It’s late at night, late at least for these younger children, wrapped in blankets or wrapped into parents, at a small fire, in a small clearing in the woods, nowhere near concrete or traffic or towns or cities, somewhere deep in the middle of Kent. I’m drawn over to this side of the camp by the soft sounds of someone playing the guitar. I sit down on the grass by the pyramid frame that’s standing above the low flames. It’s warm here and there are half a dozen children gathered around, listening quietly to the low music. Rachael, the camp band’s singer, passes me the guitar: play something, she says, whilst she attends to the children’s needs (hot chocolate or marshmallows? It’s already drifting in space and memory, a week on). I can only play a few chords. It’s OK, I’m told by Jim, the barman of the barn-bar, the ukulele player, you play more than me! I play very low because I’m really not that good, and I stop because one of the girls wants to sing a song. She says she’s making it up as she goes along: she sings as she looks into the flames, repeating repeating the refrain.
Here we are again. I have been to this small place for five years in my returns now, every May. There are familiar faces and new families. There are maybe thirty or forty children, I suppose, or it feels like it, mostly younger, though a handful are older. It doesn’t take long for the new to fall into the pace and feel of here. This year, because I’m working on my own, I set up the gazebo at the end of the clearing, just ahead of the dirt mounds which, later, I hear some children talking about: look, the playground’s still here. There is a rope swing and a tyre swing; there is a plank of wood, which some children manufacture as a standing see-saw, and some lean it experimentally against the old caravan, later, as I see from a distance, using it as a means to reach the rope; there is the shallow dirt basin where other years’ play took place; a punch bag hangs nearby — I can hear the rhythmic whacking of sticks hitting it, even a hundred yards or so away at my tent, on the edges of the clearing corner where Bec and Dru and Amy have set up a woodcrafting place, where Dru whittles spoons and strews the ground with shavings from other workings, where the wool is woven, where the little dogs wander, and through which the children navigate, en route for their own camp in the deep green luminosity of the woods just beyond.
At nights the candles down the track are lit. I stand at the edge of the clearing, beyond the barn, looking down and down the narrow, shallow slope towards where the lake is in the dark, and the black is always the very blackest down there through the trees, and the small smudges of those candle lights, in two ragged receding roughly parallel lines, always catch my attention. Places like these, sights and the feel of all and suchlike can, and has, made its way into other writings of flow and fiction. Sometime, somewhere along the way of the weekend, I remember a conversation in passing, with a father, who told me how he watched the space station going over with his child. In the night, one night, I emerge from the trees, from under the rickety old metal-roofed shack that creaks with the wood of the trunks, from where I have been talking and eating with a friend re-met, and the sky is strobing intermittently. I wonder if my eyes need to readjust, but it’s far-off lightning sparking the dark. The rain comes, just as I close my tent zip up, but I don’t hear the storm that passes over.
I forget the order of things. It doesn’t matter at all. I’m at the fire bowl in the woodcrafts corner of the clearing, one night, and from where I’m sitting, just looking out, drinking beer, being still, I can see the barn and there are twists of light around the wood struts of the shelter in front of this. Rachael is singing and the guitar and ukulele are in accompaniment and I just catch the flickerings of a child there and she’s dancing. She’s using the light strings, playing with the interactions, twisting her hands and arms around, turning around and around and down and up. The night is for play as well as the day.
Last year, in the early mornings as we camped along a track in a van a little way out from the clearing, we were often greeted, on stretched extraction or coffee making, by a young boy, maybe five, who would bring us sticks as presents. Oh, thanks, I would say, a stick. I’d sweep my hand across the vista of the forest: we were looking for one of these (or words such as these). He trailed us in our settings-up and takings-down. This year, I see him and I say hello and I call him by my remembrance of his name. I remember you, do you remember me? He looks at me, briefly, matter-of-factly, turning down his lips and shrugging his shoulders: No. I’m not aggrieved! I’m amused: ego has no place here.
Later, in the baking sun-trap down by the lake, I sit amongst the tall daisies with him and his younger brother, in a small clearing of our own devising. I have bubbles here, because I said I would, and a box of bits and bobs, because the children seemed to like this the day before, on a larger scale, and some clay, because one girl said she’d like this. It is a little odd, really, because the whole lake is lined with clay, but I take the darker stuff down anyway. The boys want to know what might happen if this clay I’ve brought gets wet. The oldest says it in a squeaky, experimental, half-hopeful kind of way. Go get some water, I say to him, pointing to the lake: there’s loads down there. He comes back with the biscuit tin I’ve given him half-filled. In goes the clay and we squeeze it between our fingers so that it squirts out of all the in-betweens.
