What, a family holiday with no rows?

Danuta Brooke discovers that an activities holiday in Wales with her three boys is no spectator sport

The choice of activities for tomorrow morning is archery, canoeing or orienteering," said Don, pinning a sheet of paper to the noticeboard. "In the afternoon, there'll be raft-building or land-yachting or canoeing for those who didn't do the morning session." Even before he'd finished speaking, several children were homing in on him, all eager to grab the one blue marker-pen dangling from the board and stake their claim to their desired activity.

Earlier in the week, the atmosphere had been quite different. No one knew anyone outside their own family. Children hung back shyly, adults hung back politely. Now, just three days later, the ice was well broken, especially among the children. But considering they'd spent nearly every waking moment together, it wasn't surprising.

We were on a family activity holiday on Shell Island, attached to the coastline of north-west Wales by a tidal causeway, and were camping in tents provided by the holiday company, Acorn Activities. Anyone who has camped with children will know that, no sooner are they awake than they're off looking for playmates. On the Acorn site, they only had to look outside the tent flap. All the sleeping tents were pitched in a semicircle around a communal area centred on a volleyball pitch, which instantly became a permanent hanging-out spot for all the children. A large marquee completed the other side of the circle and gave the camp a self-contained, cosy, exclusive feel.

On this occasion, I was as eager as the children to sign up, for I wanted to get in to the archery session. Earlier in the week, there'd been only three spaces left for archery so I'd filled in my children's names and contented myself with watching.

In fact, my original plan for the holiday had been for the children to do the activities and for me to do - well, a lot of reading, relaxing and recliner-familiarisation. So I'd spent the morning on the lakeside, watching them canoeing. Robert (14) and Liam (11), were paddling around as though they'd been born with a kayak attached to their lower limbs. However Dominic, my eight-year-old, couldn't quite get the hang of paddling on the opposite side from the way he wanted to go. Despite lots of help from an instructor and some shouted advice from his older brothers (whom he is adept at ignoring anyway), he managed little else than to go round in circles.

By the end of the morning, the instructors had everyone (except Dominic) paddling forwards and backwards, doing stops and quick turns, and had taught them a party piece involving standing up and sitting down in sequence. I found myself wanting to join in. The feeling intensified when I watched the afternoon archery session and I determined to have a go at something the next day. Two groups were going gorge-walking, so I signed all four of us up.

"O Spirit of the Waters - Protect me and Be my Guide!" I yelled as I flung myself backwards into a fast-flowing river, arms folded across my chest. The sensation of hitting the water full-length was quite pleasant - my wet suit excluded the cold and my life-jacket buoyed me up. I let the river sweep me along a few yards, then righted myself and moved slowly towards the riverbank so the next person could be similarly baptised. This initiation was no pseudo-mystical event. Both instructors were practical, down-to-earth Welshmen who had invented a fun way to get nervous children (and parents) into a rushing mountain river.

This was the "gorge" we were to walk up - no dry gully but a bubbling, boulder-strewn gill. It was brilliant - like scrambling up a rubble- pile on a gentle gradient but protected from scrapes by clear, running water. We walked upstream with the river flowing against our legs. Some parts were deeper and we could swim a few but mostly the water ranged from knee- to waist- high. Negotiating overhanging branches and detouring around large boulders, we eventually came to a spot where the river widened and deepened below a waterfall some 20ft high. Halfway up was a ledge from which we were apparently supposed to jump.

"It was a great feeling, Mum," enthused Robert, "like a whoosh of air, then a big cold splash." "I had six goes," declared Liam elatedly. Both had been in the opposite group to myself and Dominic and were returning to the minibus as we arrived at the waterfall. Unfortunately, we soon joined them, for Dominic and another young boy (though denying it through blue lips and chattering teeth), were becoming too cold for the instructors' liking. Being the two shortest, they had stood deeper in the water than anyone else. The instructors would take no chances and cut our expedition short.

Any feelings of inferiority which Dominic might by now have been feeling vis-a-vis his brothers were dispelled the next day, on a gritstone rock- face in the countryside east of Barmouth. Despite never having climbed before, he behaved as if born to it - clambering fearlessly to the top and abseiling down with supreme enjoyment visible all over his face. He was the first to volunteer to try climbing blindfolded (done to develop the sense of touch). His 14-year-old brother, on the other hand, having a more adult sense of caution, made two apprehensive attempts to reach the top before giving up altogether. Still, he did better than me, a steadfast spectator throughout. I know my limitations and climbing is beyond them.

I was relieved that the climbing instructors never pressured me to join in. That was the case for every activity - participation was up to the individual. Some sessions appealed to children more than adults - like the obstacle course, which involved crawling around on your belly in mud, sand dunes and bracken, and the "teams game", which involved charging around the countryside trying to steal the other team's flag. Orienteering, on the other hand, which requires accurate map-reading and direction- finding, was mainly enjoyed by the grown-ups, though the Dad who thought it was funny to hide marker-post 15 under a pile of ferns would have been better off in the mud-crawling group. (Acid remark is due to spending half an hour repeatedly checking my map, compass and eyesight).

Having failed to impress my children on the climbing expedition (most grieving was the way they expected me not to do it), I unexpectedly shone in the archery session. This was as much a surprise to me as it was to them and was a wonderful boost to both ego and parental status. I also found I was pretty good at land-yachting.

Land-yachting, I discovered, is an electrifying cross between go-karting and sailing which, once you get the hang of it, involves speeding across sandy beaches at what seems like 100mph but is probably about 40. The worst you can do if you fail to change direction at the right time is get stuck in a sand dune or flounder in shallow seawater. Knowing that helps you to relax and enjoy the buzz. And I did - particularly when the adults beat the children in a relay race, a triumph I particularly relished in view of the fact that my boys are already showing signs of developing male-superiority complexes with regard to women's driving abilities.

Anyone who thinks children will be exhausted after a day of strenuous activity obviously doesn't know any. A quick shower and a meal was all it took to revive them. Parents, however, took longer, needing to sit over coffee in the marquee, lounge outside their tent with the newspaper, or slope off to the Shell Island Bar. Which is why the evening cricket competitions, treasure hunts and assorted games for children were welcomed by all. Once wound up, however, children can be difficult to wind down. But Acorn had thought of this too. The nightly appearance of hot chocolate and biscuits did the trick by sitting them down and allowing tiredness to creep over them.

Camping appeals to families because of the minimalist lifestyle - you needn't dress up for dinner, there's little cleaning and tidying and the youngsters have loads of playmates on hand. When that's combined with a full-board holiday which eliminates the chores of shopping, cooking, washing-up and arguing about whose turn it is, and then chucks in exciting stuff like abseiling, land-yachting and canoeing, it comes pretty close to a perfect family week.

OUTDOOR PURSUITS

JOINING IN

Acorn Activities uses two sites - Shell Island on the north-west coast of Wales and one near Bassenthwaite in the northern Lake District. Whole weeks between 24 July and 4 September cost pounds 215 per person (adult or child) including full board and all equipment and activities (weekends between 4 June and 18 July cost pounds 80). For brochure, contact Acorn Activities (tel: 01432 830083; website: http://www.acornactivities.co.uk)

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