August 20, 2021

“My wife says, ‘Camping is a tradition in my family’. It was a tradition in everyone’s family until we invented the house.” I often think of that joke by American comedian Jim Gaffigan when I’m lying in a tent at night, the rain hammering away beside me.

We’re off camping again, among millions who will take advantage of our non-ability to go anywhere hot without hassle by sitting under a canvas, wearing two jumpers at night and trying to find a comfortable position to read with a head torch.

Like many fellow metropolitan ponces, my destination of choice would be the south of France, one of the push factors being that England is so expensive to holiday in. With just 250,000 second homes compared to France’s 3 million, our summer housing market manages to be more acute than our normal kind.

And so we go back to nature.

Britain, and England in particular, is very urban. It is the most cultivated, and most artificial of countries, with a population almost uniquely disconnected from nature. This explains our extreme sentimentality towards animals — at the time of writing the alpaca is still alive — and our romantic ideas about the countryside, which co-exist with a callous indifference to its destruction, both of native species and river life from pollution.

It also explains why we are such a nation of campers, despite having a climate almost comically unsuited towards the pastime. Camping has proved a strangely resilient form of holiday, despite people having more disposable income in general, and more distant trips becoming affordable. Our family never went camping as children, and I don’t even remember friends who ever tried it, yet almost every parent I know now does it, often quite regularly.

It’s a particular social scene very popular among certain London types, the people who bring hummus to Clissold Park picnics, who buy their daughters those illustrated books about empowering women, who might actually drink Brewdog’s Barnard Castle Eye Test beer, who have great taste in food and culture and terrible taste in politics. At some of the bigger campsites, such as Eweleaze in Dorset, huge swathes of Haringey, Islington and Hackney can be found. It’s like a seasonal migration of north Londoners, watched by anthropologists who are so impressed that they all manage to find their way to Weymouth each year, in search of fresh-baked artisan bread and yoga.

Yet camping in itself is one of the most classless of past times. Unlike foreign holidays, where some people go to Andalusia or the Canary Islands and others to Tuscany or Provence, campsites will contain all multitudes. Probably uniquely, it’s where you meet all the English, all together, in their natural habitat, which explains the special atmosphere, a shy friendliness. This has been the case since the craze started at the start of the 20th century, when after the first British camping club was formed its president noted how “almost every division into which society in England is split has contributed to the ranks of the Camping fraternity of today”.

But is it actually fun? I’m not sure. The first time we went camping was with a young baby, which I highly recommend. There’s nothing like being woken up by a piercing scream at 4am, a scream that also wakes up your neighbours who will spend the whole day resenting you. You’re still drunk, because it’s impossible to sleep on the ground otherwise, and you’re also wearing all the dry clothes you brought because it is so cold. And the ground is all wet and dewy when you step outside. And the toilet is… well, the toilets.

That first camping experience was on “eco” site, which means having the inner glow of saintliness while visiting a toilet which is literally just a medieval-style mound of excrement covered with sawdust. The perversity of paying money to live as our ancestors did, in an age of rampant fecal-oral diseases and sheer squalor, is a mystery.

It’s a hugely popular British pastime despite everything being completely at the mercy of the elements. On one of our earlier trips, I spent the entire first night holding up the tent as the rain and wind crushed its feeble structure, water coming in. In my other hand a beer, doing that British thing of pretending the rain doesn’t make everything completely shit. That this is, technically, a holiday. Not for the first time, I wondered, I could literally be at home on my sofa, warm and completely confident in centuries of advancing plumbing technology.

Clearly it has its challenges, yet for the children it is a small taste of the freedom that my generation of neurotic parents has largely denied them, a real-life Famous Five/Hardy Boys adventure. As for parents, I’m not convinced anyone actually enjoys it. Once while at a Eurocamp I remember a Belgian family opposite us, with three young blond children, and a bedraggled blond dad who spent the entire time lumbering up and down, carrying things, looking after children, applying sunscreen, chopping. He didn’t smile once the entire week, and inside was probably muttering “living the dream” sarcastically in Flemish.

