I asked my son, D, what he wanted to do for his sixth birthday. Anything, I told him, within reason.
He’d choose the cinema. I was confident of that. And if he didn’t fancy a film, he enjoys the beach, so we’d possibly be driving down to the coast.
A couple of weeks ago, he’d mentioned how much fun he’d have going bowling with his cousin. I wouldn’t mind if we went bowling. I quite like bowling.
“I want to stay in a big tent in the countryside,” D said.
And no matter how many times I asked him to reconsider, he always gave the same answer.
I found a listing for a yurt on Airbnb. My wife, N, thought it might be fun. The reviews promised a relaxing and romantic getaway. Spending the night away from home with my two sons could never be relaxing. And romance was something for childless people in their twenties, but being a parent means sucking it up every so often.
Having paid the £120 that would allow me to sleep in a big tent in the middle of nowhere, I’d convinced myself that it would be okay. I was never in the position of imagining I would have fun. I’ve never enjoyed camping. If this was California or the south of France, things might be different. But here, in England, it rains. And if it’s not raining, it’s cold.
Why not stay in a hotel? When it came to camping, I could never get past that question.
But the kids would have fun. And, as far as I could tell from the Airbnb pictures, the bed looked comfortable. Maybe the stars would be out? Maybe we’d spend the evening feeding wild berries to tentative deer? Maybe the change of location would mean our youngest would stay in his own bed for once?
The first indication that things might not go smoothly was a message from the yurt’s owner. (The accompanying picture was of a young woman with flowers in her hair — everything you’d want from an owner of a yurt.)
It hasn’t stopped raining for the last few weeks and it’s really muddy around there. Cars easily get stuck.
She suggested we park at a local hotel rather than risk stopping too close to the yurt. I didn’t tell my wife any of this. I felt as if I were protecting her from the truth.
When the day came, we loaded the car. You might think, from the amount of bags we crammed into the boot, that we were travelling to Europe for a few weeks. Instead, we drove to a place called Lewes, home to Thomas Paine for six years. We didn’t go there for its links to radical revolution, however. We went because there was a castle and also some restaurants — things to occupy the kids before we fully committed to the yurt.
The castle was great, the restaurant even greater — feeling in a celebratory mood, I drank two glasses of wine. Even the rain, now torrential, couldn’t dull the warm glow that came with feeling slightly pissed on a Saturday afternoon.
“BBC weather said it’d be dry all weekend,” said my wife, looking out of the window as the downpour turned torrential.
The yurt was in the grounds of a farm, which was also a hotel. Despite the unexpected proximity of civilization, I didn’t complain. If things got really bad/wet, I thought, we could always sneak into a spare room.
I jumped from the car to collect the yurt’s key from the hotel reception. As my feet hit the ground, I almost slipped on the damp turf. The family would have absolutely loved it had I done so. There’s nothing funnier than your dad hurting himself.
There was nobody in reception, so I pressed the doorbell-style buzzer. There was loud music sounding bassy from somewhere in the building. A young woman peered her head around the door at the end of a long corridor which stretched from the reception. I smiled and she disappeared.
I waited some more. I pressed the bell again. Nobody came. Eventually, I walked down to the room where I’d seen the woman. I pushed through the swing door to a dining room. The young woman was at a corner table, laying out cutlery.
“Hey,” I said. “I tried ringing at reception, but I don’t seem to be having much luck. I’m staying in one of your yurts tonight.”
She apologized. She said she thought I was the children’s entertainer.
“I don’t know whether that’s a compliment or …”
My voice trailed off. She said she’d get someone to help me.
Back at reception, a tall woman with extremely long fingernails handed over a key and a torch and said that, if she were me, she’d get unloaded before it got dark. She gave me advice with the same world-weary manner you might expect a veteran to use on a new recruit before battle.
“And don’t even think about parking near the yurts. Just drop your stuff off and park back here. We don’t have maintenance around, so if you get stuck in the mud, you’ll be stuck. I mean, literally. And it’s properly in the middle of nowhere.”
I told her not to worry. I said we’d already been warned about the mud.
We got stuck in the mud.
To give my wife her due, I only said not to park in the mud. I’d said nothing about not driving through it. I wasn’t in the car when it happened, having jumped out to scout our yurt.
We’d driven down a long, muddy, country lane. There was the square yurt car park that I recognized from a pdf map the owner had sent through. From here, we could glimpse Yurt One through the trees. Already, as the night was falling, the bright torches of some other family’s excited children shone against the inside of the thick, cream canvas.
It must be warm and unmuddy in there, I thought.
I should have changed out of my smart, suede boots before running off. My wife advised me to. But, like an idiot, I ignored her. They sank twelve inches when jumping out, ruined forever. And so I squelched away, past the car, and around a muddy track. Fresh horseshoe prints marked the mud. And there, in the distance, was our yurt.
I turned around. The car was no longer at the mouth of the car park. It was in the car park. And its wheels were spinning, and they were sending an arc of mud up into the air.
When I opened the passenger door, I spoke calmly to N.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“I was trying to turn around.”
“I can’t believe you’ve done this.”
“Are you going to help?”
