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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Taking the Kids Camping...

What the government, with such little imagination, refer to as 'Early May Bank Holiday' in England was a bit special back in 1995. It was special in general because it was the first and only time since this bank holiday was instigated that it didn't take place on the first Monday in May. This was due to the proclamation by the government, that they had decided we all should celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of V.E. day, but that to save them the trouble of giving the nation an extra bank holiday, they would be moving the existing holiday back a week to May 8th.

For me, it was special, because that was the weekend I decided to introduce my two eldest children to camping.


The two weekends before, we'd taken them out shopping, for general camping equipment, plus we had to buy them rucksacks and walking boots.

Finding rucksacks for a 6 year old and a 7 year old that actually served the required purpose was difficult, since most of the ones for kids of that age were designed to carry not much more than P.E. kit and a ninja turtles luchbox, but we managed to find two reasonably small sacks at our local camping supplies shop that despite being very limited in capacity, still had all the devices for attaching equipment with straps. We tried them on the kids while we were in the shop, and they looked massive on them, but that seemed to be part of the appeal for them, so we bought them.

We almost gave up on finding walking boots: it seems that walking boots for children only exist in the most expensive brands, and since they'd hardly use them at all before they grew out of them, I was a little reluctant to spend almost twice as much on a pair of boots for each of them than I'd spent on my own earlier that year. We'd just about resigned ourselves to letting them make do with sturdy trainers instead, when we spotted some reasonably priced leather trekking boots in children's sizes as a one off line in a discount shop in town.

We decided that we'd visit the Lake District. We already had a family rail card; using that would provide a 33% discount on my train fare, and in those days, the kids went for a flat fare of £1.

The night before we left they were excited and wanted to pack their own rucksacks, but we decided to let them put in their clothes, their mugs and their cutlery, and told them to leave the rest to their mother and I.

The morning after, we were all up early. My own backpack looked a little daunting. The few clothes I was taking, along with a single pair of light trainers didn't pose a problem, but the four man dome tent, my sleeping bag and roller mat, and all the rest of the camping equipment either contained within or fastened outside with straps, made me wonder how the hell I was going to manage to walk with it. I tried it on though, and once I'd hoisted it high on my back and fastened the shoulder straps (a little too) tightly, it didn't seem so bad.

The kids wanted to put their own packs on even before they'd got dressed but we managed to persuade them to have their breakfast and then dress themselves before they bothered.

Each of their sacks carried their clothes, a change of shoes and their personal equipment like cutlery, a white enameled tin plate and a tin mug (camping is so much more exciting when you eat and drink from tin utensils.) In addition, they each had a sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of their sacks and a rubber sleeping mat, rolled up and fastened under the top flap of their rucksack. 

My seven year old daughter was the first to don her rucksack. She seemed to struggle a little at first, until we'd tightened her straps, and told her about the importance of carrying it high and not hanging down in the small of her back.

My son, who was six at the time was very small, even for six, and I worried how he'd cope. But he seemed to have a point to prove and wanted to outdo his sister, so he helped as we hoisted his sack onto his back, then braced himself as we pulled the straps tight. He then stood up straight.... and promptly fell over backwards.

After some distribution of loads, I ended up setting out with a sleeping back attached to either side of my pack, as well as having my own hanging underneath, and with what little room was left inside my pack, crammed with most of my son's equipment, and a few items of my daughter's.

I strained under the weight as we left the house. My wife asked if I was sure that I could manage. I wasn't sure I could, but I wasn't going to call off the trip, so I'd just have to.

So with what we thought was everything we needed, we set out. It turned out that there were two things we'd left behind: my camera, (so all the pictures in the rest of this post have been lifted from Google Maps,) and my hat, but more of that later.

Saturday May 6

Hull to Windermere and the ferry at Bowness...

The way to the Lake District from where I live in Hull requires us to cross the entire country from East to West. It involves two train journeys of about two hours each, with a change in the middle at Manchester. Piccadilly railway station in Manchester is a large station, and sod's law states that the platform we arrived on from Hull, was as far away as it possibly could be from the platform we needed for the train to Windermere. 

I thought there'd be plenty of time to change trains, but that didn't take into account the time taken to strap everyone into their packs, then unburden them again when they wanted the toilet. This was before the days of the travelator at Piccadilly, and the lifts were out of order too, so we ended up running to our platform, the kids racing ahead in front, while I followed behind as best as I could, being burdened with my load and carrying a smaller rucksack in each hand.

