“We don’t do camping,” said a pompous acquaintance when I explained that our summer holiday this year was going to be a fortnight in a tent.
I do not mean “glamping”, where you get a luxury yurt with a fridge. I mean putting up a real canvas bell tent ourselves with real tent pegs and ropes, whatever the weather. I haven’t camped since I was a student and I didn’t care for it then. So deep down I felt it was not for me. No one at work could believe it when I told them.
My wife Katherine, the driver of the project, had spent a fortune on equipment and trialled a few weekends with a couple of the children. The tent is wonderful, spacious, robust, easy to erect. We laid out a woven carpet, little tables, comfortable inflatable beds (a luxurious American camp bed for me). Five of us under canvas. Incredibly cosy. We charged our mobile phones with solar panels. I baked bread on the fire in a heavy cast-iron Dutch oven, which is a sort of stewpot.
We were staying in a farmer’s wild-grown field, of the sort celebrated in Isabella Tree’s popular recent book Wilding, about the conservation project in the thousands of acres surrounding the Nash-designed Knepp Castle in West Sussex.
In the breathtakingly beautiful far west of Cornwall, where we were, the Atlantic waves smashed against the rocks, the sky at night was unpolluted by any city lights, on the hill was silhouetted the romantic ruin of a mine. The midday sun felt somehow hotter and closer than ever. Insects buzzed and flitted (and bit your neck, wrists, ankles).
Like Wordsworth, you felt that every wild flower enjoyed the air it breathed. And in moments of silence, perhaps when reading my book and the children had run off to the beach with their wetsuits and surfboards, I experienced “that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts bring sad thoughts to the mind”.
It is relatively unusual for the average middle England-type family to go camping en famille for a full fortnight, not just weekend. As I say, the good friends I see every day at the office – the picture desk, the subeditors, fellow obituarists – doubted that I would stand it, but they were intrigued.
I thought I would hate every minute of it, and it’s true I lost my rag during the loading and unloading of heavy kit using only wheelbarrows (no cars allowed).
Why do I now already miss it? Well, first of all there’s the sheer fun and companionship, the jokes, the casting off of care that you get from playing rounders in a field and seeing the tear-streaming laughter prompted by your incompetence. One of the children was bouncing around on crutches: a broken ankle from the week before.
The camping holiday is already a warm and sentimental memory. What else made it enjoyable? It hit me: the amazing, stress-lifting liberation of doing without. With his characteristic acuity about human nature, Theodore Dalrymple puts his finger on this in his latest, gently autobiographical book In Praise of Folly. Of a stay in a simple B&B, he rejoices in the “relief from the tyranny of possessions. No duties. Nothing to mislay. Sparsity after plethora is luxurious.” Sometimes he longs for a monastic cell. Of course we know it’s only for a fortnight. The grass is always greener and all that.
When I got back I found myself showing colleagues holiday snaps, a tedious ritual I never thought I’d inflict on people. What I can say for sure is that, unlike my supercilious friend, I am converted: I do “do” camping.
Ever heard of kefir? I am mildly addicted to it. It resembles a thin yogurt and originated in the Caucasus Mountains, but it’s cultured from kefir “grains” and has many more varieties of good bacteria than yogurt.
The latest obsession among foodies and the health-conscious is the state of your gut, your intestinal flora, your microbiome. The health of your stomach turns out to be linked to the health of your brain. If you’ve read the bestselling book Gut by Giulia Enders, then you will know what I’m on about.
We first discovered kefir while browsing in a supermarket in Poland. (I love nosing around supermarkets abroad. They serve as a pleasant reminder that not everything is the same all over the world. Did you know that Greeks like their potato crisps oregano-flavoured?)
Kefir has a clean, lactic tartness, and a slight fizz, which my palate never tires of. Most refreshing is the Milko brand, stocked in the Polish section of my local Sainsbury’s.
Kefir is already a “thing”, adopted by the trendy. But never mind. Na zdrowie!
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph