Tales from the Campsite, 4

Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm is set on a Lake District campsite. I thought I’d share with you some of my own camping adventures – and misadventures!

Fire, Wind and Water.

None of the above are exactly what you want to encounter in a campsite. I have to say that over the years, I’ve seen all three. Thankfully the fires (two of them …) were at a distance and nobody was hurt, the flood was on a beautiful sunny day, and when the hurricane hit there was a barn to shelter in … however, I do wonder why after all that I still own a tent thirty years later!

Hurricane Charley

The hurricane came first, I can even give you the date – it was 25th August 1986. This was on one of my last camps with the Girl Guides. It had been a beautiful, sunny week camping in Goathland; utterly idyllic, sun blazing every day, until the day before we were due to go home. There were rumours of a storm – the farmer warned us. It was in the days before storms routinely had names in the UK, but this was Hurricane Charley, direct from the USA. When we went to bed that night, following the Guides’ motto of Be Prepared, we had ‘storm lashed’ our tents, made sure all the tent pegs were secure and double pegged the guy ropes.

Part of our camp, before the storm.

An hour or so after we had gone to bed we were woken by the sound of steam trains in the valley below our camp. Now, it wasn’t that unlikely, as there was actually a steam railway in the valley below our camp and we’d been hearing day-time trains all week, but there weren’t any trains running at midnight on a Sunday. It was, in fact, the sound of the wind in the trees. The wind was starting to make the tent heave and flap (and when canvas tents flap, they don’t do it quietly.) The ropes started to strain. We started to feel nervous. My group decided to sing, as we weren’t going to sleep at any point soon. We thought it would take our minds off the storm but it didn’t!

Suddenly, over the noise of the trains there was a loud crack. A guy rope on one of the other tents had snapped – however, on the plus side, the pegs that we had hammered in so well earlier in the day hadn’t budged an inch! Peeping out between the lacing at the front of the tent we watched the bobbing torchlight as the leaders battled to make a repair to the broken guy rope and then scurried back into their tent, now lit up like a lantern from the inside. It was comforting to know that we weren’t the only ones awake in the storm.

Image by Droma Xu from Pixabay

The wind wasn’t subsiding at all, and at some point, the rain started to fall too. We had to stay away from the heaving tent walls, or we knew that the canvas would start to leak. However the wind battering the camp caused the water to start coming through even without our help. It was like a gentle drizzle falling inside the tent every time it shook. All around us were the vast open moors and the wind came screaming across them. Our tent was starting to feel very small and flimsy amidst this mighty force of nature.

We began to hear voices in the other tents. Some of the younger girls were audibly upset, and the leaders were in-and-out of the tents making sure everything was all right. It wasn’t. Not long before dawn there was an anguished cry from one of the other tents that their ridge pole had snapped and their tent was falling down. These were sturdy wooden ridge poles, of about 6 or 7 cm diameter, secured with hefty metal sleeves. Nobody wanted one of those falling on their head.

It was time to admit defeat. The farmer came to offer help, and we relocated to his barn for the rest of the night and the farmer offered the use of his phone to start the ‘phone tree’ (this was in the days before mobile phones!) to alert our parents to our plight. In the grey pre-dawn gloom we trailed all our belongings from the tents up to his barn. The leaders struck the damaged tents and pinned them to the ground with the guy ropes to try and save what was left. In the first light of dawn, as the winds and rain started to die down, there were two tents left standing out of the six or seven there had been the previous night. I have to admit a certain smugness to note that one of the standing tents was ours – all down to our superior pitching skills, of course!

Image by jatin verma from Pixabay

That night made its way into Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm over thirty years later! The night before the two families are due to pack up and go home, the weather forecast starts to suggest that they might be in for something of a wild night. If you read the story, you’ll recognise a few key incidents from that storm of 1986. It was a night I have never forgotten, and my first real experience of how vulnerable you feel in a tent when surrounded by the forces of nature. My first experience, but not my last …

Tales from the Campsite, 3

Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm is set on a Lake District campsite. I thought I’d share with you some of my own camping adventures – and misadventures!

A.S.B.

Every campsite has one. Some campsites have several. Toilet blocks? Water points? Spiders? No, unsupervised children who just hang around the campsite all day, now known in our house as ASBs. This stands for ‘Annoying Small Boy’. They aren’t all boys, of course, it was just that the first one we encountered was a boy and the name (and the abbreviation) stuck. You see, a lot of kids don’t actually find camping that entertaining. And when they get bored on a campsite …

Image by sabinamajoor from Pixabay

It goes like this. You arrive at the campsite and start to pitch your tent. The next thing you know, there’s a child, standing at a short distance away, watching you intently.

Judging you.

“My Mum and Dad’s tent is better than this one.” ASB might then tell you, pointing at the biggest tent on the campsite. “That’s theirs.” Their tent is, indeed, impressive, but of Mum and Dad there will be no sign. They’re probably hiding from ASB somewhere.

