So. It’s 1979. The Boomtown Rats don’t care for Mondays, and Joe Jackson can’t believe she’s really going out with him. (She is, Joe, mate, sorry). It’s Summer. I have never been away from my own bed for more than two nights before. And I am faced with a week in a tent on my Uncle’s smallholding on the Isle of Sheppey.
I have an empty sweet jar saved from last year’s day trip to Margate, so I re-fill it with humbugs and sherbet lemons. Probably a)not a good mix and b) not a good idea as we are having quite a hot spell and they are all stuck together before we even leave the house.
On top of this, I have had a week of angst, because ITV have gone on strike and The Streets of San Francisco isn’t on. Now, cop shows with Karl Malden in them aren’t usually my thing, but I have developed a crush on the young bloke in it who replaced Michael Douglas. I particularly like it when someone shoots him. To this day I am not sure what that says about me as a 12 year old.
But anyway: the strike is a consolation, because we will have no TV in the week to come; nothing but a battery powered radio for company in our patch of grass. Although there’s only so much Simon Bates you can take in one morning.
Well. I have packed my (not yet un-PC) beloved golliwog doll (I can’t sleep without my Golly), the aforementioned boiled sweets, there’s five whole pounds (in one pound notes) in my purse, and I’ve got my diary, and my copies of I-Spy Hedgerows and I-Spy The Stars, and a pencil. I’m all set.
Our car – don’t remember which one of the many my Dad got through – is duly loaded up with so much kit that Dad can’t see out of the back window.
To get to Kent from Essex we had of course, to go first through the old Dartford toll tunnel. This was quite the adventure. A tunnel. Thousands of feet below the Thames, under tonnes of thick mud. Scary. And Dad had convinced us that if any of the car windows were open we would all die instantly from carbon monoxide poisoning.
I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen the Isle of Sheppey Seventies style. Or at all, come to that. Lots of sheep on the marshland there in those days. Not a lot else. Don’t suppose much has changed; don’t really know, I haven’t been back since 1982.
Having met Uncle John in the car park of the Leysdown Greene King pub, we now have access to the site, and a tent which Dad and John (my Mum’s lovely brother,who died sadly too soon in a rancid Medway hospital in 2002) spend a worryingly long time trying to put up.
I have no confidence in this whole venture.
But at this point in my life I am still stoic. And to be fair, the evening we spend down at the pub is fun. My cousin Joanne is there, she’s two years younger than me but much more streetwise (she lives in the East End proper).We have to sit in the beer garden and are allowed shandy but Dad says if anyone asks we have to deny it’s ours. We sing Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell. All is well.
John, Aunt Else, and Jo go home, and we walk back to the tent. I have never seen a sky so dark, so devoid of light pollution. I’m a bit scared. Dad, who rarely drinks, has had a few ales and is rambling about how we are probably all just bacteria in a Petri dish anyway. I look up at that galaxy full of stars and nearly wet myself.
Then Dad trips over a tent peg. I can see the sparks from his lit pipe flying into the dark night air even now.
Somehow we get to bed. I have never before been in a sleeping bag. My patient Mum is soft and soothing. So somehow (with Golly’s help, and possibly that half of a half of shandy’s) I fall asleep.
Much as I hated camping, those mornings were wonderful. Fresh and dewy. The sound of the birds. The scent in the clear blue air. Every kid should poke their head through the zip in a tent at some time in their childhood. Fact.
So. Where we are staying is really quite pretty, and wow, there’s a view across to the Estuary! Close by there is a Hi-de-Hi style holiday camp. We know this because we can hear the loud announcements. ‘The Blue Lagoon Is Now Open For All Campers’. Gosh.
As we have no access to the Blue Lagoon we head into Sheerness, the island’s largest town. There’s a lido there, open air swimming pool. I love it, despite the grey weather. My Mum hates it, terrified of water she is, bless her, even in two foot six of it. Mind you, she’s not so tall. I take after her in that way, but at least I can swim. But she gets in anyway, and tries not to to drown.
Before lunch (which Mum will make on a calor gas thingy back at the smallholding) we wander along the seafront. And then I see it.
In the Thames estuary there is to this very day, a shipwreck. It sits there, in open water, its mast above the river. As we walked along the seafront we couldn’t fail to see it. And of course Dad had an answer.
“See that?” says Dad, “That’s full of dynamite. If that ignites it will take this whole island and half of the south east of England with it. And that could happen Any Time. Maybe tonight.”
So. That night it started to rain. I’m trying to settle to sleep. In comes Dad.
“Don’t touch the sides of the tent,” he says. “It will make them tear and you’ll get wet. Night night.”
I know he loves me, he does , but, he’s not one to sugar a pill is he ? I now think that if I move even a centimetre the tent is going to burst : but worse than that – I know without a doubt that we’re all getting blown up by a WW2 boat.
And that is why I hate camping.
The SS Richard Montgomery sank in August 1944. To this day it sits in an exclusion zone off Sheerness. It is, and I quote, ‘a timebomb’.
Sue is a married mum of two from Essex . She has an English degree from London University which remains unused. Previous published works are A Nativity Poem in the Parish magazine in 1977, and a reader’s letter to Radio Times in 2006. She is currently rediscovering her childhood love of writing in her middle age.