Forget all those Les Dawson jokes. On a family holiday, mothers–in–law can be indispensable

There are as yet undiscovered tribes who know that taking your mother, your mother–in–law and three children under five on a cottage holiday is something you just don't do.

There are as yet undiscovered tribes who know that taking your mother, your mother-in-law and three children under five on a cottage holiday is something you just don't do. As a colleague said to me: "You're either optimistic or insane." On paper, one has to admit it looks like a bad idea. Most of our friends subscribe to the Les Dawson philosophy: mothers-in-law rank with plagues of locusts. Factor in that my wife's mother speaks no English and mine has a fairly strong Caribbean accent and you start to tiptoe into tricky territory. Oh, and for good measure, let's make one of the children a two-month-old baby.

The omens were not good. We decided some time ago to have a holiday in Britain – preferably Devon or Cornwall. My wife, the Goddess Formerly Known As Inger, thought it would be a good idea, partly because the baby boy was too little for a holiday in the sun and partly to help support the British rural economy. Personally, I lack her fellow feeling but the promise of peace, good books and a lot of wine sounded alluring. But then, as with all well-laid plans, reality brought its incisors to bear.

The Goddess's mother, feeling a bit down after a bereavement, came from Norway to stay with us at short notice. No problem there; she's a delightful woman and we've never had a cross word. This might be because we have about eight words of common language. All we needed then was a good-sized place to stay.

"Oh dear," said the owner of one cottage. "You've left it too late. We're booked until October." The whole of Cornwall is booked until October. If anyone tells you foot and mouth has killed tourism in the South-west, check them into The Priory. After at least 50 frantic emails and dozens of phone calls, we came across the ideal place, Nethecombe Cottage. Two minutes drive to the beach and plenty of room – if anything too much.

The Goddess then decided that my mother, originally from St Lucia and now living in Lincolnshire, should come along, too: "She's been so kind to us and she deserves a holiday." "Er, okay," said I. What's the worst that could happen? I wondered. But then I stopped wondering because the possibilities made me feel queasy.

The journey from London to Devon took seven hot hours. Still, with the smallest one seated between his grandmothers, his every howl and slobber was catered for. A journey that could have been a nightmare requiring months of therapy passed without too much pain.

We woke up next morning in a picture-postcard cottage This was the moment of truth. Would family relations be irreparably damaged for decades to come? Then came the sound of the children eating breakfast. They were dressed and sitting at the table, as opposed to dragging their food around the floor like fresh prey. That breakfast set the tone for the week. The mothers appropriated the children and went about their tasks like a cross between the Trojan army and an SAS unit. Dirty dishes disappeared, stray clothes were corralled, children were washed and dressed and plaited, nappied and napped and burped and burnished.

We ... well we slept late. We helped to cook, honest. And we went shopping, alone. Shopping à deux is the sort of sadster pleasure I'd forgotten. We took naps. We drank wine and stayed up late. We sat in the garden and read. We were able to go to the pub and wobble out at closing time. We didn't have the usual argument about my making up for a year of lost sleep by snoring for 14 hours a day for the first three days of our holiday. We simply regressed 10 years and became like newlyweds – heaven.

On the many lovely local beaches, in a restaurant, in the shops in picturesque Modbury, out walking, there was no need to panic about whether the children were safe, no need to worry about them getting bored. And the mothers didn't try to sabotage any of the usual rules – no sweets, treats or late nights without our say so. Is this what the notion of the extended family was all about?

Of course, there was a price to pay, but it was insignificant. In my case, I was given 1970s–flashback naggings by my mother to "change into something nice" before leaving the house.

Forced into the role of translator, The Goddess searched for common ground between St Lucia and northern Norway. Her mother, given to Nordic introspection, would introduce unemployment, the high cost of funerals, the plight of asylum seekers and the war into breakfast conversation at the drop of a hat. I smiled benignly, unknowing but nodding sagely.

By the end of the week the mothers had dispensed with translation services, the one speaking in English with a Caribbean lilt, the other replying in Norwegian yet somehow achieving almost total clarity. Few things could compare; maybe whale watching off Cape Cod or Hale–Bopp.

Despite all our fears, it was an experiment that worked perfectly. We ended our holiday rested and happy. And our mothers? They're now talking about going to St Lucia on a holiday of their own.