How to have a nearly-terrible camping holiday


camping bliss

If you are a seasoned camper like me then you will probably agree that a good campsite is one where reciprocal thoughtfulness between co-campers is the most important aspect. When all that separates you from the bunch of strangers next door is a thin piece of material and a windbreak if you’re lucky, consideration is required in truck (or camper van)-loads.

I have been fortunate enough to have had mostly excellent camping experiences, which is why we always go back for more. That and the lack of money to have any other type of holiday, that is. Of course there have been some nearly terrible times, such as discovering our tent wasn’t as waterproof as it said on the box during a middle of the night storm (we discovered also that a small childs first response to ‘Please don’t touch the sides!’ is to immediately touch the sides) and being kept awake ALL night by a drunken, guitar-playing Bob Dylan wannabe. These were annoying incidents but we managed to laugh it off and chalk it up to experience (and get revenge on the bastard with the guitar by allowing our child to wake him up at 6am).

My favourite nearly-terrible experience was when we went camping with another couple and their child to a beautiful, but expensive campsite just outside Bristol. When we arrived the woman owner walked us past all the family pitches into a separate field where she announced, ‘I’ve put you in the group field as you are camping in a group’. By ‘group’ she meant our two families: 4 adults and 3 children in total. When we asked if there would be any other ‘groups’ in the field with us she pointed to a convoy of 9 cars just arriving and said, ‘Yes, there’ll be the fifteen 16 year olds who are being dropped off by their parents just now’ and then legged it faster than Ed McKeever competing in a canoe slalom (local reference for our gold postbox winner).

Our golden postbox

We really started to feel concerned when the teens got out their ‘drinking gazebo’ and plonked it at the edge of our pitch. Rather than sit and watch the debauched teen drinking extravaganza unfold, it was decided we escape to Weston-super-Mare for the evening and have fish and chips on the beach. We were all dreading going back to the site and discovering the teens had gone on a drunken rampage and trashed our tents. But when we eventually pulled up in our cars to our pitches a couple of hours later, what we discovered was a group of kids standing in a circle throwing a ball to each other. Yes, they were playing a motivational game. It appeared the group of scary hell-raisers were some sort of Christian youth group. And appallingly, after that rather massive mis-judgement, it was us who stayed up untill 2am and disgraced ourselves with drunk and disorderly behaviour as a result of a rather nice bottle of scotch, whilst the teens went to bed just after their 10pm bible story held in the ‘prayer gazebo’ (not for drinking after all). We couldn’t look any of them in the eye the next morning, and I’m pretty sure I heard them praying for our children at breakfast.

This year we camped in France for the first time in our adult lives, and it was the most idyllic holiday. Camping in France is a totally different ball game to camping in the UK, mostly because of the weather but also because of the huge pitches, fantastic facilities and cheap wine. A campsite can offer so much for families, the chance for children to be sociable and disappear off with new friends allowing their parents to get stuck into the wine putting up the tent. Our pitch was next to the best pitch on the site, which had a totally unobscured view of a castle on a hill. Our pitch had a totally unobscured view of a tree and an enormous motorhome beneath it. But it was nice to know that if we wanted to see the castle we had only to step over next doors’ windbreak.

The castle on the hill

A number of things happened that were nearly-terrible but worked out fine in the end. For starters there was a family camping behind us who at 2pm on our first afternoon asked us to be quiet because they were sleeping. I thought perhaps they had a baby or a small child so apologised and we spoke in whispers for the next hour. When a teenager emerged from the tent stretching her arms and yawning I was a bit surprised, but I realised why she needed her sleep so badly when over the course of the next week she and her parents woke up for the day at 5.30am. Being only a thin sheet of material apart from them we often woke too as they didn’t bother to keep their voices down.

