I wish now that I could remember the date on which my conversion took place. All I can say for certain is that it was a beautiful summer's day seven or eight years ago.
I'd been cycling around Dartmoor researching my very first book, The Z to Z of Great Britain (Stephen Fry loved it: nobody else but my mother bought it). The sun was beginning to drop down behind the hills and its fading light urged me on to a campsite marked on my OS map. On arrival, however, my heart sank. Internment camps were never the height of chic in this country and yet certain campsite owners appear to go to great lengths to emulate them.
I was just telling myself, 'oh well, it's only one night,' when something caught my eye. Attached to a tree by drawing pins was a handwritten sign bearing the one-word legend 'Camping', with an arrow. Ten minutes later I was in the diminutive back garden of a charming little farmhouse. Flower beds surrounded my tent on three sides, an ornate cast-iron dining table awaited my trusty stove, and birds flitted between the apple trees.
I had discovered the joys of tiny camping and I was instantly won over. In subsequent tours of the country researching other books I thus made a habit of seeking out other such bijou sites whose watchwords were 'heart and soul' rather than 'uniformity and order'. After all, why go to all the bother of travelling to the countryside just to spend the night on a glorified car park?
Fast forward to last summer and I'm criss-crossing the country, racking up a couple of thousand miles on my bicycle ruthlessly tracking down the tastiest mini-campsites Britain has to offer. Having previously searched in vain for a book to tell me where they were I had decided there was nothing for it but to pen my own. Happily, any initial concerns I had that there would not be enough little pockets of camping bliss out there to write home about were soon dispelled.
Tips from family, friends and fellow campers came good more often than not, while a painstaking trawl of the internet threw up more possibilities. The most satisfying of the lot, however, were the campsites I stumbled upon courtesy of plain old fashioned serendipity. The trickiest thing was picking my favourite 75 for Tiny Campsites.
Wild life and wildlife
But does tiny (my definition is 'an acre or under') automatically mean good? Sadly not. Some sites merely mimic the worst examples of their larger brethren. However, it's also true that the vast majority do triumph over the Goliaths. Take wildlife, for example, which is less spooked than it would be by the crowds at larger sites.
I've fallen asleep on countless occasions to the hoots and screeches of tawny and barn owls, and emerged from my tent in the morning to come face to face with a Muntjac deer or an inquisitive young rabbit. At one campsite in the Brecon Beacons I was even visited by some not-so-wildlife: the owners' two beautiful horses and their friendly cat.
I've also experienced more of a sense of community on smaller sites. I'm not one of life's 'hail fellow well met' types by any means, yet I've found myself in conversation with some fascinating people, and been offered copious cups of tea and plates of food - one particularly delicious mango salad lingers in the memory to this day.
In a nation so much of which is shaped by faceless corporations offering lowest common denominator monotony, the very independence and quirkiness of small sites is balm for the soul. One of my favourites, for instance, has its own bubble car museum; while at another, the lively octogenarian owner trained his dog to do the wiring in his cottage, starred in a film alongside Richard Gere, and sows a wild flower meadow each year by his 'honeymooners' pitch.
In a nutshell, if you imagine the large, bland homogenous campsite as an airport novel, the tiny site is a perfectly formed short story. And I know which one I'd rather pop in my pannier.
Ten Topping Tiny Campsites
- Gumber Farm Slindon, W Sussex
In the middle of the National Trust's wonderful 3,500-acre Slindon estate. Softie campers will also appreciate the fully-equipped kitchen.
Open April to October; £10pp; 01243 814730.
- Pinkhill Lock Eynsham, Oxfordshire
An island in the Thames, Pinkhill comprises a lock-keeper's house, a shower and loo, and a small copse. Perfect for lazy days watching life drift by.
Open April to September; £8/tent; www.visitthames.co.uk; 01865 881452
- Spyway Inn Askerswell, Dorset
Almost certainly the smallest pub campsite in Britain at just 15 paces by 14. Comes with a cracking view of an Iron Age fort and an 18th-century pub famed for its food.
Open all year; £5pp; www.spyway-inn.co.uk; 01308 485250
- Four Oaks Whixall, Shropshire
The perfect hideaway: a small field, a tree-lined lake, a tap and an open air loo (so not one for the shy).
Open all year; £4/tent £8/caravan; 01948 880241
- Park Farm Kildale, Yorkshire
There are views and there are views and then there's the view from Park Farm. A full 50 miles all the way to Tan Hill and the Yorkshire Dales. Sumptuous.
Open all year; £4pp; www.kildalebarn.co.uk; 01642 722847
- Piel Island, off Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria
A dollop of land in the Irish Sea, Piel is home to four houses, a castle and a pub. Ideal for acting out your Famous Five fantasies.
Open all year; free; www.pielisland.co.uk; 07516453784
- Lone Wolf Aberdulais, Neath
Lone Wolf offers wild camping in a wood on the rushing river Dulais. Get in touch with your inner Ray Mears.
Open April to September; £5pp; www.lonewolfcampsite.co.uk; 01639 643204
- Treheli Farm Rhiw, Gwynedd
The ultimate expression of the tiny campsite - it's actually getting smaller each year as it falls into the sea. Enjoy its stunning coastal views while you can.
Open Easter to October; £15/group; 01758 780281
- Ken Bridge Hotel New Galloway, Dumfries and Galloway
The extension of a diminutive pub garden, the campsite here borders the glorious Water of Ken, so keep an eye out for otters.
Open all year; tent £6.50, campervan £9; www.kenbridgehotel.co.uk; 01644 420211
- The Wee Camp Site Lochcarron, Ross-shire
Four tiny terraces cut into a slope overlooking both mighty Loch Carron and more snow-capped mountains than you can shake a guy rope at.
Open April to October; £4pp; 01520 722898.
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