Sidmouth Folk Festival: Safety on the Bulverton Caravan Site

Letter of 29 July 1998 to Chief Executive EDDC

I wrote to you on 15 June and received a reply from Mrs Ferrero dated 25 June.

For some reason, coincidence perhaps, I have just spent my first happy afternoon as a volunteer steward in charge of parking caravans. I thought you might be interested in my observations, given that the arrangement this year is arguably more dangerous, and (so I am told) as a result of your instructions. However, it is largely immaterial who is responsible: there need to be changes.

May I remind you of the relevant paragraphs of my letter of 15 June?

I am writing to confirm discussions with some of your stewards and campers. I have some experience towing caravans, horseboxes, trailers etc and considerable mechanical expertise also. I am amazed that the camp site is organised with caravans on a slope above rows of tents. A runaway caravan could easily result in a tragedy.

As a matter of fact (not opinion) it is never advised to unhitch a trailer or caravan on a slope if at all possible. Old caravans never had very good brakes and systems on many older vehicles are in a poor state. Many owners are mechanically incompetent. Some believe that winding down the steady legs onto blocks of wood and putting little chocks under the wheels makes the whole outfit safe on a slope. This is nonsense, especially on grass. An uncoupled trailer on a slope can be a disaster waiting to happen. I can send you more details if you wish.

For greatest safety, caravans etc should be parked at lower level and with no tents below them. It might be difficult to tow them back up in muddy conditions but a four wheel drive tractor hired for a few days would cope. Towing any trailer sideways across a steep slope or with any sideslip is potentially dangerous in all conditions. Dead farmers could testify to this. I do not know of conditions at the end of the week or if any accidents did occur this year. If not, you were lucky. Other knowledgeable people I have spoken to share my views - we think you should review arrangements before events force you to do so.


I now turn to events this year. The grass was wet (never good news for towing a caravan) and it started to rain too. The first caravan I was asked to park was owned (I believe) by a steward who should have known better. He ignored my instructions and demolished a tape barrier which was marking out a row of reserved spaces. I told him to move it. Given that the ground was wet and the caravan was large and overloaded (many of them are), this produced 15 minutes of cursing, frayed tempers and wheel spin, which did little to improve the grass roadway.

Once located in an approximately correct position I asked him to slew the van round to face down the slope at an angle. I needed to explain that I too thought the idea was mad, but I was only obeying orders.

Once located in position the real fun started. Have you ever tried to level up a large caravan in such conditions, and without a ramp that occasionally is required at even 'proper' sites? Have you tried to do this in the rain, with only a two wheel drive vehicle and with anxious children milling around? Probably not, and on parts of Bulverton you would need quite a large ramp anyway.

Most caravanners do not carry a ramp because they have no intention of pitching at a silly angle on a slope, and many of them could not use one properly anyway. Ordering caravans to pitch at an angle to a slope requires levelling in two planes not one and can introduce additional safety related problems. It does, incidentally, do little to prevent initial 'runaway' if a caravan decides to go walkabout and nothing at all to stop it travelling straight down the hill once it gathers speed.

I now turn to further experiences on 29 July. One of the next caravans I had to park was driven by a woman who did not know how to reverse. You may be aware that many caravanners are content to drive down the M5 at speed without any training or knowledge in the subject. Some of them never return: friends say that spring has arrived when the first caravan overturns west of Exeter. After a few instructions, the caravan was placed in an approximately correct position. I suggested that the driver (who may have borrowed the caravan for the week) unhitch it and I would help her swivel it around. I asked her to put the brakes on.

"Oh, it doesn't have brakes, they're seized. That is what I was told anyway". I confirmed that indeed the handbrake was useless. I ended up agreeing that this unit could be placed parallel to the hedge so that it would have no tendency to run away down the slope. Various young children were getting tangled up in wires and pulley wheels and should have been told to go away.

An hour or so passed with much wheel spin, the aroma of slipping and burning clutches and little else of interest save a couple who arrived with a vintage borrowed caravan with excellent brakes but no visible sign of a reverse lockout mechanism. (On modern vehicles reverse is automatic provided the brakes are correctly set up, which they often are not. Modern caravans should NEVER be parked facing uphill because the brakes can suddenly release. Again, if correctly adjusted this should not happen.) Thus the caravan could not be pushed backwards uphill by the car. Delays ensued whilst I got five or six people including a couple of stewards to push it. Then another woman appeared, towing an equally vintage outfit. This time the handbrake lever worked but the brakes did not. I was able to push the caravan in a circle with the brakes fully applied. I told the owner to chock it securely and leave her car in front, just in case.

"Chocks? What are those? Oh bits of wood! No I don't think I brought any". There are two problems here. Caravans need chocks and little bits of wood, especially when piled one on top of the other, are dangerous. This was soon to be demonstrated elsewhere on the site.

