Summer holidays are becoming eternal. Schoolteachers have hit on thewheeze of sending, virtually as soon as term has started, their inconvenient charges home for ‘study leave’. (As if.)
The tutors of New Labour’s mass higher-education programme abandon all pretence of supervision before May is out. Cliff Richard’s ‘no more worries for a week or two’ has become a three-month war of attrition. We parents have to mobilise. The enemies are childcare provision, expense, teenage boredom, and the monsoon summers of a Britain globally warmed. The strategy remains that of the Second World War mass evacuation. As early as possible, bag a house as large as possible, as remote as possible.
The place must, however, be accessible to late arrivals and early departures. That means the British mainland. Scour the Celtic fringe, the inland (cheaper) South-West, the east coast, and the Borders. As in livestock farming, unit costs must be minimised. A place that sleeps dozens works out more cheaply per head.
Essentials are these: somewhere to swim (pool or sea, failing which a river or lake); a separate barn or garage; the admission of pets; a washing machine; a cricket lawn; a large freezer; unfamiliar books; a garden hose; and an electric heat-as-you-go shower. Desirables are a piano, campfire woods, caves, and a nearby farm. And do consider a house swap. Bored chatelaines of isolated piles might just fancy a little spell in Wandsworth. Assemble your cast.
Children entertain themselves: the ratio of adults supervising drops exponentially. Cousins are essential. Godchildren don’t always rub along as easily, but their parents, your best friends, will provide inestimable support. As ‘primitive’ tribal societies know, a task shared is a task quartered. Shoehorn in children vetoed by one’s own. Once the pack is removed from its home territory, prejudices quickly fall away. Don’t overlook nice children of ghastly parents: merely invent an excuse not to invite the parents.
Above all, don’t be squeamish about accepting financial contributions from the grateful absent. Like Josephine Baker with her huge adopted family in her château, you could otherwise end up bankrupt. Ahead of time, contract a student au pair with a driving licence. Not necessarily female: mannies’ are considered cooler. Smuggle in tutorial qualifications if you can and invite the grandparents. They’ll be aching to be asked, and if kept at livery on half-board at a nearby hotel, will be fun at lunchtimes and out of your hair at crunch-times. Lease a people carrier.
As motoring costs spiral, the sums make sense. People are so keen to be shot of them, you can probably buy one as cheaply. The more venerable the vehicle, the better, provided that it’ll make the trip. You can then face sand or mud with equanimity. Campervans not only enliven the journey, but also provide back-up accommodation. However, do pull into a lay-by to let the tailbacks pass.
Two days before departure, blag a cash-and-carry card, and stock up: a whole ham, cooking cheese, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes, washing powder, and lentils, barley and beans for soups. Hit the farm shop, and buy two sacks of potatoes, one of onions. The night before, strip the vegetable garden, leaving instructions for subsequent visitors to bring down the next fortnight’s harvest. Now phone your landlords and tell them to hide the television. Pack a tent, first-aid box, spices, guitar, nit comb and extra sleeping bags. Make it clear that no child is to bring more than it can carry. Squashy holdalls double usefully as pillows; suitcases don’t. Empty the fridge and assemble a bizarre picnic.
Find out from TomTom how long the journey is supposed to take, and add another 50%: not simply to allow going off-piste at the first whiff of a snarl-up, but because the journey should of itself be interesting. You’ll need a break every two hours, for car-sickness stops, ener-getic exercise over features of geographical interest, and a detour to eat the bizarre picnic (‘Nonsense, children: it’s so much less stressful than a motorway canteen’). On arrival, lie through your teeth. What a shame that there’s no internet in this part of the world. Or a TV signal. Not even a supermarket (nip out when they’re not looking). Thank goodness we brought a supply of (carefully pre-selected) DVDs for the little ones’ early-bird shift. Allocate rooms by reversing the usual principle.
The two biggest go for girls’ and boys’ dorms. The quietest is set aside for revisers, bookworms and the infirm. Grown-ups take the smallest and most inaccessible. Set the tone from the very first night. We are perilously close to Enid Blyton a talking book version of The Secret Garden on the journey down will trigger imaginations. We’re in for ghost stories, card games for matchsticks, journals, treasure hunts, and Variety Nights. We’ll be avoiding theme parks, shopping trips and meals out. Instead, we’ll be doing a great deal of productive foraging for shellfish, blackberries and mushrooms.
The more they whine, the more Mary Poppins will become your demeanour. In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Boys’ dorms will compete against girls’ in the washing-up rota and the laying of tables. Just don’t let them anywhere near the washing machine.
These rules are set in stone No child to leave the boundaries unaccompanied. No child to swim without an adult. Three limbs must touch the rock being clambered at any one time. No shoes in the house: leave them in the big box by the back door (in Cornwall, no shoes, full stop). Sandy feet to be immersed in the washing-up bowl of water outside, sandy bodies hosed. Breakfast finishes at nine: nothing thereafter served until lunch. Earphones to be worn after 10pm. Allocate one smaller child to one elder for pastoral care (the littler, the bigger) and, in a private moment, speak gravely of trust and of maturity.
As for catering, think peasant: cheap, nourishing and plentiful. A cold lunch, laid out in the kitchen but eaten alfresco, will include the previous night’s leftovers—soup, pasta and rice salads are great sleight-of-handers. A big bowl of boiled new potatoes, in the Irish manner, will satisfy sportsmen’s appetites. At night, eat early and formally as a complete household.
As Yeats put it: ‘How but in custom and in ceremony, Are innocence and beauty born?’ Allocate the teenagers their beer ration, guarding the remainder (along with your own clean towel) under your bed. There-after, teenagers are given a guitar and sent out to the barn or garage, and the oldies and the young ones go to bed early. The children will relish the special attention; oldies will relish the bed. If teenagers party until three for the first few nights, exhaustion will soon enough teach them the sense of keeping civilised hours. Abandon the usual rules of grooming. If they’re sharing a dorm, they’ll police themselves.
Nowadays, you’re more likely to gag on the fumes of antiperspirant than anything else. And… relax. Don’t worry about teenage experimentation. Without being embarrassingly ‘yoof’-ful, keep talking to them and the worst can be negotiated. Think back, and you’ll remember: it’s during the summer holidays that a child’s real education takes place.