I woke up very early in the morning as a cool breeze rippled the tent roof, and took a minute to get my bearings. Around me were my children, warm and heavy with sleep. Flushed and rumpled in the way that only quite young children are when they are asleep. My heart swelled with love and pride in this tiny human tribe I had created.
We were not far out in the wilds. I had got a 4 man (no men in it though!) tent the day before for my birthday and after managing to get it put up in the back garden we had decided to sleep in it. We hadn’t bought the rest of the equipment for our planned expedition so the tent bedroom was filled with duvets, cushions and teddy bears making a warm nest. What bliss to be warm yet feel the fresh air and hear the birdsong. I knew I had made the right decision and that this was going to be a good thing for us. As I looked at the children, unguarded, contented, snuffling and shuffling a little in their sleep, it felt like there were no boundaries between us. A deep sense of peace.
That summer we slept in the garden for weeks and weeks. The house was still handy for cooking and storing and using the bathroom, but the tent came to feel like home. A world one remove from normality. A very small adventure but just right for us.
So we decided to set out into the big wide world with our tent and travel about 100 miles west out of London to the rolling hills of Dorset. By this time we had amassed all the stuff we would need and packed up the car, squeezing in last minute essentials. I buckled the kids into their car seats, put on the story tape and we were off.
We hit our first hitch about 3 miles into the journey when in the middle of a large and complex junction I heard the boot (tailgate) click and realized it had opened a little. As it bounced up and down the inevitable fact that we were losing some of our carefully packed stuff fought in my mind with the need to be safe. It was difficult to make my self drive to a place where I could stop, rather than leap out there and then in the midst of traffic going in all directions. I slammed the boot down hard and checked it. I could see a few items scattered in among the motorbikes and double decker buses but there was no way to recover them.
Then I laughed at myself as I remembered Miss Porter. Years earlier as a girl guide I had been doing my camper’s badge. The terrifying tester was Miss Porter whose catch phrase was “Improvise girl! Improvise!” In her book there was no situation which was beyond coping. And she may well be right. Certainly being forced into that way of thinking out of fear had expanded my boundaries in useful ways. And right now it reminded me that so long as we still had the tent (which we definitely did) and each of us, then we would get by.
So back in the car and continuing, spurred on by endless games of i-spy and 20 questions we got as far as our rest break. My youngest, still in nappies (diapers) was grizzling. Not her usual way. The next child up informed me that she was a bit red and hot and when we stopped a quick check confirmed that she had chicken pox. Not a serious illness but an uncomfortable one. We cooled her down and helped her get a bit more comfortable. At least the other two had already had it, and I seemed to have natural immunity so we knew the problem wasn’t going to get any more widespread. I raised all three children without any pharmaceutical medicines but I did compromise and buy some fever medicine then at the service area, just in case.
A few hours later we arrived at our destination. We had set off after school, and had a couple of stops so it was dark when we arrived. It was also raining and blowing up a bit of a storm. But one thing about camping is if you don’t put up your tent you don’t have anywhere to sleep. It forces your hand in that way. Maybe one of the things I like about it.
Putting up a 4 man tent in the sunshine in the back garden is, it turns out, a little easier than doing the same thing in a strong wind and driving rain by the light of a flickering torch. I let the youngest stay in the car but the other two had to help or we would never have got it done. It creates a sense of arrival for sure, to make your home together. It transpired we had lost one sleeping bag and one sleeping mat in the luggage incident so we unzipped all of them and made ourselves a family nest. Over the few days we kept discovering what we had lost but on that first evening we most regretted the absence of the can opener. Somewhat awkwardly I did have a corkscrew though and we managed to get into our food with that. The next day we discovered our neighbouring tent had the opposite problem so for the rest of the time we shared our equipment.
There was one other hitch on this trip. A typhoon. The only one ever to hit that pat of the country. It rained torrentially and constantly. The field quickly became so wet and muddy that no service vehicles could get in or out – I won’t detail the impact on the facilities but you can imagine. By the end of the second day everything was soaking. I called a camp meeting and sat in a circle with the tiny tribe. “OK so we know it’s raining and it will probably keep raining. That’s what they are saying. And I did really want to do this camping with you but I realize it is much harder than we had expected with the weather and the chicken pox. So it’s OK if we decide we have had enough and pack up and go home. So it’s our choice. What do you want to do?”
My six year old son spoke first. “We re here, this is what we are doing and we should keep doing it.” I was surprised and proud of his determination. And needed to know what the rest thought. “Yeah! Lets stay!” cried chicken pox with monetary enthusiasm. “It’s fine, why does it matter if our shoes are wet? We can just stop wearing them, the mud feels nice in your toes” added the eldest.
I beamed. They were marvellous. WE were marvellous. What a fantastic team. “Brilliant! Great decision. Let’s celebrate ourselves with a trip to the hot chocolate tent.”
Luxury holidays are a wonderful thing and I would always be up for those too. But in all our travels as a family, across four continents, this humble camping trip is one that sticks in my memory. Where characters were forged and attitudes developed. Where parenting was a joy.