Camping holidays: Loitering within tent

Deborah Ross is not what you'd call a happy camper. In fact, she positively hates the world of sleeping bags and guy ropes. Who better, then, to sample the delights of the great British countryside?


Camping. People are now saying camping is "cool", but it is not. I do not like camping. I do not like camping because I do not like: tents; sleeping bags; grass; hard ground; being outdoors; bugs; the cold; the dark; rain; non-porcelain toilet arrangements; sausages; birds; singing birds; other campers; washing-up bowls; dry things that get wet; wet things that won't dry; sleeping bag zips; mud; dirt; fleeces; torches; grizzly bears; needing to pee at 4am; needing a poo at any time; bonfires; guitars; plastic crockery; cagoules; ugly shoes; wine from a beaker; condensation; no hot shower. And then, to cap it all, I am Jewish. This means, surely, I have already suffered enough. It may even mean that, coming from a history of suffering, I have no more suffering to give.

So when the editor of this magazine asks if I might go camping for this week's Outdoors issue I say: "I think I'll pass, thanks all the same." When he asks for a second time, I repeat: "I think I'll pass, thanks all the same." When he asks yet again, I figure I'd better put it to him straight: "Listen, I would rather slice up my own tongue and serve it on Ritz crackers. Are you getting it now?" He says: "I'm just about to sign off your expenses." I say: "On the other hand, as a professional, I suppose I must accept whatever I am assigned." Expenses are good. Expenses are helpful should you, say, feel a trip to Brent Cross coming on because you fear you might be running out of mod cons. Sometimes, it's fun just going into John Lewis to ask: "What new mod cons do you have and can I have one?"

My partner will accompany me. He is happy to do so. He is more than happy to do so. "What? You? Camping? I have to see that." He is not Jewish and therefore cannot comprehend the extent to which I have already suffered. My partner likes camping. He even loves it. He has all the gear. We call him: "Ditch Boy". With a mighty rucksack and frying pan bouncing off his back, he will disappear for days. He has a head-torch which he even wears in bed, to read by. He has those walking sticks that look like ski poles. He loves camping, he says, because "it's a chance to connect with the outside world and turn my back on modern life". Turn your back on modern life? Outside world? Do you think God would have created an inside world – with sofas in it and everything – if he'd wanted us to stay in the outside one? I think not. And I say this as one of his chosen people, which means I am in the know.

My partner and I did once go camping together but it rained and rained and rained. A rainstorm will, I'm sure, travel thousands of miles against prevailing winds just to drench a tent. The mud was such it sucked your shoes off. It was like being at a music festival without the music or the festival. I sat in the car for two days with the heater on, crying. The bug thing, by the way, is not inconsequential. I've even been treated for arachnophobia at London Zoo. It didn't work. It only increased my fear of moths, wasps and bees. I once even called 999 because there was a bee on the landing and I couldn't get past it to go to bed. I was not made for camping.

But camping it is, because I am a professional. My partner wants to go to one of his favourite campsites – Blackberry Wood in Sussex – but we can't because it recently starred in a Cool Camping book. This sort of book is full of photographs of sunny days, fairy-lights, gingham tablecloths, corn-on-the cob, healthy-looking women in vest tops – such toned arms! – and children running through long wheat fields when they could be at home watching TV. Blackberry Wood, it turns out, is now booked up for the rest of the season. I think life's a funny thing when you have to book months ahead to sleep on hard ground under a tree. Still, my partner finds an alternative, St Ives Farm in Sussex, near the village of Hartfield. My partner is a hard-core camper. The site must not only allow real fires, but offer as few comforts as possible. A flushing toilet? Cheating. A hot shower? We might as well have stayed at home. Ants getting into everything? That's the ticket! The St Ives Farm site charges £6 per adult per night. I just thought I'd point this out in case you were putting it up there with Mauritius.

We invite our son but he's a teenager and too busy doing "stuff" with "people". (What stuff with what people? "Just stuff with people. OK?") So we invite our niece, Megan. Now, I do like Megan. Megan is a riot. Megan has ringlets. Megan says: "No, but thank you for asking," when she's asked if she'd like to clear away her toys. Megan has never been camping. I speak to her mother the night before who says Megan is very excited, has an insect book, and is keen to "go hunting for insects in the woods with you. She likes bees in particular." Her mother is enjoying this. Her mother says: "You? Camping? I would love to see that, but I'm off to a spa."

