“Five go Stealth-Camping”

My return to Alma Mater sparked a salient memory which I’d like to share – it forms another chapter from my novel “Here am I Sitting in my Tin Can.”

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Shropshire Union Canal, Acton

Coddiwomple (v) To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination

This word was introduced to me by a loyal reader of my travel blog to whom I give thanks because a) I love to learn new words, b) it just about sums up my journeys over the past 120 days or so, and c) it’s the kind of old-fashioned-sounding word I would’ve used when I was small and reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.  These chimerical adventures hold special memories for me, not least Five Go Off in a Caravan, which stayed with me and I like to think inspired me to one day do what I am now doing ie. live and travel in a tin can.

But there must be another word that could equally encapsulate this new leg of my travels in which I meander at narrowboat-pace through days of distant past, which has three-fold import – to fatten this novel, to banish the dog (there is no dog in this Famous Five story) and to rebuild my life.

To that end I’m co-organising a school reunion.  In 1974 I was lucky enough to pass my 11-plus so would spend the next five years stumbling adolescently and pimply through an education at Nantwich & Action Grammar School.

But in reacquainting with old school pals I’ve been amazed at how many memories flood back, and how the buzz and energy of the process have induced into me a thirst and hunger for life.  The other day, for example, I walked with my old friend Mandy along the Shropshire Union Canal.  It wasn’t coddiwompling – the destination was far from vague, it was with the specific aim of finding a place where forty years ago, aged 15, we camped.

To the right of the photo above was a coppice where we pitched the tent, or in truth a crude piece of canvas with no ground-sheet, with no food, no water, no washing facilities and indeed no common sense.  The Famous Five were me, Sid, Tarty, Bryn and Steeley – Mandy would arrive next morning in her long black coat, an apparition gliding along the towpath through the mist to bring some order to the flatulent, pubescent chaos.

We’d been earlier to a youth club in Nantwich, playing snooker on a bumpy table, drinking illicit cans of Skol and deluding ourselves that we were adults on the piss.  I’m not sure when exactly the camping idea was mooted, or why I decided to go along, but mooted it was and decide I did.  And as we got fired up about it, voices must’ve been raised and overheard by the older boys for whom snooker wasn’t cool as they were four years closer to adulthood.

Anyway, given the paucity of our tackle, the inexperience of the aforementioned Five, and the lack of permission to camp, I suppose we were stealth-camping long before it was even invented.  So we off-grid pioneers bedded down in the mud with the intention of sleeping, somewhat pretentiously given the grotesque game of Twister, the teenage ribaldry and the propensity to fart in each other’s faces.  I remember one in particular as Bryn bedded down with his head dangerously close to my arse, and I skilfully waited a few moments before letting one go; a yard-long rasping trumpet that lifted the canvas roof.

“Fucking hell!” he shrieked, and that, in terms of sleep, was that.  Amid blame and counter-blame I was banished from the tent into the trees… where between bouts of laughter I made out at least three figures scurrying along the towpath opposite, and knew instinctively that these were the big boys from the youth club.  So in my lonely expulsion to the naughty corner of the wood, I took my position behind an oak tree and listened for the fallout.

Sure enough, within moments I heard the plaintive cries of Steeley, the often picked-on member of the Five (probably because he was a ginger) as he was grabbed and carted kicking and screaming, to the bridge.  Still shaking with laughter, I listened out as his final plea ended with an almighty splash into the cut before the three figures scurried gleefully back from whence they came.

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Steeley’s View from a Bridge

When I returned to the tent, all the fallout from my fart was forgotten; concern was now for Steeley and getting him dry and keeping him warm.  “Bunch of twats!” he kept saying, “Why me?”  “‘Because you’re ginger,” I said, “and they are gingerists.” So gingerly we huddled together, guilty and fart-free, waiting for the morning.

When Mandy came we hoped she’d have meat-paste sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer, but the cupboard was bare.  Why she came I always wanted to know (one day she might tell me she came for me) but we were grateful for a beautiful and friendly face and of course feminine concern for the sodden Famous Five.

So here am I, coddiwompling through this memory, the point of which to record an important slice of my life, a memory I look forward to sharing with the other four (if they’re still alive) when we do the Big Reunion.  But there’s an added significance for me because the coppice is still there and the bridge has stood the test of time.  So pausing on there, forty years on, gazing at the very spot in which we five huddled together, I feel young again, invigorated, thinking that while the memories might be vague at times, my destination’s becoming clearer and happier.

I can only wonder what that word is that could best describe my journey right now.  But I do know this; a little drop of nostalgia can do me good, a tiny crumb of comfort from the fact that not everything changes can nourish my soul.  But while I have one foot back on the grid there’s still the gypsy in my soul who’ll travel as much as he can through his memories, telling stories about characters living or dead.  Thanks to Enid Blyton (in my view a storyteller unfairly sniffed at) and all the others down the years who inspired me to write, who fired my imagination, my story will go on.  Five spotty teenagers farting in each other’s faces isn’t the stuff of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog, but farting was our currency and the stuff of Acton legend, so not to be sniffed at either.

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