IT'S TEA TIME ON THE SOUTHERN COAST of England, on a rainy summer afternoon, and I'm sipping Tetley's from a flowery cup, huddled, along with six others, in the vestibule of a palatial tent. An impressive spread of sushi, lemon-and-coriander hummus, grapes, and four kinds of cheese is arranged before us. Nina Simone is crooning about lost love on the portable CD player, and we've swallowed enough red wine that we don't care when someone knocks over a glass of champagne while trying to grab the last California roll. Nor are we worried that our two giant red-and-white polka-dot cushions are now officially damp.
WELL OUTFITTED: One of the author's fellow "glampers," at the Warren
This is "glamping," a British fad that awkwardly marries King's Road glamour with old-fashioned car camping. Over the past couple of years, glamping has become the new fag-and-a-pint for the UK's cool kids. The same young urbanites who only recently favored boutique-hotel weekends in European capitals are instead choosing to spend a debauched night or two under the starsor cloudsat KOA-like drive-in sites and British farms.
And there are lots of them. In 2005, the year the term glamping first appeared in the British press, 16-to-34-year-olds accounted for 43 percent of the 4.4 million camping trips taken in the UK. The Camping and Caravanning Club, which registers some 3,500 camping sites across Great Britain, added 50,000 new members in 2006, boosting their total to 420,000. Already this spring, the club has counted a record number of overnighters, some of whom are enjoying posh new amenities like heated sleeping pads and Wi-Fi. (Meanwhile, "glamping" has caught on as a label for luxury camping in the U.S. and other countries.)
Comfort and style are central to a glamper's idea of a good time, and marketers have taken note. This summer, Cath Kidstonan artsy British clothing-and-housewares retaileris again adding to its line of camping gear. Last year's rollout featured a tent printed with cowboys riding horses and twirling lassos; this season's hot items are sleeping bags and air mattresses in metallic silver, with decorative stars. Meanwhile, Millets, the UK's take on REI, is selling a new Oriental Design rain flypatterned with what look like soft-hued liliesand a botanical-print geodesic dome. The goal? To help you "stand out in a sea of tents."
Here at the Warrenan 80-site private campground nestled between the seaside villages of Folkestone and Dover, about two hours by car from Londonour glamping crew definitely outshines the 200 or so family campers braving the deluge. Adorning our zippered doorway is a garland of faux orchids, and just a few feet away, anchored in the mud, a sparkly plastic windmill is spinning madly.
Our group of twenty- and thirty-somethings consists of Miranda and Karen, two Londoners woefully underdressed for the weather in designer jeans and delicate layers; Hannah, a product designer who has thoughtfully packed an extra pair of everything; Annie and Mark, an attractive couple who work in media; and our den mother, Imogen.
A clued-in type who has a nice job in television and "loves the city," Imogen is the most experienced glamper among us, having spent more than a dozen nights in a tent in 2006. Today she's wearing a fitted denim jacket, a flowy red-and-white skirt, and pink Wellington boots. It's thanks to her that I, a virgin glamper, have my bare feet wrapped in a colorful knitted throw.
To Imogen, these extras are precisely what make glamping fabulous. "I remember seeing a flier with a flowery CathKidston tent on it," she tells me. "I thought, I have to have that. It's inspired me to bring all the other fun things and decorate."
Of course, paying so much attention to campsite trappings means glampers often forget about their natural settingwhich, frankly, seems admissible at many of Britain's underwhelming outdoor destinations. But it's a shame at the Warren, which offers stunning cliffside tent pitches facing the English Channel. They're so close to land's end that, on a clearer day, you could imagine sailing a paper airplane all the way to the Continent.
The campsite managers, mellow retirees from South Wales named Terry and Lyn Hawkins, are big fans of glamping. "We love that not all tents look the same anymore," Terry tells me while making his rounds shortly after we arrive. "Camping has become trendy with people who actually want to socializeto drink wine under the moonlight until one or two o'clock in the morning. We think that's great."
FITTINGLY FOR A HOBBY that attracts pale hipsters, glamping owes much of its popularity to Kate Moss.Two summers ago, the bony supermodel and her shambolic rock-star boyfriend, Pete Doherty, were seenher in denim hot pants and Wellies, him in a porkpie hatsplashing through the mud at the Glastonbury Festival. This iconic music-and-performing-arts weekend, held every June on a farm in southwestern England, attracts more than 150,000 partiers, who come from all over the world for an orgy of rocking, raging, and camping. (Even Moss slept in a tent, though her spread at the private Camp Kerala, on a hill overlooking the masses, ran $12,000 and included down comforters, sheepskin rugs, and 24-hour attendants.) As soon as photos of the couple hit the press, their look became the new festival chic.
