Thursday, 23 July 2015


You don’t want to go camping with a toddler they said, not unless you've got a magic blackout tent that lets in no light or noise or you’re prepared to drive all the way back home in the middle of the night when they won’t go to sleep. Others offered more pragmatic advice, ‘an endless supply of blueberries and a pair of earplugs should do the trick’. The hippy crowd was more forthcoming with tidings of joy. ‘Oh you’ll love it, just take a washing up bowl and some plastic cutlery and he’ll be happy for hours’.

Never ones to listen to predictions of doom we packed the car with every conceivable piece of gear, filled the hamper with food and the cooler with booze and off we went. We have invested wisely over the years and are equipped with a full set of glamping essentials, invaluable when travelling with toddler, to which we added some extra Felix kit; his own camping chair in the shape of a lion, his travel cot and warm bedding, and a quantity of blankets and pegs for various uses. I also conducted some thorough research in terms of location and after much deliberation plumped for West Wittering, a two hour drive away and the location of a blue flag award winning beach complete with dunes. Nearby Nunnington Farm campsite offered a baby bath, in actuality a double butlers sink, for washing filthy infants at the end of a long day, and a petting zoo, which sealed the deal.

The campsite was a wide green expanse of perfect flatness ringed by trees, and we pitched the bell tent in dappled shade where we hoped we could be in shadow by bedtime. ‘Oooooh’ and ‘Aaaah’ said Felix as the tent took shape, his face lighting up with delight. It was love at first sight; in and out he ran, touching the canvas and making little squeaks of excitement. It was now time for the finishing touch. Two star print blankets, some clothes pegs, and a little ingenuity later, and Felix had his very own bedroom in which we placed his travel cot and favorite tiger toy. This addition, we hoped, would help him sleep well both day and night, and would also give us a little privacy. After lunch, eaten with gusto in the camp chairs, and a stroll over to see the donkeys and goats at the petting zoo, and it was time to try out the bedroom. After some gentle persuasion he zonked out, leaving us to relax.


That afternoon we walked the fifteen minutes to the beach, a beautiful expanse of golden sand backed by dunes. A strong wind buffeted the shore so we put on our hoodies and huddled into the dunes, where Felix raced up and down the mini mountains and caked himself in sand. 'Wittering means wind' an old lady said as she caught sight of us. 'Next time bring a windbreak!' We ate slightly gritty ham and cheese sandwiches and paddled in the shallows, then took it in turns to have a proper swim. The tide was coming in and the waves were crowned with ruffles of white foam. ‘Bubble’ said Felix, pointing at the surf and tugging my hand. Deeper and deeper we waded as the waves pounded the beach, nearly knocking him over as he chortled with glee and I clutched tight to his little hand. Later we walked back home, exhausted and windblown but happy. ‘Thank goodness for the baby bath’ I thought as a startling quantity of sand detached itself from Felix’s body and swirled down the plughole, leaving him pink and smooth once more, and as the sun began to droop heavy and the night milk was drunk, we laid Felix in his cot and stood listening. The cawing of crows and cooing of doves were the only sound, lulling him to a deep sleep.

The elongated shadows of sunset made tiger stripes on the grass as the sun took its final bow, bathing the tent in a warm umber glow. As the barbeque filled the air with the evocative smell of searing meat I cooked potatoes on the camp stove and sliced the ingredients for a Greek salad, thick salty wedges of feta to complement the spicy chicken and blackened sausages. Drinks in hand we toasted the success of our inaugural venture and set about devouring our feast. The 'toddler quarters' meant we could sit up in bed and read without worrying about waking Felix, and as we prepared for sleep I peeped over to see him deliciously cozy and snug in his blankets. Hours later I awoke to a terrifying sound, my heart hammering. As consciousness flowed back I recognized it as the cawing of crows, those intelligent corvids whose presence legend has it signifies impending doom. Glancing at my phone I saw it was 4am, and for an hour between then and five I lay wide awake,
convinced the sound would surely wake not only Felix but also the dead, an army of whose rotting corpses would stumble over to where we slept and drag us screaming to Hades. This not being the case I decided to pop out for a wee, and the sight that greeted me was fairytale in its beauty. A crescent moon hovered low above the sleeping campers, gilded with the coming dawn, a single star atip the point like a beauty spot. On one side the sky was the colour of indigo ink, on the other a deep powder blue. Dew silvered the grass and the air carried a hint of salt from the nearby sea, and everything was still. I felt the special magic of being awake when all others around were asleep, and for a moment I stood and breathed deeply. Feet plastered in wet grass, I crawled back in the tent and tumbled back to bed, smiling at the thought of us all safe and snug under the canvas.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015


