School holiday special: Oi! Who invited you to our picnic?
The sky turned red and filled with whirring wings. Rowan Pelling relives her worst outing
Sunday 24 July 2005
The summer of 1976 was the hottest in living memory. It would take three decades of global warming before anything of its ilk came round again. Day after day, temperatures soared into the eighties, there was a hosepipe ban, and parched customers at my parents' pub in Kent abandoned ale and started drinking pints of Harp (the only lager we sold in those days).
Even my resourceful mother was stumped for excursion ideas: the pavements of London were too hot to tread and the roads to the sea were jammed with other desperate families. So my mother decided to strike inland and arranged to meet a family friend at a picnic spot near Graffam Water in Cambridgeshire.
The journey was long and dreary to an eight-year-old and my hot legs stuck to the Ford Escort's plastic seats. As the sun climbed, my little brother, Hereward, turned green, and before my mother could pull into a lay-by he was sick on my legs.
At midday we turned into the picnic park which was remarkable for its total lack of natural beauty. A clearing was ringed by some scrubby bushes and overflowing bins. My mother's friend and her two children had already arrived in their camper van and were setting out her trademark Victoria sandwich cake, which revolted me because it was sprinkled with desiccated coconut. Our own picnics invariably consisted of egg sandwiches, Jacobs cream crackers, Swiss Knight cheese triangles and bourbon biscuits.
The boys went off to play Frisbee and my sister played cat's cradle with my mum's friend's daughter. I was bored and hot and cross when suddenly one of the boys shouted, "Come and look at this." I ran over and saw a brilliant scarlet bush, which on closer observation was a seething mass of ladybirds. "Here's another one," shouted Justin.
Then the sky darkened and acquired a reddish tinge and within seconds the air was thick with whirring wings and tiny spotted bodies. Everything - the ground, the trees, our clothes - was covered in insects. It was like a Hitchcock movie, but far, far worse. We screamed and ran for the vehicles. It was then that we noticed clouds of wasps trailing in the ladybirds' wake. Our little legs flew over the ground while our arms beat at the air. I could feel sharp nips across my body and was hysterical with terror. My mum's friend had the camper van's doors open and we leapt for safety, leaving our picnic slowly turning red on the table.
It later transpired that the nips came from the ladybirds, not the wasps, and there were reports of "Biblical plagues" across the land. All I know is that since that day I've never looked kindly upon that sly red beetle with its diddy black spots.
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