Thursday, September 28, 2006

Oh to be in England, when time for choosing schools is here...

Now that I am getting used to my recent change of status as Mum Who Has All Her Children In School, I have to start thinking about my next move, which will be Mum of Daughter Going To Secondary School.

Oh yes. I have amazingly reached the point where we are looking at secondary schools for no 1.

I don't know how the system operates in other parts of the country, but round here it is plain daft.

For starters all the open days for new schools are happening now, and yet the forms have to be in on 20 October, which leaves little time for important decision making if you need it. And yet we don't find out the decision until March. Why they can't have open days at the end of the summer term (when let's face it bugger all is going on in schools), beats me. At least then you might have some time to weigh up your options. Though of course, the reality is you don't actually have any options much. The chances are your child will go to the school nearest you and that is that.

Actually, we're quite lucky in that regard. There is a very good girl's school nearby, for which we are in the catchment area. However, we are also (just) in the catchment for an exceptionally good grammar school, which though further away is a wonderful school and would offer wonderful opportunities for our daughter. I am not a keen hothousy kind of mum by any means, but no1 is a bright little button, and I feel she deserves a shot at going to the best school we can get her into (bearing in mind having four children completely precludes private education).

No1, however, has other ideas. All her friends are likely to go to the Other School (although we know of at least ten others trying for the one we want her to go to). The chances are most of them won't get in (800 odd girls apply for 120 places) - but we think no 1 has a reasonable chance to succeed and her fear is she gets in and no one else she knows will.

It is a reasonable worry, and I am not unsympathetic. In fact, I am very sympathetic, as I can understand for a ten year old this talk of change and moving on is very unsettling. The trouble is of course, she can't see, as we can, that the chances of her actually being with any of her friends in the Other School are also fairly minimal - there are eight forms and the school is so huge it is split into two so that it is quite likely no 1 will never see some of her friends at all. She also doesn't understand of course, that she will make new friends.

What she does understand is that her mum and dad are currently the meanest people on the planet for making her do this wretched exam, which she fully intends to fail.

Or at least that's what she told me the other day. Trouble is, she is probably clever enough to deliberately answer the wrong questions. And she is also quite like me in some ways - a subversive rebel who never openly questions authority. I can remember hating music and doing deliberately badly at it. It wouldn't surprise me if she did the same. Although, I'm rather hoping that she is enough of a goody two shoes (like I was) not to take her rebellion to those lengths.

Don't get me wrong, it certainly wouldn't be the end of the world if she didn't get into the school we're trying her for, but it would be a pity if she failed because she couldn't be arsed. And I can't say this is something we want to encourage.

In a bid to keep her onside, we took no2 round on the Open Day with us, as the school in question has rather fine sporting facilities, and we predicted (correctly) that no 2 would be wowed by the gym where there were gymnasts displaying their skills and the rather wonderful swimming pool they have (right on both counts). No1 despite her grumpiness was also taken by the chemistry labs where we saw testtubes being heated up and the biology labs where she got to look down microscopes at blood and bones etc. But as soon as we got home she burst into tears and said she didn't want to go. I did my best to cheer her up, but to no avail.

Yesterday I got her back from school and she was in floods again. You are so cruu-eeee--lll she sobbed. The only person making me unhappy is you. Great. Now I have big big guilt....

I tried in vain to explain about reaching your full potential/this being the opportunity of a lifetime, but to no avail. It all boils down to not being with your mates. Which lets face it, at ten is your biggest priority.

In the end, in desperation, I dug myself a really really big hole by saying I wouldn't make her do anything she didn't want to.

Big, big mistake.

The response is a not unnatural, Well don't make me do the test then....

Shit. That wasn't what I meant at all.

Thinking fast, I said, Aah, but it would be a pity to waste all that hard work now wouldn't it? (Against our better judgement, we have been going for some fairly lowkey tutoring since the Spring - only because I know she wouldn't sit past papers with me, and because no one bothers to teach her how to pass the exams at school. It's probably too elitist or something).

She did grumpily accede to this, but then started muttering, What if I pass and I don't want to go?

I fudged this as much as I could. My normal modus operandi is to be upfront and straight with my sprogs, as they are so good at detecting a lie anyway. But the problem we have is that, if we put the grammar school first and get offered a place we HAVE to take it. If she doesn't get in, then she goes to the Other School.

So I am now inhabiting a wierd Twilight Zone where I am putting a child in for an exam which I know she has the capacity to pass, worrying that a) she will deliberately fail and b) that she will get in, and hoping that c) she passes but doesn't get offered a place so she can go to the Other School and be happy, whilst really wanting d) her to pass the exam, get in and want to go....

I have a feeling one of us is going to be disappointed....

Friday, September 22, 2006

Teeth, Tennis and Tears...

There is a standing joke in our house that the plumber's wife always has leaky taps, whilst the dentist's wife never gets her teeth done.

When I was at work, the fact that I was married to a dentist always prevented me from asking for time off for dental appointments (crazy, but true) as I thought people might think I was pulling a fast one. So I used to fit in my dental appointments at the end of Spouse's Saturday morning sessions. Not very efficient, but at least I got to see him.

When no 1 arrived I was still working and appointments tended to be fitted in on Monday evenings when Spouse worked late. I used to drive to his surgery about 6.30 and his nurse would pull faces at the baby while Spouse ministered to my mouth.

As time passed and more offspring arrived this arrangement became somewhat less then practical. And so, er, I found myself forgetting to make appointments. After several years of not being able to have any treatment because of pregnancies etc I found myself sitting in Spouse's chair and having the humiliating experience of having FOUR fillings. Which is slightly embarrassing for the dentist's wife.

