Don't Say England and Camp in the Same Sentence

Linda A. Dougherty

© Copyright 2020 by Linda A. Dougherty

Photo of the R-4.

This was perhaps our most memorable trip ever as a family, except maybe when we went to South Dakota while it was on fire one summer.

It was the best of vacations it was the worst of vacations- that summer of 1992 when we sardine-packed up our five and seven year old with a conglomerate of stuff into our tiny Renault-4. Optimistically, we put our cock-eyed trust in nine year old tin can on wheels to convey us safely almost two thousand miles up to England and then another two thousand miles back to our home in Marrakech.

We loved our little car. It faithfully trundled us back and forth for the years we lived in a valley of the High Atlas mountains of Morocco during my husband’s PhD research days to our apartment in Marrakech for weekends of hot showers and electricity to resuscitate Bill’s dying computer battery. It took us on trips to visit friends several hours away in Casablanca. The only time we had any issue was during one of Bill’s research visits to a valley in the High Atlas. He arrived back to where he left the car parked only to find one of its tires flat. Before he could pull out the jack, a group of village guys, seeing the tire, waved him aside and four men manning each end of the car, lifted it off the ground so Bill could change the tire. THIS was the car to we entrusted two weeks of our life and thousands of miles- something light weight enough for four average village farmers to lift without straining. It was the little engine that could and would we decided. And we put it to the test that hot August.

The GREAT PLAN, like all ideas of promise and hope, took a life of its own, expanding in scope and detail as the months churned on. Before the days of emails, infrequent expensive overseas calls and mostly letters ironed out the details. Friends in the US suggested they would fly in to or all of us to rendevouz in Osny, France, just 26 miles northwest of Paris. A family we all knew lived there and had suggested a “ grande reunion “ when they heard we would be traveling through France.

Other friends we’d met in our early days in Morocco heard we would be traveling through England. They invited us to stay with them in Twickenham a short twelve miles southwest of London.

Our ultimate destination was a campground in Swanwick, in Southampton, England, where we planned to meet up with a gaggle of other similarly dispossessed-of-sanity young families who shared the common bond of being ex-patriates living in Morocco. Summers were hot in Morocco and August seemed to be a good time to be on the road without AC…..right? We would all do our own thing and meet up in southwest England in a week.

And of course, we would camp. Our threadbare bank account demanded that we skimp wherever we could. Camping in the English countryside in August, what could be better?

Packing our tiny car became my opus magnus cashing in on the benefit of well-oiled experience at packing to the final ounce and inch of allotted luggage for travel on planes. To keep peace between the kids in the back seat, I erected a wall of towels and tarps between them. The constricted trunk held pots, pans, a camp cook stove and other kitchenware. Despite my packing genius, we had to pile the canvas tent we borrowed from friends, sleeping bags and luggage atop the roof, enveloping the mound in a bright blue tarp. Ropes cinched the lumpy hunchback to the R-4.

Before we left, I shared a bit of news with Bill. “I think I’m pregnant.” Not exactly the surprise you want to have handed to you right before THE GREAT PLAN began. “No, you can’t be....” “I am craving tuna.” That was my pregnant body’s reaction every time. He rolled his eyes in denial.

Let the vacation adventure begin.

DAY 1- We leave Marrakech in the early morning and point our Renault north. Skimming the contours of the Atlantic coast, we pass Casablanca, Rabat, Kenitra and a bevy of villages along the way to Tangiers. Some eight or more hours later, we roll our car onto a ferry to cross the Straits of Gibraltar between to Algeciras in Spain. August is a good month to cross. The seas are calm and nobody feels green with seasickness that is prevalent later in the fall with the toss of rolling seas. The kids enjoy the sea breeze and sun out on the deck. That night, we pitch camp near Malaga. All is going well, so far except I’m increasingly tired, a bit nauseous and more certain that number three is taking this trip with us.

DAY 2- Cranking along highways, we spy one large black bull silhouette after another dominating the crests of rolling hills. We travel up the east side of Spain, past Barcelona where Summer Olympians are running, jumping, tossing, diving and swimming to the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. We camp tonight in a campground somewhere north of Barcelona with colored twinkle lights strung all around like fireflies circling the campgrounds.

DAY 3 & 4- Onward and upwards. Chugging up one steep mountain pass, our car overheats so we pull off and look around at the beautiful green Pyrenees enfolding us and we wait. By afternoon, we cross into France, aiming for the medieval town of Carcassonne.

