A parent's guide to Scout camp
Observations on outdoor pursuits
In retrospect, alarm bells should have rung when my 12-year-old son went off on a Scout camp "practice weekend" in Norfolk and nearly got sent home. "A group of us got up at 6.30am and we started jumping into the broad in our underpants," explained my son. The Scoutmaster had raced out of his tent and bawled at them.
"Cold but fun, and we did put on buoyancy aids!" said my son. He'd been dithering about actually going camping, but that sealed it.
Thinking that 12 days on the Brecon Beacons was, well, long, we decided to drive him down ourselves this August, a day late. The campsite was three miles up the steepest of lanes. The farmhouse, which I'd imagined as a field centre, with proper loos, was tumbledown; the one amenity a water tap.
The campsite, three fields away, was the steep side of a V-shaped valley, with a fierce mountain stream at the bottom of a ravine.
It was stony, not a place where even mountain sheep would like to graze.
The campsite had a flag pole and headquarters (HQ) camp with superior tent and chairs for the officer class. My son disappeared into a tiny patrol tent to negotiate his metre of sleeping space. Outside, in the smoke of wood fires, for primitive cooking, midges and mosquitoes attacked. A horsefly bit my leg. "Bye, Mum," said my mini Scout, as I retreated past the latrines, thinking this was the vilest place on earth.
The list of kit - writing paper, coat-hanger for best Scout shirt - was fantasy. Why no insect repellent? "It'll toughen him up," said my husband. At least I'd put £20 of credit on his mobile phone. But it went unanswered at the bottom of the kitbag. Then, four days into camp, a small voice came on the phone.
"Mum, I've had an asthma attack: I couldn't do the monster walk [32km], I forgot to put my asthma pump in my pocket, HQ had to rescue me in a car. I'm all alone in the tent, reading my book. I've got 23 bites."
I said, "I'll come and pick you up."
Give it 24 hours, counselled my husband. The next day my son was shouting down the phone.
"Mum, I've just had the best day ever. Do you remember the lane you drove up? Well, I went down that. I've never been so fast on a bike. Then I was the only one to cycle all the way back up. I'm going kayaking tomorrow. The thing is, Mum, I want to stay. I can't talk now, my batteries are low. Bye."
And that was that. Phone switched off until seven days later, when the coach arrived back at the school car park.
He came in, turned on the television, stretched out on the sofa, and said: "On the last two nights I slept in a ditch. It was really cosy. I've got 27 bites now."
The next morning he grilled six rashers of bacon, humming a series of Scout dirges - "A walking stick, a walking stick,/A Zimmer frame and a walking stick,/A wheelchair, a wheelchair" - was just one.
"The thing is, Scout camp isn't a holiday, it's an experience," he said. "Guess what? I won the trophy, for best first-time camper. We're camping on Dartmoor next summer."
He'll take the coach to Dartmoor, like everyone else. There are rites of passage for parents as much as sons. Mothers shouldn't go to Scout camps.