A week in the woods and what came before it

by Steve

Wooden camping sign

I’m sure that every journey begins long before the actual departure. However, a camping holiday seemed to require substantially more planning and preparation than a hotel city break, say. Admittedly, my good wife did the majority of packing and planning, with themed collapsible crates full of everything we might need for a week’s camping. Such contingency planning would come into its own should we encounter the negative aspects of an English summer. I reminded myself that my usual holiday packing philosophy, of throwing whatever comes to hand in five minutes flat as you can always buy what you forget at the other end, was probably not sensible when it comes to a week in the wilderness.

So, I was very happy to suggest that I concentrate on the more basic task of carrying our stuff to the car while my wife undertook the peculiar puzzle of fitting as much as humanly possible into a reasonably small car. This appears to be more of an art than a science, and also relies on a good memory so you can actually pack it all in again at the end of the holiday. Such qualities as patience, logic and systematic thinking were required, qualities my wife has in abdundance and I somewhat lack, and with that in mind I was very happy to take a back seat. Although of course the back seat was already full. Ahem.

I confirmed that the lifting/packing division of labour was the best approach when I thought to myself that maybe we didn’t need to pack our two collapsible fishing chairs. While we wouldn’t be fishing, the remit for the holiday involved sitting around our tent unwinding for a week, and so chairs would be pretty important in fulfilling that wish. My idea really wasn’t the smartest one. Evidence, if evidence was needed, that I’m pretty clueless at packing. I got in the passenger seat and my wife started the car.

Or not. The car wouldn’t start. We had a full car, our pitch a two-hour drive away, and we were not going anywhere. I know nothing about cars. We were going to have to wait a little longer to start our journey.

Luckily, my dad happened to be just a few minutes away. After a couple of failed attempts at jump-starting the car I was beginning to plan a week’s camping in the garden. Or perhaps just on the pavement, for a change of scenery and to save unpacking the car. The third attempt worked, we had a running car and my dad was the hero of the hour. He suggested we drive to a car battery specialist down the road from us.

Now, he and I had discussed this battery place in the past. It sounded far more entertaining than a battery specialist should, but as a non-driver I figured that I’d never have the opportunity to experience the place. Now was my chance.

The shop is in a sunny little courtyard that appears on first look to be pretty much empty, but has the feel of a place that was probably full of horses 100 years ago, was still busy and bustling 50 years ago, but then looking at the funky vintage fonts used for the signage on display was probably abandoned about 1978. And yet, they left the two owners of the car battery business behind. They looked a healthy 60-odd, and looked very and sounded very alike. It was hard to tell if they were brothers, or had just worked together so long that they had adopted each others mannerisms, vocal tics and sartorial sense so that they had essentially morphed into variants of one another.

As they tested the old battery and replaced it with a new one they talked to one another in a strangely mannered way, offering a step-by-step commentary on the procedure with little throwaway lines that sounded like they’d been rehearsed and retold a thousand times. It felt less like we were getting a new battery and more like we were getting a little performance. Our holiday had veered from potential disaster to fun little detour in no time at all.

We settled up in their office, which was a little too big for two men. While there was a PC and credit card machine on one side, the vast majority of things scattered sparsely across the room seemed to have nothing to do with the business and felt more like home comforts. From how they welcomed our business, I suspect the office was more living room than place of work. There were practical aids – a kettle, microwave, a big box of tea. Yet there was also a big box of brand new audio cassettes still in their packaging, stray dance CD compilations from 1992 and two portable gramophones with several 78s stacked on them. We left kind of wishing that we could work there, or at least hang out there a bit from time to time, as one gentleman of a certain age had been when we’d arrived.

And so the journey actually began, and was thankfully less eventful. I concentrated on my strengths – providing directions and handing out sweets. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t qualify as a proper holiday trip if there aren’t sweets for the journey.

Sunlight through woodlandWe arrived at the campsite, there was still a few hours of daylight and so we didn’t have to put up a new tent in the dark. Thankfully. The ‘reception’ was a trestle table outside a caravan. It was encircled by a gypsy-style caravan, a 60s caravan, and an American-style silver caravan, as well as a double-decker bus and RAF rescue helicopter both converted into living spaces. While these looked a lot of fun, they did involve being in close proximity to others, not least the owners, and in the case of the helicopter would involve being the envy of every small boy camping on the site, which I imagine would be a strange and unwelcome sensation.

