TALES FROM OUR TOWNS.

 Carry on Camping. A newly minted camper writes.

Prefix ‘holiday’ with ‘camping’ and the word association games that Psychiatrists use to elicit our true feelings would be revealing.  “Carry on Camping”, some seasoned campers would say in joyful anticipation of the great outdoors and an adventure. Others would demur saying that they would rather go to Spain and camping is damp, miserable and hell on earth.

 As Covid 19 carved its path through all our lives, tentative talk of ‘staycations’ and the possibility of leisure facilities reopening, started to hold sway throughout June. And then the glorious 4th (July) came. Campsites and other holiday parks were permitted to re-open in England and travel restrictions were eased.  For many of us, it was time to consider a break and as most holiday lets appeared to be, well, let, that rather left camping or caravanning as the available options.

 “Let’s go up the road for a night away” said my friend. She is an outdoor lass. She can whittle sticks to rustle up a fire, she parks her campervan on its balancing blocks with ‘ner a backward glance, she can erect a tent single handedly. She is a camping wonder woman.

Bar a week at Guide Camp as a kid – which, whilst fun had an undercurrent of fear least belongings touched the side of a tent, allowing rain to enter and the odd back garden camp, camping was for me, associated with hell, damp and misery.

“We’ll book a camping trip” she continued blithely over a glass of wine, “Alderstead Heath is just up the road. It’s gorgeous and you can gain your camping wings. Good idea to trial it before going with the family?” (Hell will freeze over before that ever happen).

“Borrow a tent if need be. Make sure you have a cosy sleeping bag and airbed and you are away”.

She paused, “oh and a chair to sit in, and perhaps its best to have a tent you can stand up in too and maybe some cooking equipment?”

Beautiful Alderstead prior to tents

“Honestly, you don’t need much” she said as my face fell in horror. “It will be fine. One night”.

Camping doubts were cast aside – wine does that and our trip to Alderstead was booked. I had a new tent, courtesy of the Argos sale, bedding, some basic cooking equipment, a chair I’d found in the garage – a bygone from the weekends spent watching my son play sport and clean clothes.

And just like that, we found ourselves rocking up to Alderstead Heath, a lovely peaceful campsite just between Merstham and Caterham. As we waited for the reception area to clear, I took in great doses of fresh air and felt the sun on my face. I felt peaceful and for the first time, excited at the thought of sleeping under the stars with a canvas roof.

We registered with the friendly and accommodating reception who gave a list of do’s and dont’s to keep us all safe and socially distant in these troubled times.

“Remember to align the corner of your tent to the yellow peg”, she instructed as she waved us off. “Have a great time and enjoy yourselves.”  My God I thought, if I get the bleddy thing up at all a miracle will truly have occurred.  We chose a spot where my tent could face my friend’s camper van and we would, eventually be as snug as bugs in a rug.  If only I could erect the tent!

Tents have come a long way since scrabbling around putting pole into pole. The tent frame easy peasy. Less easy, is the snap and click tent peg system which needs ‘tension’ and is almost impossible for a short person to achieve. Thankfully, my fearless friend did it with her eyes closed, to the disappointment of one of my fellow campers who was quite enjoying the show of haplessness.

Belongings professionally packed in Sainsbury’s Bag for Life, a cheap air pump but I did have a decent bed and bedding, and I thought, if all else fails there is the camper van!

We’d struck camp in a lovely corner of the site. The woods all around us, peace and quiet, you could hear the birdsong and a few barks from dogs that were camping for the weekend. We cracked the wine and cast aside care for a while. The shower block was immaculate with a great wristband system in place to ensure social distancing.

In non-covid times there is a small campsite shop which was closed owing to social distancing requirements. The nearest pubs and restaurants are in Caterham or Merstham. We’d booked a meal at a local pub which was a 40-minute scenic walk over fields. Perfect

This was a true highlight. A walk through the woods, over fields and taking in the historic

Chaldon Church before skirting Happy Valley and looking over outstanding vistas. Never had a fish and chip dinner been so deserved, but the race was on to return to Alderstead before darkness fell. Never have I been so glad of a headtorch (Essential item). We galloped through the woods in the twilight, hearing an owl hoot here and the rustle of night- time creatures in the undergrowth.

Chaldon Gateway to the Surrey Hills.

Alas, the rain came over night but my tent was hardy and it remained dry. I did detect a hint of disappointment in husband’s voice when he rang to ask if Id enjoyed a comfortable night.

It did feel like a true camping experience lying in bad all cosy and nice, listening to the pitter patter of raindrops on canvas. I could hear a few querulous children crying from distant pitches and from the shower block a woman saying over and over “You go in front of me, I’m awaiting a shower”.  I’d been brave and daring and darted out for a toilet visit in the early hours, truly I was at one with nature.

It rained on and off for most of the day but we still enjoyed many laughs, card games and amusing moments and managed another walk to Netherne. Thank God we had our own spaghetti bolognaise for tea which just needed heating up. There is something comforting about eating a hot meal whilst the weather does its worst.

The Woods around the edge of Alderstead Heath.

 Alderstead was a great site to trial my camping wings, a little haven of a site which is ideal for those who wish to explore the beautiful North Downs, be it on bike or on foot. Clean, tidy, perfectly gorgeous surroundings and close to home.  I must admit, I would have been woefully underprepared if I had booked a week’s camping somewhere. Limited food, cooking equipment and the advice is correct. You do need a tent you can stand up in. 

Camping:  how can an inexperienced camper like me get to grips with it on such a short foray.

From this experience, I ‘get’ why people love it but, (whispers) a static caravan is probably close enough to nature for me. Even a fully equipped yurt is not quite the ticket, camping stoves are not the same as an oven, small toilets you need to back into are just not for me.

