The French campsite was almost empty. It was early April and far too cold to be under canvas, particularly at four months pregnant. My overriding memory is the wretched sound of the zip as I opened the tent to step out into the darkness. I trudged back from the toilet block, cursing my bladder and my husband. In the morning he rolled over and said: “Are you ready to see the funny side yet?” I wasn’t. We booked into a charming B&B with an en-suite bathroom.
That was almost eight years ago and we now have two children but I hadn’t ever entertained the idea of a family camping holiday. My other half is much more outdoorsy so he was always keen, I however, just couldn’t see the point of swapping our king-sized bed for an inflatable mattress. Don’t get me wrong I’m not some spoiled princess who expects luxury holidays, I just like my home comforts. However, I surprised myself this summer by willingly going camping and, dare I say it, actually enjoying the experience.
Our tiny tent was not going to cut it so we bought a much bigger model with two bedroom compartments and a living space. We love a second-hand bargain and this was a bundle including all sorts of extra kit like a stove, storage cabinets and a washing line. It’s the ideal way of getting started without spending a fortune, especially if you decide never to go again.
At Easter we jumped on the bandwagon during the Covid-19 lockdown and camped in the back garden. After scoffing too many toasted marshmallows, the girls finally stopped giggling and snuggled down to sleep but I was seriously tempted to cheat and pop inside to my own warm bed. I resisted and it made me realise, reluctantly, that proper camping would be fun for the kids, even if I had to grin and bear it.
I started looking at advice online, compiled by other more savvy mums who had done it all before but the lists were endless and terrifying. A recurring tip was to pack a potty/bucket for emergency calls of nature. One woman admitted to having no choice but to wee in a saucepan in the middle of the night. What? We need to take saucepans as well? At least with a self-catering cottage those are provided, even if you still need to bring binbags and teabags. I was used to that level of packing but this was something else. Blow-up beds and pump, sleeping bags and pillows, camping chairs and table, lantern with batteries, stove and kettle with gas bottle.
We were going to need a roofbox. I had no idea that you could hire one so easily on eBay; we paid a guy £25 to borrow his for the week. Problem solved and a good little money-spinner if you’ve got your own to rent out.
We drove to North Devon for a four-night stay at Strawfields, a small campsite described as 'rustic' by the owners. A friend called me brave for going somewhere with no electricity. We arrived at the farm in glorious sunshine and picked a pitch in a quiet meadow rolling down towards a shady stream. The girls ran to see the ponies in the paddock and begged us to find the tree swings. I was immediately impressed by the tranquil setting and hugely relieved to find modern flushing toilets and nice clean showers with hot water.
I’d love to say putting the tent up was a breeze and took no time, but I was clueless so not much help at all. Fabric ripped and tempers frayed. We got there in the end and our temporary dwelling was pretty homely with all we needed and more.
The stove was a godsend. On the first morning, when I woke feeling chilly, my husband quickly conjured up a cup of tea, swiftly followed by bacon and eggs. He has never been so eager to cook breakfast and the children actually asked if they could wash up. There is something refreshing about eating al fresco surrounded by nature, but also the novelty of being waited on for a change with no need to load the dishwasher afterwards. Our makeshift fridge was a coolbag with a freezer at the farmhouse to store blocks in. It worked well packing a big tub of frozen bolognese to make one easy meal with pasta.
You could make do with a plastic picnic set but I’m glad we bothered to spend a tenner on a spare set of metal cutlery and a basic box of crockery.
We brought a cafetiere too. At what point does camping become glamping?
Even with sunny days, the temperature dropped sharply at night. Lying awake shivering is no fun so I kept cosy in pyjamas, a sweatshirt, a knitted headband and thick socks. I know, it’s a strong look and that’s before you add a pair of crocs. I slipped on the mud one day and ended up on my back but still wore those jeans again with the dried dirt.
When I looked through the photos and saw myself dressed like that, with no make-up, I cringed at the thought of posting the less than flattering pics on social media. In the moment though I just didn’t care; there were no mirrors, no expectations, it was liberating.
Every time we got in the car, I plugged in my phone knowing it wouldn’t have time to fully charge but I wasn’t using it much anyway. I devoured a whole book and wished I’d brought another to read. We didn’t take a tablet and the kids didn’t once say they felt bored. It was so good to know they were having a complete screen break and lovely to watch them roaming free, playing cards, drawing pictures and rarely squabbling.
On the final morning I felt heavy-hearted, knowing we had to take down the tent, sit in traffic, unload the car and do the laundry but also because I genuinely felt sad to be leaving that happy bubble. Once I had settled into that simple way of life for a few days, I could easily have survived a few more. Almost as soon as we were back under our own roof, the same-old routine resumed; I loaded the washing machine getting irritated by the sound of bickering over what to watch on telly.
If the rain had hammered down or the campsite had been grubby and rowdy, I probably wouldn’t have such a positive story to share.
We will go camping again as a family but I’ll choose wisely where to stay, remember what to pack and keep my fingers crossed for the perfect weather.
I doubt it will ever be my dream holiday but sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and leave the real world behind.
Written by Jill Misson
Jill is a freelance radio presenter and writer. She lives in Wiltshire with her husband and two girls. Their favourite family holidays have been in Devon, Pembrokeshire and Zurich. Before kids Jill travelled to more far-flung destinations including Cambodia, New Zealand and the Falklands.
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