Brian Viner: 'When we saw a Land Rover trundling towards us, we feared the worst'

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The Independent Online

Our friend Simon, a man with a scout leader's zest for life, suggested several months ago that along with his family and two other sets of friends we might like to spend the last weekend of the school holidays canoeing a 25-mile stretch of the River Wye, with an overnight stay under canvas in a field belonging to his Uncle Chuff, who farms 400 acres not far from Hay. We agreed readily enough even though we're not natural campers, in fact we've only done it once before en famille, when I disgraced myself by sleeping soundly through the children's nocturnal toilet requests, and Jane disgraced herself by burning a perfect circle in our friends' groundsheet with the cafetiere. Of course, the very word cafetiere gives away our stature as middle-class johnnies-come-lately to the world of camping. This time we took a kilim rug.

We started at Glasbury-on-Wye on Sunday morning, seven adults and 11 children in six canoes, only two of which capsized, happily into water that was only knee-deep. One was a tiny purple kayak, more like a big kazoo, into which our friend Patrick had squeezed. The other was the canoe containing four 16-year-old girls, who dealt with their predicament with dignified, resourceful calm. Or rather, didn't.

At around 5pm Simon identified what he thought was a stretch of riverbank in the lee of Uncle Chuff's field, so we hoiked the canoes up a steep bank of mud and nettles (with at least one of us remembering Ratty's comment about there being nothing half as much fun as messing about in boats and silently resolving to burn his copy of Wind In The Willows) and set up camp on the edge of a vast cornfield.

This was the bit where we Viners finally came into our own, erecting our bell tent with something approaching panache. Jane bought the bell tent six months ago so the children could have sleepovers in the garden with their mates, so she is a practised hand, and while I'm sure that www.belltent.co.uk can do all their own marketing without any help from me, it's a truly splendid thing, a tent like tents used to be before they became over-complicated with pods and Jacuzzis and stuff. It's wonderfully easy to erect, and once up, it has an elegant, faintly eastern aura. Indeed, with the kilim placed just inside the entrance, it could have passed for the home of Suleiman the Magnificent. Or at the very least that of his son, Suleiman the So-So.

As afternoon turned into evening, we communed happily with nature, even the child feeling deprived of his games console, who got excited when he overheard his father's intention to "go for a wee", fleetingly thinking that he might be going for a Wii. The only thing interfering with the wholesome outdoorsiness of the occasion was Simon's sotto voce admission to Jane and me that he wasn't certain we were actually on Uncle Chuff's land. So when we saw a Land Rover trundling across the field towards us, we feared the worst. And sure enough, it was a farmer and his wife, furious that we had pitched camp on their farm and ordering us to leave. I tried to calm them down, offering to pay, and promising that we wouldn't build a fire, which seemed to be their main concern, but they would not be placated. They didn't want our money, they just wanted us to bugger off. The trip was turning sour before our eyes.

It was at this miserable point that Simon stepped forward and introduced his Uncle Chuff and Auntie Candia, with whom he had conspired to hoodwink Jane and me. All the other adults were in on the joke, which, it has to be said, was brilliantly executed. Moreover, far from being the hatchet-faced pair they had seemed, Uncle Chuff and Auntie Candia turned out to be utterly delightful, pulling out flasks of tea and a wicker hamper full of lemon drizzle cake. Not that it's easy to warm instantly to people who moments earlier have appeared to be ruining your day; it took Jane two mugs of a tea to stop shaking.

The rest of the trip, happily, passed without incident. The night under canvas was as comfortable as any night spent sliding slowly but inexorably downhill in a sleeping-bag can be, and the rest of the majestic Wye was safely negotiated the following day. We even saw a kingfisher. In more ways than one, we got home feeling well and truly Chuffed.

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