There was a time, a time long ago and far away, a time when men had hair on the top of their heads, a time when the bottom half of each leg of your jeans could easily house an immigrant family, or just simply flap aimlessly in the wind like a yacht mainsail, chapping your legs in the process, this was a time when you and I were younger, when the world was younger, the time when I had a company van and as much petrol as I needed, and Charlie Smith provided the tent and we went off camping to far flung places, like Bridlington for instance.
And we took rum with us.
When I say that Charlie provided the tent I don’t want you to think of a modern day tent for this was no sealed and waterproofed nylon affair, engineered to within an inch of its life with colour coordinated collapsible poles, tent affair, oh no, this was a tent – a proper tent of which Billy Smarts Circus would have been proud to call a tent.
The tent had belonged to a scout group of his acquaintance and I think that Baden Powell himself must have given it to the scout group, and it was probably second hand when Baden Powell handed it over, when I say it was a tent I mean that it was shaped like a tent but actually it was just a huge, heavy, stiff sheet of tarpaulin, which, by means of two six foot long three by three upright poles would become a temporary shelter from the rain as long as you remembered to tie the flaps across both ends together, yes thats right, tie them together, no zips, Baden Powell, remember ?
And no groundsheet either, the tent stopped where it touched the floor and would flap about like your flared jeans in a strong wind, so we brought sheets of polythene which we had stolen from building sites and laid those on the ground so that in the early hours of the next day, and if it was raining, you wouldn’t awaken to find yourself asleep in a pond.
So we took this thing to Bridlington, Charlie, Burty and me, in the back of my old van, and we paid at the gate of the South Shore camp site on Friday evening and drove around to find a suitable pitch, that is a pitch large enough to erect a Billy Smarts circus tent, water the elephants, set up the ticket office and still have room left over for a three ring show.
We found such a patch of land, that camp site was nearly full but we found a large vacant plot and never wondered for even one minute why everyone else in their posh nylon tents had shunned this area of land – we would find out later that night why the wise campers didn’t pitch tent on the flood plain bit of the camp.
And the camp site had a clubhouse and time was drawing on, why it was nearly 6pm and not a pint drunk yet, so the tent was thrown up in five minutes and off to the bar we went, and stayed there all night, and drunk lots of beer, and then came rolling home.
And tucked up in our sleeping bags, laying lengthways down the tent, Charlie found the bottle of rum that we’d brought, and the bottle of blackcurrant for the nightcap rum and black, and thats when we realised that we hadn’t brought any glasses, or cups, or anything at all to drink out of.
So you passed both bottles around, took half a mouthful of rum and half a mouthful of blackcurrant cordial, swizzled them around in your mouth and swallowed, mmmmm, the height of sophistication, it’ll be all the rage next year, you see.
And finally when the rum bottle was empty but the blackcurrant bottle wasn’t we all finally went off to sleep, already regretting drinking the full bottle of rum and dreading the hangover in the morning.
At some point during the night I awoke.
My head was pounding, I needed a piss and I lay there on my back, Charlie to my left, Burty to my right, for a while, snug and warm in the sleeping bag and not really wanting to extract myself from it and have to untie the tent flaps and try and find the toilet block in the dark.
So I lay there for a while trying to convince myself that I didnt really want a piss at all and while I was doing this I admired the stars for a while to take my mind off the piss…
And it was while I was admiring the stars in the pitch black sky above me that some spark of a thought started twinkling inside my head.
The stars in the sky.
Why could I see the stars in the sky ?
Slowly the multi-shards of reasoning reformed in my brain, I could see the sky, I was laying in a sleeping bag on the ground and I could see the sky.
So where was the tent ?
Still, it was a nice night, and I was warm in the sleeping bag, and I didn’t want a piss anymore and I reckoned that we could probably look for the tent in the morning and just as I started to drift back off to sleep again it started raining.
Have you ever tried to wake two unconscious friends, extract yourself from a sleeping bag, find your jeans and boots and then, complete with a thumping headache, search in the absolute pitch darkness for a tent that would appear to have gone walkabout ?
We found it about fifty yards away wrapped around someone’s £100 continental tent complete with built-in conservatory and kitchen extension and we quietly tried to drag it off their toilet tent while not laughing at all, and by this time it was sheeting it down with rain as it can only do on the east coast in august and we couldn’t find the tent poles or any pegs so we climbed back into our sleeping bags and pulled the sheet of tarpaulin that we had previously and jokingly called a tent over our heads and hoped that it would stay there for the rest of the night.
Later that morning, much later, I would awaken, snug and warm inside my sleeping bag but ever so slightly claustrophobic having a tarpaulin not one inch from the end of your nose, this was a strange way to camp I must admit, we were laying on a sheet of polythene in a sleeping bag covered by a 100 year old sheet of tar paper and as I dragged myself clear of the rudimentary shelter I noticed that we had been lucky when choosing the exact spot of land to lay our sleeping bags for we had picked a small mound of earth to lay on, the only small mound of earth for twenty yards around and after a night of heavy rain our mound of earth was now an island in the middle of a lake of floodwater – and people were staring at us.
They were staring at us from fifty yards away, they being proper campers, they in their caravans and £100 continental tents with conservatories and kitchen extensions, they were staring and pointing as three disheveled youths in their underpants dragged themselves out from underneath a tarpaulin that lay on the ground in the middle of a huge new lake as if we were sea creatures who had fallen from the skies during the storm last night.
It always rained when I went camping, I’ve been rained on in a tent in Bridlington and Scarborough, I’ve been rained on in a tent in Hubberholme and Aysgarth, I’ve been rained on every time I’ve been to the Lake District with or without a tent, when you’re British and you own a tent, and you take that tent anywhere on your own island, you just accept that it will rain on you, like its the law or something, its the thing that foreign people don’t understand when they wake up in their tents on a campsite in the South of France to find that it rained slightly through the night and everything is almost damp, on the cusp of dryness and damp, and they get annoyed because their things are almost damp – then they unzip their tents to find the British people doing stretching exercises outside their own tents and declaring to anyone who will listen “What a glorious morning, and hardly a hint of damp either”.
They hate us for it.