However, worse is yet to come. On and off since my last visit one of my upper teeth has been bothering me. It still responds to hot and cold (A Good Sign - the tooth isn't dead yet), but I have a sneaky suspicion that this tooth is on its way out and I am going to end up having a root treatment. The tooth in question has so much amalgam in it now there is probably more filling then tooth, so longterm the future is not looking rosy.

At Spouse's suggestion I have been swilling mouth wash and flossing like mad (the terrible terrible thing about sharing your abode with a dentist is he will insist on checking if you floss at night...) and the tooth periodically settles down, before flaring up again a few weeks later.

This hole in the head approach (carried out mainly because of the school holidays - I couldn't face the thought of having a root filling with all the offspring standing round fascinated) has just about worked up until now. But the other day I woke up to find there was pain in my whole face. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.... Though I'm not dentally minded, I have been living with a dentist long enough to know that I was exhibiting all the signs of an abscess. And the really great thing about living with a dentist is he can fit me in at short notice.

So it was that yesterday morning we took the sprogs to school together and then I went to his surgery and he had a quick rummage round my tooth. As he was fitting me in before his proper patients I only got five minutes natch (but then I am only a wife and Know My Place) - but it was enough to establish that Spouse doesn't think the tooth is dead yet (phew). He took an x-ray and when he has a moment I expect I will get told what is going on - probably in about six months or so when he and I can fit it in again....

In the meantime the offspring have been exercising my mind by being ill (nos3&4 came over all feeble and had Wednesday off - most inconveniently as I am halfway through a thorough clean of my bedroom and needed two sick children like a hole in the head) and no 1 came home from school having fallen over and hurt her hand. Oh no, not again...

Luckily it seemed to be a bad sprain and wasn't any more serious.

Or so we thought.

This being MY family nothing is ever straightforward.

Yesterday while nursing my sore tooth, I picked the sprogs up from school and took them to tennis.

First off I failed dismally in the good mummy stakes by forgetting to pick up my friend's daughter until reminded by a more efficient mummy in the playground. Whoops.

When no 1 walked out she was clutching her arm wrapped up in a sweatshirt. Someone had run into her in the playground and her arm was hurting more then ever. So tennis was out for her then...

We got to the tennis club and I had another look at her hand, which was looking pretty swollen. She also didn't have much lateral movement and was in a lot of pain. Sod, sod and double sod. It was going to need an x-ray.

Luckily the tennis club is right by the hospital. Unluckily I had to wait till the little ones had finished their lesson and I could hand over my charge to her mother.

We then move to crap mummy moment no 2.

As I gathered my offspring together I couldn't find no 3. One minute she had been playing with no 2 and then she was gone...

A frantic search revealed nothing, and I anxiously went back to the car thinking maybe she'd struck off on her own (no 3 is an independent soul and is actually six going on eighteen), but nope she wasn't there. Luckily my friends are all more efficient then I am and managed to find her hidden behind a bush.

Then it was off to casualty, which was hideously busy. I rang Spouse on the way in and he came to get the sprogs while I waited with no 1. And waited. And waited. And waited...

By 7pm we'd been there an hour and a half, no 1 hadn't eaten or drunk anything and was in huge amounts of pain. She is a stoical creature, but even she couldn't prevent the tears at that point (which were enough to prompt the very nice and overworked receptionist to remind the very nice and overworked triage nurse that were still there, but it was another twenty minutes before we were seen.) Said triage nurse got us into the system as quickly as she could and we eventually got an x-ray. By this time I was convinced that we had another greenstick. But thank the lord we escaped without one. No1 meanwhile had got used to the idea that her arm might be broken again (she's already done it once) and was somewhat disappointed that she wasn't going to get a coloured plaster.

So then it was back home for some tea and calpol (and a bandage, as no one thought to put one on her). En route I had my third bad mummy moment - we were crossing the car park and I stopped to let a car through the barrier. As it went through I started walking, completely forgetting the barrier was coming down... which it nearly did on our heads - ouch! To prevent my child from being decapitated I not unnaturally grabbed her and pulled her through, accidentally banging her arm as I did so. Double ouch!At which point all her stoicism deserted her, poor lamb, and she howled all the way to the car.

This morning she had recovered her sang froid, althought she is still in some pain.

However, her sisters decided it was payback time for not having had me around at bedtime last night.

So as I was trying to clear the breakfast things away/make packed lunches/write off games notes for no1 I heard an almighty screaming match going on upstairs. No 3 stormed down the stairs and flung herself sobbing on the sofa. No 2 had apparently caused this dramatic display by committing the heinous crime of using no 3's toothbrush (it's all down to teeth in our house). No 2 was meanwhile sobbing at the top of the stairs yelling, Well you took my t-shirt (so that's ok then) - the which crime took place last week and was entirely my fault as I picked the wrong one up and gave it to her.

No 4 meanwhile had a spat with no 1 who had appropriated her new toothbrush (Spouse had clearly been dispensing toothbrushes at bedtime last night) and no 1 was rolling her eyes and wondering why she has been condemned to live in this madhouse till she is eighteen.

Having calmed that spat down I ran back to finish the clearing away/lunchboxes/letters to teacher etc. before being interrupted by nos 2 & 4 having a spat because no 2 wanted to make faces in the mirror and no 2 who was brushing her hair not unnaturally was in the way. Both of them were in floods of tears, but neither would apologise. When I gave no 2 a cuddle to try and cheer her up, she sobbed loudly that a) she was feeling ill (oh no you don't - no 2 has big form for pulling sickies when she's ok, and I wasn't having it today) and b) none of her friends play with her at school - ever. The fact that she won't play the games they want to play is obviously irrelevant. It's a jungle out there.

By now we were seriously running late, no 4 didn't have her shoes on, no 3 had lost her cardigan and I still hadn't written the letter to the teacher, and everyone was shouting. Including me. In fact I was shouting loudest.

I shoved everyone in the car and no 4 then had a paddy because she wanted to sit next to no 2 who funnily enough didn't want to sit next to her. Everyone was screaming apart from no 1 who looked like she would rather be anywhere but here... Me too, me too.

At this point I totally lost the plot, screamed and swore like a demented banshee, and was met with a withering look from no 1 as if to say, Mother, how could you?

Ok, ok, it takes a ten year old to teach me self control. But really. I've had better starts to the day.

Thankfully, two seconds of listening to Terry Wogan's cheerful warbles was enough to restore my good humour, and all the sprogs had stopped crying before they went into school. Always a worry that - you never know what they will tell their teachers about cruel parents.

And at least now, I can relax until 3pm.

If only my tooth would stop hurting, my cup of happiness would be complete....

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Oh Brave New World....

Well, today, finally I have reached the nirvana for which I have been longing for oooh, about ten years... Yup, my youngest child has finally made it into full time education, and I have my life back. Wooohooo!!!!!

Now don't get me wrong, I adore my offspring and there have even been moments that I've enjoyed since I set off in this parenting malarkey all that time ago, but having had four so close together, there was a long long time when I had NO time to myself at all. And when I felt I was living an awful kind of Groundhog Day existence where I was condemned to repeat the pattern of having a baby who turned into a toddler, and then producing another baby... This time two years ago I was at my wits end and couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. And now, suddenly, miraculously I am here.

No 4 actually started school last week, but as I have had to pick her up at lunchtimes, it hasn't felt so very different. Today is my first full day of freedom. Oh boy oh boy.

So what, am I going to do?

Well...... the house is reasonably tidy as I have been attacking it every morning, but my plan starting from next week is to go through every room really thoroughly and chuck out anything we don't need, and clean everything from top to bottom...

I also intend to do some more training. Huzzah.

And of course I shall now have lots more opportunity to work... So my next novel might actually get finished in a year (at least that is what my longsuffering and loyal agent is evidently hoping!).

I can't actually envisage being any less busy then I am at the moment. But the glorious thing is that I can actually have some time uncluttered by children and their needs and demands, so maybe I will be a little less maniacal in the evening.

Hmm... and maybe pigs will fly.

The last week has been punctuated with huge rows and bust ups as the sprogs get back into routine and no 4 who is overtired irritates the hell out of them all.

Hopefully she will be so knackered by the end of a full day she will be too dazed to keep it up...

I have to confess I didn't shed so much as a tear when she walked through the door. She is happy to go and more then ready for it, I can enjoy some well earned free time, and maybe for the first time in ten years start to feel that I am on top of things on the domestic front.

Whether I shall feel so sanguine next year when no 1 heads off to secondary school remains to be seen... at the moment the thought of sending her into the big wide world on her own is giving me the heebie jeebies, but I guess I have to bite the bullet some time. And she too is more then ready for it. I watched her swimming lengths the other day on her own, which is a huge improvement for a child who used to be terrified of the water. She confidently headed off to the deep end, while I less confidently watched as she swam round other people and I angsted about her suddenly losing it and dropping like a stone to the bottom. I was even more stressed by watching her try to touch the bottom of the deep end, though I know that's what I used to do at her age, with no one watching. And in my day it was 12ft 6 in the deep end as opposed to 3ft now. She couldn't understand my concern at all, and thought I was an overanxious parent. I probably am, but I suppose it's the nature of the job.

Still, for now, she's just about under my control, and all my children are at school in the same place. So for the first time since I've been doing the school run I can go to and fro in peace.

It's been a long time a coming.

And boy am I going to enjoy it....

Friday, September 08, 2006

We're All Going on a Summer Holiday

Part Three: Tiptoe Through the Poo Bits

I stood in the dark, in the pouring rain with mounting disbelief as my French friends pointed out that not only had our tent got a great rip in it, but the voleur had also grabbed one of our bags, the contents of which were now scattered about the ground. Damn. This was the bag which had all our paperwork in, I hoped to god it wasn't some refugee after a free boat ticket. This was also the bag we had used for the passports on the journey, but luckily Spouse had been carrying them around with him in his money belt. Luckier still, said money belt was in our section of the tent, as was mine - thankfully I had thought to pick it up from the middle section where I had carelessly left it earlier on. I realised I was being slightly reckless, but the campsite had seemed so peaceful it didn't dawn on me we could get broken into here. Ironically Spouse had been telling us about a similar incident which had happened to him in the south of France, but we all agreed the Loire was a less likely venue for such happenings.

Having ascertained that nothing was missing (there was a certain grim schadenfreude from realising that our burglar must have been somewhat thwarted by the contents of our bag - it was full of the children's puffers, my lipstick and nail polish remover, the cover of my mobile phone, the charger for my phone, but no phone itself. I do hope he was mighty pissed off) - our friendly informants told me there was an anglais next door to us who had also been robbed. Damn, that was our friend. I assured them I would let him know, and they went on their way before telling me that the thief had taken the bag from under the head of one of them as he slept. Phewee! You have to admire the nerve of the guy if nothing else...

I found our mate's bag and woke him up. The news for him was not so good - helas our friendly robber had made off with all his credit cards and his cash, and more worryingly his keys. Luckily, I found them underneath his car. By this time Spouse was up, and he asked me where our spare keys were. Damn, they were in the bag I had already been through, and I hadn't found them. There was no chance that the thief could make off with the cars as the campsite had a barrier, but he might decide to come back and take the dvd player (let's face it that would have been a disaster). After much searching during which we discovered, our friend's daughter's bag had been rifled and she had lost her mobile phone, the keys turned up, and after standing around in the pouring rain while he contacted the relevant credit card companies, we eventually repaired to bed. Spouse and I were now so twitchy we woke to every sound, and slept for the rest of the holiday with our moneybelts in our sleeping bags.

In the morning we tried to make light of the incident so as not to spook the children, and then as the only French speaker, I accompanied our friend to the police station, where it transpired our voleur had been through about seven other tents. He was eventually found out by a Dutch woman, who rather scarily heard breathing in her tent, and unzipped her sleeping compartment and came face to face with the bastard. Unfortunately she didn't see his face, and he dropped his knife and ran off, but the poor woman was pretty spooked (as was I when I got back to the campsite and discovered the inside of our friend's tent had been slashed right above where his younger daughter and no2 were sleeping - fortunately they thought this rather cool and didn't have the angst about it I did).

The French police station experience was a lot more stressful then the German hospital, as I was conscious that we should be as accurate as possible, but was about two steps behind the police officer who interviewed us. The bureacracy was unbelievable and we were there for hours. They were evidently bored rigid because on asking if we had witnessed anything suspicious and our confirming that there had been a rather odd bloke who appeared with his caravan rather late and was gone in the morning, they got very excited and decided he must be our voleur. Chances are he wasn't,but he had caught our attention the previous day, mainly because we were all appalled that he let his dog shit on the ground, ready for the next occupant. (We were feeling a bit sore about this kind of thing as people kept walking their dogs by the river and allowing them to go anywhere - a bit trying when the kids were wandering off down there. Mind you, little did we know that we hadn't seen anything yet...)

Eventually we got back to the campsite. The weather wasn't bright enough for the swimming we had promised the children, so we headed off for another castle at Usse - also known as the Sleeping Beauty castle, as Charles Perrault allegedly used it and it inspired him to write the story. It is not hard to see why - the turrets of the towers all look the part, and the wood was pretty magical. The children were not unnaturally entranced, though really there wasn't a lot to see (we were more excited by the dungeons we found later, but hey, you can't expect children to get thrilled by the things that thrill us...), so the trip was a reasonable success. By the time we got back to the camp, the sun had come out, so we all got in the pool, barring no 2, who stoically didn't seem to mind, and then we were able to have a barbie in reasonably good conditions. We actually sat comfortably outside for the first time in the holiday. Hell, we'd only been away for ten days. We had better weather in Poole, where it seemed to rain endlessly...

That night we none of us slept too well, I jerked awake to every sound and had dreams in which faceless men appeared with knives. I love camping, but for the first time I felt really vulnerable. No matter that I was sure the voleur was only after petty cash and was long gone, the fact that we had all slept through it and none of us heard a thing was unsettling to say the least...

Still I had learnt a valuable lesson - always keep your money belt with you and have your bags with the zips facing towards you (I had only done so as it was easier to get to them, but it also meant the voleur couldn't reach inside easily either). Our friend's idea is to hang everything up from the middle of the compartment, that way any potential thief actually has to come in and get you, which isn't so likely.

The next morning our friends left to go back home, but we visited one last chateau with them, before they left. The rain came down once more and we waved them off, rather wishing we were going with them. We dripped our way to a pizza restaurant, where miraculously for the first time someone actually understood what we were after and they provided two pizzas cut in half for the children, and they ate the lot. Then, as we got a sudden burst of sunshine we went to look around the chateau. No 3 suddenly announced she had a sore throat, and went all pale and wan on me. Great. Yet another invalid. So I sat with her and no 2 while Spouse and the others explored the grounds.

The chateau was called Azay le Rideau and was really interesting. I was excited to discover it had been owned by Francis I of Cloth of Gold fame, and tried to similarly excite no 1. Alas, she was all castled and historied out and really didn't want to know... Can't say I can blame her really. She used to like history. I do hope we haven't put her off. As we came out of the castle, we had another set to in the bloody gift shop with all of them demanding things which were either a) too expensive or b)weren't worth having. Spouse managed to get a couple of French history books, but the children left empty-handed and sulking, and the faustian pact had still not been sated.

On the way back to the campsite, Spouse decided to detour up the old castle keep, or Donjon, which was nearby. He had visited it alone a couple of days earlier and thought it was fairly derelict. The children by this time were rebelliously not wanting to go to another castle ever, so we wandered up to the gate and Spouse realised he had made a mistake. Not only was it not derelict, it was open and there was a man selling tickets at the gate. An Englishman as it turned out with an incredible story to tell. The Donjon is in fact the first stone keep in Europe, built by a chap known Fulke de Nerra, or the Black Falcon. Fulke was not a nice chap - he had his first wife burnt as a witch in order to marry the second, and did endless wicked deeds, but hey he went to the Holy Land four times on pilgrimage to make up for it, so that's ok then - but he was a remarkable man. In the late tenth century when he was operating most folk had wooden castles, which meant warfare was a seasonal occupation. You fought in the spring and summer, then went back home for the autumn and winter before resuming normal operations the following spring. Fulke, being pretty much surrounded by his more powerful enemies, the dukes of Blois, decided his best bet was to build a series of stone castles or keeps, the Donjon at Montbazon being the first in 991. He was thus able to build up his powerbase in the region leaving his heirs, the Anjevins a wonderful legacy, from which thanks to Henry II, the English people later benefited.

The castle is thus of huge importance, not just to French history, but to our own. But no one is interested in its upkeep. So its current owner, is restoring it himself at huge cost. If you want to know more, visit: - but I reckon a French version of Restoration deserves to be made for such an incredible project, and the owners deserve a knighthood at least...

Going back to the car we managed to get the kids interested - the notion that the man who owned the castle actually lived their really awakened their curiosity, and we had a happy half an hour wandering around. Feeling we couldn't leave without making some kind of donation, we allowed the children a toy at the gift shop, and hurrah, this time no 2 found something she liked, but dammit, no 3 didn't. So now no 2 was saying that she was still owed for not getting something in the first gift shop and no 3 was saying she was owed for not getting something in this one... I swear next time we go anywhere if they don't sodding well like anything they don't get anything AT ALL. EVER...

The following day we packed up and headed for the coast. We still had five days left, and we fancied finishing with a bit of beachy holiday. Surely, surely by now our luck would turn and so would the weather?

We had toyed with going to Normandy, but I figured that Pas de Calais might be better as it was only a quick slog up to Calais from there, and we had stayed there a few years earlier and at least knew there were some decent beaches. I tried to ring some campsites the day before we left, but for some reason couldn't get connected. Oh well, I thought, there were bound to be plenty, it wasn't such a long journey, and we should be up there around 4ish.

As if.

First off, packing up the tent of course took longer then expected. Secondly we were in mid pack, when some Dutch people whom we had been chatting to earlier in the week asked (for the second time) if Spouse could help jump start their car. On the previous occasion our friend has used his car, and Spouse was rather embarrassed that as we had only had our car for less then a month he didn't actually know where the battery was. Coupled with the battery was intense irritation, as we had sat incredulously staring over at their tent the previous night, as it was brightly lit, by their car's headlights. I know that I am not tecnnically minded as far as cars are concerned, but even I know that you don't leave your headlights on all night...

Jumpstarting the car set us back by half an hour, so it was gone eleven when we set off. I decided the best route to follow was to go straight through Tours and pick up the road to le Mans. It looked a little complicated on the map and proved even more complicated in practise, partly because the road signs I was following kept disappearing and suddenly we were heading east out of Tours towards Chenonceaux (a chateau I had rather hoped to visit because of its Catherine de Medici connections, but not today). Spouse who was still suffering badly with a sore throat was not impressed by my vain attempts to find the right road again, but after about an hour I managed it. Great. We had been driving for an hour and were about ten miles from where we started... We narrowly avoided missing the right road again, and soon were heading to le Mans where Spouse was most pleased to have the opportunity to drive down the Mulsanne Straight, or at least part of it.

However the next couple of hours were long and tedious as the roads were slower then anticipated. It was only somewhat belatedly that I picked up that running parallel to the road we were on was a spanking new peage - our map being c 1998 the peage didn't feature. Whoops we could have saved ourselves an hour.

Eventually we pitched up at Pas de Calais at about 6pm. We headed for le Crotoy first, but couldn't find the campsite we were looking for. Never mind, let's try Fort Mahon I said. In Fort Mahon the two sites mentioned were both full, so we headed further up the coast, via a few wrong turns as the roads mentioned in our guidebook seemed to bear little correspondence to our map...

After much grumping on both our parts, and a fruitless journey down a country lane, we eventually stumbled across two more campsites, which bore the dreaded words complet. Bugger, bugger, bugger. We then found ourselves following every camping site sign going, which is how we ended up in the middle of nowhere after seeing a sign for Camping Quatre Plages (four beaches) - a misnomer if ever there was one as the campsite in question was miles from a beach and had clearly been created from the owner's back garden.

By now marital relations were severely strained and our offspring were rapidly turning into four terrified rabbits. Which is how we came to drive into Berck Plage with a sense of increasing desperation. By now it was eight o'clock, everyone was hungry, we had to put up somewhere for the night. Having a choice of left or right, we followed a campsite to the right as it was at least near the beach. Big, big mistake, as it turned out, but the first signs were reasonably auspicious.

The campsite was not complet, it was wooded and at first glance seemed pleasant. I was still struggling with the French however, and as I alway find translating money when abroad (and have particular problems with euros - how freudian is that?), being two steps behind this time proved bloody disastrous. I had understood that the campsite was 38 euros a night(a mere snip after our much more reasonable 20 euros in the Loire), and foolishly said we were planning to stay five nights. She asked for some money and not completely understanding I assumed she wanted a deposit. Had I not been two steps behind the fact that she asked me for 190euros should have been enough to ring alarm bells, particularly as I didn't have enough cash on me. Pas de probleme says my cunning friend when I suggest going to ge some more money of Spouse, vous avez carte credit? Naturellement, I have a carte credit , and like a bloody idiot, I give it to her. (I am now panicking I will be a victim of identity theft). It was only when I got back to Spouse I realised that I had just paid for five days up front. Oh bollocks. Now we were stuck here. We could only hope that it was ok...

Our first impressions were soon dashed. We were taken on a rather wild tour of the site by Mr Campsite Owner before he deposited us at a pitch which seemed to be full of dogs. Oh great, I muttered, they'll have shat all over our pitch. Not only that we had an audience as a large (in more ways then one) French family were sitting at some tables opposite our pitch with a menagerie that included several fat children, three dogs and a kitten. For all I know they'd probably brought their sodding hamster.

Still, at least there was a play area. That should keep the kids occupied while we put the tent up. Spouse and I frenzied about trying to get it up as quickly as we could - not easy when marital relations were at Cold War type ice levels - and had just about done it when no 3 came hopping over in tears. She had taken her shoes off in the play area which was covered in sand, and also, as it so happened, some dog shit. Some bloody sod had let their dog crap all over the kids' play area. Cursing loudly I took her to the rather unsalubrious cleaning area which consisted of a few rather dirty outside sinks and taps from which cold water poured. Bloody hell. How much worse could it get. Fing and blinding without a care to my six year old's sensibilities I set about the grim task of cleaning her up, snarling at the others to bugger off when they came near me, before it dawned on me that no 3 who was sobbing all the while thought I was cross with her. Not at all. I was incandscent with rage that anyone could be so selfish to let something like that happen - and lest you think I was overreacting, I have a very good friend who lost her right eye to an infection caused by dog poo, and I was damned if that was going to happen to my daughter.

