The great outdoors…

24 Oct

Now that the “summer” is over, all we have to keep us warm are  fading recollections of two weeks of packaged sunshine in some Costa-del-Chav, or the (possibly false) memories of a highly successful bbq.

Maybe because of this, I’ve been casting my mind back to the days when summer went on forever, it hardly ever rained when you were on holiday, and going back to school or work seemed like the remotest possibility you could contemplate.

Back when we were kids, my sister and I were lucky enough to be taken on foreign holidays almost every summer. We went to France, Denmark, Luxemburg, and Holland, amongst others, and most of the time we were camping.

Like a lot of people who we met over the years, we would often revisit the same campsites, and one of the sites we went to more than once, on the French coast, was Fecamp, a steeply-terraced site that was a useful stop-over after the drive from home and ferry journey, with two (admittedly annoying) kids in the car.


In 1979, we turned up there just in time for the weather to deteriorate into driving rain and strong winds.
This didn’t overly trouble us as, even then, we’d perfected the art of sprung frame tent erection in most conditions, (ie; Dad did most of the actual construction, whilst we all stood, waiting to be told what to lift/pull/push, etc) but this seemed to be getting somewhat extreme.
We had barely started to put up the large, multi-room, family tent, when a huge gust of wind nearly picked the whole thing up off the ground.
As often happens on campsites in these situations, other families rallied round to help, and after a dozen or so were hanging on the guy-ropes, we all managed to haul the flapping, billowing canvas back to earth and secure it to the increasingly soggy ground.

Now, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in this case, what it tells us is this; That was the day of the famously disastrous Fastnet sailing race.
Anyone who remembers that tragic event, will also recall how utterly appalling the weather was, and by late that night we were fighting a serious battle with the elements.

I awoke at sometime around midnight, the noise of the storm outside now risen to staggering proportions, the tent rocking and creaking in the roaring gale.
My sister and I could also hear a lot of shouting and swearing coming from the main body of the tent.
Peering out of the sleeping compartment, we saw my Dad, on his hands and knees on the muddy, saturated ground, using a saucepan and a varying assortment of kitchen implements to dig what became known as the “Suez canal” through the centre of the tent.

The extraordinary amount of rain, falling in such a short space of time, was now flowing down the steep incline of the site’s terraces like a series of waterfalls or rapids.

Our tent was in the way of one of these torrents, and the water was coming under one side and surging straight across the living area and out the other side.
Dad’s canal was directing it into a more manageable, narrower channel which didn’t flood the whole tent.

From what I remember, the rain stopped almost as quickly as it had arrived, although the wind kept up until morning, and the scene outside when we emerged into the muddy dawn was quite unbelievable. Some tents hadn’t been so lucky, and had just gone.

It was one of those things we laughed about later, and as kids, we obviously thought it was terribly exciting, but at the time I just remember Dad furiously digging his canal while indulging in olympic standard swearing.


One of my favourite French holiday memories comes from when we stayed at one of the many “chateaux sites” (the camping was in the grounds of a turreted country house) that we visited over the years.
This large, sprawling site had the tent pitches arranged amongst the trees of a plum orchard, and we were staying there in August.

What do you get in August, in orchards?

Wasps, that’s what.
Hundreds and hundreds of bloody furious French wasps.


They terrorised the little neighbourhood of tents in our particular avenue of trees, and it wasn’t long before we discovered why.
Their nest was about twenty feet from the front of our tent.

The orchard was, as far as I can remember, not actually in use, and the trees didn’t seem to give much fruit, but plenty to keep a battalion of flying sadists interested enough to set up home there.
It had been irrigated by a clever grid of slightly raised, buried clay pipes that ran in lines along each avenue, and branching off to water individual trees. When the campsite had been established, sections of these pipes had been dug up to allow cars access to the space between trees, where the tents were pitched.

The result of this were long, open ended sections of pipe, left buried under small humps in the grass.
And it was in one of these lengths of pipe that the enemy had taken up residence.

We were camped next to another English family with children our age, and our respective fathers had a council of war, which produced an audacious plan to vanquish the foe and bring sting-free peace back to the camp.

It had been observed that the wasps returned to their tubular homestead around sundown, so the two intrepid warriors lay in wait until they had seen a great many of the stripy little bastards dive into the hole in the grass.
When the returning hoard had dried to a trickle, they pounced.

Their weapons? A can of petrol and a manhole cover.

As our neighbour placed the heavy iron disc over one end of the buried pipe, Dad poured the contents of the can down the escape hatch.
After a dramatic pause, a match arced into the mouth of the tunnel  and…


…is the only word to describe the resulting sound, accompanied by a blast of flame, smoke, and charred wasp corpses which shot out of the ground at a 45° angle, while the now lethal manhole cover took off straight up, rising to a height of about ten feet before coming back to earth with a clang.

Followed by silence.

Certainly no buzzing.


Something which we, as kids, experienced on these holidays, was an activity known on many of the sites as “Nightwalk”. I’ve still never really understood where it originated, but we encountered it in several places, considerable distances apart.

Our family had now grown, and there were four of us in the kids’ tent, making the logistics more complicated, but we got it down to a fine art.
After the children of the families camping on site were sent off to their separate tents at bedtime, they waited quietly until they were sure their parents had either retired to their own beds, or were otherwise occupied.

Then the escape would swing into operation.

Crawling silently under the flap of the tent, to avoid the noisy zip, we would steal away into the dark, to meet up with other escapees of various nationalities from all over the site, and go roaming around the outer reaches of the grounds.

On one particular site, built on very sandy soil, the clubhouse’s “cellar” was on the back of the bar and had a rough plank door that barely reached the ground. With a bit of gentle scraping under the door, enough of a hollow was excavated to allow a slim 15 year old, who shall remain anonymous, to wiggle through and pass out a few bottles of vin de paintstripper to his waiting accomplices.

I very clearly recall, sitting on a stone wall, pleasantly pissed on cheap free plonk, chatting to my recently acquired step-brother, thinking This is what going on holiday should be like.

I also clearly recall my first wine hangover the next morning.

But when you’re kids, you just don’t have the time to be hungover. The sun is shining, the pool is open, and that cute Dutch girl you flirted with last night is going to be there…

..and summer went on forever

For Ann, Martin, and Anthony.

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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Personal anecdote, Travel


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