KEEPING YOUR CAMPERS HAPPY
Neil Campbell, a veteran traveller, offers some friendly campsite feedback...
As I scooped out the huge pool of rainwater in the middle of our collapsed inflatable tent with an old ice cream tub, I thought to myself “I absolutely love camping!” Ridiculous as this may sound, given that we were racing against time to bail out and re-inflate the tent before a fresh deluge, campsites always give you an adventure, memories to treasure and something to laugh about.
They are a truly analogue experience in a digital world, are eco-friendly, cheap and — especially after the pandemic — offer a huge dose of freedom. We have used campsites and holiday parks all over Britain, from the Isle of Skye to the Jurassic coast, from Snowdonia to Essex’s Mersea Island. And they have been infinitely varied — from little more than a farmer’s field with six pitches and a neighbouring bull (but a view of the Highlands) near Loch Ness, to brilliantly-run and comprehensively- equipped holiday parks in Norfolk.
MAKE OR BREAK
But the good ones all have several things in common that can make or break a camping holiday. From a veteran camper’s point of view, what is an ideal campsite? A speedy check-in process is a massive bonus and gets the holiday off to the right start, particularly after a long journey with everyone a bit grumpy. Most of the form-filling of checking-in and payment can be done online in advance, so it should be a straightforward matching of you to your pitch number and off you go.
Our most recent trip, to the Graffham campsite in Sussex in June, had check- in down to a tee — we didn’t even have to leave our car, and were checked in and being shown to our pitch within a minute or two. The staff greeting you are also critical — a cheery welcome makes a vast difference and costs nothing. And if the numbering of pitches is clear and the directions to facilities are easy to understand, you’re off to a good start. An early check-in and late check-out time is always good.
If the previous occupant has left by mid-day, there is no reason why the new one shouldn’t arrive at 1pm — really, what needs to happen in that hour? It makes a big difference if you have set up camp and are sitting down with a cuppa by 4pm rather than toiling at 6pm when painfully delicious barbecue smells start to waft around. Compare this to a lengthy check-in at 3pm, surly or indifferent staff and a confusing layout, and the difference between a well-run campsite and its opposite is clear.
I’ve also developed something of an allergy to “sign-usitis”: signs with information or warnings are fine in moderation, but a plethora of signs with rules outlawing a long list of activities have me wondering if I’m a customer or an inmate. One rule I am keen on, though, is quiet after 10.30pm — camping can be tiring! I’m glad to say that the vast majority of sites these days are well run — word gets out about the bad ones, and they tend to go out of business.
ON THE LEVEL
Pitches obviously vary hugely, and campers have different expectations depending on what type of campsite and what level of pitch you have booked — but the cost and the pitch should match. A normal-size grass pitch is not the same as a jumbo pitch with electricity and a water tap. But it is reasonable to expect all pitches to be clean, newly mown if appropriate and — my pet bugbear — decently level, or the means to make it so (such as stones to level up a motorhome, as we were able to use on a campsite in Skye).
At Graffham we had a secluded forest pitch with electricity, and it was level and large enough both for a tent and pop-up gazebo — we also had a lovely soundtrack of birds. In terms of proximity to facilities, I think a one or two-minute walk is fine — and we always take our bikes, so that can speed things up. No-one wants to be pitched right next to facilities. I would never want a pitch within earshot of washrooms — we’re talking hand-dryers and hairdryers, and with screening it’s possible to keep them out of everyone’s eyeline too.
It hardly needs to be said that facilities need to be kept clean and appropriately equipped, that is just a fundamental of a decently-run campsite. If there are coin-operated hairdryers, that is probably worth mentioning at check-in, and if there have to be time-limited button-operated showers, please can that be at least 20 seconds and not less than ten? This seems like a fairly lengthy wish- list, but campers do return to well-run sites. We’ve been back to Kelling Heath holiday site in Norfolk a couple of times over the past decade, and I remember it well from a trip when I was ten — several decades ago!
It’s a large holiday site, well-run and friendly with a great shop, and close to the coast, cycling routes and a steam railway. It’s also a fabulous site for kids, with acres of space. Canterbury and Henley campsites have also merited return trips — as well as being great sites, they are close enough for a weekend trip, and just a short drive or walk into the city. We’ve also done quite a few one-off trips to campsites for particular reasons — at Bala, in Snowdonia, we were doing an outdoor activity week including zipwiring, kayaking and coasteering, so a quiet and peaceful campsite with a great view was ideal at the end of each day.
At Norman’s Bay in Sussex, we wanted to be right by the beach. Of course, there is a premium on space at seaside sites, but this was well run by friendly staff, with a good shop and — heaven-sent given its coastal location — a visiting fish and chip van. It also had a railway station within ten minutes’ walk for car-free trips to Hastings and Brighton. Camping is pretty cheap at any time of the year, and so is great for young people — dare I mention the word “festivals”?
If you’re on a budget, it is perfectly possible to get a basic grass pitch for a tent for £12-17 per person per night, and with a coolbox it’s fine. If you go slightly out of season, you can still get great weather but lower prices, perhaps in or around summer half-term or mid-September. Larger sites with a wider range of facilities such as swimming pools do cost more, as is reasonable — you do get what you pay for. We paid about £20 per person per night (pppn) at Graffham in June and at Norman’s Bay in August, for instance, but for a basic pitch without electricity at Bala in mid-September it’s about £12pppn.
I’ve found it worth joining one of the camping, caravanning or motorhome clubs, both for their reviews and online communities, but also as a source of expertise — and for easy booking. The AA’s camping guides I’ve also found to be reliable, and I’ve used pitchup.com and Cool Camping as well to book. I will say that a set of good photos and an accurate description can often swing a decision to reserve. We tend to go away for four or five nights if we’re tent camping and go a couple of times a year. That feels like the right length given that camping is quite intense — you’re outside most of the time, and at the mercy of the elements. When we’ve motorhomed we’ve gone for one to two weeks, as you’re more self-contained and setting up and touring is easier. You even get a decent bed!