My husband claims that men are born with a pyromaniac gene, and that they can light a fire just by staring at it. And that women can't. This is clearly nonsense. However, after half an hour spent desperately willing the smoking logs to ignite, I concede and let the caveman take over. Mostly for the sake of the three children patiently brandishing marshmallows on sticks.
Whose idea was it to go camping in January anyway? As a family we'd been used to the balmy delights of summers under canvas. So my proposal to embrace the first frosty weekend of the year by going camping was greeted with some surprise. However, winter camping is apparently all the rage in the US. Around a third of US campers are now opting to camp in winter, partly because high-season camping has become so popular that there's barely room to swing a guy rope. It's not just about escaping the crowds. As Marilyn Terrell, of National Geographic Traveler, says: "I remember crawling out of a tent on a snowy morning on a mountain in New York State, and hearing the hush."
Its popularity is now seeping across the pond and the UK's Camping and Caravanning Club has reported a rise of 50 per cent in winter bookings compared with last winter. So, armed with thermals, hot water bottles and hip flasks, we headed to the Sussex Downs and Wowo near Uckfield, to see what all the fuss is about.
My initial bravado had already waned: we'd decided to forgo our flimsy tent and opt for a more substantial Mongolian yurt. It was cold outside, after all. Wapsbourne Farm (which has been shortened to Wowo over the years) has been farming since the late 1970s, but only welcomed the camping crowd six years ago.
Tucked away in a wooded glade we discovered our yurt puffing out twirls of smoke from its chimney (the wood-fired stove had already been lit). It offered comfort – and ample protection against the weather – but with the facilities 25 yards (23m) away and acres of muddy woodland to roam, there was still an element of roughing it. The quirky wooden doors and a teeny window made it look more like Goldilock's cottage than a nomad's home. Inside it was furnished with a proper double bed, three futons for the children and enough quilts, blankets and eiderdowns to engulf Sussex.
Unlike regular camping, which seems like hard work after three days, I could easily see a yurt as a comfortable option for a week or even two. While summer camping is a sociable event camping in winter is more about solitude and quiet contemplation. That is, unless you're camping with my three children, who spent the entire weekend noisily climbing trees, sticking their arms down rabbit holes and trying to entice pheasants into the yurt.
"Camping in winter has been a lot more popular over this past year or so" said Jean Cragg, who runs Wowo along with her husband Paul. "Last year, we got snowed in for a couple of days, which was quite exciting. We all had enough food and wood to keep us warm, and our guests didn't seem to mind at all."
There was no snow, but the temperature rose no higher than 8C during the day, which required us to put on layers of snug fleeces and woolly hats.
We took plenty of leisurely walks. If you really wish to embrace life in the great outdoors, Wowo runs courses ranging from foraging to knife skills. We opted instead for a pub walk to the nearby Sloop Inn, setting off in mid-afternoon, hunting for animal tracks on the way. As the children ran ahead, I pointed out to my husband the beautiful sunset, not registering the enormity of what is, let's face it, a daily occurrence. In minutes, dusk had turned to darkness and after a spot of aimless rambling, I had to resort to my trusty iPhone's GPS to get us back.
We cooked up a feast on the gas stove and ate supper by candlelight. The children huddled up for warmth and ate chocolate biscuits for pudding, then I slunk off to bed at 9pm with a glass of red and a novel. With the fire crackling in the grate, the hoot of an owl outside and a rash of stars twinkling through the skylight, our yurt felt cosier than a pixie's pocket.
After 10 hours of deep, unbroken sleep, I woke more refreshed than after a day at a fancy spa. Honouring the newly instituted yurt-life rule of "first person up lights the stove" the caveman did his duty and it was soon toasty enough for me to emerge. The children disappeared into the mist on yet another adventure.
Aside from their excitable squeals, camping in winter is a much quieter affair with only the shuffle of leaves and snap of twigs breaking the stillness. While summer camping forces you to be sociable with your temporary neighbours, in winter little more than a polite nod is required before you retreat back into your burrow.
Sociable or not, by the time we'd gathered the children for the journey back to civilisation, I'd decided that I much prefer winter camping. It's more than an excuse to drink red wine and wear a bobble hat to bed: it's good for the soul.Reuse content