One of the first books I bought when we arrived in England was a glossy travel guide called "Cool Camping: England" It promised to avoid the crowded campgrounds with rows of RV's, cafes, pools, industrial waste bins and camp hosts that drive around in golf carts. It described the "cool factor" of each place, assuringly writing that your kids would be playing like wood nymphs together and you might be part of a spontaneous drum circle.
Because our first trip in the new tent had gone so well, I figured we should do it again as soon as possible. We were now the hard core winter camping family. We didn't need to stay at a corporate hotel or marginal guest house where you find out after you've booked a $95 room that travelers on Trip Advisor are warning that you might get bed bugs if you stay there. I was letting go of my fantasy of weekends in reasonably priced B&B's with fluffy pillows and down duvets, meeting eccentric English ornithologists over fried tomatoes and breakfast tea. At least until braces, sports gear and college tuition are paid for.
I picked out what sounded to be an idyllic place, open year round and only a 90 min drive from St Albans and very near Stratford-Upon-Avon, home of William Shakespeare. The campground was called Holycombe and it's "cool factor" was its "mash-up of the medieval, middle-eastern, and the mystical", set upon the grounds of a Norman castle and believed to be a sacred neolithic site. Unlike the Normans, Holycombe had a kitchen with a stove and skillets so we wouldn't need to cart along our cooking gear or fuel. On top of that it was a mere 500 yards to The Norman Knight, a well-regarded gastro-pub in the middle of Whichford village. How much cooler could it get? I called just to be sure Holycombe was open and was told, yes, the kitchen is clean, the showers are hot and the lights were motion sensitive.
I was so excited to experience this place I convinced C to leave Friday after work. We arrived in darkness, around 7:30, at the spot where the navigation system told us was "our destination." No lights, no signs, just a driveway and what looked to be a brick farmhouse. "This has to be it." I said, though C was starting to wonder if I had plugged in the wrong postcode. We turned around and drove by again. One driveway. Rain started pelting the windshield. After we turned around for a third pass, I got out of the car and walked onto the property. Lights went on; a good sign I assumed. There were cars in the driveway but no one answered my repeated knocks. C was out now in his rain gear and headlamp and started wandering the grounds. "Look for the dome tent. She told me the kitchen was near the dome tent." I went back to pull on my knee high rain boots and Goretex jacket.
I'm sure you in the States have heard by now that we're having a bit of a wet spell in England. In fact, wetter than has been recorded in written history. Thats 230 years of weather history. People are whispering the word "Biblical." Entire villages are under water; roads are impassible in areas; free ranging pigs are up to their snouts in muddy water. But our journey to Holycombe had been unimpeded and I was so in love with the idea of this place I was sure our ground cloth would protect us from a little bit of damp.
Unlike the States, many campgrounds in Europe are simply fields of grass without designated sites, where people erect their tents willy-nilly. I suggested to C that since there appeared to be only one way to get onto the lawn behind the house that we use the car headlights to inch our way around the field to look for the dome tent. But the entrance to the field was barely the width of a car, making us hesitate. We decided to head onto the road again and drive the periphery to see if there was another entrance. The rain grew louder. We drove three sides of a rectangle without finding another driveway. As we returned to our starting point we now saw the sign: Holycombe. Faded, dirty and propped against the fence on the ground. Ok then, let's drive on the damn grass. There was a slight incline at the field entrance. The front tires dug in as the nose of the car lifted. Just as the hood leveled out and I could see the field in front of us the headlights started pointing down. Because we were sinking. C reversed, we both cursed and when we were back on gravel, we stared at a pair of muddy tracks and chewed up grass. Z looked up from the iPad and said "bad word you two!"
Out of the car again, we walked deeper into the darkness and driving rain. There was a stream (the moat?), there was a steep hillside (certainly not the camping area), there were small copses of scraggly trees. But there was no dome tent, no kitchen, no buildings we could find other than the main house which I was about ready to throw rocks at. By now it was 8:30 and we were unfed and irritable. Good thing the pub was so close. We elected to abandon Holycombe to it's Neolithic darkness and come up with plan B over a hot dinner.
But we were turned away. It was 9:00 now and our experience has been that if every seat in a pub is occupied or even unoccupied but reserved, they are "fully booked" and will not suggest you wait, or have a beer, or give them your cell phone number so they can seat you just as soon as there's a vacancy. Suddenly Whichford had become a boil I wanted to lance, and the pus and blood would be my tirade about how incredibly opaque and unhelpful this country can be sometimes.
We were 15 miles from the small city of Banbury. As C drove, I scoured Booking.com for a place to stay. For 75 GBP ($123) we found a triple at a Best Western. We picked up terrible take-out at a Chinese restaurant (where batter-dipped deep fried chunks of pork are called meatballs) and fell into bed. We could laugh at this point. Well, not really, but I think I chuckled. As it continued to rain I was just a little relieved we weren't in a tent. I sipped a beer we had snuck in from our cooler while the boy breathing on either side of me got slow and heavy. I hunkered down under the clean white sheets, silky duvet and comfortable pillows. We'll worry about college tuition tomorrow.
Addendum: The woman who runs Holycombe called last week to see if we had stayed because she hadn't seen any payment. I managed to remain calm as I described our wet wanderings around her property. Oh, she said, the camping area is down the road, through a gate that would have been closed and, yes she supposed, was a little overgrown by the trees. Turns out I had spoken with her adult daughter who had mentioned none of this. "But we're not really open this time of year." Again, I pointed out that her daughter had failed to mention this. So I asked why they were listed in Cool Camping as being open year round? "Well... we can be, it's just that not many people come during the winter."
I can't help but hope her lawn never recovers.