Many of the more vividly awful memories are reserved for their camping holidays. Camping does this to people I’ve noticed. There is something about childhood camping experiences, that shape (or scar, maybe?) the adult brain. You either went camping as a child and have nothing but idyllic memories of running barefoot across the grass and eating tubs of full fat ice cream made that morning by the local farmer’s wife. Or you all too vividly remember the tent being flooded in the middle of the night, while you slept in a Welsh valley, amongst sheep that kept you awake with their incessant bleating. You either long to recreate the pastoral camping vision for your own children, or you swore long, long ago that as an adult you would only ever holiday in something that had an accredited star system and a flush toilet.
I grew up with an obsessive love for quaintly old fashioned adventure stories by authors like Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I longed to take to the hills with nothing more than a knapsack full of fruitcake and apples, a jam jar with a string handle to catch tadpoles in, and a map. I would sleep on a bed of heather, under a conveniently placed gorse bush. My parents’ firmly rooted love of holidaying in remote gites in the far corners of France, during the pulsating heat of August, was disappointing in this context. There is not much scope for heathland adventures, when you are squashed into the back of a sticky, sweaty, Volvo estate with your siblings on the way to admire a medieval French bridge. For me, camping is both an adventure and a return to childhood – not my childhood, but the made-up, impossibly exciting childhood of books.
When I went to University, I bought myself a new tent. Tent technology had improved immensely during the 1980s and my new tent had bendy, fibreglass poles, an integrated ground sheet and remained dry when it rained. The week before my finals I packed up my tent and went out to the coast with a pile of textbooks. I sat in the sunshine and revised solidly for four whole days. When I came back to campus, the air of exam hysteria surprised me; I was calm and tanned and ready for the exams to be over and a life of camping holidays to begin.
A tent full of textbooks, Norfolk 1994.
And now I take my own children camping – giving them childhood holiday memories that will run deep in their psyche and give them something to aim for or rebel against. And it’s all I can do not to beg them to love camping as I do. I want to say mournfully “Don’t break my heart by renting a villa in Tuscany”, but of course that would be the quickest way to provoke them into doing just that.
I play it cool, take the children camping, and enjoy myself. And I keep my fingers crossed that somewhere, deep in their minds, they’re enjoying it enough to want to keep on doing it when they’re older too. And if they grow up to hate camping, they can always go and stay with their grandparents in a gite in a remote corner of France, while I take my tent up a Welsh mountain.