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Six Stories from Summer Camp

Last weekend my husband and I lived The Good Life. To be honest, Wales isn’t my first choice of location for a summer holiday but the allure of a weekend filled with many of our favourite things, in a beautiful location with great food was enough to make me book it and I’m so glad I did! In an attempt to help me digest my experiences I thought I’d write some thoughts down here. This is not an ad or promotion.

Summer Camp is an annual event at Hawarden Estate, a series of mini festivals run over a few weekends in July. It’s run by The Good Life Society, which is owned by entrepreneur Charlie Gladstone, who wasn’t present (as far as I could tell) but was mentioned frequently by staff and guests to the point he has become a Gatsby like figure in my mind (“Gladstone? What Gladstone?”). There’s wild swimming, crafts, workshops, a castle, wood fired hot tub and sauna and incredible 3 course meals cooked over the fire by accomplished chefs.

Inspired by one of the talks I attended – Six Stories From Solstice Radio – here’s my Six Stories From Summer Camp 2023:

1. Camping is awful.

It’s a classic defence to say something is stupid or bad because it makes you insecure or uncomfortable in some way so I’m calling myself out here and acknowledging that my dislike of camping comes from the realisation that I’m not very good at it. I get in a muddle trying to decide what I need to take to the showers. Somehow, in a tent (even a beautiful bell tent like the one we stayed in) I become several things I don’t normally associate with myself; disorganised, messy, high maintenance. I’d love to be one of those women who only need to wash their perfect complexions in the morning dew and not care what their hair looks like but that it not me. I need my Tropic hot cloth cleanser and hairdryer.

I find myself in a process of self-acceptance about what makes me feel good and ‘me’ when I travel. As someone who loves being in nature I felt I “should” love camping. But I don’t. I like nice hotels or interesting Airbnb’s. This reminds me that, like most humans, I’m sometimes shallow, spoiled and attached to material things and modern comforts. However, to be fair to myself this was a holiday and a treat so it’s OK to want to enjoy it and be comfortable.

I should say that my glamping experience (I’d already accepted myself enough that regular camping was not an option for this trip!) at Summer Camp was not even slightly awful – it was very nice. The tent had a proper bed with a very warm and cosy duvet. The showers and loos were beautiful, warm and clean. Nevertheless I find it all a faff and I’d just about got into the swing of tent life when it was time to go home!

2. Own your story

Listening to people’s stories is one of my favourite things to do (it’s no coincidence that I’m a counsellor!) and I had lots of opportunity to hear inspiring, relatable and funny stories at Summer Camp. Something that stood out to me from the wonderful people I listened to was that there’s real power in owning your story; whether it’s a list of fears overcome (thank you Mark Shayler), a tale of online dating gone wrong (thank you Adele) or confession of (perceived) idiocy and insecurities (thank you Steve Chapman and Jo Wood) when you tell it, you control the narrative. Your story doesn’t have to be perfect, or mind blowing or even that original; it just has to be yours. Telling your story can be a vulnerable but ultimately empowering thing to do, and it's not just the teller who is emboldened but the listener as well.

3. Being around people who are really good at what they do is brilliant

Watching an expert at work has always been inspiring to me; knowing that the thing they’re doing looks effortless due to the countless hours of practice, learning and honing of their skill. Everyone there seemed so talented, from chefs cooking over fire to artists painting, crafting, making and mending, yoga and qigong practitioners really knowing their stuff to the site staff running a seamless operation. It’s the passion and the dedication that I admire the most. But what makes it inspiring, when you spend time with these experts in real life (especially around a campfire) is that you realise they’re imperfect, real people. This realisation – impossible when reading their website or following their Instagram feed – is the part that turns “god they’re impressive” into “perhaps I can be that good, too.” It was another reminder to me to trust my own expertise and to keep doing what I love.

And even if it doesn’t make you want to be really good at something yourself, it’s just lovely to watch someone else be brilliant, not in a showy offy way, just in a person doing their thing way. There’s a pleasure in it, much like the campfire, that gives off warmth and light to everyone around.

4. Find your people

It’s become a cliché really to encourage people to #findyourtribe but like a most clichés there’s truth in it. I’m lucky to have some really wonderful friends but we don’t always like doing the same things or share the same values, which is a good thing at times. At Summer Camp there was a real sense of community – even if only temporary – that was very soothing to the nervous system. Conversations were easy and people had lots in common. It gave me a ‘secure base’ feeling that made me feel at once safer and braver, accepted and understood. Somehow – in a way that was both surprising and not at all surprising really – the person I connected to the most was Debby; we’d been chatting for a while before we realised we’re both totally in love with Greece to the point we’ll just sometimes cry because it’s so beautiful there.

I think we all wish our ‘tribe’ was on our doorstep or at least in the same town, but often that’s not the reality (in the case of Debby we’re not even on the same continent!) so we need to seek them out. Even if it’s just for the occasional weekend, it’s worth the effort.

5. The cup is already squished.

There’s a story from Tibetan Buddhism about impermanence that I was strongly reminded of during a pottery workshop where we made a cup from a ball of clay and then destroyed it at the end (if you wanted to) returning it to a ball of clay once again. It was an exercise in transience and letting go, as well as an opportunity to learn some pottery skills. In the story the teacher is explaining that a glass of water that sits on the table next to him is already broken; he means that one day it will be – whether in a week or ten years – and it’s wise to be reminded of this because it helps you appreciate it without being too possessive or protective of it. As someone who likes making things but doesn’t like clutter this activity was perfect and I enjoyed both the making process and the squishing process equally.

It's fairly easy to practice non-attachment to an object you’ve just spent 2 hours making but other things are much harder; relationships, places, valuable items. This is why mindfulness is so important; being fully present allows us to enjoy what is, to truly be with it in this moment. When we do this we can learn to just be with things in the now and, as I learned from another Buddhist teacher, to hold things lightly.

There was a lovely family in the tent opposite us and I overheard the mum say to her child (they'd asked something about when they go home):

"Let's not talk about leaving just yet, let's enjoy being here now."


6. Joy is resilience

A holiday is a luxury I feel very grateful to have. And whilst it’s true that a break like this is a luxury in the sense of the cost (it’s not cheap, but it is excellent value for what you get and everything is top quality – the food, the environment, the people etc), having joyful experiences shouldn’t be rare luxuries. Joy, play, rest and adventure are what feeds the soul; joy is the fuel that powers us through the difficult, the mundane and the painful times. Without joy the scales are dangerously imbalanced. I left Summer Camp feeling inspired, motivated and ready to do good work. Whilst I was there I felt so good it was hard to imagine being stressed or low, but those times do come and they are bearable when we have happy memories and more good times to look forward to; the regular experience of joy reminds us that suffering is temporary. Summer Camp reminded me that a Good Life is one where joy is consciously cultivated, where pleasure is prioritised, community is created, play is encouraged and rest is non-negotiable.

I hope you've enjoyed my stories, I share them in the spirit of Mary Oliver's Instructions For Living A Life: Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.

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