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2022-07-31 05:04:32 By : Ms. Snowen Zhang

Modern camping is a world away from the cold, soggy tents of yore. Thankfully, it’s all glam comfort now, says Sarah Bailey

Since my childhood Girl Guide camping days (all soggy eggy bread and nylon “boil-in-the-bag” sleeping bags), I’ve spent very little time as an adult under canvas. If I delve into my ­memory bank, there was perhaps one memorable night in a tent at Reading Festival with my girlfriends in the 1990s. 

It ended in a big row because one of our number inadvertently sat down on a slice of brie in the dark, mashing it – irreversibly – into another friend’s brand new mohair cardigan (I challenge you to name a more middle-class camping disaster). And, then, in the years after cardi-gate, there was the Millets tent that we’d all chipped in for, only for it to lie mouldering in someone’s basement for the next decade or three, eventually to be forgotten.

Then last year, as the shifting sands of the ­pandemic travel protocols put paid to my family’s longed-for France trip – sending the domestic mood-o-meter to Absolutely Stir Crazy – we decided to set off on a road trip. The initial plans were a bit sketchy: crash a friend’s party on the beach in Borth, mid-Wales, then head north.

But when said friend took pity on us trundling in our Prius and offered us the loan of their sprauncy VW California Ocean camper van nicknamed “Erica” for the following two weeks of our freestyle UK staycation, that is when the summer of 2021 took off. We embarked on an adventure that took us wild swimming in waterfalls at Maentrog, lighting fires on the West Shore beach at Llandudno, up to the Lakes and beyond. 

We started to get a bit looser and bolder with our route, with a site here and there. By the time we cruised into a glorious hostel-camping-cum-glamping site above Derwentwater, enjoying just a frisson of equipment envy for our hipster-approved grey fold-down sofa, mini fire bowl on stilts and Erica’s sleek wheels, I realised we’d entered the nouveau camping classes.

No longer the niche pursuit of nature spods and festival desperadoes, modern camping is as grown-up, wild or as luxe as you want it to be, covering the gamut from Boden bell tents festooned with fairy lights and bunting to futuristic eco-pods in extraordinary locations.

And it seems that we all want to sleep under the stars right now. The global glamping industry – worth about £2 ­billion annually – is expected to keep growing. The popularity of outdoor tourism has been driven by the pandemic, of course. But underlying trends have been fuelling its growth for several years, too. The desire to get back to nature and holiday without causing undue harm to the planet has spawned a new generation of eco-conscious travellers, not to mention Instagram and Pinterest showing people living their best lives in nature’s abundance.

The word “glamping” first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, but the core principle – sleeping under the stars with life’s luxuries in tow – goes back centuries to the English monarchy, travelling with luxurious tents and furnishings from their palaces. Of course, the very idea of a pre-pitched bell tent and a bucket of prosecco on ice is an anathema for some. But even among today’s camping purists, there’s a world of feather-light mattresses and portable espresso makers, meaning that modern camping is light years from the terrifying latrines and my Girl Guide camps of the early 1980s.

Richard Max, 53, a documentary maker and father of two, got the camping bug a few years ago when he was invited on a school parents and kids trip. He admits to some early rookie mishaps, including one involving a tent that he acquired from a house clearance sale that was supplied with the wrong poles, leading to the whole family being drenched at one disastrous rain-soaked music festival.

“And then you get equipment envy,” he says. “You see all these people with special things for doing this or that, and you start doing the research and building your camping kit, as opposed to running round the house trying to grab things that you think are going to work.” 

Glamping is not an idea that chimes particularly with Max, although he does confess to receiving a Nespresso hand-pump coffee machine for his birthday. For a man who’s working life is full of travel and schedules, it is ­camping’s low-key nature that really appeals to him – the freedom and flexi­bility to move somewhere else on a whim, go home if things don’t go to plan, and the conscious slowing down, the soul-­stirring gatherings round the fire at night.

