Tents have a potent ancient and romantic allure believes PETER FROST as over five million British adults and children will have spend some time under canvas this summer
OVER a million new tents are sold in Britain every year with a total retail value of over £135 million. Best guesses suggest well over five million adults and children will take a tenting trip this summer.
Some will be festival goers, glampers and some simple holiday makers spending nights under canvas. Camping in all its many forms is about freedom, self-sufficiency and engaging with mother nature herself.
Tents mean different things to different people. For nomads — from the Siberian Yupik to the Sioux — camping is a way of life, an ancient pursuit.
There are workshops in China that have been making small camping tents for over 3,000 years. Indeed virtually all small leisure tents are made in China today.
The British market alone for small holiday tents amounts to over £20m — the world market is estimated to be worth £1.56 billion by 2021.
This summer a group of Chinese campsite developers were in Britain and Europe discussing the expansion of the network of campsites for visitors to China and for Chinese campers to holiday in Britain.
My own book on camping will soon be published in Chinese.
Before I retired and started to write my Ramblings column for the Morning Star I was for many years a journalist and broadcaster in the camping and outdoor leisure field.
For a dozen years I edited the biggest circulation monthly camping publication in the world. I also wrote the definitive Haynes Camping Manual and was the expert on TV’s Julia Bradbury’s New to Camping website.
After retirement in 2006 I was director of communications at the Camping and Caravanning Club — better known as the Camping Club — an organisation that has been fighting for free access to the countryside since 1901 and today has 750,000 members.
The man who founded that first ever camping club anywhere in the world was Thomas Hiram Holdings, a Victorian tailor and adventurer. He had some strong ideas on what to wear in the country — ladies should, he instructed, wear a skirt that finishes three inches off the ground and knickerbockers of soft angora, never cashmere.
Holding was a pioneer cyclist and touring canoeist as well as a camper. He was part of a movement of mainly middle-class men and women who got pleasure from exploring the countryside.
Another man with strong but less flattering views on both female and male camping attire was George Orwell, who once declared that all campers not only wore sandals and were feminists but had large bottoms too.
All over Europe these fresh air worshippers embraced all kinds of less conventional — some would say definitively cranky — lifestyles and philosophies.
These would include pagan religions, witchcraft and Wicca, Morris and other folk dancing, nudism and naturist sun worship, woodcarving, flag making, vegetarian and other unconventional diets, cycling, hiking, canoeing as well as Marxism and other socialist studies — they were leftwingers, protofascists, gymnosophists, survivalists, teetotallers and a few were Quakers.
By the 1930s some of these groupings were quite big and successful and had even acquired land. Some of those colonies are still in existence.
Spielplatz near Bricket Wood, Hertfordshire is one example — established in 1929 as a typical Carry-onCamping type nudist camp.
Today Spielplatz is still there, now a hugely popular naturist resort, the tents have mainly been replaced by wooden chalets although every sunny weekend still sees a fine crop of small tents spring up.
At the other end of the spectrum is the somewhat unbelievably named Sandy Balls campsite in the New Forest which is a huge and beautifully situated commercial campsite offering all kinds of luxury accommodation as well as basic pitches for tent campers.
In 1919 anthropologist Ernest Westlake — inspired by the ideas and work of Ernest Thompson Seton — bought Sandy Balls as a site for his newly formed youth movement the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry.
After Westlake’s death his son Aubrey and subsequently other members of the family would play a key part in many of these new and often interlinked movements.
Aubrey carried on his ideas and helped establish the forerunner of Forest School Camps. The Sandy Balls estate also housed the Grith Fyrd (Anglo Saxon for Peace Army) — a camp for unemployed men during the 1930s.
In 1934, a dozen simply furnished camping huts were built at Sandy Balls for rent. This resort has never stopped growing and attracting camping visitors, even today its philosophical roots based on woodcraft are still part of its ambience.
In Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other central European countries similar outdoor organisations sprang up at both ends of the political spectrum. Those on the extreme right would migrate towards Hitler and his notorious nazi youth organisations while communists and socialists founded the Red Falcons and many other kindred outdoor organisations.
Here in Britain there were a number of such organisations founded on the left, many as a reaction to Baden-Powell’s militaristic and imperialist Boy Scouts. Among the best known were the above-mentioned Order of Woodcraft Chivalry (OWC) and the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.
They appealed to both the children of communists, socialists and less committed working-class families and also to the growing armies of the unemployed. Atheists found their lack of connections to established churches attractive.
These early groups, their writings and philosophies sometimes mixed a strong sensual and sexual message with their other ideas.
Dorothy Revel, a leading member of the OWC, would strip naked except for her brown brogue walking shoes to demonstrate dance works such as Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld to her young followers.
One of her comrades, Harry “Dion” Byngham, the editor of The Pine Cone — a journal of a Quakerbased children’s woodcraft movement — was even more blatant.
His editorials explained that the pine cone of the title represented not only the cones strewn about Sandy Balls site but also the head of a penis. He lasted just four issues before being dismissed after he published various pictures of himself, his wife and various girlfriends naked in the grass of Sandy Balls.
After the first world war John Hargrave — much damaged by his experiences at Gallipoli — started a boyscout like group for people who liked camping but didn’t want to play soldiers.
The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift was the outcome — they were both agrarian futurists and stylish dressers favouring distinctive pagan cloaks.
Sadly Hargrave became a bit of a tyrant which, of course, in turn led to the inevitable splits and secessions.
One of the most successful of those groups, The Woodcraft Folk grew big, perhaps because of its strong links with the Communist Party and material support from the co-operative movement. It is still going strong but that is another story with others far better qualified than me to tell it.