After ascertaining that the festival organisers had no spare concrete blocks to hand, I agreed with the owner of a nearby caravan that he would take his Land Rover to Bradfords and buy some. He returned with 25 bricks at 30p each. Not ideal, but better than nothing. I was also told by the steward in charge that I should not be helping owners to park their vans and offering technical assistance, as if anything went wrong the festival might be liable. This left open the question of how incompetent females, towing caravans in a dangerous condition and on wet grass, would do other than produce gridlock.

Surely some assistance is better than nothing and a moderately dangerous parked caravan is better than a very dangerous one? On one occasion I asked a competent caravanner to 'take charge' of some people who did not know what they were doing whilst I sorted out other people. Had anything gone wrong, liability lawyers would have had a field day.

I trust you are now beginning to appreciate my concern that the heady mixture of caravans, slippery slopes, rain, incompetent owners (usually female) and children in tents in the field below might not be ideal?

There were a few examples of the stupidity of parking on a steep slope at an angle. Some owners jacked their caravans so far off the ground on large piles of wood (to get the outfit level so that the gas fridge would work) that a wheel was off the ground. This makes a caravan dangerous because steady legs are designed for steadying, not for lifting half a tonne. Abuse has been known to cause a caravan to 'break its back' and/or steady legs to collapse. Another owner tried jacking his caravan on a pile of small wet blocks of wood. They slipped, the caravan leg was bent, and as I passed he was intimating that the festival organisers were less than wholly intelligent. I thought better than to offer advice.

I could continue this tale, but you may by now have a general feel of the reasons why I consider there need to be changes next year. Whilst not an ideal arrangement, it is possible to park caravans on a slope in 'acceptable' safety. What follows is given for your assistance and without legal liability. It is just the way I would do things, and I merely claim to have some experience and sense. I claim no formal qualifications. You might, incidentally, care to read the Caravan Club guidance on the subject. The requirements are:

1. people (preferably owners) who know what they are doing

2. stewards who know what they are doing (5 minutes training on site does not qualify, several years of practice might)

3. a large supply of concrete blocks, cost 1 each (2 per caravan) and a large supply of pieces of wood 150 x 150 x 50 mm.

4. a 4WD vehicle (Land Rover or similar) and a competent driver.

The site would operate as follows:

1. Upon booking, owners would receive a safety leaflet telling them precisely what was expected of them and their caravans, and why. (Mangled children bad, festival joy good.) Owners would be required to 'hire' concrete blocks in sufficient number to form safe chocks and/or levelling blocks. Owners would be advised that if they arrived with wholly inoperative braking systems they would be reported to the police and (likely) issued with a notice banning the caravan from the road until repairs were effected.

2. A caravan lay-by would be provided just inside the caravan field for temporary storage of at least three to six caravans thus getting them off the road and ticket bay at times when, like buses, they arrive three at once. It might also be useful at night when (following practice at Caravan Club sites) late arrivals pitch temporarily in an easy spot and leave it to daylight before attempting two way levelling on wet grass in the rain. With tents below, no caravan should be unhitched in the dark on a slope, save by highly competent persons.

3. Caravans would be pitched facing DOWN the slope and in neat, well ordered rows, because trying to level a caravan 'side on' to a steep grass slope can be more dangerous. It also is more risky to drive a caravan sideways across a sloping and wet field than down it, because sideslip can easily take the van from the intended line and many drivers cannot cope with the consequences. In bad weather only caravans towed by 4WD vehicles would be allowed to park along the top row (by the hedge), since parking there can involve reversing and/or travelling uphill. Owners of ordinary cars would have the option of having their van positioned by a site 4WD vehicle, and for this purpose a level 'towing vehicle exchange bay' would be located just inside the caravan field, and on metal plates in case of bad weather.

4. All caravans would be inspected for correct chocks and steady legs, etc, and a safety chit issued by the site supervisor. This would be needed before festival tickets could be collected. Use of heavy concrete blocks as wheel chocks would be required for all 'dubious' vehicles. Cars would be required to be parked in gear and/or across the line of the slope, and preferably in front of the caravan.

There are various other suggestions about arrangements this year, including perhaps a different arrangement for filling up the rows of spaces. There is no need to make things as difficult as possible. The point you need to recognise above all others is that this festival site is unusual in several respects.

* It contains a percentage of caravanners who do not know what they are doing. This may be typical of 'once a year' folkies and/or people who borrow a caravan for the week.

* It is on a slope with many caravans and cars parked above rows of tents.

* It is often wet and difficult. Planning should assume worst case conditions.

* It warrants a higher than normal level of inherent safety and this can only be achieved cost effectively in my view utilising heavy concrete blocks as wheel chocks for any suspect caravans, and large wood blocks for the rest.

There are obvious problems in insisting that all caravans use concrete blocks - 200 caravans would need 400 blocks and each one weighs about 20 kilo. Collecting 8 tonnes of blocks after the festival would be quite an undertaking.

I would suggest that if your responsible officer does not know much about caravanning you contract the job of site inspection to someone who does.

Yours faithfully

(Dr) Stephen J Wozniak


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