I want to start with a string of expletives, but I won’t.
Summer. That precious time with our children stretching out before us. Sunshine. Slow motion running along the shoreline. Blissful laughter on the breeze…..
You would think after seventeen years I would have learnt to be slightly more realistic, but no, I instead found myself in tears by August the 16th. This was my first summer for a very long time as a single parent struggling with my health. I began optimistic and full of hope, very much looking forward to my time with the children and in many ways I loved every minute we shared, but boy was it challenging at times.
For some slightly bonkers reason I decided it would be a great idea to go camping for two weeks in Devon, changing sites at the half way point to meet up with some extended family. Four kids, one dog, two vans, two campsite, one new boyfriend. What could go wrong!
Well camping in the English summer; the stereotypical image of rainy grey days, it’s kinda accurate. When it’s good weather, we rejoice, as the reality of living in the South West is that we are at the constant mercy of Mother Nature. This summer she decided that I didn’t have quite enough to test me, so she sent me gale force winds and torrential rain for ten days. In a tent. With four kids. And a dog. On a cliff top.
By day three I couldn’t walk as the constant wet and cold got into my bones. The children were loving it but creating a huge volume of muddy wet mayhem wherever they turned. Wet beds, soaked shoes, coats; you name it. Now I’m pretty wild, I don’t mind the rain and crazy weather, I live in Cornwall after all, but while living in a tent? It became a constant mission trying to keep their beds dry and warm, ensuring they had somewhere to sleep and clothes to wear, with a single washing machine and drier on the other side of the site, and showers far enough away we became soaked on the return journey.
By the third morning I sat in tears. Yet again the wind had kept us awake all night, the tent although waterproofed before we left, leaked. Our beds were soaked, we were soaked and the weather was due to take a turn for the worse yet again. We awoke to bent and broken tents around the site, the field strewn with camping related rubbish and all the grown ups looking beaten. I spent three hours trying to find somewhere to evacuate us too, but soon realised what a pointless task that was in the middle of summer. Everywhere was booked and that which remained was hugely expensive.
So we came up with a plan.
My practical and calm boyfriend took a trip to b and q and returned with a pile of random items, stakes, rope, ratchet straps, tarpaulins and a heater. He spent the next three hours encasing our tents with extra cover, tying them to the van and drying them out while the kids and I moved everything around and dried our belongings. By the end of the day we had a watertight sleeping and social space that wasn’t going to blow away. I’m so thankful he is such a practical fixer, as over the course of the next three nights several families had to abandon their tents in the night as they collapsed in the wind.
We were safe and dry.
I felt like a failure as in reality I played no part in this mission to save our little family from the storms. My joints were sore and stiff; I was exhausted and in lots of pain and shamefully, I cried a lot. We had such difficulty finding things to do that were accessible for me whilst also being child/ dog friendly and indoors. After limping around yet another wet soggy national trust garden in the torrential rain and building yet another den while I watched, enough was enough. We spent that night desperately searching for a place for the day that would be dry and suit all our diverse needs. We were lucky to hit the jackpot in a place called ‘the milky way’ on the north Cornwall/ Devon border. It was an hours drive towards home from our site but that place saved us. Incredible for access and disabilities, totally dog friendly, affordable, loads of stuff for the broad range of kids I have to do and most importantly at that point, dry! We spent the rest of our holiday there pretty much and it saved us. We turned a corner and finally relaxed- even the windy rain didn’t seem so bad any more.
I learnt on this adventure, that nothing is impossible with chronic illness if you have the right support and are prepared. To be honest camping with chronic illness is a living hell but I wouldn’t say never again. Despite the challenges we faced, we did some incredible things and were privileged to share wonderful experiences together.
We watched a pod of dolphins playing in the rain for almost an hour, right by our tent from the cliff. We pulled together as a team and functioned really well as a family to save ourselves from what looked like being a living hell after the first couple of days. We sat and played madlibs and Yahtzee while the tent shook and the rain hammered down, laughing so much it hurt. We went up a cliff in a weird vertical train lift thing, climbed to the top of Englands tallest waterfall and cycled the north Devon coast with a dog in a carriage! The kids were a tired, soggy, muddy mess from living slightly feral and chasing about other soggy muddy kids for two weeks, but they were happy. I watched the kids swinging from high ropes, climb, zip wire, balance and swim in the sea, lakes and rivers; challenging their fears and embracing life no matter the difficulties they faced.
My little family made me proud.
Would I recommend camping while chronically ill? No. I’m afraid if I’m honest I wouldn’t. If you could guarantee dry warm weather then it would be a resounding yes, but in the uk, it’s such hard work. Cooking, washing, getting dressed, washing up; all of it is ten times harder that at home and uses up so many spoons of energy. The simplest tasks become a mission. I was incredibly lucky that I had such a calm practical partner and son with me, without them I definitely would have returned home. I don’t regret going at all but it wiped me out for the rest of summer really; although I think we all enjoyed coming home and appreciated our lovely life here afterwards.
If you, like me are brave enough to attempt this kind of mission (trust me I admire you if you aren’t!) then my top tips for survival are as follows:
Be prepared- research the area, come equipped to deal with the unexpected and information gather services before you arrive.
Bring drugs! I packed for the worst and I’m super glad I did. Topping up to max pain relief helped me survive this for the benefit of the kids. I also bought all my mobility aids.
Make sure you have at least one person in your group that will be practical and calm in adverse conditions. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to do this trip without someone who could physically achieve what needed to be done.
Be realistic and honest about your limits before you go. My family all knew what they were getting themselves into and that that definitely helped.
Bring plenty of things to keep you warm, dry and comfortable. I had my special cushion on a camp chair, blankets, waterproof covers, slip on shoes- that kind of thing. Anything that limits your essential physical activity is a must.
Be prepared to not shower much- we call it a Cornish shower, a packet of baby wipes and deodorant. Your spoons need to be used wisely as the physical demands will be different to at home.
Bring plenty of static activities to amuse you all, alongside physical activities that the children can do at a safe distance. I bought boules, stuff for an assault course, frisbee etc. Static games we had colouring, workbooks, stories, excavation kits, puzzles and babies.
Be flexible. By day ten I confess to breaking the family rule of no devices or Internet on holiday. I let them all have a couple of hours screen time to watch a film and play apps. Rules are great but sometimes needs must. I used this time to just lie still next to them in our camp beds one rainy afternoon; it gave me the energy to push through yet another rainy day.
Life is short; I try to not avoid the hard things just because they are by nature hard. We all look back on that holiday with a smile and fond memories; the tough bits that felt overwhelming at the time are eclipsed by what we gained. Sometimes the toughest experiences are the ones that make you who you are; I taught my children that no matter how hard life gets there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel and there is always a way to survive. They will face challenges in life but they will get through the tricky bits. We didn’t give up, even if we wanted to. They also learnt first hand, that hard work pays off. We survived in relative comfort in the end because we adapted, problem solved and worked as a team to execute our plan. No matter how tough the experience was, those skills will stay with them for life; and that makes every second of pain for me, worth it.