Safe as houses
- Home is in my mind “… an imagined point of orientation…” (Beazley in Holloway and Valentine).
When I was born, family circumstances led to my family of six moving into a mobile home, 32 feet long by 12 feet wide. At the time, there were a total of 11 children residing there, including 3 babies, though the park was then split into two parts – a family area and an area of homes for older people. My mother’s memories of living at the park with four young children to look after were very mixed, her most positive being around the strength of the community as people helped one another a lot.
Living in a non-standard home is something that I didn’t really tell anyone about as I grew up. I must have known that it wasn’t a usual place to live and I suppose that I was in fear of being teased about it. I had no clear memories of it either, so didn’t really have much to tell. It is only as an adult I have really thought about and discussed this part of my family’s life.
For the ‘Safe as Houses’ project I set out to visit residential parks as they are today, including visiting the park on which my family once lived. As reference, I took with me my family photographs from that time and was surprised to find that traces of the park as it was were still in situ: the lamp posts, the outside toilets, the tap, even the fence panels that were put up anew at the time of our occupation.
The mobile home in which my family lived was a place of firsts for me – first steps, first Christmas, first food, first words, and so I decided to photograph with the Kodak pocket Instamatic that had also been my first camera. Using the now unobtainable format of vintage 126 film, and occasionally a flash cube, I was transported back to childhood the moment I flicked open the back and loaded the cartridge. It seemed to me the most appropriate format for the task, and though I knew the results would be variable, the resulting prints gave me the vintage family album style I had been hoping for, sometimes tinged with blue or yellow, as is the nature of using old film.
Along the journey, I was interested to learn about park home living today, and met some very kind and accommodating people to whom I am grateful for their time, warmth and hospitality. Below are some sample images from the project, and further down the page some extracts from my notes about park homes.
Park 1 – The South
Park 1 has existed as a residential park since the 1940s, when the owner of the land put caravans on to house friends that had lost homes during World War Two. The park had been used during the war for American and Canadian servicemen and one of the huts they used still exists on site. The park has around 500 homes and is unusual as it still provides rental accommodation for families. The largest families living there comprise of four household members – two adults and two children – and their pets. Some of the homes currently lived in on the site were constructed in the 1960s and 70s, though many have been re-cladded to match the more modern constructions. The park is primarily for older people and the rental section is very small; there is a long waiting list for the rental homes. On site there is a community centre providing activities such as jazz nights, bingo and fish and chip suppers. There is also a hair salon and a chiropodist, a telephone box and post box. The residents all say that they are very happy there and don’t want to live anywhere else.
Park 2 – The North
Park 2 originated in the 1960s as a touring site in the countryside. In the 1980s the site was developed into a residential park with the touring section eventually closed. There is currently a section dedicated to holiday ownership with regimented static caravans, and there are a small number of log cabins for holiday rental. The site has many amenities including hair and nail salon, café, pool, gym, and pub as well as a telephone box and post box. The site is rurally situated and there is an irregular bus service from the nearby public road into the village. The residency is primarily over 50, though the manager informed me there was no age restriction on the park. There are no families with children currently living on the park. The residents mostly say that they are very happy there and don’t want to live anywhere else, however one couple were in the process of selling their home to move to another park home near the sea.
Park 3 – The Midlands
Park 3 is where I lived as a child. It is a small park with much older homes, many still look like caravans and most likely date from the 1970s. The occupancy is mixed with over 50s and single people, as well as rented and owned mobile homes. The site is situated right on the outer edge of a city with farmland beyond, and could be described as semi-rural. There is a bus stop into the city directly opposite the entrance to the park. The main issue with the homes was cold in winter, and noise from external sources. The residents all say that they are very happy there and don’t want to live anywhere else.
Park 4 – The Midlands (adjacent to above)
Park 4 is virtually adjacent to Park 3. It is solely a retirement park. My mother remembers the park exisiting when we lived in the area and remembers it as the ‘posh’ park though she had never been there. On visiting the park, the condition of the homes is better with more modern structures on the park. The gardens are more manicured. In the centre of the park is a bunker which is now used as shed storage, and it seems from talking to residents that the park was originally constructed to house American servicemen during the Second World War. The residents told stories of crashed aircraft in nearby fields and bullet belts being found during building work. When asked if they know anything about the nearby park, the general opinion is that it is not a nice place and is very different from their park. The residents all say that they are very happy living there and don’t want to live anywhere else.
About mobile (or park) homes:
Park home sites are sites where non-permanent structures can be erected and occupied as principal residences. To be considered a mobile or park home, a structure has to be as follows:
“composed of not more than two separately made sections, and … capable of being transported by road when assembled … designed or adapted for human habitation which is capable of being moved by road from one place to another (whether by being towed, or by being transported on a motor vehicle or trailer) and any motor vehicle so designed or adapted”. Its dimensions also form part of the definition in that the structure must not “… exceed 60 feet (18.288 metres) in length, 20 feet (6.096 metres) in width, and 10 feet (3.048 metres) from the floor to the ceiling internally.” (source: www.shelter.org)
In the census, there is no separate category for park homes or for caravans. They are grouped together under a general category of “… caravans or other mobile temporary structures. Other groups in this Census category could also include Gypsy/Travellers, agricultural workers and residential boaters.” (Bevan, 2009). This makes research difficult as it is not known how many people, or families, there are living in mobile homes.
