Barefoot Caravans - bringing luxury to the great outdoors
- Credit: Archant
Barefoot Caravans are the creation of Alderley Edge resident Cathy Chamberlain and are attracting attention from both the design savvy and the lovers of the great British outdoors, writes Kate Houghton
When I met Cathy, at her beautiful home in Alderley Edge, I was immediately struck by the thought that this elegant lady couldn’t be any further from the stereotypical caravanner I had in my mind. My initial impressions were soon proven correct.
Indeed, her assault on the world of caravans was triggered by her absolute rejection of the square box on wheels we see on our roads at the weekends, while driven by her desire to take advantage of all the beauty this country has to offer those who are prepared to get out there and look for it.
‘I had taken my children camping in the Lakes, with a friend,’ Cathy tells me. ‘It was a lovely warm weekend, and yet I was still cold and uncomfortable in the night. I looked across at the caravans and thought how lovely it must be to wake up in this beautiful place yet cosy and dry. The big problem with that though was that I wouldn’t be seen dead in one!’
Cathy had been searching for a business opportunity and it struck her that she couldn’t possibly be the only person who loved the idea of heading off at weekends to explore the countryside, yet with a deeply ingrained dislike of caravans.
But with no background in the industry, just where did she start?
‘I rather blagged my way, to be honest!’ Cathy laughs. ‘I had seen a tiny teardrop shaped caravan I liked, but was just too small to be practical, so I had an image in my head of what I wanted to achieve and knew that the body would be made from fibreglass. I tracked down a company in the Cotswolds, Watsonian Squire, who made side-cars for motorbikes and talked them into making something together. I had no idea of course of how complex a process it actually was!’
In another stroke of genius, Cathy convinced the course leader in the Automotive Transport Design degree at Coventry University that designing her caravan would make an excellent project for final year students, giving her access to young, innovative minds with an understanding of aerodynamics, engineering demands and stresses, etc, who came along to spend a summer with Watsonian Squire to design the exterior of her dream machine.
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‘I wanted my caravan to look good from the outside as well as inside, so we worked to create a design that worked aesthetically as well as practically. It had to have a dynamic shape that towed well. I insisted on having a place to carry gas bottles and a water tank built in. I really wanted people to be able to just get up and go, not worry about finding a pitch and hooking up. They could park up and be ready for a comfortable night immediately. It does of course have the usual fittings for longer stays too.’
The process of designing something made with fibreglass is complex. The various parts (sides, roof, etc) have to be made in clay and then layers of fibreglass are then painted inside the clay patterns. The whole thing is then assembled using wooden scaffolding. Then there are weeks and weeks of polishing the panels to remove even the slightest roughness, till it becomes a glossy, smooth entity. This then becomes the ‘plug’. The plug is used to make the mould. The mould is then used repeatedly to make new caravan bodies. At the moment Cathy has only one mould, so each van is made to order, at a rate of one per week. You can choose from standard colours of duck egg blue, rich cream or graphite grey, but as they are made to order you could pretty much dictate your own shade.
Of course, the exterior is only part of the story - the interior also needed to provide the ‘cosy yet stylish’ Cathy demanded.
‘I did a lot of research and spoke to caravan companies and those who designed the interiors of yachts. I had no funds to offer as payment, so offered a share in the business. I was repeatedly turned down, until one business - Auto-Sleepers, motorhome makers again based in the Cotswolds - said that while they didn’t want a share in my company, but would design and make a first interior for me for free, as they claimed to enjoy a challenge.
They probably hadn’t anticipated quite the challenge that Cathy would set, as this determined and visionary woman had quite clear ideas on what she wanted to achieve.
‘We did have battles on the way!’ she laughs. ‘All the designers are men; this fascinated me. Here they are making decisions on what should be included and how it should look, but research has shown that it’s the woman in any couple buying that makes the final purchase decision!
‘Having been to music festivals a shower was a must-have and my demands included one that a 6’ 2” person could stand straight in, for a start. They cleverly devised a way to drop the floor between the rear chassis to make this happen. Most caravans are also simply boxed inside, to create straight lines. I wanted to keep the curvy lines – so we did! It took four months to get it designed and fitted – and its looks fantastic!’
It’s fair to say that the end result is a caravan for people who would never buy a caravan. It’s perfect for young couples or for those whose children have flown the nest and perfectly bridges that gap between hotels and camping. With its pretty curves and fabulous colour-coordinated interior (complete with matching Roberts DAB radio!) I would happily park this little piece of gorgeousness on my driveway without fear of neighbours’ raised brows.
The first one was completed in October and Cathy immediately took it to an event where it gained masses of attention. ‘It’s always surrounded by people! At only £21,950 – all in, no surprises – it’s a premium product at a very non-premium price.’
I asked Cathy how she feels, four years after her initial idea.
‘The whole thing has been an interesting learning curve!’ she says. ‘I just thought, “Oh, I’ll build a caravan.” One of my dreams however was that I wanted to show my children what can be achieved with hard work and patience. If I can set up a business and make a success of it then anything can be achieved.’
And her plans for 2016?
‘We’re going to The Caravan & Motorhome Show at Event City this month, which I’m very excited about. I’m also taking it to Glastonbury. I perhaps should have offered it to a celebrity, for a bit of PR – but I rather feel that I’ve earned it myself!’