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At the age of 65 I’ve decided to have one last throw of the dice and try a couple of nights under canvas. I used to do such things regularly as a boy scout and later on in my more youthful years.
The last time I tried such a wilful act of self-harm was about 10 years ago when I took my 15-year old son, Will, to Suffolk for a fun weekend – cycling and camping. It wasn’t. Well the camping certainly wasn’t.
At the age of 55 I quickly discovered that a yoga mat was insufficient padding for a good night’s sleep. Waking with an excruciating pain in my lumbar region there was only one thing to be done. I crawled past the prone, immobile, dead-to-the-world body of my torpid son, happily engaged with the land of nod and curled up in the front seat of my car. This was not much better, but at least my back thought it marginally so. Next morning I announced to the bewildered Will, that I was “not sleeping another night in a tent” and we cut the weekend short.
So what the hell has induced me to revisit the scene of my last hell-under-canvas? Well at 65 I have pretty well retired from the world of work. As an ex-teacher and outdoor educator I have filled my rapidly contracting working life since the age of 58, as a forest school leader. This can be a lonely existence – just you and the kids most of the time. You organise all sorts of activities for them to pursue in the woods and they have the time of their lives, climbing trees, toasting marshmallows on an open fire and roaring around the woods like headless chickens.
But all good things come to an end and the gulf between the 65 year-old and the 5 year-old grows wider annually. It’s not physical, I’m still pretty fit, but I think advancing years brings a craving for the company of adults, who normally don’t need quite so much attention. I suspect that the luxury of a pension also provides an excuse not to get up in the morning and go to work. So now I just work when I want to.
How does this tie-in with camping you ask? Well, being a Forest School leader is an occupation supported by a professional body – in this case known as the Forest School Association (FSA). I go along to the FSA local group’s gatherings twice a year, where I meet like-minded leaders (big children in reality) and we play games in the woods – just like the 5-year old children that most of us lead. One big difference is that most of the others are emulating charges who are a mere 20, 30 or 40 years their junior – not 60!
Maybe it is time to hang up the wellies? However, I decide upon one last hurrah and enrol on the FSA National Conference, which is only about 50 miles away near Dorking. The venue is a remote Outdoor Centre on the North Downs – High Ashurst. Maybe I’ll have a bit of fun mixing with my peers, especially old friends from previous working environments. We can chew over the cud, trade stories and to cap it all – I can try one last night or two under canvas. What could go wrong?
I arrive at High Ashurst to discover it could be on another planet – it is so hidden away, like some kind of SAS elite training centre. I arrive early and the place is swarming with kids, having the best time of their lives. They are in the process of packing up for the weekend, so pretty soon we have the place to ourselves – just 200-odd adult Forest School Leaders. I park my car and put up the tent, returning on regular occasions to collect the endless amounts of equipment that I think I might need. That’s the trouble with leading Forest School, you tend to take everything – “just in case”. Cool box full of food – I’m going the whole-hog and self-catering – changes of clothing, waterproofs, books to read in the small hours and my essential guitar – in its coffinous case.
It is only once I have filled my tent that I realise the tiny car park is now chocked full of cars. ‘Full’ means I am boxed in by at least 10 other cars. There will evidently be no escape from this particular training venue this weekend. I’m stuck here, so I’ll have to make the best of it and I won’t be able to go home early this time, even if my back doesn’t like it. However I do have one secret weapon to guarantee a good, comfy night’s sleep – it is the topper off our spare bed.
Rolled up in the back of the car, it is perhaps a tad bulky, but I can easily carry it the 200 yards to my tent. However I notice that the other 50 campers have no such apparatus, many sleeping on the naked earth, or even swinging from a hammock under a tarpaulin. I feel a bit fraudulent walking across the campsite with a rolled up mattress. But the fading light spares my blushes and I’m sure I make the solitude of my tent without anyone noticing the soft old fart with the double mattress under his arm.
All looks set for a comfy weekend, when it starts to rain. Camping can be fun I’m sure, although it has been a long time since I did it. However, camping in the rain does have its drawbacks. In the fading light I set up my Kelly kettle and brew-up, followed by a tin of cold sardines, a plate of cheese and crackers and a tin of cold rice pudding. It all tastes fine.
Where is everyone else though? Most have had the sense to take the catered-for option and are inside, in the warm and dry, having a hot meal. Softies! I finish my rice pudding and am joined by a young lady who is openly admiring of my fortitude. We spend a few minutes chatting while she has an illicit fag, before she too disappears inside to eat in the warm.
Before she goes I ask her if my old mate Jon is here, thinking that as the FSA Treasurer he is sure to be. I’m looking forward to having at least one other old fart to chat to over the weekend.
“No,” she says, “he’s in the Andes and has retired”.
“Bastard!” I think.
So I decide to cut my losses and join her and the 200 other delegates inside. As they all tuck into their three-course-meal and chat with old friends, I sit alone – like Billy-no-mates. Perhaps it is the smell of cold sardines on my breath?
I note that most are wearing coloured string around their wrists, which denotes which meal sitting they have been designated. I on the other-hand have been given a piece of beige string – which effectively says “skinflint, hasn’t paid for the catering, do not feed!”
The evening is supposed to conclude with a campfire and singing, for which I have brought my guitar along. I am hopeful that this strategy will help me earn the respect of my peers. Alas the wet weather has put the fire out and there is a general lack of interest in pursuing this option. That’s my chance to shine gone then!
It is now 9 pm and has been dark and wet for 3 hours.
“Bugger it!” I think and retire to my tent, in the hope of having a good night’s sleep.
