Though undeniably compact, Holly is ingeniously designed, with cupboards and drawers tucked into every nook and cranny. The original shelf bed is raised several feet off the floor; Bram was thrilled to be sleeping underneath us in a traditional gypsy “cupboard bed.”
Colin pointed out a small wooden box on the back — a feature of all caravans — which most people assume held pots and pans. Actually, it housed the family rooster, or cockerel; Romany were traditionally keen on cockfighting as a sport. Above the box is a wooden shelf used to store hay for the horse.
These ornate caravans have been a feature of the British countryside for 200 years. They were first used by gypsy showmen traveling between fairs and circuses in the 1820s. Highly cherished and expensive to produce, the wagons were made using the finest oak, ash, pine, elm and walnut. Families and newly married couples commissioned craftsmen and coach-builders to make the caravans. It was a highly skilled job, and each caravan took up to a year to build.
Holly boasts her original cast-iron stove (and chimney), which still works, though Colin advised us that we’d be better off (and safer) cooking in the stables that he has converted into a kitchen, with all the mod-cons. There’s an adjoining shower room and a separate chemical toilet.
In their heyday, caravans like Holly and Rowan typically traveled up to 15 miles a day, pulled by one horse (or two when traveling over hilly ground). We, however, relied on our car to take us into the surrounding area, which teems with fascinating historical sites, including Stirling Castle, the Wallace Monument (named after the 13th-century Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace), the grave of folk hero Rob Roy and the site of the Battle of Bannockburn. It was there, 700 years ago, that the Scottish army of Robert the Bruce defeated the army of the English king, even though the Scots were outnumbered three to one.
We returned from a cold, wet day of sightseeing to find Holly surprisingly snug, thanks to the electric heater. Mugs of hot chocolate made with our electric kettle added to our contentment.
By our second night, we’d gotten used to the way the caravan gently rocked whenever the wind got up or one of us turned over. As I lay listening to the noises of the night, I couldn’t help thinking what a pity it was that these lovely old vehicles fell out of favor as travelers took to living in large modern caravans pulled by cars. Another factor was the arrival of television and cinema, which led to the demise of fairs and circuses, for so long a source of seasonal work for the nomadic traveler community. The only time you see these caravans on Britain’s roads today is en route to horse fairs such as the one at Appleby, in Cumbria, a high point in the travelers’ social calendar.
Interestingly, though, the caravans are making a comeback outside their traditional community, as quirky holiday homes, garden offices and children’s playhouses.
As we packed up, I was dreaming of buying a caravan like Holly. I even found one advertised online for $3,000 — a steal. If only our city center apartment had a garden to put it in, a world of relaxed, free-spirited living could be mine.
Prentice is a journalist based in Edinburgh. Her first book, “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island,” will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in October.