Saturday, 27 May 2017

Huttopia - camping with the kids...

There is no denying, Camping Huttopia is very lovely spot. What could be nicer than waking-up to birdsong in a sun-denched wood on an island in the Dordogne? So, it's fairly likely that I am poised to become positively effusive in a moment or two about the delights of the site, how sharing our time here with stylish millenials and their smallish off-spring brought back great memories of camping holidays with our kids. Undoubtedly, I will attempt to persuade you that if you wish to sample the best things that rural France has to offer, this place is definitely worthwhile considering. So, it is essential to get all the negatives out of the way first.

Without exception the ACSI reviews for camping Huttopia are glowing, but it's strange not one of them mentions the challenges of getting into the place. The access road is down a narrow lane; there are priority signs to ensure drivers don't attempt to squeeze through simultaneously- there really is not enough room for two vehicles to pass and the dog-leg bend next to reception makes it tricky to reverse, impossible probably if towing a caravan. For us, however, driving a moho with an overcab bed, the wooden bridge at the entrance with a 3m height restriction presented a bigger challenge, The hanbdbook gives Maisy's height as 3.1m. The guy in reception insisted we would fit through. He was right, but it was very tight. Gill, who was on arm waving duty out front, reckoned we cleared the hazard with less than 3 cms to spare. Soft tyres?

Another consideration concerns where is best to stay on the site. The riverside pitches cost a bit more; you get a lovely view, but less shade. It is where English caravaners gather, given their endearing pre-occupation with the Picturesque, for them pitch with a view is de rigueur, whatever the price. Every car was emblazoned with a National Trust decal. With 35 degree temperatures forecast we opted for a shaded woodland pitch. There were plenty to choose from; the Ascension Thursday millenial invasion had yet to happen. We chose a lovely large pitch near the perimeter fence. How did we fail to hear the roar of the nearby weir?

During the day it was not so noticeable, at night, however, because we opened every window and skylight for ventilation, the roar became much louder. In the small hours worse was to come, the weir was connected to the Dordogne valley hydro-electric system, from time to time a turbine would kick in with an annoying high pitch whine, like a hippo sized mosquito. Luckily the site is wooded, so the annoying noise is muffled by the trees and only audible in the pitches furthest upstream; we simply had made the wrong choice. Next morning, by 10am it was red hot; the kind of weather where merely moving an inch provokes profuse sweating in every nook and cranny. So we stayed put and read for a while. I amused myself by annotating the site map with useful warnings concerning its hazards and delights.

Now you have no excuse whatsoever to be caught out by Huttopia's more annoying aspects- Niagara Falls, the resultant insomnia zone, the enclave of National Trust enthusiasts and the guilliotine portal are all clearly noted on the map. For the sake of  balance  the place's delights have been highlighted too. Lets start with Camp Hipster. This small settlement of erected safari tents seems to appeal particularly to hipsterish couples (prophetic beards, skinny jeans, startling specs, garish blazers [him], leggings with knee length floaty top, glimpsed tattoos, facial piercing, quirky hat [her]. Most were couples, though one had a small baby with them, stylishly garbed, but carried about gingerly as if it might be virulent or belong to somebody else.

Our pitch was adjacent to the zone of fractious toddlers. Some grey-haired moho owners consciously avoid family orientated sites. 'Adult only' campsites are quite common in the UK. Clearly there is a market for 'peace and quiet'. However, some of our happiest memories are of camping in France in a secondhand 'big-top' of a frame tent with our three kids. Watching the next generation of enthusiastic, but harassed parents being systematically outfoxed by a clutch three foot high toddlers brought a smile to our faces. Both of us spent our working lives as educators, you would not do that unless you were interested in children and young people and like to see them catered for and having a good time. So, we are happy to share a camp site with families and accept at any one time, especially in a heatwave, some small person is going to become outraged by life's frustrations or parental injustice and decide to wail.

As the Ascension holiday approached the site became ever busier. Nearby - a family group of four - parents, two older teenagers, all sleeping in a small ridge tent. "That's not going to be very comfortable in this heat," Gill mused as the four crawled into their bivouac in the twilight gloom. A couple with two boys and a baby had parked next to us in their motorhome. The motorhome looked newish and the couple perhaps in their mid thirties. We speculated how they could have afforded it; we could not have envisaged being able to do that at their age. More similar to our past experience - the family next to them, again three kids, a biggish ridge tent and a Mercedes Sprinter. We travelled the length of southern Europe with kids, firstly in aged estate cars, then, when our third child arrived, we bough a Ford Galaxy, but carried so much stuff for our tribal encampment that eventually we needed a trailer.

Version 1 - Gill plus venerable Nissan Bluebird and ten ton frame tent

We reckon...summer 1993, near Puivert, Languedoc.

Version two - after Laura arrived in 1995 we needed a people carrier and trailer.

On the way home from Croatia - 2000.

