Hi-ho the derry-o, a-camping I won't go

If you'd asked me a week ago - though you probably wouldn't have - whether I was planning a bit of camping this year, my answer would have been a resonant no.

Not that I wish to forget the camping trips that linger in recollections of my callow past. Indeed, they make quite good anecdotal material, and are sufficiently far back, now, to have had their sharper edges softened by a distancing amusement. It is strange, and rather heartening, the way in which degrees of sheer awfulness can melt into other people's laughter and your own fond nostalgia. Yet nostalgia contains an ingredient of wanting to be back there once again, and, frankly, I would not.

At that period, camping was the only affordable form of independent holiday my friends and I might reasonably contemplate. But the available equipment for the sport had by no means entered the age of convenience and comfort. A decade or so later I would find myself gazing in slightly scornful amazement at the luxuries of modern campsites, where the campers lived in six-star accommodation with portable TV, hot and cold running everything, on-site gourmet catering, and - for goodness' sake! - windows in their tents. What had the world come to?

Our khaki-colored tents were ex-Army. A good view was their last consideration. Perhaps they'd been previously pitched in some African desert under the eagle eye of Montgomery or Rommel or both; clearly they were not intended for a week on a sopping wet hillside in Wales. In fact, they were not really intended for human habitation anywhere.

We had "ground sheets," certainly, but these did nothing to mitigate the lumpy geological strata that was barely covered by good British mother earth. Nor were they thistle-resistant.

We had sleeping bags of a sort, and they were faintly warmish, in a way, but they lacked the hi-tech thermal sophistication yet to come. And we suspected, as we feigned sleep, that we might be closer to such nocturnal denizens as earwigs, wood lice, spiders, snails, moles - you name it - than was natural for domesticated humans to be. These were under us.

Over us, only inches away, sagged the tent's skin - uncertainly tensioned by our not-particularly-competent late-afternoon tent-pegging skills. (We had probably left the mallet at home, and shoes - though sturdy items then - were a poor second.) The tent cloth had a cunning capacity - if the British rains descended, as was their habit - to gather pools of water that would either cause the tent to collapse or penetratedly prove that "waterproof under normal conditions" was a relative claim.

Then there is the matter of what was around us. Excitingly, of course, there was a gigantic amount of open air, and on top of that the ungraspable vastness of the visible proximity of the entire universe. These exhilarating features were, perhaps, the highly romantic reason for camping.

But on that fateful camping trip to Wales, the stars and summer moon were hidden by thick low clouds; and continuous rain, in league with wind, rendered the phrase "open air" a misnomer. "Maelstrom" would have been closer. Sporadic breathers out of the stuffy tent were out of the question - though we were already wet through to the skin. I suppose we just didn't want to contemplate getting even wetter.

Sometime approaching dawn, we became aware that the tent was being nudged. And nudged. And even quite possibly shoved. Accompanying this was a peculiar heavy breathing. Naturally, we lay very quiet and still, suspecting a furious Welsh Nationalist Hill Farmer Known for Murdering English Campers. We preferred him to conclude that our tent was uninhabited. But his nudgeration became more impassioned.

When, after some time, he did not start shouting at us in Welsh, we decided to take a peek. It was then we discovered he was black and white, bovine, and several. "Shoo! Shoo!" - we tried to reason, but to no avail. I think it was at this point we each formed what proved to be a unanimous decision: "Let's just go home!"

It's amazing how a combination of cows and wetness can lead to wisdom. I haven't even mentioned the kerosene-fueled camp stove, the hub of all old tales of dire camping trips. This extraordinary device is long obsolete, It had to be primed before it would work. Boxes of rain-soaked matches soon ran out before this priming produced a lightable effect, and even if you did get the thing to light, it would almost always blow out before you had the beans out of the can and into the pan. Once it had blown out, no amount of bad language or supplication would make it work again. To this day, my taste for stone-cold baked beans spooned directly from tin to tongue I owe to the inventor of this stove, may he go to bed forever without a hot meal.

It was last weekend's experience that brought these happy memories rushing back. Thanks to the small print of a budget airline I care not to mention by name, I failed to board the last flight home from London's least accessible airport. The next flight was in the morning. Trains to and from the airport had stopped running.

"The nearest hotel," the official said, "is three miles away. But you are welcome to sleep in the airport." Which I did, in marginal comfort, along with some 300 of the airline's other clients. Actually, it was all quite chummy and cheerful and likely to make for good anecdotes in a decade or so. My companions were mostly youthful and quite used to such experiences. Maybe today's happy campers are not as soft as I think.

But I felt it was a close shave. For a moment of terrifying déjà vu I thought I might have to camp under the stars. And I hadn't even brought a ground sheet.

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