Friday, 23 June 2017

Childhood Heroes

After the whole hideous Jimmy Savile business, it felt like there was no longer anything sacred about my childhood television viewing. It had all been spoiled forever. It was the 1970s and 1980s, and they had all turned out to be a bunch of perverts. And we, in our innocence, had been completely and utterly duped. Savile was disturbingly close to home too, as he had worked with my grandfather in Leeds, and met my parents and aunts - and apparently me as a baby - at hospital social events. My mother recalled one of his cigars in an ashtray in their lounge.

Then Rolf Harris. Sunday afternoon cartoon fodder for me and my brother once we were back from our weekly swimming session at Leventhorpe pool. "Can you see what it is yet?" When we lived in Crouch End, Harris regularly went into the primary school down the road to give art lessons, open fetes etc, as his grandchild was a pupil there. But he was not what he seemed either, and was released from prison just over a month ago. No wonder the Queen's smile looked so forced on his portrait of her. I am no royalist, but she is an astute woman who can express much without words. It can't be coincidence that she dressed up as the European Union flag for her vellum-penned speech in the House of Lords this week.


However, recent events have restored some of the balance. There were good, honest people out there making television when I was little after all. I went to see Peter Lord, creator of Morph, give a talk at the York Festival of Ideas a couple of weeks ago. He is a York graduate, which I had forgotten, and one of the founders of the wondrous Aardman Animations. Morph lives on even now. Even without Tony Hart, who has become famous for nearly dying twice. I had really bad stomach ache throughout the talk (thanks to "the fork"), but it was lovely to hear Lord give an account of his career, showing some brilliant clips, even if these were hindered by technical glitches from the rather strange audiovisual set-up in the Bootham School auditorium. But nonetheless we saw everything from their first attempts at stop animation (photographing people jumping in the air then splicing the footage together to make it look like they were flying), to the original Aardman superhero character, to making the Sledgehammer video for Peter Gabriel (the success of which meant the Aardman Christmas parties trebled in size). Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! 


And don't forget Shaun...

Peter Lord was terribly modest, and spent the entirely of the talk modelling a piece of brown plasticine into a fresh Morph that was then auctioned off for charity. He also paid tribute to the wonderful Peter Sallis, who had passed away a few days before. He showed a clip of Sallis remembering how Nick Park had persuaded him to record the voice of Wallace when he was a young film student. Sallis graciously obliged, for very little money. He heard nothing more until Nick Park phoned him up six years later to announce "I've finished! Do you want to come and see it?" Such is the time-consuming nature of animating plasticine models.

Peter Sallis is a loss, though my childhood was more spent watching him rolling down a hill in a bath in Last Of The Summer Wine than in Wallace and Gromit. But that just reveals my age.

OK, so this isn't Shep...

And there have been two more recent passings of children's television presenters from my childhood that reassured me that they weren't all terrible sexual predators. First, John Noakes, Blue Peter hero. Who will always be remembered for an elephant standing on his foot, and climbing up Nelson's column on the world's most precarious ladder, without even a nod to health and safety. Because it was the 1970s and the BBC was, well, distracted. Rumour has it that the first time John Noakes climbed Nelson, the sound didn't record, so he had to do it all over again. A brave (and patient) man indeed.


"Windy's cider is very strong cider..."


Secondly, Brian Cant, voice of Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley, and presenter of Play School and Play Away until both were abruptly decommissioned in 1984. I never really saw him on screen again, though it seems he kept working right up until a few years ago, when Parkinson's took hold. Bizarrely, his copresenters on Play Away included Tony Robinson and Jeremy Irons. Which just goes to show any actor with rent to pay will do children's television. In the 1970s and '80s, 'kippers' had no connotations with Nigel Farage, and it was still acceptable (see above) for people to sing songs about ladies in a harem to young kids.


Our daughter is growing out of CBeebies, but I wonder which of its many presenters she will remember into adulthood. Justin "Mr Tumble" Fletcher? (Who of course is one of the voices on Aardman Animation's Shaun The Sheep and Timmy Time.) Lovely Chris and "Show me show me your groovy moves" Pui? Andy "Dinosaur Adventures" Day? I will be heartbroken if any of them are subsequently hit by scandal. Apart from Topsy and Tim's mum. She deserves all she gets.


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Wife Swap: Brexit Special

Wife Swap: something my husband may wish was more widely available. Also a typically scandalous Channel 4 title for something that is in fact slightly more inane - a chance for families with opposing beliefs or lifestyles to see how the other half lives. The female of the family swaps places with the female of another for a week and goes to live in their home. First, she follows the "rules" and lifestyle of the family where she is a guest, including doing whatever work the woman does. Then she tries to introduce some of her own ways of doing things to the family. But naturally there are some deliberate attempts to fuel an argument or court controversy. I am still traumatised by the memory of the mindless sap who pretended to be a Japanese geisha girl morning, noon and night.


