Jonny McCambridge: The camping trip that became a bit of a damp squib

I freely admit that it was all my idea.

Wednesday, 30th June 2021, 6:07 am

We had owned the tent for some time but had not yet ventured further than the back garden. Our son was itching for adventure, the weather had been settled, it seemed the logical thing to suggest. What could go wrong?

I could tell my wife wasn’t quite as keen as me, but what’s the point of having a son if you can’t use him for a bit of leverage? (‘Ah, it will be a great experience for him’. ‘You wouldn’t want him to miss out when all his friends have already been away camping.’)

Soon we were buying sleeping bags out of the sports shop and setting off for the Mournes. (Just a warning for anyone of a nervous disposition; it all goes a bit Blair Witch soon).

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The setting was spectacular. The site was not so much at the foot of the Mournes as nestling comfortably in its lap like a contented cat.

I set about pitching the tent, a task I didn’t feel quite comfortable with until it was done. I suppose it’s a male rite of passage thing.

As I worked, I imagined there were a line of men with long beards peering over a stone wall and shaking their heads in disapproval as I struggled with the confusing mixture of poles, canvas and metal pegs.

Then I unloaded all the fuel I had brought for the fire-pit, over which I intended to roast marshmallows later. I had brought several bags of sticks, logs, coal and peat. In truth, I’ve seen Eleventh Night bonfires which had less source material.

The heat of the sun was making the grass wilt as we took a trip into Newcastle to buy provisions (when you’re camping you say provisions rather than food). Perhaps I was getting a little bit carried away as I blethered on about barbecues, toasting marshmallows over the open fire and counting the stars in what was certain to be a clear black night.

I fear I may even have expressed regret that I hadn’t brought along a harmonica.

The first spots of rain caught my face as we left the supermarket. No matter, a quick shower keeps the dust down and it would surely pass soon.

But, by the time we returned to the campsite, it was raining with an annoying persistence. Not heavy, but steady, the sort of rain which soaks into your bones and saps your optimism.

We sat in the car and waited for it to pass. It didn’t.

Eventually we conceded the barbecue and the fire-pit weren’t going to happen. This meant another trip into Newcastle to try and find a restaurant and enduring the disbelief, verging on contempt, in the voices of a series of managers as they asked: ‘Have you booked?’

By the time we finally got back to our tent the sun had given up the fight entirely. We ran from the car only to discover that I had not zipped up the tent properly and part of the interior was now soaked. We huddled inside and climbed into our sleeping bags because...well, because, what the heck else was there to do?

We had bought crisps for our son to pacify him for missing out on toasting marshmallows. Somehow the majority of them seemed to end up ground into crumbs inside my sleeping bag stuck to my backside.

The tent which had appeared remarkably capacious earlier in the day now seemed to have shrivelled like my mood as the three of us struggled for space.

Our son fell asleep quickly and my wife soon followed, apparently oblivious to the inebriated partying of the group in the adjacent tent.

As they slept, they spread out, so I found myself being forced into the very darkest corner of the tiny tent, like a rag that plugs a leak.

The mats we had bought for comfort seemed to serve no other purpose than to glue themselves to my arms so that every time I shifted position, I painfully lost another layer of skin.

My damp, sweaty face was forced against the side of the tent like an unfortunate insect caught in fly-paper.

I lay like that for hours, sleep a distant notion. The taunting tiny fingers of the rain tapping incessantly on the canvas roof. Comfort could not be found. I developed a nagging pain in my hip. The solitary stone in the whole field seemed to be located directly under my body. No matter where I moved, the stone followed.

It was about midnight when the wind began, its force making the tent seem even more puny than ever. The best description of the experience I can offer of being inside a little tent during strong wind is this. Imagine you have been shrunk and placed inside a tennis ball which is then used in a ferocious rally between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

For some time, hours I suppose, I had been aware of the need to pee. I kept trying to banish it from my mind, the processes just seemed too daunting to even consider. But nature would not be denied, and at some point between night-time and morning, I found myself wriggling madly to extricate myself from the sleeping bag and then unzipping the tent and stepping out into a terrifying blanket of blackness.

I stumbled about blindly in the field, the long, wet grass clinging to my bare feet. I knew there was a toilet block somewhere on the site, but I soon despaired of finding it and lowered my ambitions to just not stumbling off the edge of a cliff.

I walked for a long time in circles before I found the toilet.

After, as I retraced my footsteps, soaking wet, miserable and feeling acutely sorry for myself, I noticed the early morning sun was beginning its inexorable rise. I got back to our tent and eventually drifted off into a troubled sleep.

I think it was about five minutes later when my son shook me awake.

He was excited and full of energy, as he always is in the morning. He jumped up and down on me. ‘Daddy, daddy, when can we go camping again?’