The most magical memory of camping I have sees me not far from my home on the Norfolk coast. We’re under canvas, staring up at the stars through the smoke flaps of a tipi. I can hear the sea crashing in the background and we’re cooking the samphire we’d pulled up from the marshes earlier in the day. The salty smell of the sea mixes with the woody scent of the fire and my two boys are looking at me with unadulterated excitement. Sticky berry juice is dripping down their chins and their T-shirts are covered in it. They were still at that delicious stage when everything is an adventure and it’s a scene I replay often in my mind.
There are few things as glorious as camping out with a couple of wriggling, giggling children. It’s fantastically freeing for them and I adore seeing them outdoors, making instant friends and charging around in a gang.
Children love the change that camping brings to the family dynamic. Those who naturally lead at home don’t necessarily do so under canvas and this makes everything much more of an adventure. Squashed together in a small space, you learn so much more about each other. Listening to their little snores as they sleep, while you sit by the fire drinking wine, is very different to tucking them up in their own beds at home.
It’s a primal thing, I think. I love seeing in the dawn with my children, quietly relishing the moments when nature wakes up. I love, too, the delight that stepping out, barefoot, on to dewy grass provokes in them. In the fast-paced consumer world in which we live, it’s moments like these that are the ones to cherish. It’s also these times that I think my children will remember and share with their own children in years to come.
As a child, my parents never took me camping. They favoured hotels, so I spent my childhood in stuffy dining rooms fidgeting on high-backed chairs, staring wistfully out of the window. Of course, hotels have moved on since then and I take my children to lots during the year. But given a choice they’ll always opt to camp instead.
I’m thrilled that my children’s summer memories will be of eating sausages and baked potatoes cooked over a real fire. I love that they’ve slept under the stars and have heard the sound of rain on canvas while drinking mugs of warming soup.
Camping provides an antidote to all the health and safety rules by which we’re now required to live our lives. Lighting a fire in a tipi is not without a frisson of danger and I like that feeling. I also like the elemental nature
of camping that you’re not protected by windows, walls and central heating. Everything that has been automated at home now requires a little thought and planning.
While under canvas, space allows you to meet only your basic needs, which makes camping a gloriously pared-down experience and a relaxing one too. The amount of choice we face on a day-to-day basis is actually quite stressful, so by bringing only what you really need, you take away the pressure of decision-making.
When we were new to camping, we set up camp in the garden as a dry run. It worked brilliantly, as we could dash back inside for those forgotten essentials which, as I remember, turned out to be my son’s stuffed rabbit who accompanied him to bed every night.
Once we began camping away from home, I learned a few lessons the hard way. The first was that choosing the right campsite is extremely important. There are, of course, places to camp with swimming pools, restaurants, shops and much more. Often, though, this means they also have a programme of night-time entertainment, which can mean the dreaded nightclub on site. From bitter experience, I personally would say avoid these at all costs. There’s nothing worse than trying to get your babies off to sleep to the pounding beat of drum and bass.
My favourite place of all to camp is in a tipi village. They’re magical places and tend to attract people who want to get together round the fire for songs and stories, so have a real feeling of stepping back in time.
The thing that’s worked best for me when it comes to family camping is allowing my children to pack a small rucksack of the things they most want. From when they were very small to today, the thing that thrills them most is their very own torch. I think it allows them to feel like real adventurers when they’re allowed to pack something practical along with their favourite toys.
Rather like puppies are not only for Christmas, camping isn’t only for summer. I’ve spent many winter weekends camping with my brood. In fact, we spent half-term hanging out in a groovy Airstream trailer in the Lake District. The experience made me feel intensely glamorous and for those who are not quite brave enough to camp out under canvas, an Airstream is a perfect, and luxurious, solution.
Waking up to a view over a lake and feeling the crunch of frost under our gumboots was delicious and it was lovely to see the children embracing nature as fully as they do during the summer months. The summer, though, is my favourite camping time. As soon as the daffodils are out, my thoughts turn to a summer spent under canvas. It’s a brilliant way to recharge and escape from modern life. While I take a mobile phone for emergencies, I make sure it’s switched off – one of the more blissful aspects of camping is the lack of deadlines.
