When I think back on childhood camping holidays my selective memory brings back visions of days spent frolicking on beautiful sandy beaches and crabbing in picture postcard fishing harbours. Tuneful nights under the stars singing Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen classics around a cosy fire. Getting to know the great outdoors and rubbing shoulders with the wonders of mother nature.
In reality I expect it was more like days spent sat in the car looking out on beautiful sandy beaches whilst the rain came down like an Indian monsoon. Nights huddled around a calor gas camping stove trying to get a signal on the car radio whilst swatting away giant mosquitos. And being terrified at the thought of what creatures might be lurking in the dark, damp and stinking toilet blocks.
But when recently faced with the prospect of another outrageously overpriced package holiday abroad my wife and I decided to put our families happiness in the hands of the unpredictable British weather, brave the bugs and give camping a go.
It’s actually something we’ve wanted to try with our kids for a while, and the experience of our first holiday controlled by school term times was the kick up the backside we needed.
First up we had to get all the kit, and there’s a lot. Just look at any camping trip equipment checklist, it’s longer than our Sainsburys big shop till receipt! A bit of research into the best tents and some interrogations of our more outdoorsy friends led us to one of my favourite shops – Decathlon. If you’ve never been it’s like Hamleys for sport lovers. We proceeded to buy everything and anything remotely camping related and were shocked when it came to less than the price of return flights for a family of four to Paris.
Being a bit of a control freak, and remembering the ridicule and abuse that rookie campers used to get as they feebly tried to assemble their tents, I decided to have a dry run in the garden, alone. One of my better decisions!
Putting up the tent was no problem, partly because camping technology has changed since I used to help my dad put ours up, and because our tent had no poles, just three inflatable tubes that pump up in seconds. But getting it down was another story. After an hour of jumping up and down on the tent, rolling myself over it trying to extract the air, then realising I had left two of our new lanterns inside, I finally managed to squeeze it back into the tiny carry case. I’d learnt a valuable lesson and worked out a method to take onto the campsite to stop myself looking like a complete tit in front of my wife, kids and the rest of the campsite and reinforcing the idea of the stereotypical useless city dad (see Daddy Pig).
We were all now eager to get out and have our first camping trip. We wanted to ease ourselves in and make sure the kids weren’t allergic to nature! so booked a two night stay at a nice looking campsite near to Bexhill-on-Sea on the South coast, a couple of hours away and just £17 p/night. That’s more like it!
So on a Friday afternoon in June, once school had finished and every possible space in the car was filled with our shiny new camping equipment we set off on our adventure, Lampoon style. And it really did feel like an adventure. I’ve never been too keen on flying, and package holidays have never really got me excited, but this felt different. We were in control and not being herded like cattle onto planes, into coaches, to the buffet, back to the buffet, to the mini disco, back to the buffet. We needed to use our imaginations and come up with our own activities and itinerary. With a 4 and 2 year old it was actually really easy.
Once we arrived at the campsite my 4 year old, Leo, helped me put up the tent, in fact he pretty much did it himself, it was that simple. By 5pm we were sat outside of our tent basking in the evening sunshine, enjoying a bottle of cider and watching the kids as they went off hunting for bugs. Perfection!
Our first nights entertainment was provided by a group of three dads who spent from 6pm until well past 11pm trying to put up their tents. I watched on smugly, but felt really sorry for their kids when, at 10pm the youngest one who couldn’t have been much older than three asked when they would be having dinner. So much for not reinforcing the stereotype!
The next day was spent mainly on the beach, firstly at Bexhill-on-Sea which is a typical English seaside town with a nice promenade and pebble beach, which we had almost entirely to ourselves. The addition of the fabulous Art Deco styled De La Warr Pavilion gives the town a more alternative and artistic feel and hosts concerts and art exhibitions. Then it was on to Birling Gap, a National Trust site several miles past Eastbourne. This is a truly magnificent place with stunning views. If your kids are into rock-pooling and sealife it’s an absolute must. Be sure to go there at low tide and you can access a vast area of natural rock pools teeming with creatures. We collected crabs, sea anemones, a few shrimp and some limpets. If it wasn’t for the tide coming in we wouldn’t have been able to prise our kids away they were enjoying it so much.
All feeling exhausted but exhilarated we headed back to the campsite for the compulsory barbeque. A much better way of cooking when camping than trying to make dinner for four on a single gas hob, as we’d learned the previous night. (Note to self: get better cooking equipment for next trip).
The next day was our final day and my big test. Could I get the tent down like a pro? It was so close! It was all going smoothly, the tent was down and packed away in the tiny bag and I just had to get a couple of stubborn heavy duty tent pegs out of the ground. Armed with my new mallet / tent peg extractor, I went at it. I should’ve known that a £5 mallet would be about as strong as a paperclip, but pride overcame me and ignoring my wife’s advice to leave the pegs in the ground I gave it an almighty heave and ended up sailing backwards into a bush, flinging the mallet over my head and alerting everyone else on the campsite to my failure. The three dads opposite looked over and nodded knowingly!
That apart, our first camping trip had been an overwhelming success, the kids had loved every minute of it, as had my wife and I. The journey home was spent planning our next trip, deciding what extra equipment we needed and what of the stuff we had we could do without. Two days later it was all booked. A week in the Isle of White at the end of August, bring it on! But please don’t rain!!