Ode to the Wanderer, the First Land Yacht

The Wanderer, on the road.
The Wanderer, on the road.

“About going where he likes, for instance? Are there not certain laws of the road that forbid the tarrying by the way of caravan folks, for a longer period than that necessary to water and feed a horse or look at his feet? By night, again, he may spy a delightfully retired common, with nothing thereon, perhaps, except a flock of gabbling geese and a superannuated cart-horse, and be tempted to draw up and on it, but may not some duty-bound police man stroll quietly up, and order him to put-to and “move on?”

Gordon Stables 1886.

The RV and traveling community owes a debt of gratitude to this fine rolling home.  The Wanderer was the first true luxury Land Yacht, having been given that moniker by it’s owner, Dr W. Gordan Stables.  There were some Romany-style and showman’s wagons in use on the roads, and the Salvation Army “barrows” (see Caravans for Christ) but Stables’ design expanded upon the basic plan as a luxurious moving home that well-to-do Victorians could understand.

A retired Royal Navy doctor, Stables commissioned the Wanderer to be built and began a 1300 mile tour in 1885.  Prior to this, living wagons were mostly pragmatic affairs with few creature comforts, primarily employed for housing work crews.  The base specifications for the Wanderer are 30 feet long (9.15 meters) and she weighed approximately 4000 pounds (1815 kilos).  Two years on the road led Stables to conclude that “one about twelve feet long would serve every purpose, and be easily moved with one good horse. It would also be more easily drawn into meadows at night.”

The Wanderer. Image after Nerissa Wilson, Gypsies and Gentlemen 1986, pg 53.
The Wanderer. Image after Nerissa Wilson, Gypsies and Gentlemen 1986, pg 53.

Fortunately, the Wanderer was owned and loved by an avid writer so there is a lot of information about life in this beast.  Dr Stables described in his writings several important amenities which we can benefit from today:

“Under the rear door the broad steps are shipped, and at each side is a little mahogany flap table to let down. These the valet finds very handy when washing up. Beneath each of these flaps and under the carriage is a drawer to contain tools, dusters, blacking-brushes, and many a little article, without which comfort on the road could hardly be secured.

Under the caravan are fastened by chain and padlock a light long ladder, a framework used in holding out our after-awning or tent, a spade, and the buckets. But there is also space enough here in which to hang a hammock.”

Gordon Stables. “The Cruise of the Land-Yacht “Wanderer”; or, Thirteen Hundred Miles in my Caravan.”

If I could only employ a valet to do the washing up!

Line drawing of the Wanderer's floor plan.
Line drawing of the Wanderer’s floor plan.

As a career Naval officer, Dr Stables was clearly familiar with living in small spaces and understood that neatness and a place for everything was key to comfort.  To explain the layout, Stables continues with a more detailed description of his little home:

“Entering from behind you may pass through A, the pantry or kitchen, into B, the saloon. Folding doors with nice curtains divide the caravan at pleasure into two compartments. C is the sofa, upholstered in strong blue railway repp. It is a sofa only by day. At night it forms the owner’s bed. There are lockers under, which contain the bedclothes, etc, when not in use, as well as my wardrobe. D is the table, over which is a dainty little bookcase, with at each side a beautiful lamp on brackets. E is the cupboard, or rather the cheffonière, both elegant and ornamental, with large looking-glass over and behind it. It will be noticed that it juts out and on to the coupé, and thus not only takes up no room in the saloon, but gives me an additional recess on top for glove-boxes, hanging baskets for handkerchiefs, and nicknacks.”

Illustration from Stable's book about his 1300 mile journey in the Wanderer.
Illustration from Stable’s book about his 1300 mile journey in the Wanderer.

In this era of slow-moving traffic, regular furniture was used with few “built-in” units used, more like a normal Victorian parlour.  I love the fact that music seems to have been very important to the good Doctor.  He describes his “furniture” as:

“a piano-stool and tiny camp-chair, music-rack, footstool, dressing-case, a few artful cushions, pretty mirrors on the walls, with gilt brackets for coloured candles, a corner bracket with a clock, a guitar, a small harmonium, a violin, a navy sword, and a good revolver.”

The list seems very sound and familiar to me and shows preparedness for most contingencies on the road, from raucous music parties to a quiet evening in the saloon, with the ability to hold off highwaymen and marauders as necessary.  I think he is definitely a kindred spirit.  I guess I need to add a sword to my traveling accessories now.

