When I was a young child my family undertook intrepid camping excursions into the extremities of the UK. I don’t recall there being any such luxury as a camp site or a holiday park, or if there were we didn’t venture into any. We camped at farms. We’d meander along the lanes in my father’s old ‘Commer’ or whatever vehicle he had, until he spotted a likely farm, then he’d knock on the door and request a corner of a field for us. Whether we were ever refused entry I don’t know, but we always found somewhere to pitch up. We all had to help out with the tents, old ex-army structures, notably a bell tent in which we all slept, two adults and three children, around the central pole. This bell tent was reversible-snowy white on the inside and camouflage green and brown splodges on the outside. It was accessed via low tunnels-easy for small children but presumably less so for my parents.
My father was a little like Allie Fox in Paul Theroux’s ‘Mosquito Coast’, in that he hatched the ideas and liked to ‘go native’, pulling us all along with him. Once the tent was erected he’d take the spade he’d brought along and dig a pit for the toilet tent he’d specially constructed from four poles and some sacking. We slept on ex-army, canvas camp beds, the assembly of which was an acquired skill, and in ex-army, camouflage, kapok sleeping bags that my mother had cut down to size for us on her treadle sewing machine.
Cooking was executed on two primus stoves housed in biscuit tins-always outside, even in a howling gale. We ate and drank from enamel plates and mugs. Whenever it was deemed necessary for us to bathe we made excursions to local towns where we would find a public bathing house. You would be shown to a steamy cubicle and handed a towel and a small wafer of soap.
There were, of course, times when the weather was inclement [even in the summers of childhood]. Most farmers would take pity on us, allowing us to sleep in a hayloft or a barn or once, as I recall on the floor of a milking shed, where the concave channels for drainage made for an uncomfortable night. During periods of sustained rain we’d sometimes go to the cinema, a treat that would be followed up by fish and chips in a newspaper wrapper, consumed whilst sitting, all five of us squashed into a car with steamy windows. Occasionally the parents felt the need to visit the local pub and we’d be brought out bottles of lemonade and packets of crisps, since in those days children did not enter such establishments.
We travelled to Scotland, Wales, the Lake District, the Peak District, camped within sight of Ben Nevis, on the moors, next to pubs, next to rocky streams.
What a contrast the modern equivalent of camping is! These days I feel grumpy if there is no internet access, the water in the showers is less than piping hot or the electric hook-up fails. Even UK camp sites have managed to acquire the sophisticated facilities offered by continental sites. Some would say it isn’t ‘real’ camping if you don’t build an open fire or catch your own food but I’ll stick with the comforts the van provides, miniature though they may be!