Chances are that ASB has a ball, or another piece of play equipment, banned from the camping area, which they are playing with very close to where you are trying to set up your camp kitchen. “Is your kid going to play with me?” they ask. Of course, anything seems better to my kids than helping to pitch the tent, so …

So you end up at the play area, where, of course, the ASB will insist on playing on the one piece of equipment that your child has chosen, in order to force your child to play with them. I always seemed to end up trying to supervise an uneasy truce between my child (who will inevitably be significantly older or younger than the ASB and quickly decides that they don’t want to play with them) and the ASB. It won’t be a happy truce for anyone. Especially me.

Image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

The other territory of the ASB, when they’ve done with the playground, is the toilet block.

I don’t know why this should be the case. I mean, if you tried to suggest to a child anywhere other than a campsite that they should play in the toilets they’d think you were mad – especially when said campsite has an expensive outdoor play area, a stream, trees to climb and an indoor play area with a pool table in case of rain. But no. All this is ignored in favour of formica cubicles, a few sinks, and a door which slams loudly whenever you go in and out. ASBs will head straight for the toilets where they will lurk, all day, ready to entrap the unwary camper, usually only with embarrassing questions about what you are doing at the toilet block. However that’s still better than the time that a whole gang of them started lurking outside the toilets with water pistols.

Of course, I realise that there’s another side to the existence of ASBs. They are bored children, hanging round the campsite all day with nothing to do, and adults who aren’t interacting with them. They’re making their own entertainment, I suppose! But I couldn’t write a novel about a campsite without an ASB in it – so the character of Ty was born. He makes a fleeting appearance to contrast with the two boys at the heart of the story, and he cuts rather more of a sad figure than an annoying one.

But he does have cool Spiderman pyjamas!

Tales from the campsite 2

Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm is set on a Lake District campsite. I thought I’d share with you some of my own camping adventures – and misadventures!

Campfire’s burning

Campfires are becoming a thing of the past. In the old days of heavy canvas tents I guess the fire risk was less, and the health and safety regulations fewer. One of my happiest memories of childhood camping trips with the Girl Guides was getting together around a campfire to sing songs and tell stories. The stories were always ghost stories (inevitably the one about the babysitter getting sinister phone calls, only to find that the caller was ringing from INSIDE THE HOUSE.) There were inevitably marshmallows on sticks to toast too, and hot chocolate.

Campfire. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

We were more inclined to sing together in those days, I think. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t hold a tune, you could still join in with such classics as An Austrian went yodelling, That Highland goat and Oh, you’ll never get to Heaven. There was no social media and no pressure to ‘perform’ – it wasn’t about taking turns to sing your song, we all sang every song together. The singing and the storytelling was immediate and intimate. It was ours. A ring of faces around the fire lit by the flames, and darkness all around. The rest of the world didn’t exist and didn’t matter.

Image by zanna-76 from Pixabay

In lockdown, we had a few fires in the garden, to get rid of some wood and I found myself sitting out there by myself on a few occasions as the fire burnt down, completely on my own, and found myself remembering those old campfire sing-songs. I realised that was something I would probably never do again; sit round a fire with other people and sing, just for the fun of it.

So, when I came to write Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm I knew there had to be a campfire in there somewhere to make up for that! Following modern campsite practice they have their fire in a (safe) rented fire pit supplied by the farmer, and there is no way that the two lads in the story would tolerate the idea of singing songs around a fire (unless they had rude words about bums or poo, of course!). But the campfire provides the same sense of community and privacy as those long-ago ones of my childhood. The small circle of faces lit by the firelight and the darkness of the world outside gives the characters an opportunity to talk about life and death in a new way, without interference from outside. It was one of my favourite scenes in the novel to write.

And if anyone knows of an active campfire singing scene, where musical ability doesn’t matter, but having a marshmallow on a stick to toast is a bonus, please let me know! (I’m a bit old for the Guides or the Scouts these days, mind you …)

An illustration from my campfire song book

Here is a verse from one of those old Girl Guide campfire songs. I know now that the tune is Lili Marlene if you want to sing along:

With the scent of woodsmoke drifting in the air,
And the glow of firelight we always love to share,
Visions of campfire still return,
And as the logs flame up and burn,
We dream of bygone campfires and long for those to come.

Tales from the campsite

Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm is set on a Lake District campsite. I thought I’d share with you some of my own camping adventures – and misadventures!

Guide Camp

My first experience of camping (other than sleeping in a tent in the back garden) came when I was in the Girl Guides, nearly forty years ago. Every summer my guide company went camping, and we were lucky that being so close to the North Yorkshire Moors we had easy access to a beautiful national park.

Camp at Goathland, mid 1980s.

Camping with the guides was basic – really basic. Tents were heavy green canvas ones, with enormous wooden pegs, that took real effort and skill to pitch. Toilets were chemical buckets in smelly green toilet tents. Washing facilities consisted of a washing up bowl perched on a stand which we had to make ourselves out of branches. If you were good at knots, you had a neat little washroom in your wash tent. If you weren’t you had a washing up bowl on the floor. I don’t think we washed that much anyway!

