“Have fun at Cuffley Camp Lucy! “”The third generation of our family to go. Let’s hope she hasn’t got a Justin Pisspot at her school.”
My lovely niece, Lady Fairfield, posted this on Faceache this evening. Her daughter, Miss Lucy, just turned 9 years old, was off for an adventure camping at Cuffley camp. As you can tell, our family have several decades of experience when it comes to staying at Cuffley.Seeing this message instantly transported me back to 1970, when I was 9 and went with my school (Saffron Green Primary).
I was young. I was innocent. I’d never really been away from home before. Well, only once, when I stayed with my uncle and aunt when I was six in ‘the countryside’, a place that seemed to have outsized insects, lots of big scary animals (pigs, cows, horses), lots of green fields and generally smelled of shit. Though to be fair, the smell of shit did vary and set me up for later life when I moved to the country, when I could differentiate between horses, cows, pigs and sheep. I cried for my mummy every night. But don’t tell my kids.
Anyway, back to Cuffley, 1970. There’s only one way really to start this recollection; in the words of Captain Willard in the film, ‘Apocalypse Now’:
‘I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet.’
We set out on a sunny morning, full of expectation and excitement – sleeping under the stars for 2 nights! Lots of jolly japes and wheezes (I must point out, I was an avid reader of Enid Blyton at the time) would be had with my friends Budgie and Ozzie. They’d had a talk at school – there were squirrels and rabbits everywhere! All we ever saw in Borehamwood were snake eyed Alsatian dogs and wary cats. Real wild life! Wow!
Upon arrival, Mr Barnes, our teacher, set about allocating tents to various groups of children. I ended up in a big green, musty smelling dwelling with Budgie, Ian Tuck and Ian Mitchell, known as Midge. Now, I must point out, Midge was the naughty boy of the class. I assume that Mr Barnes must have assumed that putting Midge with the ‘good boys’ would help. We settled into our tent, keen and ready for the wonderful time we were going to have. But we were unaware this was where the good times end and the ordeal of Cufflitz really begins.
Firstly, we went to have some tea. This was served in a massive hall with hundreds of children from all over Hertfordshire, Essex and North London. It was the closest thing you’d ever get to Wormwood Scrubs for children. The 1970s had started and they were mean. Various school bullies were dispatched to organise fights over the coming days. Every rival school eyed the other with hatred and suspicion. One child looked me straight in the eye and made a cutting motion across their neck. I swallowed hard. This was the scariest girl I’d ever seen. Turns out she was from Erith, so it made sense, really.
Dinner was served. Rissole, mashed potato and cabbage. Now, a rissole is a deep fried piece of indescribable meat in breadcrumbs. The potatoes had mysterious black lumps that stared out at you. The cabbage was most helpful, in an almost prophetic state; that is to say, it already looked half digested and vaguely smelled of vomit. I ate it all. I was 9 years old. It was 1970.
After tea, we were herded over to the washrooms to have a shower. Now, this was novel. We didn’t have a shower at home, just a bath that I used once a week. I was one of the first ones in. I turned on the shower and screamed. The water was freezing cold.
“Mr Barnes!” I called, “ the water’s cold!!”
“Yes,” he replied, “no hot water here!”
After a brief shower and towelling, slightly damp and shivering, we made our way to the campfire. We were sat on the bank as a class, opposite a particularly psychotic group of children from Watford, who spent the entire evening looking at us with wild loathing. We tried to stare back, but the smoke from the fire blew in our faces, making our eyes constantly stream. We sang songs about our classmates, rhyming their names. For some reason, Ian Tuck, Dave Frank and Jeremy Lunt never had a verse.
Back in our tents, smelling of smoke, we settled down for the night. Except the straw from the mattresses kept sticking into us. Plus the fact these strange insects insisted on crawling all over us. Then Ian Tuck decided to vomit into his sleeping bag.
Next day, we set out on a long walk with Mr Barnes in the pouring rain. We got lost. Budgie was so scared in the woods, he shit himself. I was trying to work out how a spider had managed to bury its head in my wrist. Now I’m older, I realise it was a tick, and pulling it off wasn’t a good idea. I still have the scar.
Returning to our tents after the walk to retrieve some fresh underwear for Budgie, I discovered that the local squirrels had chewed through my suitcase and eaten my entire supply of sweets. It was at this point that I became a true country dweller – I wanted to kill the little bastards.
I went and told Mr Barnes. He drew long and hard on his cigar and shrugged his shoulders, a faint smell of whiskey in the air.
“ Shit happens,” he said. I wandered off in shock.
The second night under canvas was even more eventful. Midge fell asleep with a fag on and set light to his mattress. After much screaming and shouting, Mr Barnes arrived with a pan of water and threw it all over Ian Tucker, who promptly wet himself. After an hour or so, I did manage to drift off to sleep, despite Budgie’s sobbing. I was awakened once more by what sounded like somebody trying to deflate a rubber ring very quickly. It turned out that Midge, an asthmatic, was having an attack. As any 9 year old would do, we immediately sprang into action.
“MR BARNES, MR BARNES!” we shouted.
Mr Barnes’s head crashed through the opening of the tent with a heady mixture of Henry Winterman’s and Skol lager.
“What the **** is it now??” he exclaimed.
We blinked at him in wonder.
“Midge is dying,” said Budgie.
“Mitchell! Breathe properly!!” shouted Mr Barnes. This is what is known as 1970s first aid.
Midge looked at Mr Barnes with wide eyes, took a deep breath and smiled.
“You said ****, Barnsey!” he said.
Mr Barnes leaned forward and cuffed Midge around the head.
“Don’t use that language, boy!” he cried. “Now go to bloody sleep!”
The next day, another expedition. Catherine Lightfoot faints and lands on Joanna Whalley, the fat girl. Who lands on me, jamming my compass into my groin and ripping my underpants.
Back at camp. Budgie, Midge and I decide to go and see Mr Barnes and plead to be allowed to go home now. We weren’t built for this.
Mr Barnes stubbed out his cheroot, drained his can of Watney’s and looked us in the eye.
“This is camping, boys. Camping.”
He stared off into the distance, towards the toilet block where the kids from Erith had written an interesting observation about their head teacher, which was both physically impossible and ethically wrong.
Mr Barnes looked directly at us. Midge took his pack of Embassy Number 10s out of his back pocket and offered one to him. Mr Barnes leaned forward and drew one of the stubby cigarettes from the crumpled packet, taking the proffered light from Midge’s gas lighter.
“It’ll make you men,” he whispered, tapping his nose and opening another bottle.
When the coach pulled into school, I staggered down the steps into my mother’s arms. When we got home, she noticed the red bites all over my torso. Flea bites. She immediately drew a boiling hot bath, poured in a bottle of disinfectant and plunged me into the cleansing, scalding concoction. Although it was unpleasant and uncomfortable, at least she hadn’t doused me in paraffin and thrown a match at me.
This may explain why I never went camping again until I was in my 30s, had small children and was skint.
But now, of course, camping has changed. My children have grown up, but I still plan one more trip.
Lady Barton St Mary and I will hitch up the trailer tent and make our way down to the beautiful county of Cornwall. We’ll find a lovely camping site, overlooking the sea from a cliff top. We’ll unhitch the trailer tent and together we’ll heave the bugger over the edge and watch it plummet into the sea.
Have a lovely time, Lucy.