1997 - Tuscany

and Corsica
The antics of our fellow campers reminded us of just how hard work camping with small children was . Over the course of the day levels of exasperation on the pitch next door slowly increased. At breakfast the woman was merely hyperactive, by evening her emotional energy had reached fever pitch. This was due in the main to the gradual effect of what might be termed 'mother duck syndrome'. The three kids looked to be  aged about 7, 4, and under 1. The elder two did their level best to stymie the man's concerted attempts to be fully involved by constantly seeking the woman's attention. Every time 'mum' attempted to breastfeed the baby, the middle child tried to climb on her knee and when 'dad' tried distraction tactics, the toddler had the screaming habdabs. In the end the woman took to nursing the baby while standing-up, hiding behind a tree at the back of their tent. Is this nature or nurture? Are small humans hard-wired to seek maternal protection, or is this an example of 'gendered' behaviour, the result of social conditioning? What happens in the families of same sex couples, do small children orientate more towards one parent as a mother surrogate, or is attention seeking behaviour split more evenly? There must be a literature on this. Something else to google!

One effect of the influx of families was to turn the sanitaire into a minor war zone every evening as exhausted parents cajoled or coerced tired offspring into the showers. We waited for the place to calm down. The heat was such that it took until almost midnight for the van to cool to the mid twenties, at which point, with a light sheet as a cover, it became possible to get to sleep.

9.10pm. still 31 degrees.....
Sitting out under the stars on hot sticky evenings is one of the pleasures of summer camping in  the South. We don't experience it so much these days as most of our moho travels are outside of the high season. By elevenish the site was quiet and we had the shower block to ourselves. I have annotated it on the map as 'the beauteous vintage sanitaire' because like everything else at Huttopia it is styled to be a 'pimped-up' Municipal - glamping with a vintage vibe. Millenials love it; we might regard the overt re-branding with a somewhat ironic eye, but in truth, I think it's fair to say we loved it too, if only because it prompted fond memories of camping en famille, Judging by our photos we did not rough it, we even had EHU and a small fridge. Perhaps we were pioneering glampers.

The entire Acension holiday seemed to provoke some sort of nostalgia fest. On the way here we passed convoys of  2cvs and Citroen Dyane's of every type - some hippyfied with big flowery graphics, others souped-up with chrome pipes sprouting from the side, or lovingly restored to their dull green original livery, complete with arse-breaking canvas seats. I am not sure where the rally was, but an escapee camped immediately behind us with  a gleaming example and a tiny vintage caravan light enough to be towed by a car with 425cc engine.

Our sense that reality had been temporarily augmented by some kind of vintage sepia simulcrum increased when a contingent of soldiers dressed in Bonapartiste uniforms marched across the footbridge a few metres from the site. Beaulieu was poised to celebrate a re-enactment weekend involving a skirmishes between Royalists and Bonarpartistes. This explained the arrival of a large four-wheeled cannon towed by a Toyota Hilux which we had witnessed the day before in the main square. Whether this commemorated a real event or was just an excuse to dress up and make huge explosions I don't know. I thought Royalist resistance to the Revolution was concentrated in Brittany and the Vendee, but maybe smaller insurgencies occurred in the Central Massif too. Anyway, I think there is a fairly loose connection between re-enactments and historical fact. It's all about dressing up and putting on a show.

On the question of dressing-up, I can just about see why men don uniforms with braided epaulets and snazzy tri-corn hats and strut about clutching muskets; what attraction it holds for the women participants is less clear. Their role seems to be simply to trail along behind in a bonnet, which I suppose is an improvement on their actual historical role, which in reality probably involved making gallons of scarcely edible beef stew while at constant risk of being raped by the opposition soldiery.

The re-imagined past is undoubtedly very fashionable, ranging from full-scale re-enactments, and the inexplicable popularity of Downton and Game of Thrones, to an enthusiasm for vintage vinyl and shabby chic. Given the speed of technical change right now and an increasingly unstable political situation, burgeoning golden ageism is hardly surprising. However, the notion that the past is reassuring or innocuous is fundamentally flawed. The past is a dangerous territory; its myths cast long shadows over the present and discourage us to deal rationally with the here and now. Everybody and every thing has a questionable past because any question posed about the past can only ever have a partial answer,

As if to re-inforce the notion that the past is a risky place, prone to unexpectedly intervening and posing a 'real and present danger' here and now, next day we left the campsite, squeezed gingerly through portal guillotine, and immediately were surrounded by Napoleonic forces. I don't think a surprise move on the flanks by a Prussian motorhome was ever envisaged by the organisers of the re-enactment. The unexpected manoeuvre worked, resistance melted and we swept imperiously through the ranks of Bonarpartistes to head northwards towards the safer territory of the autoroute. It may be tedious, but at least it is a place firmly rooted in the 21st century; well, aside from occasional roving gangs of Belgian Peter Fonda fantasists riding Harleys three abreast at 40kph purposely to irritate fellow four-wheeled  road users.