Saturday, 20 August 2016

Adventure 2016 - Part 1

It was a marvellous holiday! After so much deliberation about whether to go or not, we definitely justified our decision to go!

It all started well with a visit to Fenstanton and time to chat to Gran and play with the cousins in the sun, and then a very early start. There is nothing like contributing to the chaos in Dover in the first few weeks of the summer holidays. The chaos of the French border control had somewhat abated, but we still sat for a good hour waiting to get through security, and the jolly P&O man congratulated us on being on time with great surprise, and declared we were the first he'd seen that were on time that morning. Hooray for Ian and his super-early starts!

Another smooth crossing and then onto Beaumont. We managed not to loose Jean-Luc this time and rolled into our favourite stop-over campsite in Beaumont-sur-Sarthe at a most respectable time. The tent went up and Thea tracked down the playground and got stuck in. Nathaniel buried himself back into his current Harry Potter book.

Nathaniel decided to be in charge of supper and cooked up some tinned cassoulet. Not gourmet, but nice and easy!

We were all in bed early, and were up and ready to go in record time the next day. If we hadn't have faffed around taking the kids bikes off so they could cycle around the campsite, and I hadn't forgotten about buying the bread, we'd have been off by 10am! Last year, this was the 4 hour journey that took 7 hours in the beating sun with a car making some very suspicious noises, so we were keen to get going.

But the journey was fine. We obeyed Google's suggestion of a different route, which was a pleasant change, and before we knew it we were, yet again, on the bridge to Isle d'Oleron.

Was it unimaginative going back to the same campsite for the third year running? Maybe. But Thea doesn't really remember the first time, and the kids had expressed an interest in returning somewhere that they already knew. And as there are few campsites that Ian and I can really give a seal of approval to, we figured this one was worth the return if only for the ability to park the car and not use it again until we had to leave!

We had some initial worries about the pitch we had been allocated - rather than being hidden away in the quiet, it was directly behind the Halle de Vie. However, it all worked out rather well. We didn't have to worry about how loud our kids were being, and they stayed up as late as the other kids who were playing table football, so the noise didn't disturb us. And best of all, as we weren't on a path/track to anywhere, we had no through-traffic, just us and one other pitch in our own little shady glade. Very pleasant. I fell asleep that evening listening to the distant roar of the waves and the gentle rustle of the pine trees feeling very content.

As proper English people, we had our eyes on the weather forecast, and knowing that day 2 would be proper, serious rain, got ourselves organised so that we could start promptly on day 1 with a trip to Plage Maumauson. The easiest way to get to this out-of-the-way beach, is by train touristique, so we jumped on our bikes and cycled up to the station of Le Petit Train de Saint Trojan.

We've done this twice before, and I love the journey as the train winds its way through the forests through tunnels of pines and flowering shrubs. Every so often you pass a trail - a sandy path stretching away from the rails, rising up and down and revealing dunes beneath the trees, and I ponder whether I can persuade the kids to go for a walk! And then the trees disappear and the sound of the breakers is upon you.

The tide was out and the beach was enormous! There are so few people here that it is easy to find an acre or two to yourself, even more so when it's so far to the sea.

We jumped over waves and splashed in the shallows (the rip currents are way too strong for swimming here), and then built giant sandcastles - not in height or complexity, but in acreage. We collected beautiful shells and captured and tormented hermit crabs so that we could see them burrow (real animal lovers here....). We drew around ourselves, drew sand art and laid out race tracks for Thea to dash around (she still loves running really fast). Then we dug ditches and built hurdles to add to the fun.

The tide turned, and we had fun predicting which bits of sand would get cut off and which would become channels and built tiny sand castles on as many sand banks as we could. One section of the beach slowly filled to become a sheltered and shallow pool which heated up in the sun to become a bath. Ian found a shoal of fish in it and we followed them around trying to work out whether they were black (they weren't - we were seeing their shadows) or silver. Thea and I pretented to be eels and slithered around the pool, propelling ourselves with our hands and chassing the fish.

And then we air dried our swimming things and travelled back still wearing them, in a carriage with no roof, so that we could watch the forest canopy.

After the kids had gone to bed, Ian and I started to pack everything up ready for the rain the next morning. After an hour of poddling around moving things backwards and forwards and pegging the awning in different positions, I took a wander around the campsite and wondered at our strangeness. Everyone else had just gone to bed - there were towels on washing lines, bikes piles in front of tents, tables with tablecloths (the French camp in a bit more style than us!) waiting for breakfast. I started to feel like we were overreacting rather.

But when I woke at 5am and heard the rain, proper coastal, wet rain, hammering on our tent, I felt rather smug. Smugger still, when Ian got up later, and dug little trenches around the awning (with a spoon!) so that the torrents of water didn't even touch our ground. Very helpful when the ground is made of black sandy soil which sticks to everything as soon as it is even a little damp.

