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2 September 2023

A weekend camping included fresh air and menacing children

As we walked to a pub, a group of boys and girls emerged to yell at us – and then they began throwing stones.

By Pippa Bailey

There is no better way to spend an August bank holiday weekend than in a tent surrounded by fields. No spliffs and sequins at Notting Hill Carnival for me, thank you. I’d rather be carrying a bucket of dirty dishes the five minutes to the nearest tap.

People often respond to my love of camping with horror, or at the very least with surprise, given I am (or so I like to think) a well-manicured sort of person. It helps, I am sure, that I grew up holidaying under canvas; I never got the chance to critically appraise its merits and flaws and decide whether it was something I wanted to do – it was just something my family did.

But I do not camp as an adult simply because it’s what I did as a child. I find great freedom in being without those two great dictators: my phone and my mirror. So much of modern life is designed around compressing the time required to meet our most basic needs – to drink, eat, wash, relieve ourselves – and the resulting vacant hours are too easily filled by the stewing of an anxious mind. I find I am more at peace when going to the bathroom involves a walk across a field to the composting loo, or cooking dinner requires successfully lighting a fire and letting it burn long enough to gain heat. Exhausted from all that fresh air and trekking about, I sleep deeply under canvas.

And so, the bank holiday was spent on a campsite in Kent, with M— (his first camping trip if you don’t count Glastonbury, which I don’t. Thankfully, for I find it hard to imagine a future without camping, he enjoyed it), my best friend from school and her husband. All was going well – the views were beautiful, the sheep plentiful, the games (archery, boule, frisbee) much enjoyed – until, on a walk to a pub, our path took us along a dirt track.

[See also: Dartmoor’s wild camping battle is a fight for nature itself]

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At first, there was nothing unusual; a miniature golden retriever ran to greet us. Then it began barking aggressively. Soon it was joined by other dogs – perhaps five, ten, a hundred, I couldn’t with any accuracy say – and then, children. Children who emerged from a yard to our right, which I then saw was a traveller site. Children who were shouting at us. (The area, Headcorn, I now know, has one of the highest concentrations of members of the traveller community in the country.)

We stopped long enough to establish that their ringleader, a boy of perhaps nine, was of the firm belief that it was a private road (the irony!). There couldn’t have been more than ten of them, and they were children, but still, I was intimidated. There is something scary about a person who cannot be reasoned with. My companions, braver than I, calmly informed him that the map said it was a public footpath and we would be continuing, thank you very much.

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And so we walked, a little faster than we might otherwise have done, pursued by children and dogs, who continued to yell and bark at us, respectively. All the while, the little golden dog went ahead of us, no longer barking but trotting along quite happily. Then the children began throwing stones, and M— stopped, turned and told them, sternly, “Stop throwing stones – it’s not fair.” (This line, “it’s not fair”, has been much mocked since, but at the time I was very grateful for his intervention, and for his towering height.) As we – finally! – reached the end of the track, one of the girls asked if she could have her dog back. Of course, I said – what is its name? Fluffy, she replied.

Well, Fluffy was not going with her, nor did it respond, we later found, to the name Fluffy. It had no collar but seemed well looked after. It followed us, showing no loyalty to the children, long after they had turned back. Our initial confidence that it would eventually turn back began to fade. Showing no fear of cars, Fluffy kept veering into the road, and we had to stop traffic to prevent it being hit. “It’s not our dog,” we mouthed, pleadingly, to drivers who looked at us askance.

In the end, after much agonising – we can’t leave it, it will die – and googling (the non-emergency police number only offers a recorded message directing you to its website; the RSPCA tells you to contact the local council, which was closed), we flagged down a car for help. In it were a kind local couple who had a dog themselves, and took “Fluffy” to an emergency vet. Eventually, we made it to the pub, shaken, desperate for a pint, and forever traumatised by the words “private road”.

Once home, we called the vet. The dog was chipped, and had been reunited with its owners. Who they were, they were not able to say.

[See also: Inside a cupboard, I found the solace of solitude]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain