I should warn my readers... this set of blogs is not about virtual reality but the real thing... the odiferous noisy place that is first life.
I home educate my children, and have done for ten years. In that time we have joined clubs and groups and camps for home educated children, and I even ran a support group myself for a while. I hve found that each has had its own flavour; people home educate their children for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, and that makes a big difference to how their children are, and how they behave, what attitudes they have.
HESFES used to be the Home Educators' Seaside Festival, because until this year it was situated near to the sea. It's been running for eleven years on a not-for-profit basis, run by Andy and a team of volunteers. We attended some years ago, when the camp was run in Charmouth, at a commercial but run-down campsite. I had a terrible time, which I put down to the difficulty of pleasing all my children at once: my elder son was old enough to be interested in the music events in the evening, but my daughter, who was only about five or six, was too tired by the evening to be interested, and too old to be pushed in a pushchair etc.
There wasn't a lot on camp that interested them, but being near the sea, we were able to go for walks away from the campsite, and we went on a memorable fossil walk with a crazy professor type who route marched us and a random selection of people around the coast from Lyme Regis.
Last year my younger son went on his own, in the care of his girlfriend and girlfriend's mother, to HESFES which had moved to a commercial site in Colchester. There was some trouble there when the festival was invaded by people from outside, and some conflict between the organisers and the campsite owners over commercial food sales from the tented cafe which is usually a feature of the camp.
So... this year, HESFES was to be held away from the coast, in a field which stood alone, but had "plenty of flushing toilets and hot showers". Tom had had such a good time last year, that I asked if the others wanted to go too. They did, and so we saved and planned and bought the necessary equipment (we have tents and basic cooking gear etc) and looked forward to it.
I thought it would be easier this time from my perspective. At 14, 16 and 19 the children are old enough to be able to go to the music in the evening without me if they chose to do so, and they would be big enough and strong enough to help with tasks like getting rid of the rubbish and collecting water.
I had been asked to camp as part of a group, but was wary of this. I find groups of people I don't know very well a bit challenging, and find it hard to relax. My family tend to rub along by shouting and carrying on with each other, which might be a difficult thing - I was worried that this might offend people.
Although it scared me that the field was out of the way, I assumed that plenty of flushing toilets and hot showers meant that the important facilities were available, and I could buy and bring anything else that we needed. I wouldn't have a car, so it was important to predict what would be needed and ensure that I brought it. I was keen to attend the home education conference too, which takes place during the week.
So it was with a holiday air of anticipation that we packed the car on Friday night, remembering to incude battery-powered chargers for phones and a giant water carrier. I was concerned that the weather forecast was predicting rain at lunchtime, because there is nothing so awful as trying to dry yourself out in a wet tent, and so we left at 9 am on Saturday morning. The journey was uneventful, travelling in a convoy with the equipment and tents in my husband's car, and all but one of the children and me travelling in my mother's car.
We followed my husband, who had a SATNAV on board... although on the return journey this proved to be unreliable, leading my husband (and my mother, following) up a small country road to a lovely church at the dead end, and then sulking for a while because they had been forced to turn around and drive back the way they had come. It seemed to suffer a nervous breakdown and declared "take the fourth exit" on a three-exit roundabout, so appeared to have lost the will to direct operations once an instruction was ignored. ( I have to say I think there is commercial merit in a SatNav with emotion - one which shouts, "what on earth do you think you are doing? Get back to that turn off, and do as you're told!" rather than simply sulking and refusing to say anything.)
We found the HESFES turnoff, close to The Hop Farm, which is a local attraction, and drove down an unmade-up pot-holed road, through fields alarmingly full of rusting army tanks (which we discovered were gathering in preparation for a War and Peace exhibition next week) through other fields, through woods. When we had just about decided that this was someone's cruel idea of a joke, we arrived in a huge field, with a tented entrance desk.
We swapped our tickets for too-small wristbands, with an exhortation to wear them in order to gain entrance to any workshop, a programme and sticker for the car. I was directed to what I erroneously thought was the quiet area. I asked after the group which we had been invited to join, but only one family had arrived at that point... and they had no idea where they had gone.
I decided that this was probably just as well, and decided to set up my tent wherever seemed good to me, and we found a spot on the edge of the field, becoming aware with a very sinking feeling that the three blue plastic chemical loos in the middle of the area indicated that the "flushing toilets" that had been promised in the literature were not what I had assumed they were.
Maybe it seems naive for me to have assumed that the "plenty of flushing toilets" were proper toilets, but this part of Kent was for many years the place where East End families spent their summer holidays, picking hops, and living in camps. Many places in the area which are just fields, do have proper brick loos and showers.
We set up camp, noticing the threatening weather, and the boys went off to pitch their own tents in an area far,far away from me, across the field. They decided not to pitch in the teen area, which was placed very close to the main music marquee. Shortly after they left, one of the families who were part of the proposed group drove up, shortly followed by another and another. It seemed that the group had come to us, instead of us going to the group.
John (who wasn't staying) went off to get water, and to check out the main facilities, and came back to report that there were only two taps for 1200 people, and that there were more substantial loos, but that they were still chemical toilets. And 12 showers.
I was beginning to get a bad feeling even as we unloaded the car and I left the others sorting things out while my mother and I went off to get supplies from the nearest supermarket. This was said to be 3 miles away in Paddock Wood, but it seemed further than that. We arrived to find the route to the supermarket closed off due to the summer carnival procession, and so had to turn around and come back... during which manoeuvre we got lost. We found ourselves in a neighbouring village where there was a fete going on.
By the time we made our way back to Paddock Wood, the route was open again, so we went into Waitrose in Paddock Wood and I spent a huge amount of money on things which wouldn't go off without refrigeration, water and a few luxuries to keep us going. I took off my wristband for HESFES as my hand had started to go numb.
We returned, unpacked the car, and I waved off my mother and husband, and set to organising things inside the tent as best I could.