The shepherd’s hut may have been elevated from the valley floor to enjoy its place in the sun, but it’s not the only bijou abode being cast in a new role of overflow bedroom or haven of quiet contemplation. A journey through mobile-home history takes us to a time when the “kings of the road” lived like royalty in horse-drawn palaces: vibrantly painted gypsy caravans – or vardos (from the Iranian vurdon, for cart) – that first appeared in Britain during the mid-19th century. Commissioned by well-to-do travelling folk from top coachbuilders such as Samuel Dunton, Fred Hill and William Wright, they could take up to a year to create and, while the workmanship then cost about £50-£150, now the best of the best can command five- and six-figure sums.
“Genuine examples are rare, not least because wagons were traditionally burnt on the death of their owners. Only a few hundred survived,” says Duncan Wood, co-owner of Kent-based Fairbourne Carriages and one of the world’s most respected restorers of horse-drawn vehicles. “As with anything collectable, condition, provenance and originality are key,” adds Wood, whose company was the underbidder for a particularly fine 1914 Reading wagon by Dunton & Sons that fetched £84,000 in March at specialist auction house Thimbleby & Shorland. (Reading and Burton wagons – named after the towns in which they were originally made – were richly carved and highly ornamented, and bought by the wealthiest travellers or fairground owners.) “We were acting on behalf of a client in the US, where original gypsy caravans have become very sought-after.”
The vardo’s appeal to non-travelling folk is, however, familiar ground. An article by UK Vardo Heritage recounts how Devon judge Sir Harry Eve owned two wagons in which he regularly toured the country in the early 1900s – an upper‑class hobby then known as “land yachting”. Other fans of that era included Lady Arthur Grosvenor – who dressed the part and called herself Syeira Lee – and Dr William Gordon Stables, who maintained standards by taking his tailcoated butler along for the ride.
More recent owners range from the late John Lennon to Jools Holland, Kate Moss and the granddaughter of American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Joanne Hearst, who acquired a Wright wagon to keep at her Spanish villa. After her death in 2011, it was bought by a Spanish traveller before being restored by Fairbourne Carriages for its current owner, New Hampshire-based enthusiast Sut Marshall. With heavily carved woodwork in a stunning combination of crimson paint and gold leaf, it’s one of Marshall’s three favourite vardos of the eight he owns – part of a collection of more than 110 horse-drawn vehicles. Another particularly special one is a rounded bow top (one of six popular designs that include the Ledge, which is narrow at the base and wider at the top, and the Brush, which was designed to carry wares on the exterior) adorned with 200 hand-carved bunches of grapes.
“Why do I love vardos? Just look at the detail, the artwork, the pride that went into them,” says the founder of the Marshall’s Ice Cream Bar chain. “I buy them because of their beauty and because I believe they are highly important historical items that need to be saved.” Others increasingly agree, and demand has climbed steadily since the glamping trend took off in the early 2000s, says Stef Bate, cultural director of UK Vardo Heritage. But choosing and buying the right one is not entirely straightforward.
“It’s important to ensure the vendor has a legal right to sell and that the van is viewed before buying – some need to be expensively craned from their locations,” says Bate, who also warns that the market is awash with badly restored examples, replicas and downright fakes. Wood, meanwhile, highlights the cost of restoration: “It can exceed the value of the vardo. To have four wheels made and painted could easily cost £20,000.”
Those looking for an authentic vardo do not, however, need to spend the sums required for a Dunton, Hill or Wright. For example, the c1898 Burton-style Showman’s Waggon built for the Arnold Brothers, who toured the south of England with Professor Arnold’s Electric Bioscope and Theatre of Variety, is up for sale on the UK Vardo Heritage website for £13,950, alongside a 1920s barrel top for £11,500. Another source is the Norfolk-based Gypsy Caravan Company, which builds new Reading-style caravans as well as restoring vintage ones, such as a cherry-red bow top it is selling for £8,500.
Cambridge-based auction house Cheffins regularly offers more affordable “vans”, such as the one it sold in 2016 on behalf of Lord and Lady Leicester, who previously used it as a glorified Wendy house at their family home, the rather more capacious Holkham Hall in Norfolk. It was bought for £5,600 by Berkshire-based Billy Hazell, founder of Hazell Agricultural Services, who has spent the past two years restoring it. “It’s back to how it would have looked originally, with a traditional stove, benches and bunk beds. I bought it partly to take along to steam rallies, but also to camp out in on summer evenings at the farm,” says Hazell.
In April this year, Cheffins also sold a restored 1912 barrel top for £13,090, while in July the firm achieved £5,250 for a 1909 square top. “Interest often comes from ‘lifestyle’ buyers looking for something attractive to relax in or to use for holiday lets on their farms and country estates,” says Cheffins director Jeremy Curzon. “Prices have held firm, not least because they are both great fun to own and, if properly maintained, rarely decline in value.”