Modern gypsy wagons leave other campers trailing behind
We've been envying snails for centuries – people have been attempting to carry their homes around on their backs ever since we realised horses could tow carts. The trouble is, the contraptions we devise, like the modern caravan, are often so utilitarian and uninteresting to look at.
Enter the Twagon – short for 'towable wagon' – the brainchild of a Westcountry woodworking expert who believes modern motorised camping lacks a proper breadth of choice.
Chris Ward, who lives and works in West Dorset, became convinced that modern caravans and campers are just too dull, so he came up with the idea of converting a traditional horse-drawn Romany cart to a modern towable appliance which would be both comfortable and a head-turner.
The Twagon, now being produced by his firm Wildwood Design, is basically an old fashioned bow-top gypsy caravan, but it sits on a modern galvanised steel chassis and so passes all the stringent vehicle licensing authority tests, making it a fully towable, roadworthy camping trailer.
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The Western Morning News visited Chris in his workshops at Broadwindsor near the Dorset-Devon border to find out more about these remarkable caravans which come tailor-made from around £11,500.
"People have played around with the idea a bit before, but only played around," 38-year-old Chris told me. "Shepherds' huts are quite a big thing nowadays, aren't they? But this project is saying that there's also this as a possibility. It doesn't just have to sit in your garden like a shepherd's hut. You can get out and use it as a towing caravan.
"The last one I manufactured has spent the entire summer being taken around," Chris added, quoting his more-than-satisfied customer, Pascoe Needle, who bought a Twagon earlier this year.
"After many years of owning an old VW camper van, my wife and I reluctantly felt we needed a change for something that was more reliable and that didn't need re-packing every time we wanted to nip out for the day," says Pascoe. "We couldn't stomach the idea of a white caravan or trailer tent, and thought something unique, beautiful and very much our own was the way to go.
"Having considered the very limited options in this market, we discovered the Twagon. Chris was really approachable and accommodating with our bespoke needs, and helped us develop our Twagon, while retaining the essence of a traditional bow-top.
"We have used the Twagon on a number of occasions now and look forward to international travelling over the coming years. It is very easy to tow and manoeuvre, and is a delight for our family of four to be in."
Chris, who studied woodworking at the Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy, told the WMN: "The first one I built just last year. I had to design the whole thing, but I've kept it as it as close to a traditional bow-top as possible. The only difference is that it is placed on a chassis.
"The Roma design probably started in India centuries ago. My knowledge has come from people within the travelling community – and from some books. It's been a massive process. Once the idea came along, I saw it as an opportunity to create a product. And I thought there was potential there when I discovered there wasn't really anything else like it.
"The chassis has to be brand new," he explained. "They have to be tested by the vehicle licensing people for roadworthiness, so they've got all the paperwork. It's not particularly heavy – in fact the Twagon is probably lighter than a normal caravan. They're only 900 kilos, so easily towable, partly because they feature the canvas stretched over the bent ash wood."
I asked Chris what passers-by make of the Twagon when he's towing one out on the open road.
"It certainly turns heads," he replied. "If I stop somewhere like a garage car park for a sandwich, I'll be there for ages – it's unbelievable. People come up and want to talk about it. My attitude towards it is this: this is a caravan – people can come here, pick up the Twagon they've ordered and drive off and stay in it that night. There are lights, beds, a kitchen area...
"They're such a lovely space, and easy to heat," he added. "There's a little wood burning stove, and it's so warm. You've got an insulated floor – all made of natural material."
Chris is currently making a truly traditional flat-topped, four-wheel wagon for a customer whose hobby is carriage-driving with horses – but already has a modified chassis and materials ready and waiting for his next Twagon customer.