Having planned accordingly, we spent the morning going to the supermarket to shop for the week. We had a nice drive the long way around and I found several roads that didn't go quite where the map suggested that they might do, and we saw a deserted fishing village that is known for it touristic appeal. By the time we had returned  and eaten lunch and had some reading time, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. The kids jumped on their bikes and disappeared off, returning only occasionally to tell us about the friends they had made. We chatted to the parents of one family (targetted by N & D due to the kids' Isla bikes!), and spent a very happy evening sitting in the bar area while the kids invented complicated games using the sand in the play ground and listened to the covers band playing in the Halle de Vie.

The next day we were all ready to reprise the kids' highlight from last year - wires! Or acrobranche as the french call it. Or parcour sur les arbres. There seems to be no english word yet. We had located a new course in the local village and so cycled over to it using our new favourite path - out of the egg gate.

The Egg Gate is a back gate out of the campsite straight into the deep woods. Nathaniel and I explored it at dusk last year and it was pretty creepy, so we didn't get far. When we were coming back in, a french family greeted us as we walked past "C'est fermé?" to which I replied, somewhat distracted by something N had said "Non, c'est oeuf". Which doesn't mean "It's open". It's closer to "It's an egg".

This year, the path was not explored at dusk and once we found how it linked to other paths, became our favourite way of getting places.

The acrobranche of Saint Trojan was very tiny compared to the one we went to last year, and only had three routes, one of which Thea was too short for. But they were similarly chilled out about how long you spent going around and around, so we spent a happy afternoon as the kids climbed and zoomed down zip wires. Nathaniel found his first atelier that freaked him out a little - a very high zip wire, but he managed it, and the second time he positively hurled himself down.

And of course, all good visitor attractions have entirely deserted bouncy castles for Thea to enjoy.

Now that the kids had mastered making friends, we didn't see them much at the campsite. They were very happy bombing around on their bikes and playing long games of Uno where the merits of different house rules were discussed with great seriousness.
Add a playground, a table football table, two ping pong tables and a swimming pool to that, and suddenly we were having the sort of holiday that I hear about in vague rumours - ones where parents lie around in hammock reading their books, strumming their guitars and chatting while drinking tasty red wine and muching on french biscuits!

One afternoon I insisted in an adventure to the citadel of Chateaux D'Oleron - a walled town on a peninsular just around the coast. It was very hot, but I managed to convince everyone into a short walk around some of the bastide walls and we discovered crazy star-shapped battlements and funky under-bridge secret entrances. Not to mention incredible views of the harbour and the fishing boats puttering around.
And one of the best ice creams of the holiday - Thea's excellent mint choc chip from the artisan glace shop. And I must remember to stop ordering lemon meringue ice cream in this situation - its too sweet!

The weather had recovered itself to "hotter than it ever is in York" levels, and we spent much time getting cold in the swimming pool and lying around with books. Nathaniel continued to plough his way through the Chamber of Secrets with great happiness. And everyone was just well and truly chilled out.
The tides that had been so accomodating were not so convenient for a trip to our favourite beach, Plage Gatseau (aslo known as Cockle Beach). This beach faces the mainland and has very tiny, gentle waves and lots and lots of sea creatures. However, because it is basically in a wide bay, when the tide goes out it reveals a broad expanse of sea mud. It makes me think of Breydon Water. But this did not deter us from a nice cycle down on the hottest day. We all enjoy the cycle - all off road, on paths through forests and houses and past inferior campsites!

We carefully selected ourselves a patch of beach away from everyone else and pretended we were on a desert island.
We dug and Nathaniel and I took a very ousey walk down muddy channels to the sea and saw more shells that we could comfortaly imagine. It was properly, mind numbingly hot again and we got quite a lot of pleasure in letting our feet sink into the cool mud, even if they did come up black!

And now for something completely different. In the middle of the night, I was disturbed by a bear. Yep, it was definitely a bear. I heard it snuffling around in the bushes next to us looking for grubs. I tried to look out of the window, but it was so dark (another good thing about our out-of-the-way pitch - no efforts to provide lighting for people to find their way around), I couldn't see a thing. So I went back to sleep, marvelling that it sounded like it was so close to my head. We debated what it could be. Not a badger or other burrowing animal - the sand isn't good for big burrows. Unlikely to be a bird - it was there for so long and didn't seem to fly off at all. So it must have been a bear. Of course.

Then, when we took the tent down, right next to where my head had been, at the very edge of the ground sheet, we saw what looked like a big fat root protruding out of the sand. Closer inspection showed it to be an absolutely massive toad buried down into a dip in the sand. My bear! He dragged himself away, but I managed to get a photo of him under a bush. Very bear-like.

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