Next up was the dog who lived with the French couple in their caravan on the adjacent pitch to us, who kept escaping and sniffing around our tent. My daughter really doesn’t like dogs so I had to keep shooing it away. On one occasion I was cooking and it was trying to get to the food so I grabbed it by the collar and took it back to its caravan where the owners were having what seemed to be a party. As I walked in I announced to them and their 9 or so friends that their dog had been in my tent and they looked completely bemused which I thought was rather rude. I left it there and stormed back to our tent, relaying what had happened to my husband. It was then that I realised that instead of saying ‘your dog was in my tent’ I had said ‘your dog was in my aunt’. Cue total mortification and having to allow the dog to practically live with us after that as I was too ashamed to take it back again.

The third nearly-terrible thing was the huge shadow that was cast over us one sunny day as we were eating copious amounts of buttered pastry for breakfast. It seemed that half the campsite had been plunged into darkness. We looked up to see an absolutely colossal motorhome slowly reversing into the space behind our tent that had been noisily vacated at 5.30am that morning by the ‘early risers’. Emerging from the cabin was what appeared to be the displaced cast of Benidorm: man in a string vest necking a can of Stella, orange-tanned woman wearing a gold bikini and two bored looking teenagers sporting Union Jack T-shirts. Pretty much as soon as they started unpacking their loungers and lilos they had whacked up the in-cabin cd player with stereo sub woofer and were singing along to Coldplay. In one fail swoop they were threatening to destroy all the sense of peace and relaxation we had achieved over the last week. However we disappeared off for a stroll by the river and when we came back they were sitting quietly sunning themselves, and apart from a very annoying whistling habit the man had, they were incredibly quiet and respectful after that to everyone around.

In fact I was amazed at the amount of goodwill other campers seemed to have for one another. People smiled and said hello, leant each other forgotten items such as salt and washing lines, and allowed others to step over their windbreaks to view the castle.

The site itself was beautiful, overlooked by the chateau and with access to the Dordogne. I never got up once before 8.30am because the children were all running around with friends until gone 9.30 every evening. My husband and daughter did every croissant and pain au chocolat run and he had the coffee made by the time I’d managed to stumble out of the tent each morning. We were much more sociable than usual this holiday because we met up with various friends and family which was great fun.

The Dordgone

We also tried new things. Inspired by our local hero, Ed Mc`Keever’s Olympic gold medal we thought we’d do a spot of canoeing. It was quite expensive, but there were different ranges so obviously we went for the cheapest option. We set off on a perfect day, warm and sunny but just breezy enough so we didn’t overheat due to our exertions. The scenery was stunning. As time went on though it started to get quite tiring. We seemed to have been going for miles and it started to rain. The children were getting whingy and there were fewer other canoes on the river as they’d reached their finishing points. It took ages before we eventually came to our end point, which was the furthest one away. So that’s why it was so cheap. We did 14km, which I’m sure others would sniff at, but I’m not sure Olympic rowing or the coxless fours is for us.

before the exhaustion set in

I can truly recommend the French camping experience, it was a total pleasure despite the nearly-terribles. In fact those nearly-terribles are what make things so memorable and dare I say it, and though not at the time, amusing.

And now it’s time for some tips:

  • Make sure you do a test run of putting the tent up before you go camping for the first time. This avoids the nightmare of discovering a pole is missing or broken which can lead to a rather fraught ‘discussion’ between yourself and partner whilst you frantically search for something that will replace it and the children go into major meltdown because you’ve been driving for hours and its raining and they’re bored of watching you wrangling with a tent. We put ours up in the garden and it only just fitted but at least we knew which way round the door was so we didn’t end up having it open straight onto a neighbouring tents awning like last time.

    the washing line and garden shed are INSIDE the tent

  • Preparation is everything. There is an AWFUL lot to pack when you are going on a camping holiday. Whether you go for 2 days or 2 weeks there seems to be the same amount of stuff to take. A camping checklist is a very good idea, there is one here. There may be various competitive camping checklists doing the rounds which feature things like bell tents, bunting and a champagne bucket. Everyone likes some home comforts but there’s a fine line between having what you need with you and getting stressed-out by taking too much. The more you take, the more effort to pack and un-pack.

