When I was small, I would plead with my mother to set up the clothes horse in the back garden. She would drape a sheet over the rectangular frame and it would become my own miniature den. I still have a vivid picture of the small ‘tent’ set up against the russet brick of the house, though I have no memory of what I actually did in there.
I always wanted a tent. I never owned one of my own and went camping only once for a single night on a school trip away. A friend of mine had a tent and occasionally, she would put it up in her garden and we would ‘camp’ out during the day. But I never had the romantic experience of camping I wished for. I wanted to snuggle under canvas, in the shaded light, ideally with rain beating down above me. I wanted to sit by a camp fire and listen to ghost stories. I wanted to eat sausages cooked on a stove and drink tea out of a tin mug. I’ve tried to understand what it is about camping that so attracted me. Perhaps it was a sense of adventure instilled by reading too many Enid Blyton stories as a child – the type of adventure that if it ever existed, was beyond my means and experience. Maybe it was that sense of being protected, but close to the elements. Or maybe that part of me that longs for a nomadic lifestyle, with nothing to hold me back from pitching a tent anywhere. Perhaps it was just to have a cosy space of my own at an age went that wasn’t yet possible.
Is it a fiction writer’s curse to be able to build such an intense vision of what an experience will be like before having it? We’re used to creating worlds that don’t really exist, to inventing scenes and scenarios that aren’t real but could be, to visualising imaginary things in such detail that they take on a life of their own. To imagine each experience before it happens and to imbue it with a meaning that it can’t possibly live up to?
Of course my real experience of camping wasn’t quite like my imagined version. In my vision, we would be somewhere in the wilds, in a forest clearing perhaps, or on the edge of a shore. In reality, we decided on the sensible approach, easing ourselves in gently at a well-maintained camp site. And so we set off on our journey, my partner, my dog and I, three intrepid adventurers in search of an adventure. The first image to be demolished was that of us as nomads, travelling light. The car was loaded to the rafters with stuff – tent, airbed, sleeping bags, equipment, food. I had my first guilty second thoughts – wondering why people bothered with all this effort, when it was just as easy to find a hotel or a cabin to hole up in.
We watched the weather fretfully as the day warned of gale force winds and heavy rain. The sky seemed to clear as we headed north, until, closer to our destination, it turned deep grey and it began to rain. We watched the trees anxiously to see how badly they swayed in the wind, which howled fiercely through the car windows. But when we arrived, it was dull but calm. The campsite’s location was idyllic: castles and coastline visible to both north and south, sheep grazing on a tumulus shaped hill to the west, trees and hedgerows surrounding us. Despite not being entirely sure of what we were doing, the tent went up efficiently and without any tantrums. We unpacked and arranged our belongings. And then…what? We had our den but what to do with it? We had our stove, but it took forever to boil enough water to make a hot drink. Fantasies of savouring cups of coffee in the open air began to fade, as it became clear how much effort it would take to make them. I wondered how exactly the Famous Five could rustle up hunks of fried bread, bacon and tomatoes enough for all of them on a small camping stove…
There was to be no sitting around the campfire telling stories – open fires weren’t allowed on the campsite and people, though friendly enough, kept to themselves. Between the lighted pathways and the full moon, there was little rural darkness to be enjoyed. I discovered the frustrations of trying to sleep in an oversized sleeping bag, with a slippery shell, which seemed to deny all efforts to stay put on the bed. The night was so cold that an icy breeze cooled my head and the dog was content to stay curled happily cocooned within a sleeping bag.
In the morning, the tent dripped with condensation. Outside, the weather was warming up to an extremely hot day. I’d had one of those sleepless nights that, despite your fatigue, you just want to end, but I was so tired, I was useless for the rest of the day. The heat inside the tent was thick and stifling. Outside, there was no shelter and I worried our dog would catch sunstroke. We’d camped for two days, between extremes of weather and it wasn’t quite what I’d imagined it to be. I did sleep under canvas, accompanied by the sounds of birds and sheep. I did eat sausages cooked on a camping stove and drink tea out of a tin mug. I watched hares leaping around the campsite in the early morning and absorbed wonderful views. But ultimately, the experience was, dare I say it…a little boring.
Our next camping trip is already planned. In September, we’ll be camping at a festival where scores of Border Terriers and their people gather together. This first trip was just practice for that bigger adventure. But my fiction writer’s perspective will be tempered by reality when I think of the trip to come, so perhaps it will be an adventure after all.