The anatomy of the perfect British campsite

In Britain we take campsites for granted. Farms have opened their fields to campers for over a century and now rural attractions, estates and vineyards welcome us all too. This diversity and competition is what makes our country’s locations so special. There is no one-size-fits-all approach determined by park rangers and state administrators.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t key features of the best British campsites. From level pitches to pop-up pizza vans, there’s plenty to consider when finding the perfect spot to camp this summer.

Flat fields and the ideal view

Hills are not the enemy, slopes are. The perfect camping field has an ideal comfort zone without rolling away: flat, but with a slight slope that promotes drainage in heavy rain.

But hills can still be your friend if the site has large flat terraces for you to stand on, usefully breaking up an otherwise open space – an upper meadow for groups and vans, for example, and a lower meadow for families, a hidden seating area for couples with small tents, and all with beautiful views.

The perfect site also offers shelter, such as traditional hedgerows in Cornwall or dry stone walls in Yorkshire. Look for a south-west facing aspect, which catches the last of the evening sun and avoids early morning glare.

Modern facilities with all hooks

“Camping at your own campsite.” That’s what I say to new campsite owners who want to improve. The ideal 21st century place has a central laundry building (or two) with all the mod cons: underfloor heating in winter, hot, powerful showers, spacious family toilets, covered washing up sinks… I even slept in it with Beethoven through subtle speakers.

But true perfection comes from the host who knows his audience: think of a beach campsite with an outdoor shower for wetsuits; a hiker’s campsite with a drying room for soaked coats; and a family campsite with a well-equipped baby changing room. But above all, there should be an army of hooks in every shower stall; I would trade anything to keep my underwear dry.

Conveniently remote

The best campsites are quiet and rural, but still have a few essentials within walking distance: a good pub, a nice walking path and a beach or accessible river. I think of Mason’s Campsite in Yorkshire; on the banks of the Wharfe, next to the Dales Way, and 300 meters from a thatched pub.

For campsites in excellent walking areas, especially those on the coast, proximity to a bus stop is also an important asset. Whether it’s the Puffin Shuttle in Pembrokeshire, the Coasthopper in Norfolk or the Snowdon Sherpa in North Wales, taking the cars with you on your camping trip makes life a lot easier (and allows for a cold beer at the end of your walk ).

Craig Wen

Graig Wen in Snowdonia sits on a terrace below the Cader Idris mountain overlooking the Mawddach Estuary

No mowing moat

Twenty years ago, almost every farm campsite was the same; a mowed meadow and a block of waste. As the size of tents has grown and the number of family campers has increased, expectations have begun to shift.

While open meadows are still the norm for social camping and Duke of Edinburgh groups, top campsites now also have child-friendly, car-free sites, often with individually mowed pitches surrounded by a moat of wild grass, offering a sense of space and privacy. The ideal car-free meadow still has parking nearby, with a bay with wheelbarrows for carts, while each campsite has a campfire area and a movable picnic bench, allowing you to create your ideal layout.

The most local shops

Whether it’s the goat’s cheese at Wookey Farm in Somerset, the Jersey ice cream at Cowpots Camping in Carmarthenshire, or the grilled lamb at Rutland’s Cuckoo Farm, the best food I’ve had on a campsite hasn’t come from the local pub. It came straight from the campsite.

The best shops locally are undoubtedly farms. The ideal is a store that stocks the farm’s own produce and essential camping supplies – firewood, matches, camping gas and the like – without stocking too many items and children’s toys. For the truly modern campsite that caters to every need, you can also rent a coffee bar, complete with a barista stenciling cocoa tents onto cappuccinos.

Cowpots camping in CarmarthenshireCowpots camping in Carmarthenshire

Cowpots Camping in Carmarthenshire offers tasty local produce

Base camp large shed

As a child, I once stood in an 18th-century barn as rain and hailstones pounded the corrugated iron roof. It is one of my most vivid camping memories. The barn was the perfect retreat; plenty of picnic tables for people to dine at, a pile of board games, foosball and string lights for after the sun goes down.

Whatever the weather, a good gathering place is the beating heart of a top campsite. The largest have a gravel platform next to them – a prime spot designed for food trucks and pop-up pizza carts, stopping to feed the masses.

A natural playground

All family campsites should have a playground, but the most memorable ones are those with a natural, imaginative feel. At Hideaway Camping in Devon, a grove of trees has become ‘the fairytale clearing’, with small doors in the trees and a mystical stone circle. At Petruth Paddocks in Somerset every kid clambers onto the 1960s Land Rover, while at Three Hares in Dartmoor it’s all tire changing and power paddling. Ultimately, the best campsites embrace the outdoor play space for kids, turning rocks and fallen trees into fuel for young imaginations.

Essential utilities

During the pandemic, RV sales skyrocketed by more than 150 percent, and today even the most rural campgrounds offer electric hookups on a few sturdy, accessible sites to meet demand. As a tent camper, I still prefer places where electrical connections are limited, protecting the quiet canvas atmosphere of a traditional camping field. Pitches with electrical outlets are also a bonus, allowing you to charge devices and inflate air mattresses without expensive plug adapters. Drinking water within reach is also essential, because water taps (via good drains) can be found everywhere on the campsite.

Petruth Paddocks, SomersetPetruth Paddocks, Somerset

Children play on Land Rovers in Petruth Paddocks, Somerset

Wifi or LowFi?

Camping used to be the perfect way to escape your inbox. But as data coverage improved and we became more and more dependent on mobile phones, that idea has gone the way of the flip phone – some people want to revive it, but time has long passed. Whether it’s planning the next day’s route or mapping walks in the OS Maps app, I inevitably use my phone on camping trips. So I would rather connect to a campsite’s WiFi than use up my data limit. Is WiFi a deal breaker when choosing a site? No. But will it be a godsend once I get there? Absolute.

Birdhouses and insect hotels

Campsites are not just a source of income for landowners. They also offer an opportunity to do good for the environment. With new government grants encouraging hedge protection, wildflower planting and habitat creation, it is now more possible than ever to create a campsite that is positive for wildlife, campers and also for the landowner . Locations such as Coppet Hill in Dorset and Mad Hatters in Cambridgeshire are working with local conservation organizations to increase their biodiversity. The result for campers? Glimpses of wild deer, an array of colorful butterflies and dazzling murmurings to watch at sunset.

Mad Hatters in Cambridgeshire are working with local conservation organizations to increase their biodiversityMad Hatters in Cambridgeshire are working with local conservation organizations to increase their biodiversity

Mad Hatters in Cambridgeshire are working with local conservation organizations to increase their biodiversity – James Billings

James Warner-Smith is UK editor at Hipcamp

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