Brave, bruised, and better for it

With apologies for the spoiler, I can hardly believe it went without a hitch.

Back in the depths of winter, when Benjamin’s health appeared relatively stable, we rashly booked ourselves a summer holiday, more than two hours drive from our local hospital. Twelve hours drive and sixteen hours ferry away from our local hospital. Abroad! During May and June, as he deteriorated, it looked as if we would have to cut our losses and claim on the travel insurance. But, with almost three consecutive weeks of reasonable health under our belt, I nervously started to pack, whilst simultaneously trying to keep everything low-key and last-minute to avoid getting anyone’s hopes up.

Mostly, that is, the hopes of my six-year-old who’s learning French at school and was desperate to show it off: “I can do all the shopping, Mummy, you can just relax.” Because that’s all you do on holiday, right? Shopping and relaxing. My own hopes weren’t really that high to begin with, what with the twelve hours of driving, six of them on the wrong side of the road, the horrendous thought of a sixteen-hour crossing of the North Sea, the likely infestation of mosquitoes since we were camping right by a lake, the high chance of sunstroke, frostbite, drowning, or lightning strike, and the lack of an en suite toilet.

It’s hard work preparing and packing to take a family of five on holiday. By the time I’d arranged passports, warning triangle, vehicle clean-air certification, breathalysers, head-lamp stickers, GB sticker, maps, travel sickness pills, first aid kit, two weeks supplies of milk, containers, giving sets, bile bags, medications, nappies, wet wipes, incontinence pads, nebuliser, suction machine, feed pump, spare feed pump, sats machine, thermometer, electrical adaptors, clothes for everyone, toys for everyone, bedtime stories, surprise activities to keep everyone amused on the journey, snacks, directions to every hospital between here and Le Mans, a French translation of Benjamin’s medical notes, insect repellent, sun cream, blankets, waterproofs, swimwear, and cuddly toys, I was seriously wondering if it was really all worth it.

It was so worth it.

For me, there was a lot riding on this. Following three years of in-out hospital admissions, disrupting the lifestyle and opportunities of Benjamin’s sisters, this was my first chance to prove that we can give them a semblance of a normal life. To answer the detractors who said we should abort Benjamin for the sake of the rest of the family. And those who said we’d never make it work with three children. To show that we can all – including Benjamin – have fun times and a decent quality of life. To show that our little family works, plays, and stays together. I was determined to make it work.

My aspirations were given a massive boost by the wonderful staff of the P&O Hull-Zeebrugge overnight ferry. All we had to do was pop our hazard-lights on, and we were directed to a parking space right by the lift, and met by a lovely lady who took charge of Benjamin, leaving us enough hands to manage the girls and the luggage. The same lady seemed to be on hand throughout the entire voyage, always keeping a friendly eye out to make sure we were staying safe and having fun.

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“Nice bed, Mummy, but where’s the boat?”

Our club-class cabin was amazing! A cold beer from the minibar helped my husband get over his initial panic that we had only three beds (I quickly pulled down the upper bunks that had been stowed against the wall, and the girls just as quickly clambered up and got into their pyjamas, so exciting was the prospect of a bunk at sea). Once we’d coaxed the girls back into their clothes we risked the terrifying prospect that is taking a wayward toddler out on deck, and watched the delights of Hull receding into the evening sun with a G&T before heading down for our all-you-can-eat buffet dinner (which in Jackie’s case consisted of rice, chips, naan bread, poppadum, a bread roll and a scoop of mashed potato – with ketchup, of course – just in case they don’t have carbs in France).

A full days’ drive down the motorway later (with copious stops for coffee, picnics, toilet trips and ice cream) and we arrived at Lac de Sillé, a forest campsite that somehow managed to be both on top of a hill and next to a beautiful lake. With the occasional exception (like our tent being on a wooden platform up some wooden steps, making it somewhat difficult to wheel Benjamin into it), the campsite setup also made life very easy. There were real beds, decent toilets and showers, a fridge, a pastry delivery every morning, a pizza van every evening, draft beer, and plenty of fun atmosphere thanks to the World Cup!

I’d love to say I’d planned it ‘just so,’ but it was pure luck that made it the perfect holiday for everyone. The site was so safe – and car-free – that the girls could have a real taste of freedom, pottering around the woods, building dens, playing tag in and out of the trees. Generally they played really nicely together, and even found novelty in helping with the washing up. They both got to stay up late enjoying the poolside World Cup parties, and as a consequence we mostly got a lie-in in the mornings.

