A carload of children and the open road

Nicola Swanborough and her family drove all the way to Biarritz and back. They returned smiling
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The Independent Travel
Friends have done it and come back ill. Friends of friends have done it and come back with nervous twitches, crooked spines and the prospect of spending all next year's holiday money at the physiotherapist. Nevertheless, we naively we believed we would do it properly, learn by their mistakes, show them how. A carload of children and the open road: 500 miles with the temperature rising.

Our destination was Biarritz, a stylish Edwardian resort on France's Atlantic coast, just about as far as you can go before hitting Spain and chosen because it seemed to offer a good combination of sandy beaches and nook-and-cranny fishing ports against a breathtaking backdrop of the Pyrenees. Most importantly, however, it seemed far enough south to guarantee a degree of sunshine, an essential ingredient of our holiday as we were camping: not the real McCoy, where everyone rows about the guy ropes. We opted for the civilised version, cheats under canvas, where it's all done for you: you simply drive up, plug in your mosquito machine, throw the sleeping bags on the beds and light the barbecue.

It was easy to romanticise the whole venture. We would be driving down to the south west of France, sauntering at our own pace through vineyards, lavender fields, sunflower plantations and the like.

The reality was that we travelled more miles than we'd ever driven before at a stretch, confining four children in a mobile greenhouse and expecting a baby who had just learnt to crawl and bite, to sit still and behave. The collective average age of our carload was 15 and half, so following through the law of averages we should perhaps have darkened the windows, pumped Take That music very loudly out of the cassette and flashed up pictures of Bad Boys Inc every now and then. Our eight year old who aspires to being groovy, might have been impressed, but I'm not so sure about the rest of us.

My husband was driving and the smallest member of the family had bagged the chief seat in the front with his rear facing throne. So I was squeezed into the back. I fobbed off the troops for as long as possible with an array of dismal suggestions such as "just sit and look out of the window" or "chat nicely to each other". For the large part it worked but there were times when it was I-spy or bust (not an easy option when three out of the four children don't know the alphabet).

We had spread the journey - Cherbourg to Biarritz - over two days, with an overnight stop at a campsite in the Vendee, and in truth the first day was not too bad. The children were fresh and excited, the car was relatively tidy, our spirits were high and the scenery was an inspiration.

We arrived at the Vendee pretty much intact, too late to use the campsite pool but in time to relax in the cool of the evening. It was at the campsite, however, that the trouble began. The children were on holiday, so they wanted to play bat and ball, blow the boat up, get to the beach, make sandcastles. In spite of our protestations they gradually unpacked the boot which had formerly been a work of art and which rapidly took on the appearance of the aftermath of a car boot sale.

Gone are the days when we travelled with smart suitcases. We pack our all in bin liners, one per person. They are wonderful for moulding round one another, and handy for cradling duty frees. They also become horribly dishevelled when someone has burrowed an arm to the bottom of hers to find a bikini which she is not allowed to put on because "we are only staying one night".

By next morning the boot needed completely repacking and the tent looked as though we'd been there a fortnight. The children had to be bribed back into the car with reassuring white lies that it wouldn't be as long a journey as the day before.

Everything seemed twice as stressful, the road map bore no relation to the roads, especially not upside down with a dribbling baby crawling across it. No two people ever wanted to play the same game at the same time: the bottles of drink which had been wedged around my ankles somehow broke loose and poured their contents over my ankles which could have been a happy annointment had it not been lemonade.

Whereas the day before nobody needed to go to the loo, this time everyone needed to at different times. In-car entertainment slipped well below rock bottom. George Formby, who had been uplifting on the tape the day before, started to take on the guise of a tedious street musician who won't put his ukulele down, and everyone began to wish that Noddy and his friends would get lost in the Secret Garden.

I passed out when we arrived at Biarritz, and our four-year-old had a nose bleed. The family in the tent behind us spoke only in expletives and we feared that the baby's first words might not be that choice. After that everything settled down.

We didn't get back in the car for a couple of days: we could see the mountains, smell the pool, if not the sea, and feel the sun - it was enough for us. My back-seat fear that the pilgrimage wouldn't have been worthwhile, with everyone homesick for Margate, was quickly eradicated.

If camping is basic, it's also therapeutic: no furniture to be careful of, carpets to spoil, fancy cooking facilities to be creative with, clutter to contain. The children enjoyed a freedom they never have at home, relaxing in a holiday atmosphere which at least seemed safe, though our complacency sometimes woke me up with a start in the night.

There was the journey home as well, of course, but with the same healthy tact that a woman never reveals to an expectant mother quite how gruesome labour can be, it's enough to say that the joy when it was all over made it all worthwhile.