Carry on chilling out under cover

Camping and idyllic do go together, finds Annabelle Thorpe

IT WAS that one hot August week, and the idea of staying in stifling, sweaty London was highly unappealing. So instead, we jumped on a train, thus avoiding traffic jams, and spent an idyllic weekend in the New Forest, lounging about in the shade, walking in the woods, reading the papers, wandering along to the local pub for occasional beer breaks, and all for the bargain price of pounds 6.50 (for both of us). This included hot showers, clean toilets, stunning views and a tip-top barbecue - our own.

Sound perfect? Here's the catch. We were camping. The dreaded "c" word is rarely found in the same sentence as "idyllic weekend"; in fact, the word that most people associate with camping is uncomfortable, along with rain, kids, insects, dampness (and did I mention uncomfortable?). Holidaying under canvas is thought to be the preserve of parents with kids, penniless students and festival-goers. Choosing to camp when you earn enough to stay in a B&B or hotel is perceived as a clear sign of miserliness or masochism.

In reality, camping is a brilliant way to get a cheap weekend away - and a chance to escape from all the possessions and junk that surround us. It provides the opportunity to live a simple existence free from TVs, microwaves, laptops, hairdryers and the million and one other things that clutter up our lives. Campsites are often situated in stunningly beautiful locations - from the shores of Loch Lomond to the heart of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall - and offer more chance of real peace and tranquillity than a month at the Savoy.

What most people fail to realise is that, if you have a car, comfort is not a problem. Chuck duvets, pillows, chairs, tables, non-stick saucepans, a portable radio and a couple of good books in the car and you will be in comparative luxury. This year's British Grand Prix saw some of the worst weather ever in the history of the universe (or so it felt, after six hours of standing about in it) but we still spent three nights under canvas, warm and dry, at a cost of pounds 12 a night, as opposed to pounds 100 a night which was the average price of a local B&B.

One of the most common misconceptions is about the tent itself. The image of a multi-pegged, Guide-camp-green nightmare is totally out of date - most modern tents are dome shaped with only two or three aluminium retractable poles. Most tents are so light that, once they are up, you can move them about to get the best view. They are simple and quick to erect (ours takes about 10 minutes) and can cost as little as pounds 60, although prices can top pounds 400 for the three-roomed, multiple-door, all-singing, all-dancing variety.

Camping no longer has to be basic. Gas stoves start at around pounds 25 and are capable of cooking anything from stir-frys to omelettes. Most sites have washing-up facilities with sinks and hot water, but it is easy to avoid the whole process with a disposable barbecue, a few tinnies and paper plates.

Prepare food beforehand in the ease of a proper kitchen - pre-cook pasta or rice, chop vegetables and meat, invest in a coolbox - and it is perfectly possible to knock up tagliatelle carbonara washed down with a chilled Australian chardonnay that tastes no different from at home. Alternatively, of course, you can always go to the pub.

One of the greatest pleasures of camping is the atmosphere of the sites. Contrary to expectations, it's not 100 per cent screeching kids on bikes and fractious parents. On our last foray, we had a group of twentysomethings to our right, and a couple old enough to be their grandparents behind us who spent their days sitting, reading and sipping chilled white wine straight from the coolbox.

Campsites - real campsites, not the horrid commercial ones with bars and teenage discos and fast-food takeaway cafes - are a little world of their own, where everyone chats to each other, where a request to borrow a tin-opener can end in a whole night of wine-fuelled barbecuing with people you've never met before, where there is time to lie around and watch the sun set and the stars come out.

Sound hippyish? Maybe. But it is also incredibly relaxing - if there is nothing to do but lie about, talk, eat, drink, read or sleep, it is impossible not to chill out. On the hottest weekend in August, we were as cool as very cool things indeed, lying outside our tent, sipping wine and watching an unfeasibly big, unbelievably orange moon rise into the night sky.

In London, we probably would not have even noticed that the moon was there. If camping is hippyish, just call me Neil.

FACT FILE

setting off

GET THE TENT

Eurohike tents are the best bet and are sold at all Millets and most good camping stores. The nation's best-selling tent is the two-man Eurohike 220, for pounds 54.99, and is ideal for weekends away. For families, the six- person 660TS costs pounds 229.99. More information/stockists (tel: 01604 441111).

GET THE KIT

Rollmats are essential for comfortable sleep and cost pounds 4.99. A sleeping bag that packs up into a small shape is also a good idea. The Eurohike 250 is pounds 29.99. A one-ring backpacker stove is pounds 19.99. All are available at Millets and most camping stores.

GET GOING

For a cheap stay in beautiful surroundings, visit Hollands Wood in the New Forest (no bookings). In Scotland, the site at Luss has breathtaking views of Loch Lomond (tel: 01436 860658). If you fancy a bit of walking, try Hayfield in the Peak District National Park (tel: 01663 745394).

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