Eventually after using two lots of toilet roll and two flannels which got chucked, I had managed to get it all off. By now it was really late, and the kids were all starving and knackered. The town was only a stone's throw away so we walked out to get yet more pizza. I had never been anywhere like it. It was so tacky it made Blackpool look posh. In fact it was rather like going to Blackpool on a bad acid trip. And to make our cup of happiness complete, there was dog's shit on all the pavements. Doesn't anyone in France clean up after their dogs? I thought they invented the pooper scooper. I thought the French were supposed to be sophisticated, was no 1's response when we circumvented yet another pile of poop. Hmm, you do have a point there...

Still at least we got everyone fed before midnight. We went back to the campsite feeling glummer then at any point on our trip. We had discovered by this time that the toilets were grim beyond belief. They even had a female squattie, something I've never seen anywhere and the toilet they did have had no seat. So my daughters got a quick lesson in that age old technique perfected by drunk females in nightclubs everywhere of pissing when you stand up. You're never too young to learn...

By the morning no 1 was refusing to go near the toilets, it was raining again so we couldn't face breakfast on the campsite, so we headed for town and found a cafe which did hot chocolate and bring your own croissants, purchased bizarrely from the patisserie next door.

The rain held off enough for us to get on the beach, which was so windy we indulged in some kiteflying. At least Spouse and I did, the kids barely seemed interested - making sandcastles being more fun. As we went back for some lunch the rain came down once more. I've had enough, said Spouse, I want to go home. I did too, but I was also desperate to get some beach time Shall we see if it gets better tomorrow I said in desperation. Surely, surely our luck must change...

The afternoon seemed brighter, so I began to feel more hopeful, and we got back on the beach for a bit. But Spouse was desperate for the loo, and he and nos 1&2 disappeared for hours looking for one. Tripping through yet more dog's poo on their return Spouse came up with a song, to the tune of Tiptoe Through the Tulips, they all came back singing, Tiptoe through the poo bits, the Doggy Doo bits, in France. Never a truer word...

That evening we had an indifferent meal in an indifferent restaurant, the rain held off, but it was cold and windy. I lay awake that night listening to the wind roaring through the tent and hoping that we wouldn't be blown away. In the morning we got up to a grey and cloudy day, but at least it wasn't raining. Spouse bravely went off to have a cold shower in the grim toilet blocks - I couldn't face it I felt I'd end up filthier then when I started. I was beginning to fantasise about how to get everyone clean - my initial thought had been to get them in the sea and shower off on the beach, but the sea was miles out and there weren't any showers. We visited the municipal showers, but they looked grimmer then the ones on our campsite. Spouse had found a swimming pool, but it looked the kind of place where you might pick up legionnaire's disease.

Spouse had set up breakfast and I started pouring the kids cocopops. As they sat down to eat, the heavens opened again. By the time he came back they were sitting sheltering under the car, eating their breakfast. Sod this for a game of soldiers, I said, let's go home. I rang the travel company and for the mere sum of £7 we were able to exchange our tickets and go home that afternoon. Never have I parted with seven pounds more gladly. We packed up as quickly as we could - the tent was soaking but it couldn't be helped. The children were happily ensconced in front of a dvd and didn't seem in the slightest bit bothered about going home. We'd been away for a fortnight anyway. Enough was enough.

Nobody could face the toilets at the campsite, and despite my efforts with Mrs Campsite Owner to get our money back, it turned out of course that there were no refunds available. I complained about the dog shit and the filthy amenities and got a gallic shrug and Desolee, Madame. I'll give you desolee I thought, but decided I didn't want to compound our problems by committing murder and ending up on remand in a French prison...

We left Berck with happy hearts and set off for Calais. Ten minutes out no 1 announced she needed the toilet, and it took us nearly an hour to find one in a McDonalds outside Boulogne. Poor kid was red in the face and clearly in pain by the time we got there, but luckily there were no disasters. And ordering McDonalds in France proved somewhat easier then in Germany, where they got the order completely wrong.

We got to Calais in plenty of time and were able to get on the three o clock ferry. Just as we came into Dover the rain came down in sheets, but as we got in the car and headed for the M20 the sun came out. We looked back across the channel where a huge black cloud was louring like some ugly ogre, and breathed a sigh of relief. At least tonight we weren't going to be sleeping under canvas.

Boy was it good to be home.

We're All Going on a Summer Holiday

Part Two: Vive la France!

A little belatedly (I have been caught up with end of holiday/backtoschoolitis, of which more later), here is the next scintillating story of our summer holidays. Or the tale of how things got worse...

Actually, after our grim day in the caravan, the following day dawned a little brighter and we set off with high expectation on a trip to Neuschwanstein, one of several castles built by mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the nineteenth century - more commonly known for being the castle they used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Spouse has always wanted to go there and though it was a two hour schlep we thought we couldn't come all the way to southern Germany without visiting. And having watched the film on the way through France the kids were reconciled to the fact that their irritatingly castle obsessed parents were going to take them to a slightly more unusual one.

The journey though long, passed without incident. It was only when we came into Hohenschwangau, the little town that sits below Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castle (built by Ludwig's dad, Maximilian II), that things started to get a little on the stressful side. Our Rough Guide to Germany had promised that this was the most rampantly commercial place in Germany - I'd happily concur with that. In fact, barring Lourdes, I think it is possibly the most rampantly commercial place I've ever visited. So naturally, it is rather busy. And our first taste of quite how busy was the traffic jam we joined in Fussen, a little town to the south of Hohenschwangau. We had set off at 9.30 - Spouse wanting to get there as soon as possible - and arrived at Fussen just before 11.30. We then spent an hour queuing to go about three miles. When we finally hit Hohenschwangau itself, we were rewarded with spectacular views of both castles and a nightmarish trawl around the car parks, till we finally found somewhere to park. The weather had been a mixture of sun and showers on our journey, but as soon as we got out of the car the heavens opened (natch), and there was a mass chorus of I need the toilet, which was all very well, but not ones to miss a moneymaking opportunity the good folk of Hohenschwangau charge for the privilege, and our scrabble for change nearly had very dire consequences...

