June 21, 2010

The Great British Camping Experience

It happens in every Brit’s life. A sudden uncontrollable urge to pack the wife, kids and dog into a camper van, preferably an unreliable old VW camper or a white transit van, and head off to the wilds over the holiday weekend for a spot of camping. Perhaps it is a form of madness brought on by the first rays of sun following the misery of a cold, wet winter and equally cold and wet spring. However, having lived all your life in Britain, surely you are aware that the summer is just as likely to be cold and miserable?

Apparently not. There seems to some eternal optimism that this holiday weekend will be the one where it stays dry, despite forecasts and statistical evidence. This is further exacerbated by the fact that last weekend it was hot and dry. It’s just a pity you picked this weekend instead of that one.

With GPS commonplace these days, at least the first hurdle of actually getting there is usually relatively stress- free unless of course getting there involves Britain’s largest outdoor car park, the M25. The next challenge is getting the tent set up.

Hold on a minute, the first challenge is actually finding a good spot to set up the tent. Because just like you, everyone else thought this would be a good weekend to go camping and the campsite looks more like a refugee camp than a campground. Well, a refugee camp for pale, overweight Brits at least.

Having managed to find a spot between the couple with six kids and a crying baby and the dozen lager-swilling students, you can now proceed to set up the tent. Possibly in the dark if the TomTom directions were a bit off, and almost certainly in the rain. And then you find that the batteries in the torch are dead and you are short three pegs. Luckily the couple with the kids have a hammer and the drunken students won’t miss a couple of pegs from their tent.

With the tent set up and the van unpacked, next thing is food. If you are lucky there is a café nearby or even onsite. If not it’s time to fire up the barbie. Normally, even the least outdoorsy type enjoys cooking under the stars. Except you have been on the road for four hours and then had to set up the tent in the rain. Oh, and it’s still raining. Never mind, fortunately you have that British camping staple: a tin of beans with those little hot dogs in them. They would be a lot nicer warm but your kids are getting rebellious and so is the missus. Better luck tomorrow.

For now to bed. Assuming that you managed to keep everything dry in the van, you can tuck into bed. But better go to the toilet first. Initial impressions of the toilet block are promising. Separate men’s and woman’s loos and shower facilities and a place for doing the dishes. It’s even pretty clean and there’s loo roll in the toilets unlike that place you went to the other year.

Curled up in your sleeping bag you realise that it gets pretty cold under canvas. Freezing cold in fact. The only solution is to put on pretty much every article of dry clothing you have with you. Two t-shirts, a fleece, jogging pants and a pair of woolly socks. If it gets much colder you’ll be going to bed with your hat and gloves on.

The students pass out about four in the morning and you finally nod off despite the cold only to be woken by the baby on the other side. And then it gets light. With dawn comes the full horror of your situation. There are tents as far as the eye can see in every direction. Where the hell are the loos from here and how are you going to get the car out to go sightseeing.

Coffee and a warm breakfast takes the edge of the drizzle and the forecast is looking up along with your mood. But the first signs of trouble can be seen at the loos. Most campsites seem to be set up to handle roughly one-third to one-half of the number of campers currently staying there. Today, it just means a wait to use the bathroom and showers. Tomorrow will be a different story.

The rest of the day is spent sightseeing, having successfully negotiated the car out of the campsite without running over any tents, dogs or children. Weather permitting some of this may even be in the open air, although most likely most of the day will be spent keeping out of the rain in the nearest café.

Six lagers or a bottle of wine, or both, and an extra jumper help you stay warm and get a decent nights sleep. But disaster has struck. Either the toilets have backed up, the hot water is cold or there is no water at all. Possibly all three, and the toilet paper is out too. So that means no shower and while the boys can go in the bushes, the ladies in your party are less than happy.

Even worse, the wood is damp from all the rain so even when you get a fire started all you get is smoke. And although you were smart and brought the little camping stove, you forgot the spare gas canister so soon even that has run out. Along with your patience.

Next morning, wet, cold and smelly you finish the last of beans and start packing. Of course, the wind has now picked up and you have to wrestle a tent that thinks it’s a kite while struggling to get that last peg out of the ground. Hell, it should be easy. You are practically up to you knees in mud, so why won’t this last one come out. Finally someone helps you, making it look easy, while the kids and wife glare angrily at you from the comfort of the van.

Your first attempt to get the tent back into the bag fails miserably. It came out of that bag so why wont it go back in. It takes another two attempts to get the damn thing back in the back. Without the tent poles or groundsheet. You are sure these things must be packed by industrial robot in a vacuum.

Only an hour after you are supposed to leave the campsite, you are finally on your way. Well almost. There is still one final ordeal to undergo. Getting the van started again. If you are in VW this is guaranteed not to happen, but at least you might be prepared for it. After all you had the heater and radio on most of the weekend while sheltering from the rain. But you never ran the engine. A friendly neighbour who had the same problem last year finally offers to help you out and you are on your way home to a warm shower and bed.

At least until next time.