Tag Archives: Camping

Growing Up

IMG_3597The 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.

Would you just look at that beauty.
Would you just look at that beauty.

The Night Walker

I love the holidays.  That moment when you close the door on your classroom on the last day of the summer term with all that time stretched unfilled before you is like no other.  These days, now that I am not just a primary school teacher but a mother with three children of her own (no relaxation of responsibility at three fifteen for me), that last day leaves me sweating with relief.  No more school runs.  No more remembering lunch money, reading books, PE kits or responding to sudden demands for money for cake sales, cakes for said sales or random fancy dress, let alone forgetting the random items I might need for the mummification of oranges (all a part of the life of your average primary teacher).  For six weeks I can hang up the school bags and set my own agenda.

I think it’s one of the things I like most about this time of year.  After endless weekdays set rigidly to a timetable, so inflexible that I must visit the toilet only at certain points in the day, and weekends crammed with other people’s activities, the loss of routine leaves me with a sensation of lightness, of freedom.  I remove my watch and kick off my uncomfortable shoes with gay abandon.

Not so Sam.

As he matures it seems that his ability to entertain himself lessens.  Like his younger siblings, he too misses his classmates, the young people he spends his days playing with, learning with, fighting over.  He misses his teachers, his routines.   And staying away from home.  He’s not awfully keen on that either.

I should know by now how it is.  It’s not like I haven’t been on tons of holidays with him before, but somehow I always forget.  Take this weekend.  We haven’t been away camping for some time (the unreliability of the weather combined with the unfeasible size of a tent designed to hold a family of five and give them somewhere to hang around, damply bored, while they wait for the rain to clear has ensured our reluctance to pitch camp of late), but our tenting holidays must have made a positive impression because Sam often hopefully mentions the possibility, usually on a damp, December Sunday afternoon when there is nothing better to do than suggest interesting and fun activities that nobody else wants to do.

Putting the tent up for a trial run throws not only Sam, but the others too, into a frenzy of excitement (another reason not to get it out, if you ask me).  The three of them run around the unfamiliar space, almost as wound up as if they had suitcases (the most exciting thing known to child-kind), crashing into fragile walls, bouncing off everything, regardless of who might be attempting to sleep on it later, their joy a palpable, physical thing.

Over the years I have tried to analyse just what it is they find so appealing.  Maybe it’s the prospect of undistracted time with mummy and daddy, with no washing or ironing or fixing or any other tedious household chores to get in the way.  It could be the relative freedom provided by campsites; a defined yet unimaginably large area over which to roam, other, unknown children with whom to play.  For Sam, you never know your luck, you might get to have an explore around other people’s camper vans; if you’re really lucky, there might be quad bikes or mini tractors moving caravans around so that they can be cleaned via pressure washer.

Or maybe it’s the unaccustomed delight of being in the outside in your pyjamas and skipping up and down to the facilities with torches.  When they were younger, and we went camping because we couldn’t afford to do anything else, we would pitch the tent and they would leap, regardless of the time, into their night attire, cuddled up into a bundle of babies.  Until it was time for them to actually go to bed, that is.

Now I love an adventure.  I love setting off into the (relative) unknown, discovering places hitherto unexplored (by me) except by their names on a map, or in a novel I may have read.  For me, the wake up to reality call is usually the point at which I investigate the shower block.  Dead flies, clumps of muddy grass, other people’s hair; all these things have my flesh shrinking in distaste.  For Husband, it is that moment when he goes to the loo and comes across Men In Vests Having Washes.  For the children, and for Sam in particular, it is when, instead of packing it all away and heading home, they are expected to settle themselves down to sleep.

I know they are not alone in this.  All around us, in the gathering gloom, is the sound of children-who-do-not-wish-to-sleep and their increasingly frustrated and desperate-for-a-bit-of-child-free-time parents.  Shouting and screaming usually starts at around 9:30 and finishes at around 11.  These days, we have accustomed (just) ourselves to their evening company, become less frazzled by their sleeping bag chatter.

But only slightly.  For we know that it won’t be long before our night-time visitor will be making calls. It won’t take much to wake him and we will be awake too, listening helplessly to the zipping and unzipping of checks on siblings and parents.  It’s remarkable how difficult it is to extricate oneself from a half-sunk mummy-shaped sleeping bag (I am never succumbing to a blow up mattress ever again, detestable things).  One is pretty much guaranteed to gouge one’s toe on some sort of essential equipment that just happens to be strewn across one’s path on one’s journey to reassure the anxious boy who is longing for his own bed, unconvinced by the sleeping silence around him that it is still night time because, to him, the light is coming and so is home time.

I know I ought to prepare him thoroughly for a holiday, but in my excitement, the packing, the list making, the route finding, I know I that will think that what I did before will be enough.  I will think that because he was OK last time, he will be again.  I forget about it and curse myself for my omission, until that eventual night when we are all so wasted with all the walking in a night that is full of unspoken terrors that we have no choice but to sleep, wherever we are – and long privately for our return home.

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My bundle of babies.

Yes, yes, it’s a Game of Thrones reference 😉