There is a lot to be said of returning home from a long weekend away: dropping your bags in the hallway with relief, almost as quickly as you scooped them up with excitement on the way out of the door days ago. The comforts of being at home are mainly signified by your own material possessions, primarily focussing on your own bed or sofa. Not your pictures or memories, smells or colours, but pieces of furniture that suit both the contours of the rooms they occupy, and the bodies they support. You can protest as much as you like, pretending that there are less superficial reasons, but you’re lying.
Our possessions, and what stories they tell of us and the memories they can enable you to identify with, are an essential part of everyday life. This weekend, having been camping in Wales, I had a slight awakening as to what life without would be like. Now, I say ‘camping’, it wasn’t really. It was the poshest version you can get. After all, you wouldn’t go deep sea diving without being in the pool first, would you? Having not camped since a trip to Corsica in 1989, I enjoy hotels and ‘home’ comforts too much to go for the whole air-bed, sleeping bag, put-the-tent-up-too-late-for-the-kids straight away. If only there was a halfway house that could get you close enough to the countryside, without being too far removed from my own middle-class necessities…
Fortunately, help is at hand in the shape of Featherdown Farms – these are basically tented hotel rooms in idyllic landscapes, so that people like me can take their families and pretend to camp. I believe the correct, yet hateful, term is ‘glamping’, which makes me wince every time I hear someone else utter it. What a horrid word. It isn’t as bad as ‘chillax’, the combination of ‘chill-out’ – a word more dated than an Ali G impression or Reebok Classics – and ‘relax’. Urgh. It gets stuck in my teeth worse than a packet of Frazzles eaten in a hurry.
Anyway, due to the late nature of our decision to book, the availability was strictly limited to one remaining venue, clearly displaying their popularity amongst families. Ours was in West Wales, near Aberystwyth. From Manchester to the farm, according to the lying bastard route planner, should have taken three and a half hours. However, this was the Friday afternoon before the four-day, Jubilee bank holiday weekend, and therefore the rushiest of rush hours. Getting on the road AS SOON AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE was stressed relentlessly to the long-suffering Mrs Pause, as I accelerated the inevitable metamorphosis into my father. Given that the only motorway towards north and west Wales is the M56, there was always going to be the anxiety of potential jams, as everybody sped towards the bottleneck of the border like bubbles in a shaken up Coke.
Fortunately, the traffic itself was not as bad as feared. It wasn’t the cars that became the issue, but the roads – they went on, and on, and on, bend after bloody bend, for fucking hours. But then, we turned a corner and I was struck by the most breathtaking beauty I have ever had the privilege of seeing in Britain – a valley rising steeply on both sides with a lake collecting at the bottom, the sun setting between the peaks of greenery and summer colours that sang with such vividness that it could have been created for a high-definition driving game. It was greeted with equal verbal delicacy: “Fucking hell” was as much as your scribe could muster. Maybe not the justice it deserved, but the sense of genuine awe was jaw-dropping in its majesty. It also rendered the rest of the drive a pleasure, and the start of the relaxing began in earnest.
Arriving two hours later than the Bastard (see above) had forecast, we were late to the farm, but it was dusk, dry and welcoming. Our hosts, Martin and Ann, instantly made us feel at home by showing us around the farm store and then the ‘tent’ – it had a toilet, a stove, lamps and candles, a double bed and bunk beds for the kids, and a dining table. It was, effectively, a Victorian terraced house with canvas walls, with a spectacular open-fronted view of rolling hills. I needed no more authenticity.
Our first day proper began with a tour of the farm on the back of the tractor – fed the pigs and the chickens, failed to communicate with a donkey thicker than a giant’s boxing glove, saw where the local badgers hang out, and asked my children to avoid walking in the mine-field of sheep shit that was within every wellington-booted stride. But, with the weather being quintessentially British – or ‘shit’ as we call it – we had other holiday definites that needed attending to. Having stopped in the local village of Aberaeron for supplies, the multi-coloured houses clashing with the bunting, provided a parade of independent shops that offered relief from the constant chain stores of larger towns. It felt tailored to tourists, but unspoilt by progress.
But the beach was waiting and the clouds weren’t, so off we sped. On our hosts’ advice, we went to Llangarrog – probably the remotest place I have been in Britain, down winding country lanes that get narrower and narrower until you reach a sandy beach with a couple of pubs overlooking it. And there the stoic Brits sat, under rain-threatening clouds with the wind blowing in, and more sweaters than sweating going on. As usual, the lack of thermometer in a child’s DNA ensured that running in and out of a freezing sea was enough entertainment for ages. Their shrieks of joy worth every dangerous mile, and lung-busting trudge back up the hill to the abandoned car.
Returning to the farm, the caveman urge to start fires was encouraged like an arsonists wankmag – wood-burning stove on, bar-b-q started to singe the local sausages, and wood being collected for a campfire to toast marshmallows. Our exhausted children went to bed much earlier than their previous evening, and as parents we weren’t far behind them. This was a good thing, as we were reminded of our proximity to the free range nature of our location. From approximately 4am for an hour, a sheep and a crow had an argument, feet away from my head. I wrote in the visitors book that perhaps the addition of a gun would sit nicely with the candles and tin coffee pots. Sleep did not return.
As an introduction to the great outdoors for kids, and an alternative to soulless bed and breakfast or hotel accommodation for adults, Featherdown Farms do it very well. It isn’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. And, it is valuable lesson in what you do and don’t need. I know what I need, and right now it is my bed and a 3G signal. The remoteness and pace of life is perfect for switching off, but for much longer would not have turned me on. Dipping in and out, like kids on a shoreline, is enough for me.
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