Summer in a Tent

It’s been a tent themed Summer this year, with four camping trips made in as many months, (from May to August). Inspired by a dream of ‘getting back to nature’ and the idea of cheap and easy trips away, I set out to conduct a sort of camping experiment over the Summer, to find out the highs and lows of camping, what we need to bring and what we can leave at home, and how easy (or not) it really is when Mole and Hedgehog are involved.

It started with The Orchard Campsite in Suffolk in May, quickly followed by Braithwaite Campsite in Cumbria in June, Foxholes Campsite in Shropshire a bit later in July, and Town Farm Campsite in Buckinghamshire in August, about ten miles from where we live. We’ve camped next to rivers, on top of hills, at the bottom of hills, and next to drystone walls in valleys looking up at mountains. We’ve had weather from sweltering heat, to lashing rain, howling winds, to grey and mild sort of days, so it’s been the typical full cocktail of British weather, apart from sub-zero temperatures or snow.

Our first trip to The Orchard Campsite in May when the heat wave first kicked in, went surprisingly well. I was dubious because our last camping experience three years ago (in which the tent blew down in a hail storm in the middle of the night) was traumatic enough to make me not think about camping again until now. Mole was about 18 months old at the time and I was about to pop with Hedgehog. Mole slept through the entire storm in her sleeping bag, while her parents struggled with guy ropes and tent poles in the freezing blackness outside. We soon gave up and crawled back inside, to watch the tent slowly collapse on top of us, and crawled out of the wreckage in the morning. That tent went in the skip.

This time around, The Orchard Campsite was quite idyllic, complete with a little wood and a stream to keep your milk cold and go paddling in, plus a games room and glow sticks for the kids on Saturday nights. The weather was also perfect. The only downside was the campsite was a tad on the cramped side, and our awful neighbours who were five feet away, got blind drunk, swore at their kids and fell in the duck pond, among other things. By the time we realised that we’d camped next to the neighbours from hell we’d already pitched the tent, so promptly escaped to Aldeburgh beach to get some peace and shield Mole and Hedgehog’s impressionable ears from the vile language. We spent the afternoon flying our kite (which Mole watched with steely obsession while holding a tight grip on the line), eating ice creams (which Hedgehog got all over her, I mean from head to toe, I don’t know how she did it), and snoozing.

On returning to the campsite Mr M&H made BBQ squewers, bending over our single gas burner, chopping up vegetables and chicken pieces in the grass, (mental note to pack a double burner and chopping board next time). Mole ran circles around the tent singing the Frozen song, while Hedgehog crashed out on her sleeping bag, overcome with all the excitement and sweaty from the sun. We built our fire as the sun went down, and sat in an ever tighter circle around it as the cold night drew in. I was grateful for my poncho (an old blanket with a slit cut in it for my head), that I quickly realised was essential for being outside after dark. We didn’t bring a torch (another mental note), so we went to bed early as there wasn’t much else to do in the dark, but not before the glow sticks had been given out to the children from reception at the top of the hill.

Mole was enraptured with her glow sticks, she was probably more struck with them than she was with roasting the marshmallows, that she managed to burn her mouth on. I realised this was probably the first time I’d attempted to teach Mole and Hedgehog ‘fire skills’. Mole was very keen on helping to make the fire, fetching the wood for me and stacking it according to my instructions. We sat round our fire in a hypnotised trance as the stars came out over our heads. There followed a freezing night in our sleeping bags, with a couple of quick scampers round the back of the tent for night time loo stops. At 6am I emerged for a final loo stop, to meet the orange dawn light, the chorus of the birds and a low lying mist that covered everything in a white blanket.

On our second day the neighbours from hell were mercifully silent. They all seemed to be hung over, thank god. We spent the day relaxing on a blanket in the shade, reading and swimming in the stream. Mr M&H took charge of the cooking, while I washed up and got distracted playing ping pong with Mole in the games room. She was pretty good considering her nose only just reached the table top.

That night, Mole was pining for her glow sticks, which had by now run out of juice. She caught sight of the family next to us (in the other direction) having a disco with their children under a gazebo, complete with glitter ball. So after spending about half an hour saying “I want that boy’s glow sticks” and asking us to come with her, Mr M&H took her by the hand and asked if she could join the party. Mole stood shyly on the threshold until a little girl took her hand and drew her under the gazebo, and that was the last we saw of her for three hours.

The following morning, Mole continued playing with her new friends, disappearing with them into the woods, while Hedgehog sat on our laps and fondled our ears in her cuddly way. The noisy neighbours seemed to finally relax into the swing of things and had an entertaining game of cricket with their children, before leaving in a convoy of cars.