Nature thus satisfied, we set off for the tourist information office, which was uphill. Actually, pretty much everywhere in Hohenschwangau is uphill, so it is fortunate that my children are used to walking. The queues for the castle proving massive, I took the children into a restaurant to get some lunch. By now I was feeling quite confident in German (hey I've coped with a hospital, I can cope with anything) so I ordered pizza for them and what I thought was chicken breast for us. As it turned out my confidence was somewhat misplaced, as we ended up with chicken schnitzel, but you can't get it right all the time. Actually we got it wrong pretty much in every restaurant we went into, as I was always trying to ascertain quite how large the portions were so we didn't over order, but nine times out of ten I didn't make myself understood, or they pretended to ignore me and we ended up with twice as much food as the kids could eat. However, at least the very cheery waiter thoughtfully kept Spouse's aside till he had returned with the tickets. Presumably the queues outside his restaurant are pretty good for business...

On Spouse's return it transpired that the only way of seeing both castles was a guided tour. Our first was at 2.45, but we couldn't get into Neuschwanstein till about 5.45, which was rather later then we wanted, but given that the whole point of coming was to see it, we didn't have a lot of choice. The sun had been out when we were eating, but of course decided to pop behind a big black rain cloud once we got going, so we got everyone's kagoules back on (apart from mine as no 1 had left hers behind, so I just got wet), and set off up the hill to Hohenschwangau. It was a pretty quick stroll up to the top and after we had visited the king's rose garden (into which he would emerge from his rather over the top bathroom), we stood waiting for the tour, while the rain came down once more. Luckily, the rather wild thunderstorm that followed took place when we were inside the castle.

The tour itself was great - though rather ott for my tastes, you have to admire these Bavarian kings their vision. The grand dining room was huge, but apparently never used - this was Maximilian's hunting lodge, and he tended to keep his parties for his main residence. When Ludwig took over he dedicated a lot of the rooms to the Lohengrin myths and being Wagner's patron had a music room dedicated specially to him - apparently Wagner only came twice though, so the piano made specially for him and meant only to be played by him, was only used a handful of times. Ludwig spent seventeen years building Neuschwanstein, and every day looked at how the building was coming along through a telescope in the music room. He never finished the castle, being declared insane by his physician, and two days later both men were found dead in mysterious circumstances by Lake Starnberg. The story goes that they both committed suicide. Hmm, doesn't sound all that likely to me... Or that he was that mad. He apparently had a lot of political enemies, who appear to have got him in a very effective way. I felt quite sorry for him by the end. And boy do you have to admire his vision. While not to my taste, Neuschwanstein is still an incredible place and well worth a visit.

We still had time to kill when we had finished the tour, so as we were all wet and a bit cold we headed for a cafe for that German necessity, Kaffee and Kuchen or in the children's case Heisse Schokolade and Kuchen. No 1 was after black forest gateau, and we followed suit. Once again our language skills weren't enough to ascertain how large the portions were so the other three got masses of cake at vast expense, which none of them liked particularly...

Heading back up the hill, we decided we'd stroll to the top of the castle, rather then waiting in the rain with the crowds for a horse and trap (which no doubt cost a fortune anyway). And we were very glad we did. Despite the steepness of our climb, the views, particularly over the lakes, were spectacular. And though even I found it hardgoing at times, when we eventually got to the top, it was well worth it. Ludwig built a bridge over an incredibly steep gorge from where you can look back at the castle. I'm not normally too wussy about heights, but this was - high very very high. And springy. And there seemed to be rather a lot of people on it. Knowing the way our holiday was going, I wasn't at all sure we would get across and back unscathed, particularly as Spouse was suggesting we have a go at reaching the resonant frequency... Had I seen the view of the bridge you get from the castle I doubt I would have gone on it all...

The castle itself was a bit disappointing to me. It was built on a grand scale it's true, but so much of it is unfinished, there isn't a whole lot to see. And while I can admire the ambition of the King's courtroom, which is decorated in gold leaf and very splendid, it's a bit ornate for my tastes. However, the views from the castle itself are stunning and that was the highlight for me.

The kids of course loved it all, and though it transpired that only one staircase in the castle was actually used for the film, they couldn't get over the fact they had visited the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang castle - even if their legs were aching.

As we left, via the inevitable giftshop, my faustian pact with no 2 resurfaced as she started demanding the gift we hadn't bought her at Meersburg. The giftshop being full of really expensive tat, we promised something when we got back to the town. There were several giftshops on our way down, but they were all packing up, and offered yet more tat. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, it was so late there wasn't a gift shop open and no2 was throwing a major sulk. Never mind, darling, I rashly promised, I'm sure we'll find something in France.

France was our destination for the following day. We had arranged to meet some friends there and camp together. However, being as we were so busy before we left, and being as Spouse was incredibly difficult to pin down and make the arrangements, and I was very distracted and got my dates muddled, our friends were coming to France a week earlier then I had realised. This meant that rather then go to our intended destination of the Loire in two days, we had to make it across in one. Oh thank the Lord for in car DVD players.

By dint of several emails sent via the internet cafe at our Bodensee campsite, followed up with phone calls via Spouse's mobile (mine had died and I couldn't recharge it) we managed to find a campsite between us to the south of Tours in a place called Montbazon. The distance from where we were was roughly 700km, which is a very very long way... And had we packed and set off early it would have been just about manageable. However, having promised to get up early and finish the packing as Spouse was driving, I managed to sleep in, and everything took much longer to sort out then we had bargained for. It is amazing how easy it is to unpack from a car, and how much harder to pack it all up again. Particularly as four children can scatter their belongings all over said car taking up all available neat little spaces for shoving that last vital object in place.

