Queen Tess of the P’urplefrills organises wonderful Red Hat Hoots: theatre trips, visits to stately homes, picnics, concerts… but now and again she has a funny turn and suggests something utterly ludicrous that no-one in her right mind would want to do. Like spend a Night in the Forest.
You may not be surprised to learn that, from the whole Not Stuck in a Rut-land chapter, only seven women signed up for the full ‘treat’ of a Night in the Forest, though three did come for the BBQ, but if it had not been for three mad Hatters from Norfolk, we’d barely have had enough for a chorus of Kum Ba Yah.
Queen Tess couldn’t even shift the blame for this bonkers idea onto HRH Belladonna Queen of Vice. Because from the start, Donna was adamant that she would not, in a million years, sleep out in the open air. In the dark. With no running water. Only an earth closet along a muddy path. With midges. Surrounded by wild animals. Get the picture? True to her word, Donna (along with Professor Carol Crimson Cap and Lady Scarlet of the Dovecotes) left as darkness fell, but not before making a significant contribution to the occasion and proving she is word-perfect when it comes to that timeless classic Two Little Boys Had Two Little Toys.
My first camping experience was as a 13-year old Girl Guide. Somewhere in the middle of Wales, our tents were pitched on a sloping, stony field. During the night I slid down the slope, out through the flap, and woke in the morning to find my bottom half soaked in dew. Worse, my brand new enamel mug had a large slug in it. Even worse, we had to ‘pay’ the farmer by hand-picking the stones out of his field. Worse still, I had hay fever. This ‘fun’ weekend has stayed with me for 40 years. I don’t do camping.
So it was that I found myself stumbling up a track in Fermyn Woods Country Park to our rendezvous, carrying a borrowed sleeping bag and a toothbrush. And wearing purple and a red hat.
What can I say? The three wooden shelters were picturesque, their green roofs covered in ox-eye daises, clover and thistles, their sleeping platforms raised off the ground, away from slugs. In the centre was a stone hearth big enough to burn an oak tree. Around it were logs to sit on, though most hatters had brought camping chairs for greater comfort. Purple bunting fluttered in the summer breeze. The birds were singing and the sun shone.
But a closer look confirmed each shelter was open to the elements on one side, with a low roof fiendishly designed so that if you remembered to duck under the first beam, you forgot about the second. Ouch. Ducking back out, you’d remember that one, but hit the first one. I wondered what it would be like if it rained: sitting cross-legged in our shelters, shouting at each other across the clearing, eating cheese rolls. Hhmm.
But thank goodness it didn’t rain. Keen hatters went geo-caching around the forest (walking miles in the process). I learned how the Kelly Kettle worked. The charcoal was lit about 6pm and the rest of the evening was spent around the camp fire, now expertly constructed by one of the Norfolk hatters. Queen Tess had brought the wherewithal for a fantastic BBQ dinner with marshmallows (toasted, natch) for pudding. We sang every Girl Guide chorus we could remember, with different verses depending on where, and in which decade, we were teenagers. The breeze was soft, the fire hot, the party games hysterical and the laughter loud enough to scare off any wild animal within miles. Lady Big Bang of Pyrotechnica brought some special sparklers and, like 8 year olds, we wrote our names on the darkness.
But at last we had to go to bed. I insinuated myself into my borrowed sleeping bag and tried to find a comfortable position. On my right, Queen Tess pumped up her luxury li-lo, laying her pillow, duvet and purple blanket on top. On the other side, Rufa Medica folded herself neatly into her own bag, lay on her tummy and went to sleep in a composed manner. On the far side, our newest member Marilyn, Dame Delphinium, made a nest in various layers of mats and covers… In the next shelter, somebody had brought a pop-up bed, with legs.
And so we slept. At least I tried. In our shelter, we all snored, but not necessarily all at the same time. I suspect there was always one person awake, gnashing her teeth while listening to the snortings of the other three. Waking up every half hour or so through the night, I saw the candle-lanterns go out one by one, and the camp fire gradually burn out until our woodland glade was lit only by the bright moon entangled in the trees.
I can confirm that the dawn chorus started, still in darkness, at 4.10am but by 4.40 light was creeping into the clearing and every bird in Northamptonshire was doing its best to wake us. At 6.30 somebody got the Kelly Kettle going for morning tea and coffee. Don’t ask me who it was: I couldn’t find my glasses. I was cheered to discover last night’s mug sans slug; nor had the midges been nibbling.
As each of us ‘came to’ we crawled out of our shelters and off to find a bush before swapping jim-jams for fresh clothes. I say fresh, but everything I owned now reeked of wood-smoke. The ‘morning’ people bustled around packing up the catering gear and putting the campsite back the way we found it, before heading off to the forest café, where a cracking cooked breakfast had been pre-ordered. By 9am even those of us who are not morning people felt wide awake and able to hold a conversation.
As she stuffed a third piece of toast into her mouth, someone was heard to say “Next time, I would bring a li-lo.”
I think it might have been me.
Our next adventure in the woods…