Imagine the situation... It's four-thirty in the morning. It's pitch dark in the middle of a French campsite and there is frost covering the grass. I'm naked except for a fleece pullover and beside me my two-year-old son, Sam - is having a pee on the grass. When he's finished I carry him over to his tent and as quietly as I can, so as not to wake Rosie (age 6 months) I lower him gently into his sleeping bag and quietly, very quietly, begin to pull the tent zip up - "Is it time to get up yet daddy?" pipes an enthusiastic four-year-old (Arthur). "Go to sleep!" I hiss, "it's the middle of the night". I zip them in, and wishing for a padlock, crunch over the grass back to my tent. I've lost all feeling in my feet and am beginning to fear frostbite so I slip quickly into the down of my sleeping bag. Kate, long suffering mother of my children, yelps and leaps away, difficult, as our sleeping bags are zipped together. We do this, not because of romance, but because Kate likes to steal my heat, now she doubts the wisdom of the arrangement... "You're freezing - get off!" she snarls though clenched teeth. But I'm not to be denied and save my extremities from frostbite by getting as much of my body in contact with hers as possible, though as she's wearing two layers of thermal underwear including socks, the heat gain is limited. Trying to get a frozen hand in-between the layers is met with a threat that I don't want to repeat here.
This is not a good start to the day, the first night on our first cyclecamping trip with all three of our children. Later in the morning, 6.30 am to be precise, Sam gets up and decides to be miserable, he stands outside the tent and wails. We reluctantly let him into our tent and sleeping bags where he snuffles pathetically and has as much success at getting heat from his mother as I have. Five minutes later Arthur "knocks" at the portal and is granted entrance into what is rapidly becoming a full tent and an even fuller sleeping bag. Strangely his feet are even colder than Sam's (he takes after his mother) and this combined with guilt about Rosie being on her own in an open tent forces me to drag on my clothes and crawl from bed to start the day proper...
The sun has still not risen, everything is covered in frost and it is so cold I can't get the lighter going to start up the Trangia cooker. Sam is crying and Kate has lost her sense of humour. Arthur on the other hand realises that this morning is the make-or-break, the car is only 20 miles away. He does a passable impression of a Butlins Redcoat on a rainy August bank holiday, desperately cheerful and willing, hopping about trying to cheer up Sam (who wants to go home) and helping pack up his tent. Bless his heart, he keeps us going, and so I leave Kate to finish packing whilst I cycle the baby trailer with Sam and Rosie up into the village to go to the bar we had seen the previous evening.
It's closed. But joy of joys - another on the other side of the street has it's door open and a welcoming glow. I sweep the kids in and sit down, I don't even want to think what I look like as a very attractive girl appears behind the bar, looks at us pathetically and says they are closed. Now at this time in the morning I'm a bit slow, but I know an open bar when I see it, and this is it. It has all those tell tale signs, the door was open, a fire in the grate, a smell of coffee that makes my heart race, and all those funny beer pump signs are lit up. Besides this is France and the sight of two hypothermic under fours would melt even the flintiest heart - "A Coffee and two small hot chocolates?" I beg, using all my not inconsiderable charm (so I'm told) "Non je suis desole" she says and shepherds us out into the cold as from the other door of the bar an aged relative is being wheeled frantically into the back of a car, obviously in some distress. Now I know I should feel sympathetic, but this just isn't fair, if she was going to have a stroke or a heart attack couldn't she have waited ten minutes! Being grown up and having to set an example to my children I don't lie on the road outside the bar and weep - though it's a close run thing. I just make sympathetic noises and load two hysterical (and I don't mean funny) children back into the trailer and cycle down to the campsite to tell Kate the good news...
To my surprise I find that in the absence of screaming children nos. 2 and 3, and with the infectious enthusiasm of Arthur, she has regained her composure and is putting the last few things away in her panniers. The sun has come up, the lighter has warmed up in my pocket so we decide to see the funny side of it, have a brew-up and snaffle our emergency supply of biscuits. Then we pack up again, strap the two smallest into the trailer and cycle off into what is promising to be a really lovely day. Half an hour later we are sitting in a bar drinking hot chocolate and devouring "pain au chocolate" whilst the patron clucks around the children giving them sticky lollies that leave very sticky fleeces and enquiring whether the kids are warm enough on the bikes.
A little aside here - Someone please explain to me why people, especially older women, are obsessed with the temperature of our children. For six months of the year we get interrogated as to the exact composition of our children's underwear, and whether their hands are cold, and then for the rest of the year we're quizzed on how hot they look, "You ought to keep the sun off them" etc etc. Now forgive me if I sound tense about this, but as anyone who has had kids in living memory will tell you, children do tend to moan ever such a lot if their bodily needs are not catered for 100 %. I don't need somebody's grandmother telling me that due to the wind-chill factor I really ought to put at least another pair of socks on the poor dear. Sorry - raw nerve there...
