Britain Goes Camping

Rachel Cooke is taken back to her roots with a sparky social history.

My childhood was punctuated by hideous camping holidays. There was the Guide camp where I contracted glandular fever and spent the following five days holed up in a sick tent that happened to be delightfully near the grease traps, which, before I fell ill, I'd helped to build from four sticks and some old tights (you poured your used washing-up into said nylons, and bits of carrot and bacon rind would be caught prettily in the gusset).

Even worse, there was the trip to Ingleton in Yorkshire with my parents and brother. Our family tent, constructed in a howling gale while my stepfather bawled at us not to let go of our guy ropes, on pain of death, had interior rooms - only my parents elected not to use these; they rolled up the internal walls so that we could all "share our body heat". Ugh. My brother and I spent the weekend listening to my stepfather fart and hoping that he and my mother wouldn't, you know, do anything in the night. Our dearest wish was that we might be allowed to join their friends Lynn and Ken in their pristine VW camper van, with its chemical loo. But no. "That's no fun," said the parents, throwing another yucksome Wall's sausage on the Primus.

No sooner had I exited childhood than the whole camping thing seemed, thanks to package holidays, to be gasping its last. I was bitter on my own account but glad for the mites who would come after me. Except I now discover that everyone's doing it again. Why? According to Britain Goes Camping (20 July, 9pm) - an excellent documentary in every respect, save for its failure to point out how stinky sleeping bags are - we can blame music festivals and, perhaps, the recession for this trend. Either way, it's not a media invention.

The Camping and Caravanning Club has 400,000 members. What do you need to be a camper - apart, that is, from the usual assortment of enamel mugs, inflatable pillows and insect repellents? "A wry smile," said one of the talking heads. Hmm. Perhaps not wry so much as crazed. A man called Dixe, who is a "wild" camper, which means that he has no use for campsites, nor even clement weather, explained that he likes to sleep on Welsh hillsides because they have no carpets. Snow? "That's an extra layer of experience," he said.

BBC4 does this kind of social history brilliantly and I enjoyed Britain Goes Camping, even though I feared it might release repressed memories. The film traced camping's beginnings as a 19th-century pursuit for gentlemen and then followed the gradual broadening of its appeal: the work of the tailor Thomas Hiram Holding, initially. A keen cyclist, Holding designed and stitched the first lightweight, portable tent and wrote a book, Cycle and Camp in Connemara, about his adventures inside it. Those who contacted him wanting to know more became the founding members of the Association of Cycle Campers. In 1908, he wrote the first edition of The Camper's Handbook.

Miraculously, the producers had found the daughters - elderly ladies now - of a man, Stephen Hilhouse, who had known "Mr Holding", and who'd taken them camping as girls. They had wonderful sepia photographs of these trips and it was touching to see their enthu­siasm still burning brightly, even though their joints, these days, firmly forbid a night on a knobbly groundsheet.

Camping in the first half of the 20th century was picturesque - all tweed and vast cycling capes. Not so in the 1970s, when it reached its dubious zenith and people started camping abroad. By which I mean France. The actor Emma Williams remembered seeing a car being pulled from a ditch on a French campsite by six men, all of whom were wearing teeny-weeny Speedos. And flip-flops. She also recalled that her family travelled there with enough tins to last the entire holiday.

Ordinarily, I might have thought she was hamming up this Spam-every-night routine for the camera. But not this time. My father-in-law used to load the car with canned M&S Chunky Chicken for his family's Gallic sojourns. Whenever anyone turned their nose up at this delicacy, which was often, he would simply raise his shoulders, Provence-style, and, in his most encouraging voice, urge them to try the marvellous poulet.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party