My First Camping Trip

Latrine? What a funny word.” As I spoke I looked up for guidance from my friend Frank. He stood several inches above my four-foot-nothing and, shaking his great mop of flue brush black hair, said despairingly: “It’s a sort of lavatory, stupid, and we have to dig it.”

This was an early introduction to camping when I was nine years old and a ‘Sixer’ (junior equivalent of Scout Patrol Leader) in our local Cub Pack. We had travelled less than 30 miles, from the city, on the train to our camping site on a sloping field with six bell tents – nine Cubs to each tent – and our Union Flag flying proudly from its rough flagpole cut from a nearby tree.

This was the early 1930s, and with hardly anyone possessing a car, they were still almost as isolated as they had been for some 200 years. We’d have stared in disbelief at the camping equipment of today, with its level of comfort and convenience. Ours was so basic. The floor of the tent was covered with a waterproof groundsheet and we plonked our two blankets on this, rolled our top clothes and towel into a pillow case and slept in our makeshift beds as only boys out in the open air all day can. For some reason – I can’t recall why – we had to supply and use a blanket pin which was like a huge safety pin, and I suppose kept our blankets from falling apart during the night.

Some weeks beforehand our parents had signed the necessary forms and looked at the list of things
we must take with us. Now, if you read your social history of that time, the whole world was in the grip of a terrible economic depression. In America, near-starving men camped outside The White House, and in Germany they looked to a new ‘saviour’ called Adolf Hitler to give them work and food. Britain didn’t escape, and there was real poverty on all sides, with families living on bread and margarine and weak tea with condensed milk.

The list of requirements was therefore small, and I took along one of Mother’s enamel plates and a mug, both carefully marked with my initials scratched on the underside, and a knife, fork and spoon. Other items were two ex-Army grey blankets, a pillow case and a towel, plus what shirts and underclothing were thought appropriate, and, of course, the uniform with kerchief and woggle. Pyjamas were not suggested, as many lads did not have them, but a pair of plimsolls (known to us as ‘pumps’) would accord to the missive ‘Be useful’.

So we dug our latrines and put up the hessian -‘urden’ to us – screens and buckets of lime to be used as necessary. Water was brought from a nearby farm in milk churns on a trek cart – a two-wheel cart with a broad handle at the front which four lads could drag along. We did, and for the first time in my life I knew the joy of breaking into song and the comradeship of not only doing a job but also relying on your mates. This was to stand me in good stead in my rough years ahead.

Food was cooked in great heavy ‘dixies’ over wood
fires set in a trench about a foot deep. I remember only two things about the food – thick porridge with the consistency of molten lava, served with lashings of sugar and farm milk, and ordinary pork sausages boiled in a big saucepan rather than fried as they were at home.

One day we went to a castle – a first for me – and I saw the leather coat worn by the elder son of the house when he was killed during the Civil War. I stood fascinated looking at the great sword slash and the dark bloodstain, and for me a minor miracle of my life happened. History became about real people, not dry dates and the names of kings and queens. Luckily I had a new history teacher soon afterwards who also made it come alive, and I still enjoy learning about previous generations and I expect I always shall.

On our final night we had a camp fire, and a real beauty it was! A local farmer supplied a derelict farm cart, and the flames could be seen for miles around. We sang songs like A Long, Long Trail A-winding and From Out the Old Elm Tree the Owl’s Call I Hear.

All too soon it was time to pack, clean up the site, fill in those latrine trenches and get the train home.

It must have been more than 20 years before I found myself back in that part of the country, and with some difficulty found the old camp site. I had a job to imagine those camping days as it was now a factory producing car components!

Dennis Sheward.