Jonny McCambridge: It’s a Christmas miracle....glamping in December

Last week I wrote on this page about some of the traditional things that my family and others have been prevented from doing because of the social restrictions imposed during the festive period.

Huddling around the fire on a cold December day
Huddling around the fire on a cold December day

While the column was intended as a pudding-size slice of rich Christmas nostalgia to bring cheer, it did occur to me that the underlying message might work the other way, a passive and gloomy acceptance that our new situation means that celebrations will be not as gratifying as before.

But there has to be a counterpoint. The resilience and ingenuity of the human spirit means that when there are things we are prevented from doing, we find alternatives which work just as well.

This weekend past had been marked in my diary months ago as the date when my son and his beloved younger cousins would go on a magical trip to Santa’s cottage. Of course, Covid wrecked those plans.

Toasting marshmallows with my son

Rather than miss out on a day of enchantment, my sister-in-law suggested that the two families which have been bubbling together should do something else. The choice was certainly bold – glamping in December.

The rural location she found advertised a Christmas-themed event with sparkling lights, open fires, crafts, reindeer food, marshmallows, hot chocolate and mulled wine. The children were intoxicated with excitement, the adults not far behind.

It rained the night before we left. As I packed a bag, I considered how much of the success of the venture lay outside of our control. Going glamping just days before the winter solstice was a risk. A wet and windy day would significantly curtail our ambitions. As I folded my underwear, I watched drops of rain roll down the window.

Saturday is different. The watery red sun, while low in a cloudless sky, is determined and fierce. There is barely a breath of wind.

We find the glamping pods at the end of a warren of puddle-pocked lanes deep in the countryside. The little huts surround a squelchy patch of grass. We are the only people on the site and the children love it, dashing excitedly from shed to shed, too animated to concentrate on any activity for long.

The boys spend hours running around in the midwinter air until they are breathless. They play football and tennis, compete in races and chase each other, indulging fully the freedom and the novelty.

A fire is quickly built. My son and two nephews toast marshmallows, the grown-ups having to slightly temper their enthusiasm lest they should bite into the soft mallow while it is still bubbling hot. The gooey melted insides of the sweets bring gasps of delight and leave pink and white trails running down chins.

The lower the sun sinks, the higher we build the fire and the closer the adults huddle around it. Pizzas are ordered, delivered and devoured, with the enhanced appetite that being in the open air brings.

Then, once the darkness of the night is absolute, we appoint ourselves expert astronomers. None of the children, all reared in a world of streetlights and urban settlement, have ever seen the stars in such numbers or majesty, a vast carpet of twinkling and shimmering orbs.

Little necks risk being strained from gazing upwards for too long. We proclaim that we see Venus, Mars, The Plough, Betelgeuse, Santa doing a test run in his sleigh, The Big Dipper. Perhaps we did.

The night remains still and dry and we explore further the area by torchlight, stumbling along country lanes while urging the little ones to keep their hats and gloves on and their coats zipped as our breath forms clouds in front of us.

The evening grows colder yet and my previous policy of rationing fuel for the fire is abandoned as I load it high with the remaining logs.

The adults, with the stench of smoke on our hair and clothes, drink wine and beer (Shloer for me) while the children retreat inside to play with their iPads. We murmur to each other about our remarkable luck with the weather.

The lure of being outside soon brings the boys into the open air again. They ask me to play with them and a game is hastily improvised where they are wild animals and I, the hunter.

By the glare of the torch I chase the three boys around the damp field in the dark, reluctantly at first, and then with enthusiasm as the simple joy of the game affects me. The kids whoop in fear and excitement each time I get close and the long, wet grass snakes around my ankles and soaks my toes.

We play this game for a long time. When we begin the flames from the fire are still reaching into the darkness; by its conclusion, all that is left in the pit are some lifeless grey ashes.

Eventually, against the reluctant protests of the indefatigable youths, we retreat to our separate pods, remarking on how special the day has been, and again on our outrageous luck with the weather. We agree a departure time for the morning.

Our hut is cold and the little electric heater too feeble to make a difference.

The three of us cuddle into bed together. I, for the first time in my adult life, wear socks in bed. As we all drift towards sleep I hear my boy mumbling to his mum about it being the ‘best day ever’.

I wake later. At first I think it must be morning but when I check my phone I see that it has only just passed midnight.

All is still at first. But then I hear a rustle of leaves. The wind soon gathers pace, howling as it blows around trees and through hedges. Shortly after, a patter of raindrops begins on the roof. It is gentle at first, but then develops into an urgent rush of falling fat drops. The shower seems to go on for hours.

And I lie there awake throughout it all, in the cold little wooden shed in the middle of a muddy field, listening to my wife and son’s contented snores beside me while the fingers of the rain tap persistently and impatiently on the roof.

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Alistair Bushe