Encouraged by this relative success, the following month we went further afield to The Lake District and camped near Keswick at Derwentwater. We had intended to stay at Chapel House Farm Campsite, but our sat nav took us down the wrong lane at the last moment, and we ended up going past a handwritten sign which read ‘Braithwaite campsite’. By this time we were too tired to keep driving, so we pitched up next to a dry stone wall and got settled in. It was the next day before we figured out that we had indeed gone to the wrong place, about 200 yards from the right place.

Anyways, this place was a little cheaper, and a bit more wild / basic, which we liked, so it really didn’t matter. It is so wild in fact that it doesn’t have a website. The farmer would routinely come round on his quad bike to collect cash (£5 per adult per night, children free), which was really just a rent for using his field, because the only other facilities were some water hoses, a stone built toilet block and a couple of washing-up sinks.

The week was HOT. So hot that by 8am the tent was like an oven, where upon I would tie a sheet across the guy ropes at the front of our tent, to give us some shade in which to have breakfast, and stop us all from melting. We would usually go off to Derwentwater or Buttermere for the day, and by the time we got back in the late afternoon, the sun had moved round to the back of the tent, and we got some shade relief by our porch again.

For activities we kept things as simple as possible. Our days mainly consisted of taking a picnic to a lakeside beach point, lazing under a tree for the afternoon and occasionally taking a swim. I’d say my favourite thing to do was swimming in the lake. I love wild swimming anyway, so taking off into the wild blue yonder, moving through the black water, surrounded by forests and mountains on all sides, was like something out of Swallows and Amazons.

Mole and Hedgehog would follow me and watch from the nearest rock, before losing interest and going off to find a ladybird, or a stone, or a leaf. Mole and Hedgehog needed amazingly little all week, aside from each other. They just found their own stuff to do. Their favourite games were skimming stones, singing Disney songs at the top of their lungs, running around the field doing cartwheels, and giving other children the thousand yard stare.

The one day we ventured into Keswick with its markets and shops, they got the ‘I want’ disease with such force, that after two hours we escaped back to the lake. Shops seem to have disappointment built into them. You end up saying “No” 100 times, and the whole thing gets exhausting. The one thing we did buy was a birthday cake for Hedgehog, who was turning three. Interestingly she chose a pack of Mr Kipling cakes, I think because of the pink icing, so we used three of them to put candles in and did a birthday song back at the tent. She was sweetly shy about the whole thing. Mole would shout “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” and Hedgehog would reply with a bashful “Thank you” while twizzling her hair and looking away.

Evenings were generally spent visiting the river which ran past the campsite, and offered lots of exciting opportunities for wading among the rocks, skimming stones, and general romping about. There were some tree swings by the riverbank too, that Mole got addicted too, and a waterfall with plunge pool a little further up. This was just about deep enough to swim in, so I took full advantage of it. The only downside was that we all got eaten alive by the midges. Who knew that we would need insect repellent for the North of England? But apparently, we did.

While the wild surroundings were great, during this trip I learned that in terms of comfort; Sleep, Food and Fire are the most important things to get right. While I was happy to go Japanese and sit on beach mats on the ground rather than squash the camping chairs into the car, I definitely did need a blow up mattress and pillows in order to get a good night sleep, so this went on the list for next time, while Mole & Hedgehog got our much flatter, self-inflating mattress, which they seem perfectly happy on. Our biggest problem with food was storing the perishables safely in a hot tent with no fridge facilities. In the end we solved this by doing daily grocery shops for dairy and avoiding meat altogether for the week. Finally, this campsite had a rule about only having raised fires, and not having a fire pit of our own, we didn’t have a campfire all week. This did make us feel a bit depraved next to the other campers, who could extend their evenings and also keep the midges away with the smoke, so that went on the shopping list for next time too.

After this came Foxholes Campsite in Shropshire, about 2.5 hours from us, and was picked mainly because it was a convenient half way point on the way to Granny Purple Hair’s house in Wales. The Knight in shining armour standing on the roof battlements of the owner’s house gave me a good feeling about the place straight away. The campsite itself was set on the brow of a hill with 180 degree views towards Offas Dyke and the Shropshire Wolds.

Mole and Hedgehog discovered a pathway that led into an adjacent cornfield within ten minutes, and disappeared for about an hour. After myself and another mother went looking for them, we spotted two little blonde heads bobbing along in the corn, in the middle of a hide-and-seek game, looking very pleased with themselves. We used our fire pit on legs for the first time, I did morning yoga on my mat while contemplating the Shropshire Wolds, and Mole and Hedgehog found the dressing up box in the games room.

