Not so long ago, campsites were bucolic places, places of cows and birds, rivers and fields endlessly rolling on. That was, of course, the point: to go camping was to escape, to forget, if only for a weekend, the daily traumas of urban living. You went, you walked, you took the air and then you collapsed smug and tired into your new four-man tent. It was a simple pleasure – but one that is now changing.
In 2013, the flow of people to the countryside is being reversed; a night under canvas is now as likely to mean street lamps, pavements and the roar of morning traffic. The most interesting camper these days is the urban camper.
In New York, the conceptual artist Thomas Stevenson’s “urban exploration” programme, which involves setting up camp atop tower blocks, has been such a success that he is taking it to Boston and California. In Berlin, they have taken things a step further and set up campsites outside the train station, at the Brandenburg Gate and even on barges. Amsterdam, too, has taken the concept to its breast – Urban Campsite offers hardy souls the chance to stay in “artistically rethought” tents inside the city boundaries, or people can buy an urban tentscraper from Import Export Architecture and set up on their own. Here in Britain you can now buy a range of “reconfigured” city tents and use CampInMyGarden.com to find a spot to pitch them.
Of course, what lies behind this is, to some extent, a desire to avoid extortionate hotel bills, but it’s not only that. As Dr Bradley Garrett, a researcher at Oxford University and England’s foremost urban explorer, points out: “It’s actually a great way to reconnect with the city you live in. If you have a little adventure then it draws you, socially and intellectually, closer to the place where you are.”
For some, though, the adventure would be a little much. Dr Garrett recalls occasions while travelling through Europe when he slept in “surprisingly comfy” ditches, unable to find derelict factories or building sites to set up in.
To Matthew De Abaitua, the author of The Art of Camping, who once camped out on the top of One New Change, city camping is simply “a quest for novelty on which only stupidity is found. You get none of the benefits of proper camping and all the deficits.”
Even so, there is no denying that for some, the wilderness of the city is a major draw. Camping, like beekeeping and vegetable growing before it, has been absorbed and repurposed by the metropolis. Whether that is something to be welcomed, however, depends, I suppose, on where you are sleeping this evening.