LAST WEEK in Cornwall my family and I enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience: camping. I have already assigned our new tent a special recess in the attic, where it will stay for ever.

Not that I didn't like it. Just as barbecuing is the only kind of cooking most men go in for, camping is the only kind of housekeeping they really enjoy, and tent erection is the only kind of DIY they can do without hurting themselves. Gathered on a friend's land overlooking the sea, dozens of men of a certain age - my age - were busily tapping in tent pegs and tinkering with guy ropes. Our first night in the tent, with the baby between my wife and me, the four-year-old beside us and the one-year-old in the travel cot in the tent's front room, was an experience so thrilling that it was impossible for many nearby campers to sleep through it. When my wife emerged from the tent at dawn and found me already cooking bacon and eggs in the misty sunshine, she said, "Oh Christ. You're not being enthusiastic about camping, are you?" I confess I was suffering from enthusiasm, but the rains came, and I was cured.

Camping has changed a lot since I was nine. Two recent technological developments - the mobile phone and the disposable barbecue - revolutionised the pastime. The latter gives outdoor cooking a bit of reliability and the former enables you to access the civilisation you have forsaken. But it's still no picnic. It's the anti-picnic. I struggled to make tent living enjoyable for my family, but the most comfortable part was still the car.

Group camping, like any group holiday, means disciplining your children in front of other people, often with embarrassingly little result. With so many other families living side by side separated only by walls of nylon, it is also possible to overhear many different parenting styles, from cajoling and threatening to screaming and hitting. On Wednesday I heard a father tell his son that if he didn't behave the sun would be banished from the sky. I wished I'd thought of that.

In spite of the cloud, the eclipse was awe-inspiring. It was a relief to dispense with all the eclipse glasses and just enjoy the simple novelty of it getting really quite dark in the morning. But my favourite part of the holiday came a few hours later when, on the pretext of writing this column, I obtained access to a nearby house, and had a shower.