I am sitting at a picnic bench in a small generic Northern England caravan park. There is a sameness to them all. Aging 70’s toilet block, a heavy scattering of “Perms” – those creaking rusty caravans that have grass growing under the wheels and are surrounded by makeshift decks and potplants. I somteimes wonder if anyone actually stays in these places for less than a few years. There are no other travellers here.
But here we are. Our funny converted Ford Transit that doesn’t quite cut the grade with the “touring crowd”. As of yet no old guys have wandered across and stood there to ask me detailed questions about my van, how she runs, how it’s decked out. Most tourers pull in towing mansions on little wheels, press a button and within minutes are sitting in their deckchairs having the afternoon cuppa. They are gone in the morning in the blink of an eye.
We (girls included) don’t get to bed until 10:30 or 11pm. It’s still light so its useless trying to get the girls to sleep. We tried putting them into bed at 9ish but they wrestled and shrieked and giggled for an hour and a half so we gave up and bed time is somewhere between 10 and 10:30pm. Now Mel has erected curtains for the back though we can get them down a little earlier. We may also get more questions about our van.
We are moving well now, Southern England, through Oxford, The Peaks District, the Lakes District, Northumberland and tomorrow Scotland.
I love this place. It can’t be some dormant ancestral nostalgia because Australia has been in my blood for enough generations to wipe that clean and there is no other country on this planet I would rather live in than my home one. It may have to do with the fact that I lived up North here when I was at the highly impressionable age of 3 years old. All my neural networks busily forming and twisting themselves into some logical pattern. Imprinted around the idyllic shapes and colours of glowing green pastures and small stony villages built on streams.
Whatever it is I love it. I also love how English it is. Sounds silly but everything you hoped and imagined you would see is just everywhere. There are some countries I have travelled to where the image you hold in your mind requires searching and journey to actually get to. The palm tree lined white beaches of Indonesia sometimes require days of travel. The red lantern lined streets and cobblestoned alleys of China have all been demolished and you get excited when you visit an ancient city that actually has lanterns and alleys.
But here….it’s just THERE. (If you know what I mean). I have caught myself in the last few days just laughing over the rim of my cup of tea as I look up across the hills in front of me. I wanted lakes, grey scudding skies and craggy cloud shrouded mountains….well, there they are. And yesterday there were more. I was hoping to see quaint fairy tale English stone towns built on streams, lined with leaning pubs called the White Lion, Harrisons Rest or the Shoulder of Mutton. Our trouble is choosing which town to stop in for lunch or have a pint at. We’d develop a serious drinking problem if we stopped at every quaint pub.
But something else has happened amongst all this joyful English immersion.
We have slowed. Seriously slowed. Everything about us has slowed. From the distance we travel to what we feel we need to see in a day, to the time we wake and the time we sleep. I am not sure what caused the shift or when it happened. Driving out of Newquay with the Waterboys blaring and us FINALLY in our van was the start I think. The road trip vibe came down on me again and that sense of freedom and potential. But Southern England is crowded, and we were still finding out feet with camping again, so it didn’t suddenly set in. I still felt surrounded by people and rules. Don’t park here, can’t camp there, additional site fees for any extra adult, tent, child, three legged dog, cricket set, no ball games, no kids, you have to be part of the “caravan club” to stay here sorry sir. But as we head North that slips away.
The people seem less hurried, the rules fewer. One caravan park we inquired at was too expensive so the attendant lady kindly pointed us to cheaper ones and even to a car park by the lake that we would just “use”.
“As long as ye get in late and leave early me love, you’ll be fine.”
We have settled into these beautiful patterns of only moving up the road a little before we camp. On the Australian leg of this journey we would travel on average about 400 – 500 km a day. Sometimes we had monster ones of 700km. A stretch of merely 300km was seen as treat and a “down day”. But here we pack up by 10am, move up the road 15 miles, see a castle and then roll on a further 20 – 30 miles to camp. We drove off yesterday and after 4 minutes I asked Mel when we see stopping for morning tea.
Drinking tea has become an event. I have this strange childhood memory of hearing about the Japanese tea ceremony. Where everything about the act was enunciated and preparation became almost meditation. Seemed crazy to me. Tea (choice of Earl Grey or normal) was something we had as a family standing out the front of the house, seeing dad off to work in his little yellow Holden Gemini. Slurping the spilt tea from the saucer before kissing him goodbye. I never understood how you could stretch it out. But here….