Residents and their homes:
When asking residents directly how they define the structure of their own home, the responses were very varied and included the following:
This variety of responses is reflective of the varied occupants that live on parks and their own perceptions of what a home is. Basically, all the structures are the same, yet there is no one clear term or definition that people use. The vagueness of the definitions also ties in with there being no clear census category and the broad legal term of ‘non-standard structure’ that takes so many forms of accommodation under its umbrella.
Regardless of definition or structure, generally residents are happy with their homes and complaints are few. Negative comments about the more modern homes are more about the lack of space as many people have downsized to a park home from a conventional home. In rural parks there was an issue for older people about the lack of public transport and the threat of rural isolation in old age.
A frequently heard comment from residents was that they felt like they were on a lengthy holiday rather then living there permanently. Some described it as a ‘dream home’ or ‘paradise’. Many commented on the fact that council tax was cheaper at Band A for mobile homes regardless of size or location, but that the costs of living are surprisingly comparable to a bricks-and-mortar home. People said the parks were quiet, there were like-minded people around them, and that there was a strong sense of community.
It doesn’t seem like the perceptions of park homes have come into the equation very much when looking at existing research. This was important to me, as I wanted to understand why I never talked to anyone about living in a caravan. I spoke to residents and asked them about their experiences.
Some of the comments I received from mobile home residents are as follows:
“Some people think of us as new age travellers. They don’t realise that there are more professional and business people living up here than anywhere else. I think sometimes they think it’s more of a temporary home rather than a permanent home. I think people need to see them. … Some residents in [the nearby village] call this ‘shanty town’ and I just say to them have you been up there recently? I think they do it to wind us up” (Female, retired)
“[My daughter] did say it once to one of her teachers. She said ‘we live on [the park]’ and the teacher said ‘Oh that’s the mobile home site’ and she was a little devastated because she didn’t have the vocabulary to explain.” (Female of working age, living with husband and 2 young children)
Interestingly, the responses from householders living near mobile home parks did not seem to match the negative perceptions. All nearby householders in bricks-and-mortar homes said that they believed a mobile home would result in reduced costs of living, and, though none said they would consider living in a mobile home, overall residents of nearby houses made positive comments about local mobile home parks:
“… I know they are lovely people who have a strong sense of community and they take pride in their homes … we all mingle without problems or issues”
(female, single, age 31-54)
“Well kept gardens … Nice community”
(female parent of young children, age 31-54)
“Really nice … nice to have a mixed community”
“the houses on the park near us are ‘chalet’ style and look more like houses than caravans”
(male, under 30)
These positive comments made me question where the negative perceptions were coming from. I did find that stigma is also perpetuated in online forums.
“… the owners regulate the sites and sale of homes quite tightly and often don’t allow families with children, quite a lot of lower income retired people live in them I think” (AnnOnnyMouse yahoo answers)
“I avoided telling everyone except our nearest and dearest the details of where we lived. I even out-and-out lied and said it was an apartment once. There is a stigma attached to mobile homes, and even I had preconceived notions about what it would be like and how it would define me.” http://offbeathome.com/2012/07/trailer-trash-stigma
“… caravans are not homes,very cold and damp in winter and boiling hot in summer” Beverley1156 http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110221050132AAxiJkk
This belies the reality for those who are very happy and comfortable in their homes, and those who see park homes as a positive housing solution.
“There’s a stigma about mobile homes but they’re ideal in terms of offering affordable accommodation for all age groups, they’re also more sustainable than bricks-and-mortar properties, and in the current climate they make economic and environmental sense.” (Ball in Latham, 2009)
Families living in park homes
It was difficult to find and speak to families in park homes as there are so few parks that allow children in England. One retired couple I spoke lived near to their children and grandchildren, now young adults.
“[My son] found it a bit difficult in some respects. They didn’t have any friends. Only school friends, not friends living next door or down the road. They were a little bit isolated in that respect.” (Male, retired)
The park owners often have very strict guidelines as to who can live on their parks and many UK parks are aimed at retired households.
“Young buyers are seen as more problematic than pensioners, as they tend to live longer …” (Parkinson, J. 2012)
According to the online forum ‘Park Home Forum’ there are clear reasons as to why younger people and families rarely live in mobile homes today:
“Reason No. 1 – You cannot get a mortgage on a park home and so that tends to limit the purchase of a home to someone who has already fully paid up their mortgage, or to those who just need a smaller top up loan. The minimum requirement for a deposit would be (I believe) 20% and if a young couple are unable to save up a deposit for a traditional house, then they will not be able to for a park home either.
