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Take the Family › Confessions of a Family Travel Writer

Confessions of a Family Travel Writer

By TakeTheFamily

Our three-year-old daughter Phoebe was almost blown up in a field of live ordnance, my dad died, we wrote the car off, we spent several nights in hospital for medical complaints ranging from kidney stones to chest infections, and my wife developed a debilitating tortoise phobia that saw her hyperventilating in Skye Serpentarium while screaming at me: “Ben, you said they were hibernating!” Oh, and our two-year-old son Charlie is still so frightened of puff adders after a snake encounter in Northumberland that to this day he insists on sleeping in socks. 

These were some of the low points of what became our family trip of a lifetime – a never-to-be-repeated, five-month, 13,000km road-trip round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra.

When we accepted a commission to write guidebooks about family travel for Frommer’s, Dinah and I had visions of us staring moodily across Lake Windermere, Phoebe wandering thoughtfully around galleries, and Charlie growing up so implausibly well-rounded he might end up the chairman of the Arts Council. On our first day, Phoebe wet herself in The Elgar Birthplace Museum and I lost the key to the roof-box containing Charlie’s nappy stuff, forcing us to change him on a bench at Eastnor Castle using 6 KFC lemon refresher hand-wipes Dinah found at the bottom of her handbag. Tucked up in bed at 7pm that night – the hotel had no listening service and our baby monitor didn’t work over four floors) – Dinah and I held hands across the mattress and told each other things would get better. We just needed a routine.

We got one. Phoebe wet herself again the next day at Worcester Cathedral, while Charlie developed a dread of wax mannequins that saw him fix himself to my leg like a shinpad the whole way round The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum.

And so it began, the most arduous but ultimately enjoyable journey any of us had been on. We’d 500 attractions to visit and more than 100 restaurants and hotels to review. It meant visiting 4 or 5 places every day, packing up and moving on every 24 hours and eating out every night.

The first few days we didn’t sleep and Charlie cried the whole time. The only reason we didn’t return home was that we’d let our house and had nowhere to go. The journeys made it worse. Normally I’m at the wheel because Dinah drives with her face pressed up against the windscreen like Mr Magoo and cannot look round when you talk to her or else she gets lost or swerves into somebody else’s lane. But now she couldn’t map-read. Tired from Charlie’s dawn feeds and nappy changes, she was failing to notice tiny things like road numbers changing. She refused to accept that bypassing cities was quicker than going through their centres (“It looked small, Leicester, on this map”) and kept forgetting she was navigating at all if she was, say, reading an article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s kids in OK!.

Meanwhile our filthy clothes massed in the roofbox. Having no time to visit laundrettes and with hotel laundry too expensive, my jeans were often now so crusted with dirt at the end of the day I didn’t so much lay them down on a chair when I went to bed as lean them against things. Visiting city after city and town after town felt like being in a touring rock band minus the glamour, the adrenaline rush of performing and the camaraderie, with Organic dinosaur biscuits instead of hard drugs. But slowly we got to grips with it. We learnt to carry treats. We succumbed to the in-car DVD player and invented all manner of games, including I-don’t-Spy, a variant of I-Spy with the added bonus that the item being guessed can be anything in the known universe unobservable from a child’s bucket seat in a speeding Astra on an A-road. If all else failed we put on Classic FM at max volume, kidding ourselves we weren’t muffling the kids’ with an even louder noise but educating them about Haydn.

And we mastered the art of sleeping in one room after we learnt that Charlie (and thus all of us) slept better when he couldn’t see us, which meant rearranging furniture to create a Berlin-wall-style barrier between him and us (once or twice we lay whole wardrobes down on their sides in front of his bed).

A month in, we were enjoying ourselves. It was liberating. There was a thrill in leaving a place – putting a CD on in the car and opening the windows and getting a family sing-song going. Just having a clean shirt on your back could generate excitement. We had no responsibility. No bills. We saw different things each day, and our lives had been reduced to visiting rare breeds farms, checking on the baby-changing facilities at aquariums and taking pictures of our kids having a good time.

Along with the lows came amazing highs, such as shouting from the ramparts of Scotland’s Doune Castle (the setting for Monty Python and the Holy Grail): "I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries". Or at Jedburgh Abbey the helpful staff pointing out a 900-year-old walrus beard comb we might have overlooked for our list of the most boring things behind glass in Britain.

By the time we wrote the car off in Wales, we were so into the trip we couldn’t face abandoning it, hiring an identical Astra and simply carrying on. Our kids adapted so well that Phoebe told me a couple of months in: “We don’t live at home any more do we, daddy? We live in hotels.” They played with tea- and coffee-making facilities in hotel rooms like they were expensive toys and used the word ‘attraction’ like it’d been on their lips for years  (“What’s this attraction again, daddy?”).

We ate out so much that Phoebe came to view everything laminated as a children’s menu – in Bristol’s PC World she tried to order spaghetti from a flyer for a new Epson laser printer. We dolphin-spotted, climbed mountains, walked with llamas. We cruised rivers, and we trudged round castles, distilleries, farms, zoos and museums.

By Cornwall the kids had grown out of their clothes. Phoebe, who’d celebrated her fourth birthday Alan Partridge-style in a Norwich hotel room, was due to start school that September. A week before this, we both cried while buying her school uniform in Padstow.

Back home we agreed: never again. But, just like Dinah had declared Phoebe our final child after having her, we wavered. So much so that we’ve just come back from an even longer, 16,000km journey around France.

Ben Hatch's Are We Nearly There Yet? A Family's 8000 Misguided Miles Round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra is published by Summersdale (£8.99).

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