However, eventually we were ready and off we set for the next stage on our journey. The sun at this point proceeded to blaze forth with glory and for the first time since our arrival we could properly see the mountains in Switzerland. Grr....

We had planned to go via Germany to get to our destination, but taking a wrong turn, and discovering that Switzerland had motorways while our German route did not, we decided we'd go that way instead. Which may or may not have been a mistake, given that we don't know how long the German route would have taken. However, we were charged the privilege of 30 euros for driving on some frankly indifferent motorways and having no idea of the speed limit, and not fancying a trip to a Swiss police cell to cement our happy family holiday memories Spouse took it nice and slow.

As it turned out we didn't have a lot of choice with our speed, particularly when we got to Basle and discovered that the whole of the motorway system had been turned into one ginormous set of roadworks. Spouse, who doesn't have a great deal of faith in my map reading at the best of times (most unjustified I might add, as I don't often get us lost, and when I do, I usually get us out of trouble fairly quickly) wouldn't believe me when I told him we hadn't gone off the motorway. Well, we had, but we weren't on the wrong road. It's just to get to the road we wanted, we were diverted through tramlines, and down tiny tunnels which spiralled downwards in ever decreasing circles, getting lower and lower until we were in fear of the roofbox being ripped off...

It was only when we got to the French border and came right out onto the motorway that he actually admitted I hadn't led us wrong.

It was with great relief that we finally got onto the peage and started putting some miles behind us. By now though it was nearing four o clock and we had only put five squares of the map behind us - we had another nine to go and were getting slightly twitchy about what time we might arrive. The sun was still shining - dammit!- and we both felt frustrated that today of all days the rain hadn't set in again. But at least the kids weren't making too much fuss. An entire series of the original Dr Who seemed to help.

By seven o clock we were nearly at Orleans, but we were on a two lane motorway in which we encountered some of the most stressful driving I have ever witnessed. Namely cars whizzing in and out of the overtaking lane leaving the barest minimum gap, but all going at a speed at which you really didn't oughter be doing when you're behaving like that. I was white knuckled all the way, but Spouse's coping mechanism was to make jolly little jokes. Sadly I didn't feel like laughing.

We rang our friend at Orleans to say we were about an hour away, but in reality it turned in to nearly two as the motorway disappeared here, and though the road was good, it wasn't that good. Still, at least we had lost the maniacal overtakers.

We eventually arrived at the campsite at about 9.30, and it was time for me to shift gear and switch my brain into French mode. Which, after a week of German and years of no practice in French took some doing I can tell you. Still, I understood sufficiently where we needed to park our tent, and that we had an electronic key to open up the barrier, which was all I really needed for now.

We put up the tent while the children ran down to the river, conveniently behind our camping spot, and wonderfully idyllic. By this time it was getting dark, and Spouse was desperate for some liquid refreshment. Sadly in our haste to get to the campsite we hadn't purchased any alcohol en route, the cafe attached to the campsite had just shut and we were left sipping cans of warm beer. Time for bed, said Zebedee, rather grumpily, tomorrow had to be a better day.

Tomorrow, as it happens, was. Or at least to start with...

The rain held off long enough for us to visit Chinon - a wonderful ruin where Henry II made his court. It was amazing, and all the more spectacular for me, as I had recently read Elizabeth Chadwick's The Greatest Knight, which makes mention of the place, and thanks to her brilliant descriptions I could really picture how a mediaeval castle might be.

The highlight though was discovering that Jacques de Molay, the last Templar Grand Master was actually imprisoned there and had inscribed his name on the dungeon wall. I know diddly squat about the Templars, but they are one of Spouse's passions (and well before The Da Vinci Code made them trendy) and he had told me Jacques dramatic story. Imprisoned by Philip IV of France (basically to steal all the Templars' money) and accused of heresy, Jacques spent some eighteen years in prison before his eventual death at the stake. He apparently cursed both Philip and Clement V and promised they would both be dead in a year, which they were. So it was very exciting to discover that he had actually been imprisoned here... another frisson of touching real history moment.

As was the discovery that Joan of Arc also had her first meeting with the Dauphin here (and you realise what a damned long way she travelled - Reims isn't exactly a stroll away). There was a whole tower dedicated to Joan which was fascinating, although a little tricky to ge the gist of what was going on, as most of the information was in French.

The sprogs by now were getting all castled out, so we wandered down to the town and got some lunch at a pleasant little cafe in the square. I do love the way the Europeans, particuarly the French do cafe culture. Whenever we try it in England it is never quite the same. And it's not just the weather - we just aren't relaxed enough for it. Me, I could sit all day and watch the world go by at a cafe, but Spouse finds it too tedious for words.

We headed back home intending to have a barbie that evening, but by now the weather had changed, and though we managed a quick swim in the pool, the rain was soon coming down in droves. We did manage our barbie, but ate it under the tent door which serves as a porch when propped up on sticks. Spouse and I were now beginning to feel as though the weather gods had really got it in for us, and went to bed feeling glummer then ever. The rain continued to pour down, and I woke intermittently through the night, fretting about the proximity of the river and ever mindful of the dire warnings all over the campsite that in the event of flooding we would be roused by a siren and would have to leave all our belongings behind.

So it was with some anxiety that I woke at around four to the sound of a siren in the distance. Thinking I had imagined it, I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. There it was again. And there appeared to be several people talking outside our tent in excited French.

Bugger off! was Spouse's grumpy response, and would have been mine probably but I heard them say, Anglais? Oui, I replied. Voleurs! Voleurs! Came the urgent reply. I leapt out of bed, shoved on some shoes and emerged from the tent into the dark teeming rain, to be met by two Frenchmen who were pointing at my tent. Someone had slashed the door.

Oh shit. We'd been burgled.

(to be continued...)