As some seasoned campers sum up, camping is a marmite experience. Some love being so close to nature, the peace and quiet, the firepits, kids getting up and roaming free. Others hate it for similar reasons, although nowadays there is always glamping.

Novice Campers Do’s and Don’ts.

A night away does not make me an expert. However here are some camping tips for the one night only types.

  • You can spend £££ on equipment. Do try and borrow as much as you can
  • Much of the equipment is for the serious campers. If you enjoy your first trip in a tent and are up to the camping challenge, you can always add to your stuff.
  • A decent tent you can stand up in is, I think essential. You couldn’t stand in mine and I did have backache, perhaps from being in the downward dog pose for most of the weekend.
  • You will look like a novice camper so do be prepared for many offers of help from the ‘proper’ campers. They may be alarmed at your tent etiquette such as lack of proper rucksacks, or branded camping gear.
  • It is nice having a little camping stove to make a cuppa tea on and heat up pot noodles, even if you are only away for a weekend and are planning on eating out mostly.
  • A pair of crocs or flip flops is required to slip on for night-time toilet trips.
  • Head torch most defiantly is an essential item. I have become very attached to mine and find wear it at home, on twilight walks. It has become my accessory of choice.
  • Do trail at a (very) local site. I am fearless and intrepid and went 10 minutes up the road.
  • It is what you make it and we did have fun. Worth picking somewhere with decent walks, particularly if they end in a pub.

The writer stayed at Alderstead Heath Camp Site which is an ideal base for exploring the North Downs. Tales from our Towns takes a sideways look at RH residents corona stories. Email reigateandbansteadwrites@gmail.com

Tales from our Towns. Help in The Ham.

RB Writes weekly look at tales from our towns, focusing on the unexpected and surprising aspects of lockdown life. Graham Norris tells how he established – Help in the Ham.  

Graham Norris was driving his train on 13th March. That strange in between time, before the world changed and that now seems a lifetime ago.

Graham knew that lockdown was unavoidable. There were toilet roll shortages, supermarkets resembled some dystopian nightmare with stripped shelves and many were already self-isolating. Lockdown had been imposed throughout Europe – not a question of if, but when Boris Johnson would take the inexorable step and lock Britain down.

 A proud resident of Merstham (The ‘Ham to the initiated) Graham was concerned how lockdown would affect not just the lonely and vulnerable but all Merstham folk. He desperately wanted to help. The question was, what to do to bring Merstham together whilst apart?

 “I wanted to do something for the community that I care about.” He recalls. By the time he stopped at Bognor Regis for his tea break. He had thought about what he could establish, which would have an immediate impact – a social media forum or channel. With the press of a few buttons ‘Help in the Ham’ – Grahams very first foray in to the world of Facebook pages was born.

He began by adding 30 local friends and asked them to add their friends.  “By the time I got to Three Bridges”, we were up to 300 members”. Help in the Ham was the talk of the town.

Help in the Ham written in the stars.

Graham injected a light humorous touch with his posts to the group. But, as with any FB group, for every positive there is a negative and Help in the Ham needed rules, regulations and moderating.

“We kept it simple” says Norris, “No selling, no politics, no offensive posts and just be kind! Our mantra is “if it’s not kind, doesn’t help anyone in the ‘Ham then don’t post it”. He adds ruefully, ” to be honest it was becoming a struggle on my own. I asked members of the group and close friends to become admins. They have been incredible.  Keeping an eye and making sure people don’t post inappropriate stuff.  Membership was growing so fast and with a full-time job and young family it was really difficult.”

The first posts on HITH, were concerned with panic buying and general worry. “One of the first posts I remember was a young mum who couldn’t get milk for her very young baby. Within minutes of her post, several group members offered to deliver the milk she needed. I knew then that this was a valuable much needed group. “. He pauses but the post that stayed with him? “A Merstham dad posted a video asking for help with his shielded kids. This family were missing many things. It literally broke my heart. I was beaten to it by dozens of ‘Ham members falling over themselves to help. It made his kids day. And mine.”

Panic buying and general anxiety calmed down to be replaced by boredom, worries around home-schooling children and uncertainty. How long would lockdown and all it’s issues last?  Fear not though, ‘Hamers rose to the fore. Members posted many ideas for how to entertain children, teachers on the group offered advice. They offered tips on maintaining fitness, craft activities and also, quizes and challenges.  “It is so heart-warming,” says Graham “to see local people reaching out to neighbours who needed it.  Many members described the group as a lifeline.”

Local Shops, pharmacies and GP surgeries took to the ‘Ham’ to update their community on changes, stock levels and changes to rules. “They have done us proud” says Graham. And amidst the serious information, there was always one person asking “Do you know what time the co-op opens?”. Such posts always received good natured and fun replies.

“I love living in Merstham” muses Graham. “It is a fab place to raise a family. I live by the rule that if you don’t like where you live either move or do you bit to make it better.”

Without a doubt, Help in the Ham has made Merstham a better place; neighbours have made friends with neighbours, it has united Merstham as a community in a unique way and has provided a wonderful lifeline to all ‘hamers.”

And as to the future for Help in the Ham in a post corona world?

“I plan to keep the group going, to continue to help those in our community who need it and provide the advice, the general chit chat and the laughs. We are also joining up with the local neighbourhood watch group to allay fears about crime and criminality. Together we are stronger.”

At the beginning of March, Graham was a train driver with no ambition to run community groups, online or otherwise.

His lockdown journey has seen him become a social media community champion and have daily dealings with the sublime to the ridiculous to the life affirming.

 More importantly, he and his admins are true community heroes who have given Merstham a fab inclusive lifeline.  The ‘ham should be proud.

Find Help in the Ham on Facebook. If you want to contribute to Tales from our Towns. Email reigateandbansteadwrites@gmail.com.

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