Off the beaten track

Giving myself a break

Me. The Boy. A tent. One night.

What could possibly go wrong?

That was my initial reaction to the suggestion that I take him ‘proper camping’ as his birthday treat.

We tend not to give the kids big presents on their birthdays – the wider family seems to have that covered – so instead, we try to give them an experience they’ll hopefully enjoy.

We’ve been camping as a family before – had a lovely time in a shepherd’s hut last year. And we’re off in camper van for the girl’s next month.

But the boy, I’m assuming fed by his growing interest in becoming a scout, wanted to go proper camping ‘in a woods, with a river so I can see a kingfisher’.

Going back to basics with the boyAfter agreeing to sort something out, it gradually dawned on me that maybe I’d been a bit blasé about this.

Initially, I imagined it would be an idyllic trip –packed with fun, laughs and exploring. A proper boy’s own adventure.

Then the doubts crept in.

Do I have a tent still?

Where are the sleeping bags?

Where the hell should we go?

How do you get a child to stay still to see a kingfisher?!

A quick rummage in the shed found the trusty old Eurohike three-man tent I bought the best part of a decade (if not longer!) ago.

Testing it showed it was in good nick – except the elastic in the poles  seemed to have lost most of its elasticity so needed a bit more persuasion than necessary to stay up (no smutty comments please).

Sleeping bags were located in the eaves of the loft – adult mummy-style ones, but I didn’t see a problem with fitting a six-year-old in there.

Now, where to go…?

A bit of online searching found a range of sites offering to help you find somewhere that meets your needs (tent, woods, river).

As this was our first expedition (that’s how he saw it, and I’ll be honest, part of me did too!) I didn’t want to go too far in case we needed to bail and come home, so I limited myself to Kent and a bit of Sussex/Surrey.

Annoyingly, I couldn’t find anything that seemed available around when we needed it. One told me to email the place that looked ideal, which I did, explaining what I was after, and that there was wiggle room with dates. I just got a curt “we have nothing” reply – not even a suggestion of when they might!

Pricks.

Eventually I found Sunnyside Farm campsite near Canterbury using Pitchup that seemed to fit the bill, and duly booked a Saturday night the weekend after the boy’s birthday.

The pics looked good, the reviews looked great, and the location seemed ideal – right by the Stour, with lots of potential kingfisher spotting potential.

Did you notice I used the word “seemed” there?

Turns out there’s two Sunnyside Farm campsites with near Canterbury.

Off the beaten trackWhilst the pics etc. were what I’d booked, I’d got the locations mixed up. We weren’t close to the River Stour as I’d hoped (and spent a fair bit of time researching where to explore!). We were a few miles away – too far to simply wander to whilst exploring which was the original idea.

I didn’t realise this until the morning of the day we were setting off, so immediately felt like I’d ruined the weekend as I’d told him we’d be by a lovely river and there was a decent chance of seeing a kingfisher.

Determined to try to work out how to salvage something from my cock-up, the OS maps were summoned, the actual campsite located, and a small line of blue found nearby suggesting flowing water – the Nailbourne.

I Googled it and one of the top results went to a page showing a glorious picture of a Kingfisher seen on a bridge near there – bingo!

I’d been planning to leave early-ish and have an explore before we could get on site to put the tent up, so we could use this window to see if he had the patience and ability to stay quiet needed to try to spot a kingfisher.

Panic over, we had lunch, jumped in the car and less than half an hour later we parked up in Bishopsbourne, had fought off an overly-friendly cat that tried to get in the car via the boot, and were wandering – map in hand – towards kingfisher nirvana.

The Nailbourne ran through some parkland which was being grazed by sheep, which freaked the Boy out a bit, but we plodded on towards where the Nailbourne should be flowing.

Did you notice I used the word “should” there?

Boy in the woodsTurns out, it was dry as a Yorkshireman’s wit.

No chance of seeing a kingfisher if there’s nowhere for fish!

Trying to put a brave face on this disappointing start, we had a mooch along some trails, where he decided jumping over grassy tussocks was an efficient way of trying to get up a hill (he was wrong). After a bit of a circuit, we got back to the car and I was trying not to seem pissed off that I’d cocked up what should have been a special day for him.

Ten minutes later we were parked at the campsite, and setting up began, which gave me a chance to ponder how to salvage something from what I felt was a terrible present for him.

Once the tent was pitched, the sleeping mats laid and sleeping bags in place, I went to make a drink – using the car boot as a sort of kitchen storage area.

Thankfully, the magic of tea woke me from my worries and I just stopped and watched him being so excited about the tent, his sleeping mat, and being outside that I chose to give myself a break, stop trying to force some kind of great experience to happen, and just enjoy spending time with him.

Refreshed, we wandered out of the field, past a conveniently located pub, and up into some woods.

What child can resist climbing trees, waving sticks or exploring nooks and crannies?

We played, we talked, we laughed, and I knew we’d be ok.

So what if the woods weren’t as accessible as I’d like? There could be a bear behind that tree, and someone needed to climb over those stumps to make sure we could get away if it tried to eat us!

The walkie-talkies he was given for his birthday were tested and worked great. He was just crap at remembering to hold the button and not have his mouth pressed right up to the mic!

After a while, we headed back to camp for some food – sausages frying whilst I watched him trying to creep up on various butterflies that were flitting across the field.

It was a bit of a stress trying to keep everything going smoothly for him – sorting drinks, not burning food, finding cutlery, answering a million questions – but I didn’t care as I knew I just had to crack on and he’d have a great time.

Breakfast pancakes for the biyOnce we’d scoffed, we headed back into the woods for more exploring, climbing and general low-tech fun.

When we got back, he happily sat reading in the tent while I cleared up and made sure we were ready for the night. We had a bit of a play with the timer on the camera as he was determined to get a pic of us both sat in front of the tent with walkie talkies, and inexplicably, the car in the shot.

He got the pic eventually (not shared as it was blurry – he’s only six!) which he decided he’s going to paint onto a canvass for us to keep. I didn’t have the heart to mention printers to him!

After a bit more messing about, he wanted to go to bed.

Did you notice I used the phrase “go to bed” there?

Not “sleep”.

As he got in, I settled in my chair with a brew and a book, and – to the newly-arrived couple of girls in a van pitched up by us – to spend the next couple of hours trying to persuade a tent to go to sleep.

I eventually gave in and hit the sleeping bag myself – foolishly not going to the loo one last time as my bladder complained in the early hours when I was reluctant to make noise by getting out of the tent.

I’d also forgotten that he’s a fidget in bed, which when combined with numerous man-made materials in a ten means there’s a lot of rustling that kept me awake/set off my parenting radar.

He woke up at about five and we had a mini chat that I hope would persuade him to go back to sleep.

It didn’t.

I eventually got up, made some warm drinks and wondered if the wind would dry the tent enough after some overnight showers so I could pack it away.

Banana pancakes for breakfastI cooked us some pancakes (home pre-mixed batter in a jar – why haven’t I tried that before?!?) and we went for a last explore to see if we could get into some other woods. We couldn’t but trying to find a way in was a chance for more chatter, some fresh air and a diversion through “the best farm I’ve ever seen”.

It was just a farm, but whatever kiddo.

Getting back, the wet ground meant him changing into his third pair of socks in the car/changing room where he just sat, looking happy and tired as I started packing everything away.

It was a lovely little campsite, with great hosts and all the basics covered so I’d happily go back (with the girl?!).

I went to the farmhouse to settle up and get a dozen fresh eggs, and he was adamant he would open the gate so I could drive the car out.

This wasn’t a purely selfless gesture – he wanted another excuse to climb it, which no-one could refuse.

Half an hour later we were home.

Muddy, tired, but happy.

I won’t lie, it was hard work. Keeping everything running smoothly in a confined space,  not having the greatest night’s sleep and initially spending too much time worrying about trying to make sure he got to do as much of what he wanted to do as possible.

Gate climbingWill he look back fondly on the weekend?

I don’t know. I hope so. He says he loved it, and that’s all I can ask for really.

I know I will.

Yes, I’ve got a million jobs that need doing, but really think it’s important to take the time to focus on what’s important and not take these treasured relationships for granted.

I know I’ll never be a ‘cool dad’, and I’m fine with that. I just want him to know I love him, and will try my best to help him grow into the amazing young man I got to spend quality time with at the weekend.

Did you notice I used the word “try” there?

I think that’s the important bit, regardless of what small green Jedi masters say.

Nothing’s certain in life, but as a dad, I can only try my best. It’ll either go well, or it won’t (I’ll give you that Yoda). I need to worry less about trying to provide the perfect childhood for the kids, and focus more on what we can all get out of that experience.

There’ll be ups and downs, but it’s how you appreciate the former, and deal with the latter that matters.

And maybe one day, we’ll get to see that kingfisher.

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