But now it was something closer to home - a family of Leave voters swapping with a family of Remain voters. One of the accusations bandied about after last year's (in my opinion) disastrous referendum was that voters lived in their own bubbles, each believing that everybody thought like them, and never hearing the alternative view. Remain bred Remain, Daily Mail bred Daily Mail. I saw nothing but pro-EU posts in my Facebook feed from my friends, and all the posters (bar I think two) in our part of York were for Remain. Whereas Leave voters got fed bullshit by Boris, Gove, Dacre and Murdoch and the side of a bus, which was all self-reinforcing.


So now it was time for the two opposing views to have a conversation, and try and understand each other. Only it turns out you still can't have a conversation with a Leave voter. They just stand and shout crap, and refuse to listen to anything other than the sound of their own voices. They come out with Daily Express soundbites about taking back control and wanting their country back whilst blatantly failing to understand what the EU actually is. This Leave husband and dad, Andy, was no exception. He took Kat, a German migrant, to an East End market to show how there was only one white face left manning the stalls (who was Jewish). Seriously. But Andy's not racist, apparently. No. He just doesn't recognise his own Little England any more. Kat tries to point out that the EU has nothing to do with how many Pakistani people are selling mangos or saris in London. At home in their garden over a glass of wine, Kat tries to explain that EU migrants do not get a house and full unemployment benefits within ten minutes of landing at Dover. But Andy won't listen. He's read everything he knows in the paper. In the Canvey Island pub where his wife Pauline works, Kat rolls her eyes over an outside smoke as she tries to make the punters understand that she is the EU migrant and not the Syrian refugees who are fleeing a terrible war. She just gets shouted down with Dacre quotes. "Is this about not liking the EU, or not liking brown skins?" she asks in exasperation. But they're not racist either, apparently.

Meanwhile, Pauline, the Leave wife, over a meal of boeuf bourgignon, is surprised that the Germans in the room no longer feel welcome in the UK, having been told in the street to go back to their "Hitler Merkel". It's not that sort of immigration she's opposed to, you see. Not the sort where people pay taxes and work hard and have an education and raise children here. Well, what other sort did the EU give us, you moron? She objects that she's not allowed to put on a nativity play at Christmas any more. Which is again, nothing to do with the EU. She is shot down by Guardian-reading left-wing opinion, but is ultimately a little humbled by it. Nonetheless, she still goes and puts a picture of Nigel Farage above the fireplace. And later hides a garden gnome of him in the garden.

Meanwhile, Leave husband Andy won't take his England flags down. Kat should fit in, he says. "When in Rome..." Except he was totally unable to realise the irony of that statement, having just voted against the treaty of its name. But then, he acknowledges, Kat is the one with the facts. Which makes her the one in the wrong, apparently. Kat takes him to a Polish restaurant, which he is surprised to find isn't staffed by criminals, but instead by nice folk from Poland. With his love of roasted pork belly strips, really he should fit right in. When I taught English at a summer school on the Baltic Coast in Poland in 1996, we were expected to eat fatty cuts of meat three times a day.

Pork, European style

Slupsk Summer School, 1996

Andy's unhousetrained dog learns to poo on the Daily Express at least.

At the end of the day, Kat still feels adrift. And who can blame her? She's done her best, but it was like banging her head against the proverbial brick wall, only one festooned with the flag of St George. The only small sign of progress is that Andy and Pauline, who have definitely found Kat very intense and quite hard work, try not to list any anti-German stereotypes in the car on the way home. For now, that's as good as you are going to get.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Handmaid's Tale



So this is my essential Sunday night viewing for the next ten weeks, or as long as "the fork" lets me last. I am a big Margaret Atwood fan, but The Handmaid's Tale was the only one of her works that I didn't enjoy the first time I read it. Nothing to do with Atwood's writing, it was simply that I thought it was a horrible story, with an awful premise. I found it genuinely disturbing. I worried about the mind that had dreamt the whole thing up.

But a few months ago, I read it again with my book group, and this time saw so much more. The storyline couldn't shock me any more, so I could observe the wit and insight behind the words with much greater objectivity. And a lot has happened to the world since I first read the book. I realised that Margaret Atwood hadn't just dreamt the story up out of nowhere in some sort of sick moment. She had studied and observed how totalitarian regimes handle women. She had understood the oppressive nature of extreme religious beliefs towards the female gender. She had recognised that man believes his sole purpose on this earth is to procreate, and the lengths that people may go to in order to pass on their genes. In a way, she had, writing in 1985 about an American dystopia, foreseen the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. We recently read I Am Malala in our book group, which made all too clear the ruined role of and lack of opportunities for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan's Swat Valley under their rule. And current US Vice President Mike Pence seems to hold beliefs not a million miles away from many of the Gilead regime, which is why the book was enjoying a resurgence in popularity long before the television adaptation.