We choose a spot, get out the gas stove, pull out boxes, watch the kettle boil, listen for the whistle of the steam, heat the cups, time the brewing, add the milk and then sit. Staring at those jagged cloud strained peaks and lakes. Our own little tea ceremony. (Coffee is the same. One of our major money saving tactics was to start brewing our own coffee on a stove top. Spending – on average – $AUD 12 on two cups of coffee hurts my head and offends my sense of normal.)
By far the greatest impact though is on the girls. The other day we pulled into a classic English “Wild Camping” site. (The term “Wild” is highly amusing to Australians and I am sure my Canadian friends. My understanding of “wild” is several days hike, off track, to a place where no sign of humanity exists save your own little tent. Here it means you are in a farm paddock without electricity – with toilets and showers.) We pulled in and we started brewing tea first before any other activities. Mel looked up at me 10 minutes later and asked “Where are the girls?”
“You know” she said “this is what I hoped for. For us to pull into camp and them disappear and come back for dinner.”
It was magical.
I thought of the childhood I hoped they would have. I always had some idealistic notion that they would share the things that I found joyous from my own. The now common, nostaligic sentiment about letting your children run out of the house in the morning and wander back in for lunch and dinner.
But I haven’t allowed that back at home. I struggle and wrestle with it but despite my desire to set them free I haven’t allowed them to go and play at Newport Lakes forest reserve. Someone left dog meat baited with fish hooks there last year so God only knows what creepy people are out there. And have you seen the house half way towards the park? All the old houses have been knocked down and reshaped into shining double town houses – but that one is surrounded by old cars and junk. What’s he building in there? Surely something bad would happen.
I always read parenting advice articles with a slight sense of trepidation. Those lovely articles written by parenting experts (I would love to meet just one child of a parenting expert). The articles either make me feel relieved that I have done something right or more often than not make me throw the article down with resignation. The fact that I haven’t started my children on the violin at age 3, language tuition by 4, made them stack the dishwater and mow the lawn at age 5 and set them free to roam amongst the wilderness by age 6 means that they may become axe murderers. Or worse, they may not be perfect.
Cut through some of the waffle and you do get some big valuable jolts. The one about letting kids be free always resonates and I start to think about my approach, question whether I have fallen in line with modern myths about the dangers out there in the world. They are no worse now than they were in older times – probably better. Not 200 years ago a 12 year old could be sent from England to Australia as a criminal for stealing buttons.
We just hear about the bad stuff more. If a child had been injured in a different city 30 years ago you wouldn’t know. Now someone out there trawls the web for any articles relating to children and puts them in your parenting news feed so suddenly you are bombarded by bad news about people out there waiting to hurt your children. And God forbid if a child gets abducted somewhere in the world then you can hear the locks of doors all across the planet being clicked shut by nervous parents. So when it comes to the decision about letting them out to play on their own I err towards the conservative.
(It has always saddened me that my anxieties about my children’s welfare always traces back to other people harming them. It’s never the environment. I would feel quite safe letting the girls play alone in a wilderness I knew was deserted. But send them down the street alone to the Altona Gate mall…..no sireee. That’s where bad things happen – where there are other people.)
So I go on trying to give them freedom while holding back those media fuelled fears about the modern world. But out here it’s suddenly become easier. The paddocks are big, the forest just there, the other campers all smile and wave or have children of their own. So I relax, let them go.
The combination of that loosening of reigns and idle time that is completely unstructured is profound. The afternoons stretch ahead of the girls and they saunter off to create things. It is true what all those pesky parenting articles say about unstructured time. Allow a child space and time and their minds bolt free. Games with complex rules and structures emerge, medicines and potions are crafted, huts built, flying foxes for small boxes filled with plastic toys are constructed. It is absolutely fascinating to watch. This slowness is filtering through the girl’s minds and becoming a beautiful, blissful normal before we return to the hurried structure of what we have left behind. The old normal.
I look at them mid game and I get this rush. It makes me think that just this event alone is worth every cent, mile and horrid bus trip.
So as Mel and I ease up on the accelerator and change gears into this new slow, so do the girls. God knows what impact this is having on them, their minds. I know it won’t be bad. I know that sitting in a classroom for hours, with shoes on, will be a small personal hell for a while. I know that for a few months they will sit in a classroom with that cold, sweaty palmed, stomach churning feeling of just not GETTING it like the other kids. I know this and I apologise to them in advance.
But having seen them shift, change, flow, create and wander I am also in awe of the capacity for adaptation that a child’s mind possesses. It is phenomenonal. It is like their minds yearn for freedom and to be unbounded. I just need to get out of their way and let it run.