Thursday, September 09, 2010

Wild England

I’ll admit I was expecting some trees. Camping would be the perfect break from the cacophony of London, I needed – respite from the queues, the cost and the constant threat of pickpockets and train delays.

For the peace of the countryside, I was willing to incur a few itchy welts and fall slack with my hygiene. From my tent in the shadow of the trees, I would mistake the sound of the wind for traffic, and the buzz of mosquitoes for shit electronica reverberating through from the neighbour's flat. But then I would awake to my refreshing new reality in the countryside. And I would take a long, deep breath of clean country air and smile contentedly – completely relaxed and rejuvenated. There would be little to do, other than play cards in the dancing orange light around the campfire, and perhaps cool our beer in the frigid North Atlantic sand.

I had no idea what I was in for, but driving through a military weapons test site on the way to the campground was the first sign I wasn’t going to get the peace I’d been expecting.

Camping in England is as dissimilar to camping in Canada as our respective versions of football. The only wild creatures at our campsite in Durdle Door, near Poole, were feral children and mothers who ran madly among the tents scream-crying, “Where’s my baby!?”. Fortunately, every tent was within earshot of all others, so their children were usually located fairly quickly, which meant the fathers could stop cursing and the mothers would stop hyperventilating and they could get back to bickering about whose responsibility it is to watch the kids. Teenagers roamed in small packs, hunting stray beer and tentatively stalking each other’s elusive virginities.

Rows and rows of beige and tan rectangles lined the paved, speed-bumped streets of the campground, surrounding the small field designated for tents. To get there, we walked a gauntlet of beady eyes, peering out through white lace curtains, belonging to old ladies, Shih-Tzus and toy terriers. All capable of terrible yapping should anyone stumble onto their perfectly manicured territory, too near the potted mums, pansies and plastic ornaments. In England, this is a campground. In Canada, we call the phenomenon a trailer park. Nowhere else would you see so many white shoes outside a retirement home.

Our tent overlooked two trailers, a few parked cars and a beautiful valley dotted with grazing sheep. There would be no campfire, I realized, but not because we risked inadvertently starting a forest fire – there were no trees in sight – but because we couldn’t risk ruining the grass. We didn’t need a flashlight, because even on cloudy nights, the streetlamp next to our pitch provided all the light we needed.

There was no wilderness, but nature made itself known. It rained from all directions. The wind blew in with gusto, sucking out our slack tent walls and snapping them back with twice the enthusiasm. Camping in Canada, I thought, trees would provide some shelter from the weather. Camping in England, I could just walk to the campsite pub, next to the shop if I wanted shelter. Not only did the pub offer cold pints and a quiz machine, but full English breakfast and steamy lattes in the mornings.

When I realized waiting out the storm in a pub was an option, I also realized the campsite was more populated than my Canadian hometown. My parents still live there, where there are so few people, a general store is barely viable. They drive fifteen minutes to the nearest town to find a meat selection like the one at this campsite. Where I’m from, most of the meat is still running wild in the forest.

I really thought that in heading to the English coast for camping, I’d be getting away from it all. Relatively I was. London offers everything you could ever want, and everything you definitely don’t – Buckingham Palace and council estates, multiculturalism in the streets and people under trains, orderly queues and regular stabbings. Fame and misfortune. London has it all.

At Durdle Door, our campsite, things were simple. Only lattes, cold cans of beer, salty ocean water, and beautiful coastline could be found, all within a two-minute saunter. Even the sun made an appearance eventually, and long enough to sear my pale, deprived pins. It didn’t matter that camping in England wasn’t like camping in Canada. Nothing in England is like Canada. That’s the point of travelling. I reminded myself of this as I passed a yard sale on my way to the pub.

Still, I longed for the smell of wood smoke to permeate my belongings, for sparks to char and scar my hooded sweatshirt and for pinesap to ruin the seat of my jeans. I wanted to worry about real animals – bears, coyotes, skunks and raccoons – rather than suburban foxes stealing our Mediterranean olive assortment and feral teenagers stealing our beer.

But instead of worrying away the days of our trailer park residency, I sipped my coveted latte and took a really good look at my welt-free self. Breathing deeply, I let the aura of freshly mown grass and sun-warmed pavement fill me with the sense of summer, and I accepted the beautiful absurdity of camping in England. Because with all the authenticity it seemed to lack, it also lacked mosquitoes.

As the sun sets over the trailers, here I am making delicious kebabs to cook on the bucket barbecue. The entire camping experience was made possible by friends who organized basically everything, and the entire reason we had a nice time. They also took this picture.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I love it... you're a born writer!