Cumbria ramble

As winter weather batters the north this week, a little over a fortnight ago I enjoyed unseasonable balmy temperatures during a ‘late season’ Cumbria camping trip.

Coledale Beck

The other half and I packed the bell tent and headed for Scotgate Holiday Park in Braithwaite, near Keswick. This is not really my kind of site, but it is well placed for the attractions of the town, not least the The Dog and Gun.

It has the most heavenly loos and showers, too, eagerly used by folk keen to wash off the effort of climbing the fine, neighbouring fells. The heating is so effective in the shower block that my better half was convinced the loo seats had heating elements of their own.

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Bell tents and… rabbit stew

I get quite a bit of traffic on this blog as a result of searches for ‘bell tent’ or, heaven forefend, ‘bell tents for glamping’.

Bell tent at nightI think I’ve already been clear on my thoughts on ‘glamping’ so I won’t exercise the grump lobes of may brain again here. Instead, I offer a bit more practical feedback on living with a bell tent and a word of warning following our last outing. Continue reading

‘Glamping’? Cobblers! A bell tent is a practical buy

I’m a bit weary of this ‘glamping’ business…

The wider appeal of camping can track its roots back to the increasing popularity of music festivals, surfing and rusting VW vans. It has gained momentum by guides such as the (admittedly, very good) Cool Camping series and bandwagon-jumping camping cookbooks and camping lifestyle checklists.

Someone then coined the bloody awful phrase ‘glamping’.

Hunter wellies (in pink, of course) and Kath Kidston tents and matching sleeping bags are becoming common currency on sites up and down the UK. That once widely-mocked holiday choice of the strange family up your street is now the vacation for all… even those urbanites seeking to do it ‘in style’ and insert a little bit of country into their field of experience.

Why, you may ask, being such a curmudgeon should I go and buy a canvas bell tent… the emerging shelter of choice for the new breed of glamper?

After two years of trying to find a new ‘base camp’, the bell tent was the best buy. Let me explain…

I’ve been the proud owner of a Suncamp APS 3004 for nearly ten years, in some ways a bit of a perfunctorary effort of a tent. No longer made, this four-man with a huge living room has kept the other half and I warm and (largely) dry from Dorset to Glen Coe.

A bargain at £200, it owes us nothing and is still going strong. I plan to donate it to a local scout group.

It did have a number of drawbacks though. It was difficult to get the door taught when closed, the groundsheet wasn’t sewn in and the condensation was awful. In a good wind, it could feel like it was raining on the inside.

Our next tented home would need to be canvas, or a modern polycotton derivative, which would breathe and have a zip-in ground sheet.

We spent two years looking at various models (some with heart-stopping prices) but could find no adequate solution.

We then came across and after much deliberation, purchased a 4m ‘ultimate’ with a zip-in ground sheet. We bought an inner too.

All this came in just shy of £500… not cheap. I hope/expect it will last us ten years if looked after.

We’ve just spent a week in it near Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. The weather ranged from scorching hot to daylong downpour and the bell tent coped admirably.

The treated canvas is heavyweight and appears to ameliorate extremes of temperatures… it’s cool in the sun but retains warmth in a chill night. Our spot was windy and the simple two-pole structure shrugged off some sharp gusts.

Best of all, though, was the lack of moisture on the inside, even on a still rainy day when we spent a good few hours cooped up reading and brewing tea – really testing conditions for our old Suncamp. The four half-moon vents on the low sidewalls are excellent, too, channelling a cool breeze through the tent that funnels up to the apex vents.

Water beads off the out of the fabric nicely and, when fully wetted out, the canvas feels mildly damp/cold to the touch on the inside. It’s not clammy, though – clothes don’t feel damp in the morning if left outside the inner overnight.

There are drawbacks. The bell tent is heavy, 30 kgs all in, and will take an age to dry. You must get it bone dry before packing it away, too, but that applies to synthetic tents so there’s no real difference.

More generally, the tent is not that well finished and lianas of thread hang of the seams around its perimeter. Easily remedied, but irksome.

It does get plenty of admiring glances, though, and prompts numerous conversations with fellow campers. Many don’t believe it’s waterproof until they are inside and the rain is hammering on the outside (well, it doesn’t really ‘hammer’ on the outside as the canvas is ‘quieter’ then synthetic fabric).

Many are dying to have a snoop around and we oblige, as one of the major problems of bell tent buying is not being able to see one in the flesh.

I draw people’s attention to the potential drawbacks, but I can’t help feeling that orders are being placed right now on the back of our ‘showhome’.

Time for… some tents

I’ve got a problem. It’s taken me a while to realise, admittedly, but at least I’ve taken ownership of it now… I’ve metaphorically attended the AA meeting and ‘fessed up.

Some people are addicted to nicotine, some to alcohol, some to sex, some, even, to classic BMXs. I’m addicted to tents. How badly? Well, I have some measure of this failing in that I don’t own too many.

I saw them all stacked in the garage in their stuff sacs and counted five, including my bivvy bag.

