Tales from the Campsite, 6

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 experienced all three. Sometimes I wonder why I still own a tent!


I have experienced fire on a campsite twice, luckily both times I wasn’t too close to the conflagration.

Both times were when I was a member of the Sealed Knot re-enactment society, recreating English Civil War battles. I never progressed as far as owning one of the amazing authentic tents that you see on display (they’re very, very expensive, and rather heavy too.)

This re-enactment isn’t the right era, but the tents were similar. Image by spencer from Pixabay

Both times, I was in the ‘plastic camp’, away from the public view, where most of the re-enactors camped. Our sites tended to be more like festival campsites than a historical camping experience.

The first event (I think it was at Witney in Oxfordshire) took place on a farmer’s field, where a crop had recently been harvested, and the field was stubble – ploughed mud with the dry stalks of wheat which had been left behind. It’s really unpleasant to camp on; muddy if it rains and really spiky and stony underfoot. And do you remember what, in the old days, farmers used to do to clear stubble from fields? It seems that the organisers of the event didn’t know.

Yes, they used to burn the stubble to clear the field.

So, there are several hundred re-enactors on the field, about a third of them are carrying muskets, and there are a dozen or so cannons. There’s a lot of black powder about. With a shout of ‘Have a care!’ the battle begins, and one of the big cannons is fired. The burning wadding from the cannon’s mouth falls to the field, and we all watch in horror as the stubble smokes, then catches light. A wave of flame races across the field. Those who can try to extinguish the fire, but lots of the participants are carrying black powder weapons and the last thing you want to do when you’re carrying a flask of gunpowder is walk into a grass fire. So we watch, helplessly.

Soon, the carpark is on fire. There are rumours that the car-park blaze began separately from an overheated catalytic convertor amongst the cars, but whatever the cause, several cars were burnt out. This was terrible, and several people were injured, but in some ways we were lucky. If the wind had blown the other way it would have taken the flames straight into the ‘plastic camp’ which was full of the non-participant partners and children of those on the field, and a lot of highly combustible camping equipment. Lives would possibly have been lost, and some of them could have been children.

The fire was soon extinguished – the fire brigade arrived, the event was cancelled and the Sealed Knot never staged a battle on a stubble field again …

Image by Matthias Fischer from Pixabay

But the fear of what might have happened never left me. A couple of years later on another Sealed Knot event in Devon I heard someone shouting ‘Fire’. It was the middle of the day, and most people were still arriving and setting up their tents; I’d just finished mine and I suspect I was having a quiet cup of tea. I came out of my tent, nervous, to see smoke from an area about fifty metres away. Our fire precautions had improved since Witney – there were now breaks between areas on big campsites, and minimum distances between tents, but it was still quite a crowded campsite.

It seems that the owners of a big frame tent had arrived early, set up their tent and gone out for the day, leaving their gas-powered fridge happily cooling their beer for the evening. That is, until something went wrong with the gas-powered fridge, and it set fire to the tent wall. Thankfully, it had been spotted quickly, the tent must have been treated to make it fire-retardant, and one of the first people on the scene was an ex-soldier who knew exactly what to do. He and a couple of others removed the gas bottle and tackled the fire, and the rest of us were told to collapse the tent to minimise the risk of the fire spreading if the whole thing went up. Luckily it didn’t. The fire was quickly extinguished, and all the real harm done was the terminal overheating of a few cans of beer.

In the final scenes of Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm the wind is high, and sparks from the campfire start to drift dangerously close to Amy’s tent, but I couldn’t bear to see her tent (or Matt’s beautiful red-and-white camper van) destroyed by fire. I transferred my own fear of fire on a campsite to Matt, and he very sensibly puts out the campfire before anything can go wrong. However, even though it doesn’t catch fire, Amy’s tent doesn’t last the night …


The fire last night at Notre Dame was a spectacular and sobering reminder of the fragility of beauty and history, and how easily we can take buildings like this for granted. Every time such as significant historic building is damaged by fire it reminds me how quickly hundreds of years of heritage can be lost.notre-111248__340

When I was writing my last book “The Manor on the Moors” I knew from the start that at the heart of it there was going to be just such a devastating fire. I’d worked in historic buildings and I had always feared what would happen in such a building if a fire did break out.  I also did more research, looking at what happened to buildings such as Uppark, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, Clandon Park and the Glasgow School of Art in the catastrophic fires which damaged or destroyed them. I pinned a lot of my imaginary fire on the plans that had existed for what might have be done if a fire ever broke out in the building where I worked.


Firstly, the manual covers what staff must do if a fire breaks out – obviously the first priority is to clear the public and staff out of the building to safety. Then whoever is in charge takes a deep breath and starts to try and save what they can. The historic building will be full of treasures, usually only to be touched by specialist conservators wearing protective gloves and trained in how to handle such precious artefacts. In the case of Notre Dame, some of these were not just historically significant, but holy relics, precious to believers. Now, the fire brigade will locate and retrieve these treasures and they will be passed down a human chain to safety, and this won’t necessarily be a human chain of conservators and priests. At Uppark, a National Trust property, I remember reading that, amongst others,  vistors helped to form the chain that saved so much of the contents. Anyone and everyone available might be asked to pitch in; there’s no point in waiting for the specialists with their gloves, and someone who is revered enough to touch the relics; by then it may be too late to save anything. In “The Manor on the Moors” its the garden staff and the builders who save the books and the paintings from the library, taking them to a hastily erected tent where the tea room staff and some helpful volunteers from the local community wrap them in bubble wrap to be taken away to storage. One lady weeps as she realises that the painting she has admired from afar all her life is in her hands, cut from its frame as time ran out.blur-1867402__340

Then there comes a curious hiatus where there is nothing else to be done by the people who care the most about the building. There’s nothing in the disaster manual to cover this – the only thing to be done is to keep a safe distance. These are the images that were so clear last night; the people of Paris watching as Notre Dame burnt. The commentators at the scene commented on the silence amongst the spectators, watching, despair mingling with hope, waiting. Some believers prayed, some sang, because that is all that can be done. The fate of that historic building that had been part of the life of their city for 850 years is in the hands of some few hundred professional firefighters, and all that the people who care for the building can do is watch. Or not. In my book, Caroline, the owner, can’t bear to see what is happening. She disappears, and who can blame her?lost-places-3362240__340

In the morning, when the fire is out, that’s when the real work will start. Surveying what remains and trying to find the cause of the fire. Arranging for storage of the salvaged items and seeing what else, if anything, can be saved from the damaged buildings. This is the time for miracles – the golden cross hanging over the altar of Notre Dame still gleaming through the smoke. An ornate marble fireplace from Clandon Park, emerging white and whole from amongst the ash and debris. The oak panelling of Hampton Court, visible behind the fallen roof beams. The long task of restoration will begin, and the hope that new life can be restored to the damaged building.


But never take the places you love for granted.