I pick the brains of other midlife campers at the school-gate pick-up. A media lawyer and mum in her mid-40s tells me that it was festival-going in her 20s that first gave her a taste for sleeping under canvas and then, when her son came along, she reconnected with her inner camper for staycations with the family. For her it’s all about embracing life’s contrasts: “I like going to Costa Rica and the Maldives, just as I like finding vintage bargains on eBay; but I also love the simplicity of sleeping outside in a field. It’s the things in the middle that I’m not keen on!” Her top tip: “Take your own pillow and some lovely bed socks.”  

For camping beginners, she recommends the Embers New Forest site. For more rarefied stays – for instance, in architect-designed cabins on stilts and funky treehouses – is the go-to. One of the venues on the site is Pickwell Manor in north Devon, which boasts a variety of woodland treehouse accommodations – luxury glamping in the sky.

“The treehouses are usually 100 per cent occupied,” says Simon Hawthorne, Pickwell Manor’s manager, who also manages Ravendere Retreats, a luxury getaway with self-catering treetop cabins and a spa near Ilfracombe, so popular it’s booked until 2023. “Just being high up and looking down on the wildlife – I think that’s part of the appeal. Yes, it’s escapism, but it’s a very posh form of escapism. You’re certainly not roughing it,” says Hawthorne. 

One woman with her finger on the pulse of outdoor tourism – and where glamping is going next – is Sarah Riley, founder of the Glamping Business Academy where she coaches glamping providers. She also runs a website, which she describes as an inspiration portal about the joys of sleeping under the stars. 

Her glamping epiphany came in 2009 when she experienced a devastating stroke: “The kind of stroke that you either die from or you live – and I lived.” She wanted the therapy of being outdoors but without all the slog and the hassle of packing your car to the gunnels and hammering in tent pegs.

“Prehistorically we are wired up to like camping. I don’t think we would have actually spread across the globe or been nomads without the need or the love of spending time under the stars,” says Riley. “But now we are so removed from that, when we do spend time under the stars, it’s just this astounding experience to see shooting stars and sit around a campfire at night with friends. It’s magical. 

And the thing about glamping is that all the best bits of staying in a hotel are there – the comfort of a bed, for instance – but you’ve also got all these other wonderful aspects of camping that we remember from our childhood and want to give our kids to have as memories, too.”

Riley now travels the world evangelising about the joys and mental benefits of glamping. She says the concept remains a bit of a head scratcher in America, where the tourist industry’s idea of luxury accommodation tends to be  much more literal and the outdoorsy brigade are inclined to keep their camping trips rugged. But countries such as Croatia are embracing the trend with five-star-plus glamping where each tent has its own swimming pool. 

“The future,” she says, “is mind-boggling structures that people will want to stay in for the experience, to say that they did it.” She cites a Cornish site called Kudhva as a great example: it offers architecturally designed cabins that can be sited in ­off-grid spots, ­giving access to places people wouldn’t normally be able to go. “It’s for adventure seekers, explorers, people who love to surf and climb cliffs; people who want to take their free time and add an amazing adventure to it.”

With the recent heat-wave and city life feeling distinctly oppressive, my family and I decide to set off on a mini glamping weekender in East Sussex. The project is all very last-minute, and given our wildly varying views on what constitutes a good holiday (my husband – hanging off a crag; teenage son – chilling hard at Soho Warehouse in LA), we use Airbnb to find somewhere we all broadly agree on. 

We eventually plump for Fleetwood Luxury Camping, which on arrival we find to be a nicely fitted-out bell tent in the High Weald, set in the vast garden with magnificent trees. There’s a Wi-Fi connection, a ­sizable TV with a firestick, a Google Nest and a woodburner (we don’t use the latter three). 

Our host Sharon has stocked the mini fridge with fresh strawberries, milk and bottles of water, and the interior is carefully styled with stacks of pillows and lanterns and bed linens printed with a hare motif. There are two double ­mattresses and a superbly comfortable sleigh bed for us. Just stepping inside stirs childhood memories of sleeping out in the back garden in the Wendy House and eating midnight feasts off the dolls’ china.

