"Goodbye England's Wally"
..jolly good show old boy.....Godspeed on next journey.
Dead: Ralph Lee at 99, Cheltenham England. Sept.18, 2002
Ralph Lee, a King of the Road, Is Dead at 99
By DOUGLAS MARTIN N.Y.Times Obits. 10-6-02
Ralph Lee, a celebrated knight-errant of the British road, who built his own vacation trailer in 1931 and went on to pull it and its 10 successors a distance equal to 20 trips around the world, died on Sept. 18 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England. He was 99.
In 1999, Queen Elizabeth made Dr. Lee a member of the Order of the British Empire, an order of knighthood. His death was mourned by flags flown at half-staff at trailer parks throughout Britain.
The Times of London in 1998 called him "the spiritual founding father of British caravanning," a national pastime both beloved and belittled. It began in 1884 with Dr. William Gordon-Stables's journey to Scotland with a horse-drawn van, a trek richly described in his book "The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer."
Caravan, the British term for trailer, comes from the Persian word karwan, meaning a group of desert travelers, and van is a shortened form.
Dr. Lee and his wife, Muriel, made contributions to the long, proud history of recreational vehicles that included being the first British caravaners to vacation above the Arctic Circle and the first from any country allowed into the Soviet Union. They crossed the English Channel 74 times with a caravan in tow. The Lees went more than 500,000 miles — far enough to make it to the moon and back.
Moreover, Dr. Lee, a dentist, was an important technical adviser to Sam Alper, who became a millionaire with his Sprite Caravans and other models, now treasured as funky antiques. Mr. Alper was the British equivalent of Wally Byam, who invented the Airstream trailer, the slender silver cylinder that became an American icon.
Mr. Alper's company, first called Alperson Products, was the world's largest van maker in the 1950's, turning out 20,000 a year.
Today more than two million Britons are RV enthusiasts, and caravanning is the most popular British pastime after walking, gardening and fishing, according to The Times of London.
The Economist magazine reported that Britons spent more nights in the beds of recreational vehicles, 18 million in all last year, than they did at hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
But they do it differently from Americans, who have wide roads, cheap fuel, excellent camping facilities and consequently immense RV's with dishwashers and king-size beds.
The Economist said that in Britain, caravans are seen as "the last resort of those too poor to afford an overseas holiday."
Caravans are an endless subject of debate. A big complaint is that they hold up traffic.
For example, Jeremy Clarkson, a British automotive writer, was outraged when a new Lotus he was test-driving got caught behind a caravan. It was not his first complaint.
"I know the Caravan Club says its members are considerate but we must never forget that the Ku Klux Klan says its followers are respectable too," he fumed in The Sun last year.
Andrew Martin, writing in The New Statesman in 2000, called caravans "a ludicrous and creepy fetish of the petit bourgeoisie."
Dr. Lee answered by saying the critics should just slow down.
"The pleasure of caravanning is taking your time," he said in an interview with The Daily Mail in 1999. "I never did more than 100 miles a day."
Ralph Langdon Lee was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, England, on April 5, 1903. His father, a Congregational minister and a mountain climber, instilled a love for the outdoors. At 16, he made a tent using his mother's sewing machine and soon became a scoutmaster. He was even invited to tea with the first chief scout, Robert Baden-Powell.
He met Muriel Waters at church and took her camping after their marriage in 1930. It rained a lot, and he vowed to keep his bride dry in the future. He had heard about caravans, but had never seen one. He built one from a crashed automobile at a cost of $50, a lot of money then.
Luckily, his dental practice was active and remunerative.
He named his first caravan "Who Cares?" after a phrase from a song by Peter Dawson, a star in the early recording era. He kept the same name for his next 10 trailers.
In 1940, his house was destroyed by wartime bombing, and he and his family lived in a caravan in a friend's field. He rebuilt his house to resemble a caravan.
After the war, he and his wife kept traveling. In Belgium, they were marooned in an antiroyalist riot. In Romania, they were detained in a steel cage by Communist authorities. In Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, they listened to wolves prowl around their trailer at night.
"I like to do things that other people have never done," he said in an interview with The Mail.
In 1993, Mrs. Lee died from a stroke, and Dr. Lee went ahead with a trip to Ireland that they had planned together. He said it was a mistake. He was lonely.
Dr. Lee, who is survived by two daughters, took two flying lessons in a glider and two in a helicopter at 95. The lessons went well.
"I wish I'd taken up flying sooner," he said.