Order vs Chaos – Understanding UK Campsites

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If you’re heading off on a road-trip in your motorhome, you’ll no doubt stay on campsites for at least part of your travels. But with so many different UK campsites, how do you find out which type you like the most?

On this page we’re going to look at the different types of campsites on offer here in the UK. We’ll share some of our personal anecdotes which will, hopefully, help you decide which type of campsite suits your needs and wishes best.

Just to note: we’re not going to ‘name and shame’ any of the sites we mention in this article. These are only our opinions, after all. We just want to point out the different types of sites you’re likely to encounter on your van life travels and to help you decide which you prefer.

Modern life – micro-managed on every level

Two of the things we most dislike as motorhomers are height barriers at car parks and ‘no overnight camping’ signs.

Our German friends, who we meet up with at least once a year, say that there are too many rules in England. We’d have to agree with them.

For instance, everyone in the UK adheres to the no-smoking laws in pubs. But where they come from – Halle, in the old East Germany – almost every bar you enter is still full of tobacco smoke. It’s like stepping back into the 1970s.

But in our part of the world most people tend to live by the rules, upheld by common consensus and by appointed guardians and referees. Everyone knows what is expected and what the penalties are for transgressions.

The thing is that chaotic – or even anarchic – cultures often end up being ruled by those who take over by force rather than democracy. Their laws are not chosen by the people in general but made by the few in power.

And the micro-world of UK campsites can reflect this in a smaller, albeit less tyrannical, way.

So, the question is, “What type of campsite will you be heading to?”

Image: Eric Hare

Order vs chaos on UK campsites

We have taken our motorhome to some UK campsites where reading the list of rules makes you feel slightly nervous. It is like being given homework to learn…

Signage shouts from every wall about…

  • Turning facility lights off
  • No over-filling basins
  • Mopping showers after use
  • No ball games
  • No radios or musical instruments

Sensible rules but… overkill!?

On one of the larger UK campsites we’ve been to, we had a wry smile the first time we encountered a little model of a van in reception showing the prescribed direction to park your vehicle. Yes, it had to be facing forward.

It was explained that it was done for a) fire and safety and b) for reasons of privacy – so that habitation doors face away from each other.

The latter does not even make sense, given different motorhome designs, some with ‘hab’ doors being on the left, others on the right.

Oh well, better do as they say!

Uber organised campsites

But some sites go even further than this…

One we stayed at was beautiful in a ‘mathematical’ way – even the flower beds had to have been laid with a tape measure in hand!

We were asked to stop in a designated area for new arrivals (which is quite normal), then we were given a tour of the site before we could park. The rules were reiterated as we walked around with the site owner. It was like first day at Hogwart’s!

We wondered if our old motorhome got deliberately shoved away in a corner; her retro-shape and slightly scratched paintwork and thick blue stripe did not match the modern sleek motorhomes with their ‘calligraphic’, flick-of-the-wrist splash of grey. 

Everyone here knew exactly what was expected of them but there was little room for individuality. There’d be no chance of us putting our flag-pole up, for instance! This wasn’t the place for Che Guevara!

Che Guevara on red flag
Pic source: The Flag Shop. “Until victory, always!”

And we noticed that there was scant interaction between campers. Everyone sat in their designated areas, only daring to venture out if absolutely necessary. At least, it seemed that way to us.

But then we got to thinking about this…

A world without rules

Imagine a world where anyone can do anything they like and to whom. Such a world soon becomes dangerously anarchic.

Take a look at this RV chaos in America…

But even with something far less dramatic, imagine being in a social situation where you know that there are rules, but you don’t know exactly what those rules are.

It’s like you have been dropped into a foreign country and have no idea of the social etiquette where the wrong word or gesture can land you in hot water.

We have stayed on some sites that felt just like this, where the rules were ‘woolly’ to say the least.

At one, we booked ourselves in at the little shack of the reception area, put our payment in an ‘honesty envelope’, then parked up wherever we wanted. We had to scramble through a hedge of nettles to find the electric hook-up point!

Top Tip: carry garden shears or an electric hedge trimmer in your van. You just never know when you’ll need them!

Seriously though, there were no numbered allocated pitches. No ‘proper’ direction to face. No signage. You found things out as you went along.