Despite it being a bank holiday weekend, and even though I hadn't thought to reserve our seats, we managed to get a table to ourselves for most of this second leg of our journey. I thought it was because people felt sympathy for me struggling with two small children and three rucksacks, but everyone seemed keen to chat with my kids for the duration of the journey, so I don't think sympathy for me had anything to do with it.

As we left north Lancashire and entered Cumbria, the kids got excited to see the landscape becoming more hilly and rugged, (where we live is totally flat, so hills held a special appeal for them, and for me too if I'm honest,) and my daughter and son sat at opposite sides of the table from each other in the seats by the window looking out as the scenery got more and more interesting.

My daughter was troubled for a while by the sun shining in her eyes, and I thought about swapping places with her, where I sat, beside my son, but she insisted she wanted to sit by the window. After a while she seemed to be managing much better and I asked if she was OK now. 

"Yes," she replied, "the sun was blinding me, but now it's gone behind a mountain."

My six year old son was tutting and shaking his head. "The sun hasn't gone anywhere," he corrected his sister.

I was quite impressed by that, so I said to him: "Well done son, you're right, it isn't the sun that's moved."

"So what has happened then?" his sister asked.

"It's obvious," he replied, "the mountain has moved in front of the sun!"

Our destination once we'd left the train was Hawkshead on the other side of Windermere between that lake and Coniston Water. Once we'd arrived at Windermere station, we had two choices: Catching a bus around the top of the lake, via Ambleside, or walking down to Bowness-on-Windermere and catching the Ferry. Of course this would mean we'd have a fair amount of walking to do once we'd crossed the lake too, so my own personal preference was for the bus. The kids chose the bus too, as soon as they'd seen the open topped buses. I didn't fancy dragging our luggage all the way up the stairs, but thought we'd be able to leave it safely in a rack downstairs. 

It turned out though that the open topped buses didn't go anyway near Hawkshead; that service was provided by smaller vehicles, almost minibuses, and the kids decided that they'd rather walk instead. Despite my pleading with them, I finally resigned myself to their decision, and we started the trek down to the lake side at Bowness.

I'm glad we did actually, because the scenery on the way was lovely, even though it was mostly through built up semi-urban areas. To me it brought back memories of earlier visits to the lakes; to the kids it was the excitement of being somewhere new that was attractive.

Now, at that time, we'd often keep the kids occupied while we were out walking by encouraging them to play a little game. What they had to do was to watch out for those four wheel drive cars carrying their spare wheels at the rear; whoever spotted one first would point and call out 'wheel on the back' while myself or their mother kept score. A simple game, I know, but exciting enough for kids of that age, and it had served to provide a lot of peace from squabbling and such on past days out.

The problem was that out in the Lake District, being rural, and being somewhat more affluent than where we came from, there were a hell of a lot more 'all-terrain' vehicles around. Everywhere we looked there seemed to be one, so as we walked, my journey was accompanied by an almost constant chant of "Wheel on the back!" from one or another of the kids, and often by both in unison.

"What's the score dad?" my son asked me as we walked down the road into Bowness bay.

"I'm not sure son," I said, "I think I lost count at 196 to 187. Let's just count it as a draw."

Bowness bay stands out against the rest of the Lake District in seeming a little over-touristy. Once you get to know the place, you realise it isn't, but it's very commercial and well visited, especially on bank holiday weekends. The kids were entranced by it: "Can we go on the boats, dad?" "Can we feed the swans, dad?" "Can we ride on that road train, dad?" Requests bombarded my ears. We didn't have time to ride on anything, so we fed the swans for a while, then I got them an ice-cream each (the kids that is, not the swans,) and we carried on down to the ferry.

Waiting for the Windermere ferry

We'd just missed the boat when we got there, so we sat on a low wall alongside the queue of cars waiting for it's next crossing. The weather had turned very warm, and I regretted not joining the kids in an ice-cream. I'd forgotten to bring my hat from home, and the sun was really bothering the top of my 'follicly challenged' head. I had a large white handkerchief I'd been wiping my face with as we'd walked in the heat, and as we waited, I started to tie a knot in each of the corners. The kids asked me what I was doing, and I just told them to wait and see. I placed the knotted handkerchief on my head which reduced the kids to fits of giggles. I laughed, removed it and put it back into my pocket. The ferry arrived and we boarded for our crossing.

Bowness through the Sawreys and on to Hawksead...

At the other side, we started walking, The route was through the two villages of Far Sawrey and Near Sawrey, then along the east side of Esthwaite Water and from there into Hawkshead.

There are two ways to Far Sawrey: via a steep rugged climb up Claife Heights, or up the more gentle rise along the road and around, which though much further, seemed preferable considering our load and the hot sun. The sun really seemed to be beating down now, and after a while, since we were virtually alone on the road, I donned my four cornered knotted hanky again. The kids laughed at me of course, but that was something I could put up with for the comfort afforded to my head, and if people in passing cars should see me, well 'so what?'

Eventually after what seemed like ages, the road curved to the north-west and we reached the southern edge of Far Sawrey. There's a pub there with a pleasant beer garden, so we decided to stop for refreshment.

The Sawrey Hotel - scene of my crushing embarrassment

I helped the kids off with their packs, which we propped up against each other on the grass and 'installed'  both kids at a table in the beer garden, then I went over to the public bar of the hotel to order our drinks.

Being the public bar it was full of locals, rather than tourists; I was pleasantly surprised when first one, then another smiled and nodded at me as I entered. I ordered our drinks and while waiting for my change, turned to see an old couple beside me at the bar, beaming at me. I smiled back. The barmaid returned my change and I asked her if she had a tray. She smiled back at me and said she'd get me one. By the time she returned with the tray, she was smiling so much, it was as if she was almost giggling. I took our drinks outside, passing more locals, all of them raising their glasses and smiling broadly as I passed.

When I reached our table in the beer garden, I gave the kids their drinks and said to them something like: "I must say, the people around here are ever so friendly."

The reply I got from my daughter wasn't one I'd expected, but it was more enlightening than anything else she might have said at that time. She said: "Dad, do you know you still have your hanky on your head?"

After our stop, we walked on through Near Sawrey and down the road toward Hawkshead. We passed Esthwaite water and it looked so cool and inviting, that when we found an area accessible from the road, we walked over to a bench there and stopped for a rest. The kids asked if they could have a little paddle. It was warm and I suspected their feet might benefit from it, so I said OK. Afterwards, after helping my son get his socks and boots back on, I helped my daughter lace up her boots properly and we prepared to continue. 

My son however had decided at this point that he'd carried his rucksack just as far as he possibly could and to avoid arguments, I picked it up and slung the straps over what unoccupied part of my shoulder I could find. Of course a couple of miles later, the same thought occurred to my daughter, and not one for missing an opportunity, she pointed out that since I was carrying his pack, it was only fair that I carried hers too.

So as we turned the final bend in the road, and walked into Hawkshead, the kids' feelings of excitement were matched by my feelings of relief. I could see the multicoloured sight of the campsite just outside the village and so could the kids, as they ran ahead. They were standing at the gates when I eventually caught up. We booked in and pitched our tent and once finished I lay back exhausted. Then one or the other of the kids said: "What are we going to do now, dad?" I didn't want to move. I was tired, hot and thirsty. Then one of them said: "What are we having for tea?" I brightened up as I told them: "As a special treat kids, tonight, we're going to eat in THE PUB!"

The first evening and the longest night...

Eating in a pub, to the kids was like eating in the finest of restaurants. To be honest, as an experience, even to me it wasn't much like eating in a pub back home.

On the bright side, the menu was much more varied than the standard 'pub grub' I was used to, though the children's menu seemed to consist of the usual 'with chips and beans' range of burgers, fish fingers, chicken nuggets, etc.

On the not so bright side, the prices were a hell of a lot more expensive than I was used to, especially when the kids both wanted to choose something from the adult menu. I asked at the bar if they did children's portions of the meals on the main menu, but was met with a look of astonishment. I quickly and casually checked my head for knotted handkerchiefs,  before I realised the astonishment was because I wanted to feed my children something other than deep fried junk food. As it happens, the kids both wanted the same thing from the menu, so I managed to collar one of the ladies serving the food and sweet talked her into providing us with an extra plate and cutlery so that they could share a meal.

The Red Lion, Hawkshead - Dinner Saturday Evening

The food was pleasant, the beer more so, (I assume the cola and lemonade was of an acceptable standard too, since there were no complaints from the kids,) so after eating we decided, since it was a warm night, we'd move to one of the tables outside for more drinks. Obviously I didn't want to get anything like drunk, since I was solely responsible for the kids in a strange place away from home, so I decided to pace myself.

Drinking slowly often provides a sense of relaxation that you don't get when you're in a group of friends, each one keeping pace with the rest. There are times when you realise that the point isn't to drink, it's to enjoy  your surroundings, and the drink just serves to relax you and to help you enjoy it that little bit more.

I was settling in for a pleasant evening of relaxation. The kids had slowed down and were being less boisterous than I remembered them being for a long time. I'd had three pints, though over such a long period, that I wasn't feeling the effects at all. I decided that having another wouldn't show me up as an irresponsible parent, so I asked the kids what they wanted.

"I want to go to bed," My son said. His sister agreed.

"But I thought you wanted to stay up late," I asked them, "I thought you were looking forward to staying out until it got dark." I looked around, the sun had sunk but it was hardly dark, just pleasantly dusky.

"Let's go to bed dad, please," they both asked. So we made our way back to the campsite. On the way, I popped into the village store to buy groceries for breakfast. "You're open late," I said to the shopkeeper. 

"You just caught us before closing," he answered. "We're open until eight pm every night though."

So by eight thirty, the kids were changed for bed, and tucked up in their sleeping bags. There was nothing else for me to do, but to get to bed myself, and I was still a little weary from the journey, so for the first time in more years than I could remember, I was in bed and asleep by nine o'clock.

I was awoken at about ten thirty by screams of panic coming from my son's sleeping bag. I awoke with a start. It was an adult sized sleeping bag, and he'd sunk down into it in his sleep, to the extent that when he'd woke up he was curled up in the bottom quarter of it. He couldn't uncurl himself and couldn't get out so he panicked, and screamed out loud, waking me and probably almost everyone else on the campsite, though noticeably NOT his sister.

I found a solution: I took one of the webbing straps from my rucksack and fastened it tight around his sleeping bag about halfway down, (after rescuing him from it of course; I was hardly likely to imprison him in it; what kind of parent do you take me for?) so after I'd shortened it I persuaded him that he wouldn't get stuck again and managed to get him to go back to sleep.

What seemed like moments later, my daughter woke up. She needed the toilet. The toilet block was only about fifty yards or so away, but I couldn't let her go by herself, but then I couldn't leave her brother alone in the tent either, so after struggling into my trousers and waking my son, the three of us trooped over to the toilets. Having made certain that they'd both made use of the facilities, we returned to our tent; I shortened my daughter's sleeping bag like I had her brother's and all of us finally got back to sleep.

Now I'm an early riser; I always have been: I'm usually up between five and six am every morning. So when I'd been asleep, since nine, it was very unlikely that I was going to sleep through even until that time.

So it was that I suddenly awoke. I realised where I was after a second or two, and then lay there in my sleeping bag between two slumbering children. I was wide awake. I wondered what time it was. I reached out for the camping light and shone it onto my watch. Five past four: too early to start breakfast then. The problem was that my watch was telling me it was the middle of the night, but my body was telling me it was time to get up. I thought about trying to force myself back to sleep, though I had no idea how. Not only that, how would that leave me by eight thirty tonight, when the kids' bedtime came around again?

I struggled out of my sleeping bag and once more into my pants. I reached out and retrieved my cigarettes, unzipped the tent and stepped outside. It was dark. Living in the city, you don't realise how incredibly dark it does get in the country. I sat cross legged on the grass and lit a cigarette. It was a warm night and sitting there was very pleasant indeed. I reached into the tent and retrieved a carton of milk. I opened it and sat on the grass, drinking milk and enjoying a smoke. I realised I should have done this at nine o'clock the day before. It wasn't a bad way to spend the evening.

It was then that I heard footsteps, and a middle aged lady in a bright ruby red velour dressing gown and slippers walked past me. She had curlers in her hair and her handbag tucked under her arm as she headed toward the toilet block. She gave me a strange look, but I just looked back and took another swig from my milk carton and another drag from my cigarette. She returned a few moments later on her way back to her tent. She was frowning at me again, looking at me as though she thought I was some kind of lunatic. I thought I ought to say something. "Morning," I said. It seemed like the logical greeting at the time; however early it was, it was after all 'morning'. She stopped in her tracks and just looked at me. She had obviously decided I was a lunatic and was now determining exactly which kind. I leaned over and my hand fell on my cigarette packet. I don't know what made me do it, but I just picked up the pack, flicked open the top and inquired of her: "Would you like a cigarette?"

She ran. I could hear whispering coming from one of the nearby tents for a few minutes until eventually I heard a man's voice saying "Just shut up and go to sleep woman".

Sunday May 7

Hawkshead to Coniston in the rain, and back in a minibus...

to be continued...

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