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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

One Girl and Two Dogs on the Bummel: tents, travels and a telling-off.

Missed the beginning? The bummel begins here

Bicester. Awake at 5:30am, ready to leave by 6:30am. The night had been miserable; I was hungry, cold (but clean), everything that had been in the poor excuse for a tent was wet and I wanted away from this place as fast as possible.

As soon as there was enough light, I took the boys for a brisk walk around the woods while the tent dried out. Well, I say that; I think, in all honesty, I was putting off the moment when I'd have to try and coax the damned thing back into its bag.
They enjoyed the chance to stretch their legs, having been cooped up in a polyester coffin for seven hours, and I needed to warm up. I also needed a cup of tea and some breakfast. I had some biscuits in the car but I thought if I could get going and find a café somewhere I'd treat us all to a fry-up. I felt we deserved it, after the chaotic way yesterday had ended.

I was ready to move on; everything was back in the car and all that remained was the tent. As we returned from the woods, it seemed to loom in the distance, already mocking me. I put the boys in the car and turned to face my pop-up nemesis. I read the instructions first. I never normally bother with things like that, but any assistance that would give me the edge would be appreciated. I knew, from previous experience, how tricksy these little monsters were. I gathered the poles firmly, squished out the air, twisted the hoops- and ran for cover as the evil thing popped open again.

I sneaked up on it and, taking a deep breath, I tried again: grab, squish, twist- pop! The breeze made it sway as it unfolded itself, making it look to my tired eyes as if it was rocking with laughter. Another go. And another.

The last time, as it popped open, I kicked it and called it a name that would earn an instant detention were I to hear it on the playground. The stupid tent resisted every attempt for the next ten minutes. Momentarily defeated, I retreated to the safety of the car and ate biscuits. Maybe I was approaching this wrong? Maybe, instead of conquering it and getting it into the bag, I should just settle with subduing it enough to get it in the car?

I thought I'd cracked it on my next attempt; it was twice the diameter it should have been and wouldn't go in the bag, but it was, at least vaguely, circular and flat. I opened the car door to try and wedge it behind the seat. It barely fit, and Alfie was eying it nervously. I wondered if he was having a premonition, much like when animals sense impending earthquakes, of it popping open halfway down the motorway. The tent strained against its elastic restraint, waiting for its moment. I couldn't take any chances. Out it came, and on the struggle went.

By this time, daybreak had fully arrived; I had been battling with the stupid tent for forty minutes. I sat and sulked for a while and ate some more biscuits. As much as I hated the tent, it had cost me a fair amount of money and I was loathe to just abandon it on that fact alone. However, I was unlikely to ever use it again and it was ruining my escape and chances of getting a decent breakfast. I made up my mind; one more go, then I was leaving it here.

I think it knew I meant business this time, as it inexplicably folded down into a small and neat-ish circle, not even complaining when I secured it with the elastic strap. I shoved it quickly into its bag and was thankful that it complied meekly with that too. I wedged it once more behind the seat and asked Alfie his opinion. His eyes told me that, for now, the beast was caged, but he wouldn't trust it further than he could throw it. That was good enough for me.

I stopped off at Woodstock, seeing as I was in the area, and managed to park for free opposite Blenheim Palace. I went straight over for a look. We got quite close before we reached the ticket booth- £13 to walk around the grounds- so we about-turned and explored the town instead, for free.

I loved the winding streets that climbed the hill, the care and pride that was evident in how clean and tidy the town was, and that all the signs looked original; also, the diversity of the shops put Holbeach to shame. I lingered for a while outside the police station, imagining helmeted Bobbies carting rowdy rock stars- gone to the wrong Woodstock- into the cells, hair flowing and bell-bottoms flapping, shouting for their agents and more whisky.

I was interrupted from my daydreams by the realisation that the site office would now be open. I had to get on there today or end up on another terrible site, in that terrible tent for another night. I got through to a very strange sounding lady, who seemed suspicious of my wanting to camp on the site.