Since we were in the right country at the right time, it would have been churlish to refuse my husband a day out at the Tour de France. And I got to visit local markets, photograph butterflies, and drink cheap wine to my heart’s content. Best of all, the lakeside ‘resort,’ about a mile’s walk away through the forest, had pedalos, ponies, pancakes, a little train and, for Benjy, a beach wheelchair! So many opportunities to spend ‘quality time’ with one another – in and out of the water. But most of the time, Jackie turned out to be right, was spent shopping. Particularly as the local supermarket contained possibly the most exciting invention of the century – an orange-squeezing, juice-making machine!

Of course there were moments of confusion – and not just involving the mythical motorway exit for the Le Mans by-pass. Caitlin had been so excited about going on a ferry – but once we were on board, the ferry was so big she couldn’t comprehend it and spent the entire journey asking plaintively “But where’s the boat?” There was the morning I got up last and emerged blearily to be informed excitedly, “We’re going to make bunting!” I somehow misheard. “You’re going to make pancakes?” Fortunately we had the ingredients for both bunting and pancakes. Win-win.

And of course it was hard to relax completely. What if Benjamin gets ill? Do we know how to call an ambulance, and how long would one take to come? Can we speak enough French to explain his condition and what he needs? What if some vital piece of equipment goes wrong, or we run out of milk or medications? It wasn’t until we were on the boat home that I really believed we might make it without a medical disaster.

And of course it was hard work. Constantly lifting a 25 kg boy and his 25 kg buggy in and out of the car, the tent, the back-breakingly low camp-bed, and the floor took its toll. Working through his morning and evening routines every day made me realise how much of the weight our wonderful carers take off back home. Remembering all his medications and equipment every time we went out, and working out how to use them away from our familiar set-up and in 30-degree heat, was mentally exhausting. It made me realise this is probably the last time we’ll be able to holiday like this – by next summer Benjamin will just be too heavy to manage without some concessions to accessibility. But, we are so lucky to have had such freedom for so long.

I was pushed way out of my comfort zone in many ways: keeping Benjamin safe in unfamiliar situations; speaking up to make my children’s needs understood – in French; driving a big car on the wrong side of the road; letting routines slip; letting things get dirty; using those hole-in-the-floor toilets! I learned that trying to economise on space by sharing a single tube of toothpaste is self-defeating. I learned that a car packed to the roof with milk and syringes on the way there = a car with plenty of space for nice French wine on the way home!

There was no infestation of mosquitoes. Nobody got (too) sunburnt, drowned, or was struck by lightning even in the dramatic thunderstorms we experienced for the first three days. It’s true there was no en suite toilet (at least, not until we got back on the ferry). But, we were blessed with totally awesome weather so we never had to traipse across the campsite in the rain. I know everywhere has had awesome weather this year, but still it felt like Someone was watching over us. When asked “Would you do it again then?” my answer has generally been, “Of course not, we’ve had all our luck now, something is bound to go wrong next time!” But maybe, maybe even if something does go wrong, I think we might just survive…

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In the shadow of Storm Brian

“You on your own then?” (I hasten to add this isn’t a #metoo story; this was a genuine expression of surprise/concern).

“Well my husband will be here soon [before it bloody rains, selfish ****]. He’s cycling from Scotland.”

“Ah (eyeing the back end of a five year old that has already spotted a rabbit and is disappearing across the caravan park at the speed of light). He knows which side his bread’s buttered.”

“Well there wasn’t really room in the car for him anyway, what with all the medical equipment, and, erm, children. And wine.”

“Aye. I can see who wears the trousers in your house.”

And with that, the master of metaphor sauntered off to show me the only island of grass that was suitable for tents (i.e., not under water) in this ridiculously late part of the season. Is the end of October even in ‘the season’?

Once I had unloaded the boot, laid the tent out, and fed the girls an entire week’s ration of Quavers in a vain attempt to stop them walking goose shit into the car, said husband did arrive.

