Bored with the canvas suburbia of organised campsites? Then forget the rows of neatly marshalled tents, chemical toilets and trappings of civilisation and try one of these unusual ways to sleep over in the great British outdoors.
1. Cosy up in a Romany caravan
A traditional Romany caravan now has a permanent home, in a wildflower meadow near Llangrannog in West Wales. Built in 1924, it has a wood-burning stove and is just big enough for two (www.underthethatch.co.uk); best of all, you get exclusive use of the tranquil meadow. As well as the caravan, there’s a cabin with a shower room, kitchen and wooden veranda; sitting out here on a balmy summer evening is heavenly.
2. Camp out on the Thames in a skiff
The idea of navigating the Thames in an antiquated, round-bottomed rowing boat might sound alarming at first, but bear with us: it’s the upper stretches of the Thames, where tranquillity reigns and the route is lined with idyllic waterside boozers. The boats in question are also things of beauty: a fleet of seven 100-year-old skiffs, stars of the annual Swan Upping swan census held on the river (not to mention Shakespeare in Love and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Everything you could possibly need is on board – sculls (oars), mooring spikes, a stove and cooking equipment, crockery, sleeping and rowing mats and, best of all, a wet-weather cover that enables your boat to double up as a three-berth tent. All in all, it’s a Jerome K Jerome fan’s dream come true.
Camp Bestival (an off-shoot of Bestival, www.bestival.net) is, as the name suggests, not just for music lovers, but boutique campers too. And the available options are great fun. 'Yurts and Squrts' offer fun, cosy and green accommodation in both adult and child sizes; the 'Yurtel' comes complete with a king-size bed and miniature toiletries; the solar-powered 'podpads' are lovingly decorated little wooden huts, with fitted carpet, shelving and locks on the front door; while Eve's tipis are set up for some serious luxury lounging on floor cushions, and sheepskins rugs; campervans are also available for hire.
Deep in the woods of the North York Moors, La Rosa’s 20-acre site is occupied by eight kitsch and colourful caravans. Each is kitted out according to a different retro theme; Vegas Vice pays tribute to Elvis, while La Rosa’s opulent, mirror-bedecked interior is a homage to 1930s striptease star Gypsy Rose Lee.
The whole site is run on low-tech lines and there’s no electricity: three of the caravans are cosily heated by wood-burning stoves, while showers are candlelit affairs in a hay byre and toilet trips involve a compost loo in a converted shepherd’s hut. ‘Everything’s reclaimed or recycled,’ says owner Amanda Boorman. ‘It’s like a campsite run by the Wombles.’
There’s also a jauntily striped communal circus tent, where children can delve into the dressing-up box on rainy afternoons, and grown-ups natter and take afternoon tea from the charmingly mismatched rose-print crockery. During the day, spot deer in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, ride the steam railway from Grosmont Station, or drive to nearby Whitby.
In the evenings, sip spiced cider with your neighbours in front of one of the open fires. Caravanning doesn’t get cooler than this – and all for just £26 a head.
La Rosa Murk Esk Cottage, Goathland, Whitby, North Yorkshire YO22 5AS (07786 072866/www.larosa.co.uk).
5. Pitch your tent at Three Cliffs Bay
This clifftop campsite is justly famed for its magnificent views over sandy Three Cliffs Bay. The pitches on the field by the cliff’s edge are somewhat sloping – but with views like that, who’s complaining? (Plus there’s a flatter back field for more cautious campers.) The beach is a short but slippery scramble down the cliff path; once you’ve made it safely down, you’re rewarded by a picture-perfect, unspoilt stretch of sand: happily, limited car parking keeps the holidaymaking hordes away.
Beach huts began life as mobile contraptions, wheeled to the water’s edge to preserve the modesty of Victorian ladies with a horror of showing so much as an ankle in public. Sadly, they became somewhat redundant once we all stripped off into swimsuits and cavorted merrily on the sands – until someone had the bright idea of turning them into static huts; a little piece of privacy on increasingly busy beaches.
