Friday, November 01, 2013

To All In Tents And Purposes

Thirty years after rivers of mud and piss dampened any enthusiasm I might have had for camping holidays, I find myself spending weekends under canvas and driving around in a camper van brewing tea and sleeping in fields. Let this be a warning to you: anybody could end up camping. You could be perfectly happy living under a roof, and all of a sudden, somebody has a bright idea and you've got a tent and a large collection of fold-away cooking equipment. And enjoying it.

Despite parental attempts to get me to enjoy the experience through signing me up to the Cub Scouts, I never really was a camping sort of person. So I'm not exactly sure how it started. One year we weren't having family holidays, then one year we were, every year.

Until I was nine, our holiday always consisted of me, my brother and my sister spending a couple of weeks in summer at our grandparents' house in Essex, while my parents did whatever it was that parents did once they got rid of three pre-teen children for a fortnight. Sleep, presumably. One year, we spent some time at Green Granny's house, but that was the exception. Summers were - as a rule - two weeks at Other Granny's and the seaside delights that entailed.

Important lesson in Coleman family history: Green Granny-Stroke-Grandfather were my mother's parents. They lived in a small village on the North Down coast of Northern Ireland. Green Grandfather was a former senior engineer at Belfast's Harland and Woolf shipyard, had overseen the installation of the power plant into some of our country's great WWII craft, and was industrially deaf as a result. Now their lives revolved around Helen's Bay Golf Club, nine holes of beauty where, as a teenager, a spoiled any chance I had with a local girl by laying out her father with a golf ball on the second green. Until ball rebounded off his head noggin with the distant sound of two halves of a coconut shell being knocked together, it was the greatest golf shot of my entire young life.

Other Grandfather was a former RAF man turned postman who lived cheerfully on the outskirts of the pre-fabricated concrete monstrosity that is Basildon in Essex. Even when we stayed there in the early seventies the pebble-dashed boxes on the nearby estate were on the verge of collapse, but Other Grandfather lived in a nice semi-detached with prize-winning gardens that were the awe of Laindon Horticultural Society. He had the cups and trophies to prove it, which I once sicked all over, mainly thanks to his home-made pea-pod wine. But mostly due to my inability to stop drinking it. I was ten.

In the tenth year of my life, the great change happened. We still got the two weeks in Laindon, with trips to the fleshpots of Southend, Clacton and Frinton-on-Sea, but our parents decided that we should spent a couple of weeks on holiday. On Holiday As A Family, All Capital Letters.

This is something that hadn't happened since (I believe) the early part of 1972 when we were living in Canada. For reasons I am too young to remember, the plan was to skip over the border from Vancouver into Washington state, and take a look at the Rockies, Seattle and whatever the United States had to offer. Sadly, all I can remember from that trip was being made to wait - bored - at a border post while US Immigration did what it does best - pissing off foreigners. Then there was a trip to Seattle, which was closed, and a trip up a mountain, which turned out to be a volcano that subsequently exploded. America, everybody.

The decision-making process for our 1975 holiday went something like this: Dad commuted to London by train every day. It was not the done thing to talk to your fellow travellers, so over a period of weeks, he managed to arrange a camping trip to Dorset with the chap who sat opposite him on the 7.02 to Paddington, presumably by coded messages hidden in the Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle. Through a series of nods, winks, hand-signals, and - I am reliably informed - two spoken words ("Tom's Field"), tents were purchased, dates were arranged, and on a July Saturday morning, nine people and a dog piled into two cars and headed to Swanage.

Already used to extensive beach holidays at the hands of Other Granny, who arranged days out to Frinton with military precision (even down to the requisitioning of unused beach huts, for which we left a pound note in the unsuspecting victim's tea pot), we made sure we were on the beach all the time, and not - for example - wasting our time skulking around tatty souvenir shops. In fact, much of the holiday was spent finding beaches that had no tatty souvenir shops, such was family distaste at the very sight of a building decorated with buckets, spades and plastic windmills. Tea rooms were just about tolerated, as long as there was no plastic tat. We were the kind of person who would have been ideal for one of Basil Fawlty's gourmet nights, if he hadn't have been such awful riff-raff.

We liked Dorset to much, we went to Devon the next year. 1976 was so hot that my brother's catchphrase that year was "There's a water shortage, you know", but we cared not because we were up to our waists in the sea most of the time, or climbing up cliffs with nothing to break our fall but the small children climbing below us, and ultimately spiky, painful rocks. That year, hardly anybody got killed by spiky, painful rocks, nor swept away by ten-foot rollers on beaches far from the madding crowd that had no tat shops, tea rooms, or any kind of facilities whatsoever. I appear to be describing some sort of ten-year-old boy's idea of an idyllic family holiday, which it was. But never fear - for tension, fear and loathing is not far away.

The following year was when it all went wrong and afterwards we seemingly divorced from my dad's commuting companion, whose family subsequently went on their own holidays. They remained best of pals, but not in the holiday sense, and I suspect that this was probably because somebody had decided to go to Somerset.

I've got nothing against Somerset, but anybody who knows the Mendip Hills knows they are probably the wettest area in the United Kingdom. Even when there's a drought elsewhere, it's coming down in a long, soaking drizzle on the Mendips, sapping any joie de vivre out of anybody who is foolish enough to pitch their tent. Ours were those old seventies numbers that looked a bit like houses. The only problem is that houses don't usually come with rivers whenever it rains, and huge family squabbles about who it was who touched the side of the tent and let the water in, I'm never bringing you ungrateful little sods on holiday ever again you just mark my words, you see next year you're all staying at home bored.

The long, soaking drizzle lasted the entire two weeks, and even on day drips down holes in the ground - Cheddar Gorge, Wookey Hole - there was water finding its way through the seems of my pac-a-mac. Everybody had the grumps, and when I pointed my camera at dad's commuter friend, he let me know in no uncertain terms where exactly on my anatomy he was going to stick it. For example, my anus.

Even my mum, who we assumed over the three previous years enjoyed perching on her knees and cooking on a camping stove that took an age to heat up anything, appeared to find the endless rivers of ditch-water and piss getting her down. Who knew? It's not like she said, every single day.

As a result. Dad's friends didn't come with us the following year, and they missed a doozy. Because Cromer's where I didn't realise that I was a gambling addict.

Cromer Pier: More action than an Alan Partridge film
And if that's not a cliffhanger for a sequel, I don't know what is.


Chaz said...

I went tenting on a classic motorcycle rally in the Mendips - it pissed down relentlessly. I remember the sight of oil from my BSA glistening on the surface of the gutter water, and the guy running the evening entertainment desperately trying to get biker chicks to get their tits out. So much rain, and the only answer was to get so stoned that I couldn't see.

Aah, memories.

Guy Rowp said...

Seems of pac-a-mac.
A pac-a-mac look-a-lac?

Keith said...

Very interesting post, well, it was more of a novel really. I can't understand why a normal, sane, red-blooded male would want to go on a camping holiday and be happy to suffer all the depredations and tribulations of living like a peasant when there are perfectly good hotels around with hot and cold running running chambermaids!

Keith said...

Sorry, there should be only be one "running" chambermaid in my previous post.

TRT said...

Why does Cromer pier look like some sort of crudely drawn comedy cock?