Carry on Camping

My first experience of camping was Glastonbury 2005. Fresh faced and only twenty three, I arrived with a bright pink two man tent (for two people! What was I thinking?! Total novice) and solar powered shower, feeling so upbeat I could have taken on the world. Five hours later, lightning lit the artificial sky above my head in violent, neon pink, screams rang out across the field below, and the constant dripping on my forehead had me contemplating the efficacy of Chinese water torture. It was, in short, horrific, and the sight of toppled porta-loos and police divers searching for shocked campers’ passports in a soupy sea of mud the next morning did little to bolster my spirits. Nor the sheer effort of walking more than ten paces, the gloopy mud clamping my wellies in its vice-like grip with every step, making extrication an almost superhuman feat. Still, at least I was in a better position than another member of our party, who, on waking in the night to find his tent filling with water, grabbed his pen knife and proceeded to cut his way out of his tent (an inadvisable act when you are to spend the next four nights sleeping in aforementioned tent, and the weather forecast shows no immediate sign of improvement).

You’d think, on the basis of that experience, that I would never have attempted camping again. But despite the harsh conditions, that weekend spawned a love affair with festivals that has spanned more than a decade hence. And since I’ve hitherto not had the funds to upgrade to a gold-plated yurt complete with midget butler (or whatever else it is the cool kids do these days in their VIP areas), the humble tent and backpack combo has been used time and again – though always as an enabler, rather than a leisure pursuit in its own right.

So you can imagine my surprise at having ACTUALLY ENJOYED my first experience of CAMPING JUST FOR FUN, the recent spell of glorious summer weather having lured us at the weekend to a campsite in the Vresse-sur-Semois region of the Belgian Ardennes. Granted, there were a LOT of static homes and caravans where we stayed (our little tent stood out like a sore thumb), and we were woefully underprepared compared to some of the seasoned pros there (reversing our car to the barbecue so we could sit in the boot whilst eating, because we hadn’t brought any chairs), but overall my first time at a camp site was very positive. It had drinking water, clean toilet and shower blocks, and even a bar (God love those boozy Belgians-like home away from home). All that, and our pitch was located right beside the river, which was lovely.

After pitching our tent on Saturday we walked the kilometer into Bohan, passing a broken bridge that told of how the region suffered in WWII (the whole area felt steeped in history, which was fascinating). After failing to procure the bicycles our campsite host had tried to organise for us through a local vendor, we opted for an eleven kilometer hike through the forest, which was beautiful and challenging in equal measure – the main challenge being the near-constant horse fly attacks along the route. Three hours after we set off, we arrived back at the campsite, dirty and tired but exhilarated, and ready to prepare our barbeque supper and have a drink in the bar before bed.

On Sunday we woke surprisingly late, thanks to my sensible suggestion of positioning the tent in an area that would be shaded from the morning sun. We showered, packed up, bade our neighbours goodbye, and drove the four kilometres to Vresse, from where we hired a two person kayak. This was by far my favourite part of the weekend. Horseflies aside (those little bastards), we spent a very pleasant couple of hours cruising along the river, culminating in a palpitation-inducing accidental rapid navigation, after we failed to spot the signs and went the wrong way down a river channel (filmed by several amused looking tourists).

By the time we arrived back in Brussels, two hours after we set off, we were exhausted but revitalised. Despite only being away for one night it felt like a holiday, and made us realise how much we need weekends like that in our life, to rebalance the relative stresses of work and socialising. Sometimes there is nothing like switching off your smartphone, taking off your watch and getting amongst nature. It makes you feel alive, reminds you what life’s all about and, above all else, shows you can have adventure anywhere, if you just seek it out.

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Festival fever

It’s 6.09pm as I type this and I’ve officially finished work. All that stands between me and Glastonbury 2013 is an evening of last minute packing, a few brief hours’ rest and a three and a half hour coach ride to the site in Pilton, Somerset.

My first experience of the festival in 2005 was somewhat traumatic. A festival (and indeed camping) virgin I’d arrived fresh-faced with my pink two-man tent and solar-powered shower, completely oblivious to the reality of what I was about to endure. Which was, in short, four days of torrential rain (and by torrential I mean on the first night it rained so hard peoples’ tents were washed away and police divers were called in to retrieve their passports and valuables).

When I returned in 2008 the weather gods were marginally kinder. As I recall it only rained for half of the festival, but when you’re trying to negotiate a site that big even the smallest amount of rain can play havoc with your enjoyment of the general experience.

Although this year the forecast predicts some light rain showers, it’s looking like we may avoid a total wash out (she says, crossing fingers, toes and everything in between). But nonetheless I shall be packing my wellies and my mac – I know too well the British forecast should never be trusted…Wish me luck!

Fresh start

The alarm went off at six, but before it could even reach its shrill crescendo Graham was in the shower, singing loudly as he soaped himself. Brenda reached a hand out of the depths of her warm cocoon and smacked the clock hard to make the noise stop. In doing so she managed to hit her hand on the bedside table, which caused her to swear. She was still swearing when Graham returned from the shower, his face flushed from the heat of the water, or excitement, or a combination of both.

“Morning my flower,” Graham grinned as he towel-dried his thinning grey hair. Brenda looked her husband up and down, noticing with faint disgust the wedge of fat that sat atop the towel around his waist. His belly button and its immediate vicinity were so thick with hair one might, Brenda thought, fairly assert they bore more resemblance to a wild animal than a human. No wonder he enjoyed camping so much, she thought crossly.

