Last summer, we were staying in the surf town of Newquay, Cornwall, visiting family, when our dear friends, a family of four, announced that they were coming down to the South West to visit us. Being the height of summer, there were very few hotels or Air BnB’s available, but they eventually found accommodation, at what turned out to be the coolest little spot in Cornwall: Coastal Valley Camp and Crafts.
Their actual accommodation? Not a campsite, or a cabin but a seriously cool 1956 Airstream Safari which, despite having undergone a thoroughly modern renovation, shone like a mid-century spaceship, it’s riveted aluminium exterior unchanged in 60 years.
Intrigued, eager to see my friends, and dying to spend time in the proximity of this cool relic (I had never actually touched an Airstream), I convinced the kids that we too would camp for the night. Stopping at the UK’s favourite catalogue retailer Argos (if you remember ‘Consumers Distributing‘, you’ve got the right idea), we bought a cheap “3-man” tent, and some sleeping bags then took a taxi to the Coastal Valley campsite. As an aside, it’s the proud winner of the 2017 “Loo of the Year” awards, according to their website. Another reason to go camping!
Being in the presence of a 1956 Airstream was like sitting next to a very old, very classy 1950’s movie star. We felt compelled to treat her with respect, allowing ourselves and the children only brief visits inside, ensuring that our shoes were removed, hands clean.
While the kids played on the deck, we oohed and ahhhed at the beauty of the thing, born long before we were; a testament to the passion for travel, adventure, and sleek mid-century style.
As the wine flowed and the sun began to set, we pondered how this incredible machine – a true American icon – end up in a field in the middle of Cornwall? Where had she travelled? Before her stunning 21st century renovation, what had her original interior been like?
We didn’t find the answers to all these questions, although one clue is that the nearby Royal Air Force base, St. Mawgan, was an important installation for the US Air Force and US Navy from the second world war until 2009, and was home to many American military families. Perhaps one of these military families owned the Airstream?
We found a great book inside the caravan: Airstream – The History of the Land Yacht, by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt, and on the cover was a photograph of a woman applying her lipstick in the reflection of the aluminium.
Ever the adventurers, we couldn’t resist the temptation to recreate the shot!
When I got home, I did a little bit of research into the Airstream itself, and was quickly led to the late Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, nicknamed the “Marco Polo of trailer travel.”
Byam was born in 1896 and began building travel trailers in the 1920’s, although the iconic Airstream that we know today was made in 1936 as ‘The Clipper’. As the trailers gained popularity, North American Airstream enthusiasts decided to form a caravan club, The Wally Byam Caravan Club (WBCCI) in 1955. (Interestingly for me as a Nova Scotian, the location of its founding was Kentville, NS!)
Soon after, Byam began organising exotic group road trips, or ‘Airstream Caravans’ for his members, who wore a uniform blue beret as they travelled to Europe, Cuba and Mexico. Roles within each caravan were established, for example, there was always a retired doctor on the trip. Rituals such as meeting in a circle, sometimes parking in a circle, were observed, and decisions on where to go next were decided democratically. In this way, Byam became the creator not only of the recreational vehicle but the father of a new culture of travel for Americans.
One of the most incredible trips organised by Byam was the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo, Africa Tour. Anyone who accuses Americans of being poor travellers should look to this journey for a second thought.
In 1959, an Airstream Caravan of 36 families (106 people, including 21 children) travelled 12,000 miles across Africa from Cape Town to Cairo, including 11 harrowing days slowly battling sand in the Nubian desert. The trip, initially scheduled for three months, took seven months to complete.
Recently, footage of the trip was found at Airstream headquarters in Jackson Center, Ohio (where they offer free tours of the Airstream factory!), and the results are here. With the acknowledgement that the trip would have happened during Apartheid, and that the commentary is a reflection of its time (i.e. references to the “dark continent”), the footage remains a valuable lesson in road-trip history! If you have a few minutes, it’s worth watching this quite incredible documentary:
Is it possible that the 1956 Airstream we met in Cornwall was a part of this monumental pan-African journey? Who knows?
What is certain for me, is that next time I see a shiny silver Airstream being towed along the highway, or sitting atop of a farmer’s field, I will give it a nod of respect.
Back at Coastal Camping and Crafts, the kids and I said goodnight to our friends, and bundled ourselves into paper-thin sleeping bags, cuddling together on the cold, hard floor of our tent. As I fell into a restless sleep, I heard a tapping on the nylon.
While the cold shower continued through the night and seeped into our tent, I thought of our friends tucked into their cosy silver tube, and I wished that I too was camping in an Airstream tonight.