We swapped positions. My boots brought thick lumps of mud with them. I succeeded in moving the car forward — directly into a pool of even thicker mud.
“What are you doing? You’ve driven right into all the thick mud!” said N.
There were slabs of wood nearby. We obviously weren’t the first to get stuck. I jammed them under the front wheels like I’d seen manly characters do in films. Mud now reached up from my boots to my knees.
The wood didn’t make any difference.
As it was now pitch black and our youngest child, J, was screaming, N made the executive decision to worry about the stranded car in the morning.
We trod through the mud, with even J carrying bags, in silence like shell-shocked soldiers.
That the handle to the yurt’s door came off in my hand suggested the evening had the potential for getting even worse. Inside, however, appeared comfortable, done out by the kind of (white) person you might imagine to sleep under a dream catcher and claim to possess a spirit guide. Lots of rugs. That said, the best thing about the yurt was that our mobile devices picked up a strong 4G signal.
The fire was lit. And went out. And was lit again. And went out again. We four stood awkwardly in our winter coats as we waited for the outcome of our third attempt at getting the fire started.
Miraculously, it took. There was no instant raising of temperature inside a tent so cold you could see your breath, but at least fire had the potential of making a place hotter.
Our sons fell upon our phones. Paw Patrol was watched as I scrambled through the bags for food bought earlier from a local supermarket and my wife lit the many thousands of candles that were dotted about the modest furniture which lined the canvas walls.
I found a family-size packet of crisps and handed it over to the children. My wife lit the final candle and, in doing so, lessened the darkness from complete to a you-might-see-your-hand-if-you-hold-it-an-inch-from-your-face gloom.
“What now?” asked N.
I shook my head. I didn’t know.
Thirty minutes later, the beds were made up and we were all safely in them. D, the birthday boy, was fast asleep. J was bouncing on our bed and demanding more Paw Patrol. I tried reading a novel as N uploaded images of the log fire to Instagram.
It got quite cold in the night. About as cold as you’d imagine a tent in the south of England in January might get. I pretended to be asleep each time N rolled out from our many blankets to vainly poke the dying embers of the fire.
The sense of isolation, potentially attractive, was undermined by the roar of the nearby highway. As I struggled to find my earplugs in the dark, it struck me how surprising it was that so many people were driving so late at night and at the weekend. Who were they? Where were they going? Were any headed for a yurt? If so, I sympathized with them.
“The shower’s broken,” said N.
Breakfast was bacon and eggs — an attractive idea back when I was buying the bacon and eggs, less so now that I realized there was only a single frying pan and it was the size of a saucer. Not only this, but it was drizzling outside. I’d also bought bacon so artisanal that it was mostly fat and disintegrated as soon as you tried separating one rasher from the other.
D and J ate cold pain au chocolat. My wife and I sat on the end of the bed, in our coats, picking at the overcooked bacon and undercooked eggs, made mute by the knowledge that we’d soon have to try moving the car.
I took the boys for a walk. As we were surrounded by fields, we decided to wander through one. The field I chose rose to a brow, which meant you couldn’t see what lay beyond its far fence.
“Maybe it’ll be something exciting,” I said to D.
“Maybe it will be a field,” said D.
As it turned out, D was right.
On the way back to the yurt, despite having been specifically told not to run, J fell over, having lost control of his tiny legs when running. His coat and trousers were completely covered in sticky, dark mud. And, weirdly, on both sides.
N didn’t care about the muddy boy. Instead, it was time to worry about the car. As we began to talk strategy, J began crying. N had read on the internet that if you lay some towels down, the tires might find traction.
She went off to see if Google was correct as I minded the kids, who were growing frustrated by the lack of playtime opportunities that a yurt in a sea of mud provided.
Soon, N WhatsApped that the car was completely trapped. She’d head for the hotel. There was a Captain Oates feel to her message. I truly hoped that I’d see her again.
The next message came through: “In a van with a man.” In any other context, I’d be worried. Here, I was thankful.
I stood on the yurt’s decking, listening to the revving of distant engines. Occasionally, one son would complain that the other wasn’t sharing the iPad. Eventually, I saw the figure of N appearing from the trees at the top of the field. She offered a thumbs up.
The worst part, she said, was when the handsome young pickup driver had apologized for the state of his cab. She said he’d raised an eyebrow when she’d replied “I’m filthy too.”
I took two trips to the rescued car, filling its boot with muddy bags of muddier possessions as N cleared up back at the yurt. When the family piled in, the wheels, terrifyingly, began to spin before, perhaps persuaded not to act up by our swearing, catching and sending us away. Forever.
“Got much planned for today?” asked the attractive teenage receptionist, when I handed over the key.
“My wife’s filthy,” I said.
I’m not sure why I said this. It killed the conversation stone dead.
The kids were asleep within about ten minutes of the journey home. Part of growing up is finding out what you don’t enjoy, as much as what you do. I daren’t ask D whether he had fun in the yurt, in case he says yes and asks to go again.
Parenting too is all about discovering what works and what doesn’t. And I speak as a father when I say there’s no fucking way I’m ever staying in a yurt again.
By the way, I’ve spared you from the description of the outside toilet.