As we checked in the owner misread my name and mistook me for a famous horror writer from Maine, with near-hilarious consequences. We’d elected to stay on the adult side of the site – no children, and isolated pitches, so we’d be on our own. Perhaps the right choice. We’re ready for a break from the general public.

There was a choice of a succession of small clearings, both within and beside some woodland. It offered a safe simulacrum of ‘wilderness’. One can get away from it all, yet have other campers within earshot and just about see their fires flickering through the trees. When the wind blows right you can just about hear the road and the nearby train line. The camp is also not far off the flightpath for a major international airport. For a city boy this is rather reassuring. I like the idea of the wilderness, but if things are too quiet and too far away from the real world I become a little unnerved and can’t settle. I don’t mind a bit of background noise.

There is running water nearby. This includes an outdoor shower, which again offers a kind-of-wilderness experience. It feels a little exposed, but with two wooden walls matched by two sides of thick brambles and hot water on offer, it is pretty safe and comfortable rather than bracing and exposing.

This is my kind of camping. We can be alone, can light a fire in our clearing in the woods and feel a world away from the everyday. And yet I’m not worried about being attacked by an axe murderer in the night and I don’t have to dig a hole in the ground to go to the toilet.

Setting up camp isn’t too stressful either. Our new tent says it can be put up in 4.1 seconds. It popped up in a fraction of that time, yet took considerably longer to make it actually livable. But once up it looked rather handsome, with a central living area with a table and chairs so we can shelter comfortably if it rains, or I can sit in when it is hot and pretend I’m on safari with Hemingway or something.

Toasting marshmallows on a campfireWe have a bite to eat, and a wee dram then head to bed. Then the noises begin. When they said this was the adult side of the campsite, I didn’t realise they meant this. The noises are coming from the couple staying in the next pitch. At first it sounds like she is hurt. Then like she has found religion. She is getting increasingly vocal about proceedings. Soon the whole wood is being subjected to her moans of monotonous ecstasy. And then it is over, bar the man’s triumphant belching and trumping.

This is all fine and funny until the next morning when they drive off and leave the rest of the camp wondering who exactly it was getting frisky the night before. Where the day before everyone would pass with a ‘Hello!’ or ‘Hiya!’ now nobody can look anyone else in the eye. It is only after the next night passes without a pornographic audio track that the campers ease up again.

As mentioned, our holiday plan was to sit around, rest and relax, read and eat, play with a log fire a bit. This I’m happy to report we successfully achieved, but is probably even less entertaining to read about that the previous 1,500 odd words. We did get out and about on a couple of occasions, once the campsite owners helpfully gave us a map with local walks, all under 45 minutes and all ending up in a pub, which closely matches my criteria for agreeing to a country walk.

One village was very pretty and prosperous. The pubs offered gastro-esque fare, the main shop was a fancy deli. There were tea rooms. However, the village appeared to be infested with flies. After swatting them away from an excellent pint of Dark Star Revelation (super-hoppy, a little grassy, very refreshing) we agreed it was time to go.

The other village we visited was far less appealing. There were a lot of reasonably new builds on view, in that horrible red brick mock tudor-ish style that seems designed to fit in to an old village but sticks out horribly. Still, we had scampi and chips and some great Harveys beers, so mission accomplished.

The actual walks were lovely too, and as they were mainly on little paths and bridleways, avoided that horrible thrill of a country walk on little windy roads as cars whizz by at 70mph.

My wife grew up camping so knew exactly what she was doing, while I’d done some camping but my main experiences were as a cub scout and a young festival goer. This kind of camping was a lot more fun. It was wonderful to unplug from the real world. I had no phone reception, I didn’t yearn to check my emails. To have our own space in the woods we could enjoy each others’ company, and also just enjoy some peace. It feels like a great luxury to just sit and read in the open air. There was no pressure to do anything, unlike a sightseeing tour or city break. This was my kind of camping – no people, a slow pace and a genuine chance to recharge. Plus, I do like mucking around with logfires and engaging with my inner caveman. While I won’t be giving up dreams of five-star hotels and exotic breaks just yet I’m very glad we can just pack up our tent and get away whenever we want. It is good to get away.