The television adaptation is great. Very dark, both figuratively and literally, but it seems that electricity has gone the way of fertility so there aren't many lights to turn on. There are many shocking scenes: Janine losing an eye, the bodies strung up by the river, the Eyes in the vans, the ceremonies of rape, death and birth. But there is also Atwood's sense of the surreal, and her sense of humour. The technicolor macaroons. The Scrabble game. The oranges. A Simple Minds song. Atwood herself has a brief cameo, a blurry spectre looming large to slap a girl down in front of Aunt Lydia at the Red Center.

I love the use of flashback to Offred's past life, and her barbed interjections on the voiceover that reveal her innermost thoughts. Elisabeth Moss can say a thousand words with her facial expressions in any case - she might seem mute, repressed and withdrawn, but you always believe that there is a firebrand within.



I have seen Margaret Atwood twice in person - once at the Hay on Wye book festival discussing Oryx and Crake with David Aaronovitch, and secondly at the Theatre Royal in York this year discussing Hagseed, her reworking of The Tempest. Both times I was struck by how staggeringly intelligent, erudite and eloquent she is. She talks slowly and steadily, but her mind must be racing as she speaks in order to be able to continually come up with those sorts of verbal goods. In York she kept her coat on throughout the session and seemed only to be dropping in for the briefest of moments, yet the hour felt far longer owing to the sheer richness of her contributions. Atwood managed to give interesting answers to even the most banal of questions. The York interviewer was simpering and simplistic, and the first person in the audience to ask a question took about five minutes of precious time to do so. He began with the epithet "I'm retired", which raised a collective groan, and he then proceeded to tell his life story, waffling on to eventually form some sort of question which basically seemed to require a denunciation of the "youth of today" and all its ilk. Atwood graciously shot him down with her highlighting of environmental concerns (the focus of many of her novels, particularly the MaddAddam trilogy), to ensure that her priorities lie with making sure that there is actually a world still here in fifty years' time for "the youth of today" to live in. The Handmaid's Tale presents a world where "youth" as a concept stands in danger of being lost forever. The human race is dying out, and the fault is entirely its own.

Question Time Special

While the news has been dominated for the past two weeks by the election and the terrible attacks in Manchester and London, my life has become pathetically obsessed by the fact that I have a piece of plastic fork stuck inside my intestine. One moment of carelessness, the sort of thing that happens when you have a young child and spend your life not concentrating and attempting to multi-task, and as a result I am now living in constant fear that I am going to win a Darwin award for the most stupid death of the year.

We were having a lovely day out in Bridlington, and had been to see the breeding sea birds at the spectacular Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve.


Our daughter was full of the moans, as she had been made to go for a long walk and it was well past her lunchtime. So we pulled up at our favourite chippy, 149 on Marton Road, and bought ourselves a picnic to eat on the cliffs next to the car park at Sewerby. Randomly, some friends from York were seated at the next bench. So I was talking, sharing my meal with my daughter, admiring the view, feeling pretty darn hungry myself, enjoying the yummy food, and therefore not paying attention to my cutlery. It was only when I swallowed that I felt something sharp. "Crikey, that was a big bone, or a tough bit of batter," I thought to myself, only to then notice that a tine of my fork was missing. I tried to calm my instant panic, by reassuring myself that it would just past straight through, like one of my top teeth when I was seven, which dropped out of its socket while I was leaping up and down on a bean bag and I reactively gulped down.

Anyway, not to put too fine a point on things, it hasn't re-emerged, over two weeks later. And I have a sharp pain on the right-hand side of my small intestine. And no doctor will effing believe me. The trouble is that plastic doesn't show up on X-rays. So there is nothing to see. I have had a CT scan with oral contrast, quite a miraculous achievement in itself for a Sunday afternoon in York Hospital on a Bank Holiday weekend, but all it showed is that my bowel is still intact. Obviously I don't want to be cut open unnecessarily, but I know it's there, sticking into me a little more as each days go by. And I can't get the bloody thing out, no matter how hard I try.

So here I continue, each day in pain, each day feeling very sorry for myself, and a bit scared of what the next few days or weeks might bring, with a sharp object in my body made of toxic plastic. It brings home to you just how special your family are to you, and how much there is to live for, and all the things that you never quite got round to doing. "You aren't going to die," my husband groans in exasperation. He is used to this sort of talk from me, and naturally doesn't like it. I am very paranoid about my health. I always was, and then watching my mother die of cancer made me a million times worse, especially now I have a child of my own, who I couldn't bear to leave motherless, because I just fricking adore her. 