This two thousand year old city spins many a version of history, part fact, part question mark, but nonetheless, charming. The popular story the guide tells us tourists is that Charlemagne laid siege to this city that was a hold out of the Cathars. The lady who ruled the city, a Lady Carcas, withstood month after month of a siege that whittled down their food to one sack of grain and one pig. The wily lady played a desperate ruse, ordering the pig to be stuffed with the grain, then commanded her men to toss the hapless swine over the ramparts to splatter grain-filled guts on the ground in front of Charlemagne. Charlemagne concluded, “If they can throw a pig with all this grain over the wall, then we may as well give up the siege.” The guide concluded with dramatic flair, “but, in all those months of watching Charlemagne over the walls, the lady fell in love with him. So when she saw him leaving with his army, she ordered her soldiers to ring the city bells and throw open the gates to surrender.” “Thus the name of the city, ‘Carcassonne’- Carcas rang the bells.”

My seven year old daughter eyes shine at the romantic fiction, whereas our five year old son loves the men dressed as knights, mounted on charging horses in a blaze of heraldry and color as they joust.

DAY 5- Packing up, we bid adieu to Carcassonne and head north again, up through green country side dotted with small French villages that slide past us as our R-4 doggedly clicks off the miles between southern France and Paris.

Mid afternoon, we inch through clotted Parisian traffic. TOOT TOOT ( small cars seem to toot and not honk) A car full of smiling and waving young men pull up next to us, and greet us like we’re family. “ Lebas!” They are Moroccans. We grin, then they catch sight of our blond haired, blue-eyed, pink cheeked son in the back, waving and grinning at them. The smiles fade from familiar to polite, “Bonjour” and they speed off when the light turns green.

Nobody in all of Paris is driving an old Renault 4- especially not with a bright blue tarp covered mound on top. It earmarks us as North African undesirables which we find out when a French driver becomes irritated and spits at our car. All we can do is chuckle.

Using the map with penned directions from our Osny friends, we make it to their house by evening. Everyone arrived in from Philadelphia earlier that day, and we all spit up, sharing their house and the home of a vacationing neighbor who we later learned was nervous that we were coming in from North Africa, despite the fact we are Americans.

David eyes our R-4 with a mix of amusement, incredulity and disdain. We feel protective of our trusty little car and joke. “ Yeah, we look like gypsies from Morocco.” David shakes his head soberly saying, “Gypsies wouldn’t drive that. Have you ever seen what they drive?”

DAY 6- We all take the Metro into Paris 7 adults and 8 kids. A lot cleaner train than Philadelphia’s SEPTA system all of us know and hate. Paris is unlike any city I have ever seen. We take a slow boat ride on the Seine. Nearby our point of disembarkment, Notre Dame Cathedral rises up before us. It soars to the heavens, magnificent against the cerulean August sky but it feels darkly oppressive on the inside except for the jewel like colors of the rose window. The five adult tourists in our group wait in a long line to go up the Eiffel Tower while our hosts volunteer to watch eight children aged four to twelve run over the grass nearby.

Later, the men volunteer to watch the kids so the women can go to the Louvre. Is this a good idea to let the dads watch the kids? Well, they are their kids, so what can go wrong- three adult men can handle it. I want to see the Mona Lisa. It is lit from within. Leonardo did not disappoint. Her smile is even better in person but I can’t escape the feeling of shock that it is a very small painting for such a big presence in the annals of art history.

We chat and speculate if all of our kids will make it back in one piece with three dads. We see the motley crew grinning and waving at us as we exit the Louvre and cross over to meet them. All seems well, one, two, three, four….yup, eight kids. But, there is more to the story than that. Our five year old son and our host’s six year old son tell us a rousing tale of getting lost in the mall while the three dads strolled on. Becky and I look knowingly at each other and then at our husbands, thankful that the six year old was fluent in French and managed to find the clueless dads before total panic set in.

DAY 7- Today we head off in cars to Versailles. The little kids are a bit bored but our daughter loves the elegance. “Rococo a go go” I think, with the glitter and sparkle of the ornate walls, chandeliers, and furniture that somehow survived the gutting of the French Revolution. The formal gardens are lovely and well tended.

I again try to bring up my increasing certainty that number three is on his or her way. Bill pushes off the idea, as if declaring it could not be would make it so.

