We've had this weekend in the diary for camping, and of course the weather was spectacular, but in the end, were all a bit under the weather and tired and a lot of people had to be at work until 5pm on Friday (which is rather close to sunset up here in the north), so we made a new plan.
Camping in the garden!
Rather than our Baden-Powell inspired ubercamp, we made a nylon city at the end of our garden, decorated it with fairy lights and lit the chimnea.
The first two tents go up....
We cooked Friday supper on the oven in our kitchen and then toasted marshmallows for a "midnight" feast on the fire.
Two skeletons enjoy marshmallows.
On Saturday we got up slowly and then went for a walk along the river at Benningborough which was just enough exercise for us all! There was wood collecting, and log clambering on and a little muddy beach to play on.
And then lots of other people turned up for a barbecue and roasted corn on the cob and Benningborough burgers and home grown courgettes and tasty sardines were eaten with glee.
Today the kids played endless complicated games inside and out. Walkie talkies were used liberally and every single toy in the house was used for something.
And then we all decamped to a friend's 40th birthday celebrations and ate cake all afternoon.
We didn't get our dose of wilderness, but we had lots of fun.
Thank you for all the wonderful birthday presents sent to Nathaniel! He has much to read and play with and is very appreciative.
He even managed not to get up at the crack of dawn, instead lying in bed and reading until 7:30. I had to write that so that I'd remember it in years to come!
And then we opened presents!
And then we played with presents!
And then after some lunch it was time to go to his party. I had declined to have loads of kids in our rather messy house, so we had an explorers party in the woods. It was all very exciting!
Basically 6 friends joined Nathaniel and a bunch of younger siblings to rampage round the woods for a couple of hours. They ran, we made a den, made some fire, created candle holders with special gems and generally had fun.
The star of the afternoon was definitely Ian who was the bear! We ran numerous bear hunts - the bear ran through the woods leaving a trail of white pine cones. The kids chased after him picking up his pine cones and stuffing them in their foraging bags. They were then rewarded with sweets for all the cones they returned to the bear (we got through a whole tin of Roses!). They wanted to do it again and again. And again. And again.
When our sailing club turns up at open meetings, there is always much made of the number of competitive vintage GP14s (and the fact that they are all yellow!). So we decided to capitalise on this and invite the other old boats to race with us on the river. Of course, vintage is a specific label (mark 1 etc), so we had to make it "vintage and classic" which basically included anyone brave enough to sail on the river.
This turned out to be 8 GPs, which is about as many as any sane person would want at a start line with a northerly wind.
Nathaniel and Ian took our boat and had lots of fun despite nearly not getting off the jetty due to jammed main halyard and then having to paddle to the start!
Having lost the coin toss for who was to sail (or at least, that's what we told her), Dorothea and I stayed in the club and played. Both safety boats were out being official, so we were definitely confined to land. So we took silly photos of ourselves:
We went for a walk in the drizzle up to the race area and tried to take photos with my phone (never terrible successful when it comes to sailing):
It looked fun. There was some very tight racing with the second to fifth places always unsure until the final lap. But Ian and Nathaniel did very well. Ian managed to sail with Nathaniel's help, and Nathaniel managed to stay interested and relatively alert for three whole races! They came fourth overall.
The prize giving included the awarding of the Round Holes trophy, specially constructed by Hugh, and Nathaniel and Ian were awarded a prize for coming fourth and a prize for the youngest crew. Never let it be said that Steve Parry hasn't done everything in his power to ensure our kids enjoy sailing!
The Chair of the GP association collects his prize.
Nathaniel declined to stand up in front of everyone and collect his prize, so here he is clutching his chocolate at home!
Of course, Steve's efforts are producing sterling results. The kids love being at the club and had great fun getting involved in EVERYTHING! It is a testament to the patience of the club members that neither of them have been thrown off a jetty yet!
Thea was able to stop whining about not sailing by the end of the race, and was awarded with a good sail with some additional breeze at the end of the day.