  • Dry the tent out afterwards. Even on a dry day the tent will most likely be damp from dew and inevitably you’ll be taking it down in the morning when you’re turfed off the campsite. Make sure you put it on the washing line or spread it out in the garage when you get home to get it properly dry for next time. If you don’t your tent will smell of old cabbages and may have started to rot by the time you unfold it for next years camping trip, not a great way to start the new camping season.

Child starting school? How to avoid having a nervous breakdown


About a year ago I discovered a valuable resource for my insomniac nights: the Mumsnet ‘Am I being unreasonable?’ discussion board. It kept me company during the wee small hours, with such subject matter as ‘AIBU to leave passive aggressive comments aimed at MIL on Facebook?’ and ‘AIBU to think it’s perfectly acceptable to have a zombie apocalypse survival plan?’. At around 3 o’clock one morning when I’d surrendered to the idea of remaining awake for the rest of the night, I came across a discussion about the perfect school. According to the thread, schools nowadays left a lot to be desired. Among the things that could be improved were: the employment of enough staff to help the children put their trousers on the right way round after PE; no rules about what goes into lunchboxes; the appointment of a school gate clique mediator; parents evenings to go on past 3.30pm; everyone gets to be Mary and/or Joseph in the school nativity, even if it means there are 65 of each.

I must admit that at that point my sleep avoidance was mainly caused by panic induced by my youngest being about to start school. I’d been dreading it since my oldest started two years before. It had not gone smoothly, he spent most of his first few months either at home, fidgeting and distracted during something called Carpet Time or hanging onto my leg and refusing to go through the door into his classroom. The Carpet Time debacle resulted in my having to endure the ‘walk of shame’ as his teacher beckoned me across the playground, past all the other parents for a ‘little’ chat’ on a daily basis. It usually went like this: ‘your son doesn’t seem to be able to sit still at Carpet Time, any chance you could have a word with him?’ ‘Hmm. I’ll do my best, but we don’t really do Carpet Time at home, so I’m not sure what to say to him’, ‘Does he get distracted at home?’ ‘Yes, he is 4, he gets distracted all the time, I tell him to go upstairs to get a jumper and he’ll come down with a tray of plasticine animals. He’s like a hair-brained pensioner’.

The dawning of school represents many things, your child growing up, becoming independent and spending more time away from you. I worried that all the freedom that was the basis for our days together would end. Before school, we could bunk off nursery for the day without getting into trouble or spend all morning in our pyjamas if we felt like it. Granted I had to work sometimes so this didn’t happen often, but the very fact that it could gave us a sense of freedom and choice. I couldn’t help but feel the children were being cruelly snatched away and forced into an institution all about training them to be obedient and wanting everyone to be the same. The fact that they had to be there every day, lined up at 8.40am and wear uniforms so they all looked like little clones didn’t help. It also represented the end of an era.

Now, a year on it is hard to believe how worried I was about my daughter starting school. She has just three weeks to go before the end of her first year and has absolutely thrived there. She loves learning and sits beautifully during Carpet Time. Her teachers are wonderfully creative and kind and bloody hard working. She has so much more confidence and energy than she had when she started. I wish I had known a year ago what I know now. But for anyone who is going through what I did this time last year, here are some tips to get through it the Stepford way:

  • Start worrying about school nice and early on, 6 months to a year before your child actually starts is about right. If you could also be the only parent to cry at her last day of nursery, making the nursery teachers feel awkward as you try to hug them in gratitude whilst sobbing all over them, then that will help too. It’s good to express your emotions. Spending so long dreading the beginning of september meant that when it actually came I really wasn’t too bothered. Unfortunately this made me look like a coldhearted, merciless harridan whilst all the other parents were waving off their little ones with tears in their eyes.

  • Have coffee with some other parents as soon as you’ve dropped them off, then you can commiserate together. Or better still, have vodka.

  • Remember, the school day is relatively short and the holidays are long. Nowadays when I get a rare day ‘off’ and I’m not working or cleaning the pit the house has become whilst I’ve been working, I spend the day at home and the school day is over in a flash. Suddenly it’s 2.30 and I’m dashing out the door to pick the children up.

