Why do people work all the hours God sends, then, when they finally get to take a vacation, insist on sleeping in a field?
I’ve never understood camping. Well, that’s not quite true. When I was 21 and impoverished, I cycled around southwest France with a girlfriend and found sleeping under canvas quite fun — not that we did much actual sleeping. But ever since my first proper pay packet, I’ve always forked out for a real bed. Why on Earth wouldn’t I?
So, for 30 years after that French experience I successfully avoided the many attempts to get me into a tent. The nearest I got was on my honeymoon, a safari in Tanzania, when, strictly speaking, my wife and I did sleep in a “tent” — but one with wooden floorboards, a four-poster bed, an ensuite bathroom, and room service. Which obviously doesn’t count.
As a result of this no-tent policy, every vacation, however disappointing, has, at the very least, been comfortable.
Then recently, out of nowhere, and to my horror, my wife accepted an invitation on behalf of us all (that’s her, me, and the children) to go for a camping weekend about 20 miles from our home in Kent with some other families. By the time I got wind of it, it was a fait accompli.
It was an appalling error.
My heart sank as soon as we drove into the campsite that first evening. The tent we’d hired (obviously we don’t own one) was what you’d expect: a large bit of canvas with a pole in the middle and thin sleeping mats spread around it. I immediately realized I had two sleepless nights ahead of me. But what made my blood run cold were the toilets and showers. At first I thought there weren’t any. Then somebody pointed to four small shed-like structures at the far end of the field, down a steep slope. I had to squint to see them.
“Them?” I asked in bemusement, picturing myself staggering half-naked across the field at 3 a.m., the worse for too much beer, spraining my ankle in a rabbit hole. When you’re used to a loo three paces away, it’s a shock to realize you’ll have to hike down a hill just to take a pee.
But even that was as nought compared with the trauma of actually visiting one of those sheds, which I immediately did out of grim curiosity. Not only was the stench overwhelming, but it hit your nostrils a good 20 paces away, increasing in potency as you approached.
That was as close as I got. I decided there and then to use the nearby woods for a No. 1 and drive home for anything else.
That first evening it dawned on me just what a different animal the experienced camper is. Out of nowhere, these little stoves appeared out of car trunks, along with fold-out tables and chairs, ice boxes, and all manner of gadgets to ease the pain of spending the weekend in a field. Before you knew it, these seasoned campers were preparing dinner for everyone and handing out drinks in a commendable display of communal spirit. For a few precious moments, I quite enjoyed myself.
Then something odd happened. As the sun started to go down, the temperature, which until then had been ambient, began to plummet. It quickly got down to around 45 degrees. This often happens in the English countryside in early summer, but it’s never troubled me as I always have somewhere indoors to go.
Marooned in this field, however, there was nowhere indoors within a five-mile radius. Well, that’s it, I thought to myself. We obviously can’t stand around here in the freezing cold. We’ll have to pack up and go home. Hard luck, everyone, but at least we tried. I started putting my things together and motioned to the kids that we were about to leave and that they should start saying their goodbyes.
But no. I looked around. Everyone else was carrying on as though nothing had happened. The sudden drop in temperature appeared not to have inconvenienced them one little bit. They weren’t even shivering. They carried on chatting in a most jovial fashion, oblivious to the fact that it was now cold enough to catch pneumonia.
“For God’s sake, just put on a jumper and stop complaining,” seethed my wife, sensing I was about to embarrass her. For a moment I considered rebelling, then thought better of it. I did as she said and forced a smile, amazed to see that everyone else appeared genuinely happy, despite the arctic conditions.
With the help of a huge quantity of beer, I managed to keep going until about 11 p.m., when I finally gave in to the need for warmth and headed to the tent, leaving everyone else, toddlers through to adults, to carry on with the party. Obviously, it was way too cold to get changed, so I crawled into my sleeping bag fully clothed, donned a woolly hat and a sleep mask, and tried to drop off.
The problem was that because the field was on a steep incline, so was my mat. No sooner had I drifted into unconsciousness than I found myself rolling violently downhill. This happened several times. So I tried wedging myself against the canvas, but that was like lying against an icebox. I changed the angle of the mat so that my head was further up the hill than my feet. But that was like trying to sleep standing up. I tried the other way round, but that was even worse, like being dropped headfirst out of an airplane.
Goodness knows how I got any sleep at all. I awoke feeling utterly disgusting, and still freezing. A shower was unthinkable, so I staggered to the communal areas between the tents to find myself being handed an admittedly delicious bacon roll by a perky chap who had clearly managed a solid eight hours followed by an invigorating early-morning run. The bastard looked like an advertisement for an energy drink.
Later that morning I concocted some outrageous lie to excuse myself for a few hours. Released from purgatory, I drove straight home, leapt into a steaming hot shower, had a change of clothes, and made myself a nice meal in the way God intended – in a modern kitchen. Then, sitting in my arm chair reading the Daily Telegraph, I briefly wondered if anyone would notice if I simply didn’t go back. Sadly, they would. A diplomatic incident would ensue. So, feeling terribly sorry for myself, I drove the 20 miles back to the field, bracing myself for another freezing, sleepless night.
Looking back, however, I now realize some good came out of it all. I appreciate my comfortable bed more than ever. I appreciate central heating, WiFi, armchairs, hot baths, TV, and books. I appreciate simply having a roof over my head. For 30 years, I took it all for granted. But no more.
But I also realize something even more important: it’ll be a lot longer than another 30 years before they get me in a tent again.