We were prepared for the weather to be cooler than last year (and lets face it, 32 degrees is much nicer in theory than in practice), but this wasn't the best start:
Fortunately, once we arrived in Fenstanton it was sunny and warm and we were ready for a holiday. So much so that even I was jolly when we left the house at 6 the next morning. And we were all still jolly when we got to the ferry.
The ferry experience was greatly better than last year - no wind and so no swell - although Nathaniel did insist on taking one of the homeopathic seasickness tablets that I had brought for such an occasion. I think last year's SeaCat might have made rather an impression on him. We lunched on bread and cheeses and then the children discovered the soft play area - a tiny space filled with all of 6 crash-mat style cubes - which occupied them for the rest of the journey.
We always knew that the other side was going to be a bit tedious, but we had learned our lesson from last year, and the campsite was only a couple of hours drive, and very close to the autoroute. It turned out to be a gem of a place - in a wood next to a lake just outside Sille de Guillaume, and we were almost sorry that it was intended just to be an overnight stop. Up went the tent and off we went to play in the park and explore the lakeside.
Sille de Guillaume is a rather pretty little place, and the other side of the lake has a beach reachable along a cycle track, so I have a feeling that we'll be back here. The kids were certainly happy scampering about amongst the trees.
But we had the south in mind, so off we went the next morning (everlastingly thankful that the kids find sleeping in the tent preferable to inside, and not at all a novelty, and so sleep like me), to enjoy winding our way through little french villages joined by long, straight, plane tree-lined roads, broken only by ancient-looking churches that have to be circumnavigated.
And then miles and miles of autoroute, albeit interspersed with stops at aires with playgrounds and funky adult gym equipment, until we eventually arrived at..........
.......Ile D'Oleron, which is a big island off the Atlantic coast due west of Rochefort.
After a brief stop at the Marennes Intermarche for supplies, we drove across the bridge to the island in the sun and admired acres and acres of oyster beds.
Our campsite was pretty good, except that our pitch was next to the biggest caravan that we had ever seen. And on the side of that caravan was the biggest, full-width awning that we had ever seen. And on the side of that awning was the biggest full-width canopy that we had ever seen. Strictly, they hadn't impinged on our ground, but they had covered every inch of their ground with caravan-awning-canopy, which left us camping in their front yard! We considered trying to move, but the place was pretty packed, and the only alternative offered to us was on the other side of the trees that separated us from the toilet block, which we didn't fancy. So we put ourselves in a far corner on the flattest section and made ourselves comfortable under a ma-hooooo-sive pine tree which provided ma-hoooo-sive pine cones to play with.
Apart from being a little overcrowded, it was a great little campsite. Very friendly, with nice little touches such as recycling bags given to each tent, and great communal areas - not too big, not too small. There were picnic benches next to the play ground and a quiet bar which sold drinks and ice creams and pizzas so that you could sit and read with a cold drink while the kids played. There were two small swimming pools set into decking, and the kids loved them. We crept in at 7:30 that evening, just before they closed and made the most of the quiet. Thea put on her armbands, and after a few minutes of holding on to me, let go for the first time and floated off on her own. This was a major deal for her - all term she has refused to do this! Of course, after that, we weren't allowed to touch her at all and she just sedately paddled herself round and round in a strange upright position looking rather like a swan - totally motionless above the water, powered some unknown propulsion.
Library picture for our enjoyment!
It was warm and sunny and so the next morning we jumped on our bikes and headed to the beach. But to Nathaniel's delight, rather than cycling the whole way, we rode back into Saint-Trojan-des-Bains to board Le Petit Train. It's a narrow gauge railway that heads west through the forest towards beaches unreachable by car. It was fun!
Thea wasn't entirely sure at first. She assured us that she was happy, but her face wasn't so convincing. We sat right at the front so that we had a good view of the engine, but it was rather loud which may have been a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, the view was distracting. First we travelled through the forest, sounding the horn every time we crossed a pedestrian path. I spent this section yearning after following one of these paths as they snaked up and down dunes into the distance.
Then we emerged at Gatseau Beach, and after a quick stop at the station, carried on along a Dawlish-worthy line along the shore.
