Friday, 8 May 2009

Camping memories

I have been laughing my way through The tent, the bucket and me by Emma Kennedy this week. The book is an account of her family’s summer holidays in Britain and France in the 1970s. They started off camping in a force 10 gale on a Welsh cliff top and their annual holidays became steadily worse, encountering the horror of French hole-in-the-floor toilets, marital bust ups, road accidents, camping in a forest full of wild boar, many, many violent bouts of food poisoning and an ants’ nest the size of a sideboard.

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.

My mother, in Ireland, August 1985, wishing she was in the south of France with a bottle of wine.
I persuaded my parents to buy me a tent for my eleventh birthday and pitched it in the back garden each summer. The tent was an old fashioned brown one, the shape of a toblerone, which looked exactly as a tent should. I piled it full of books and toys and it became like a spare outdoor bedroom for me. Sometimes I slept in it, but just having it as a little, private playroom was usually enough.

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.


  1. camping - the marmite theory strikes again, love it or hate it.....
    I used to love it, but since the children, mmmmm not brave enough to cope with the potential whinging, it hadn't occurred to me they might like it!

  2. Your words run very true. I never camped as a child. My first experience of life under canvas was 3 extremely smelly weeks in Norway on a glacier. If you couldn't carry it on your back, you didn't have it. Extreme camping!

    But judging by the numbers of that book flying out of the bookshop, childhood camping is a shared cultural phenomenon for many!

  3. I love this post! I am a "pretend" camper, I enjoy it for a maximum of three nights, after which I must go home for a bath. My memories of camping as a child are all about my (still happily married) parent's terribe bad tempered and irritable arguments brought on by claustrophobia. I now realise that alcohol is the key to a relaxed camping trip.

  4. I enjoyed that book when it was on Radio 4. Your post bought back memories as we camped when I was younger aswell, maybe now we are older, maybe we should try Glamping! Glamourous camping.


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