Artist's rendering of the Wanderer's interior after Wilson 1986.
Artist’s rendering of the Wanderer’s interior.

Above we see the valet hard at work, after Wilson 1986.  Note the under seat/bed storage visible here. I became very curious about the tricycle and found that the good Doctor not only loved caravanning but promoted the new past time of cycling as an excellent and healthy way to tour Europe.  Thinking like a Navy man, he thought of the bike as a “tender” to the caravan; a land dinghy of sorts.

The Wanderer’s flooring choice was a practical one.  Linoleum was a relatively new product but had shown itself to wear well under difficult conditions and remain flexible (perfect for a rolling home). To further beautify the main room, Stables chose a Persian rug to overlay the Linoleum.

A filter much like that described in the Wanderer.
A filter much like that described in the Wanderer may be seen in the lower right of this advertisement.

On a practical note, the Wanderer was fitted with a carbon-silicated water filter as the general supply was still very poor in much of Britain.  Hygene was attended to in the after cabin at the marble washstand with a small gravity-fed water system.  The after cabin (really the domain of the valet) also contained a Rippingille cooking-range, a truly modern convenience in portable stoves of the time.

The Rippingille cook stove.
The Rippingille cook stove.
1910s UK Rippingilles Stoves Magazine Advert
Rippingilles Stoves Magazine Advert ca. 1910.  Don’t they look happy?

“The Rippingille cooking-range is a great comfort. On cool days it can be used in the pantry, on hot days—or, at pleasure, on any day—it can be placed under our after-tent, and the chef’s work got through expeditiously with cleanliness and nicety. ” Stables 1886.

-Note to self: get a chef.

A brief stop for a meal. As with most caravans, the Wanderer carried tentage and awnings to extend the living space. The little Rippingille cooking-range can be seen next to the cook in the A-frame tent.

Dr Stables traveled in style, apparently employing a cook, coachman, and valet (it’s not clear to me if they are one-and-the-same) and had little monetary concern along the way between his pension and some success as a writer.  He did, however, pave the way for the “gentleman caravanner” and helped start a trend that many of us are still emulating in our own way today.  This style of off-beat living eschews the tin-can clones of the RV park and brings a level of style and class to living on the road, whether it be for a week or a year.

A couple of well dressed Scotsmen; Stables (right) and unknown man stand in front of the Wanderer. You get a real sense of the scale of this caravan in this image.
A couple of well-dressed Scotsmen; Stables (right) and unknown man (possibly his valet) stand in front of the Wanderer. That’s Bob the dog lying next to his master.  You get a real sense of the scale of this caravan in this image.

Finally, what became of the Wanderer? A few years ago, she was safely ensconced in the Caravan Club’s site in the Costwolds, England.  It seems that she never left safe hands and therefore didn’t suffer the rot and destruction that was the fate of most of the early caravans.  She is still a sight to see and many are thrilled that the decision was made to display this piece of history instead of storing it in a less accessible facility.

Colin Elliott from the Caravan Club with The Wanderer. Click the image for a short article about the preservation.
The Wanderer still looks immaculate inside with beautiful woodwork and attention to detail.

About the book, The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer, Thirteen Hundred Miles in my Caravan.  After the descriptions of the Wanderer itself, much of his book is simply a travelogue of late 19th Century Britain with encounters and minor adventures along the way. However, there are some great morsels of information hidden throughout and a delightful chapter about “Caravanning for Health” with his opinions as a career Medical Doctor.  Also, he wraps up with some good advice for the traveling gentle-person about living in a small space on the road.  It’s a great little read and I highly recommend it to the caravan set.  If it cannot be found any other way you can read his book by downloading it from Project Gutenberg; The Cruise of the Land-Yacht “Wanderer”.

2 thoughts on “Ode to the Wanderer, the First Land Yacht

  1. George, you should know that seeing your Vardo and the articles here and videos in other places has made me want to build one. My wife tells me that while we might be here 2 or 3 years, we cannot hope to live in Paradise forever. Dammit.
    When I return to the Mainland, I am afraid that I am going to have to try to build a Vardo.
    My twisted side makes me wonder about a folding side Vardo that can be made into a portable and roadworthy Yurt after stopping for the day,….Film at Eleven,….

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