Tented Travels 2. Early Days.

Looking at old photos from our 90s camping expeditions, it’s easy to assume that the sun always shone, that nothing ever went wrong, that there were no problems to overcome. The trips were lengthy [as they often are nowadays, too], we needed to work out where campsites were, public transport options, timetables, routes. There was no internet to consult, no smartphone to rely on, no holiday ‘rep’ to ask, no coach tour. We relied on publications like ‘Rough Guide’, which were ground-breaking in their day, as well as atlases and local tourist information.

A photo of that first, thrilling trip to Italy in my ancient Volvo with a roof-rack [which I’d been lucky to pick up at a local auction] shows a typical scene-pitched up old frame tent on a sunny, pine dotted site, a glimpse of the bikes [useful for local shopping and for leisure rides], a towel draped over a wing mirror. I’ve no clue where we were at that point, but I’d guess at the south of France, since the scene could be any one of hundreds of sites in that area and we’ve visited or passed through more there than anywhere else.

Back then our trips were confined to the long summer holidays, when we’d have the time to go long distance and forget about the stresses of our busy teaching jobs.

I do remember wandering around Monaco [my second visit] and pursuing a mission to get Husband’s passport stamped. This was something I’d got on my first visit and was heartily proud of, a piece of bureaucracy long since abandoned. We travelled via both the French and Italian Riviera, taking a look at St Tropez, Juan les Pins, Nice and Cannes en route.

That time, we drove as far as Viareggio, on the Italian west coast, stopping at a site belonging to an eccentric collector of vintage cars. We spent some time on the beach, as well as making trips to both Florence and Pisa. In those days I’d need to sleep a great deal to get over the long summer term of teaching I’d had and had perfected the art of beach snoozing, despite it leading to unsightly dribbling and snoring.

In one of those bizarre coincidences we happened upon one of my daughter’s school friends as we walked past a row of tourist stalls on the way to the Ponte Vecchio. She enthused to us over the array of tourist tat on display whilst standing with her back to Florence’s famously beautiful bridge with its umber and pink hues, straddling the Arno river. Walking across makes you think of how London Bridge must have been when it was similarly lined with shops and dwellings, their overhanging eves almost meeting in the middle.

We managed to be photographed in front of the leaning tower at Pisa without feeling obliged to pretend to hold it up. I suppose a passer-by must have taken the shot, since this was long before the ‘selfie’ era [regular readers will Know I’m not a devotee of the selfie cult].

So with very little in the way of swanky equipment we’d embarked on what was to be a long [and continuing] series of European tours, with many adventures thrown in!

A Take on Transport

I used to love driving. I was late to learn, at 25, pootling around Putney in south London all of one cold, dark, snowy winter in the evenings after work, with my British School of Motoring instructor. My steering was unorthodox, he told me and said that I should have some lessons in daylight since I’d only ever driven at night.

I passed my second test, at Teddington-a place I knew no more of than Guildford, where I’d failed 2 weeks before. Then I acquired my little old, faded green Austin A40 with a steering wheel like a bicycle wheel and doors that stuck and had me crawling through the hatchback to enter and exit. But I was ecstatic to be independent at last.

Throughout the early years of motherhood, when there was only one family car, the independence was gone with the vehicle and I was reduced to shank’s pony, pounding the streets with a mewling sprog in a pram and wondering how it had come to this?

In the single-parent-working-full-time years I regained some autonomy with a battered Volvo and could load kids inside and camping gear on the roof rack in the holidays or collect bits and pieces for the ramshackle home I’d purchased and was attempting [on evenings and weekends] to do up. I loved to drive. I enjoyed long journeys-even when it took 9 hours of traffic jams to get to the Kendal home of friends I been invited to for a weekend.

Somewhere along the years to old age however a gradual falling out of love with driving took place; not that I won’t or don’t drive, but I’ve come to appreciate other modes of transport, becoming a fan of buses, especially with the gaining [finally] of my pensioner bus pass. I’m not the only bus-pass-holder to take a child-like pleasure in gaining the front seat on the top deck, either…

Then there’s the train, where a ‘seniors’ railcard gives a worthwhile discount. Of course it isn’t as glamorous as it was when I was a child, when you walked along the corridor and slid open a door to a compartment, but if you are lucky enough to get a seat it’s possible to drift into a reverie and gaze out; or listen to others’ conversations [real or phone]. These days train travel can be a frustrating and tiring business, as we found when, having travelled, 2 weeks ago, 4,000 miles by air through the night on a trans-Atlantic flight to Gatwick, arriving at 5am, all the trains south towards Southampton and beyond had been cancelled ‘due to signal failure’. Lovely. Just what you’d wish for after an 8 hour night flight.

On flights, ferries, trains and buses, where someone else has the responsibility, I think the trick is to sit back and relinquish control. Watch the movie, look at the view, listen to the conversations, read your book. Better to travel hopefully [and also to arrive!].