And what a bloody idiotic thing to have done. That desperation to travel back in time and reset the clock, to go to a different chippy, to just chew my food that bit more thoroughly so that my teeth could have found the big sodding bit of plastic before my gullet. But it's happened, and there is nothing I can do about it now.

So it was good in a way that Question Time came to York last Friday, to remind me of the bigger picture. Here I am stressing about a tiny piece of fork, when we have the chance to decide and change our futures this coming Thursday, and when the May and Corbyn bandwagon was rolling into town. They'd both been to York already during the campaign. May spoke to ten Tory party activists in a back room of the Barbican (that "getting out and meeting voters rather than taking part in TV debates" that she keeps referring to, part of her "strong and stable leadership" mantra repeated ad nauseum, alongside "It is very clear that" and "negotiating Brexit" and pulling that funny fish face every time she tries to think of her own words) whereas Corbyn addressed a packed St Helen's Square, holding up an amplifier so that everyone could better hear Rachael Maskell's introduction. This was early in the campaign, when he was very lacking in the polls, but even then he had the popular touch. 


I have never been a Corbyn fan. I am angry that he ordered a three-line whip on the Article 50 vote - and that he voted to allow May to hold this election in the first place. He seemed to have no clue about what it means to be in Opposition, i.e. that you are supposed to oppose. But Corbyn is genuine at least. He is a man of conviction and integrity. He tries to stay on the side of decency. He is a pacifist. He gets out and talks to people. He is comfortable in his own skin. He tries to answer questions put to him. He doesn't U-turn at the drop of a hat, though he might want to learn the art of compromise a little more succinctly. But most importantly, he isn't full of shit. Unlike Theresa May. And all of that has counted a lot over recent weeks. 


But whatever doubts I may have had about Corbyn, I am going to vote Labour in this election, assuming my plastic fork lets me survive til Thursday. This is partly because I have a huge amount of respect for York Central's current MP, Rachael Maskell, who defied Corbyn's whip to vote against triggering Article 50. She chose to listen to the majority of her constituents, who voted to remain by a far greater margin than the country as a whole voted to leave the European Union. She has served our city tirelessly since being elected in 2015, and frankly I have no idea when she sleeps. She is there for the big issues, and also the small. When the city was inundated by water, there she was on our street, speaking to the residents next to the park whose houses were full of the river. She lambasted David Cameron for the government's lack of funding for flood defences. When Virgin Media trashed our pavements in Southbank laying new broadband cables, she was there demanding that they pay for the damage. When a group of mums at school campaigned for a safer crossing on Bishopthorpe Road, she came to see for herself and to ask what she could do. She has much of Corbyn's honesty and integrity, and I hope will go far. But the Tories are gunning for her seat. They have the money to throw at their campaign, and Theresa May is busy sending her glossy brochures out to the more marginal wards of York, particularly those who leaned more towards Brexit. It's greedy and despicable.

Anyway, here we were, Question Time, from the Ron Cooke hub at the University of York, part of the new Heslington East campus. Not a leaders' debate, because the Maybot only does pre-programmed cliched rhetoric, but a chance for the public to ask their questions. Although no one I knew - pro-European, left-leaning - who applied to go on the programme was successful. Instead, the biased BBC had managed to dredge up a load of entrepreneurial, wealthy, nuclear-war loving, anti-foreign aid and anti-Northern Ireland peace process Tories, young and old, to have a go at Corbyn. Gold star to the woman who finally had enough of the red-button grilling, and asked if people would kindly refrain from discussing the murder of potentially millions. Anyway, the audience certainly didn't reflect the people of York - who I generally regard as open-minded, tolerant, cultured and international - that well. They were more a reflection of the Saturday afternoon binge-drinking hellhole that our city can turn into from time to time. There were a few awkward questions for Theresa May too - notably from a nurse who has had only 1% pay rises (not in line with inflation) since 2010 and from a lady who had had a terrible experience during a work capability assessment and has had to wait years for psychological treatment. But nobody pushed May on how many people she was planning or not planning to bomb, or how she will deal with the fallout from Brexit on the borders in Ireland and the IRA. That would have made her pull a multitude of fishfaces.


Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Truth About Sleep

In recent years, I have had a troubled relationship with sleep. It isn't just because I have a young child, though that certainly doesn't help. She likes to get up at stupid o'clock, and still has illnesses and bad dreams often enough to keep us on semi-alert all the way through the night.

But I wasn't much good at sleeping before she came along, to be honest. I don't think I've slept through the night since I was about 21 years old. I am terrible at dealing with jetlag, not that there's much opportunity for long-haul flights at the moment. How I envy my daughter the way she sleeps when she finally - after a much protracted bedtime routine of toileting, baths, further toileting, toothbrushing, hairbrushing, saying goodnight to the cats, reading Harry Potter, non-stop chatter and clingy cuddles and us popping in and out of her room for what feels like hours - FINALLY drops off. I don't think there is a more beautiful, heartrending and peaceful sight than a sleeping child.