Our plan for the weekend is to have no plan, so we goof around in the vast garden for a while playing badminton and dozing on the sunloungers. Later, we head off to the Bell, a gastro pub in nearby ­Ticehurst, which is excellent and I can fully recommend it. When we get back to the site, we ­kindle the fire pit, fire up the lanterns and lie back to look at the stars. That night we all sleep like the dead.

Waking up to the sound of birds the next morning as the dawn light shines through the canvas has its own very particular kind of magic. And when I step out onto the dew-soaked grass in bare feet to set up the breakfast cereal bowls, the sense of nostalgia is almost unbearably sweet. We drive back to London with our hearts full and our feet still grass-stained because even in a luxury camping situation, it’s impossible not to go a tiny bit feral.

A road-tripper’s dream or a sardine can on wheels? Our tips for keeping your cool living on the road, by Sarah Bailey

Not all camper vans are created equal. We were lucky enough to borrow a friend’s VW California Ocean, but this is a particularly expensive model to buy (used versions cost upward of £50,000), although it’s an ­absolute dream to run away in (even without a loo).

So my first tip is: don’t buy until you’ve had a few trial runs (especially as the post-pandemic staycation boom is still trending and camper van prices are sky-high). Airbnb is a good place to hire one of these vehicles for a short trip, and you could also try Camlify, the van-sharing site that aims to become the Airbnb of camper vans and motorhomes.

The joy of a camper van adventure is the freedom to make up your itinerary as you go. So my second tip is: don’t overplan and allow yourself to be spontaneous. Use apps such as Park4night, which will allow you to discover pitches outside the usual campsite spots.

Our road trip with “Erica”, for example, took us from a field overlooking the Turneresque sunsets of Morecambe Bay, to a hostel in Derwent­water, where we used the van more like a portable changing tent for wild swimming. And that little bit of luxury is the whole point – it’s not like you are competing for a Duke of Edinburgh Gold medal after all.

Tip three: invest in quality bedding. Try Duvalay, which has superbly cosy deluxe products – the only downside is that they can be quite bulky. And finally – a word from the wise: invest in a loo tent.

What midlife campers really want in 2022 is food and feasting – on site. After all, without the fuss of hauling your own ingredients and cookery kit around (and making sure the wine remains perfectly chilled for sundowners) or going out to eat elsewhere, there’s all the more time to enjoy precious hours in the outdoors with family and friends. Fortunately, Britain’s campsites and glampsites are upping their gourmet game for 2022.

“In the past, a lot of campsites simply didn’t have the high-quality food and drink options they have today. A portable stove used to be part and parcel of camping, but that’s really changing,” says James Warner Smith, author and editor of the Cool Camping guidebook series – he recommends Maju Glamping in Devon (right next to River Cottage HQ) as this year’s foodie favourite. ­Communal outdoor supper clubs at Maju come in the form of three-course rustic feasts cooked over fire by ­Masterchef finalist Tom Morrell; think Haye Farm lamb with smoked onion, salsa verde and minted new potatoes (grass pitches from £30).

Elsewhere, Pythouse Kitchen Garden in Tisbury, Wiltshire – an 18th-century walled garden and restaurant – has a new on-site glamping village with bell tents and a shepherd’s hut. Guests can enjoy garden-to-table dishes (red carlin pea whip served with rapeseed oil and garden herbs; rhubarb parfait with rosemary crumble) prepared by head chef Darren Broom (who cut his teeth cooking with Marco Pierre White)  either in the restaurant or by an open fire in the secluded orchard glamping area.

“Garden gathering” evenings offer open-air feasting around long trestle tables on balmy summer nights, with drinks and canapés on arrival (bell tents from £67.50pp for a two-night minimum stay). Clearly, camping fare has come a long way from tinned food and plastic plates – although, as Warner Smith points out, there’s still a place for­ a ­nostalgic DIY campfire or portable stove – that’s the joy of camping, too (depending on who is washing up). 

