Crystal Palace Caravan Club takes up a small part of the north side of Crystal Palace Park. Seventy-one pitches are rolled out along lighted, curved gravel roads that swing between large pitches of grass, isolated from the rest of the park by fences and blocks of bushy trees that allow for a bit of isolation from the rest of Croydon.
The cost for a pitch at the site is around £12 per night, with electricity hook-ups and bathrooms included, so for around £360 per month – not even half of the average London rent rate – you could have a little patch of land in the capital all to yourself.
Pete Hamilton, a 57-year-old Welshman who came down to London for around six months of work after not being able to find much in Colwyn Bay, is one of the people who have taken advantage of the opportunity the site offers – living in London on the cheap.
“It looks small on the outside but it’s comfortable. The thing about it is, you’ve got one ass so that’s one chair you need, one cup, one television, so at the end of the day you can do here all you do at home.”
The Crystal Palace Site only allows visitors to stay for 21 consecutive nights, then requires two nights off the site, so Pete, and anyone else looking to live permanently or semi-permanently at the club, will have to vacate for a couple of nights every three weeks.
There are two other sites around London, which, when grouped with Crystal Palace, provide a sort of triangle of accommodation for those choosing the caravan life in London.
Aside from site fees, there are other costs. Pete paid £250 for his caravan, a small metal one a little longer than a sedan, which attaches to the back of his car, while others on the site have paid £20k or more for theirs, some huge Winnebagos with two or three satellite dishes on top and washers and dryers installed in the cabins.
Jools Mauro is another caravan-dweller who writes a blog called “Our Life in a Caravan” about he and his wife’s experience of living in a caravan full time. Currently in the New Forest, Mauro paid £17,000 for his: “It was money well spent,” he said, “I like my comfort.”
There’s also the prospect of buying gas, which provides power and heating to the caravans. Pete will buy a small, 3 or 4 kg bottle of propane for £15 that will last him a week, depending on how much he uses it, while Mauro says he spends about £8 a month for his gas.
Road tax is no more than any UK citizen will have to pay if he or she wants to drive and insurance all depends on what type of caravan you want to have. For Pete, insurance wasn’t a necessity, but others who want insurance will have to consider another cost of around £250 per year.
No set address means no council tax, but registering at a different address on the electoral roll in order to vote. While most sites do provide bathrooms and water hook-ups, some caravans have their own installed water tanks on the underside of the vehicle, letting residents take showers and wash inside their caravans.
A life built around a park like Crystal Palace has both its advantages and disadvantages. While there may be little temperature control in some of the vehicles, the sites breed a sort of community that you won’t find on housing estates in other parts of the city.
Pete said: “It’s a sort of kindred spirit thing, because people are in the same sort of predicament… It’s like a little utopia sometimes. All you have to do is then walk out onto the main road and suddenly you’re met with the city.”
He remembers a time when he spent a few nights on another site in Northern England, when he and another camper were trying to get to the toilet block late at night without any lights.
“We were outside, we had our phones out, trying to light to way and see where we were. You could see the toilet block in the distance – literally two hundred yards away –and you could see yourself veering off to the edges of the path and crashing into things.”
Whether it’s helping a neighbour with a hitch or guiding someone back into an awkward space, caravan sites not only provide a cheaper way to live in London, but a place where like-minded people can form a close community.
“Everybody’s got a story to tell,” Pete said, “but people who live here tend to tell them more often.”