Over the next few nights, two items dominated the conversation. Caravans and loos. The caravan was exercising my mother. ‘You need to shop around,’ she said. But we didn’t have the time or money to shop around. We needed to be out of her house and on the land before the children trashed her new furnishings any further. Moreover, the cats were now lodged in a cattery – a very nice one, with lovely scenic views over the Haldon hills, but the equivalent of Colditz to two animals used to acres of fields in which to play and hunt.
My mother was not on the internet – and we were discovering how very hard it is in 21st century Britain to get things done without being connected to the world wide web. I spent what time I could trawling for caravans on Ebay at the charity shop around the corner, which doubled as a local internet cafe. But times were hard and demand for its services was high. As I continued my search, the queue grew chatty. Queuer number one, it transpired, desperately needed to apply for a job online while queuer number two was waiting to wire money urgently to an orphanage in Nairobi. I picked up my pathetic sample of ‘could possibly afford’ vans and fled.
We’d had a budget of £1,000 for two caravans. In February, that would have got us two old, but perfectly reasonable vans. Now, in early June just before the school summer holidays, the price had gone up. It was not the time to be looking for a caravan in a hurry. At one point we were poised to drive to Shepton Mallet in driving rain to pick one up from a friendly archaeologist called Dave, but Dave’s storage facility had closed for the weekend. So we headed in the opposite direction to Plymouth and parted with £900 for a leaky old van with mould issues. Still, we were used to mould.
That left the loo problem. This was a subject I was, and remain, squeamish about – even three children’s worth of nappies had done little to dampen the ’ick factor for me. My idea of getting close to nature was to lie in a field, preferably following the consumption of several glasses of wine, and gaze thoughtfully into the trees. But when it came to sanitary arrangements I required the privacy and comfort that a flush loo, luxury toilet roll and a locked door provided.
I blamed my childhood. Back in the day my parents and friends had debunked every year to a farm near Cheddar, where the only facility was a rusty tap. The first job for the adults was to dig the pit that functioned as the loo. This was always done with what I thought then was unnecessary jollity, but realise now was drunken Dunkirk spirit. Over the pit, they would erect a bar fashioned from a long, thin log. The idea being you rested upon this while you contemplated nature and concluded your business. Being only eight, if I sat on the bar I couldn’t rest my feet on the ground, involving a precarious balancing act which was not conducive to health nor safety. So, when I felt the call of nature, I had to go into the forest clutching loo roll and a small gardening trowel. It was on one such foray, that I discovered that what I had thought was an isolated part of woodland turned out to be the main thoroughfare for the local riding stables.
So, I was somewhat exercised by the problem. Over the course of the following evenings, after dinner and sometimes, to my mother’s chagrin, during, we discussed how we were going to solve it. Eventually the plan was to have a composting toilet, but we needed an interim measure. So we talked at length about Portaloos and the mechanics of them, we contemplated hiring portable toilets from a building hire firm, and I wondered for a brief while if we could simply avail ourselves of public facilities, a solution not helped by the fact that the nearest public conveniences were several miles from our field.
I took to asking random people their advice, which concluded with an unfortunate man from a tool-hire firm, demonstrating how a portable loo worked in the sunny street outside my mother’s house. ‘Standing our ’ere, talking about potties,’ he said sheepishly and red-faced. In the end, for reasons I’m not clear about, we went for a portable loo – possibly because one happened to come with the caravan. We found a local campsite that sportingly agreed to allow us to empty it and have the odd shower – this solving two problems in one go.