Camping Firelight

“Can you remember the patter of rain on your tent, the sound of owls or the rustling of the wind in the leaves at night? It is a feeling of absolute freedom and belonging - re-establishing our relationship with both ourselves and Plant Earth. A night in the outdoors is also a reminder that not everything that’s precious and valuable costs a lot of money…”


…Well, apart from Glamping! Go camping in the outdoors these days and you will expect to find and pay for:- showers, toilets, a shop, a café, a bar, a heated tent, yurt, pod, gypsy caravan or shanty complete with a plasma TV set, hi-fi and wi-fi plus a well equipped kitchen and if you’re lucky a hot tub… but it wasn’t always like that. There was a time when camping wasn’t just about comfort and leisure. Camping was seen as a way of reconnecting with nature and in doing so discovering ourselves…

Hut shelter

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

JOHN MUIR 1838-1914

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”

E.B. WHITE 1899-1985

Attitudes to how you make that ‘reconnection with nature’ have changed with time. These days the very first thing that ‘green-field’ campers are advised to do is to put up their tents - so if it suddenly rains they have somewhere to put their gear and shelter if necessary. Before the 1st World War the emphasis was totally different. The priorities then were inner cleanliness and what the Victorian pioneers called “having a good ‘rear’”!


…Before pitching tents or lighting the camp fire the latrines should be dug and screens erected. On reaching the camping ground the latrines are the very first things to attend to. The trench should be 1 foot deep (30 cms), 1 foot wide (30 cms) and 3 feet long (90 cms) so that the user can squat astride it, one foot on each side. A thick sprinkling of earth should be thrown in after use.

‘COMFORT IN CAMP’ - Published 1908

‘Green-Field’ campers still dig latrines these days and to similar dimensions (although twice as deep.) They also sprinkle earth in after use - and NEVER use any chemicals as they interfere with the natural degrading process. There are safety considerations worth noting as well. I remember a camp where the organisers, for reasons of hygiene, put kerosene down the latrine. One morning a smoker used the latrine and then casually threw his early morning fag-end down the hole. There was a gentle boom, a puff of smoke and a smell of burnt flesh. A sure cure for constipation!

Star Fire

Then there are/were the wet and dry pits. Whereas glampers today put their rubbish into a plastic bag and throw it into a skip or leave it outside the tent/yurt/pod w.h.y for collection, ‘old -style campers’ would start digging again. Wet and dry pits are/were about 45 cms square and 30 cms deep. The wet pit, for washing up water and the like, is covered with a lattice of sticks and ferns to catch any grease or bits that might be lurking in the dirty water. The ‘bits’ include forgotten cutlery, scourers and the occasional wedding ring. The leafy matting is changed every day and burned.

In the old days the dry pit was for anything that would not burn including tins and bottles. Tins were first put in the fire to melt off the outer tin plating and so speed up the rusting process. Then they were bashed flat and buried. Today dry pits are generally frowned upon. Modern green-field campers are advised to take their rubbish home with them and recycle it. The motto today is - “Leave nothing behind, apart from your thanks!”

Bell Tent

The next step in the pre-glamping camping process was to put up the tents which were heavy, smelly, difficult to erect and lacking many of the modern benefits like sewn-in ground sheets, windows, insect screens and quick zip doors. Then a fly sheet was considered a luxurious and optional accessory rather than a standard fixture. Of particular inconvenience was the old military bell tent consisting of a solid wooden pole and acres of heavy duty canvas both of which looked like they had been stripped from the rigging of the ‘Cutty Sark’. It took at least four people to put one up and twice as many to carry.

Camp Fire

Once the tents were up it was probably time for a refreshing cup of tea but this too involved a certain amount of digging. Instead of simply lighting the gas on your camp stove a fire pit had to be created by removing a large square of turf using a knife or spade. The turf had to be preserved for eventual replacement by placing it grass side down on the ground a few metres away from the fire. Further pieces of turf could then be added on top of the pile, this time soil side to soil. Watering the turf occasionally kept it fresh.

once a jolly swagman

Then all you had to do for your cup of tea was

  1. Collect a large bundle of firewood ranging from the thinnest kindling to substantial logs,
  2. Sort it into its various parts,
  3. Light the fire and over a period of about 30 minutes coax it into a decent flame (or better still - hot embers)
  4. Erect some kind of structure over the fire to support your billy can
  5. Get some fresh water
  6. Like the jolly swagman, sing as you watch and wait till your billy boils
  7. Suddenly realise that you have no tea - and no shop to buy some from either.
  8. Give up and go glamping instead. I'm sure that they'll do a nice latte macchiato in that little café in the corner of the field!

John Denver and the Muppets getting all excited about the delights of camping

– from Martyn Day