“How was your journey?” I asked. “Bit of a head wind. I can recommend the cake at the Chain Bridge Honey Farm.” Cake? You stopped for cake and left me here with three kids singing ‘the baby’s done a poo, the baby’s done a poo’ (thanks Nick Cope, we do all love you really) and a pile of goose shit, waiting for Storm Brian (a fitting name for Britain’s answer to Hurricane Ophelia) to piss all over us? AND you expect a space in the car on the way home??

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Nice weather for ducks

Miraculously, we got the tent up before the night’s deluge hit. Miraculously we cooked up pasta and reheated Bolognese sauce without setting fire to the tent, and fed it to the children without spilling too much onto the pristine (ha! Of course we didn’t clean the tent before putting it away last time – it took us a fortnight just to get it dry) groundsheet.

After tea we got Benjamin ensconced in his mound of pillows and snuggled in his sleeping bag with a few blankets thrown in for good measure (think ‘The Princess and the Pea’ but with an inco-pad and a bobble hat on) and then the two still very excited girls snuggled into their sleeping bags. One of the advantages of camping at this time of year is it’s at least dark when you put the children to bed so there’s more of a chance of them sleeping. On the other hand, if one of them decides to play boobie-tennis and sing Old MacDonald all night long it can seem like a VERY long night. Time to grab a quick shower before the party…

_20171102_223107.JPGYou know you’re in for a treat when the campsite bathroom comes fully equipped with a mop and a bucket of stinking water… Actually the showers were wonderfully hot and remarkably clean and despite the lack of any form of screen or curtain only a small river escaped into the rest of the room. Which I managed to drop my pants in. Every. Single. Time.

“How did you get on last night?” asked the site manager (somewhat smugly, I thought). “We all stayed dry!” I said, thinking this was quite an achievement given the torrential downpour that had lasted all night (and omitting to mention my pants). And certainly an improvement on our first night here last year… “Forecast has changed,” he smirked, “Storm Brian’s been delayed until today.”

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Storm Brian has been delayed…

I hurriedly put the kettle on for what might be our last cuppa before the Great Flood. Then followed the usual debate: “How can a kettle take this long to boil?” “We can’t be running out of gas already?” Gives gas canister a shake. “How do you tell if a gas canister is getting empty?” “Weigh it.” “We haven’t got any scales.” “Maybe it’s just too windy.” “Maybe you filled the kettle too full.” Kettle eventually boils and we are none the wiser as to why it takes so long to do so when camping, but the gas canister never appears to quite run out.

Children washed and tea drunk, we embarked on our ‘holiday activities’. As the days passed and the mud deepened, the site owner strove to prevent anyone getting their vehicles stuck, by parking increasing numbers of caravans over the roughest parts. I understand the intention, but the result was that we had to drive – slowly enough not to hit any of the protruding parts of said caravans, yet fast enough not to get stuck in the mud – in an increasingly complex set of manoeuvres like something out of the computer game Worm, where you end up going round in ever tighter circles until you run into your own tail.

But with a bit of perseverance, a bit of swearing, and some very muddy feet we managed to get out and about. Our first place of shelter was Barter Books. After we’d mistakenly followed Google into an industrial estate and turned around in Aldi then again in a carpet warehouse, we finally found our way into this warren of a secondhand bookshop in the impressive old station building at Alnick. We had a fantastic lunch in the ‘station buffet’ (I don’t know many station buffets that do thrice-cooked chips) and then the girls and Daddy went book shopping while Benjy and I sat by the fire . Caitlin was enthralled by the model railway running around at ceiling height, playing peekaboo between the bookshelves. And my husband bought himself a tea towel, so everyone was happy.

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Budding train drivers in Barter Books

On Day Three we discovered the delights of driving to a beautiful beach and sitting in a nice warm car with the radio on drinking coffee and eating brownies / licking an enormous lurid green ice cream with a flake in it (natch), according to taste, with big thanks to Benjy and Caitlin for falling asleep on the way and giving us an excuse for such behaviour. Eventually we braved the beach, and the winds, and despite Jackie’s initial uncertainty that her ears would stay attached to her head, we were rewarded with a simply breathtaking view and plenty of mud to play in.

Back in the shelter of the campsite we had half an hour or so before tea to indulge the girls in stalking some wildlife, and to indulge ourselves in the cuteness that is a toddler starting to speak in sentences. “Wabbits!” “Wheredawabbits?” “Wabbitshere!” “Wabbits!” “WabbitsHERE!” “Mama, WABBITSHERE!” … “Wabbitsgone…” sniff… “Wabbitsawgone”. Teatime girls. “No. NO. WudgafudgaWABBITS.”