Plenty of children seem to like the clay, the previous day, getting good and messy on the tarpaulin beneath the gazebo. The sun creeps across the ground, under the canvas roof, and wordlessly, like a sun dial, we all slowly shift and edge along and around with it, keeping in the shade as the day goes on. There are experiments of bubbles in the afternoon, when plenty of families have gone elsewhere on-site, woodcrafting, forest-schooling, and so on. I judge it an opportune time. There are a handful of children and parents still around. I have several containers full of this year’s batch of home-made bubble mix, and I have bubble-wands made from elastic and bamboo. There is a small gathering, a small to and fro, of younger children dipping and lifting and blowing softly or too suddenly, waving and flapping, holding the sticks to the breeze, floating and popping bubbles, or chasing them, just chasing them, as children are often wont to do. I look up, sometime (the bright idea of putting the tubs and containers into a larger plastic crate, in case of spillages, having dawned on me), and there with bubble-wands in hand, experimenting, are just three fathers: three dads, me, and a supply of bubble mixture.
In the shade of one hot day, under the gazebo, some younger girls are carefully trying to thread beads onto what will be necklaces or bracelets for themselves or for their fathers, who are sat there with them. I’m nearby and I feel a need to say something genuine, though I hear myself as I say it and it comes out oddly: I say to one of the dads there how good I see it to be that he, and the others around, can interact with their children in this way of play. I do mean it, though I hope it doesn’t come across so patronising as I hear it. It is good because you don’t always see it.
Some children come back time and again to the gazebo, to the dirt ‘playground’, to the bubbles. Some children are more content roaming in the woods, and these are the children just seen in passing, in and out, in between. As I sit in the shade with the clay and the paper and the beads, the feathers and the fabric, and the suchlike all spread out and around, a younger girl of maybe four, and early on without having really had a proper conversation yet with me at all, leans in, telling me her genuine consideration of me, though in words, and without regard for adult sensibilities, in a way only a maybe four year old can. Later, a small green caterpillar labours across the tarpaulin. The other children are suddenly intrigued. The maybe four year old stands, a little wobbly, maybe she’s off-balance, landing a foot down suddenly, squashing the caterpillar flat. Maybe she didn’t mean it; maybe she did. She doesn’t shrug as she steadies herself for whatever her next play is to be, but she might as well do.
At the lake, with the clay and water boys, the slightly older of the two is taken by the sight of a fat furry caterpillar. He wants to take it up, but I’m mindful of the previous day’s episode. I try to dissuade him but he’s adamant. He knows about cocoons, he told me earlier, and I needn’t be in his way here: he picks up the caterpillar with a lolly stick and examines it, placing it down carefully on a long daisy stalk when he’s done. When he looks around again, he tells me it’s gone. Where did it go? he asks. I don’t know: perhaps its found a place out of the sun.
Out of the direct sun, but where the moss on the fallen branches on the ground is a bright and luminous green between the trees, across a ditch where the children have a bridge, they’ve declared a ‘no adult zone’. One of our number is camped by the metal-roofed shack on our side, just beyond the woodcraft corner of the clearing. He hears the conversations from the children’s side. He wants to go over, to infiltrate, to play, but we stay on our side: we respect the lay of the land. Over there, over the ditch, the children concoct plans, create their domain, they just are. I know they’re there. I sit at my tent or amongst the wood shavings of the crafters and see how the children have two routes through: they use more or less two straight lines, either directly across the branches laid down here, along through and then in between the small and large tents and into the ferns, past the shack, and towards the ditch, or the other way straight over the low bunting flags of the woodcraft camp and between the vans and on. Children’s routes often pay no heed to adults’ demarcations.
It is evening on the last day. Some families have left already; there are some spaces between tents. I lay out the parachute because we haven’t used it yet and because I think the children who are scattered variously in the clearing might find it and play something with it. I ask permission of the nearest campers because it is, effectively, in their back garden. Most of the children don’t see it at first, it being off the beaten track. Then, eventually, when a parent calls out that there’s a parachute out, a wave of children appear from out of the metaphorical woodwork. I think the play might form organically but immediately it becomes directed by an older girl, who I’ve known these past few years or so. Something curious happens on the way of the parachute play: all the games she leads the other children towards are standard, as known (albeit with variations on names, as I know them), but she adopts a very precise style of doing things. It is as if she’s copying a teacher she knows or someone similar. She adopts an air and a voice far beyond her years. At one point, she stops a game of ‘fruit salad’ mid-flow because, she says, it just isn’t going right; the apples and the pears are running when they shouldn’t be, everything’s terribly mixed up . . . I tell her that it doesn’t matter but she’s determined and adamant. I tell her that she maybe ought to be quicker because she’ll lose the younger children’s attentions, but she bats on regardless in her own style. The play happens. The younger children go with the flow. All the children are children here.
Here we are, in a small clearing in the woods, nowhere near concrete or traffic or towns or cities, somewhere deep in the middle of Kent. As has been my year-on-year realisation: it is a privilege being here.