(Carry) on camping

Over the last few weeks, because it’s the summer holidays I suppose, I’ve read a few articles in the British press about camping. They range from best ‘glamping’ experiences, to how ‘glamping isn’t camping’ and on to how the middle class have ruined camping – by polluting it with glamping.

You’ve probably heard of glamping, because it’s been a thing for some 10 – 15 years. Huge posh tents, tipis or yurts which someone else has put up for you before you arrive, and which are decked out with the sort of furnishings you’d normally find in a hotel room or your house – including a proper bed. You get the experience of sleeping under canvas, but without the elements that make it like sleeping in a field.

What’s the problem with that? None. It will suit some people who want to be a closer to nature, but not too close. I’ll confess I’ve thought about it myself – until I saw the price and thought about how it was an awful lot of money to still have to share a bathroom and for said facilities to be some distance from your accommodation.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking, she’s a nature-loving outdoorsy type. Why on earth would she consider glamping?! Which brings me to what prompted me to write this. A pal had posted about her latest camping trip on her social media page and asked, “Doesn’t anyone do basic camping anymore?” – following it up with a line about how much equipment, or stuff, people take with them and the odd looks she was getting for having very little stuff and just a small tent.

It took me back to when I used to go basic camping and to a site that was virtually on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond. There my friend and I were, in our small basic tent, and next to us were some people who seemed to have bought the contents of their house with them. I can’t be sure if the years have added in the memory of them having a television set up next to their dining table, but I am sure they had a table and chairs (albeit the patio kind), wine glasses, plates, side plates, salad bowls, cutlery, a cooker and well, pretty much everything but the kitchen sink.

My friend and I sniggered. Once out of earshot, safely ensconced at the pub over the road, we discussed the improbability of needing so much stuff to go camping. If only we’d had the imagination to go beyond sneering and into understanding we might have invented glamping ourselves! But we were twenty-somethings wrapped up in that juvenile self-belief that we were right and those older than us must therefore be wrong. And these people were older than us, and so they likely had more cash to spend on kit and more desire for comfort – because age will do that to you.

I responded to my friend’s post, even though another friend of hers had already said similar to what I was thinking: that if she laid down on the floor in a small tent she probably couldn’t get up again. I might be able to get up again, but it would be a hell of a lot of effort! Also the memories of trying to sleep on hard, lumpy and occasionally even sloping ground are not the fondest I have of my camping days.

All that was between me and the ground was the tent’s integral (hopefully waterproof) groundsheet and about an inch of polystyrene foam. My pillow was usually my leather biker’s jacket and, provided it was dry, my towel. It was NEVER comfortable. I was well-padded flesh wise, but even so my bones somehow always found the lumpiest bits of ground. I could never get into the right position. My head always ended up at the wrong angle. I do not know how I managed to sleep at all – and that’s without weather-related woes, like the tent leaking slowly overnight in Dorset meaning I woke up in a puddle. Or the strong wind near Stratford-upon-Avon that seemed to blow all night and made it feel like we were sleeping inside a rustling bin bag.

Yet I went on many camping trips and always enjoyed them and the ‘basic’ theme was definitely a part of why they were so good. My camping buddy was my then best friend Sarah and she owned the tent. She’d been good enough to splash out a little extra on a three person shelter, because they didn’t weigh much more but afforded useful extra space for our backpacks overnight. She was also savvy enough to choose a tent with an awning, which meant we could sit in the shade or shelter from light rain while eating if we needed to – and there was somewhere to dry our towels.

We used to take it in turns to carry the tent, but the poles fitted perfectly in the side pockets of her backpack so she carried those. In any case this was already the era of modern, lightweight tents so it didn’t feel particularly arduous to carry. Our other equipment was a single burner gas camping stove, a single saucepan, a cutlery set and a mug each and one enamel dish. The lack of a second dish meant breakfast had to be taken in tandem and at dinner time one of us ate from the saucepan, but it was never an issue.

We camped everywhere from the Westcountry and Wales, through the Midlands and up to Scotland where we made it to Glencoe, which I think just about qualifies as the Highlands. There was a simple, and very pure joy, to waking up in the countryside where there was very little noise and the mornings had a softness to them. We’d then sit on the grass and make coffee on the stove and eat those little boxes of cereal for breakfast, because they were handy to carry without the contents getting crushed. We’d also often wake up to a stunning view, without having paid a premium price for it as you might in a hotel.

Lunch was usually in a pub or what my friend dubbed a ‘roadside pasty’ from a convenience store. Evening meals were whatever we could heat on the stove and we had a rule that we tried to make a meal from scratch at least once per holiday. It had to be something that could be cooked in one saucepan of course and I think it usually involved noodles (which cook quicker than pasta) and tuna. Being outdoors invariably stimulates my appetite but I don’t remember going hungry, despite our rather limited food options.

I’ve nearly forgotten to mention the other thing that makes for basic camping: not having a car and we did indeed get some very odd looks in a small Welsh village when we showed up to camp there in the late 1990s. News of our arrival, on the only bus of the day, spread quickly so that it seemed everyone in the local pub that evening knew who we were. They couldn’t quite understand why two young women, from London no less, had come to their one-pub-and-no-shop hamlet for a long weekend but they welcomed us all the same. The welcome included encouraging us to attend the village’s big summer event, the Pig and Lamb Roast. We initially heard this as Pagan Lamb Roast, which made it sound much more exciting than what it turned out to be – a barbecue and a band. Actually that’s not fair, it was a splendid feast of roast meat and the villagers’ welcome felt even warmer because they were genuinely glad we decided to come. I’m not saying I’ve never met interesting people and made friends while staying in hotels, but we definitely had our basic camping ways to thank for this experience.

Would I do it now? Which was essentially what my friend asked in her post. I’d go in my car if I went at all and there’s still sleeping on the ground to contend with. I’d need something a lot more comfortable than the glorified yoga mat which used to be my bed. Sadly I think my basic camping days are behind me, but I’d like to think I might sleep under canvas again one day. Perhaps with the aid of a camp bed, but without the need for all the other furniture in my house.

Pictured above, from top: 1. Me hitching to Glencoe, the roll on the top of my pack was my bed. 2. Me (dressed as Dennis the Menace) rolling up my bed/sleep mat next to the tent. 3.A meal made from scratch on the camping stove (note the tuna can near my feet, the enamel plate and the saucepan Sarah would have to eat from that night!). 4. Last pic, mini cereals breakfast enjoyed barefoot on the grass – and for extra sugar a cherry bakewell (on my knee).

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