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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.