  • Your child doesn’t legally have to be at school until the term after they are 5. Therefore if they have the odd day off, it doesn’t ‘count’ as part of their absences until that term. My son wasn’t 5 until the end of April of his first year and he was part time until january. We took him out of school whenever he was too tired to cope and the teachers were very supportive of this.

Good luck with the next 7 years!

Tales from The Shallow End

I  will  do  almost  anything  to  get  out  of  taking  my  children  swimming.  As far as I am concerned going within a half mile radius of a ‘baby pool’ is akin to licking someone with a contagious disease.  From the  changing room with  its hairy floors  to the pool itself where toddlers empty their bladders, it is just one big breeding ground of horror.

I think this phobia stems from an incident when I was younger and used to go swimming twice a week with a colleague. During the 6pm-8pm ‘adult swim’ I remember seeing a very hairy man at the end of the pool very definitely washing his armpits. The look of concentration on his face and the stream of filthy water dribbling from his under-arms was enough to almost put me off communal swimming forever. It also explained the rather stale tasting water. It took nearly six years to get me back into a swimming pool after that.

The next time I braved it was when my son was a baby and I felt guilt-tripped to try it out. Everyone in my post-natal group was going to our local pool which had been done up fairly recently. Despite it being in a rather rough part of town (there were three prostitutes outside selling their ‘wares’ that day) it was actually rather beautiful. A large, light open space with lots of big family changing rooms and a generous sized baby pool. However I’d underestimated the stress of trying to get a small, shout-y, reluctant thing into a swim nappy. By the time I’d got him ready for the pool he was hysterical and, as it turns out, plunging him straight into water the sort of temperature only polar bears would feel at home in, was a very bad idea. His lips quickly went blue and within three minutes I’d hoiked him out of the freezing waters and back in to the changing room.

I quickly learnt that if I thought it was hard trying to get a warm, dry baby into his swimming things, it was nothing compared to getting a freezing, wet and screeching baby back into his clothes. And all the whilst I stood shivering and cold in a wet swimming costume with my bare feet on the hairy floor desperately trying to avoid treading on a used plaster. It was then that the idea of ‘two towels for me, two towels for baby and one towel for the hairy floor’ was born. If I was ever going to get back in the water again I was going to have to hire a camel to carry all the towels.

Having dipped our toes into the English swimming pool experience, we decided to try the French version out when we were staying with my mum in the Limousin. We had two children by then and took one each to get dressed in the separate changing rooms. When we arrived at pool side we were met with the most almighty roar of noise. Every man, woman and child from the nearby 15 mile radius had decided to turn up that day. Just as we were edging our way past a group of 18 who appeared to be having some sort of family reunion in the shallow end, a man shouted ‘Non!’ at my husband. We were a little bemused, not sure what the problem was until we realised he was angrily glaring at my husbands swimming trunks. He shouted ‘Non!’ again and pointed to a picture on the wall next to the usual ‘No dive bombing; No heavy petting’ signs of a man wearing long trunks with a red line drawn across it. A quick glance around told us that in French swimming pools only the speedo, the thong and the skimpy posing pouch were acceptable modes of wear and the baggy trunk was complètement interdit.

Apparently it’s something to do with hygiene, your baggy bermudas could be bringing all manner of debris into the pool. My husband, however, would argue that pouring himself into an unfeasibly skimpy alternative could pose just as much a health risk by cutting off some much needed circulation. So we were forced to leave, and that was the end of our French swimming pool experience. And pretty much our UK one too.

So I have decided to stage a one woman boycott against swimming pools, as they’re clearly bad for the health. If you survive the freezing water, the bizarre rules, other people’s weird swimming habits and the exposure to some 30 different types of germs, the dirty floors will get you in the end. This boycott doesn’t extend to the children unfortunately, I’ll be spending every morning of February half term sitting pool-side watching my two learn the doggy paddle.

But may this post act as a warning. And if you do insist on taking the plunge, don’t forget the extra towel for the hairy floor (or the camel to carry it).

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