If I am in familiar surroundings, I can get to sleep fairly quickly. (Different story in a strange bed, when I seem to forget how to fall asleep at all.) But then after a couple of hours I will wake up, and then spend most of the rest of the night tossing and turning, having silly dreams where I am half-awake, half-asleep and trying desperately not to get up and go to the loo. At certain times if my thyroid is swollen, I develop sleep apnoea and wake up gasping for breath, my heart pounding. And then just as I finally settle and begin to nod off again, something will disturb me - a passing drunk or car on the street outside, an owl in the park, or the pigeon that lives on our roof and coos at the first break of dawn every sodding morning. Or the girl wakes up. Or the cats start taking lumps out of each other or knock something over downstairs. Then there is my husband, trying to reclaim his share of the duvet, or rolling onto his back and starting to snore, or having one of his nightmares which make him wail like he's being murdered. And so it goes on, with me getting more and more restless, my joints achier and achier, and my feet and hands full of pins and needles. Then I will pass out into proper unconsciousness about ten minutes before we have to get up for school and work.

With my own little foibles, I am very annoying to share a bed with. I hate noise, so sleep with ear plugs in. I like darkness, so want blackout blinds and sometimes even an eye mask. And I love lots of fresh air, so I will sleep with the window wide open even in the depths of winter, the duvet over my head so that all is exposed to the chill is my nose. (See husband's battle with the duvet in the previous paragraph.) To help ease the sleep apnoea I will smear myself in Vicks and stick a little plastic strip across my nose. Then I need the bed propped up on several books to relieve acid reflux, so it feels like I am lying on a cliff, regularly sliding down to the bottom of the bed until my toes hang over the end. This gives me backache, and makes me toss and turn even more.

Sometimes my husband and I just give up with each other and sleep in separate rooms. It's bliss. But we don't like to admit that to one another.

(And my husband would just like to point out that it is very hypocritical of me indeed to complain about anybody snoring.)

But I am by no means alone. The Truth About Sleep, presented by Michael Mosley, told us that insomnia is becoming a national, generational problem. None of us are getting enough sleep. And it's making us depressed, obese, and diabetic, and prone to all sorts of other health problems. But I really didn't need to know all that. It's enough to keep me awake at night.

You can measure how sleep-deprived you are by lying on your bed in the middle of the day. Hold a metal spoon over the edge of the bed above a metal tray. Make a note of the time. When you nod off, you will drop the spoon, and the clatter of the spoon hitting the tray will wake you up. See what time it is, and how long it took you to fall asleep. If it's less than 15 minutes, chances are you need more slumbertime.

So what can we do about it? GPs offer the quick fix of sleeping pills, although they are usually reluctant to prescribe these for long, as they are addictive and - if our bodies adjust to them - soon rendered useless. That said, some people end up swallowing them for years. There is only so much resistance a doctor will put up if they have a waiting room full of patients to see.

But what about more natural ways of reducing insomnia? Well, there's the obvious behavioural things like avoiding alcohol and caffeine and large meals just before you go to bed. Although apparently if you down a shot of espresso just before you take a nap, you will feel much more alert when you wake up. This is the recommended course of action if on a long car journey you find yourself too tired to drive. Pull into a service station, buy a coffee, and then have a snooze in your car. But who the hell can manage to have a decent nap in a car, other than a toddler? Not me, that's for sure.

Another thing you can do is to switch off all screens - laptops, smart phones, Kindles etc - at least an hour before bedtime. The light from them acts as a stimulant and upsets our body clocks. Proof that the darkness I crave is important. Our daughter still refuses to sleep in the absolute dark, but daylight certainly keeps her awake in summer. Michael Mosley goes to stay the night in a Danish greenhouse to investigate the healing effect of floods of natural light controlling our bodies.

Kiwi fruit and alcohol-free wine

Then there's a selection of what seem like kooky old wives' tale sleep aids to try out. Two kiwi fruits an hour before bedtime. A hot bath. A session of mindfulness. And taking pre-biotics, a white powder stirred into a drink to encourage gut bacteria to grow and thus improve the dynamic between our brain and digestive system. A group of insomniacs each trial one of them. Bizarrely, all seem to have some sort of beneficial effect. I think I'll have a go at the lot.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Child-Friendly Holiday Review: Les Sablons with Eurocamp at Portiragnes-Plage, Languedoc, France

Eurocamp made me laugh today with a new blog post about walking holidays for beginners, celebrating "national walking month". There was nothing particularly funny about the post, which was simply highlighting booklets of walks that some parcs have published. We own one from Lathuile in Annecy last year, where unfortunately a week of pouring rain meant we didn't set out on any of them.

