Saturday, 15 August 2009
It's a subject that divides people pretty clearly - I've noticed it with old friends who now have families. Some can’t wait to chuck the tent in the back of the car and zoom off for the weekend. Others would sooner eat coal than spend a night under canvas. It seems to be the people who camped as children who love it now, perhaps because we enjoy reconnecting with our childish sense of wonder at being grubby and free, outside all day long.
But why do non-campers have such a problem with the roving life? Is it the lack of everyday luxuries – electric light, a bed that isn’t the ground, toast? Or is it the apparent unsuitability of our climate for outdoor living?
We go every summer to a wood in Suffolk to meet up with a load of friends, and whatever weekend the great get-together takes place it always rains. I’m talking stair rods. So reliable is the annual downpour that we should probably tell the Met Office of our plans so they can factor them into the long-range forecast. Last year the wood ended up looking like Glastonbury and every car had to be pushed out of the mire. Of course the kids were deliriously happy, running around covered in mud and doing dangerous things with sticks, but what about the adults?
Can I honestly say that it’s fun to be soggy for three days? Hand on heart… I love it! Yes, a supply of cider or (insert favourite tipple) is absolutely essential, along with a phlegmatic outlook on life in general and mud in particular, but for anyone who lives in the city but loves the countryside nothing beats walking around a wood – even a wet wood - in the middle of the night or waking up with the birds singing all around.
This is my favourite kind of camping, the composting-toilet-and-one-tap experience that makes non-campers shudder with revulsion. Last year, on that glorious August Bank Holiday weekend, we camped in a field with no facilities whatsoever but with a Dorset beach only yards away. Did anyone care about the hike to the nearest public toilet? Well, yes, but with the sun shining by day and owls hooting by night it was worth it.
It sometimes feels as though your options are either this scenario or the big, suburb-style campground with its amazing facilities and total lack of atmosphere, but there is a middle way.
I just got hold of the new edition of Cool Camping, a wonderful guide to the best campsites in England (different books cover Wales and other parts), and when I say ‘best’ I’m talking about fantastic locations, excellent facilities and charm. The book itself does for life under canvas what Nigella Lawson has done for sweating over a hot stove, with gorgeous photography and mouth-watering descriptions.
Jonathan Knight, the book’s author, agrees that location is key to the new wave of camping.
“It’s about finding that remote location and getting back to nature,” he told Folio. “It’s about finding those amazing, really quiet places that are off the camping thoroughfare. The first edition had only forty sites in it, and this one has another thirty-five – people write in and tell us about the places they’ve been visiting for years, sometimes through several generations.”
A typical site is Stowford Manor Farm, which lies on the river Frome not far from Bradford on Avon. This is a working farm with historic buildings of Cotswold stone, some of which are rented to local craftsmen, and a luxurious tea garden. The site itself is small, with access to the river for aquatic pursuits from paddling upwards, although the more adventurous can pop down the road and join the Farleigh Hungerford swimming club – the only river swimming club in the country. Founded in 1933, at a time when river swimming was a popular pastime, it has survived the boom in foreign holidays and is now enjoying a resurgence.
Jonathan Knight thinks this is true of camping too.
“My perception,” he says. “Just kind of talking to people – people you wouldn’t expect to be passionate about camping – is that the glamour of air travel has gone. The kind of people who used to go on weekend city breaks are getting fed up of waiting around at airports and finding cities overrun with people. They’re starting to see the attraction of throwing their tent in the car and going off for the weekend.
“People may not be looking at camping as their main holiday option, but as one of a range of things. Not because it’s cheap, necessarily, but because it’s pleasant.”
Extracted from an article in Folio Magazine, summer 2008