It is midsummer and the season hangs full and heavy like the ripening fruit in the orchards. The days are long and languorous, the nights mild. Solstice is only just past and the birds start their serenades at four am when dawn peeps through the shades of night and begins to bleed the black sky pale. Swathes of lawn turned crisp and brown speak of the recent heat; while in the meadows wild grasses wave golden fronds in the sunlight like a mermaid’s hair under the ocean.

Felix too is ripening like a warm peach in the sun, golden skinned and mellow, sweetness oozing from every pore as he embraces all the pleasures of summer. Already Chiswick seems a distant memory, so at home are we in the wilds of Teddington. I would swap a tube stop and proximity to central London for the abundant open spaces and parkland that surround us without hesitation. It seems that every direction culminates in a park or meadow, river or lido; across the grassy expanses of Bushey Park to the tropical blue waters of Hampton Open Air Pool, down the tree lined river path to our very own secret beach at Thames Ditton.The buggy sits folded and forgotten as Felix travels almost exclusively by bike nowadays, perched in his Co Pilot seat observing the world passing by and noting points of interest. Bright red buses whizzing by on the high road, blue and white boats on the river, flashes of lime green parrot in the trees.

His smattering of words has swelled to a babbling brook of nonsense chatter;
wibble wobble bibble babble he says, bubu baby and moomoo mama. He trills pleasantly like a caged canary as he plays with his train set, and every now and then he mimics a word or expression then refuses to repeat it, leaving you wondering if it actually happened. 'Don't know' he echoed as I asked him where the lid of a pen was the other morning. His words are like the whispering of the wind in the willows, invisible and impossible to pin down yet strong enough to sway the boughs. He seems to be at a zenith of happiness, and being able to communicate his contentment adds to the joy. He loves having his own room and his assortment of toys; the train set, play tent and drawing table. He loves the deer of Bushey Park, and has taken to collecting fallen feathers, brushing their softness across his cheeks in an attitude of rapture. He loves Hey Duggee and In The Night Garden on TV. He loves the garden and his sand pit, loves watering the sunflowers I have grown from seed and the tiny allotment I have cultivated in the neglected corner of the garden. Potatoes have shot out their tall straight stalks from the bare earth with unbridled enthusiasm, whilst the broccoli and carrots, hesitant at first, have taken strength from the recent sun and settled in. The giant oaks whisper and wave in the wind and Teddy sprawls sphinx like in his favourite spot by the trunk, half covered by the fronds of last springs bluebells like the tiger in Rousseaus painting.

We have almost everything we need, and whilst the tectonic plates of work continue to shift under our feet there us still cause for anxiety, yet the rightness of our move here, the gains we have made in favour of the losses, means we live literally and metaphorically in the sun. The simple pleasure of opening the kitchen door into the garden gives me daily pleasure. Feeling the honest earth under my fingernails as I work the soil and watch the green shoots emerge like faithful flag bearers is a minor miracle. Al fresco meals every day make not only us but also the birds and Teddy happy, as they feast on the dropped scraps and crumbs post mealtime. We are closer to nature and further from the city, and when needed the silver snake glides to Waterloo and the urban grime of Vauxhall in no time at all. Teddington Lock is where the Thames turns from tidal to a regular river, meaning the water past the locks is no longer saline but fresh, a river you can swim in. Felix loves to watch the endless gush and gurgle of water as it is squeezed through the metal barriers, a manmade waterfall marking the end of the grubby brown river that flows through the great city and the beginning of the green and silver stream that pootles through the suburban landscapes of Teddington and beyond. We have crossed the barrier and somehow in the process entered a real life Swallows and Amazons; a place where where the river is blue and safe and welcoming, where on Sunday afternoons we can decamp with a picnic for a dip, where a cycle ride away is a sandy beach with children frolicking and sturdy boys and girls popping canoes and kayaks into the water, where likeminded people can escape to a place of childhood innocence and joy free of the worries and duties of city living. One foot in the country one in the town, and already I know which foot is the happier one...