What made me laugh was that our hikes in the French Alps were curtailed by not just incessant rain, but also our six-year-old daughter, who is currently the world's biggest moaner on walks. Her whining can dampen even the hardiest of spirits in the most glorious of sunshine. We live in Yorkshire, surrounded by beautiful scenery - the Dales, the Moors, the Wolds. It spoils us. It tempts us. We are determined to enjoy it, as well as trying to get a bit of much-needed exercise. Every weekend we drag our daughter out on what could be described at worst as a gentle stroll, usually no further than a couple of miles, and usually featuring a bluebell wood, an interesting view or geological feature, some cute animals or birds, and a massive bribe of a cafe or ice-cream van at the end. But still there is this constant pitiful wail in the background - "It's too far, Mummy!" "How much further is it, Mummy?" "My feet hurt!" "I'm tired!" - slowly sapping us of the will to live.

It doesn't help when the weather forecast turns out to have been slightly inaccurate
Sigh. I am sure we are not alone in this, and that she will grow up determined to climb mountains and reflect her Cumbrian roots. I am fairly sure I was none too happy about being taken up hills in the rain at her age either. But whatever, for now we need to accept that we're a still long way off being able to book a Eurocamp walking holiday.

So this Easter we decided to go for the much easier beach option. Keeping mountains (in this case, the still snow-capped Pyrennees) at a suitable distance, we flew with Ryanair from Manchester to Beziers, and booked ourselves a week at Camping Les Sablons in Portiragnes-Plage in Languedoc. We paid £341 for the flights including luggage, and just short of £420 for our accommodation, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom Vista, including bed linen and towel hire.

Distant Pyrenees
Miraculously, this year French air-traffic controllers weren't on strike for either of our flights, and all proceeded smoothly. Ryanair had become a lot more family friendly since we last travelled with them, and Beziers airport is one of the smallest I have ever been to. It literally consists of two rooms - one for departures, one for arrivals. Facilities don't extend much beyond some Portaloos and a tiny bar, although extending them does appear to be on the agenda. The airport also only has two customs officers, which meant for a long wait at passport control, which will no doubt only worsen post-Brexit if (and please no!) we all need to get visas as well. Ryanair were as impatient as ever to be off, so they boarded their return flight to Manchester while we were still queuing across the Tarmac all the way back to the plane. Our suitcases had been waiting for ages by the time we got through.

We had booked a taxi transfer, as Eurocamp had listed Les Sablons as one of their recommended car-free destinations. It's certainly no distance from the airport to the campsite so in a matter of minutes we were checking in at the courier reception. A disinterested girl sat lazily behind a desk and drew an X on a map to show us where to find our caravan. On every previous Eurocamp holiday we have always been taken to our accommodation personally by the courier. I don't know if this is just part of Eurocamp's constant cost-cutting - we've lost the free playing cards and shopping bag, we've lost the returning customer complementary wine, and now we've lost the one guaranteed interaction you had with your couriers. (And it transpired, while we're listing first-world problems, that we've lost the black bin bag outside too.) Les Sablons is a big site and we were on foot, so some assistance during a long walk with luggage and an over-excited child might have been appreciated.



Slightly limited space for an Easter egg hunt

The top bunk was a must
Our mobile home was great - it was almost as spacious as the Avant we rented at Lake Garda last year, and seemed almost as new and well equipped. (Minus the dishwasher of course.) In the end, we were glad that all the Avants at Les Sablons had already been taken by the time we booked the holiday, as they were in a very cramped location near to a large toilet block. Our Vista had a much nicer setting. The caravan was clean, although there was a slightly unpleasant smell in the cupboard under the sink. (Some of the drains on the campsite plainly needed work.) The caravan had air conditioning and heating, although things got a little chilly at night. As there were only the three of us, we could share six blankets between us, and that was enough. The bed was surprisingly comfortable - often they aren't the best in Eurocamp homes.

However there were at least three light bulbs not working, despite the courier's checklist claim that they had all been tested that day. The only one we needed and chased them up on was the outside light, but this turned out actually to be broken, as a replacement bulb didn't make any difference. We made do with little LED lights and torches we had brought with us to sit outside in the evenings.

The pitches were shady under trees, which must be a welcome relief in summer, but also meant that the outside furniture was splattered with bird poo. The ground was sandy, and full of busy ants pushing the dust into piles. It was quite fascinating to watch (if you are six), and thankfully the ants at this point weren't finding their way into our caravan. At dusk, bats swooped around the caravans, and mosquitoes sparked on the electricity points. Don't forget your insect repellent - these fellas seem able to bite through clothes.

As I mentioned before, the campsite is big, so it was quite a walk to the pools and shopping facilities from our pitch. But this meant that it was very quiet all around us, with no disturbances from the bars or evening entertainment, although this wasn't in full swing at this time of year. No foam nights yet, just a mini disco for the kids, and a slightly awkward magician. And we did have things to entertain us nearby - several ping-pong tables, a tennis court and a play fort. Not having been able to fit much into our Ryanair luggage allowance, we borrowed various items of sports equipment and games (plus a couple of beach mats) from Eurocamp reception.


The campsite had a decent-sized supermarket, with a bakery and newsagent's next door. They were open every day, even on the Easter bank holidays, though closed for a siesta for a few hours in the afternoons. The prices were quite high, but needs must when you don't have a hire car. The bread and pastries from the bakery (called a depressingly English "Bread And Sun") were fabulous, and it was a joy to get up early each morning to buy our freshly baked breakfast supply.

Creperie reverie

As for the food outlets, we got takeaway pizza one night. There were plenty of toppings to choose from but we couldn't dissuade our daughter from her standard margherita. She also indulged in several of the bar's crepes Nutella (see above). We ate once in the campsite restaurant, which was friendly and just fine. We opted for the menu du jour (duck on a bed of sweet potato puree, with a weird thin breadstick sticking out of a minuscule glass of gravy) and lucked out because they had run out of the official ile flottante dessert of the day so let us have their home-made tarte tatin instead, which was incredible. The lovely waitress assured us we were getting a good deal, and then made it an even better one by forgetting to charge us for it. I have to say that everyone on the campsite was so nice and seemed to take real pride in their work. It probably helps that I can speak reasonable French and like to strike up a conversation, but the staff were without exception truly warm and often very funny people.



The pools were heated so could be enjoyed (just about!) even this early in the season. The water in the covered pool felt greasy with suncream after the morning aquarobics session, but otherwise they were pretty refreshing. There were slides, a toddler play pool and a jacuzzi pool, and one more suited for proper swimming. The pools were really busy in the afternoons, but we nonetheless always managed to get a sun lounger. The pool toilets smelled foul by the end of each day and were best avoided. Unfortunately the adults only spa area didn't open until the 1st of May, which was clearly stated on the campsite's own website, but not on Eurocamp's. This was a shame, as it looked great and would have been a real bonus if we had had any time to spare away from our daughter.


Which we did have as she was quite happy to join the campsite kids club activities once a day. These had to be booked at their office in advance, and quickly filled up. We were quite proud of our daughter's self-confidence as English kids were definitely a minority presence, and she knows only a smattering of French words from her lessons at school - bonjour, j'adore, trois, lundi, violet and ananas. (Believe it or not, telling someone she loves three purple pineapples on Mondays isn't necessarily the most random thing she is likely to say on a given day.) They did lots of craft activities, and walks around the campsite. And not being able to speak French meant she had to do all the walking without moaning. Good for her.

Walking on the spot is also OK, it seems

And it meant we could go for a long walk ourselves. On Easter Sunday the kids club activity was a three-hour Easter egg hunt, which gave my husband and me time to find the Canal du Midi, and walk to the lock at Portiragnes village and back. It was idyllic, and so relaxing. We saw lizards, bulls, horses and even flamingos from the path. The famous plane trees that line the canal are being struck down by a lethal fungus so the path is no longer as shady in parts as it once was, as the trees are being felled in order to curb the spread of the disease. There were plenty of boats cruising towards Carcassonne and the Atlantic, but the lock at Portiragnes only took three of them at a time, so there was a long queue of them required to wait outside the village. In the glorious sunshine, however, nobody seemed to be complaining.









Yes, sunshine! As equally miraculous as there being no strikes and our daughter not moaning on campsite walks, the sun was shining when we landed at Beziers, and pretty much didn't stop for the whole week we were there. And it was unexpectedly warm, averaging 23-25 degrees most days, which is my absolute optimum temperature. After three years of holidaying with Eurocamp in our winter coats, we were delighted, and didn't quite know what to do with ourselves. But it was just as well, because we may have run out of things to occupy us if the weather had been bad. Eurocamp say you don't need a car for this campsite, but that's only true if you are happy with just a beach and campsite holiday. Exploring the region without a car is quite difficult. There is a bus service to Beziers, but it is designed for the needs of commuters and school children, so you have to be up and ready to go for 8am if you want to make use of it. This, needless to say, caused some more moaning:


The bus goes to Beziers via all the local villages so takes around 40 minutes. And it only goes to the gare routiere rather than the train station (which is a 20-minute walk downhill from the bus station). So we had to abandon plans for trips to Montpellier and Carcassonne on public transport as the bus just didn't connect that well with the trains, and the extra walking would have started off that moaning again. There were two buses a day back to the campsite - one just after lunch and one about five o'clock, so you had to plan the day carefully. However, the big advantage of the buses was that they were super cheap - if you bought a ten-journey pass (which the three of us could share), each ride only cost a euro. The bus driver was greeting us like old friends by the end of the week.

