outside, the wind sucks noisily at the sides of the caravan. Inside, the wall panels bang and clatter as they move in and out - inhale, exhale - as if the storm, or the caravan itself, is a thing alive. Although it’s the middle of the night, I’m out of my bunk, standing barefoot in my pyjamas beside my baby sister’s carry cot.

For a child capable of mining anxiety from the most innocuous of sources, I’m curiously unafraid. This midnight drama is exhilarating. Another squall of wind rattles the caravan and the carry cot sways precariously on its stand. My parents tie a pair of my father’s trousers around the cot part, so that if the stand tips over, at least the baby won’t fall out. The caravan is shaking and jigging and groaning and my parents decide to evacuate it and take me, my younger brother, and the baby to the family car. And still my overwhelming emotion is not fear, but excitement. This was the sort of thing that might happen to a child in a book.

Our car at the time was a Ford Capri, and it was into this bubble of relative robustness that we sealed ourselves for the rest of the night. I don’t remember anything about those hours spent in the car, I expect that I eventually nodded off. 

Nowadays, there would be storm names and storm memes, storm hashtags and storm fake news. Back then, without any flickering blue screens to feed us social media updates, there was no way of knowing what was unfolding in the world outside. My parents would have to wait until morning when the storm had died down and news began to filter through the campsite.

 Danielle McLaughlin and a dog at the caravan park. 
 Danielle McLaughlin and a dog at the caravan park. 

While we were taking refuge in the car, the storm had battered the Fastnet Yacht Race with Force 10 winds and giant waves. 19 people had drowned while we slept. Or perhaps I should say while I slept, because looking back on the incident as an adult, I can’t imagine that my parents did much sleeping. 

Of the 303 yachts that started the Fastnet Race that year, only 86 finished. None of this registered properly with me at the time. I had a young a child’s incognisance of events that didn’t directly impact me, even those that came close enough to buffet the edges of my world. I continued to regard the storm mainly as a great adventure.

There was also another kind of caravan that filled me with wonder when I was a child: the horse-drawn holiday caravans, barrel-shaped covered wagons operated by Joe O Reilly whose base was in Blarney, not far from where we lived. The horses were kept in a large field on the edge of the village and, being horse-mad, I loved to see them grazing and resting between assignments: piebalds, palominos, greys, bays. 

Every so often we would pass on the road a family setting out on holiday, perhaps a child my age riding up front holding the reins. A holiday where you got to bring an actual horse, or rather, the horse brought you! What could be better? 

Looking back, I find myself wondering how much ground those caravans could possibly have covered in a day. Ten miles, maybe fifteen, at a push? How much of Ireland would you get to see if your fastest pace was an ambling trot? But perhaps those holidays makers got to see plenty.

It would have been a different kind of seeing, an experience rich in what today we’d call mindfulness. A gentle journeying along narrow lanes, hedgerows lush with ferns and honeysuckle, a chance, perhaps, to observe things in close-up, rather than have them blurr by through the windows of a coach.

As for our own caravan, there’s another memory as clear as that night of the Fastnet disaster. Again, I recall it as somewhat thrilling, though I doubt that my parents felt the same way. 

This time, I’m traveling in the car, with the caravan being towed behind. We’ve collected it from where it was temporarily parked, off-season, with friends of my parents and are bringing it home. I remember turning to look out the back window of the car, in response, perhaps to an exclamation from my father. 

There, framed in the rear windscreen, was the caravan making a break for freedom. It had become unhitched, and as we continued to move in one direction, it glided away in the other, before overturning in a ditch.

Trust between caravan and owner had been severed. Shortly after this incident, it was decided to sell the caravan. In any event, our family had grown larger with the arrival of another baby brother, and I expect the caravan would have been pretty crowded for six. 

Danielle McLoughlin. 
Danielle McLoughlin. 

It was sold for £80 and off it went, battle-scarred, to a new home. And so ended the caravan era of family holidays. I have fond memories of those summers spent usually in Ardmore or Tramore, with the excitement of the merries and the beaches, the mini pitch and putt and the ice creams.

One year, there was a stray dog I befriended who I named Sandy and pleaded, unsuccessfully, to be allowed keep. In later years, whenever I encountered the word ‘caravan’ in its other meaning - a convoy of people crossing a desert – I’d struggle to picture, say, traders with camels on the Silk Road. For me the word persisted in the first incarnation in which I encountered it, and despite the best efforts of the author of whatever book I was reading, an image would spring to mind of our old familiar caravan surrounded by endless sand.

In a variation on the caravan theme, in recent years I’ve gone on camper van holidays with my husband and kids. One year, we rented a camper van for ten days and travelled around Wales, Cornwall and Devon. I had a novel to finish at the time, in fact, I was way past deadline. It was a revelation to discover that a camper van doubles as a writing retreat on wheels, with a constantly changing view outside the window. As long as you have someone else do the driving, of course.

Modern day camper vans are very different creatures to the caravans of old, with smart compact kitchenettes, toilets, showers, and comfy table space for notebooks and pens. And there’s the reassurance of knowing that a camper van won’t attempt to take its leave when your back is turned, so there’s no need to keep it under surveillance in the rear view mirror. As for that novel I had to finish, I typed ‘The End’ on the ferry back home, with the camper van garaged below deck, and a storm raging outside.

Danielle McLaughlin's novel, The Art of Falling, will be published next year

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