Camp Fires

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Camp Fires

A blazing campfire.

It's odd, the way a small thing can trigger a memory. For me, it was the scent of wood smoke. My husband and I were walking past a patch of land where workers were clearing and burning undergrowth. Suddenly I thought of the camp fires that were a feature of my time as a Guide, and one particularly memorable camp.

We sat on ground sheets, a ragged ring of guides, watching the flames glow and leap, flicker and falter. Even when a sudden fountain of sparks shot up and died down, the hot heart of the fire remained red. The faces of my friends disappeared, only to reappear full of shadow, or lit by a mysterious glow.

The guides made dampers by sliding white, pasty sausages of flour and water onto sticks. We tried toasting them over flames, but the result was smoky and only worth eating with a smear of jam. Most of the girls gave up their dampers and concentrated on singing.

Ten green bottles hanging on the wall

And if one green bottle should accidentally fall…

It wasn’t just campfire that I loved, but the stars that appeared overhead as the evening turned to night. At the beginning of the camp, each patrol had been assigned a constellation. I was leader of the Cassopeia Patrol and had learned to recognise our constellation, high above the trees at the edge of the camp site – a lopsided 'w' which pointed towards the Pole Star.

During the day, the camp site was a field of rough grass, which disappeared into the shade of a wood. The tents were pitched in a circle, round a flagpole where the Union Jack fluttered. We were required to roll up the sides of the tents in good weather, revealing the shoe racks and coat hooks, which we'd made out of pieces of wood lashed together with twine.

Although I'd only reluctantly agreed to being a patrol leader, I wanted to do well at the challenges we'd been set. My patrol had kept our tent tidy and scrubbed cooking pans until they shone. One challenge had defeated us, though. We'd been given a chunk of silver birch wood and told to produce a useful object. I turned it in my hands, feeling the rough bark, and passed it round the group.

'We could make a pen holder,' suggested Bridget.

'How?' I asked.

'You cut out a hole in the middle, so there's enough space for a pen.'

But the wood was hard and we only had a pen-knife. At the end of the allotted time, all we'd produced was a silver birch log with a dip in the centre. Other patrols had managed to make paper knives or toast racks. I looked at the collection of objects and felt ashamed. It seemed my fault that we'd achieved so little, though no-one else in the patrol had any better idea than Bridget.

But now the day was over and the singing round the campfire was growing boisterous. One by one, the guides worked their way through the favourite songs.

They picked him off the tarmac

like a lump of strawberry jam

And he ain't going to jump no more.

After a while, the fire died down. It stopped spitting red traces into the sky and the heart of flame in the centre was fading. The guides were beginning to shiver and pull cardigans round their shoulders as the night air grew cold.

At last the Captain called for order. 'Let's finish with Kumbaya.'

Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya

Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya

Oh my Lord, Kumbaya.

I gazed up at the sky to see the stars of Cassiopeia bright above. At that moment, I was aware of a sense of peace which enveloped my friends, and spread into the wider world. I decided that, on the whole, it had been a good camp.

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