Spectator: The family camping trip

What follows almost beggars belief, but is, unfortunately, the gospel truth. Every year, there’s a family camping weekend during which the cousins get together in the water meadows, an event customarily kicked off by the erection of Uncle Barnaby’s gigantic, ancient army tent, which is a 10-man operation. Hay bales are procured, electric fences are put in place to keep out the cows, a gigantic fire is lit and several families bed down. I can’t pretend to be a natural.

We’ve had hot years, when we dammed the river to create a pool because we needed to cool down and we fought for shade under the alder tree. We’ve had wet years. And we’ve had years that were beyond wet, when the most useful tool was the shovel used to dig trenches round the army tent because that leaking dinosaur was in danger of subsiding into the mud and the roof got so filled with water that, when a tall person stood in the wrong spot, somebody else got drenched.

We have, in other words, seen the weather forecast and said pah. But not this year, I promised myself. ‘I am not, under any circumstances, prepared to camp in the rain,’ read my email. Nobody replied. We set off as the rain began to fall on the Friday before Hurricane Bertha was due to hit the British Isles. By the time we got to the water meadows, it was pouring, but with a car full of airbeds and duvets, bacon and rolls, lamps and pillows, we were already committed.

That’s what happens with camping which I tried to explain to the non-related family who came on one of our wettest years, when they (correctly) reminded me, as we passed the whisky between us as water dripped down our necks, that I’d promised we’d all go home if it got too wet. I’d bought a new pump for the airbeds, which plugs into the car, and, with the ignition on, inflates the beds in minutes a massive step up from the hand pump of the past.

Camping is a pretty chaotic business, especially when trying to keep things dry, so we were all busy running between tent and car as the light faded rapidly. When we returned, we found that somebody had locked the boot. And the doors.

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The realisation hit me harder than any weather front as I saw the keys dangling from the ignition where Fletcher the dachshund lay, warm, dry and yawning on the front seat. He’d stepped on the central-locking button. Again.

Last time, we called the AA, but not this time. It was too late, dark, wet, remote and frankly embarrassing. ‘Let’s smash the window,’ said Uncle Barnaby. Zam remembered the technique used by the expert at Easter and decided to simulate it. Instead of nimble tools and inflatable balloons, he had a couple of axes, some bamboos and a wire coat hanger. We spent the next three hours trying to find more tools with which to improvise. Eventually, tired, soaked and mindful that the battery would be flat in the morning (Fletcher’s welfare wasn’t mentioned), we allowed Uncle Barnaby to take a hammer to the rear window. At his ‘I’ve always wanted to do that’, we replied: ‘Consider it an early birthday present.’

We camped, had a blissfully sunny Saturday: owing to the gentle pace, camping is the mother of invention and two of the cousins created an excellent game called Toe Cup, which has many rules, but mainly involves grabbing a tin mug with one foot and hurling it over your shoulder. We ottered down the river on our arms, ate a lot of sausages and then we did what we’ve never done before we decamped because the forecast was abysmal and we’ve learnt not to say pah to the weather.

We were woken in our warm beds by a magnificent storm in the early hours of Sunday and patted ourselves on the back at the only sensible camping decision we’ve ever taken. Then, we remembered that we hadn’t yet taped up the car window.

* This article was first published in Country Life on August 20 2014
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