I always feel sad about the way children now seem forced to grow up too quickly, so the child-like nature of camping is a rare thrill. It’s also a great way for adults to indulge in childish pleasures: it’s not very often one gets to play house anymore.
One of my favourite parts of camping is setting up camp itself. Arriving somewhere new and claiming your space is really exciting. It’s important too, especially for children, to know where everything is and to make sure your space is cosy and welcoming. I like to have cotton sleeping bags, pillows from home and lots of snacks. I also take a pot of Badger Sleep Balm (£4 at www.lovelula.com), to ensure we all have a peaceful night.
Bedtime when camping is a bit of a ritual for us. My children go on a sleep strike if they’re not given mugs of proper hot chocolate before bed. It needs to be made with Lindt milk chocolate, double cream and full-fat milk. Any deviation causes a revolt and makes life rather tricky. If it’s warm out then the hot chocolate needs to be drunk sitting in pyjamas on the grass outside our tent. If we’re in a tipi, it needs to be drunk while sitting around the fire. Wherever we are and whatever the weather, there needs to be a story being told.
Midnight feasts, too, figure high on my children’s list of camping musts. Obviously they’re eaten rather earlier than midnight – usually about eight o’clock – and they must include things they’d never be allowed to eat
before bed at home, such as crumbly cookies, Ritz crackers and toasted marshmallows.
Camping is a real communal experience and part of the joy is the people you meet. Picnics form a large part of our camping itinerary and, with lots of farm shops popping up all over the place, it’s possible to get some brilliant local produce close to where you’re camping, so I have a picnic hamper full of china and sturdy glass that I’ve collected over the years from antique shops. Eating local food for me is an extension of the camping experience; it’s about getting into sync with the rhythm of nature, which includes getting up really early and going to sleep when it gets dark. It feels as if this is how we’re meant to live and children fall into the pattern really easily.
We hear and read so much about the effect we have on the natural world and how we should keep our impact to a minimum. Camping is a brilliant way of doing this. Firstly, it can be an environmentally friendly way of holidaying, but also it allows you to witness nature first-hand, to feel it underfoot and to touch and be touched by it in a way that is unusual and enlightening.
I find looking at the stars a truly humbling experience and one of our camping rituals is to lie on our backs, gazing up at the sky, and seeing who can spot a star shoot across the sky. It’s when you do something like this that you realise how much there is to protect. It also seems to make problems feel much smaller when you’re forced to confront the vastness of the universe.
The world is also a big place, so we try to take our children to different landscapes. Living in Norfolk, they’re used to a flat environment, so we’ve taken them to camp by mountains in Scotland to experience a majestic, almost Jurassic, landscape. They’ve also camped by the sea in Cornwall, alongside lakes in Cumbria and in the splendour of the Cotswolds (see our feature on page 87 for more recommendations).
Each time my children visit somewhere new, they declare it to be their favourite place and they see each new trip as an adventure and the opportunity to make new friends. They particularly love camping somewhere in close proximity to wildlife and love discovering new varieties of birds and animals. Even sleeping in a field next to a bunch of mooing cows brings real joy to them.
We once slept rather too close to a goat, who ended up eating my hat – something the boys still giggle about it. They’re fond of taking our own pets too, and there’s always a bit of competition to see who can get the dogs to sleep on their side of the tipi. The extra warmth generated by a Labrador is worth having, or so I’m told.
Getting back to nature comes easily to most children and their natural exuberance carries them through the mini-dramas that camping can throw up. My boys love collecting insects in jars, paddling in streams and seeing how muddy they can get. When my girls were small, they saw camping as a way to get in touch with their inner fairies and as soon as they stepped out of the car, they donned fairy wings, and went off to find magic rustling in the trees or floating on a stream. But perhaps that’s what camping offers to us all – the chance to step outside ourselves and see the magic all around.
- Cool Camping by Laura James (Harper Collins, £9.99).
- The Campsite Companion by Rob Beattie (Apple Press, £9.99).
- http://europe.airstream.com For information on the sleek Airstream trailer, including pricing and dealers.