All of them have different uses and I cling onto these applications to justify the purchases…

Sunncamp APS 3004 in actionSunncamp APS 3004 (no longer available): The family tent, even though there are only two of us. This four- man had the immediate appeal of being able to park our car in the living area – although we haven’t tried it – and having enough headroom for me.

For such a large tent, the external frame of this monster and heavy material means it’s pretty sturdy, having withstood some hefty storms in its life.

I picked it up for £180 about five years ago and it’s been a faithful servant. It has its problems: a flappy door, poor ventilation, almost non existent bug protection but the other half and I have spent many a happy night in it.

Vango Equinox 450: This is my car camping tent, when I’m looking to escape to the Lakes for a few days and can’t justify big bertha.

Vango Equinox 450 at Langdale campsite after enduing -10 deg C overnightIt’s pretty big, really, and quite storm proof as it’s a tunnel bolstered by Vango’s APS bracing straps.

I spent the coldest night I’ve ever camped out in this tent. I was at the Langdale campsite in November and stable high pressure had gripped the north.

The days were clear, the nights freezing.I woke up to ice on the inside of the tent and warden informed me that the temperature had plummeted to –10 deg Celsius during the night. Before I got out of my warm sleeping bag, a couple had walked by the tent and wondered, aloud, if ‘someone was alive in there’.

Bug protection is good on this tent and it’s going to be home for a jaunt to Scotland next month.

North Face Westwind: This is a classic Himalayan tent, which has been around for years. It’s very well made and tough as old boots.

I bought it, perhaps naively, as a backpacking tent as it the inner is long enough to house my cumbersome frame. It’s relatively heavy and bulky, and a few trips lugging it around soon convinced me that I needed something lighter.

It does get used, though, and I know I can rely on it for winter trips.

Hilleberg Akto: My backpacking tent, and I love it for a whole range of reasons outlined in other posts on this site.

The Hilleberg Akto during a trip on the West Highland WAYI’ve got one problem with it at the moment, though. The black fabric at the ends of the tent, where the vents are located, is starting to pull at the stitching. This happened when I fist used the tent, and Hilleberg patched it for me. At first I thought I was pitching it badly, but I purposefully do not peg this area too taught to relieve pressure.

I’m going to contact Hilleberg for a second repair. I hope the turnaround is not too long.

Big Agnes Three Wire Bivy: No more to say on this for now. I’m looking forward to using it again soon.

As you might have gathered, I’m rather fond of all of them in their own particular way but I’m in the market for more now.

This should never be rushed… tent buying is akin to buying a car or house. The emotional involvement is just as high, it’s just less injurious to the wallet.

The Suncamp, although still going strong, has a number of disadvantages that I need to remedy with the next purchase.

Considering the aforementioned drawbacks of this tent, I am looking for something that has good big protection and ventilation, a good door but will still handle the elements as it will be used ‘off season’.

After much searching, two tents fit the bill.

The first is a Cabanon Biscaya. Some of you might not be familiar with this French manufacturer but it is the Rolls Royce of family camping. The company makes superb canvas tents, including the flowery-curtained frame tents that you sometimes see on sites. Although not everyone’s cup of tea and seemingly modelled on a Wendy House, their owners know that frame tents are far superior to the cheaper nylon models, both in terms of durability and liveability.

Indeed, they tend to be wearing smug smiles during campsite storms, as other campers are kept awake by flapping nylon and rain thunderously drumming on flysheets. Canvas is quiet. The Biscaya is Cabanon’s incarnation of a tunnel tent, but still made of canvas.

I’ve seen one of these up and the quality of material is superb. It should be, though, as this retails at a jaw-dropping £900. Sadly, this is too rich even for a fanatic like me.

Almost as impressive, and a bit less expensive, is the Outwell Bear Lake. Again manufactured from a canvas-type polycotton material which benefits from wetting out (like canvas), this is another tunnel design and again the workmanship is of a high standard.

It has a zip-out, tarpaulin-weight groundsheet, which allows you to let the ground breath and the grass recover on long stays.

For it’s size, this tent is incredibly sturdy. I checked it out against more standard nylon models at a windy tent expo in Cumbria and it didn’t budge. It has superb bug protection, a good door, and a front porch/sun visor included in the price. It’s still expensive, though, retailing at around £650.

This may still seem like a lot of money, and it is, but these tents should last a long time. The canvas, or canvas variant material, is considerably tougher than cheaper nylon. It has additional advantages, too. It breathes and therefore offers a more pleasant living environment than nylon. Also, if you use it for a couple of weeks each year, the costs over a few years are easily reconciled against the expense of hotels, self catering etc.

Plus, camping’s more fun… even in the rain and… err….snow!

Despite weighing in at a crushing 40kg, the Outwell may well be joining the family of tents soon. A good home will need to be found for the Sunncamp… perhaps a Scout group?

So, is that it? No. I’ve got my eye on another. A bell tent with a wood-burning stove and flue for winter camping… watch this space.