Ben Hatch with his children Phoebe and Charlie in Aldeburgh, Suffolk
When Ben Hatch and his wife Dinah were asked to write a guidebook about family travel they imagined spending whole days licking rocket lollies at zoos. They ignored dire friends' warnings about spending five months away with their two small children, including the advice: "140 nights in different hotels. One of you will come home chopped up in the roof-box. You'll murder each other."
Their subsequent 8,000-mile journey around Britain in a Vauxhall Astra with two children, aged four and two has become the laugh-out-loud travel book, Are We Nearly There Yet?
Here, Ben shares his hard-learnt travel tips:
1. Always carry treats. Travelling with children minus treats is like walking through a vampire-infested grave-yard after midnight without a wooden stake. You might survive, but why take the chance.
2. Enthuse your kids about where you're going. But never oversell the destination, as we did visiting the Wensleydale Cheese Visitor Centre. On the strength of a Yorkshire Tourist Board leaflet featuring Wallace and Gromit sticking their thumbs up, we rashly promised life-size models of the cartoon characters wandering around. The only thing Wallace and Gromit related was a chalk outline of them on the café's specials board. We'd driven two hours to a working cheese factory to show the kids the processes milling and tipping and for them to learn how Wensleydale cheese did in the last Nantwich International Cheese festival. (You can read about the disappointment here.)
3. Not to have a sat-nav today is a bit like being a sailor in the 14th century trying to round the Cape of Good Hope without a nautical chart. It's insane. Put it this way, if I had a choice – my brakes or the sat-nav? - I'd gladly drill a hole in the driver's footwell and start using my feet to slow down. Having a sat-nav means brain cells required to remember to turn right or left at particular junctions are more usefully re-directed towards establishing just who in the back was the first to slap the other one round the face with the Corfe Castle activity sheet.
Charlie and Phebe soaking up the sights at Windsor Castle
4. Adapt well-known children's stories into tales involving your children themselves.
You can do this by replacing the main character's name in a classic fairytale with your child's name so for us it became, for instance, Phoebe and the Three Bears ('And then Phoebe tried the medium-sized bowl of porridge.....') or Hansel and Phoebe ('And the wicked witch told Phoebe, I will eat your brother be he fat or thin.').
The thrill of an ego-centric toddler hearing themselves thrust into unlikely adventures involving beanstalks, glass slippers and evil witches buys valuable time to continue the argument with your wife about where you went wrong on the A41.
5. In-car DVD players are a must. They're available for under £100 but don't buy the cheapest. We did and it kept disconnecting from the cigarette lighter and returning the film to the beginning. Consequently despite watching Finding Nemo 10 times during our 8,000 mile trip round Britain, our kids are still unaware Nemo was eventually reunited with his father.
6. Colouring-in books and pens provide a welcome distraction. But be careful. Our daughter, protesting about an arduously long drive through the Pennies after a day out at Ostrich World, gothically drew all over her face and arms in black felt tip.
7. Forget I spy. It's over in seconds as there's nothing consistent to see from a speeding car window except the road, others cars and the sky. Instead play I don't Spy, as in 'I don't spy with my little eye something beginning with P,' where the p is then capable of being anything in the known universe unobservable from your car. Our kids once spend two hours guessing the word gnu.
8. Lie about how far it is. As a rule of thumb under 50 miles is "round the corner." How far dad? "Round the corner." Over 50 miles then divide how long it will take to get there by four. Thus an hour becomes 15 minutes. You must divide by four again if this stills meets with disappointment. In fact, repeat this division by four until your child says, "It's round the corner."
9. Finally, if all else fails, and it will, we suggest turning Classic FM to maximum volume and kidding yourself you aren't muffling the kids' din with an even louder one, but that you're actually educating them about Haydn.
10. Good luck.
In this extract from Are We Nearly There Yet? the family celebrates Phoebe's fourth birthday on the road...
"And your birthday treat..." I announce to Phoebe (four this morning) as we set off, "is..."
"Careful," says Dinah, under her breath. "We don't really know what's there."
"Is," I continue. "That we're going to the place ....WHERE WALLACE AND GROMIT COME FROM!"