So, off we set, with just a few things slung into the back of the car – like bedding and mattresses and camping chairs and sun-bed (I am not sleeping on the ground) and tent and storm kettle and fire bucket and torches and lanterns and frying pan and saucepan and blankets and wooden spoons and plastic plates and tin opener and water container and corkscrew and wine and clothes and waterproofs and cutlery and towels and wellie boots and tea towel. Honestly, anyone would think we were going for two nights and not just the one.

I am hoping my partner and I don't row because what will I do? Storm out the tent, slamming the flap behind me? You, by now, may well be wondering what keeps my partner and I together, and what has kept us together all these years. Well, it's the sex. Or was, before the headtorch.

We drive through London – lovely, lovely London – and out the other side, into this place called "the country". I know people who have moved from London to the country and are quite evangelical about it. "There's so much space," they say. "That's nice," I always reply, although what I really want to say is: "Yes, but you never see anyone doing anything interesting in it." We arrive at the site. It is rather beautiful. It is down a lane overlooking miles of wheat fields and Ashdown Forest. My partner says: "I could look at this view for ever." I don't say: "Why? You've seen it now. Move on." Although I want to.

It is a gorgeous day: sunny, hot, with a picture-perfect blue sky. We have this, at least. My partner picks a spot to pitch the tent. Naturally, it's the farthest pitch from the toilet block. The tent is actually a "tentipi" – part tent, part tipi. He found it on the internet. He spends hours scouring the internet for tents and tenty things. We seem to be in almost daily receipt of some billycan or other. The tentipi attracts quite a lot of attention from other campers. I am fond of attention and give guided tours, acting as if I know what I'm talking about. "And what are these loops for?" asks one camper. "For hanging things from," I say. "Are you sure they are not for extra guy ropes when it's really windy?" he asks. "And that," I say. "But you can also hang things from them when it's not windy. It's really the perfect solution to an age-old problem, when you think about it."

A tentipi is very easy to put up. One pole, and that's it more or less. There may be nothing to this camping. It is true about kids and camping, though. They love it. They get into it from the off. Megan discovers rolling in dirt like a hippo, climbing trees and seeing how far she can kick stones. Megan has made four new little friends (Josh, Sam, Sunny, Eileen) before the tent – sorry, tentipi – is even properly up. Megan and I would go into the woods looking for insects but, as I have to inform her, there isn't much point as it's Saturday and the insects' day off. Yes, Meg, I'm as sad as you are. (Very young children will fall for anything; it's what I most love about them.) There's a lake and we see a water rat. It's rather sweet. We don't see any bears, but I keep on the look-out. There's a fisherman who lets Megan put her hands into his Tupperware box of live maggots. This makes her very happy.

We make a fire. I even collect the firewood, which is good, except it's the wrong firewood. Too green, too damp. It takes ages to get the fire going. One thing I've always wondered: why, when it takes just one careless match to start a forest fire, does it take a whole box to make a camp fire? For supper we eventually eat incinerated jacket potatoes, carrots and, yes, sausages. I drink a bit of wine, but no more than two bottles. It'll help me sleep through the night, I reason, although I've never needed a reason before. Suddenly, it is dark and very, very cold. I go to bed, putting on long johns, ski socks, pyjamas, cardigan and fleece. Have you ever tried putting on long johns, ski socks, pyjamas, cardigan and fleece by lantern-light while you are drunk? How I wished I was in John Lewis.

Naturally, I wake at 4am absolutely desperate for a pee. I do not have the courage to trek to the toilet. Neither do I have the courage to step outside and go, you know, "au naturel". Nature is fine, in its way, but nature "au naturel"? Never. I lie there dozing, uncomfortably and intermittently, until 6am when the dawn chorus starts. My God, I had no idea. It's such a racket. I wish I'd paid more attention to The Independent's recent giveaway of bird-song CDs. I'd then know the best ones to shoot. Breakfast is yet more sausages and plastic beakers of tea with the bag still in. We go for a walk, intending to get to the neighbouring cider farm, but get lost. We do, though, see two horses and sheep with lambs. Two horses and sheep with lambs doesn't do it for me, but it does make Megan happy again.

After lunch – great, sausages! – we head home. During the journey my partner asks if I'd ever go camping again. "No," I say. When we get home, I don't embrace our excellent toilet and tip-top power shower as such, but do blow them little kisses. I then note that I've got sunburned cheeks. Sun damage! It's the most ageing thing ever! So, on top of everything else, I'm now going to look 96 when I'm still only 94. Camping. Don't you hate it? I know I do.

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