October 23, 2021

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Have I got what it takes for a family camping trip?

Family holidays updates

It isn’t the hard ground, the cold showers or the sleepless sheep baa-ing that makes me wonder if we’ve made a mistake. All of those I can live with. That’s what camping is about, after all. I’m not a wimp.

It’s the 2am-cry of a child who needs a wee, the debate over whether they should just go outside the tent, followed by the stumbling walk over damp grass to the communal toilets, realising when we get there that I don’t have a toilet roll and watching the child change their mind because the toilet stinks and is, in fact, the weirdest toilet they have ever seen.

By then they’ve forgotten about the need for a wee, are fascinated by being outside in the middle of the night, hop and skip back to the tent before singing themselves to sleep. And you lie there awake, with a child’s ice-cold foot digging into your neck, wondering if you’ll get any rest before sunrise. That is what makes me wonder if I have what it takes for a family camping trip.

This is the second summer of the great staycation and there are many ways to staycate, especially on 21st-century British campsites. There are bell tents, shepherd huts, gypsy caravans and giant motorhomes. There are sites with barista coffee, electric power outlets and games rooms for rainy days. There is even one with its own windmill and bakery.

We favour ones that are more low-key — restricted numbers, bring your own tent, choose your own pitch, eco toilets, one plug socket for the entire site. There is much to like about them, not least their origin story, which I make it my job to find out on arrival.

Don’t park next to the tent, they tell us. We’ll give you a wheelbarrow to take your kit from the car park in the village. Three round trips should do it

The campsite owners, usually a couple, are happy to talk about the half-acre they inherited or married into, the bald rescue chickens now dizzy with fresh air, the old caravans they have repainted and given hippie names, the bags of logs they sell at £5 a pop, all the things that make their little patch of earth the perfect escape from the city.

Relaxed and sunburnt, they greet us like the dismal wage slaves we are. Carsick from the hairpin bends we’ve just negotiated and wondering if we should send one last work email, we ask ourselves how on earth they can afford to live here and what the hell has gone wrong with our lives.

Pitch where you like, they say. No rules. Except perhaps the one about electronic music. Guitars are fine, though, they always stress. Who doesn’t like the sound of guitar around a campfire? I could answer that, but I don’t. And don’t park your car next to the tent. We’ll give you a wheelbarrow to take your kit from the car park in the village. Three round trips should do it.

So we choose our pitch. But it’s so very hard to get it right. Will that tree offer shade or bird droppings? Which direction is the wind coming from? How hot will the tent be in the morning?

Tent up, we head out in search of provisions (local shops are shut, pubs adhere to strange hours, it feels wrong but inevitable that we end up in an out-of-town Tesco) and return to discover that, gasp, other people have arrived and this out-of-the-way campsite that was so difficult to find is in fact very much on the map.

First off is the university friends’ reunion trip. They all have partners and children now and different views on healthy eating and holiday bedtimes.

Then there’s the young couple on their first camping trip. They bring books, new walking boots and an expensive-looking bottle opener. I see them looking at our children, who are feral with sugar and excitement and demanding to watch Netflix on our phones. They are promising themselves they’ll do things differently.

And there’s the guy who arrives with his tent and a change of clothes on the back of his bicycle, making you wonder why exactly you thought you needed a kitchen table and chairs.

But for all the ridiculousness of trying to create a home from home in a field, it is kind of fun, in the way that any holiday with children is kind of fun, kind of work and kind of relentless. As a holiday, it works in that, by God, you soon appreciate your real kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.

When they are not tormenting the rescue chickens, the children make friends. Sometimes these are friends from upmarket parts of London who gently lob a grenade into our peaceful family getaway by telling our children how much pocket money they get. The kids ask for cash to attend campsite workshops: £10 to teach them how to start campfires or whittle a knife, even go foraging. The business model for the campsite starts to make sense.

We cook food, which tastes better for being barely visible through black smoke. We consider showers, but there’s already a queue. I borrow the bottle opener. I could get to like this, I say, two glasses down, the sky exploding with stars, the sheep still sleepless. There is a voice in my ear, saying: I need a wee.

Orla Ryan is the FT’s Middle East and Africa news editor

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