In my mind there are three types of campers. Itinerant workers travelling around wherever work takes them, using only tiny tents to sleep in or renting site caravans; those that are looking for cheaper holidays, eating and sleeping in camper vans loaded with bicycles; and those few who relish every aspect of the art of camping – the joy of sleeping under canvas, eating under starry skies and enjoying the feeling of being outdoors – far removed from the urban life of bricks and mortar. I would count myself in the latter category with a few provisos.
I came to camping late in life, with the arrival of Man, to be precise. Our relationship had started to get serious and it was suggested that after I went to Holland to be introduced to my future father-in-law, we should explore the Normandy coastline, staying in the small town of Yport where Man had previously enjoyed a lively New Year’s Eve. It was then mentioned that ‘staying‘ meant camping. Now this was an activity I had contemplated before as great to do with kids, but never quite got round to doing it, probably because it was a challenge too far for a single Mum. But I will have a go at most things, at least once (though Bungee jumping is a flat NO!), so I therefore agreed.
Yport is a village with a congregation of grey austere houses built in flint, huddled in the cleft of a valley that leads to the sea. We found the municipal camp site. Empty of other campers, it appeared to be a small field on the outskirts of town containing a flat brick outbuilding which, I later learned, housed flush toilets and ‘pay by the centime’ showers. A tiny tent was unfolded from the boot of the car and laid out in the ‘best’ position on fairly flat ground backed by trees, looking down towards the village. Other paraphernalia was unpacked, the tent erected, a lilo and sleeping bag were laid into place. Then we zipped up our new home and strolled into the village to buy provisions.
The weather was not kind and it started to rain, profusely. While we were away, a local urchin thought fit to stone the tent causing a small rip. On our return, Man, in the best boy scout manner, pulled a repair kit out of his bag and mended it immediately. But my most entertaining moment of the night was watching him crouched under the tent’s petite canopy, umbrella in hand, cooking quail and vegetables on a saucepan balanced on the smallest of Camping Gaz stoves, while I sat inside, cross-legged, dry, and holding a glass of red. That moment could be said to be the making of our relationship – possibly because I didn’t complain about the lumpy lilo, the lack of pillows, and having to pee in the middle of the night in the pouring rain – but definitely because supper was delicious. In difficult and trying circumstances, Man had proved he could cook.
Ten years and many camping trips later, the camping experience has been fine honed. We have a high tech, waterproof cotton tent manufactured in Denmark with a ‘living area’ that we can nearly stand up in, a brilliant double mattress that needs only to be deflated not inflated, and I never forget pillows, never mind a sheet to sleep on and a duvet cover for the sleeping bag. It also has room for Dog, who is a camper extraordinaire.
Now our only challenge is to research the September weather in Europe, follow the sun around, and find campsites that suit us. That is the hardest part. We demand things that are not generally popular: no facilities that cater for children, no swimming pools, no restaurants, no wooden lodges; but yes to working hot showers, flushable loos, and a view. Extra points are awarded if it’s walking distance from a small village with a café and shop.
We currently have three favourites, weather permitting; Beatenberg in Switzerland, with incomparable views over the Eiger where you fall asleep to the sound of cowbells; Lake Bolsena in Italy, beautiful to swim in and surrounded by a national park; and our all time favourite in France, in the village of Ceneviéres on the banks of the Lot, just west of Cahors.
Camping is the greatest detox activity. Many sites have limited Wifi and irregular mobile connectivity. We are both news junkies; Today programme addicts; Channel 4 news regulars; readers of the FT weekend and lunchtime flitterers through the pages of the Guardian. When camping we have access to none of these things. We wake to either birdsong or Dog digging his muzzle into our faces at 7am to announce it’s time for breakfast.
In the evenings we watch dusk unfold around us, the colours of the sky deepen and the trees and bushes, lit by our lantern and candles, stand out against its deep blue. Flocks of swallows chitter and swirl grouping for their journey south, low level bats flurry past to the hoot of hunting owls. Then stars appear twinkling overhead as we light the mosquito coils and let them waft their thin trails of smoke across our laps. We sit mesmerised by the night sky, glasses of wine in hand. With no screens to watch, the nightly entertainment becomes who can spot the first plane – blinking and moving lights across the night sky; the first satellite – moving but not blinking lights; and the first shooting star – this year we both caught one in France in the skies above the Pilat mountain range.
In London, I do the vast majority of the food shopping and cooking, making the effort to source seasonal and good quality ingredients. Man, therefore, does the washing up. On holiday this is reversed. I keep Dog company, while Man does the shopping in whatever local supermarket presents itself, be it a small village Casino or a large hypermarché. I never quite know what he is going come back with, but I do know he will have taken into account that we still have to cook on the same Camping Gaz stove that he cooked quail in red wine, over ten years ago. We then will jointly divvy up the cooking tasks. I don’t mind cutting and chopping, if he holds the pan straight on the stove and stirs, adding stuff when necessary. It’s the combination of gas, a tiny hob and balancing that I find scary and something Man handles with great aplomb.
This trip we started off in Italy at a campsite on the shores of Lake Como, and for a couple of days ‘survived’ on squid ink pasta with spicy tomato sauce and prawns. We were then driven out by the arrival of too many motorhomes and moved onto France and an altogether quieter, less artificial site on a fruit farm in the Pilat Regional Nature Park. On the menu was a surprisingly good packaged steak – of unknown cut, into whose juices were stirred just-blanched broccoli florets tossed in with garlic clove or two, and a quick and dirty ratatouille to which fat chunks of merguez sausage were added to ooze their unctuous oils.
But Man’s piece de resistance was the day he returned from the supermarket with a packet of Confit de Gesiers de Volaille et Canard! Mmm. That caused a bit of a stir. The closest I had come to eating a gizzard was at Christmas when I bung them into the pan with the other internal turkey unmentionables to make gravy.
Anyway, they were sautéed in olive oil with chopped onion, just long enough until they started to fall apart, a tablespoon or two of raspberry vinegar was then sprinkled over and all was tossed into a mache or lambs lettuce salad with a handful or two of cherry tomatoes. Seasoned, and served with thick slices of baguette cereale and a glass or two of a Rhône red. Eaten under the stars on a warm summer’s night. What could be better than that?