Carry on Coach Camping

A camping coaches poster
A camping coaches poster
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Reader MIKE FENTON looks back on an innovative idea by the big railway companies of the early 20th century to give Britons an affordable holiday. Did you camp in a railway carriage?

In the 1930s the major railway companies began a new holiday scheme which would enable thousands of people to enjoy holidays they might not otherwise have been able to afford.

Dawlish Warren camping coach, Bristol

Dawlish Warren camping coach, Bristol

The companies took out of service many of their old coaching stock, converted the carriages into holiday homes with sleeping accommodation and cooking facilities, stabled them at many rural stations all over the UK’s railway system and hired them out to the public during the summer season.

During a period when there was a great increase in employers nationwide providing a Holidays With Pay scheme, this proved a great opportunity for people to have a holiday, in many cases for the first time, as the rates charged for the coach hire compared very favourably with standard B&B and guest house prices.

To this day there will be family photograph albums the length and breadth of the land which contain precious memories of those times before World War II when thousands enjoyed unique holidays in a railway environment.

The London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) was first in the field in 1933, with an exploratory scheme of just 10 coaches which had expanded to 119 by 1939.

LMS Coniston

LMS Coniston

They were followed by the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1934, who had provided 65 coaches before the war and made a point of only ever putting a single coach at a site, thereby guaranteeing an absence of noisy neighbours !

The Southern Railway began its camping coach operations in 1935, but only ever offered 24 converted carriages on a scheme covering territory between Kent and Cornwall. The Southern did, however, re-introduce camping coaches after the war and before nationalisation, unlike elsewhere where the new British Railways regions did not bring back the facility with a new batch of conversions until 1952.

However, it was the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS), who, like the GWR began their holiday plan for the 1934 season, who really developed the idea over its vast territory to cover all ends of the market.

Finding themselves with a wealth of redundant passenger coaching stock from its old constituent companies, notably the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway and the Midland Railway, by wartime the LMS had some 232 coaches available for hire over its system, on sites stretching from Lybster in the far north of Scotland to Malvern Wells in Worcestershire in the South.

St Germans GWR camping coach

St Germans GWR camping coach

Their provision also included sites in Northern Ireland, where in 1939 there were 25 coaches at six sites.

The LMS designated their vehicles as ‘Holiday Caravans’ at first, although by 1939 they had fallen into line with the other companies on the British mainland and re-designated them ‘camping coach’.

The LMS approach covered all angles, both in the choice of sites for their scheme and the wide socio-economic groups of people they hoped to attract.

They made use of stations where there was no longer a passenger train service but had facilities and attractions which compensated for this, and also smaller, less fashionable resorts, where it was hoped an influx of holiday-makers would assist the local economy.

And although they followed the practice of their rivals in providing many one-coach sites, they alone pursued a policy as the scheme developed through the 30s of concentrating huge numbers at selected locations, almost a ‘camp coach holiday camp’ concept.

These sites were at stations in North Wales and Lancashire, reaching their zenith in the 36 coaches stabled at Heysham for the 1937 season.

It is thought these sites were aimed at the lower end of the wage-scale and folk for whom privacy was not an issue – all the railway companies had a stipulation that four monthly return rail tickets were to be purchased with each coach hire.

The LMS did indeed lure families from the Merseyside/Manchester/Lancashire area to these locations, who might squeeze two families into a six-berth coach and also save money with a cheap rail journey.

Grace Holme, of Preston, told me about how she travelled the short distance to Knott End for one of her holidays as a girl, where they searched for cockles on the beach and where folk had to travel to the coach (five were stabled there) by train to Fleetwood, then take the ferry across the Wyre.

My own interest in railway camping coach holidays began about 25 years ago while undertaking other railway research, and I swiftly became fascinated by the way their story reflected the social conditions of the times .

I met folk who remembered where they were when war broke out, in an LMS coach at Nantclywd in Wales, on the beach at Fowey in Cornwall, and on the way home from a GWR stay at Brent Knoll in Somerset.

I heard stories of families using the same site for several years in a row, where on arrival there’d be a cooked meal ready in the coach, prepared by the station master’s wife.

And folk who recalled that “the coach was very basic, but then so was our home!

In those Walkman-free days folk took wind-up gramophones and 78 rpm re cords with them to the coach, and would move back the furniture in the coach living area to have room for dancing!

Railway camping coach memories are indeed a study in social history.

People who took those holidays as children are now in their 80s and older. I’ve met many of them and it was both a privilege and a great opportunity to talk with them.

I remain open and interested to meet anyone still out there who had a railway coach holiday before 1950.

I have a particular interest in the LMS sites at Blackpool Squires Gate, Coniston, Ingleton and Braithwaite, which lured so many folk from the Lancashire area, and would love also to know more about the Southern Railway’s scheme, particularly their Kent and Cornwall sites.

If you have any memories and photographs of these holidays, do get in touch with me as I’d love to talk to you.

l Can you help? Call Mike on 01432 851192 or email fen.lonesomedove@virgin.net