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]

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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.

Twenty-or-so shortcuts of a special needs mum

When we first had a child, I remember thinking Wow, what did I do with all my time before? Now we’ve got three, one with severe and complex needs, I wonder What did I do with all my time when I only had one child? Or two?

If there’s one thing most mums (and dads) – special needs or not – would probably agree on, it’s that children are like little black holes into which time just disappears. Whether you’re changing nappies, making three different meals for three picky eaters, breaking up arguments, trying to get them to sleep, trying to get them out of bed, trying to get them to wear something other than socks and a pair of fairy wings … and don’t get me started on the laundry … there are never enough hours in the day, and the to-do-list is invariably longer at the end of it than when you started.

So we all have our little shortcuts (successful or not) to try to sneak ourselves a few extra minutes here or there. Who hoovers under the sofa anyway?

  1. Dressing everyone in clothes you’ve just taken out of the tumble-dryer rather than putting them away (who cares if school phone social work because they think they’ve only got one outfit each);
  2. Checking the Met Office app hopefully for rain so you don’t have to put the washing out and can just bung it in the tumble dryer instead;
  3. Pegging the washing out loosely in the hope that it will blow away and you won’t have to iron it/fold it/put it away/bring it in in a hailstorm and find somewhere to hang it in a house already full of wet laundry (of course the nice lady next door always finds it under her car and then you have to wash it all over again);

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    Nothing I love more…

  4. Carrying a thirteen-kilo two-year-old for f***ing miles because at the start it seemed like it wasn’t very far and would be quicker than putting the f***ing special needs buggy together;
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    Who needs all these layers of security?

    Only doing up two of the three harnesses that come with said special needs buggy … later to find your child has slipped and got his head stuck under the armrest;

  6. Dissolving fourteen anti-reflux pills in water at the start of the week … only to find they’ve all turned to glue by the end of day one;
  7. Getting bloods done every time you’re at outpatients for an appointment, because you know if you don’t, some doctor will request them a few days later and you’ll have to make a special trip;
  8. Putting cotton wool/baby wipes down the loo because there’s no bin-liner in the bathroom bin (this one will always backfire eventually, probably when your very houseproud aunt is coming to visit);
  9. Putting Peppa Pig on YouTube, which advances automatically to the next video, instead of 5OD, which doesn’t … even though they will probably end up watching porn or one of those annoying robot versions of five little monkeys on b****y ChuChuTV;
  10. Watching CBeebies while ironing because you can’t be bothered to hunt for the remote control (and you quite like Mr Bloom anyway);
  11. Making them do the shopping is maybe a step too far though?

    Making them do the shopping is maybe a step too far though?

    Doing the weekly shop in the petrol station (bonus points if en route to A&E);

  12. Cutting the children’s hair short so you don’t have to do pigtails (or, God forbid, French pleats) before school;
  13. Hair by Mummy being really lazy

    Hair by “Mummy being really lazy”

    Letting the children’s hair grow long because it’s cute because taking them to the hairdresser is just too stressful (and cutting it yourself is even worse);

  14. Breastfeeding while doing the nursery run/queuing in A&E (actually quite proud of this trick);
  15. Reading only the first and last sentence on each page of the bedtime story (they always notice, usually at the last page so you have to read the whole thing again);
  16. Letting everyone in the house sleep in your bed, just so that everyone, well, sleeps;dsc_0772.jpg
  17. Taking the children’s best paintings out of the ‘keeping box’ to make emergency birthday cards;
  18. Taking the children’s second-best paintings out of the keeping box for emergency wrapping paper;
  19. Eating a whole family-sized bag of crisps yourself to save looking for one of those clippy-things to seal it with;
  20. Eating the rest of the ice cream instead of trying to find the mystery space in the freezer it came out of;
  21. Drinking wine even though you’d prefer G&T, because it only involves opening one bottle instead of two and you don’t have to faff around with cucumber to do it properly. Note to self: getting those pre-mixed cans of G&T is a big mistake, they are sneakily strong and result in falling over whilst ironing to Mr Bloom and/or eating a family-sized bag of crisps…
Two in a swing saves on pushing time...

Two in a swing saves on pushing time…

...although getting them to do the pushing is even better

…although getting them to do the pushing is even better