The next day we took the footpath across the fields into Bishops Castle, where we found some cafes, book shops, and a play corner in the church that Mole and Hedgehog wanted to stay in all afternoon. At this point we started to feel like we had the whole camping thing sussed. I’d honed the packing list to the optimum number of items to ensure camping comfort while not overloading the car with unnecessary stuff. It also helped a lot that Hedgehog potty trained during this time, meaning the usual bulky bag of nappy supplies got replaced with a potty, which we positioned at the back of the tent and she would toddle round to it whenever she needed to. Mr M&H and I were practiced with putting up and taking down our poly tunnel shaped tent, which we could do within the hour.

We got more relaxed about the rules too, in a good way. For example after Cumbria we’d started to get lax with Mole and Hedgehog’s bedtime, discovering that time takes on an abstract quality when you are camping. With all the outdoor living, your clock gets guided by the daylight hours, so that it’s quite easy to think that it’s 6pm when it’s in fact 9pm. When we did try to enforce the 7pm bedtime, the usual result was lots of protests and running out of the tent, or climbing into our bedroom to bounce on us and try to wriggle into our sleeping bag. Mole would get quite teary and insist that she wanted to stay up to see the stars. When we let them do this, they would generally fall asleep in our arms as the first stars came out, and have no energy left to protest when we put them to bed.

But we’d not been tested by any real adverse weather yet. This came later.

At Town Farm Campsite, we pitched up under the shadow of Ivinghoe Beacon, which is just down the road from us, for my birthday weekend. The facilities were similar to Foxholes, but the views were not as stunning, as we’d been placed in a field at the bottom of the hill. It rained for the first time, but hearing the sound of rain on canvas as we cosied up together in our sleeping bags felt very cosy. We were tempted to stay inside all day, reading and eating chocolate, with Mole and Hedgehog running rampant circles around us and acting out games with their dolls, but we thought we had better go out somewhere, so we headed out to the Natural History Museum in Tring, the nearest indoor place we could find. It seems everyone else had the same idea because the place was heaving, and Mole went into whine mode, tugging on my arm and pulling me around all the exhibits on an urgent quest to reach the shop. After she descended into tears because we refused to buy the shop for her, we decided to escape back to the tent, only to find that it had blown down. Yes, blown down.

With Mole and Hedgehog sheltering in the car, we assessed the damage. It was not good. Half the tent was flooded and most of the poles were broken. After making the decision to pack up and go home, we then spent an hour in the pouring rain and wind, struggling to take down the tent. It nearly blew over the hedge into a potato field at one point, threatening to take us with it. We descended into hysterics, soaked to the skin, yelling instructions to each other over the wind, and scurrying backwards and forwards to the car. Meanwhile Mole and Hedgehog sat like little queens in their car seats and said things like “Mummy, can you shut the boot please, it’s getting a bit cold”.

We finally got everything in the car and skidded our way out of the field, flicking mud everywhere, while I died of embarrassment in the passenger seat, hiding my face from the onlookers. There were a number of other blown down tents around, which did make me feel a bit better. I noted that all of them, ours included, were poly tunnel shaped, which got me wondering whether this design with the bendy fibre glass poles may not be the best one for standing up to wind.

Later that day, showered, warmed up and recovering with chocolates and wine, I researched tents online, and discovered that the bell tent, with its solid wooden poles and tipi structure, all had good reviews in terms of strength and wind resistance. They also look similar to the roundhouses from the Stone age, that must have been tried and tested to stand up well in all kinds of weather.

So, with Summer at an end, having saved our canvas in the shed and chucked our splintered poles in the bin, it seems this may be the end of camping, for this year at least. I’ve learned that camping can be unpredictable, even when you’re prepared, but that is part of the fun. It’s probably the best way of having a low cost holiday, if you don’t mind a bit of physical work, and definitely the best way to immerse yourself in nature. Mole and Hedgehog needed nothing more than each other, a couple of their favourite toys, and their imaginations to occupy themselves all day. Mole got involved with the cooking and making the fire, while Hedgehog worked herself up into a singing fever, and would rush out of the tent to serenade any passer by with the full force of her passion.

It made childcare very easy, even easier than at home because there was so much less stuff to clean / tidy / take care of. This meant more time for directly playing with them. Our mornings of Mr M&H playing rough and tumble with them while I relaxed with a book in my sleeping bag or took the chance to snooze were some of the best moments we had. So was sitting out under the stars by our fire, smelling of wood smoke, pointing out the planets and the constellations to Mole, gazing at the full moon and spotting bats flitting around in the darkness. There was never a shortage of natural things to occupy and fascinate them. Watching their excitement and wonder at it all was priceless.

It looks like experiment #2 for 2019 will be camping with a bell tent, maybe.