Dinah frowns. "I can't believe you just did that."
"Wallace and Gromit's House? Where they have those machines?"asks Phoebe, titling her head, "and they slide down into their trousers and have cups of teas?"
Dinah gives me a knowing look.
"Well, it's not strictly their house, guys," I say.
"It's the Wensleydale Cheese Visitor Centre," says Dinah, flatly.
We have a tactic to appease Phoebe on long car journeys. What we do is adapt well-known children's stories into tales involving Phoebe herself. We do this by replacing the main character's name with hers so it becomes, for instance, Phoebe and the Three Bears. ("And then Phoebe tried the medium-sized bowl of porridge....."). There's something about hearing her name starring in unlikely adventures that appeases our daughter.
Its 3pm and we've been through the entire Brothers Grimm cannon when we finally arrive; too late to observe the production of the Wensleydale cheese. Instead, from the viewing gallery, we stare into empty, huge, stainless steel tubs, and learn about the processes of milling, tipping, blocking, salting, molding and pressing. We learn how well Wensleydale Cheese did in the last Nantwich International Cheese Festival.
"Daddy, where's Wallace?" asks Phoebe.
"He's probably delivering cheese," I improvise.
"And Gromit?" asks Phoebe.
"He'll have gone with Wallace, I expect."
Phoebe explains this to Charlie. "Wallace and Gromit are delivering cheese, Charlie."
Dinah shakes her head.
Twenty minutes later Phoebe announces she doesn't like her Wensleydale cheese, cranberry and walnut panini. Charlie isn't keen either.
"When are Wallace and Gromit back?" says Phoebe for the umpteenth time. "You said we'd see Wallace and Gromit."
"So," says Dinah, when the kids disappear for a play. "You saw a cartoon image of them both sticking their thumbs up holding some Wensleydale cheese on the Yorkshire Tourist Board information leaflet and, because of this, you assumed there'd to be life-sized models of the characters wandering about what is actually a working cheese factory?"
"Go and buy them something from the gift-shop?" she says.
But all I can find Wallace and Gromit related in the gift-shop is Wensleydale Cheese. And they don't like Wensleydale Cheese.
They haven't even got the Wrong Trousers on DVD.
"Can you believe that? This is where they make the cheese that the global brand that is Wallace and Grommit are on record as saying is their favourite, and they don't sell the movies."
"Love, get anything," says Dinah. "It doesn't matter if it's Wallace and Gromit themed. We need to get something."
Except not only is there nothing Wallace and Grommit related, there isn't anything at all for kids. The best I can do is a DVD called The Way We Were. Dinah shakes her head contemptuously at the box.
"You said get something."
"The Way We Were," she says reading from the box. "Bygone days in the Northeast!"
When the kids return to the table I break it to them that Wallace and Gromit's van broke down so we won't be seeing them after all. "But...I have a NEW FILM!"
The Way We Were is not made by Pixar and it rather shows. The film features pensioners from Yorkshire reminiscing about some of the north's great industries, including, for several excruciating minutes, the driver of the open-cast mining crane nicknamed the 'Big Geordie' talking about the dragline system. Near Ripon we reach the section, "Fascinating film interviews with descendants of some of our great industrial families including Firehose manufacturers George Angus and co."
"Love, the only other option was Yorkshire Crafts and Traditions," I tell Dinah. "It was about dry-stone walls. I did my best."
"What about Tractor Ted in the Springtime?" she says, "I saw that just walking through the shop and I wasn't even looking properly."
"What the one with real-life farm footage?"
"It was aimed at kids, Ben – I saw the box."
"It wasn't aimed at kids. It was aimed at farmers."
But miraculously the kids somehow hold it together so that I'm able to lean triumphantly across to my wife as we arrive back at the hotel: "Of course you know what Gromit would've done if Wallace had suggested driving an hour and half to the Wensleydale Cheese Visitor Centre for his daughter's fourth birthday?"
"What?" says Dinah.
I do my impression of Gromit's stern eyebrows.
Follow Ben Hatch on Twitter @BenHatch
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