23 January 2017 | -3 °C

The People Who Go Camping In London

The People Who Go Camping In London
Gillian and Kenneth Green, site wardens at Crystal Palace.

We're in Crystal Palace Park, and we're staring out a model dinosaur. But these are not the famous Victorian dinosaurs of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins fame — these are toy dinosaurs, and we're on a caravan site.

The trail is the work of Gillian and Kenneth Green, site wardens at the Caravan Club's Crystal Palace setup. Kids have to find all the dinos, then report to reception, where they're rewarded with sweets. If they can name all the dinosaurs, they get extra sweets.

It's one of many little touches; campers can pluck mint and thyme from a free herb border, get chits from Janet at reception, telling them the names of famous London sites and how to get there.

Do we get our sweets now?

"I've been camping since I was three apparently," says Gillian, who was a youth worker before becoming a pub licencee with her husband Kenneth.

After they came out of the pub trade, they wondered what else they could do to work together. "We managed to turn an interest into a job," says Gillian.

It's spitting as we stroll around the secluded site of 71 caravan pitches and 18 tent pitches, but everyone Gillian and Kenneth greet wears a smile on their face. With the generous cushioning of trees and shrubbery and the Calor Gas-cooked breakfasts, this doesn't feel much like London at all.

John, who didn't realise you could camp in London until he found this place.

In fact the Crystal Palace site is unlike most of its 200-odd UK brethren, in that the only time they're not full or near to full, is January.

"In November people come because you've got the Lord Mayor's Show, then the Christmas lights," says Gillian.

The place, she explains, is even busy on Christmas Day, caravans strewn with fairy lights. It's one of Gillian's favourite times to work here.

The place is even packed on Christmas Day, the caravans strewn with fairy lights

But why camp? The obvious answer to that is cost. Even London's budget hostels can burn a hole in the pocket if you stay too long. Yet after the initial hit of buying a caravan or tent, explains Kenneth, camping becomes the least expensive option after staying with family and friends.

"Off season two people in a caravan can stay here for £22.70," he says, "and off season on a lot of the sites, kids stay for a penny a night, which isn't true in most of the hotel chains!"

Receptionist Janet, who says campers want to visit everything from Buckingham Palace to the nearby Horniman Museum.

Of course, says Gillian, staying with friends and family isn't always an option: "They've got family, sons or daughter who live in a shoe box, can't cope with mum and dad, but mum and dad want to come and see the grandchildren."

The Crystal Palace site goes back to 1951, when people flocked to London for the Festival of Britain. There's a handful of other London campsites, in places like the Lee Valley and Abbey Wood, but given these places are usually full too, London could do with more campsites.

Gillian says that the maximum stay here — as at most sites — is 21 nights, but many people tell her they wish they could stay year-round.

Camping in London inspires you to explore areas you otherwise wouldn't.

Meanwhile, caravan stalwarts are discovering camping in London for the first time, all the time. It's Linda and Colin Wellman's first time at the site. Tomorrow they're catching the bus into central London, but today they'll explore Crystal Palace.

That's another benefit to camping in London: it inspires you to explore areas you otherwise wouldn't.

Linda and Colin., camping in London for the first time.

John, on a cycling trip from Glasgow, says he didn't even realise you could camp in London until he stumbled upon this place:

"Last time I came I just used it an an overnight stop on the way to France. And this year I was going to go to France but I decided I was going to have a few days in London instead.

"You're your own master. You can go where you like, do what you like," he says.

Who needs Sainsbury's?

You also find people here who seem to be Londoners at heart, and just can't keep away from the place.

Kathryn Holmes-Huxley and her daughter Katya live in Cheshire, but spend 15-20 weeks of the year in their motorhome, and make the five-hour trip down to London eight or nine times a year.

"It's easy train connections," says Katya, "you can get the train to everywhere. It's the perfect spot.

"It's also quite small and compact. You can find friends and stuff. I've made so many friends because of camping."

Kathryn Holmes-Huxley and her daughter Katya camp in London eight or nine times a year.

The family has enjoyed everything from Monet exhibitions to Bolshoi performances, their roll call of cultural activities impressive enough for any Londoner, let alone people who live 200 miles away.

"We saw Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet," says Katya, "we were 10th in the queue, because we queued outside the Barbican."

The British Museum and London Transport Museum are Katya's favourites; she visited the latter 10 times last year, already knows most of the tube map by heart, and is keen to visit all tube stations in a day (as soon as she's old enough).

Ironically, says Kathryn, a camping hotspot like Cornwall isn't all that motorhome friendly, due to the narrow, winding roads. In London, it's unlikely you'll find yourself forcing cars into ditches.

For anyone who wants to be a Londoner, but could do without the stresses that come with it, camping may well be the answer.

Crystal Palace Caravan Club Site, Crystal Palace Parade, SE19 1UF.

Last Updated 08 December 2016