“Hmph,” was all Brenda could manage as she extricated herself from the covers, throwing them off and braving the exterior climate – which was several degrees cooler due to Graham’s borderline obsessive dislike of central heating. Despite being a bank holiday weekend in May, the weather was stubbornly – and perhaps predictably – refusing to play ball. Gale force winds had hit during the night, and if the weather reports were to be believed there was yet worse to come.

“Are you excited about our trip, my flower?” Graham asked as Brenda circumnavigated her way around his bulbous form, grasping for a towel on the hook on the back of the door whilst simultaneously trying to avoid physical contact with her slimy-skinned spouse.

“Ecstatic,” Brenda replied, slipping out of the door and padding grumpily down the hallway to the bathroom.

Thirty minutes later and they were on the open road, camping paraphernalia packed into the boot along with Sadie, their pet golden retriever. It was raining so hard that the windscreen wipers were rendered ineffective, not that Graham seemed to have noticed. With every swoosh of the wipers Brenda’s fury increased, yet Graham merely hummed along to his Van Morrison tape and shovelled handfuls of boiled sweets into his cavernous mouth.

They reached the campsite by late morning, and whilst the rain had fortunately stopped by then, the field was more liquid than solid. Brenda, white-knuckled with ill-concealed rage, pulled on her wellington boots and dutifully assisted with the carrying of multiple loads of she-knew-not-what to the location Graham had identified as being the best for their stay. It had not escaped her attention there were no other campers to be seen.

As the winds buffeted them this way and that, Graham stoically erected the tent with minimal assistance from his frigid wife, who had taken to retreating to the car every twenty minutes or so for the comfort of a few blasts of hot air. Eventually the tent was up, and Graham moved onto blowing up the mattress. He’d even thought to bring pillows this time, he informed his wife with glee, seeming not to register the look of incredulity on her face that spoke of wanting to be anywhere but exactly where they were in that moment.

Brenda sat in one of their decrepit camping chairs and watched, arms folded stiffly across her chest. In spite of herself she had to admire her husband’s sheer belligerence in the face of such adverse weather conditions. Less hardy souls would have beaten a hasty retreat by now. Not so Graham, for defeat was not a word in his vocabulary. Once, Brenda supposed, she would have found such qualities endearing, but as she sat knee-deep in mud in this wet field she was at a loss to work out how she’d ended up here.

For dinner they ate sausages, cooked to a cinder atop a rickety gas fire. The weather gods at least gave them some peace for the duration of their meal, but not long after the heavens opened and rain lashed down upon them once more. There was nothing for it; they would have to go inside the tent.

“Shall we play cards my flower?” asked Graham in his usual stiflingly optimistic tone. “It’ll be like old times, do you remember? When we used to play rummy by candlelight after the kids went up to bed.” Brenda did remember, and for a fleeting moment felt her heart soften towards this silly old fool whom she had married. She consented to a game before bed, for old times’ sake like he said.

After what seemed like an interminably long day it was time for bed. Brenda and Graham clumsily took off their outer clothes and climbed onto the mattress in their long johns, pulling the sleeping bag on top of them. “Well hasn’t this been nice?” Graham said as he flicked off the torch.

“Nice?” came his wife’s voice from the darkness beside him.

“Yes, my flower, don’t you think?”

There was a brief scuffle as Brenda fumbled for the torch and the light blinked back into life. She glared at her husband and raised herself up on one elbow. “Do you really want to know what I think?”

“Of-of course, my flower” Graham stuttered.

“Okay, then I’ll tell you. In twenty years of marriage I have never liked camping. Not even for a second. I humoured you at first, because I was in love, and because I wanted to please you. And then, when the boys were born I did it to please them. But there is nothing about sleeping in such cloyingly close proximity to you without a single luxury in sight that appeals to me. Nothing – got it?”

Graham nodded, his mouth hanging open in bewilderment. “But I thought…”

“You thought what, Graham? That I enjoyed it? What have I ever said or done to give you that impression?”

“You never said you didn’t.”

Brenda stopped mid-flow to consider this point, and for a moment they stared at one another in quiet contemplation. “You mean, if I’d said I didn’t like it you’d have stopped – just like that?”

“Of course, my flower.”

Brenda opened her mouth to chastise her husband further, but the words dried up in her throat. “Oh,” was all she could manage. “I see.” She flicked the torch back off and lay down on her back, feeling the counter balance of her husband’s pose beside her. Was it she who all along had been the fool not to say how she really felt? Could all those years of bitterness have been avoided if she’d simply admitted that Graham’s choice of holiday wasn’t her cup of tea? This was a revelation that both frightened and excited her.

As they lay in the darkness with their private thoughts a tiny hissing noise started up. Soon the noise was louder, more urgent. Within moments the air bed had deflated, and as her bottom touched the floor Brenda laughed. She laughed so hard her sides hurt, and soon her husband’s laugh had joined her own. When they eventually recovered themselves Graham flicked on the light and grinned.

“There was a B&B a couple of miles back. Shall we spend the night there?”

Brenda grinned back. “Yes please.”

“Fresh start?” Graham asked as he pulled his wife to her feet.

“Fresh start,” she agreed. “Oh, and if we’re having a fresh start can I ask one more thing?”

“Of course, my flower,” said Graham.

“Don’t call me your flower. If there’s one thing I’ve hated even more than camping all of these years it’s that.” She laughed again and took his hand, guiding him out of the tent into the night.