Last time I looked, it was a squalid business of mud or dust, canvas-clad chaos and long queues for cesspits, ambitiously billed as “sanitary blocks”. I vowed I would never return. I had also had my fill of more-canvas-than-thou hearties who clearly felt that sleeping in a field made them better people. Let them get back to the land. I wanted to get back to the hotel.
Recently, though — and through no fault of my own — I was pitched back into the whole business. I barely recognised it. Granted, this was a four-star site, but it was in Argelès-sur-Mer, which, on the French Mediterranean coast south of Perpignan, may be accounted a capital of camping. The resort has 56 sites. Its population of 9,000 rises to 90,000 in summer. Camping here is is an industry.
Expectations were dashed on arrival at La Sirène campsite. Reception, which should have been a shed containing a bloke with bristles, a belly and shorts, was more like a luxury hotel set-up. Charming young women in uniforms staffed the counter. The Eurocamp couriers, for their part, weren’t post-adolescents recovering from last night’s hangover. They were Jules and Mitch (for Michelle) Neil from Portsmouth, a couple in their 40s who had ditched white-collar jobs in Blighty for a new Euro-life.
And if this was a campsite, then I was a Dutchman (as many of my fellow residents turned out to be). There was not a tent in evidence. It was more like endless, leafy suburbia. Slim, tarmac avenues curled hither and yon through a woodland of towering trees. Ochre walls and occasional statues lined the lanes. Slotted into the vegetation, however, were not four-bedroom detached houses — as suburbia would require — but an epidemic of mobile homes.
This was disorientating. Normally, mobile homes are where unfortunates are shifted after some catastrophe has wrecked their proper houses. They are not residences to which people aspire. Here, that normality was turned on its head. The settings for what were, essentially, big metal boxes were mainly shaded and lovely. The mobile homes were presented, if not quite as objects of desire, at least as top-end items for camping folk.
Everyone conspired in the illusion and so, for the duration of a holiday, it became true. My own mobile home (Number 433 out of 777: the site is the size of Berkshire) had two small bedrooms, a kitchen, a lounge-dining area, lavatory and shower. It was superior to any imaginable tent, inferior to any imaginable house. It would do me fine, especially as I was alone.
Outside, a little garden area had solid, plastic furniture, a barbecue and a waist-high hedge all the way round. As has often been remarked, the 21st century is individual, not communal. The positive result is that sociability is not obligatory. You can stay behind your hedge. I gave sociability a try, all the same, for form’s sake.
Pre- and post-war camping in France blossomed on the back of working-class French holidaymakers. We had guesthouses in Blackpool and Scarborough; they had campsites. Then, from the 1960s, foreign tour operators showed up. “They were sending us people of a higher social class than the French who came here at the time,” says La Sirène’s owner, Eric Carletti. Facilities got better as camping gained a bourgeois element; France now has some 11,000 campsites, more than any other country bar the United States. Nine million people stay on them each year, a third from abroad. At La Sirène the mobile homes were all trimmed with decent-to-posh motors. But, as I took an early morning amble, I realised a key camping point: you can’t tell who’s who.
My fellow amblers were all out and about in what, in other circumstances, would count as their underwear. Shorn of outer clothing, the barrister and the brickie are indistinguishable. Campsites are great levellers. It’s difficult to be pretentious, or even confident, when wearing only trunks. It occurred to me that national and international summits might be better handled if participants were all obliged to wear swimming costumes.
Outside her mobile home, Samantha Dunbar was preparing breakfast melon for her accountant husband and two young daughters who were still asleep within. The Dunbars, from Manchester, were first-timers. A last-moment decision had brought them to Argelès for a bit of guaranteed heat. “We wanted something simple, which is what we’ve got. The accommodation is basic,” said Mrs Dunbar, a practice nurse who has presumably never shared a bivouac.
“But the girls are loving it,” she added. Which is the essential. Holidays on campsites like this are entirely about families, which means they are about children. I saw no lone couples, young or old. No single-sex groups on the razz. Everyone came in clumps of mums, dads and possibly grandparents, and it was the children who led the dance.
Down at the sports area, younger ones were doing challenging things with papier mâché and plastic bottles in clubs. Across the way on the sister Hippocampe site there was a youngsters’ soccer competition (I didn’t linger. A drawback of camping alone, especially for a middle-aged man, is being taken for a paedophile).
Without contest, however, the family focal point was the pool complex — an extensive tangle of connecting pools, rocks, slides, Jacuzzis and bridges. By mid-afternoon, the lawn areas were coated in towels and sunbathers, the pool echoing with laughter and splashing. I’ve rarely seen such an acreage of human happiness. One French chap near me chucked his tiny scrap of a daughter forwards into the water.
It had to happen — that evening on a bar terrace there was a karaoke fest. An Englishman called Dave did creditably with A Day In The Life, followed by a Frenchman who murdered an already-dead Johnny Hallyday standard. The nadir was reached, however, when four British infants tackled We Are the Champions. All day I had been going gently soft in the head about holidays, families and children. Now it was time to stop. These children needed hurling into the pool followed — if possible — by a crocodile.
Security is another camping key. “We leave stuff outside the mobile home all the time when we go out, and have never had a thing stolen,” said Jane Allan from Falkirk when I joined her and her husband, Robert.
At La Sirène, Eurocamp (0844 406 0402, www.eurocamp.co.uk) offers five high-season nights in a two-bedroom Extra mobile home, for two adults and three children, from £810 (accommodation only).