The History of Camping as a Leisure Activity in Britain

1870 – 1910

Over 100 years ago camping was an activity reserved for the military. It was a combination of the invention of the bicycle and the design of a light weight portable tent that catapulted camping from a practical solution for housing  troops, to the leisure activity enjoyed by millions that we see today.

Although it can never be known the first person in Britain to enjoy camping as a leisure activity, you can however justifiably attribute the tailor, Thomas Hiram Holding as the founder of modern camping .  Through his literature, Thomas Holding not only popularised camping for leisure, he also, designed the first truly portable tent, and founded what has now become the camping and caravan club.

Before Thomas Holding, the invention and popularisation of the bicycle is where the story really begins. Although the first verifiable bicycle (the draisine)  was invented in 1817 it wasn’t until the invention of the safety bicycle (replacing the penny farthing) that the perception of cycling shifted from being a dangerous past time for sporting young men, to the everyday transport tool used by both men and woman of all ages.

The safety bicycle (1970’s) as the name suggests was far safer and more practical of its predecessors. It boasted a revolutionary chain drive and large front and small rear sprockets that replaced the need for a large front wheel and thus meant that the rider could touch the floor (a useful feature considering breaks were not invented until decades later) Coupled with the vastly superior (and more comfortable) pneumatic tyres to replace solid wheels the safety bicycle ushered in the bike boom of the 1880’s.

With the mass produced motor car still 20 years away (Ford Britian 1911) the bicycle provided unprecedented freedom for exploration.  Following the bicycle boom it was in the 1890’s that Thomas Harding and 4 of his friends embarked on what is believed to be the first bicycle camping trip. He wrote a book about his experience entitled ‘Cycle and camp in Connemara’ in 1898.

What made this trip possible was not only Holdings ‘safety bicycle’ but also his simple, light weight, portable camping tent.  The use of two sticks hammered in to the ground, some tensioned rope and square of canvas formed a very practical shelter and what we would now refer to as a ridge tent.


Following the writing of his book, holding started the association of cycle campers in 1901. Starting with 13 members, by 1906 it had grown to several hundred members. Presently (and following the renaming to the camping and caravan club) Thomas holdings association now boasts over half a million members.

1920 – 1930

1908 saw Holding write the first ‘campers hand book’ but it was not until the end of the First World War that camping as a past time really started to take off. The 1920’s and 30’s saw the rise and promotion of a healthy lifestyle. The book “Healthy Living” by Charles- Edward Amory Winslow for instance promoted a good healthy diet with regular outdoor exercise. ‘Lar mar reducing soap’ was invented to ‘wash away fat and years of age’ and lucky strike became the physicians cigarette of choice.




The promotion of a healthy outdoor lifestyle greatly helped to popularise camping. However, this did not go unnoticed by Westminster who worrying that Britain’s green and pleasant land was being overrun by the poor sought to try and snuff it out. New laws introduced included the banning of the sale of milk, bread, and butter on campsites and a minimum distance of 12ft from your pitch to a hedge.

1940 – 1970

The outbreak of the 2nd World War however put an end to such nonsense with government having more important issues to focus on. 1941 also saw the formation of the Youth camping association, mainly due to the desire of the young people to escape the dangerous, bombed out cities to the safety and tranquillity of the countryside with the practical and spacious bell tent selected as the tent of choice.

Camping continued to rise in the 1950’s with tent holidays seen as a less regimental alternative to boarding houses and allowing poorer families to experience a holiday for the first time. The rise of camping was also greatly helped by a law in 1939 that specified that everyone must have one weeks annual paid holiday and by the 1950’s two weeks paid annual holiday became the norm.

Small seaside campsites that were easily accessible via train quickly turned into large Warner, Pontin and Butlins holiday camps with their own military style barracks for accommodation. Blackpool with its excellent railway network became Britain’s most popular holiday destination with a height of 17 million visitors a year.

These holiday camps saw the popularity of the tent and the caravan dwindle slightly until the increased wealth of the 1960’s and 70’s and cheap mass production meant that car ownership became more widespread. Camping holidays in parts of the country which would have earlier been too inaccessible for the majority of the population saw a vast rise in holiday makers.  The South West of England became most popular camping destination and small independent campsites sprung up all over the region.

Although the number of holiday makers vastly increased, the road network in the South West took a long time to respond (the north Devon link road for example was only opened in 1988) and traffic jams of jack knifed caravans and broken down, air cooled VW campers clogged winding Devon and Cornwall lanes.

During this time period trailer tents also rose in popularity and people started heading over the channel to experience their first holiday abroad.

1980- 2007

The 1980’s – 000’s saw a decline in camping in the UK with the introduction of cheap flights and package holidays. The number of people holidaying abroad rose from 7 million in 1978 to a height of 26 million by 1996. The number of people returning to camping increased slowly in the 2000’s but it was not until 2007 that camping really took off again.

The meteoric rise in popularity of camping that has been experienced over the last 6 years coincided with the novelty of package holidays in modern sky rise resorts wearing thin, and the downturn of 2007.

Present day

As people turned to camping for a more economical holiday, at the same time to attract the rising number of holiday makers, campsites in the UK started to go more up market. Shower blocks became modernised and traditional farm campsites opened cafes selling traditional home grown and home cooked food. Entertainment also went more upmarket, assault courses and bush craft skills are now on offer at many campsites and at a campsite in Sussex you can even attend a candlelit opera evening in the woods.

Not only did the down turn directly help increase camping’s popularity by being seen as an economical alternative to a hotel. The downturn also indirectly lead people to celebrate traditional past time and activities. The number of people growing vegetables has doubled between 2007 -2013 with over a quarter of householders with gardens having a vegetable plot. Moreover, the number of people foraging, cycling winemaking, rambling… continues to rise as people embrace natures thrifty playground and  camping has undoubtedly benefitted from the celebration of traditional past times  awakened by the down turn.

Camping and its popularity has also indirectly benefitted from the celebration of the British countryside. Countryfile has never been more popular and a whole host of other programmes (Country Tracks, The Great British Countryside, coast, dales) have reignited people’s love of Britain’s diverse and rugged landscape.


You can’t talk the resurgence of the camping without talking about glamping. Four main elements I believe have contributed to the rise of glamping.

1) The desire to part take in traditional past times

2) The love of British countryside and wanting to be close to nature

3)The desire for a more unique and  personal service and accommodation

4) The desire to have all of the above but also the comfort of your own bedroom.

Whether it be a vintage split screen VW camper van, safari tent, bell tent, yurt or tipi glamping has dramatically changed the perception of camping with such a high level of comfort now on offer.

lovers tipi -bed

The wide range of unique and quirky accommodation is also a definite shift away from the sprawling holiday camps of the 50’s and also the high rise hotels in purpose built resorts of the 90’s. With tucked away bell tents in ancient woodlands to wood cabins at the foot of a waterfall glamping has opened up the countryside with personal tailored holidays and it is the huge range of bespoke, unique, quirky accommodation that I believe has captured people’s imagination.

Bell tent door view2

But whether it glamping or going back to basics with just a tent and a sleeping bag, it is the freedom of spirit that a few nights under canvas evokes that means that it is more popular today than it has ever been. Although a lot has changed in the 100 or so years that Thomas Holding first took to his bike with a tent strapped to the back, the minute you sit in the door way of your bell tent with a nice warm ale over looking nothing but rolling hills you forget about all that.

Thank you for reading, I go into further detail about the increased popularity of ‘glamping’ here

Thank you,

Joseph Pannell