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Stalking wabbits

On Day Four we were joined by an old friend and his daughter. Having as usual forgotten how ridiculously busy England can be on a sunny (if very breezy with a threat of rain later) weekend in the school holidays, we cheerfully set off for the picturesque village of Low-Newton-by-the-Sea. Selected by my husband on the grounds of its ‘wheelchair accessible nature trails,’ it was only when we passed a sign advertising The Ship Inn and Brewery that I realised the true reason we were visiting. Nonetheless it was a very picturesque village with a very picturesque pub serving very lovely food including some thoughtful children’s options. I slightly marred the picturesqueness for everyone else by changing Benjamin’s nappy on the village green, but you can hardly expect a cramped mediaeval pub at the end of a dead-end road on the Northumberland coast to have a Changing Place…

We did manage a stroll through the nature reserve, my husband and our friend taking the girls further along a rather less-than-accessible path to the beach whilst Benjy and I sheltered in a hide and did his physio. The hide was decorated with statistics of bird sightings and identification charts for everything from a wren to a golden eagle, but we managed a sum total of a solitary black-headed gull (everything else presumably still sheltering from Storm Brian).

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Really not into birdwatching

Storm Brian having finally passed, although I’m not sure exactly which portion of the wind and rain could be attributed to him, and left colder air in its wake, our final night in the tent was spent frantically trying to keep warm, and frantically checking that the sleeping children were warm enough, without cooling them down by opening their sleeping bags (not a problem for the girls because they always manage to kick their sleeping bags off anyway, much as they do our duvet when sharing our bed back home).

We gave up on our usual sophisticated evening routine of sitting in the dark drinking wine out of plastic mugs and eating salt and vinegar crisps, because the groundsheet was just too cold to sit on, and retired to our sleeping bags. Five minutes after my husband had fallen asleep next to his whisky, Caitlin awoke demanding milk. It was impossible to fit both her and me into my sleeping bag, so we spent the night squirming underneath it, with either my bottom or hers sticking out into the cold night air depending on which breast she was attached to. Suffice it to say, if that had been the first night and not the last, there would have been no nights two, three or four. But at least it justified the number of blankets and woolly hats I had packed.

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After a breakfast of instant noodles and leftover cake, our wonderful friend took the girls on an ‘adventure’ (i.e., another wabbit-hunt) to enable us to pack up (i.e., argue) in relative peace. If anyone has invented a method to remove all the contents from a tent, pack the tent up, and stow the tent in the bottom of the car boot underneath all the other contents, in the rain, without everything getting soaking wet in the process, please let me know. However, thanks to the fact that we are now experienced campers (having been twice this year), said watering of all our equipment was achieved in double-quick time and we even found room – and the good grace – to fit my husband in the car on the way home. As Bugs Bunny himself would say, “That’s all folks.” Until next year.

Gone camping (again)

By popular request (although the friends due to come camping with us later in the year may regret it), there follows a report of this year’s Family Summer Holiday: A Wet Weekend in Wooler. Not that I’ve got anything against Wooler. Well not much. Read on.

They say rain sounds much heavier from inside a tent than it actually is outside. I don’t know about that, but I do know that if you pitch your tent next to a river, it sounds like it’s raining all the time. Which it was. They also say* a bog feels much squelchier through a groundsheet than it actually is underneath. This is probably true. It is also certainly true that everything seems harder when you have had less than two hours’ sleep per night for the last week due to a poorly eighteen-month old who just wants to be held and fed all the time. And that everything is more worrying when you take a medically-fragile child away from the comfort-zone of home and hospital. So, from a balanced viewpoint, we probably had a great holiday.

The campsite owner thought he was doing us a favour by offering us a choice of sites. Of course, he doesn’t know that we are the most indecisive people on the planet and that, whichever site we chose would inevitably result in one of us feeling that it was the wrong choice, one of us feeling guilty for making such a bad choice, and both of us blaming the other one for those feelings, for the rest of the holiday.

