The cheapest, greenest holiday ever: the weird joy of garden camping with the kids

Sam Wollaston

Shhh! That’s not just the wind – there’s definitely something out there, moving around outside the tent. A lion, perhaps; do they hunt at night? Or a polar bear? I believe they often rip tents apart in order to devour the human occupants. Perhaps it is someone – a human, a murderer almost certainly. Unless of course it’s just Gatsby, next door’s cat, out on the scrounge again or pooing in our flower bed. Whatever, we’re way too scared to unzip and have a look.

We – my family – are camping in the garden. I say my family, but it’s just me and the boys, eight and six. Their mum started off with us, but she disappeared after bedtime stories. Her words on leaving the tent? “I’m just going inside; I may be some time.” I think she had planned it.

To be honest, it’s a good thing she left. Our four-person tent didn’t fit in our tiny garden. So we put up my old festival tent, cosy for three; even that only just went in. I know, we’re lucky – especially now – to have any garden. But I think you could do a version of this even without one. Put a tent up inside. If you haven’t got a tent, make one out of sheets and the sofa cushions, maybe. Use your imagination – and then again to decide where you are. Alexa, play jungle noises.

Why is home-holidaying such a great idea? It’s cheap – really cheap; almost certainly the cheapest holiday you’ll ever take. No fares, no accommodation, no campsite fees, just what you would have been consuming anyway, plus one bag of marshmallows. You can turn the heating off, too, and anyone still inside can put on an extra layer.

There’s no added eco-guilt – this is almost certainly the greenest holiday you’ll ever take, too. No flying, no driving, no emissions at all, apart from the ones that children produce anyway – especially in small tents, it seems. There may be a fire – but ours was just two bits of wood. Sorry, I suppose it wasn’t entirely necessary, but I think we’ve got some credit in that department.

It’s something to do, and something different to do. That has been one of the big problems during lockdown – the sameness of every day, of the weekdays merging into weekends, of not being able to get out, the lack of any kind of excitement or adventure that doesn’t come via a screen. Garden camping offers proper terror, without putting anyone in danger, although I guess that depends on where you live.

It is actually – amazingly and in spite of everything – quite fun. Not just doing stuff you do on holiday, and being a bit scared, but simply sleeping in a big pile together. That’s why I think it’s transferable inside. Obviously, there’s an upper age limit; if ours were much older, it would almost certainly be the lamest, most ridiculous idea ever. But this time they enjoyed it, the big-pileness of it, being close as a family, talking, having a laugh. Fighting, too, of course, but fighting somewhere new. They want there to be a next time.

They enjoyed it, being close as a family, talking, having a laugh. They want there to be a next time

We were supposed to be going to Wales for a week, in the Easter holidays. Then we weren’t going to Wales, or anywhere, obviously. No one even knows when the weekends are, let alone remembers when the Easter holidays were meant to be. The normal punctuation of life has gone. But why let this thing spoil everything? We’ve had a bash at home-schooling (although we would definitely go straight into special measures if Ofsted visited); why shouldn’t we home-holiday, too?

There was some cheating. We cooked our pasta inside, but brought it out to eat. We made a fire in the barbecue to burn marshmallows on afterwards. Different people do different things on holiday; we burn marshmallows. Do what you do on holiday, to make it feel (a bit) like one.

We also play cards on holiday, so after brushing teeth at the outside tap, that’s what we did: old maid and whist. Followed by books. No, we cannot Zoom Mummy – she’s only been gone five minutes. God, is it really only 8.25pm?

It was quite a long night. And a cold one. (The boys were all right – they shared the air mattress – but I was on the ground.) And a noisy one. Camping in north-west London, you hear things you might not normally associate with camping, or hear in Wales, say. Not just the prowling murderer/cat, but the Jubilee line, bringing key-worker heroes home. A domestic disagreement (it’s a good way of getting to know the neighbours better). An electric guitar from up the road (“OI, PIPE DOWN, JIMI HENDRIX!”) Also sirens – lots of sirens – a sobering reminder of what this is all really about. While we’re playing Scott of the Antarctic, people nearby are dying.

At last, is that the first 226 bus of the day, early-shift heroes off to work? That means it’s just before five, and not too much longer of this to go. There’s even a dawn chorus of sorts – the cooing of a London pigeon and something shrill and persistent, an avian alarm call, perhaps. Watch out – Gatsby’s about. By the time we unzip and emerge, blinking and shivering, the local goldfinch posse is burbling busily at the bird feeder. See, we’re reconnecting with nature, too.

And our house! In a whole new light, bricks and mortar, heating, beds, porridge. What just yesterday was beginning to feel a little like a prison now looks like the greatest thing in the world, as One Ton Depot might have looked to Scott, Captain Oates and companions, had they made it. There’s nothing like taking something away to make you really appreciate it. Learn to love home again – or appreciate it, at least.

No, we’re not doing it tonight, too – that was a short holiday, like a little early-season minibreak. They – I – need a good night’s sleep in a warm bed. We will go again, though, soon. Next Tuesday? Oh, apparently, it’s already in the diary. But now there’s tidying up to do – damp stuff to come in, mattress to be deflated, tent to be unpitched and wrestled into the bag … the boring stuff, normally, but less so now – just stuff to do.

The dos and don’ts of home camping

Do

  • Take an eye mask and earplugs, just as you would at a festival. It’s surprisingly loud out there at night.

  • And a head torch, for reading and games. Or for pretending you’re Bear Grylls.

  • Check your garden for animal scat. The stink of cat poo all night really doesn’t help.

  • Make sure your phone is charged, so that when the kids eventually drop off you can stop pretending and go back to the serious business of checking Twitter and worrying.

Don’t

  • Forget your toothbrush. (Remember that show, in the 90s?) But do brush al fresco for authenticity.

  • Be fooled by signs of spring. It’s cold out there – take lots of bedding.

  • Allow any musical instruments. It’s not fair on you or the neighbours.

  • Attempt this on a booze-free night, if you’re rash enough to be doing them.

  • Be bullied into another night immediately. Yeah, it was fun – but not that much fun.