It is always with a mixture of emotions that I peruse the contents of our small trailer before any of our camping expeditions, to check everything is there. These outings are always being an experiment in testing the triumph of hope over experience.
Our excessively large tent lies at the top, seeming to mock me from its drab green holdall. Remembering, no doubt, previous, often futile, attempts at its erection. The sweaty struggle to get the damnable poles in some sort of logical position, the endless game to untangle the cat’s cradle of guy ropes, and my inability to do all this without gift-wrapping up at least one of the hounds in the sleeping pod.
Everything is checked and ticked off a list with military precision - well, almost.
The utterly unreliable and somewhat aggressive camping stove, the collapsible chairs - which always live up to their name - and the folding table which gives every meal time the excitement of dining at sea in a force nine gale. They all get counted in.
Then there are the clothes. What to pack? Well, it’s to be a summer trip to deepest Dorset. So shorts, T-shirts and my new, state-of-the-art sandals - a masterpiece of cobbler’s engineering - with all-terrain, cushioned soles, and designed for those attempting to walk twice around the globe! These replacing my old ones which Nico, our young-in-brain Basset, had chewed the straps and plastic buckle off.
Yes, but what if it rains - as it sometimes does in these foreign parts. My trusty North Face waterproof jacket and a thick jumper that is even too hot in winter, are stowed away.
The trailer by this time is packed to its maximum capacity.
Then, Frankie emerges from the cottage pulling an enormous suitcase.
‘What is that?’ I ask - the answer already forming in my head before the actual answer is sounded. ‘My clothes, of course!’ she says.
We then had a conversation in which she explained why every single item in her entire wardrobe was needed for the trip. ‘Because, you never know what will happen’.
Eventually, after much heaving and hauling, everything is lashed onto the trailer.
However, to accommodate this extra load (and to maintain marital harmony) I had to jettison almost all that I have packed for myself. So that my spare clothing amounted to less than that taken by a Massai warrior on a very short hunting trip!
Still, at last we are ready for the ‘off’.
Nico and Pablo are put aboard the trusty 4x4. The trailer is hitched and we are ready to start our long trek from East Sussex into the wild west.
Actually, the ‘Wild West’ is not a bad metaphor, as we drive out of the village looking like a family of carpet-baggers heading for California during the ‘49 gold-rush.
Dorset was beautiful, though I was a little disappointed not having to cross water to reach the Isle of Purbeck - not so much as a causeway, not even a bridge!
We camped in the field of a working farm near Corfe Castle and, save the usual trauma of putting up the tent and establishing camp, we soon reverted to holiday mode. We were right next to a field of very inquisitive sheep, yet our hounds accepted their presence without protest or provocation.
The weather was pretty good and it was certainly warm enough to unpack my shorts and T-shirt and, of course, my sandals.
It was then that I realised that instead of packing my super, go-faster, new pair; I had brought along only one! Together with a single old, chewed one. How did that happen?
Still, together they made a pair!
And although I didn’t cut the sartorial dash I had hoped, and was ribbed mercilessly by Frankie, I think I got away with this mismatched pairing. Albeit, affecting a slight limp in order to keep the strapless sandal on. No doubt, the locals accepted this as some imported, sophisticated fashion statement not yet known in the county. Anyway, I would certainly not be surprised to see that on our next Dorset trip we will see everyone adopting this style. And they’ll have me to thank for it!
We toured around. Swanage, over the sea to exotic Poole, Lullworth Cove and as far west as Dorchester. The world was our lobster!
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, as did the hounds. We walked lots, and ate and drank under the stars - the hounds relishing each new Dorset sight and smell.
On our final night we got dressed-up and went to a stylish, riverside restaurant in Wareham. It was a lovely, warm evening, the swans were on the river and by candlelight we ate Star-Gazey pie - a delicious fish dish with the heads of langoustines peeking through the pastry and staring pitifully at the heavens above.
As did my toes in the chewed sandal!
This trip took place in the summer of 2009. We all had so much fun that we decided to repeat the Dorset expedition this year - this time venturing further west into the county.
We booked onto a rather nice campsite just outside the market town of Bridport. From the deeper recesses of my brain, I recalled two facts about this town. One, it has the widest high street of any West Country town (why did I remember this?); and two, the place was famous for rope making. In fact, besides supplying the local shipbuilding industry, the rope was used to make hangman’s nooses - known as Bridport daggers!
Anyway, none of this trivia had any bearing on why we went there, we simply wanted to use it as a base for exploring this corner of the county.
Once again, the camping paraphernalia was loaded up and we hit the westward highway.
I should point out that, to avoid confusing myself again, I had ceremonially burnt my old sandals on a bonfire - a Viking funeral for footware. Sad, I know.
Anyhow, even though the previous week’s weather had been relentlessly wet and windy, we were lucky to get some lovely dry days.
The hounds enjoyed the long walks almost as much as getting the chance to share our sleeping pod. Nico always ‘tries it on’, thinking that I will not notice his head slowly encroach upon my pillow. There have been times when I have suddenly woken up to be confronted by his big face only millimetres from mine - not a wholly unpleasant experience. And on a very cold night the warmth of two canine bodies in the tent is rather welcome. In fact, I think it is the Inuit people who rate cold nights by the number of dogs needed on their bed to keep them warm. The coldest is referred to as a ‘three-dog night’.
The downside of this is that we get disturbed when Nico and Pablo feel the need to go outside for a pee in the middle of the night. This long and rather noisy process involves unzipping ourselves from our sleeping bag, unzipping the sleeping-pod door, putting on some outer clothing and footwear, putting the leads on the dogs, then finally unzipping main door of the tent. This procedure is carried out in a normally supine posture, due to the height clearance of where we are in the tent. This is done in Stygian gloom, illuminated only by a small torch usually with a failing battery.
After four days of this, at one lazy breakfast (always the highlight of any camping trip) Frankie and I discussed whether we were getting just too old for this tenting malarkey. Our gaze fixed upon the fleet of super-white caravans docked across from us on the opposite side of the site. Their gleaming bright, luxury seemed to mock our rather basic, low-tech lifestyle choice. We had seen the evening glow of their electric lights. We had seen their fitted-kitchens with fridges (imagine drinking cold white wine!), And we had heard the laughter of their inhabitants.
This seed of envy slowly festered. In fact, on our trips out we started noticing these white hulks being towed to their various Shangri-Las. On one occasions, just outside Lyme Regis, I commented that considering there were so many caravans on the road, we had not seen any caravan dealers. Then providentially, around the very next corner we came across one of these forecourts of dreams. Shall we just have a look? I think you could be already ahead of me on this!
Drawing by Sheila Williams ©2010
All I shall say is that it is a monster, a gleaming white monster. Twenty-six feet long, twin axles, separate bedroom, a shower, a washroom, and a kitchen with a fridge. It even has air-blown central heating. A portable palace! A touring kennel!
We have not yet been away in it - it being securely stored at a secret location in deepest Sussex - but we are making plans. Devon? Norfolk? Tuscany? Watch this space!
Now, where are those sandals?