Anyway, we eventually selected the ‘secluded, sheltered, quieter’ pitch on the basis that on the day we arrived the campsite was rather windy and overrun by Duke of Edinburgh Award students on their expedition. As the days passed this turned out to be the ‘just next to the road, just above the river, surrounded by poisonous plants with yummy-looking pink flowers, exceedingly muddy and rather midgy’ pitch. On the plus side, it did have a play park right opposite and was well frequented by cute fluffy rabbits and cute fluffy ducklings (and their rather aggressive parents. And all their shit). At least Caitlin got a lot of practise at ‘What does the duck say?’ ‘Quack.’ Without us even having to say ‘What does the duck say?’

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‘Quack’

So, we arrived at the campsite on a Wednesday evening with our car (leased on the Motability scheme solely on the criterion of having the biggest boot of all cars) packed from floor to ceiling – determined this time to be prepared for every eventuality. Of course this meant that the first eventuality was having to unpack the entire boot to get the tent out, leaving all our medical gear, sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, hot water bottles, emergency cake, cuddly toys, etc., out in the drizzle-that-became-persistent-rain while we spent the usual two hours putting the tent up, pegging out all the guys, attempting to tighten all the guys, realising that all the guys were threaded in such a way that they couldn’t be tightened, arguing, re-threading all the guys, swearing, arguing, and re-pegging and tightening all the guys.

This years’ spectacle was enlivened by the fact that Caitlin is now mobile and exceedingly speedy. We put Jackie on red alert, chasing Caitlin around the campsite and shouting a warning if she got to close to any road, river, poisonous plant or live animal, on hearing of which one of us would let go our portion of the tent and leg it at full pelt to intercept her, while the tent crashed to the ground behind us.

As we were slowly heating up our spaghetti bolognaise over a nearly empty gas canister on the first evening I remarked that it was getting a bit midgy. ‘Don’t be silly,’ said Ric, as my skin started to come up in large red weals, ‘You don’t get midges in England. Keep the tent flaps open, it’s a lovely evening.’ The next day, after I dosed Jackie up with Piriton to counteract the itching, we mentioned to a lady in a shop that we were camping. ‘Ooh, really?’ she said, ‘That’s brave. How are you coping with the midges?’ Turns out midges are less respectful of national borders than one (husband) might think… The next evening, we kept the tent flaps shut.

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I don’t care about midges – I’ve got cake

After tea we gave Benjy and Caitlin a quick wipe with a wetwipe (Jackie was deemed old enough to cope with the excitement of the campsite shower, and returned more covered with grass than she started) and had just about got everyone settled in their sleeping bags, if not terribly sleepy given that it was still completely light outside, when the unmistakeable tinkle of an ice cream van was heard. So while I commenced Benjy’s night-time routine of feed and medications, Ric and Jackie set off up the hill and returned with three enormous 99’s plus a complimentary, slightly smaller one for Caitlin. By the time everyone had eaten/spilled their ice creams and brushed their teeth again – and it was still completely light outside (and inside) – there was no chance of anyone going to sleep any time soon. So we all lay down in the bedroom together for stories and milk and an ongoing game of musical roll-mats until it finally got dark and we crashed out, one by one.

 

Wooler is a delightful little town on the edge of the Cheviots with a remarkably good Italian restaurant hidden behind an abandoned gym hidden behind a pub, an old fire station converted into a depot for fish-and-chip vans, and an amazing number of butchers. Even more delightfully, we were unaware until we arrived that we were there for the weekend of the Glendale Festival: a showcase of marching bands, fancy-dressed children, a lady on a pennyfarthing, and some plastic duck races on the river (sadly, Postman Pat failed to turn up). We were also unaware, but reliably – and entirely correctly – informed by the lady at the fish-and-chip van hub, that ‘T’always rains on festival weekend.’ In fact, even the pictures in the festival brochure showed a distinct predominance of umbrellas…

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Entirely appropriate camping attire (attitude optional)

On Thursday we decided to explore our surroundings, so we wandered up, then down, then up again into Wooler (which, unsurprisingly given its beautiful location on the edge of the Cheviots, turns out to be surprisingly hilly). I say wandered; between Ric and myself we took it in turns to carry Caitlin, push Benjy in his chair and push Jackie on her bike, except on the downhill bits where it was more of a case of chasing Jackie on her bike shouting ‘stop when you get to a ROAD!’

