In October 2017 Highbridge Caravan Centre was badly damaged in a fire that destroyed 161 caravans and £2m of damage. The owners managed to recover the business and it is once again one of the town’s main employers and business hubs. The following article was written by Harry Mottram in 2015 for the Burnham and Highbridge News and traces the early days of the business on the A38.
One of the best known businesses in Highbridge is located on the A38 near the railway bridge and it all started nearby with one caravan sold for £13.
Over the years Highbridge Caravans has grown to employ 120 people and sell all manner of camper vans, tents and camping equipment with caravans nowadays fetching up to £20,000 for a mid-range model.
“About 75 years ago my grandad started building caravans in Weston-super-Mare,” said Phil Davies the current general manager of the business. “He built his own caravan so he could take his family of seven children on holiday. When he got back he parked it on the drive and someone came along and wanted to buy it. He sold it for £13 and then he built another one and that’s how it all began.”
“A caravan today, for a new one, you’d be looking at between £15,000 and £20,000. His skills were from building houses, and from there he went into manufacturing caravans in Weston with Davans selling them at that place.”
With the war over the potential of the leisure industry began to flourish. In the 1950s holiday camps grew up, seaside holidays were in vogue and caravanning and camping boomed. Phil’s grandad Albert could see a future in caravans and built up a business based on these holiday homes on wheels.
“My grandad bought this present site which was a farm, Bridge Farm, with a house, and a ten acre site,” he said, “and also he had a place in Bristol at Avon County Caravans and there was my uncle’s place in Burnham, a static caravan park, and a campsite in Weston. So back in the day there were three retail outlets and two camp sites.”
In the early days Highbridge Caravans was very small with a handful of caravans for sale along with a caravan and campsite. Phils’ dad John and his brother Eric developed the site during the late 1960s and 1970s turning it into a major retailer for a variety of makes and expanded the range to include all types of paraphernalia for outdoor enthusiasts. Meanwhile their brother Idris worked with their dad Albert back in Weston on the manufacturing side. That family aspect continues today with Phil and his three brothers working in partnership at the Highbridge site.
However the business was by no means the first caravan manufacturer in the country. In 1919 the Birmingham firm the Eccles Motor Transport began making caravans specifically to be towed by motor cars which by then had become a common sight on the roads. Before that caravans had been manufactured to be pulled by horses but with the First World War over a new generation of car owning pioneers wanted something lightweight and practical and the modern caravan was born.
So how have caravans changed over the years? Phil Davies explained: “In the first ones they didn’t have toilets – just portable ones or a bucket. Now they have built in flush toilets and showers. The old ones had gas lighting with a gas mantel you had to light. Now it’s all LED which has been a huge change. The heating would be just one gas heater with single glazed windows so it could be very cold, but now you get a built in radiator system and double glazing.”
He said caravan enthusiasts haven’t changed over the years although more families buy them and even take them across Europe to go skiing or down to Portugal as they save a lot of money in travel and accommodation. Sports fans take them when following their team as do people travelling to festivals where hotel accommodation can be expensive. In the 1950s and 1960s families tended to take holidays in Devon and Cornwall with only the most adventurous crossing the channel or driving to Scotland in the days before motorways.
By the 1960s caravans were beginning to look sleek and less box like – with a Davan Debonair made in Somerset costing £375 or more. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s they continued to be developed with a top of the range caravan today costing around £28,000. It seems a far cry from the 1940s when Albert sold his first holiday home on wheels for just £13.
Do you have memories of Highbridge and Burnham back in the day? Did you used to go on caravan holidays in a Davan Debonair years ago? Do you have holiday snaps of Burnham years ago? We’d love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk
Follow Harry on FaceBook, Twitter @harrythespic, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.
Email email@example.com for details.