Me: Good morning. I'm ringing to ask if you have any pitches for tonight and tomorrow night too, if possible?
Her: Are you a member?
Me: Yes.
Her: Then you know how much it is.
Me: Yes... (silence) In the book it says it's £9.65 a night. (to explain, I felt I needed to prove I was a member by quoting the Big Sites Book)
Her: Yes... (obviously I passed the test) There is a pitch available. When did you want to stay?
Me: Tonight and tomorrow night.
(Awkward pause)
Me: (to fill the long and uncomfortable silence) Actually, I'd hoped to camp with you last night, but you were full.
Her: Oh? (picks up interest) So you've been here before then?
Me: Well, only last night, and I didn't stay, because you were full.
Her: Mmmm... (long silence)
Me: So... that's OK, then? You have a pitch for tonight and tomorrow?
Her: Well I shan't make a booking, not until you arrive.
Me: Oh, right. Well, I'm definitely coming. It'll only take me an hour to get there.
Her: You can't come then. We don't open until 12pm.
Me: I know, I'm just saying I'm not too far away, and I definitely want the pitch.
Her: Well, I'll write it down, but I won't book you on until you arrive.
Me: Yes, you explained that.
(awkward pause)
Me: Would you like my name? For when you write it down? So you know it's me?
Her: Yes, I suppose so.
Me: I'm Louise West, staying for two nights, in a tent, with two dogs.
Her: (sounding annoyed) In a tent? Two dogs?
Me: (confused) Yes. That's not a problem is it? It says in the book you accept tents and dogs.
Her: Yes, we do. (silence)
Me: Right, I'll see you later today then.
Her: After 12pm.
Me: Of course. Thank you for your help.

Most bizarre. I managed to find a way in to at least look at Blenheim Palace from a distance (a little bit cheeky, but legal, I promise) but then it started to rain, so I took the scenic route (they're all scenic) into Oxford in order to kill some time without getting wet. I was too early to get onto the site (a point that had been made most forcibly) but I reckoned I could spend an hour in the camping superstore (oh well!). It was fun, browsing, and nice that the boys were allowed in too, even if Harvey did take a shine to one chap in particular and spend most of the time trying to reach him for a fuss. I bought a drink and went back to the car to wait out my last few minutes before 12pm.

I didn't want to seem too keen so I actually waited until 12:10pm before I drove the ten metres from the car park to the site entrance. Closed. I wasn't worried- I may not have been booked on but I'd definitely been written down; all I had to do was wait. A young couple were waiting too, with backpacks and a pop-up tent.
"I spent last night in one of those," I said, gesturing at the evil polyester disc. "I hope yours is better than mine!"
They smiled politely and nodded. It was only when the girl said something to the chap in French that I realised they probably had no idea what I'd just said to them. I'm glad "nod and smile" is universal, though.

I rang the bell again and a woman, the same woman I'd spoken to (as I quickly gathered) turned up, most aggrieved to have to book people in. I let the French couple go in front of me and I almost wish I hadn't, as what happened next was one of the most openly passive-aggressive racist displays I've ever witnessed.

On learning the couple were French, her attitude (which already stank) rapidly worsened until I thought she would explode in a cloud of huffs, puffs and tuts at the trouble this inconsiderate pair were putting her to by wanting to camp for one night. She was everything that Brits abroad are mocked for: pantomime hand gestures, speaking louder and louder (while using the most obscure and complicated phrases she could- almost as if she didn't want them to understand), rolling her eyes and getting cross because the poor French chap didn't understand what she meant by debit card and credit card. I, on behalf of the nation, was embarrassed. They came on holiday to England and had to put up with being treated like this?

When she found out they were backpackers, I thought (or hoped) that she was going to collapse in a fit of apoplectic rage right there.

"You don't have a car?! Where is your tent? Now I have to change everything!!!"

I finally stepped in. I used my best teacher-voice, the one that makes it clear that this nonsense will stop now and there will be no further argument. It's a powerful thing, as anyone who's been on the nasty end of a dressing-down will appreciate.

"Their pop-up tent is just outside, with their bags. If you cancel the transaction and put it through again, then they will be charged the correct fee. It's a pain, but it can be done fairly simply. You never actually asked them if they were in a tent, caravan, whatever, so please don't get cross with them because they are not familiar with your booking system."

The woman stared at me, unsure of whether to risk a huff, puff, or tut, or simply just back down, but I ignored her and spoke to the couple.

"You pay less if you have no car. The lady will change it. We're sorry it was confusing." I resisted the urge to add "Aren't we?" and prompt the woman into an apology. From the colour of her face, I don't think she would have coped with that.

As she silently refunded and sorted out the French couple, I was booked in by another chap who had arrived just in time for my little speech. I'm certain he grinned at me as he took my details and directed me to available pitches, letting me circle the site before committing to a location.

I set up my tent and checked my map of Oxford, making plans for tomorrow. Even though it was early afternoon, I didn't feel like straying too far from my tent today, and I needed to catch up on the sleep I'd missed out on the night before. I dozed in the sun for a few hours, before venturing as far as Sainsburys for some food. There wasn't much I fancied in the shop on-site although, when I'd popped in to look, the woman was booking in another family of foreigners. One raised eyebrow was enough to make her blush and add "please" to the end of her question. I must admit I smirked as I exited.

Shopping done, boys walked, everyone fed, I had a shower and settled down for the night with my book. The site was close to the train tracks, but even the rumbling of carriages couldn't keep the boys and I awake for long.

The bummel continues tomorrow...

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