Scenes from a camping holiday

by Steve

Campsite, with rows and rows of tents

There’s a fascinating piece to be written on camping from an anthropological/sociological standpoint. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. But it is worth noting the strange subculture and sub-subcultures of camping.

There are the traditionals, members of the Camping and Caravanning Club, known as “The Club” as though it was the original and first club of any kind and is now the most important of all the clubs. Perhaps it is. The Club is built around rules. Six metres between each pitch, “the six metre rule”, is mentioned in hushed, reverent tones. Club sites are expected to uphold strict cleanliness guidelines in the shower-block. Sites are immaculate. There are tents, but also plenty of caravans, motorhomes, trailer tents. Those in the tents suspect the motorhomers and caravanners get preferential treatment. The people in the motorhomes and caravans are too busy sitting inside watching telly to notice.

Then there are the “cool campers”, the opposite to the stuffy Club. On these independent sites you can pitch where you like, can have an open fire, do as you please. There are normally no caravans or motorhomes, unless they are funky, retro ones.

Yet, Club sites have their advantages. There is something to be said for a vaguely officious air when it comes to clean washroom facilities, or maintaining a site fit for purpose, or generally ensuring people aren’t behaving in a completely anti-social manner. The “cool” sites are sometimes little more than a hippy with a field – the facilities are poor and everyone is free to leave a mess, create a lot of noise and generally make a peaceful environment anything but.

On our last visit to a “cool” campsite the place was over-run with middle-class kids gone feral. While their parents sipped Pinot Noir and discussed Le Corbusier the kids were all over the place, at all hours. At the end of the weekend the site was locked down by police after a two year-old had gone missing. It had taken two hours for anyone to properly raise the alarm, as he’d been left free to wander off as he pleased. He was eventually found on a nearby industrial estate.

So, we went for a Club site this summer. I’m not very “cool”. I like some rules and some order. I like a well-kept site. I also quite like hanging around with old folk, and there were plenty of them. In lieu of a chronological account I thought I’d just add some non-chronolgical reflections and thoughts from the week. These might be less boring than a comprehensive account of sitting inside a tent, followed by sitting outside a tent. But probably not.

A couple with their grandchildren, always offering a smile and a few words. Campsites can be social places, not in the sense of living and dying with your fellow camper, but certainly saying “Hello” and having a brief chat, leading to an unspoken feeling/agreement to keep an eye on each others’ pitches, or or just generally feeling like there really are kind and friendly people out there. When we went off-site it took some adjusting to not smile and say “Hello” to anyone we passed by. Perhaps we should have, although we might have got some funny looks. In that way the campsite felt like a refuge from the real world, a nicer and less scary place.

A guy in an electic wheelchair, walking his dog, although a casual glance gave the impression that his dog was in fact pulling him along. He explained to us that rather than spend tens of thousands on a motorhome he had bought an old Post Office van and converted it, decking it out with motorhome furniture from a scrapyard. He explained he and his partner had once camped like us, but for just two grand had upgraded to their self-made motorhome. It felt like he was looking on us kindly, as the next generation of campers, that younger people were to be encouraged rather than merely tolerated.

The site had an odd policy for allocating pitches. Even when our field was empty they insisted on putting people right on top of us. This only really became an issue when they stuck a huge trailer tent/awning combo opposite us. It was being towed by an old couple in their classic car. The trailer bore the legend WARNING – TOWED BY CLASSIC CAR. They looked on with bored indifference when people admired the car. They were that sort of people. The husband then left his wife alone for two days while he drove back home to dote on his classic car. She did her phone banking. He returned and talked on the phone at great length about what he had done to his car. We know all this because they talked VERY LOUDLY, generally on their phones, and normally very early in the morning. They were out and about being VERY LOUD from 5AM. They were on their phones from about six. An empty field, and we got the delinquent pensioners next to us. I suspect things might have been different if we’d been the ones with the anti-social behaviour at the crack of dawn.

I think there is something in the idea that you’ve not really camped until you’ve camped in the rain. It rained. And rained. And rained. There was over 24 hours of solid, near-Biblical rainfall. The ground went from rock-hard to waterlogged in a matter of hours. It was the kind of rain that sent people packing, giving up on their holiday before it had even really begun. It was the kind of rain that was so heavy you couldn’t even really leave the site to find somewhere warm and dry, as you’d be in too much of a state by that time, unable to ever get warm or dry ever again. Probably. Plus there were no pubs nearby anyway – a massive oversight on my part.

We stuck the rain out. The tent was heroic, no rain entered our shelter. In fact, the design of the tent appeared to facilitate it pinging off rain at regular intervals. We sat inside and read and played cards and chatted. It was lovely. Sometimes it did feel a bit like a sensory deprivation chamber though, with the loudness of the rainfall and the murkiness of the skies offering little light through the canvas. It was genuinely ‘getting away from it all’, a world away from the office, the glow of screens, convenience, people.

It soon dried out. I discovered damp coals don’t work too well on a barbeque.

There was a town nearby, incredibly handy for getting provisions, or for just offering a destination when we fancied a bit of a walk. The town’s one pub had recently closed down. It was really noticeable that without it the town lacked a focus, a heart. And I’m not just saying that because I fancied a pint. There was a wine bar of sorts and some restaurants, but without a pub the high street felt odd, eerie, especially at night.

There was no hub, no sense of a community’s centre. We walked a little out of town to a few pubs still open. One pub had put signs up across town promoting a beer festival. When we arrived there was no sign or mention of a beer festival. There were just some very clique-y locals at the bar. It didn’t appear to be serving food, despite being lunchtime, and the landlord and landlady sitting in the bar, eating food from the menu. The beer they did have was good, but not worth staying for. The other two pubs we went to were worse – one had closed its kitchen because nobody had come in, which felt like a self-fulfilling prophesy, the other was just a bit grotty. Thankfully there was an excellent off-licence near the site, with obscure German beers. A bottle of Hannen Alt whilst sitting outside our tent brought me great joy.

Sad to leave, but happy to get back to our home. This may not have been the most glamorous or exotic holiday, but it was a wonderful way of relaxing and getting off the ol’ treadmill for a week. No telly, no internet, no public transport. Minimal stress. The opportunity to take the time to read, to talk, to wander. A lifestyle where everything takes a while, so you are forced to slow down. I remembered the important stuff in life.

We’ll be camping again.

Image from Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library, via Flickr