It’s not often I’ve found myself ahead of the trend. But growing up in East Africa, I was unwittingly, let’s say, fashion forward.
My family spent a lot of time under canvas. When I was small, we tended to rough it. First in “pup tents” – the little triangular jobs still used by backpacking students and the like on their budget versions of what used to be known as The Grand Tour. Then in the larger, olive-green units fashioned from heavy canvas and favoured by the military and by quasi-military outfits such as the Scouts. As a member of the Cubs, I once spent a night in a large such tent, awaking in the morning to find myself flat-out, al fresco. I was persuaded that I must have restlessly rolled out from under its high open eaves. In hindsight, I suspect I was relocated by mischievous fellow troop members.
But all this was to end when my family became pioneers of what is now know as “glamping” – a portmanteau of “glamour” and “camping”, obviously. Which is apt, because it was in Africa that modern glamping, the word as yet uncoined, was devised as a leisure pursuit – longer ago than perhaps many people might guess.
It was on safari that glamping took form. In 1909 Theodore Roosevelt, then just departed from his second and final term in office as President of the United States, set out on a year-long expedition through East and North-East Africa, the ostensible purpose of which was to collect specimens for the Smithsonian Institute. This, of course, required him to shoot said specimens, turning the whole business into what must surely be the single most extravagant hunting holiday ever undertaken. By the time he was done, Roosevelt had bagged over a thousand animals. Were he to undertake such an enterprise now, social media would surely be awash with photographs detailing his depredations and demanding action against his bloodthirsty ways. But those were different times, and the event received huge and positive publicity. Dozens of journalists and photographers followed his party, sending pictures and dispatches back to an eager public in the USA.
Roosevelt was a rugged fellow; in 1912, having been shot in the chest, he would deliver a scheduled speech for an hour and a half, rather than going to hospital. But not so rugged that he was about to spend a year in the bush unencumbered by comfort. He and his party camped in palatial style, outfitted by a company called Newland And Tarlton (who would go on to become leaders in the luxury safari business and operate to this day), and accompanied by Roosevelt’s “Pigskin Library” – a trunkload of leather-bound volumes to ensure the great man kept up with his reading. Thus the glamping business was born.
In Kenya, my family had friends in the safari business, operating high-end camps for American clients who included James Stewart and Robert Redford. We picked up tips not only from these operators, but also from American expatriates, who brought with them a relatively high-tech style that suited the campsites of America. There – years before such things became commonplace here in the UK – holidaymakers could hook up Winnebagos to the mains electric supply, take hot showers, watch TV, and generally lead so agreeably domestic an existence that only the open sky offered any clue that they were away from home at all. British camping, by contrast, was best captured in Mike Leigh’s cruel, hilarious Nuts In May – tiny, cramped tents, awful toilet stalls, transistor radios, and surreptitious class warfare.
My family’s purpose in camping was to get as far away from the rest of the world as possible, out into the wild. We eventually had a set-up that centred on a giant tent – we called it “the circus tent”, because that’s what it looked like, and a circus was what our travelling party tended to resemble before very long – with enclosed bedroom compartments in which we slept on air mattresses. We didn’t realise it, but we had a forerunner to what is now known as a “bell tent” – the glamping staple with a self-contained floor and an overlay to keep out the elements.
The popularity of glamping in the UK has been largely spurred by a different impulse: not to get away from everybody else, but to join in with them. The audience for pop music has grown up along with the music itself. Where earlier generations moved on in their habits and tastes, more recent ones have seen no reason why they should give up going to the festivals they attended as youngsters. What has changed is that they have acquired the habit of gracious living (and who can blame them? Who wouldn’t, given the chance?), not to mention children. So festivals have adapted to this new demographic, and driven by them, glamping has become a boom industry – to the extent that, quite aside from the summer festival circuit, many old-fashioned campsites have upgraded their facilities, and plenty of new ones have sprung up, particularly as farm owners diversify.
Glamping has now become a catch-all term for everything ranging from taking a nice tent on your travels to staying in a well-appointed yurt, hut or chalet established in countryside surroundings. But if one were to attempt a definition of glamping, it might run something like this: staying in the middle of nature, while comfortably separated from it. Which was really all my own family were attempting all those years ago. The good thing about doing it in Sussex is that your glamping trip is unlikely to be interrupted by an elephant incursion. Trust me, that’s a lot less fun than it sounds.
Fancy enjoying the great outdoors, but not slumming it? David Bennun traces the history of glamping – and looks at how to go about it in Sussex