Four-thirty in the morning: it’s pitch-dark in the middle of our French campsite and frost covers the grass. I'm naked except for a fleece pullover, and beside me two-year-old Sam is having a pee on the grass. When he's finished I carry him over to his tent and, so as not to wake six-month-old Rosie, 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 four-year-old Arthur.
‘Go to sleep!’ I hiss. Wishing for a padlock, I 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. My wife Kate yelps and leaps away, which is difficult, as our bags are zipped together – not out of romance but because she likes to steal my heat. Now she doubts the wisdom of the arrangement.
It’s the first night on our first cycle-camping trip with all three of our children. Later in the morning – at 6.30am to be precise –Sam gets up, stands outside the tent and wails. We reluctantly let him into our tent and sleeping bags, where he snuffles pathetically. Five minutes later, Arthur ‘knocks’ at the portal and is granted entrance into what’s rapidly becoming a full tent and an even fuller sleeping bag. His feet are even colder than Sam's, 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’s covered in frost, and it’s 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 make-or-break: the car is only 30km away. He does a passable impression of a Butlins Redcoat on a rainy August bank holiday, hopping about trying to cheer up Sam (who wants to go home) and helping pack up his tent. He keeps us going, and so I leave Kate to finish packing while I cycle the baby-trailer with Sam and Rosie into the village to go to the bar we saw last night.
It's closed. But one across the street has 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. She glances at us and tells us the bar is closed, despite the tell-tale signs – the open door, the fire in the grate, the smell of coffee that makes my heart race, and the beer pump signs lit up. But this is France, I think, and the sight of two hypothermic under-4s will melt even the flintiest heart.
‘A coffee and two small hot chocolates?’ I beg, using all my not-inconsiderable charm.
‘Non, je suis desolée,’ she says, and she 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 isn't fair – if she was going to have a stroke or something, couldn't she have waited 10 minutes?
I 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, 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 in her panniers. The sun has come up and the lighter has warmed in my pocket, so we have a brew-up and snaffle our emergency 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’re sitting in a bar drinking hot chocolate and devouring pains au chocolate.
Recharged with calories and – in my case – the prerequisite levels of caffeine, we set off into a glorious sunny morning. Now you've all seen those cute adverts for baby trailers, with some smiling parent effortlessly gliding along with a smile on his/her face. Well, DON'T BELIEVE IT! What they don't tell you is that the ‘parent’ is actually a world-class racing cyclist earning a few dollars in the off-season, or that he/she is actually riding down a 1 in 10 hill. You can tell which it is by looking at the thigh-muscle size and attractiveness of the models... Our trailer is as good as they come, but if it gets steep you're have to work hard. I give in early, get into bottom gear (and boy, does it have to be low) and grind up. It's not unusual to be overtaken by people with Zimmerframes while doing this, but as the thing accelerates like a piano out of a window as we go downhill, I get my revenge.
Kate gets to tow Arthur on the trailer-bike. He has pedals so she has help – or that’s the theory. Small children are all-or-nothing creatures, so Kate has to crawl up a hill listening to the maddening click of Arthur's freewheel, 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 to stay in touch. This lasts a good 10 seconds before Arthur stops, freewheels and asks questions while Mum crashes back down through the gears and tries to regain some of her lost rhythm. Downhills are even worse: Arthur likes going fast so pedals 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’re in, the rural lanes of Brittany, is tranquil, so the dangers are slight and the riding, though erratic, is wonderful. We pass through village after village of grey granite and slate roofs, all looking as if nothing has changed for 100 years. However, it’s close to midday, so we’re on the lookout…
‘There!’ Kate cries, and on the outskirts of a village we spy about 10 articulated lorries at the side of the road, along with a few rusty tractors and the odd van. We've struck gold: a transport café or routier. In France, your local plumber, mason or lorry driver doesn't rely on packed lunches –he goes to the local restaurant for a menu ouvrier or ‘workers’ menu’. Every large village has one, and we cyclists can benefit from this most civilised of systems whereby, for just 10 euros or so, you sit down, often at a communal table, and plough through a vast meal, accompanied by as much wine and coffee as you want. We usually order three meals and split the third between the three kids: staff happily supply extra plates and cutlery and even ignore the pile of detritus that is the inevitable result of feeding three under 5s.
The place is packed with lorry drivers and labourers, oily, dirty and very obviously hungry. In such company, our sweaty, dishevelled and grimy appearance causes no comment, though this being France everyone turns and smiles at the kids and ruffles their hair and asks us if we think they are warm enough.
Replete, we wobble back onto the road and continue, gently, on our way. And so the day passes, Sam and Rosie asleep in the trailer, Arthur, if Kate is lucky, settling into some sort of rhythm, the kilometres rolling by. As Arthur tires, there are even breaks in the flow of questions, and then Kate and I ride side by side, chatting and planning our evening.
Arrival at a camp-site is always exciting: following camp-site signs for a few kilometres and then swinging through the entrance to do the usual 15 circuits before choosing the best spot. This site is empty, it being early May, which makes the choice impossible. And today is doubly exciting because we’ve reached the coast and can camp on the cliffs overlooking the sea.
It's actually hot by now, so we dump the bikes and run down the cliff-path to the deserted beach, where we strip and plunge into the icy water. Afterwards, we climb back up and pitch our tents, the doors facing the sea so our first view will be of the sun rising over the waves. We shower, then bathe the kids in the big washing-up sinks outside the sanitary block. A light supper is followed by a story and then we put three exhausted little children into their tent. Kate and I watch the sun go down as we finish a bottle of wine and wonder what time they’ll 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 all five of us.
Geoff and Kate Husband are the proprietors of Breton Bikes, a holiday company offering lightweight camping and hotel-based cycling hlidays in France.