But then the rain clears, and the children quieten down, and you get to stare at the fire. If I were going to come up with some cod-evo psych explanation, then I suppose it most mirrors the environment our species grew up in, with large groups sitting around a flame with only the stars above — always the most hypnotically beautiful moment of the holiday. It’s a completely fake, ersatz form of traditional living, which is of course the best kind.

In his landmark television series Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski made the point that “the largest single step in the ascent of man is the change from nomad to village agriculture”, something he ascribed to “an act of will” by mankind. So why on earth are we desperate to go back? Well, like most ancient traditions, it’s an invention of the Victorians.

There were long ago enthusiasts for getting back to nature, including Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, or Life in the Woods in 1854. A keen camper, he once built a campfire that was so successful it ended up burning down 300 acres of wood. There was also John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club and once camped with Theodore Roosevelt, an event which inspired the president to build America’s system of conservation.

But by far the most important figure, and the man called the inventor of modern camping, was Thomas Hiram Holding, whose 1908 work The Camper’s Handbook was the founding text of the movement.

Holding had been born in Shropshire in 1844. His parents were Mormons, which at the time was a very recent movement and considered a dangerous cult, one that practised polygamy. The Mormons had originated in upstate New York but after repeated attacks from neighbours trekked en masse to the safety of Utah. Popular with the then largely Anglo-American population in the northeast US, it also attracted converts from the UK and even today Mormons are overwhelmingly of English ancestry.

Yet the trek across America was brutally tough, and for the Holdings it would be heart-breaking; they lost two of their four children on the journey and the devastated family returned to England. But the unfathomable awfulness of the American trip perversely gave Thomas a great love of the outdoors. He had first experienced camping on a plateau overlooking the Mississippi river and sought to recreate the sheer natural beauty of this experience back home.

In Britain, the new interest in the outdoors was specifically linked to urbanisation. In the 1870s and 1880s the cost of food plummeted, mostly due to the opening up of huge areas of North America to farming, as well as improved storage and transportation; the countryside in England, long in decline, further emptied. “As fewer people lived in the countryside, memories of rural life became hazy and romanticised,” Matthew de Abaitua wrote in his history of the craze, The Art of Camping. A population that had become alienated from the countryside was now keen to create an idealised version.

In 1886 Holding went to the west of Ireland with three friends: two of the men were “fairly much married” and the other two were to “study the characters of the settled and sensible men who had become sobered and broken to the most earnest duties of life”, as he put it. A late Victorians lads’ holiday, it was arguably the first modern camping trip, and they travelled by bike, since “cycle camping” was also tied up with the new popularity of cycling.

The cycling scene in late 19th century Britain often had a progressive and proto-feminist edge to it, and many female cyclists also took part in the Victorian women’s football movement. Unsurprisingly, then, Holding was very keen on encouraging women to camp and remarked on “How quickly they pick up the making and mounting of a tent and its appliances, the cooking and the tidying up, and how they take on the bathing.” There was even a female contributor to the Camper’s Handbook, a “Mrs F Horsfield” who described it as a break from domestic chores. Well, up to a point.

Holding began a craze that would grow to huge heights after the Second World War, always a passionate evangelist for the outdoors. Camping, he explained, “keeps old men young” and “revives his taste and love of the country”. He advised that “it enabled a man to get away from his family; or his family to get away from him for a spell” and “It makes men more tolerant of the domestic life”.

The last one, of course, is the key. People go camping so that they can appreciate home again, enjoy the absurd luxuries of a power-shower or bath, a dishwasher, a sofa, even an actual bed. It’s a very strange way to view holidays, like going to a failed state just to appreciate the transport infrastructure back home. Indeed, it’s more like a medieval pilgrimage, where the whole point is to suffer rather than simply “enjoy”.

But we do it because it’s our tradition — even if, like all the best traditions, it is entirely invented.