Reason No. 2 – If a park owner decides that he/she would like to sell to families with young children, he/she has to use 6% of their usable land (that does not include roads or pavements) to recreational facilities and with the cost of land as it is, this would not be economically viable.”
by editor, 17 June 2010 10:00 AM http://www.parkhomeforum.co.uk/2010/06/17/family-parks-with-no-age-restriction/
This situation provides frustration for those in a situation other than retirement as these forum entries show:
“i have learnt alot since i started my search to find a residential park i have been trying to find a family park home that i can rent as i cant afford to buy but theres only 17 in the uk and the nearest one is an hour and a half away from me such a shame, i had my heart set on it but it seems im up against a brick wall now. .. only 17 that were family parks that rented i have children”
“if we find a park where they don’t welcome children- would we be chucked out as soon as I’m pregnant??”
The main reason for the lack of family park homes seems to be that ‘non-standard’ structures are not mortgagable, and few families with children can afford the purchase prices of anything up to £300,000. One park manager explained to me that this is because the land beneath them cannot be purchased, and so if a bank were to offer a mortgage there was nothing to tie it to, as the home could effectively be removed leaving the mortgage provider with nothing.
We rented our home in the 1970s, but it seems rental is not a path many parks wish to tread. Today it would be very difficult indeed for my family to rent a park home residence. Of the households I met, I only met one young family with children who were renting their home. Their reason for their wishing to rent one was mainly that it provided a quiet, secure environment for their children to grow up in, and that the sense of community was strong, a sentiment I heard many times.
Of the people that had bought their homes, there was frustration as to the terminology of ‘temporary’ and ‘non-permanent’ that is so frequently used in news articles and reports. The people that bought their homes at retirement age were of the view that the home was permanent to them and that they would live out their days in their present home. They felt that the only thing likely to prevent them from doing this would be their inability to drive resulting in rural isolation, or their park being taken over and management changing.
On a personal level, and in terms of belonging to a place, one of my questions was around whether beginning my life in a mobile home had helped to create my feelings of non-attachment to every subsequent place that I have lived. I have now spoken to people about their experiences of living in mobile homes, I have read about mobile homes, about moving house, about childhood spaces and different elements that may have impacted upon the person I am today. What I found is that home, for me, is less about physical space and more dependent on my own thoughts and beliefs. It is not a fixed thing, there is nowhere I can go back to and say ‘I belong here, my roots are here’. Home is in my mind, “… an imagined point of orientation…” (Beazley in Holloway and Valentine).
Extracted from my notes, 2013.
AnnOnnyMouse, http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071201144046AAkhz6Q (Accessed 8 August 2013)
Bevan, M. (2009) Park Home Living in England: Prospects and Policy Implications, Centre for Housing Policy, Available at http://www.york.ac.uk/media/chp/documents/2009/Park%20Home%20Living%20in%20England.pdf (Date accessed 28 July 2013)
Ball, J. in Latham, L. (2009) The Independent (online), Tailored trailers: the return of the mobile home, 12 August, available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/property/house-and-home/tailored-trailers-the-return-of-the-mobile-home-1770744.html (Date accessed 8 August 2013)
Beazley, H. in Holloway, S.L. and Valentine, G. (eds.) (2000) Childrens’s geographies: playing, living, learning, London: Routledge
Bifulco, A. and Moran, P. (1998) Wednesday’s child London and New York: Routledge
Blunt, A. & Dowling, R. (2006) Home, Abingdon and New York: Routledge
Consumer Focus, Living the dream, available at: http://www.consumerfocus.org.uk/files/2012/10/Living-the-dream.pdf (Date accessed 17 May 2013)
Hallam, K. (2013) Mobile home park residents “living in fear”, Birmingham Mail (online) 16 June 2013 available at:
http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/codsall-mobile-home-park-residents-4324598 (Date accessed 8 August 2013)
Hart, John Fraser Rhodes, Michelle J. Morgan, John T. (2002) Unknown World of the Mobile Home, Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press. Ebook available at: http://site.ebrary.com/lib/cumbria/docDetail.action?docID=10021673
(Date accessed 9 August 2013)
Holloway, S.L. and Valentine, G. (eds.) (2000) Childrens’s geographies: playing, living, learning. London: Routledge
Kathleen (2012) But I don’t cook meth: overcoming my own “trailer trash” misconceptions, July 9, available at:
http://offbeathome.com/2012/07/trailer-trash-stigma (Date accessed 8 August 2013)
Milbourne,P. and Cloke, M. (2006), International perspectives on rural homelessness. Oxon: Routledge
Parkinson, J. (2012) BBC News: Politics, Caravan crusaders demand justice available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17302382 (Date accessed 8 August 2013)
Newton, J. (1991)All in one place: The British housing story 1971-1990. London: CHAS
Shelter (2013) Mobile home definitions Available at:
(Date accessed 8 August 2013)
Wheeler, B. (2005) BBC News Is the UK ready for park life? Thursday, 18 August 2005 available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4155798.stm (Accessed 8 August 2013)