An attempt to get back to nature backfired on me last weekend.
I made the mistake of a/ choosing a campsite on the fringes of London and Essex and b/timing my visit with the start of the school holidays. An additional risk factor in hindsight was my choice of companion, an old-fashioned kind of person who loathes swearing of any kind.
I apologise now if the rest of this sounds elitist and full of anti-Essex stereotypes. In my defence I’m Essex born and bred, and my companion grew up on a council estate. Everything that follows really happened. Stereotypes exist for a reason!
People who’d been had told us: it’s ok so long as you camp in Field 2, the one furthest away from everywhere else. But Field 2 resembled Glastonbury, with tents and mobile homes rammed next to each other – any privacy was absolutely impossible.
We found another field with fewer people in it, and some fire pits. This seemed the best option, especially as my companion noticed a group of silver-haired gentlemen in the far corner opposite our spot. ‘At least they’ll be well-behaved,’ he said.
On the other side of us, a handful of young male students tended a fire. I judged them docile and quiet.
We tried to ignore the insistent bass emanating from several sound systems, comforting ourselves with the curfew rules of the site: all noise to stop after 10.30. At least we had some space around us. We set to work erecting our bell tent, and sourcing wood for the fire.
As it started to get dark a tiny car pulled up next to our pitch, containing two young skinheads, two girls and somehow, two huge Alsatians, one promptly defecating right next to our fire pit. One of the girls kept them on a lead, but made no attempt to clear up their mess; I wondered how they would avoid treading on all the turds in the dark. The smell wafted over to us on the sylvan breeze.
Meanwhile, my companion’s face was darkening. ‘Unbelievable,’ he kept repeating. ‘The language! It’s just unbelievable.’ His outrage wasn’t just occasioned by the couples closest to us, who were effing and blinding loudly at each other with every sentence. What really bothered my companion was the group of elderly men he’d found reassuring earlier, sitting round a fire opposite. Their sentences drifted over to us along with the dog turds, and it was true that a good many of them ended in ‘you old cunt.’
‘Wanker’ and ‘fuck’ were popular choices in all corners of the campsite, along with funeral pyre-sized campfires. While I’m less allergic to swearing (using some of these myself in extremis) the amount and volume of it was making me uncomfortable. I gave up any residual hopes that this camping trip might be a romantic getaway.
One of the Ray-Winstone elderly gangster types threw a glass bottle on the fire, where it exploded. ‘You crazy old cunt,’ they all laughed. My partner’s outrage began to turn into depression. ‘Is this what society has become?’
I didn’t see the experience quite the same way. Yes, there was a lamentable amount of swearing, noise and rubbish being strewn around. But underneath that, everyone there still felt the lure of the woods. We were all magnetised by fire, and we all wanted to share time talking and laughing in nature with friends. I watched the dark silhouettes against the jumping flames and the illuminated green of the trees behind them. This was an archetypal scene of the greenwood, albeit bastardised.
By 11pm, the amplified noise had stopped and some of the groups had already put out their fires. I stayed by my fireside long enough to watch the ‘W’ of Cassiopeia shift upwards through the sky, and a glorious full moon rise behind an old oak tree.
That was a window of peaceful reprieve. From midnight onwards the noise levels grew again, this time coming from the previously docile students. One crate of Stella later, they had completely forgotten they were sharing a field with anyone else. The exploding beer bottles at 4 am sounded like bombs, shocking me fully awake. Along with other recriminations we heard: ‘You’ve pissed on my head!’
Some environmentalists love nature but hate people. I’m really trying not to go down that road, but sometimes it’s tempting.