While the Queen of England was in central London, busy in grand ceremonial fashion receiving a heavy crown of jewel-encrusted gold, those of us of non-royalist parentage were given a week off to go camping. There we were, clutching our celebratory souvenirs – a narrow tin box decorated with a portrait of the new queen in which we would find a sliver of Cadbury’s milk chocolate about fifteen seven- to nine-year-olds boarding a coach designed to take us away from the flag-waving hordes of London into the peaceful meadows of Sussex county. Out in the green open spaces, accompanied by two teachers, we would, in my case for the first time, be pitching our tents and discovering the outdoor life.
The camping site
The side memories of that camping week are spare. We sang Green Grow the Rushes-O over an open fire we had proudly built ourselves and on which we roasted potatoes.
For breakfast we consumed a disgusting concoction of uncooked oats, nuts and raisins soaked overnight in milk that our German teacher assured us was good for us. She called it ‘moosli’ and it was my first introduction to what is now, worldwide, the health breakfast of choice.
I was also introduced to one of the least healthy concoctions of choice – England’s post-war answer to Coca Cola, Tizer. This was only because we were on an outing where it was all we could buy to quench our thirst. Somehow the colour to this day sets my teeth on edge – a lurid fluorescent red-orange liquid made entirely of carbonated water and sugar, a hint of orange citrus and quantities of ‘permitted colouring’ chucked in. If we had been guzzling it at night, we were convinced our skin would have glowed in the dark.
Forever hold your pees
I also learnt that a palliasse is a thick canvas mattress-sized duvet cover filled with straw, and if you happen to sleep on one – which we all did – you are bound to wake feeling stabbed by a thousand crusty grass husks.
Girly gossip informed us that if you hold on too long when you want to urinate, your bladder will burst – a horror story that, on our country lane outings, had all of us little females rushing into the bushes each time we felt a twinge to make absolutely sure our bladders never got to bursting point.
(To my shame, I repeated this to my sister sometime later, which had her cutting our shopping trip short and hurrying back home in a panic attack. No bladders were burst, I can assure you.)
Safety in numbers
It was also on this holiday that we were all instructed to be sure that whenever we went anywhere away from the camping site without a teacher, we should always move in groups of three. That way, if one got injured, one could stay behind while the other sought help. Common sense adventurers’ guidelines.
And then there was Farmer George… Farmer George was the camp-site host and owner of the land whose lumpy grass field we had perforated with so many tent-peg holes to keep our guy ropes taut. Farmer George would bustle about assisting the teachers in keeping us in check. And Farmer George had two young sons.
A mother’s warning
Now to be honest I don’t know when the following piece of information was given me…was it before our camping outing, or after, when I got home? But at some point around that time, my normally sensible mother told me that fathers who didn’t have daughters, but only sons, tended to be a bit…a bit…
A bit what?
What ‘bit’ they tended to be was never made clear, but the insinuation was that men without female children were likely to make cosy with girls – of any age – and that I should be alert and wary.
On reflection, I suspect she was warning me about her close friend’s husband who only had sons and who was apparently a wee bit forward with the very young ladies. But my memory of this piece of parental advice is fixated on Farmer George, the man without daughters.
The friendly farmer
Farmer George was a warm-hearted fellow who joined in the group activities whenever he was not tending to his pigs and his ditches. He brought us extra blankets at night when we were cold. He showed us how to build a fire, how to blow embers to make paper catch light, how to dig an oven in the earth and bake bread with a baking tin, how to harness and bring in the miniature ponies from the neighbouring field (but not how to ride them, alas.) And it was his job to warn us about which stream passes were trickier to cross than others. In other words, Farmer George provided whatever local advice was lacking to make ours the most exciting, industrious camping trip ever.
He also liked to hug us.
It didn’t take many hugs from Farmer George to realise something was wrong. I was not unfamiliar with the feel of a hug. My family were hugging types – sometimes hugging to a fault (at least my mother). But Farmer George’s hugs boded ill instinctively, even to a seven-year-old. He kept me up against him too long. He wiggled me about a bit. And there was this unfamiliar something that I had never felt before. When I tried to wriggle free, he was reluctant to let go…
Of course I was not the only one. I noticed that he was hugging us girls disproportionately more than the boys. And after a while, though we enjoyed our association with him, most of us steered clear of his hugs. It never occurred to me to complain or to report them. Everyone liked Farmer George. It seemed on one level harmless enough.
Until the outing.
Through the woods
As decreed in the campers’ rulebook, three of us girls went for a short trek through the woods and across the fields. We were dressed in our dungarees and Wellington boots, complete with a stripped hazelnut wand to smash against impeding branches en route – three of us, the magic number that should have assured us that each of us was protected.
And there we saw, as we trod our way through wet grass far away from our campsite, Farmer George, up against the hedgerow with his secateurs, mending a few fences. And he was beckoning us. Did we want to see how he weaved the stray branches to keep the hedgerow from growing too wild, he asked, as we approached? Of course we did. What could be more exciting than weaving stray hedgerow branches…? Did we know that hedges are made especially loose to make space for the animals? And we clustered round, peering into the bushes to see what creatures we might find there.
The groping man
It’s at this point that things go hazy. Farmer George began on one of us girls with what would nowadays be called inappropriate groping. When she pushed him away, he played as if he were showing us how to handle the secateurs and moved on to the next of us.
Luckily for me, I was neither the first nor the second.
But seeing what I was seeing, alarm bells began ringing. The survival hormone kicked in. My seven-year-old brain scrambled; panic rose in the part where my belly should have been; and the rubber-booted feet at the end of my shaking legs now turned and ran.
Nor was it my own feet that ran. I glanced back a moment later to see my fellow trekker, the one who’d had a grope but was now free, running after me like a startled antelope. Across the field, over the stile, through the woods, no sign of our third pal, both of us guiltily escaping where we should have been helping, leaving our ‘injured’ third partner to her fate.
Historical sex offences
In the current era of #MeToo and #Time’sUp, of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, of Cardinal Pell and the hundreds of other violating Catholic priests, of endless cases of historical child abuse being raked out of the mud of the past, this episode, where I was a cowardly, self-preserving child, came back to me in full flood.
A tunnel of silence
I never heard anything more about that event. Never inquired, never complained, never confronted a soul nor checked with either of my fellow trekkers. Had she managed to run away right after we did and taken a different route? Had he done nothing other than touch her where she should not have been touched? Or had it been the very worst you could imagine…? It’s all gone.
All I knew was that I had escaped something nasty. And though I was only seven years old, the shame at abandoning my friend remains with me to this day.