Friday, December 24, 2010

Getting our camp on

At the end of April, Andrew and I got out the camping equipment again, this time for a quick trip to Oxford. The site is just outside of Oxford, about a 45-minute walk, and it was very clean and friendly. We set up our tent and wandered into town for some dinner. I remembered a place we had been for lunch on our first trip to Oxford, and we headed there. I don’t remember everything we had, but I do remember a nice glass of prosecco and some gorgeous local asparagus with hollandaise sauce. I love camping!

The next day we wandered around town and along the Thames Path. There were lots of houseboats bobbing about, and we saw at least one boating party go by, with a canopy and a table laden with picnic food, just like a Renoir painting. We eventually crossed the river north of town and walked back through some fields where there were horses that wandered up to us and let us pet them. We got to see a lot more of the town than we had seen before, but by the afternoon we were back on familiar turf and decided to take a tour of one of the colleges, because you can’t get inside them otherwise. We picked Christ Church, because it looked most impressive from the outside, and it was quite impressive on the inside, as well. Christ Church was where Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland, and several movies have been filmed in its courtyards and halls. The Great Hall was particularly nice, although it was funny to see it being set up for what looked to be a pretty standard institutional dinner with misspelled menus.

After our college tour, we walked back to the camp site along the Thames Path, which turned out to be very exciting because there was a boat race on. As we walked along, looking at the ducks and swans and college boat houses, every few minutes a scruffy college kid would ride by on a bicycle with a megaphone, and then we would see a few crew boats skimming the surface of the water.

That evening we went back to The Fishes, one of our favorite places from our first trip, for dinner. We had our map, and we had a plan, and that plan was to cut across some fields and hope we ended up at the restaurant. We did end up there, but only after some weedy wandering and cheeky fence hopping. We even spied a gypsy encampment in the woods. It was all worth it for drinks and a lovely dinner, followed by a nice, safe cab ride back to the tent. The following morning we packed up and walked back into town for breakfast at Jamie Oliver’s new Italian restaurant, then hopped on the train home.

For the first May bank holiday the next weekend, the Kiwis wanted to do a three-day camping trip, so we all left after work on Friday and caught a packed-as-sardines train from Paddington to Swindon, Andrew and I with our light-ish packs and the Kiwis laden down with what turned out to be a whole household’s worth of supplies (and thank goodness for that!) We picked up a few more things in Swindon, which was impressively nondescript, then caught a cab out to the campsite. Amy and Don had picked out the campsite, and Andrew and I were just following along, so we were very surprised when, after 30 minutes, we were still in the cab, out in the middle of nowhere. But we eventually found the place and started to set up camp in the cold drizzle. How English. We were on a farm with three giant fields devoted to camping, and although we stayed away from the family field, we were swarmed by devilish little British children running everywhere, tripping on our tent poles at all hours while their parents simply ignored them. How English.

Amy was intent on proving herself to be a domestic goddess in the wild, and she did not disappoint. She had a little salad and some bread for us to snack on while she made a really tasty tomato risotto on her camping stove. We had never used a camping stove and were so impressed we went out and bought one for ourselves soon after. We built a small campfire – a real rarity at English campgrounds – but called it an early night due to the cold and hoped for better weather the next day.

And we did have better weather, mostly. The next day we walked up a massive hill on the farm and over to an ancient hill fort where we could see the White Horse of Uffington, which is a chalk drawing that has been maintained by the village for something like 3,000 years. Local legend has it that St. George slew the dragon on the same hill. As we were walking back around the hill to find some lunch in Uffington, we passed a field full of Wiccans celebrating May Day in several giant yurts. They were really nice, if a little creepy, and now we could see where all the previous night’s mystery drumming sounds had come from.

We found a pub and a tiny grocery store in Uffington, which was good because these were our only food options within about 15 miles. Thank goodness Amy and Don had come prepared. Andrew and I didn’t even have much cash; we had never been camping at such a primitive site in our previous British travels and we didn’t realize what we were getting into. We managed to feed ourselves all right, though, over the weekend, supplemented with a few pub lunches and a lovely cream tea back at the camp site.

Our other big day of walking took us along the top of a long ridge on an ancient road called, appropriately, the Ridgeway. We saw lots of fields full of yellow flowers, some lovely views out over the downs, and a hill barrow – a Stone Age burial mound in a quiet, shady grove of trees. It was very solemn and atmospheric, but I kept an eye out for barrow wights.

We had a lovely time, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been more happy to get back to civilization, a hot shower, a clean kitchen, and a soft bed. But that’s what camping does for you; helps you appreciate not only nature, but also normality.

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