“Midlifers are of the age when they’ve experienced good food outdoors. They’re discerning. They’ve travelled in Europe and know what it’s like to eat fantastic produce al fresco rather than inside on white linen table cloths,” says Mark Griffiths, who serves up barbecue banquets on communal dining tables at Woodfire Camping in West Sussex. “They want to do the same in the UK in a relaxed environment while the kids are playing, and have a glass of wine without needing to drive. People are relaxed and happier outdoors, and often food tastes better.” Griffiths recently introduced desserts with matching wines from the fully licensed bar (£19.50pp per night for a grass tent pitch).

Glamping with dining also appeals to midlifers who previously might not have been interested in camping at all, says Richard Martin, founder of Ham Hideaway near Sandwich in Kent, which offers tent-side “table service”, including a three-course à la carte ­dinner or a barbecue hamper prepared at your tent by a grill chef (safari style four-to-six-person tents from £250 a night).

“Not everyone wants to slave away cooking on holiday,” says Jo Pilkington, owner of the Mad Dogs and Vintage Vans campsite in Herefordshire, where she serves one-pot chillis and curries, Saturday brunch and three-course ­dinners (vintage vans from £85 a night). “And midlifers love it here because the food brings all the generations together. We’ve even had an 80th birthday.”

Just as campsites are introducing ­dining for campers, restaurants and gastropubs are introducing camping for diners. The Lighthouse Inn in Walcott in Norfolk now has 15 pitches for campers, who flock in for the Brancaster mussels (£14.50 a pitch). The winner of this year’s National Restaurant Awards, two-Michelin-starred Ynyshir in Snowdonia, now has three teepees for guests who prefer to sleep under canopy and stars and extend their stay (£170 per night for teepee only with a two-night minimum stay).

My strategy for camping is to cook great food for the evening meal. A tin of beans is necessary sometimes, but if you can pull out lamb kebabs with ­flatbreads and tzatziki or a pile of chicken satay skewers served with prawn crackers and cucumber, or some baked potatoes dripping with garlic cheese and spring onions... or, simpler still, a tray of hot dogs loaded with ­sauerkraut, melted cheese and yellow mustard – then I think it is safe to say you are ­winning at camping. 

You’ll need a top-notch campfire cooking kit. A good barbecue that uses sustain­able charcoal is a must – those dispos­able sorts have questionable environmental credentials and many supermarkets have now stopped selling them. Far better is to invest in a little pot-belly charcoal grill, for example, the Joy Stove (£115). You could also build a fire with well-­seasoned wood (order it online at ­ and use this as your cooking source. Good-quality cast-iron pans to cook in are also a must – not all camping food needs to be grilled and if you take a couple of sturdy pans with you it’s almost the same as cooking from your stove top at home. Try Netherton Foundry (£98).

I have a camping store cupboard – one of those large boxes with a click-down lid. Rather than having to gather all my ingredients to cook al fresco every time we venture off, I know this box is good to go. In it, I have olive oil, tins of tomatoes, pasta, salt, spices, ­peanut butter, plant-based milk (I ­happen to like it, but it’s also good  emergency milk when refrigeration is lacking), tea, coconut milk and jam, among other things. 

I recommend sorting out some good lighting for camping. Head torches are useful things, but where’s the romance with a torch beam glaring in your face mid-conversation? Firelight is without doubt the loveliest light of all, but do also consider slinging some LED fairy lights in among the trees or festooned up and over your tent or van. Likewise, a decent speaker – I use a JBL wireless portable speaker (£79) with rechargeable batteries.

You’ll also need 4G and have access to your music online, but with some great tunes, the fire roaring and glass in hand, this is the ultimate camping experience. Washing up at the end of the evening is always a bore but buying one of those giant rubber buckets with handles (from £10 in your local hardware store) will help; hurl all the dishes in at once and shove this under a tap with a squirt of dishwashing liquid. Better still, get your kids to do it. 

And lastly, at my age (42), I never ever sleep in a sleeping bag – it’s a feather duvet all the way and a good-quality air mattress. Exped Mega Mat is pricey but worth it (£295).

If you haven’t cast an envious side-eye at your neighbour’s equipment, have you even been camping?

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