So now recharged with calories, and dad's caffeine level is up to normal we set off into what can now only be described as a glorious sunny morning. Now - you've all seen those cute adverts for baby trailers where some smiling parent effortlessly glides along with a smile on his/her face - well DON'T BELIEVE IT! What those adverts don't tell you is that the "parent" is actually a world class racing cyclist just earning a few dollars in the off season, or he/she is actually riding down a 1 in 10 hill. You can spot which is which by looking at thigh muscle size and attractiveness of the models, if you catch my drift... Yup these things are hard work. Our trailer is as good as they come, but if it gets steep you're going to have to work hard. I give in early, get into bottom gear (and boy does it have to be low) and slowly grind up. It's not unusual to be overtaken by people with zimmer frames whilst doing this but as the thing accelerates like a piano out of a window down-hill, I get my revenge, Yipee!
Kate gets to tow Arthur on the trailerbike. As he has pedals she has help - in theory. Sadly it doesn't work quite like this. Small children are all or nothing creatures, so Kate has to slowly crawl up a hill listening to the maddening sound of Arthur's freewheel clicking, and his continuous flow of questions she doesn't have the breath to answer, then suddenly he'll stand on the pedals and go into manic sprint mode, powering the combination away from me as Kate desperately tries to keep the bike upright and change up through the gears in order to stay in touch. This lasts a good ten seconds before Arthur stops, freewheels and asks questions whilst mum crashes back down through the gears and tries to regain some of her lost rhythm. Downhills are worse. Arthur likes going fast so will pedal like crazy while Kate brakes and tries to stop the bike ending up as a bonnet ornament on some oncoming vehicle. It's the waste of energy that annoys her most.
But the area we are in, the rural lanes of Brittany in France, is quiet and tranquil, so the dangers are slight and the riding, though erratic, is wonderful. We pass through village after village, grey granite and slate roofs, always looking as if nothing has changed for 100 years. But it is near midday so we are on the lookout, "There!" Kate cries, and on the outskirts of a village we spy about ten huge articulated lorries parked at the side of the road, along with a few rusty tractors and the odd van. We've struck gold, a Breton oasis, a transport cafe or "Routier". These places are wonderful. We all go in and the place is already packed with lorry drivers and labourers, oily, dirty and very obviously hungry. In such company our appearance, sweaty, dishevelled and grimy causes no comment, though being France everyone turns and smiles at the kids and ruffles their hair and asks us if we think they are warm enough.
These places need a little explaining to those not used to them. They are where the "workers" eat. The French eat their main meal at lunchtime and take two hours over it. Your local plumber, mason or lorry driver doesn't rely on packed lunches, instead he goes to the local restaurant for a workers menu, or "menu ouvrier". This means that every large village has to have one so we cyclists can benefit from this most civilised of systems. For 10 Euros or so, you sit down, often at a communal table, and plough through a vast meal. Add to this the fact that as much wine as you want is included in the price with coffee to follow and you can see why Kate and I frequent such establishments. We usually order three meals and split the third between the three kids, nobody minds this, and they'll supply extra plates and cutlery, and even ignore the pile of detritus on the floor that is the inevitable result of feeding three under fives...
Thus replete we wobble back onto the road and continue, gently, on our way. And so the day passes, Sam and Rosie sleep in the trailer, Arthur, if Kate is lucky, settles into some sort of rhythm and the miles roll by. As Arthur tires there are even breaks in the flow of questions so that Kate and I ride side by side, the roads are that quiet, and chat and plan our evening. Arrival at the campsite is always exciting, the last few miles following campsite signs and then we swing through the entrance to do the usual fifteen circuits of the site before choosing the best spot. The site is of course empty, it being early May, which makes the choice impossible.
Today is doubly exciting because we have reached the coast, and the campsite is on the top of the cliffs overlooking the sea. It's actually hot by now, so we dump the bikes and all run down the cliff path to the deserted beach and strip off to plunge into the icy water. Afterwards we climb back up and pitch our tents, with the doors facing the sea so that our first view will be the sun rising over the waves. We shower and then bathe the kids in the big washing-up sinks outside the sanitary block. A light supper followed by a story and we put three exhausted little children into their tent. Then Kate and I watch the sun go down as we finish a bottle of wine and wonder what time the kids will get up in the morning.
We've survived the first day, and now we're in the groove, our camping routines remembered and all of us happy. And that really is the point of this article, Kids LOVE it. You get time with them away from the TV, and through ups and downs you learn a lot about yourselves, right now I can't think of anything I would rather be doing, and that goes for the rest of us.
ęGeoff Husband + family