HISTORY OF THE BELL TENT

Today, so much of life is disposable – we’re relentlessly blitzed with messages of ‘out with the old, in with the new’. But increasingly, consumers – that’s you and me – are rejecting this impetus. There’s a resounding nostalgia for the longevity and reliability of life before, a respect for permanence that seems to have been missing for some time.

The humble bell-tent – which has its roots in ancient history but is now making a massive comeback in the world of glamorous camping – glamping – is one such example.

In essence, it’s merely a conical shaped tent that provides temporary shelter for people on the move. This kind of construction has been in use as far back as 600 AD, when Emperor Maurice used it to house his immense Byzantine Army. It’s ideal for military purposes, because it’s easy to move, easy to put up and has lots of space. Later on, it’s seen again in the Crimean Wars before the turn of the century – and again in the Anglo-Zulu wars of South Africa. Similar style tents were used by Sami reindeer herders in Scandinavia (they were known as “lavvu”) and by Serbian and Mongolian herders – (theirs were called chum”). Let’s not forget, of course, the Native American “tipi”. The point is, the development of the bell tent has spanned the width of the globe over thousands of years.

It was in 1856, however, that it made its first foray into a more modern design. Henry Hopkins Sibley, an American officer in the US Army, created an improved prototype – based on a traditional tipi design – but infinitely more practical. Rather than 12 poles around a central one, he reduced it to one ‘mast’ pole, and used tension in the canvas and pebble ties at the base to create the taut walls of the tent. It then became truly indispensable for military expeditions, as it was lightweight, durable and could comfortably sleep up to 12 soldiers, who slept with their feet at the centre; radiating out with plenty of space.

His design was commissioned for over 44,000 units in 1857 in the Utah Expedition – or Mormon War, when the United States Government came into a major armed confrontation with Mormon settlers in Utah. While he didn’t end up making any money out of this – due to political differences in the subsequent American Civil War – he did an immense amount for the bell tents we know and love today.

Ever since then, armies and nomads have been building on his blueprint, and today’s bell tents are lighter, more water-proof, better ventilated, more spacious and quicker to put up than ever before. It’s the injection of new technology into a design that has been developing for centuries, making it the epitome of comfort, practicality and aesthetic accomplishment.

Nowadays, of course, they aren’t used so much in the battlefield as the camping field, where they provide an immediate diversion from real life; a glimpse into a previous existence of adventure and escape. So often, after a festival, the grounds are littered with cheap and nasty nylon tents that people would rather leave behind than bother packing up. Bell tents offer an altogether more eco-friendly, efficient and wholesome approach to festival accommodation – a reassuringly resilient room for the weekend. They have also proved to be enormously popular not just as festival accommodation, but as a destination in themselves. Increasingly, landowners with a bit of spare space in the country are erecting bell tents and offering deluxe camping experiences – and the public are revelling in it.

The best part is, bell-tents are still evolving. Lotus Belles came on the scene in 2011; an invention by Harriet Sedon, who wrote her thesis on “The Importance of Circular Space”. She wanted to find the perfect fusion between bell-tents and yurts – portability, usability and roominess. These extraordinary structures provide masses of space and are, aesthetically, quite magnificent.

From their lowly roots as basic transitory shelters to the sleek, elegant spaces they are today, bell tents have an extraordinary history that’s worth remembering as you spend the night out, under the stars, protected by their sturdy, sophisticated, canvas ramparts.

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