The first time I slept in a tent I must have been about eight or nine years old. Up until that night, my main experience had been under a very thick green triangular canvas held up with red-and-white survey poles. There was no inner, and no groundsheet and it was full of flies and the distinctive aroma of fly spray, so it was a revelation that tents could be orange and have rooms inside. It was not a success.
Family friends had chosen to end their camping holiday at our house, and, as we had a big (although hardly what I might call flat) garden, as a treat for us kids, they pitched their tent so that we could play in it, and have a night in it if we so wished. Everybody wished it, so out we went. Boy and dad in one room, girls in the other.
I spent the night unable to sleep, partly because I was desperate for the loo, and partly because I had convinced myself that I would find the back door locked, even if I dared navigate two sets of stone steps (one more rustic than the other) in the dark; separated from the facilities by the Burglar Lock until the sunrise. The following night, despite the transports of delight from all other child-members of our group, I did not join them. The following night I slept, happily I might add, in my own bed. It was a while before I was tempted into tenting again.
It might have been the Saturday job I had for a couple of years, while I was doing my A Levels, in a camping and outdoors shop, but I suspect it was really the Duke of Edinburgh. Or maybe it was Bikes. Or possibly a combination of the two.
You see, the first year we were married, R bought me a bike. And not long after that, the idea that it might be nice to take our bikes on holiday with us had snowballed into catching the train to Inverness, and cycling across to Gairloch and back, camping along the way. He knew all about that sort of thing, thanks to the Duke. It was great.
There is something about packing everything you need into a couple of bags and cycling off into the sunset, the pitter patter of rain on canvas while you are toasty warm inside. After a year of living and working in rooms, being in the outside all day and all night makes a more than refreshing change, even if you can’t sleep until you are too tired not to. So, when the children were little, we upscaled our three-person dome tent and bought a family sized one.
Only, it’s not quite the same when there are children involved. For a start, there is the size of the thing. Instead of it taking mere minutes to put up (R and I are a good team where tent pitching is concerned), it takes at least a couple of hours, once you have identified which bit goes where and persuaded excited children to stop running into the walls. Putting it away is no better. There’s something about tent bags that means they never quite fit back into them, and, for a larger tent, the problem is proportionally multiplied. And that’s all before the magical moment when, tired and sweaty, you finally stand back to look at your handiwork only to be greeted by a little voice saying, ‘I’m hungry’.
They always look so great when you go and have a look around the tenting shop. You pop excitedly in and out of them and before you know where you are you have purchased one that not only gives you the unexpected pleasure of being able to stand up inside, but also room to play, should the weather prove unfavourable. Separate bedrooms for all. It always sounds so great in theory until you are attempting to put a nervous child to bed and go to sleep yourself before the clock strikes one, two, three in the morning.
Sam, like the eight-or-nine-year-old me, is not a particularly happy camper. He’s fine during the day, like the others, he finds the packing and the pitching almost unbearably exciting, but once the dusk falls, and he realises that we are not, in fact, going straight back home, and that the tent is not, as he had thought, part of an elaborate game, but scarily real, he finds the shine coming rapidly off the experience. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I think it’s some sort of combination between the restrictions inherent in a sleeping bag, the slope of the ground (the ground always slopes), the movement of the tent walls (it is always windy) and the strangeness of the sounds of other people’s families, invisible and yet close at hand, that means that sleep, for him, and therefore for us, is an elusive prospect. And when the child doesn’t sleep, everything else takes on a strange red glow.
So you might be surprised to hear that this year, in a fit of enthusiasm (or something), we have invested in yet another tent.
This time, though, it’s a tent with a difference. This time, instead of complicated poles and pegs and inside rooms hanging from fiddly toggles, we have opted for a one-room wonder. And a couple of weeks ago we gave it a try.
It really couldn’t have been any better. The wind was gentle and the skies were clear. The sun shone and so did the International Space Station. There were camp fires and marshmallows, and special boys we always watch so closely cycled round lakes (about a mile) about six times on his own and told me all about it in the longest set of sentences I have ever heard him utter. We went to sleep, all together, and Sam held my hand (and no one had to get out of their nice warm sleeping bag) and didn’t wake up until morning. Well, he woke up with a whispered ‘yesssss’ at half past five (presumably he was relieved at his survival of the night), but being as he was right next to me, I told him the time and he nodded right back off with a huff.
It wasn’t just that, though. It wasn’t just the weather, and the food, and the fun of sailing off with the washing up and sailing back again, or even of the unexpected growing-up-before-your-eyes of our eldest boy. For me, that weekend represents a bit of a watershed moment.
You see, when you have a child with special needs, you experience something I can only really describe as a loss of independence. You can’t do things, the way you used to, on your own. Packing up your tent and putting it on the back of your bike and cycling off into the sunset is no longer an option. Yes, this is the same for every young family, you need a community around you, to help you bring up baby. But sometimes, for some of us, this state of dependence carries on for far longer than you were expecting. Most of the time, we need assistance just to exist. In a funny kind of way, it’s almost as if you aren’t really a grown up after all.
But that weekend, it was something we did all on our own. It was great. It was great to be growing up.