AFTER a journey by sea and road lasting over 24 hours, I find myself wrestling solo with a tangled mass of tent poles and guy ropes as dusk falls on Britanny.
Not only is it humid and almost dark, but my head torch has the luminosity of a glow-worm and I can hear cursing from my partner Ellie who is trying to sooth our crying little ones.
By now I am regretting purchasing a huge and complicated second-hand tent for £40 from a Glaswegian called John. As I am about to give up and order everyone to sleep in the van, a kindly neighbour pops over with a super-bright lantern.
“Logistics are essential when you have kids,” he says sternly, quickly returning to the order and comfort of his big white caravan. Over an hour later, with sweat pouring from my furrowed brow, the tent is upright.
As I collapse into a camping chair with a cold beer, my hopes of relaxing are shattered as our eldest enters the canvas “hotel”. Harry – almost three but still enjoying his “terrible two” status – isn’t ready for sleep as he has some roly polys to do against the flimsy tent walls.
Then he spots the mallet and decides our van needs “fixing”, pulling off the rear registration plate with one yank before I can disarm him.
It’s gone 11pm when he finally calms down enough to sleep.
Lottie, five months, is cosy in her Koo-di pop-up cot and Harry is in his inflatable Thomas the Tank Engine Ready Bed.
I have been camping many times but nothing prepared me for the stresses of a fortnight with two kids.
We quickly learned some lessons:
Don’t attempt a six-hour drive – it will take double that due to rest stops, toilet breaks, feeding, petrol stops and tantrums;
Don’t arrive at a campsite at 8pm in September – it might be closed and dusk is no time for tent building;
Do buy a decent light source, just in case.
Before dressing, check underpants for wasps (yes, I was stung on the bum);
Don’t leave butter unattended unless you want a little rascal to smear it on your tent, van and linen shirt;
A campsite with an indoor heated pool is essential if the weather turns;
A tablet with Scooby Doo/Peppa Pig episodes will entertain kids on long drives.
At 6am the next day I wake to the faint sound of a crowing cockerel and then Harry’s foghorn shout of “I’m hungry.”
Mercifully, we have brought a mini fridge and an electric hook-up cable, both “musts” when camping with small children who always seem to be hungry.
Al fresco breakfasting and late-night stargazing are among the best things about the outdoor life and Harry and Lottie enjoy them too, aided by our impromptu stories about hedgehogs (after one wandered into our tent).
It is important to remember that little ones enjoy simple pleasures like riding a scooter or splashing in the pool and it’s not worth risking car-borne tantrums just to search for a decent restaurant or pretty town.
Thankfully, our Saint-Malo campsite is a great base for easy-to-reach child-friendly destinations, including good beaches, atmospheric castles and places to have the odd “mucky beer” as our eldest calls it.
Worth a look are nearby Dinard (rock pools for crab hunting), inland town Dinan (riverside bars, boat trips) and Saint-Malo town itself (oozing history, a Mecca for shoppers). We also enjoyed visiting Fort La Latte, an impressive medieval castle which costs five euros to get in.
During days out we took the pram – and a buggy-board for Harry – so neither offspring needed to be carried.
After a week at the four-star Domaine de la Ville Huchet site – perfect for kids with its pools and slides – it was time to head to another campsite closer to our point of departure, Zeebrugge.
At this point, I was thinking that a week’s holiday would have been more sensible and my partner asked me more than once if it was possible to rebook the ferry to enable a hasty retreat. My stubborn determination to put on a brave face ensured we saw it though.
After driving for three hours – with lots of breaks – we settled, rather haphazardly, on a quiet campsite on the edge of Blangy-sur-Bresle, 25 miles east of Dieppe.
Blangy-sur-Bresle isn’t the prettiest town, but is a good base for exploring resorts including Le Treport and Le Crotoy. It’s obligatory to sample the wide range of cheese and wine and, of course, moules and frites. Sitting in the tent on the final morning of our break, with the heavy condensation on the canvas dripping on our heads, the shortcomings of camping are obvious. It’s very hard work for parents but the simple fact is that kids seem to love it. Just try to keep the driving to an absolute minimum.
Our journey to Zeebrugge gives Ellie and I a chance to discuss our next holiday. “We are never camping again,” is her curt reply.
Hmm, but what if we buy a caravan?
“We are never going on holiday again.”
Later, relaxing with a shandy on the P&O overnight ferry to Hull, she mellows a little but I really have my work cut out if we are to carry on camping.
• Andrew Robinson travelled by P&O from Hull to Zeebrugge. For the latest deals visit www.poferries.com
Low season camping discount cards are available at www.campingcard.co.uk