By the time we got into town it was lunchtime so we walked up and down the high street a couple of times, deliberating, before returning to the first café we came across, which was spacious and friendly and had a spaghetti bolognaise special on the board. So Jackie had her third helping of spaghetti bolognaise in two days and Caitlin threw jacket potato around the room. After this brief interlude of peace Benjamin started vomiting copious amounts of bile out of his nostrils, so I leapt up and suctioned him with our very noisy portable hoover while Ric attempted to contain the girls and we both ignored the questions from the children at the table next to us. Eventually the café-owner came up to me. Here we go, I thought, she’s going to ask us to take our caravan of children and medical emergencies elsewhere. ‘Is there anything I can get you?’ She asked. ‘Do you need any water? I know what it’s like, I had a little boy like yours.’ I could have hugged her.

After lunch we managed a bit of shopping: a waterproof jacket and large amounts of wine, chocolate, wetwipes and Calpol. We only had to make one phone call to the hospital (to check if a small amount of overgranulation around Benjamin’s new feeding tube required us to do anything – it didn’t) and only had to discard one outfit in a bin due to a nappy explosion and the fact that I couldn’t face storing that amount of poo for the next three days before we could get home and wash it… so I count the day as a success.

Friday was also a relative triumph, spent as it was on the Heatherslaw Light Railway, ‘England’s most northerly narrow gauge railway.’ Once we had got over the usual confusion and convinced the driver that Benjamin was a wheelchair-user and not just a child in a pushchair, we were allowed to use one of the very accessible wheelchair carriages for the twenty-minute trundle to the village of Etal. There we had lunch in a nice tearoom which had the foresight to provide ride-on toys in the garden so that Jackie and Caitlin could terrorise the other guests. Benjamin and I gate-crashed an AA meeting in the village hall in order to manage another nappy explosion on the floor of the disabled toilet, and then there was time for a quick climb on a cannon before the train back.

 

‘It’s okay,’ said Ric cheerfully later that evening, ‘The forecast has improved: there’s a whole hour tomorrow when it’s not going to rain.’

‘Really?’ I said, ‘That sounds promising.’

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘It’s going to hail.’

So on Saturday – along with the rest of the population enjoying the first day of the English school holidays – we cut our losses and drove to Alnick, had lunch in Sainsbury’s and tired the girls out in the swimming pool. Returning to the tent, we spent a happy evening trying to avoid walking on the squelchiest bits of the floor, and watching the drips gather on the inside of the flysheet (I really do think they were just condensation resulting from containing five people and a heap of wet swimming towels on a day with 100% humidity. Ric remains less than convinced.).

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Drying off in the Italian. It’s even warm enough to remove my jumper, look.

The rain continued throughout the night (Oh, the joys of taking a five-year-old to the loo on a wet night. Oh, the repeated refrain of ‘Don’t touch the walls!’) and throughout the packing up the next morning. We were reduced to strapping the children into the car and putting on Mr Tumble’s ‘Party’ CD (on the plus side, we didn’t have to listen to it ourselves) while we took the tent down and attempted to get it back into the bag it came out of. ‘I remember this: you fold it in thirds, then roll it.’ ‘Maybe it’s quarters?’ ‘Let’s try and shake some more water off it’ (tent still contains more than its weight in water, and now we are both soaked too). ‘It must be folded in half and then thirds.’ ‘Does it matter if we don’t get it in the bag anyway?’

As I emptied and repacked the boot for the final time, to get Benjamin’s buggy in and also to find space for the authentic Spanish bowl we purchased at one of the festival stalls as a souvenir of our time in Wooler, Ric and the girls emerged from a temporary tea room run by the WI, bearing emergency cake supplies for the journey home. ‘I don’t want to go home Mummy,’ said Jackie, stomping her wellies. ‘Quack,’ said Caitlin. So we must have done something right, right?

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Overcome with excitement

The way I look at it, things can only get better. I mean, that’s got to be about as bad as camping gets, hasn’t it? Non-stop rain, midges, twenty-hours of daylight making it nigh-on impossible to get the kids to sleep. A toddler just old enough to run into the road, fall into the river and eat the enticing-looking foxgloves but not old enough to understand the word ‘no’. We spent four days packing up, two hours pitching the tent, approximately three and a half days actually being on holiday, two more hours taking down the tent, and another couple of days unpacking and cleaning the mud off everything, not to mention the laundry, and the fact that the tent is, more than a week later, still lying in our garden ‘drying’, with the lawn slowly turning yellow beneath it… Don’t tell Ric I said this, but I think it might feel more worthwhile if we actually went for a fortnight next time… Roll on October (and God help the friends who are coming with us).