Then there was the pit. All the waste went into a deep pit, which if we were lucky the farmer (in whose field we were camping) would have dug for us. If we were unlucky, the leaders ended up digging it. Worst job on the campsite was emptying the toilet buckets into the pit. We did have to work quite hard as well as having fun – we had rotas for cooking, cleaning and looking after the fires but I don’t remember anyone refusing to do their bit.

Hard at work

We cooked over a fire, which sounds idyllic but usually resulted in food which was burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. My particular favourite camping food was hedgehogs (not real hedgehogs, of course!) which consisted of meat balls with rice in them cooked in tomato soup. The rice was always crunchy, the meat was occasionally raw, and because us guides weren’t that good at chopping onion, there were usually huge chunks of it floating in the sauce.

Goathland

We had treasure hunts and hikes, orienteering, bridge or raft building, and crafts in the tent if it rained. The thing I enjoyed most about guide camps was the campfires. Most nights we would sit around the fire (on ‘campfire mats’ which consisted of woven newspaper, decorated and put in a clear plastic bag to keep them waterproof) and we would sing together. On the last night of camp we would always sing ‘I want to linger’ which brought tears to my eyes because it meant that camp was over for another year.

Mm, I want to linger,
Mm, a little longer,
Mm, a little longer with you.

Mm, it's such a perfect night,
Mm, it doesn't seem quite right,
Mm, that it should be my last with you.

Mm, and come September,
Mm, I will remember,
Our camping days and friendships true.

Mm, and as the years go by,
Mm, I'll think of you and sigh,
Mm, this is goodnight and not goodbye.
‘Guide camp’ by young Liz!

Christmas at the Farm

Those awkward questions

We get asked a lot of questions, and sometimes the answers don’t come easily. Here are some of my favourites, and some of those that I’m less keen to hear …

Why can’t I see Santa?

This comes up a lot, though it’s usually the elf who is working with Santa who gets asked this, so I’ve only had to deal with disappointed children or parents a handful of times.

The real answer: Your parents didn’t book you a ticket to see Santa, tough luck, kid.

My answer: Oh, I’m afraid Santa is very, very busy today, so much to do this close to Christmas. If you don’t have a golden ticket, you might have to wait to see him on Christmas Eve, because I know he’s coming to your house then, and why don’t you have a little word with Mrs. Claus, she’ll pass on any messages, look, have you seen Mrs. Santa’s house? Isn’t it pretty …

Mrs. Claus’s house. It really is pretty.

Where are the reindeer?

The real answer: We don’t have any. Not any real ones, anyway, but we do have several stuffed reindeer in Santa’s grotto. However I’ve no way of knowing whether they’re going to see Santa or not, so I have to guess …

My answer: They’re getting ready for Christmas Eve, they’re with Santa’s sleigh. Why don’t you take some reindeer food to give them on Christmas Eve … just sprinkle it on your lawn, and you’ll be all ready for when they come!

But I’ve just seen the reindeer, and his sleigh, they’re in the grotto!

Okay, kid, you win this battle of wits.

Santa’s grotto

Do you remember me from last year?

The real answer: No. It was a different actor in this dress last year, so you quite clearly don’t remember me either!

My answer: Of course I do! How are you! How nice of you to come back and see us again.

You don’t look the same as you did in the film. Why not? [Mother Ginger is a character in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms – you knew that, didn’t you?]

The real answer: Because I’m not quite as glamorous as Helen Mirren, darling.

My answer: Because I was far too busy making gingerbread to have time to be in the film. They had to ask somebody to pretend to be me. I think she did a pretty good job, don’t you?

Mother Ginger.

Are you a witch?

The real answer: I’m sorry, what? Do I look like a witch?

My answer: I’m not a witch, goodness me, no! I’m Mother Ginger, and this is my gingerbread house … oh, I see! No, that was in Hansel and Gretel; I’m not a witch.

Then why do you have a gingerbread cottage?

The real answer: Stop asking me difficult questions!

My answer: Oh, that was my sister, the bad witch. She had her own gingerbread cottage, this one is mine. I’m a good witch – you know, like in The Wizard of Oz?

Then where is your sister now?

The real answer: Please, please, just stop asking me questions!

My answer: She’s dead. Hansel and Gretel pushed her in the oven and she burnt to death. Macabre? Don’t blame me, it’s in the fairy tale, and you asked!

And finally, one question where I got a very unexpected answer from one young child.

My question: What are you leaving out for Santa to eat on Christmas Eve?

The answer I expected: A mince pie, or possibly cookies and milk.

The answer I got: Shells.

Me: I’m sorry, what did you say? Was that, ‘a mince pie?’

Child: Shells. I’m leaving shells for Santa.

Me: Oh, shells. Of course! How … lovely …

Parent: (patiently) Santa gave him a present with shells in, so he’s giving them back to Santa.

Me: Oh, of course. Shells for Santa. Obviously. Well, perhaps you could leave him a mince pie as well!