The result was that the UK's summer festival scene, already blowing up, went nuclear. The smaller, edgier festivals following Glastonbury were swamped with newcomers, causing irked veterans to start hosting more "authentic" do-it-yourself gatherings. Soon, partiers were going car camping with loads of essentialsstereos, flashy outfits, plenty of intoxicantsand, just like that, glamping was born.
By 2006, roughing it was officially in. That spring saw the publication of two unrelated glamping guidebooks titled Cool Camping (one a how-to, the other a where-to). Celebrated Radio 1 DJ Rob da Bank began espousing the virtues of sleeping wild. Fashion icon Ted Baker released air mattresses styled like tiger- and bearskin rugs and a folding chair designed to mimic a classic Chesterfield sofa. And Britain's glossiest glossy, The Sunday Times Style supplement, ran a photo spread of a lavish campsite featuring a candelabra.
It was a stunning development, especially to me. I was then the features editor for Trail, the country's biggest outdoor magazine, and as an American expatriate I'd come to understand that there were only four major classes of British campers: climbers (who often head overseas); retirees in mobile homes; antisocial bearded men wearing wool knickers and knee-high socks; and families taking cheap holidays.
Britons spend some $1.7 billion on outdoor gear annually, but the fact remains that their island was clean-shaved of its forests hundreds of years ago. Today, roads zigzag from one pub to the next, and the vast majority of open space is privately owned, though you can camp on much of it if you keep a low profile.
Glampers, of course, do the complete opposite. "Camping represents something totally different now," says The Sunday Times Style features editor Jessica Brinton. "The camping of my parents' generation is prosaic and deeply uncool. People in their late twenties and early thirties are turning it into another art form."
Or just another excuse to accessorize. Though she touts low-impact traveling, Laura James's Cool Camping: The Great Escape, Outdoor Living in Serious Style is basically a glampy gear guide, with thoughts on tepees, iPods, cashmere socks, and plastic turntables. She includes "How I glamp" contributions from such luminaries as Alex James, bass player for nineties Britpop act Blur, and model Jodie Kidd.
"Getting dirty's OK," Kidd offers. "If you have the right top and have clean hair then you can carry it off."When I call the 37-year-old James for advice before going off on my first glamp, she confesses that her inaugural camping trip, years ago, was a disaster. The key for her, she says, is bringing the right stuff."I just hate drinking out of plastic," she confides. "Now I bring organic food, cashmere throws, and I do it in style."
BACK AT THE WARREN, the stifling confines of our tentand a seriously depleted stock of alcoholhave made my fellow glampers restless. And so, just three hours after our arrival, we pile into the cars to find the nearest pub.
Five miles of coastline later, we roll up to the Park Inn. Inside, it's warm and dry, and there are hand-pulled pints of Guinness and steaming plates of food. We laugh, drink, and stuff our faces. Revitalized, everyone starts talking about how much fun they had in the rain and why being outdoors is so greateven though we aren't
"I've loved camping since I was a kid," Imogen says as she carves away at a steak. "I remember me, my brother, dad, and stepmother all staying in one of those tiny triangular orange tents built for two."
"I didn't really do any camping until just a couple of years ago," Karen admits. "But it's become about the things I enjoy, like good food and music, so I've gotten into it."
Eventually we drive back to the soggy tents, where we resume our own mini-festival. The air is thick with hash smoke and the floor is rolling with wine-bottle empties. Around midnight, a neighbor hollers to ask if we can keep the noise down, giving us a smug sense of satisfaction.
On Sunday morning, I wake up to yet more raindrops. I apparently fell asleep about a foot away from my Therm-a-Rest, and my cheek is stuck to bare tent floor. I open one eyea champagne glass lying on its side comes into focus. Looking around, I see a small puddle of red wine near my feet. Someone has left a sombrero.
From the looks of the bedraggled glampers, our hopes of a lazy morning wandering the beach are about as likely as sunshine. Imogen runs off to dry her Wellies under the bathroom's hand dryer while the rest of us slowly come to life.Everything is taking twice as long as it should. I stagger around in bare feet, mud squishing between my toes, in an effort to get packed and on the road to London as quickly as possible.
But then I hear Imogen working away, and I turn around to see that croissants have been beautifully laid out on plates, pillows have been fluffed, and a bowl full of fruit sits beside a steaming pot of tea. Everyone stops what they're doing and sits down to breakfast. Imogen smiles and utters the two words that would fortify the courage of glampers anywhere: