It was time to get in the car. We said our farewells. I put the engine in first. With thoughts of swimming with dolphins, I turned to young Joe and asked, ‘You got your trunks?’ ‘Oh, no’, he said. ‘Shorts, then?’ He was thinking about his answer (who really knows what goes on in the mind of a thirteen year old, or even wants to?) I decided to risk the heavily laden car over the speed bumps on Greenbank Lane. Our lovely Renault Scenic Megane has been known to rupture wheel suspensions or drop off its exhaust. I reckoned there shouldn’t be a problem, if I drove easy.
‘Er, one’ said Joe. ‘What! One pair of shorts…we’re going away for the best part of a week to the sea and you’ve got no trunks and one pair of shorts?! We have to go back.’ Guffawing, I drove down the lane, round the big cherry at the bottom and all the way back up, still guffawing, over the bumps again. Easy doing it.
Karen didn’t seem at all surprised to see us back when she opened the front door. Joe leapt inside and was back in a flash, waving his trunks in the air. That was more like it. I just wished he’d thought about it a bit sooner. You give them independence and they forget their trunks…one last guffaw. Still, we were away on holiday and were going to enjoy ourselves. We’d booked a few days on a camp site in Rhoscolyn on the glorious Isle of Anglesey.
Driving, in my book, is all about choices. Faced with deciding which way to go – either Ullet Road and the bumps or straight up Smithdown Road – I was taking no chances this time. Smithdown, it was. High above, blue sky and white, fluffy clouds, it was a beautiful morning. Rays of sunlight guided us to the Wallasey tunnel (built in the 1970s when I was just a lad, I told Joe….after all, this was to be an educational trip, too).
On to the M53. Anyone who knows me can tell you of my deep love of motorways. Signs for Arrow Park and Clatterbridge flashed by. What names! You couldn’t make them up. Queensferry and the A55 appeared swiftly and were gone and soon we were passing into North Wales. I celebrated with a tummy tickler over the bumps and headed straight towards the Old Conwy tunnels, carved out of the rock, and threaded through the jagged coastline.
‘’Joe, look, Puffin island! And across the water, Beaumaris Castle? Can you see? That’s where we stayed that time.’ ‘I see it, I see it!’ sang Joe. Seconds later, we swept over the Menai Bridge and into another world.
Into the Valley
I felt as if we’d done well getting onto the island without looking at the map. But now I had a sinking feeling. ‘Where was the campsite exactly?’ More Rhoscolyn than Rhosneigr. Trouble was, I wasn’t entirely sure where we turned off the A5. I glanced at Joe to see if he noticed my hesitancy. He was laid back, relaxed, his arm draped casually over the sill of the open window. He as wearing his dark, cool sunglasses. He gave me the look.
‘Look!’, I said. A sign marked ‘Y Falli’ came from somewhere. ‘That must be it.’ Five minutes later, we were lost. I pulled over to ask directions of a lovely, local lady who just happened to be walking by. She put us right and we were on our way again. Everything made sense. We were heading for Four Mile Bridge.
I turned off the main road and carried on for a couple of more miles before pulling up at the entrance to a trackway, barred by a gate.. ‘OK, Joe, out you pop. Open the gate, will yer.’ ‘Is this a trick, dad?’ ‘A trick? What kind of father do you take me for? I haven’t driven the whole of Wales just to let you out to open the gate and then drive off. Now he mentioned it, it did seem a good idea, though. Shaking his head and looking suspiciously at me, he got out and opened the gate. In truth, I was still not entirely sure if I was in the right place. I edged the car forward, taking care not to crush his toes, waiting patiently for him to close the gate behind us. Years of rambling had instilled in me a great respect for the Countryside Code. Joe jumped back into the car beside me. It all came back to me now. The stony path, the cabbage white butterflies in the hedgerows, the cows in the field, my car tyres renewing old acquaintance with the gravel and pitted holes. Seconds later, there was the sign, ‘Cader y Agar’ We’d arrived!
Pitch and Put Up
It felt like only yesterday we’d been practising putting up our tent in the garden. It had been only yesterday. To our credit, it had only taken us an hour and a half. But the tent we’d brought with us, though the same make, was different. It was bigger and very blue. We’d never put this one up before. I’d borrowed it from a colleague in work, see. She’d called it ‘The Blue Tent’, because of its blueness. She and her partner had travelled the world with it. It had two bedrooms and a front room, she’d said, big enough for a table and two chairs. I could feel the weight of history on my shoulders. Anyway, we couldn’t wait any longer.. how difficult could it be putting it up?
Our first task was to find the right pitch. Joe was keen on going to the same place we’d been to last time. Trouble was, after all the heavy rain, most of the ground was sopping. The top end, where the good drainage was, was already filled tents and cars. As we thought about what to do next, a family of four approached us, out for a stroll. ‘Are you alright? Do you need any help?’, asked one of them. I smiled back at them. ‘Thanks, appreciate it but we’re fine.’ Well, you have to put your own tent up, don’t you, especially with your lad being there. You have to pass on the lore and all that? It’s all part of the love of camping.
Aside from the feisty breeze blowing across the open field, it was a beautiful afternoon. This wind almost proved our undoing. With hindsight, it’s easy to see now that only two hardy adventurers, like ourselves, blessed with character and determination, would have faced the daunting menace and mischief of the crosswinds and still retain our cool. I glanced at the watch. 4.30pm, it said. Plenty of time to put up the tent and make the tea. Let’s get to work.
However, simple tasks like finding eyehooks, inserting them into the tent poles were proving tricky in this gusty wind. Each time we tried to arch the poles and raise the tent frame, the wind lifted it up in the air, like hitting a six across the boundary rope. I asked Joe to hold down the tent while I inspected the field boundary. Rough terrain tumbled down to the cliff edge a hundred or so metres away. Gorse and bracken formed a thick, preventative border. Only a few sheep nibbled at the tal,l salt grass. If it did flip, I calculated, the grass was sure to catch it before it ended up in the sea.
Time and again, me and Joe went for it. One pole punched a hole in my shin. I was too knackered to feel the pain but knew I would later. It was getting on for six now. The helpful family were returning from their walk. We hadn’t advanced one bit. They came thought the gate, smiling kindly, while I waved up at them,smiling back from my position on the floor till they’d passed. Oh, we had to do something different. It must be possible to put this flipping tent up, even in this sodden wind and on boggy turf. Surely!. But how?
Joe told me later, it was at that moment I cried out, ‘Joe, lie down, flat. Hold the tent down, your end!’ I lay at the other. I could hear his heavy beathing. My heart was pounding. Both of us were lying full length on the canvas. I could feel sweat forming on my brow.
‘Ready, Joe, one more time? Let’s do it’. Tent hook found its end, then another and another. One arch was ready. Now for its mate. Would it work? With thumping hearts and heaving limbs, holding on with all our strength against the onslaught of the near gale, our torsos bore the brunt of its massive attack. We would not be cowered. ‘How’s your end, Joe?’, I shouted. ‘In’, came the confident reply. It was up to me now. Summoning up all I had left, combined with surprisingly smooth technique, I bent the second arch upwards. The tent rose magnificently in one piece and I placed the final pole in its slot. ‘It’s up, Joe,’, I cried, ‘it’s up! Now, peg. Peg for all your worth!’ The first peg held it down, not quite where we wanted it to go but it will do. We were holding and pegging, pegging and holding. A couple of minutes later, all four corners were peggedin. As one, we stood back, all pegged out, looking with pride at the outer tent, erected.
Unbelievably, we were in a position to put the inner tent up now. Pausing only briefly, ‘You ok, Joe?’ He nodded. We cracked on. No words were necessary. Shielded from the buffeting wind by the outer tent, we worked swiftly. Both of us knew our task and carried it out with a degree of skill which, half-an-hour earlier, had seemed unlikely. With a look of glee, Joe closed the last toggle. We stood back and looked at each other. Against all the odds, the tent was up. We had succeeded and fell into a dad and son embrace.
Night time cometh and then the food…
Time was getting well on. In went the bags and the bedding. It was soon clear we’d pitched at least partly on sodden grass. To help, we lined layers of waterproofing under the blankets and sleeping bags. I looked in horror as a patch of water bubbled up through the grass in the ‘front parlour.’ Moving right now was out of the question. ‘We’ll deal with it in the morning’. We had more pressing needs to assuage, hunger and thirst.
By now, it was nearly half-past seven and I was starting to feel very peckish, indeed. We did have plenty of food with us. I had borrowed a two-ring camping stove and had even practised connecting it to the gas bottle the day before. But a beautiful idea came to me. ‘Joe, we could stay here and cook.’ Pictures of partly cooked tinned beans on wet bread filled my mind’s eye and, I hoped, Joe’s too. ‘Or we could go to the…ahem, pub. What do you think, Joe?, I asked with bated breath.
You see, Joe is known in the family for his staunch, anti-drinking position, for which he blames me, I’m afraid. One evening, returning home after a few beers, I thought I’d wish my boys goodnight, as you do. I went upstairs. Joe’s bedroom was first on the landing. He was about six then. I pushed the door open and crept inside the darkened room. He appeared to be asleep. I just wanted to give him a little peck on the cheek. Still wearing my coat, my hands were tucked deep in the pockets. Taking care not to step on his dinosaur and action hero figures, scattered all over the floor, I moved to his bedside. Suddenly, in the dark, without warning, the rug I was standing on gave way under my feet, catapulting me straight over and toppling me down onto young Joe. There was nothing I could do to stop it. I was just as startled and why couldn’t I move my arms? Stuck in the pockets, the more I wriggled, the more I pinned the poor lad down, his eyes now popping wide open. I couldn’t get up.
After what seemed like ages, I managed to get one arm out and free myself, just enough to brush his forehead with a bedtime kiss. ‘It’s only me’, I said, standing up. I took care to straighten the rug again in case he tripped over it in the morning and slowly edged my way backwards out of the room. I smiled back at him from the doorway. ‘Night, night. Sleep well. See you in the morning.’ Joe was staring at me as I pulled the door over.
Back on the landing, I looked at David’s door next to it and decided to leave saying goodnight to him. The next morning at breakfast, Joe exaggerated he had crushing two vertebrae in him and nine in Little Ted. You can see the lad is farfetched. Ever since, he has reproached me with that look every time I open a bottle of beer. However, for whatever reason, he placed all that history to one side and said ‘yes, Dad, let’s go to the pub.’ Indeed, if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought he was just as keen as me to get to the pub. The start of forgiveness…?
A short walk took us around Sandy Bay towards the pub. Along the way, Joe spoke of valour, pitting our wits and strength against the elements and overcoming great odds. We had done a good job. The tent was still standing against the wind and it looked firmly secured, if a little squishy in the parlour area.
Sandy Bay is a beautiful place. At this hour, the beach was deserted, apart from a few gulls and guillemots. The bells of two moored yachts clanged in the distance. A small island at the mouth of the bay invited us to swim out there. It felt very peaceful. The warm sun shone down on the back of our necks. I was certainly looking forward to a good meal and a pint or two. ‘Buzz if you recognise something from last time’, I said to Joe. ‘Buzz’. ‘What’s that?’ I asked, thinking it must be an historical feature or some distant mountain top. ‘Over there,’ Joe nodded in the direction of a squat, concrete block in the corner of the car park. ‘The toilet block?’, I checked, looking at him. ‘Yeh, you said to buzz if I saw something I remembered and I remember that toilet block’. ‘Fair enough’ and on we walked.
A few minutes later, we arrived at the pub. It was packed. A sign on the wall advised that children had to leave by 9.30pm. My mouth watered at the prospect of freshly caught cod and chips with peas and a pint of real ale. To spice matters up, England were playing a friendly against Hungary that night. It was their last warm up game before going off to Germany for the 2006 World Cup and it was being shown live on TV. It just couldn’t get better than this.
We found an empty table on the terrace and watched as the table staff brought out the evening fayre. It looked good. I double checked the specials board for pudding. Pretty good. The views of the Rinnogs across the estuary may be wonderful from here but the only problem was we wouldn’t be watching any football from here. Good point, where was the tele? and went to explore. I found it in the back room, a dining area enclosed by four rather darkened walls with not a view to be seen. It sat high up on a bracket in a corner, inconspicuous with its blank screen.
We moved to a free table in a corner where we could watch the game. As a waiter came by, I asked, ‘Can you turn the TV on, please?’ ‘Erm, I’m sure we can but it depends on what the other diners want.’ came the reply. I looked around at all the people in the room. It was filled with families and groups eating their food. Not one of them seemed at all bothered at missing the game. The waiter came back. ‘Sorry, the cod is finished. What would you like?’
I went to have another look at the specials board. When I returned, Joe was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. ‘What’s up, Joe?’ ‘This is a smoking area, dad. That’s why the walls look brown.’ I looked around me. Noone was smoking, but for two non-smokers like us, I had to admit, it wasn’t great.
Time for a rethink. While ordering our food at the bar, a family occuping a table in a bay window at the front got ready to leave. I stepped quickly inside the back dining room and called Joe. ‘Joe, come on quick, we’re moving.’ At least half an hour, maybe an hour till we got our food, they told us. ‘What?’ But with the experience we’d had that day already of putting up the tent, it was too late to do anything else. I paid for the food and drink with two packets of crisps to keep us going.