These days, you’ll be lucky to get your hands on one: price tags of £50,000 and upwards aren’t unheard of, even though you’re generally not allowed to stay in them overnight. A rare exception is Mudeford Spit in Dorset, where you can sleep in the huts overnight between March and November. Prices to buy are eye-watering – but renting is more manageable, at around £400 a week in high season (www.mudeford-beach-huts.co.uk).
Traditionalists, though, favour the jaunty row of beach huts at Southwold, a charmingly old-fashioned resort on the Suffolk coast. Waveney District Council recommends calling Durrants Estate Agents to find a hut for rent (01502 723292), or you can call the tourist information office in Southwold (01502 724729). Expect to pay around £200 a week in the school summer holidays.
7. Hit the road in a camper van
Based in the surf mecca of Devon, O’Connors Campers (01837 659599, www.oconnorscampers.co.uk) specialises in renovating authentic VWs, fitting them with new engines and interiors while retaining their classic boho look. There are 12 available for hire, from the 1960s splitscreen to ’70s bay window models.
‘A VW represents freedom and escape,’ says O’Connors’ Sam Money. ‘They’re not very big, so you can get them into a beach car park, but they’ve got everything you need inside. You can come straight out of the water, lean your surfboard up against the front and have a cup of tea – and if the waves aren’t big enough, you just hop in and drive up the coast.’
Up in Oxfordshire, VW Camper Company (01295 812266, www.vwcamperco.com) has an eight-strong fleet of ’70s Devon Moonraker conversions for hire – fitted with elevating roofs to accommodate full-size double beds.
Last but not least, Snail Trail in Bedfordshire (01767 600440, www.snailtrail.co.uk) ships in brand-new copies of original models from Brazil – so each of its fleet promises a smooth ride and gleaming good looks. Take your pick from the lovingly named Betty, Pearl, Flo, Elsie, Matilda, Nell, Pru, Dot, Sylvie and Ruby.
8. Rent an Airstream
A bottle of cold beer, the opening harmonies of ‘Good Vibrations’ wafting through the air, the sunlight glinting off the chrome curves of an Airstream caravan; this is about as close as you can get to starring in your own American road movie. OK, so you’re stationary in the middle of a working dairy farm in a field on the Isle of Wight, with a bank of cloud scudding across the sky, but the same spirit of freedom is most certainly present.
Vintage Vacations (07802 758113, www.vintagevacations.co.uk) owns ten beautifully restored old caravans, most of them classic Airstreams from the 1950s and ’60s, and they’re available to hire for short breaks of up to a week (from £145 for a midweek two-night stay). All amenities are included in the reasonable tariff, and the caravans boast shower facilities (though you are asked to use the farm’s loo block; vintage caravan loos are a step too retro).
9. Sleep over on safari
Forget Kenya: a safari experience can be yours for a fraction of the price in Kent, at the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park. Home to some 650 animals, including the largest breeding herd of black rhino outside Africa, the park’s latest offering is an overnight safari package. After dinner around the communal campfire and a surprisingly cosy night under canvas (in commodious tents with with proper beds), you get to accompany the rangers on a magical dawn safari, getting up close and personal with the park’s free-range zebra, giraffe, antelope and wildebeest.
Port Lympne Wild Animal Park Lympne, near Hythe, Kent CT21 4PD (01303 264647/www.totallywild.net).
10. Go wild camping
In most parts of England and Wales, you have to ask the landowner’s permission before pitching your tent. In practice, many turn a blind eye if you’re only there for a night and are discreet, or don’t even notice you’re there (the golden rule being ‘pitch late, leave early’).
In Scotland, it’s legal to camp wild, so long as you follow the rules: leave the flora and fauna as you found it (party animals and budding Ray Mears take note), avoid farmland and camp well out of sight of any houses and roads. After that, it’s simply a question of remembering to pack the essentials – an Ordnance Survey map, compass, torch, plenty of food and water, and a sturdy tent and sleeping bag.
Dartmoor, England’s last great wilderness, is a place where camping is encouraged. Although beware, according to folklore, Dartmoor is rife with strange apparitions – from a pair of disembodied throttling hands to the pack of demon hounds that inspired the Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s also home to a notorious prison – a dour, forbidding cluster of grey stone buildings.