After more forest and dunes stretching away from us as far as we could see, we reached Plage de Maumusson. we stepped down straight onto the sand and had to stay where we stood for the next 20 minutes so that the turning of the engine and the moving of the points could be properly examined!
And then we walked down onto the beach which was wonderful! In either direction, the yellow sand stretched as far as the eye could see, backed only by lowish dunes. In front of us, big waves pounded the shore (swimming was prohibited due to their strength), and white horses flecked the bright blue sea. The sun shone. There was pretty much no-one around. We were very happy!
After lunch (we had important cheeses to prioritise over playing), we started by digging. Nathaniel was a spy-car (don't ask!), and zoomed backwards and forwards, hurtling onto the sand and spinning it around with his hands. Then he drew his very own Petit Train.
I was really impressed! Then we spent hours and hours jumping over waves, running away from waves and generally playing with water. It was hot, but with a breeze so that it just felt decadently warm - perfect for getting splashed and then drying off while playing.
We quit while everyone was happy and had an ice cream at the wagon bar while we waited for the return train.
Next day, we couldn't see any reason why we shouldn't acquiesce to Nathaniel's request that we go to a beach again. We had cycled into the village the night before and had a brief wander around - enough to establish that it was primarily a resort village, and not worth the effort of extensive children-persuasion to enable us to explore further. So off we went by bike, along forest bike tracks, to Plage Gatseau. It was a very different beach.
It was definitely busier, but not unpleasant. It was sheltered from the wind and the strong currents and the forest reached right down to the sand. All very picturescue. We collected buckets and buckets of cockles, and then giant handfuls of empty cockle shells. Nathaniel spent most of the time building structures for his cockles (mainly spy-cockles), but I built a boat (which didn't last long against the incoming tide);
And a hole, which Thea played in for ages;
And then sat around in the sun!
We were really getting into this holiday thing - not getting in the car, and prioritising family fun over cultural experiences. After all, even going into a supermarket is fun in foreign countries. So rather than trying to see more of Oleron, which seems to be a resort-ish island made up of lots of oyster-related tourist stuff with only a smattering of older villages, we thought we'd continue on a theme and just go to more beaches! We spent the morning at the campsite playing boules and drawing in our sketch books;
And then we headed to beach three - Le Grand Plage. It was slightly further away, again along bike tracks through the forest, but with some serious inclines which gave Nathaniel ample opportunity to practise using his gears. He showed up some of the adults who we met on the way, pushing their bikes up the steep bits!
Of course, the best bit was the level crossing for the Petit Train. At least it was not as I had feared, and we were allowed to continue without waiting for a train!
What can I say? We should have been prepared when we saw the bike park.
This was, of course, in addition to the car park. But I am naive in the way of beaches (Polzeath in the winter is not preparation for France in the summer), and hadn't even considered that a beach might look like this:
Full is an understatement! Coming over the dunes, we were faced with a wall of parasols and had to pick a path between beach mats and then walk through the sea along the beach to find a gap big enough to put our things down. The tide was in, so there was only a narrow strip of beach, and that was, well, covered.
The waves were giant and impressive. The lifeguards were officiously herding people between their flags with a constant shrill of whistles and they had to carry out at least one person. Nathaniel was delighted, as this necessitated the red rescue land rover, complete with blue flashing lights, driving over the dunes and through the sea to carry an embarrassed looking lady to "safety".
We splashed for a bit, but to be honest it wasn't really the place for any of us, so our trip was a short one.
So back to the campsite we went and installed ourselves in the bar/play area which was a decked area with a fancy wooden snack wagon, and had ice creams, beers, a bit of a book (me), french fries (I think Thea ate them all!), and so much pizza that we had to sit there until quite late! Nathaniel and Thea enjoyed learning about playing on playground equipment with kids who speak another language and got quite good at "Attends!" and "Attention!" Thea suffered a little, as big children kept trying to take her under their wing and help her and didn't understand her firm "I don't need help- I'm very big!"
There was much admiration of a couple of children who could monkey bar, and after much faffing, this occured:
He was very pleased with himself. Thea, of course, was keen to imitate, but the bars were rather far apart for her.
It was a very fine last evening on Oleron, which was good because the next day would be less relaxing!