At least the beer was good, I said to Joe, who was on orange juice. There was one there celebrating 100 years of the famous Chester clock. We engaged in polite conversation to pass the time till our food came. When it did, it was delicious. We polished it off in no time and both had room for pud. Joe had sticky toffee pudding. To his shame, he was unable to finish it. ‘Very few people do’, I told him, ‘Those that do have the honour of having their name displayed over the bar, it is so rare. He looked up at the headings, ‘Eastgate, Watmough, Tetley’.’ ‘So close, Joe.’, I consoled him. ‘What a shame! You’ve just missed out on the roll of honour.’, as I finished off his sticky toffee pudding for him.
The return journey always seems quicker than the outgoing one. We strolled back to the beach, deserted again. The waves were lapping up and down, up and down against the shore. It was beautiful but there was a chill in the air which prevented us from hanging around too long.
A few minutes later, we were back in our tent. We sorted out our evening wash and crawled inside our sleeping bags. Joe was ready with a bedtime tale. He had brought a book about myths and legends with him and asked me to pick one. ‘Let’s have the Judgement of Paris’, I said. I tried not to dwell on the squishy noises underfoot at the bottom of the tent. ‘Please don’t let Joe catch cold’, I said in silent prayer. Sitting upright, he settled to his task, having clipped a night light to the top of his book to illuminate the page. He read well with good intonation, emphasising the key points for dramatic effect. After a while, it was hard trying not to drift off after all the exertions of the day, not to mention two pints of Eastgate. I noticed the birds outside were still busy, chattering away. We felt warm and snug inside our tent. Joe came to the end of his tale and turned out the light. ‘Night, Joe.’ ‘Night, Dad.’ But, for me, I still one task to perform.
In this world cup year, how had England got on against Hungary? I had almost given up being able to tune into radio 5 Live. The small birds were singing away on the branches only a few yards away and I could only get static on the radio. But, by carefully adjusting the dial one way, then another, I could just hear Spooney congratulate England on a 3-1 victory. I whispered the result to Joe but he was already snoring. What would Karen do about this? A dig in the ribs did the trick. ‘What a day! What will tomorrow bring?’ and I slumbered.
A New Day
Whoever said it was quiet in the countryside has to be joking. I had been awake since dawn listening to the birds. They were still at it, louder than ever. I dozed for a while, loving the sensation of being under billowing canvas. My feelings were mixed. Relief at the tent still being up. Concern that we may be floating away on a bog. I touched the groundsheet underneath me. It felt dry which was a good sign. We can always move the tent later, I thought.
It was quite enjoyable, waiting for Joe to wake up while trying to get as long a lie-in as possible. Eye contact would mean having to get up and make breakfast. He still also had his big book of myths and legends and wasn’t afraid to use it. So, I kept quiet for as long as possible. Maybe, the earpiece gave it away. ‘Dad, you’re awake!’ I could not deny it. I looked at my watch. It was 5 to 8. The mobile started ringing. Where was it? I rummaged in my pocket, just managing to answer it in time. It was Karen, telling me she’d taken David to hospital that night for observation. He’d been vomiting and had headaches. ‘Had I not got her earlier message?’, she asked. ‘What message?’. At this point, she didn’t know if we’d have to come back straightaway. She would ring back later, once the doctors had been round. I passed the news onto Joe.
The worst thing about camping is definitely getting up in the morning. You have to find your shorts while lying flat. Forget socks. And the weather, what’s it going to be like outside? We were lucky. Unzipping the front door, it was a bright, sunny day, though still windy. I had a lukewarm, power shower and was ready for my breakfast. We were also back to problem-solving, finding out how to put together a table. More slats, sockets and pins to juggle but, with a little bit of jiggery pokery, it was standing. ‘Fancy a picnic breakfast?’ ‘Fantabuloso!’, said Joe. We got through croissants and jam and cereal. Afterwards, Joe showed off his footballing prowess. What a talent the boy has! He has worked on his keepy-uppie skills so that now he can do…I counted out loud…one, two, three…woops, start again, woops, right into the bracken. We were about to abandon the ball game when, using my special powers, I spotted and rescued it. ‘Game on!’, thundered Joe.
Of course, we did have to go back. David spent the next couple of days in hospital as a precaution before they let him home. It was only when I got back to the flat that I noticed a voice mail message on my other mobile. I dialled the number. It was a message from Karen, telling me David was ill. In the last part of the message, David had told her to tell us not to rush back from our holiday on his account. What a lovely lad!
What about dismantling the tent? It came down a lot easier than it went up. ‘When will we come back camping again, dad?’ ‘That’s a good question, son, a good question. Let’s just say, it won’t be too long,Joe. I’d say, not too long at all’.
This was originally written in June 2006 and revised in December-January 2012