This is “on paper” just what camping should be like – free and easy, laid back, fun.

But surely, we thought to ourselves, there must be some rules here?

a VW T4 motorhome at one of the more natural UK campsites
Chaotic camping: somewhere in the undergrowth was the power point!

Anarchy on the campsite!

Who’s in charge, we wondered? No one, it seemed. So, we started to ask ourselves some questions…

Supposing the owner – wherever he is – does not like where we have parked? Will we have to unplug everything, raise the stabilisers, and move to another non-existent pitch?

What happens if someone on this site does something disagreeable to someone else like…loud music, a loose dog, parking too close, kids going crazy?

If there are no rules, then who decides where the line is crossed?

Usually the person with the loudest voice or fastest temper, we suspect.

On this particular campsite, it really was a case of making things up as you went along.

Perhaps that’s not a problem if you’re an experienced camper or van-lifer but if you’re a newbie it can leave you feeling a bit disconcerted.

  • Where’s the electricity point?
  • Where’s the fresh water?
  • Where do I empty my tanks?

Eventually we met the owner who was casually riding through the site on his pushbike. We soon got the impression this was a ‘do whatever you like’ kind of site.


The human need for boundaries

We came to the conclusion that having no rules was possibly more stressful than having a set list of “thou shalt nots.”  Where there are no clear rules there are no boundaries and chaos reigns supreme.

People are then divided into either ‘passive’ or ‘aggressive’ – those who are afraid of deciding for themselves and those who take full advantage of the lack of authority. The former sit in their vans complaining about the latter.

There are actual posts and comments made on Social Media by people who have entered the ‘laid-back’ campsites and have tried to impose “club” rules. There’s always at least one ego who tries to claim the mantle of authority.

Thus, we’ve decided that we prefer campsites which are midway between lawlessness and a prison camp.

Although we crave freedom, the freedom modern society allows does have boundaries. And it’s these very boundaries that create a sense of security, helping to meet one of our prime emotional needs.

So how do you find the ‘middle way’?

The space between Apollo and Dionysus

Staying at campsites reminds us that there are two sides to human nature, something the Greeks pointed out over 2000 years ago: one driven by order (symbolised by the god, Apollo) and another driven by chaos (Dionysus).

Most UK campsites are governed, it would appear, by either one of these two gods.

Order vs chaos - Apollo and Dionysus stone carving

You’ll very rarely see us Hobos on the large, uber-controlled sites, those with wardens and security guards.

We drove onto one such site on the North Norfolk Coast and drove straight back out when we saw a ‘Men in Black‘ type figure standing there watching our every move as we rolled up in our old van.

We simply don’t want ‘Butlins for motorhomers’ where everything is arranged to a tee.

And the ‘do as you please’ kind of sites leave us feeling un-grounded.

So, these days, if we’re going to stay at a campsite, more often than not we’ll chose a small CL or CS site…

Finding the campsite middle ground

CL means Certified Location, affiliated to the Caravan and Motorhome Club.

CS stands for Certificated Site, affiliated to the Camping and Caravanning Club.

Both CL and CS sites only accept a maximum of 5 caravans/motorhomes and up to 10 tents. Some are very basic but others have all the facilities you’ll need. A few of them are adults-only sites.

However, you must be a member of the relevant club to use them, and they are usually a good bit cheaper than the larger sites.

On our roads trips throughout Wales, we often just turned up onto one of these smaller sites, without pre-booking.

But although these smaller sites help us avoid the uber-controlled Butlins-style holiday parks, we still want more off-grid experiences.

We guess that’s why we’re opting more and more to wild camp wherever possible. Not easy, especially so in England with all its rules.

Maybe our German friends would agree with their compatriot, the great Friedrich Nietzsche, who once said…

I tell you, one must have chaos in one’s life in order to give birth to a dancing star. (1)

Order vs chaos? It seems we need a bit of both – and something in between.

Let us know your campsite preferences…

Which type of site do you prefer? Large, small, organised or a bit more laid-back?

Or do you lean more toward off-grid wild camping?

Let us know in the comments below or message us direct here.

Reference note:

(1) quoted in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra – a book for all and none’

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