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*they may not

[To read the previous installment in this series, click here]

Gone camping

Q. What do you do in the summer holidays if you have three children under five, one breastfeeding constantly, one addicted to cartoons, and one severely disabled?

A. Take them camping. No joke*.

So, we picked a week with a half-decent weather forecast, if not a decent health forecast (Benjamin had just started vomiting up alternate feeds, and all three children were likely incubating chicken pox) and booked a pitch at the only campsite in the UK that had any space and a more than two-star review of its toilet block. We prepared thoroughly by watching a YouTube video of a group of young, attractive people pitching our tent with ease.

Having planned the trip less than 24 hours in advance (because if I’d had 24 hours to think about it I’d have realised what a ridiculous idea it was), the car club estate car was already booked out to someone else, so we decided to go in convoy in two teeny tiny cars instead. Despite the lack of many essential camping items, both cars were filled to the roof with disability equipment, cuddly toys and emergency chocolate (mine) and whisky (his).

We drew lots and I got the car with the two smaller children, carrying with it a slightly higher risk of vomiting but a much lower likelihood of having to listen to The Little Mermaid audio CD non-stop for the duration of the journey. Since my two children were more likely to require emergency stops for cleaning purposes, this meant I was to lead the convoy. This in turn meant I was to navigate. Hence our first stop turned out to be ‘Heathery Tops Farm Cottages’ instead of ‘Go Outdoors Superstore Berwick-upon-Tweed,’ much to the bemusement of some dog-walkers who had to get off the road repeatedly as two cars drove past them twice, turned around, and drove past again without so much as stopping to look at Heathery Tops Farm Cottages.

Having finally made it to Go Outdoors, we purchased a hefty extension cable for hooking up to the campsite power supply, a fancy airbed and foot pump, a waterproof picnic blanket, a proper big camping stove, and a gas cylinder that didn’t fit the proper camping stove. These were crammed into the cars in such a way as to be guaranteed to fall out upon opening the doors, and we were on our way.

Bluebell Farm Campsite, Belford, didn’t seem to have any bluebells – or a farm – but it did have an abundance of rabbits, ducks, swans, pigeons and even an ostrich, a very friendly and helpful owner and, most importantly, a pub and a fish-and-chip shop on the doorstep.

dsc_1252.jpgPitching the tent didn’t seem quite as easy in a steady drizzle with two adults, one of them simultaneously breastfeeding, an overenthusiastic four-year old, and a crowd of ducks, as it looked on the sunny video, but we managed it before dark and headed off for a very late supper in the Black Swan. dsc_1294.jpgIt was well and truly dark by the time supper was over so we gave the kids a quick wipe over with a wet-wipe, put them to bed, all in a row, and congratulated ourselves on a job well done.

In the early hours of the morning, just as the drizzle turned to more persistent rain, I returned from taking Jackie to the toilet (Oh! The joys of camping) to find Ric staring at a puddle on the roof of the inner tent. The puddle quickly became a drip, and the drips quickly multiplied until it was clear that a couple of kids’ beach buckets and a few incontinence pads were not going to solve the problem. Since I was already damp from the aforementioned toilet trip, I headed off half-naked to fetch a small tarpaulin from the car, which I then attempted to drape over the tent. Fortunately the friendly and helpful (and now also bemused and amused) campsite man was up by this time, doing things with bins and tractors, and gave me a hand.

Over a reviving coffee (made on our old, tiny stove for which we did have a correct if nearly-empty gas cylinder), we debated whether to go home or go shopping. Rashly, I allowed Ric and Jackie to drive back to Go Outdoors (should totally have bought shares in them before we started…) while I stayed behind to mop up. They returned with a new tent (almost identical to the first and just as hard to put up, but a slightly less bilious shade of green and, being the ‘Deluxe’ model, waterproof), a new gas cylinder, and a towel shaped like a ladybird.

Thus Day Two of the expedition, which I’d intended to spend relaxing around the campsite toasting marshmallows and playing petanque, was spent pitching the Deluxe tent, transferring everything from the ‘Classic’ tent to the Deluxe, and taking down the old Classic (which was no easier than putting it up, and possibly wetter). On the plus side, we successfully attached the gas cylinder to the stove, cooked pasta without scalding ourselves, and even all had a decent wash.

