My husband claims that men are born with a pyromaniac gene, which means they can light a fire just by staring at it. And that women aren't, and 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 shivering 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.
A survey by America's Outdoor Foundation showed that around one-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." Winter camping shows Mother Nature in a whole new light – and it seems its popularity is now trickling across the pond. 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, an organic farm and campsite 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. Located between East Grinstead and Lewes, its three camping fields are popular during the warmer months, when it hosts live music every Saturday night (musicians can camp for free in return for a song or two).
Tucked away in a wooded glade known as the Tipi Trail, we discovered our yurt puffing out twirls of smoke from its chimney (the wood-fired stove had been lit in anticipation of our arrival). Beside it, an enticing shallow brook ran the length of the camp, ensuring that three pairs of junior-sized Wellington boots were water-logged in minutes.
The wood-fired yurt offered comfort – and ample protection against the weather – but with the facilities 25 yards away and acres of muddy woodland to roam, there was still an element of roughing it like "proper" campers. The wooden doors and a teeny-tiny window made it look more like Goldilocks' cottage than a nomad's home. Inside it was furnished with a proper double bed, futons for the children and enough quilts, blankets and eiderdowns to engulf Sussex.
In-yurt amenities include a gas stove, whistling kettle and an old tin bowl for washing. 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 – all Swingball tournaments and boozy sing-songs around the campfire – camping in winter is more about solitude and quiet contemplation over mugs of cocoa. 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 with Quavers. As my nine-year-old son remarked, "It's like being Danny the Champion of the World but without the stealing."
"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 and three children. "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."
That's the beauty of camping in winter: not everyone is brave enough to risk the elements so it tends to be a much quieter, more serene experience. There's no carousing until the early hours or radios blaring out music, it's dark at 5.30pm and with candles out by nine, it's like a temporary form of hibernation. There was no snow during our visit, 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 in the dark, 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 nibbled 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 maudlin hoot of a solitary 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 from my nest. The children disappeared into the morning mist on yet another woodland 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 – the retrieval of a frisbee here, the loan of a mallet there – 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.
The closest train station is Haywards Heath, with connections on Southern and First capital Connect (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).
Wowo, Wapsbourne Manor, Sheffield Park, Uckfield, East Sussex TN22 3QT (01825 723414; wowo. co.uk). The writer stayed in the Woodland Yurt, which sleeps up to seven people. Prices start at £250 for a two-night weekend stay. Smaller two-man yurts are available from £112. Standard camping costs £10 per person per night.
Visit Sussex: visitsussex.org
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