I was put off camping in the UK at quite an early age by attending a festival many British school teachers like to refer to as the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. Oh sure, it was fun enough the first time — we walked a bit, set up our tents, lay out on the grass in the summer sunshine eating our supernoodles and marshmallows listening to Glastonbury on a portable radio. One boy even brought a guitar and as darkness fell we all sat around the fire solemnly singing Karma Police and mulling over whether to quit school and set up a commune in that very spot. We dragged our sleeping bags and roll mats out with the idea of kipping under the stars, until the teachers turned up and put a stop to it.
Clearly concerned that the New-Age leanings our little community were exhibiting might morph into full-on foray into Woodstock-style counterculture, they banished boys and girls to their respective tents then vanished nervously into the night. We didn’t stay there for long of course, but we were successfully dissuaded from sleeping outdoors.
In the morning, the boys made us bacon sandwiches and we wandered back to the minibuses all rosy cheeked and heady with the knowledge that the summer holidays stretched before us and would be full of nights like this. It was hedonism at its most innocent.
That was all well and good, but then came silver award, or as I like to call it, hell on a corded tent pole. Up hill and down dale we marched as the grey spring sky glowered over us. There were no flat areas of land to set up camp and so at night we shivered in one soggy pile in the bottom corner of the tent. We bickered, we struggled, we got terrible hayfever. There was no escaping the gloom and each other’s hormonal misery. It was not the camping adventure with friends I thought I’d signed up for.
The truth is, camping and Great Britain just don’t really go together, and anyone who tells you otherwise is almost definitely a masochist. Let it be known that I’m happy to camp, but the circumstances must be right. In the Canadian Wilderness, for example, or in Africa, I would happily spend a semi-nomadic lifetime and a half camping out.
At festivals it’s not just the camping though — it’s everything that goes with it. The filth, the queues, the crowds, the chance that a stranger might nick your change of underwear and dry shampoo from your tent while you’re cheerily jazzing out to Little Mix with feathers stuck to your face. It’s also the lugging the tent to the festival, setting it up, taking it down again at the end. It’s the partying and then waking up in the debris of the party and starting again without being able to first have a thorough wash and a nice comfy sit down.
Actually, I could deal with this and I know it, if it weren’t for the immense wads of cash you have to fork out to endure it all. Even at the bottom end, festivals ain’t cheap. And so if you’re going to spend all that money, why not upgrade?
Celebrities in glossy magazines make festival-going look glamorous, but does anyone believe that they’re shacked up between the tents full of local teenagers and spend their time queuing for the portaloos? No, they’re probably staying in a Winnebago with a goose-feather eiderdown, or more likely, offsite altogether. And they get to use the flush toilets in the VIP area. That’s right, FLUSH TOILETS.
It doesn’t take much to transform your festival experience from grubby to civilised. A bed raised off the floor, solid gorund below your feet, more protection from the elements than a glorified bivvy bag strung a metre above your face, toilets and showers that are cleaned regularly.
That said, you can go too far the other way. Some packages for the Isle of Wight festival I went to earlier this summer cost thousands of pounds and basically got you little more than comfier lodgings and a backstage pass. I went backstage and it really isn’t all that – just a load of roadies, and, rather obscurely, a Premier Inn that the festival seemed to have seized and compounded for Bon Jovi to use as a dressing room. If you have that kind of money to spend on a trip, go to Barbados, go to Thailand, or perhaps just host your own mini festival in the extensive grounds of your own property.
This summer I stayed in Podpad, a cheery little wooden hut with a lockable door, a power point and an air mattress raised well off the floor. In the Podpad area were showers that were cleaned after every use, toilets that were regularly attended to and a bigger tent where we could go and relax on beanbags with beer from a fridge. I don’t feel for a second like my festival experienced lacked any kind of authenticity because of it.
It could just be my age, or the small matter of having to return to an office as soon as the weekend is through, but I doubt it. Perhaps it’s not much of surprise to hear that I’ve avoided festivals like the plague for years, attending with day passes on the sly and slinking off as the last act comes to a close to sleep it off under a duvet within the walls of a permanent brick structure.
Roughing it comes naturally in paradise, where nature rewards you for venturing away from resorts and shows you how simple your needs are when the world around you is gloriously beautiful. The same is not true of the English summer festival, with its changeable weather and the mess created by thousands of people who swill about in fields having drunk too much beer.
I make no apologies for my lack of compromise. To survive a festival I need to take the accommodation level up notch – not to superior, but at least from basic to standard. I need a little corner of comfort and cleanliness that I know will help me wake up fresh and restored the next morning before I stoically put on my boots and launch myself back into the fray.
Am I being too fussy? Do you have to camp normally to enjoy an authentic festival experience? Tell me what you think (although don’t expect to change my mind anytime soon!) in the comments or on Twitter.