On Day Three, we got cocky and decided to go on An Excursion To Holy Island. Which is reached by a single-track causeway only navigable at high tide, and to which everyone else in the northeast of England seems to go during the school holidays. With a frisson of excitement we checked the ‘safe crossing’ times and decided we’d be fine if we didn’t stop for lunch.

We had such a great time exploring the ruins, buying postcards and playing ‘spot the man dressed as a banana’ (a stag do? I have no idea) that we decided to stop for lunch.

Lunch over, we joined every man, woman and banana in the mad rush to get back to the car park and over the causeway before the tide came in and marooned us. Except unlike everyone else we did not just leap into our car and drive away, because in our haste to get into the car Benjamin’s gastrostomy button somehow got pulled out. As the contents of his last meal spurted all over the car park I realised we did not have any of the correct equipment with us to replace the button – and the button must be replaced as soon as possible to prevent the site closing up.

I like to think I could give MacGyver a run for his money, so with great agility I grabbed the car key (I really hope our community nurse isn’t reading this) and used it to open the valve in the button, allowing the water-filled balloon to empty and the button to be re-inserted into Benjamin’s stomach. Of course, without the water-filled balloon full of water there is then nothing to hold the button in place, so Ric then had to drive like lightning ahead of the racing tide, with me holding the button in place for dear life, to get back to the campsite and the correct size syringes…

…which were of course in the bin as I had helpfully used our only pair to change the water in the balloon that morning. So we swapped roles for a bit, Ric acting as button-securer while I fished around among the dirty nappies and empty pasta-sauce jars for the syringes (I really hope our community nurse isn’t reading this).

Syringes sterilised, button balloon refilled, children released from the car seats in which they had been imprisoned to prevent them interfering in our delicate operations, we breathed a sigh of relief. The final stage of replacing a gastrostomy button is a mere formality – drawing out a small amount of stomach contents to test that the button is actually in the correct place (i.e. the stomach) and it is safe to start feeding again. The idea is, that since stomach acid is, well, acid, a pH test should verify that the button is in the right place. The problem, with Benjamin, is that he is on a considerable amount of antacids so it is well-night impossible to get an acidic reading… Anyway, to prevent this becoming a long(er) medical saga, I will just say that four hours, several more pH tests, an hours’ drive in the direction of a non-existent A&E department at Berwick hospital, three frustrating phone calls to NHS Direct, and one simple phone call to a sensible nurse on Ward 4 at Edinburgh Sick Kids, we finally determined that the button was indeed in the correct place, gave Benjamin his long-awaited lunch, and headed to the Black Swan for a large G&T.

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Recovering with a biscuit

Was it on Day 3 or Day 4 that Jackie was swinging on a railing, fell off and cut her head open? Actually on closer inspection it was her ear she cut open which is probably less life-threatening but nonetheless there was a lot of screaming and gallons of some blood (enough to unnerve a mummy who has just found out there is no A&E department at Berwick) and she will now forever have a notch in her ear like a stray dog that’s been in a fight.

dsc_1295.jpg dsc_1306.jpgOn Day 4 we thought we’d rekindle the spirit of traditional British holidays and go for a picnic on the delightful (seriously) beach at Beadnell, so Jackie could go rockpooling. There weren’t really any rockpools but we found two snails and a small dead crab, took it in turns to eat sandy Scotch eggs and hold Caitlin who was screaming and would not be put down, then had to make a mad dash back to the car when the heavens opened. So I think we achieved ‘traditional British holiday’ pretty well. We finished off the day singing Christmas songs all the way back to the fish-and-chip shop.

And so we return, one new tent and a whole lot of sand heavier, all our chocolate and half a child’s ear lighter. On the plus side, the weather was on the whole good. Benjamin stayed stable and slept soundly in an improvised mound of pillows. Jackie failed to mention Peppa Pig for the whole trip. All the kids benefited from spending time together – I caught Benjy and Caitlin sneakily smiling at one another on more than one occasion. Nobody managed to sneak a rabbit into their luggage (so far as I know). I’ve learned never to go anywhere without a full set of equipment for inserting a gastrostomy button. And nobody came down with chicken pox until we got home.

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*Disclaimer so my mum doesn’t worry (too much): some elements of this narrative may have been exaggerated.