Saturday, 25 April 2009

In-tents excitement

Camping is going to be very big here in Britain this summer.

I can tell. It's still three times more expensive to stay in a British hotel than a similar one in Greece or Tenerife with virtually-guaranteed sun and heat. So credit-crunched families are bound to be fatally attracted by the lure of canvas and cosy sleeping bags.

You practically have to fight your way through an igloo tent (part of a 'get it all for £99' deal) to get into Halfords and this morning, a brochure for all manner of camping goods fell out of one of the newspapers on to my lap.

Oh look a tent for £45. OK you can't stand up in it but who's complaining about a bit of kneeling and wriggling when it's cheap as chips?

But further inside of course it was a different story. Who wants to wriggle and kneel when you can have a very stylish and rather beautiful modern version of a tepee for a snip (ok £699 but it has got a Bath-style portico entrance which native American indians didn't have, strangely enough).

Sunny green fields gently sloping to a sparkling lake surrounded by verdant hills. That's camping.

Or waking to an indigo pre-sunrise sky, tip-toeing across dew-fresh grass to the loo block and on the way back seeing the sun scorching the horizon in a blaze of morning glory.

Or unzipping the tent door to an uninterrupted view from a clifftop of a fishing boat put-putting across a flat-calm bay in an early morning haze where soft grey of sea and sky are as one.

Or sitting outside a tent on a beach in the afternoon sun, frying fresh-caught mackerel on a one-ring camping gas stove while the fishermen lounge about with cold lagers waiting to be fed. That's camping.

Course, its hardly ever like that is it? Those memories are preserved precisely because they are were so startlingly lovely and unusual.

The harsher truth, as anyone who has ever been camping knows, is that camping is about bumpy fields and sharing toilet facilities. Cleaning your teeth in a basin with people doing similar either side or stripping for a wash and exposing you to the less-than-attractive pale rolls of flab that you really didn't ask to see.

It's standing naked covered in Olympic-size goose-pimples in a draughty, breeze-blocked shower cubicle beneath a reluctant luke-warm dribble.

It's about queueing up to do your washing up in a big sink a quarter of a mile away from your tent.

It's about braving a lot of cloud, grey days, wind and rain. Lots and lots of wet and wellingtons for everyone and feeling constantly damp, then more wet.....a kind of sticky, salty damp if you're by the coast and fully immersed in sea mists.

If it gets very windy in the night, you have to put clothes on (if you're not already keeping them on) and fix storm guy-ropes, stay outside and hold the damn thing down or all retreat to the car with the valuables and watch your encampment roll wildly into the hedge.

I'm not saying wet and rain can't be joyous. Oh puddle splashing and mud and getting drippily saturated are great fun in small doses if you are within earshot of a hot running bath and a hot toddy (in that order or contemporaneously). But if you are forced to repose with the cold chilling your bones and your nan's warnings about wet clothes and rheumatism ringing in your head, then frankly, it's a bit shit.

For years – some of them formative – I went on family holidays in our blue canvas frame tent. We were learner campers. We learned things like it's not a great idea to pitch in that lovely spot next to the flowering rhododendrons which no-one else has bagged. It looked scenic but we got eaten alive by midges.

Avoid a sloping site even if it has got a good view of the sea. Every morning you will wake up in a heap at the bottom of the bed and have to untangle yourself from the person you were sleeping next to. There will be much hopping on one leg to relieve the pain of leg cramps.

On one camping trip when I was 14 there was lightning, storm and tumult. The morning light revealed a lively torrent of water flowing in under one side of the tent and out of the other. My prized green suede handbag was soaked and ruined. I yelled and stamped around and declared I would never go on a camping holiday again. And I didn't. Not with the family.

I went camping again on a whim with the shiny new husband to West Wales; full of youthful confidence that because it was a hot dry summer with fires breaking out everywhere, as long as we kept a fire-fighting bucket of water outside the tent, we'd be fine. Obviously, the weather broke and we were deluged. Plus we had trouble with our luxury blow-up mattress.

Seized by a macho need to get it rock-hard, Captain Sensible overdid the footpump and blew two of the dimples right out, creating a mound like a goitre about nine inches high and a slow puncture. At least four times a night, it would require more air.

So, in the hushed early hours of the morning at the Pembrokeshire coast camp site, the silence was broken by the rhythmic rasps “Pfffffff-uuuuuuuuhhh” “Pfffffffff-uuuuuuuuuhhhh” “Pfffffff-uuuuhhh“ of the pump as Capt Sensible refilled the bed.

It didn't go unnoticed.

“Disturbed night was it?” a fellow camper asked Capt Sensible at the communal sinks one morning.

“Four times, we counted...

“Duw boy, fair play, you're only young once.”