DAY 8- After a flurry of hugs and goodbyes, and an energized scrub down of our borrowed lodgings, we leave a note of thanks with a hand embroidered Moroccan pillow to the absent homeowners (who later exclaim to Becky at how the house was cleaner than she left it with an air of surprise) and then we are off again.

Bill drives due north on the A-16 , hoping to catch the ferry in Calais by midday and make it into Twickenham before night fall.

But, he wasn’t counting on cantankerous automated toll booths! We approach the first one. The white ticket dangles in the slight breeze, ready to be snatched up. As Bill eases up and reaches out his hand, suddenly the machinery sucks the ticket inside its slotted mouth. There is no button to push, no operator to ask. Behind us, an impatient driver pounds his horn. What can we do?

Bill decides to pull forward and manages to cross the flow of traffic to pull to a stop off to the far right side. Then he threads his way back to the booth, watching car after car pull up one after another at a row of six toll booths, each without losing their white ticket to the appetite of the toll booth genie. With break in the flow, he dashes in to snag a ticket , runs back to the car, waving it triumphantly. “I feel sorry for the next guy, but nobody was there to help and we need a ticket.”

For the next two miles, we discuss why our ticket disappeared when no other car seemed to have that issue and figured out that the machine read our top-loaded little R-4 as a truck and not a car and the ticket moved to the truck slot on top which we couldn’t see from below.

Another ferry crossing between Calais and Dover and we are in England.

Remember, keep left, keep left.” “Watch out, the roundabout!” “I can’t see the cars coming, Linda, look out the window and tell me when I can move right.” The R-4 doesn’t translate so well into England with its left hand drive in a right hand drive world. We get caught in a roundabout and go around and around a couple of times before Bill manages to edge over with me coaching him with my head hanging out to watch traffic.

Late afternoon, we pull up in Twickenham and tumble, stiff and a bit shell shocked out of the car. Our friends pull us in and we unload into a small spare room that is soon stuffed with camping gear, cookware, sleeping bags and our luggage goes upstairs to their guest rooms. We all sleep soundly in a real bed after a good meal and a hot bath.

DAY 9- The night before, I confided in Edith that I thought I was pregnant but Bill is in denial. The problem is, I need to take progesterone to not miscarry and I am traveling. This morning, she pulls me aside, hands me a clean glass jar and pushes me towards the “loo”. With a wink, she tells me she will take it to the chemist to have it tested while we take the train in for a day in London.

It’s our secret for the day. Bill won’t find out unless my suspicions are right.

We take the train in. Richard already warned us that London Bridge was not THE London Bridge which was auctioned off and bought by an American tycoon in 1962, moved to Arizona and set up on Lake Havasu City. We stand on the Tower Bridge and still think it’s pretty special even if it isn’t the one that was “falling down”.

In Trafalgar Square, our children double over in laughter as pigeons cover me with droppings as I stand taking it all in. It’s cool and we wear jackets. At Buckingham Palace, our five year old clown makes outrageous faces and dances wildly and is disappointed at the stony visages of the guards.

We head to Westminster Abbey. I share a love of history with our daughter. We ooh and ahh. “Look, this at this inscription. It’s for David Livingstone, remember the story I read you about him?” The bronze plate that marks his grave in the nave of the abbey reads:


Both of us are greedy for more history. Bill looks miserable. “I have the worst headache. We need to go soon. I feel awful.”

I know this is probably the only time I will ever stand in the presence of so much history in Westminster Abbey in my life. I beg for more time and he agrees to take a very bored five year old boy outside to go lay down on a nearby green swathe.

We take in a few more minutes then head outside and take a train back to Twickenham.

Edith and Richard open the door, smiling broadly. With a twinkle in her eyes she whispers, “there is a package upstairs for you on your bed.” I know the test results. Bill flops on the bed groaning slightly, scrunching his eyes shut tight against the light from outside. I shut the curtains and open the package. Progesterone pills spill out from the bag with a slip that reads “Positive”.

Um, Bill. Edith offered to take a sample in to her chemist today and I’m pregnant!”

Oh, now I really have a headache!” he replies with a loud groan.

DAY 10- It is hard to say goodbye to good friends, especially knowing we may never see them again. But, we need to move on to meet the other three families at the campground in Swanick as planned.