Beziers is well worth a visit, with its beautiful cathedral, old bridges, canal locks and Roman remains. It also has an extensive indoor market and plenty of good restaurants and cafes. We found a quiet square (Place de la Madeleine) for lunch behind the market where, in a restaurant called Au Soleil, we feasted on a tasting platter of oysters, pissaladiere, prawns, smoked salmon and cold pea and mint soup. The hostess was charming, and so welcoming to us all.










Another day we took a further bus to Pezenas, a gorgeous town full of artists' ateliers and quaint and quirky shops. Moliere used to hang out there a lot, and it's not hard to see why. It really is a lovely place.

The town's local delicacy is a mince pie; a legacy from Clive of India, apparently. The filling is like your average Christmas mince pie, but the pastry is raised hot water crust, like on a pork pie. They garner a mixed reception:


Pezenas was all geared up for Easter, with a busy food market and a street decorated with paper flowers and bric-a-brac stalls. We met a friend who lives in the area for lunch, who took us to a wonderful restaurant (Chez Hansi) run by a guy from his village. It's the sort of place we would never have found by ourselves (although it is currently number one on TripAdvisor), and the food - a warm chevre salad and lapin for me - was amazing. We chickened out of his speciality dish, a steak tartare prepared at your table.



But for the rest of the holiday, given the perfect weather, we were content to just hang out on the beach, which was a wild stretch of sand that went on for miles, all the way to the Spanish border. The sand was mixed with millions of tiny, colourful, perfect shells. The campsite had direct access to the beach through the dunes, and Stick Man and his family pointed the way:


The sea was needless to say pretty cold, but you got used to it. Or maybe your skin just turned too numb for you to care. Some days the water was quite rough with waves that could knock small children sideways; on others it was a calm oasis with barely a ripple on it. The beach had a long shallow shelf so you could paddle quite far out without getting wet beyond your knees.




The resort at Portiragnes-Plage was "upmarket" according to Eurocamp's brochure, but that wasn't a word that immediately sprang to our minds. Although it was hard to gauge the place, as a lot of the shops and restaurants hadn't yet opened for the summer season. We found a couple of places to eat, but they weren't spectacular. In fact, one had an all-you-can-eat buffet that looked like it might kill someone. We found some more promising looking places a little further from the campsite, but only on the last day when a lot of them were closed after the Easter weekend. A circus was in town, but we failed to find it. There was a big nature reserve leading on to Serignan Plage, where families gathered for barbecues on the bank holiday. The nature reserve had more dunes and a large lake like the one next to the campsite, which had several safari tents alongside it and was under a permanent fog of mosquitoes.



View towards Beziers cathedral from Portiragnes-Plage

All too soon it was time to leave. The couriers, having cycled past us several times without a word of greeting during the week, also did their best to ignore us when we arrived back at reception to check out, although admittedly we were in the company of a child having a screaming meltdown because she had just fallen over, badly scraping her knee. Anyway, when addressed directly, the couriers agreed to store our luggage for us, as our flight back to Manchester wasn't until early evening. They however failed to turn up at the agreed time later that afternoon for us to collect it ready for our taxi. Thankfully, one was only a phonecall away so we weren't overly delayed. A word of warning - the taxi cost twice as much on the return leg as on the way there, because he also charged us for his travel out of Beziers. Probably best to agree a fare in advance. But we had been too busy chatting about the upcoming presidential election and the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The taxi driver had a brother who lived in Manchester and was facing an uncertain future.

We would go back to Les Sablons in a heartbeat, although it would possibly be way too hot and crowded in the peak summer season. (We couldn't afford August prices anyway, whereas the Easter rates were extremely good value for money.) We were incredibly lucky with the weather, as it is always a risk to take your main holiday so early in the year. We benefited from Easter being late. The disinterested Eurocamp couriers were definitely the least good aspect of the otherwise fantastic trip, but their bike rental guy was in contrast chatty and helpful. But at least they keep the caravans clean and if you rented the campsite's own accommodation (some of which looked really cool, in lovely garden settings) you would either have to leave it immaculate or pay a hefty cleaning charge.

I don't suppose we'll get our daughter on a Eurocamp walking holiday next year either, but if we return to Les Sablons, we might persuade her to accompany us along the Canal du Midi for a short stretch to see the flamingos, but there may need to be the promise of a chocolate pancake on return. I am very relieved that Marine Le Pen has since lost the election (one power-crazed xenophobe as Prime Minister at home is enough), as we would love to explore Languedoc some more. But next time we would definitely rent a car. Maybe one of the shiny purple Fiat 500s the hen party in the next caravan had hired for the weekend, which looked seriously smart.