Alas we are so close to Gatwick Airport that large numbers of jets pass just a few hundred metres overhead, every few minutes. Counting sheep is traditionally thought of as a good way of getting-off to sleep – counting Gatwick jets is not, especially with the thought that one of them could drop out of the sky at any time, on top of you!
The tent is probably 20 years old and untested in the rain. I can see water gathering along the seams. One particular wet patch forms into a large drop of water, which on falling to the inner tent becomes a light spray cascading onto my face. Above the tent an Ash tree canopy drips still larger drops, which make a loud impact, as do falling twigs, leaves and fruit.
“How long before I am lying in a pool of water?” I ask myself.
Someone in a nearby tent is snoring – like an elephant, whilst a pair of tawny owls are flying hither and thither. The female tawny owl is the most vocal of the pair, with lots of “keewick’s” (“twits” to most of us) and the male occasionally responding with a “tewoo” sound.
In the face of all this noise and the dripping from the trees, I decide to turn my torch on and read about the early life of David Attenborough. It transpires that he had not dissimilar problems trying to get to sleep in the South American jungle in the 1950’s. Well what’s good enough for the venerable David is good enough for David ‘Junior’ and I decide to have another shot at sleeping. Eventually, I am sufficiently tired to fall asleep, regardless of all the noise and the watery fate that awaits me in the morning.
In the early hours I wake and realise that I have a full bladder. This is one of the issues that most 65 year old men have to cope with, wherever they happen to be spending the night. Camping throws up additional logistical problems. I contemplate dressing and going out in the rain and mud, but decide on the lorry driver’s solution – a milk bottle.
Peeing into a narrow-necked vessel, whilst adopting a kneeling position, as your head brushes the wet canvas above, is not particularly easy – but in the end I succeed and crawl back into my sleeping bag. I repeat this activity at least twice more during the course of the night. The bottle is filling nicely and I wonder how I managed to store so much in my bladder when I was younger. I just hope I don’t mistake it for orange juice at breakfast time.
After each visit to the milk bottle, I have trouble getting back to sleep, particularly as the mattress topper is not as comfortable as I had expected. Further, the tent is only about 6 feet long, whereas I am 6-foot 1-inch.
By 7 a.m. my back is aching, as are my legs and I decide it is probably a good time to get up. At least I have resisted the temptation to retire to the car this time, so I am entitled to feel a modicum of elation. I don’t.
A visit to the centre’s showers restores my humanity and eradicates any hint of sweat or unwanted night-time odours. As I exit the showers I note that the smart people are all heading to the dining room for their breakfast. I soldier-on with my self-catering and manage to boil-up some water in my Kelly Kettle for a brew – with my bowl of Shreddies. Fully revived and well-fed, I feel a sense of pride – from having survived a whole night under canvas.
The rest of the day is wet, but at least most of the talks and workshops are indoors and in the dry. As evening sets in we all gather for a communal vegetarian curry – in exchange for a pair of new socks. I somehow didn’t get the memo about the socks, but I can’t understand why they would reject my offer of donating the ones I am wearing!
I take my veg curry into to the marquee, where a steel band is playing and I’m offered a place at a picnic table by one of my colleagues. As I sit listening and watching the band – jiving as they play, two delightful young ladies engage me in conversation. This is alas difficult – owing to the volume of the band and my age diminished hearing faculties.
I do however understand the words “would you like a drink of red wine?” accompanied by a gesture involving an open bottle of the stuff.
The donor of the wine seem a little taken-aback when I proffer my pint mug, so I quickly urge “just a little please.”
What a difference it makes to an outsider to feel befriended, especially an old chap – by two young ladies! We attempt to engage in conversation, but the noise of the steel band makes this nigh impossible. I think they must have adopted me as a kind of pet, or possibly because an old geezer at an FSA conference dominated by the young and female, is something of a novelty.
Eventually I have to confess that I can barely hear a word they are saying because of the music – alas my days of ‘disco chat’ are well behind me. I leave them talking to each other and take my dirty plates to be washed-up.
The remainder of the evening is dominated by a lively barn dance, which I get into with great gusto and a lot of perspiration. Being one of only a few available men in the room, I have little trouble getting female partners – which is rather gratifying. Most of the couples end up being unisex in form, with the role of ‘man’ invariably played by a lady. There is little doubt that an activity which involves two people contriving to coordinate their dance steps, is an ideal way for a relative outcast to become more integrated.
Strangely enough I am so energized by the dancing that once it is over, I don’t feel sufficiently tired to turn-in – so I go for a shower first. Despite all my dancing and abluting, night-two is pretty well a re-run of night one. The noises of the planes, the snoring, the rain and the owls continues unabated. Somehow though, I manage to sleep enough to feel almost human once again – come the morning.
One of yesterday’s workshops was about delivering Forest School to stroke victims, whilst another was led by three indigenous peoples of Canada. Both workshops highlighted the sense of isolation that disadvantaged minority groups can feel, compared to their mainstream counterparts. These two workshops are augmented by a further talk this morning about the isolation felt by autistic people, particularly children. All three contrive to make me feel pretty emotional and I have trouble holding back tears, especially because my nephew is on the autistic scale.
I realise that my relative isolation over the last two days has many parallels with this and I am appreciative of the experience. The shining light over the last 48 hours has been the genuine friendliness shown by large numbers of other delegates at the conference. This serves to illustrate how important it is for us to engage as much as possible with people living on the fringes of society.
That said, next time I go on a similar conference I will ensure that I dine with the other delegates, rather than trying to be self-sufficient. Further, I certainly will not be sleeping under canvas!