Traditional caravan holiday upgraded

This is the year of the “Staycation” – the holiday for belt-tightening days where you don’t choose to go abroad. I headed for the South Coast to find the traditional caravan holiday upgraded to new level of luxury, and eco-friendliness.

They landed at dawn, then performed an energetic can-can in hobnail boots on my roof. (At least that’s how my bleary subconscious read it.)

By the time I put my head out of the window to see why West Sussex’s aerial ballroom dancing team were practising on my caravan, the seagulls were flying away.

I decided to make the most of my avian wake-up call on a bright South Coast morning, and headed out through the otherwise utterly silent Church Farm Holiday Village to the “direct access” beach.

A 5-minute walk, in theory, turned into a 20 minutes amble – so many photo opportunities over the wide acres of salt marsh and reed beds on the adjoining nature reserve. I reasoned that with bar headed goose backed shrike and spotted flycatcher recently airfreighted in on balmy breezes from the south, even randomly pointing my camera I was sure to “capture” something interesting.

So what happened when a little egret, very white and conspicuous, flew helpfully past? My camera, with maddening power-saving efficiency, had closed down. Oh for a Box Brownie.

On Pagham Beach barefoot beachcombing is as painful as walking on hot embers would be on a day trip inside Vesuvius. This is an all-shingle beach, which means you’ll have to wait 2 million years for the tide to grind it down fine enough for sandcastles.

But there is a big bonus for wildlife. This expanse of “vegetated shingle” is one of the best habitats of its sort on the south coast. I strolled out over a comfy new boardwalk to inspect precious little clumps of sea-kale, yellow-vetch and vivid blue vipers’ bugloss, safe from holiday feet. It’s like visiting one of nature’s art galleries. You know you mustn’t touch.

Bad things are happening to nature elsewhere, but at Pagham they keep getting better. The caravan site – I mean holiday village - is beginning to morph, ecologically speaking, into the nature reserve that surrounds it. So it’s not just leaden-footed seagulls flying over, but also marsh harriers and honey buzzards.

In 2009 it won a David Bellamy gold award for caravan parks. Bellamy launched the scheme 10 years ago, after a career of caravan-hating. He noticed that nature blossomed in these quiet and protected environments, and underwent a Mr Toad-type conversion in Wind in the Willows, but in reverse. (Remember, Toad graduated from caravans to motor cars.) Caravans became 'Wildlife wonderlands…my paradise parks.'

Bellamy looks at park management as a whole - from nature to energy saving and recycling. 600 holiday parks won his award this year. The days of those tedious ranks of monochrome plastic boxes on scenic hillsides may be numbered.

You need to know this about caravans. All the time policemen were getting younger, caravans were growing bigger. When I was a boy they were as big as Mr Toad’s “canary yellow” caravan. Now they rival small stately homes in size.

Mine came with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a spacious sitting room with TV and DVD, and a veranda. Apart from the Strictly Come Dancing routine on my roof, the silence all around was profound, even though the park was full the night I stayed.

No wonder. This between-resorts spot – Bognor Regis is a few miles east, and Southsea is the next big place to the west – is one the quietest spots on the south coast.

I was there to sample a Staycation – 2010’s in-word for a Recession holiday where you don’t go abroad. ironically my guide to the facilities was a very enthusiastic Canadian, Andy Pope.

Andy’s tour took a lot longer than scheduled because of his incorrigible affability. Just as the policemen at the House of Commons recognize every MP, site manger Andy seemed to know everybody here, by sight, and many by first name.

When there was nobody left to say “Hi” to, we got round to the “new this year” facilities, including the 600-seater ShowBar, a bungee jump, a trampoline area, kayak instruction, surf board hire and one of the highest, splashiest flumes on this coast.

Andy explained the eco thinking. They have a resident Green Team, overseeing energy saving and recycling bins. But one thing slows the march to true greenery. Most people still come by car – understandable considering how much they have to carry. I took the full-on green option, just to show it is possible.

That meant a train to Chichester. It’s a wonderful last stretch, clattering over the flat fields in the shadow of Arundel Castle. Then the number 60 bus, which stops outside the park.

I set off around Pagham on one of the site’s hire bikes. First stop, the waterfront. Recycling began here 100 years ago, when Victorian railway carriages were turned into holiday homes. They’re still there today, absorbed into bungalows.

Pagham is spared thousands of day trippers. The shingle puts people off, although a simple folded towel did the tick for my posterial comfort. And this is a European Designated Bathing Beach, with excellent water quality.

A small plaque narrates Pagham’s big part in the D-Day landings. They stored 50 huge concrete segments for one of the Mulberry Harbours here, concealed underwater so the enemy would not spot them, and then towed them to Normandy. All except one, which could not be refloated. You can still see it at low tide, poignantly left behind.

Today the only invasion is the entirely benign sort. Interesting birds flock in year round. An Oriental pratincole was seen the week I was there. Even if you don’t see a rarity, you can’t miss the sheer, exuberant numbers.

14th century Pagham was one of England ‘s chief ports, sending wool to Europe. Devastated by a huge storm in 1341, the harbour silted up. By 1401 Pagham was finished. A haven for bird watchers since Victorian times, it is now an important nature reserve, spread over acres of salt marsh, those shingle banks, and a slab of farmland.

I followed some mazy lanes and came to a wide view over flat fields. Five miles north was Chichester; a little further on, Arundel Castle. And behind it, Glorious Goodwood. I used to think it enjoyed a permanently sunny microclimate. Now I know “glorious” refers to the fortune bookmakers make when people like me call in for a day’s racing. The South Downs, behind it, remain superb whatever the weather.

Next to the holiday park is St. Thomas a'Becket Church, one of the earliest dedicated to the martyr, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Sad to say it was locked on a bright Friday morning.

I had better luck with 13th century St Wilfrid's Chapel, where a stained glass window honours the nature reserve.

That night I was tempted by the holiday village’s busy nightlife – “much to do after dark” in the “multi-level Entertainment Venue.” But why waste all that perfect silence.

I strolled into the village. Not a soul about. Then two suspicious eyes fixed me from the shadows on the other side of the road. Pagham’s threat level soared. Our face-down lasted a few minutes. Who would make the first move? Then a car pulled around the corner, caught the magnificent fox in its headlights, and it trotted off.

The writer stayed courtesy of Haven UK. A three night weekend break in July starts at £199 for a family of four.

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