We pack up the R-4 and trundle through the green English countryside, through small villages and towns, heading south west for an hour and a half. In one small town along the way, stopped at a light, a smiling man comes up to ask us where we are from. “Morocco, but we are American.” “I just love to ask people where they come from” he explains as he waves goodbye.

The campgrounds are beautiful with broad flat fields. We pitch our tent, set everything up and this is home for the next four days.

DAY 11- It rains each day a bit in England, I am told. It rains steadily all day today. We drape an extra tarp over our tent. Cooking under the open tailgate of the car is an adventure. Our kids slosh through puddles and we go to a conference during the day while our kids have fun with other kids at the conference. All is well.

DAY 12- More rain. Puddles turn into small ponds hopscotching across the level ground. Our tent is sagging a bit as the water logged tarp bows down onto the tent’s roof. We slurry off the excess rain. Another breakfast and dinner cooked under the R’4’s open trunk lid. Lunch at the conference is pleasantly dry.

DAY 13- One of our friends loses it after a trip that saw one child knock out part of a tooth while in Spain (which he desperately tried to superglue together), the door on his old car fell off and had to be fixed and now….we are all drowning in England. The locals wonderingly remark about how this is “such unusually wet weather even for England.” That morning we see a pot fly. We’ve all had it with the weather. The story circulates with amusement and pity. Someone graciously offers to pay for their family to stay for the remaining two nights at the conference ground hotel.

DAY 14- More rain…where is an ark when you need one?

DAY 15- Last day. We find the last of dry clean clothes to put on after a half-hearted morning sponge bath in the camp ground’s bathroom. Late that afternoon we find out indeed a man’s (tent?) home is his castle. The tarp has lost the battle. We poke our head inside the tent to find it is raining inside the tent along the outer walls. We now have a moat ringing the tent inside with a small island of one dry blanket clumped in the center of the moat. Bill opts to sleep contorted around the R-4’s unique stick shift that juts out from the dashboard right into his back. The two, er three kids and I huddle on the island and toss the blanket over us. We are so tired that we somehow sleep.

DAY 16- We pack up…everything sodden and smelly of damp, and leave. I turn to Bill and say, “Never say the word camp and England in the same sentence.”

DAY 17-18 The push is on to get home. We are tired of travel. We are tired of sleeping on the ground. We are mostly tired of rain and long for the heat of Marrakech, the bright blaze rather than the misty grays of the past four days. We cross the Channel again and head straight south, heading down through western France and down through central Spain. Bill drives and drives until he can’t drive anymore. We are in a desolate area along the highway, maybe about three hours north of Malaga.

I don’t want to find a campground and set up a tent. How about we just pull off to the side and sleep in the car?”


Bill removes his sneakers, ready to settle for a second night of spooning with the stick shift.

Phew! Those sneakers smell, put them outside tonight.”

He opens the door and tosses them on the ground. In a few minutes a steady buzz tells me he is already in the arms of exhaustion.

I fall into a restless sleep in the cramped back seat with one child’s head tucked under each arm. (the wall of peace between the two kids is stuffed in the trunk for the night)

The next morning we all awake to the early sun and get out to stretch out the night’s discomfort. The kids use the cover of the tree and it doesn’t matter much because the road stretches out empty behind and before us. We are alone on the road. There are no towns nor even a lone house in sight.

Bill is eager to go NOW! We rebuild the wall and strap everyone in. We are off. In Malaga, he stops at a gas station to fill up before we load onto the ferry.

Where are my shoes, Linda?” I look confused…..”Umm, you took them off when we stopped last night and put them outside the car because they smelled so bad.”

He slaps his palm against his forehead. “I must have left them there when we drove away!”

I start to laugh as I dig around in the luggage for his flip flops. “Imagine if someone driving along sees a pair of random sneakers just sitting there in the middle of nowhere!”

We retrace our path across the Straits of Gibraltar on the ferry then shoot down the highway, determined to make it home in one day, even though it means driving for many more hours.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME- Our little R-4 pulls in front of our dark green metal driveway door. Bill jumps out to unlock and swings it open wide. The R-4 eases into its place of well-earned rest- four thousand plus miles with all of us intact though soggy. It was the little car that could and did. But, I still do not want to hear about camping in England- ever!

THE END OF THE STORY- Our second daughter was born in Rabat, Morocco the following spring, thus far, August 1992 is the only time she has been in Spain.

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