Day 1 of the Holiday and the journal…. It’s the middle of the night on the approaching August Bank Holiday weekend for summer 2011. It’s pitch black and raining as I bundle 2 bleary eyed and confused boys into the back of an already packed car. We’re heading for Normandy tonight and due to the last minute nature of the holiday we’ve chosen a very unsociable time to catch the ferry. I just keep reminding my poor little chaps that they can at least sleep in the car….In the back I’ve set up a mini campsite of blankets, covers, 2 cuddly monkeys, teddies, youtube on the netbook (just in case) and enough snacks to last to the ferry should anyone other than myself be awake during the drive.
We’re sailing from Portsmouth Harbour and at 2 hrs 14 mins from Bristol in the dark and torrential rain, I’m thinking it could be an interesting night: I’m already expecting at least 3 or 4 encounters with the rumble strips along the M5. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried as the journey is relatively peaceful… kids dipping in and out of sleep, counting beer lorries, singing Frere Jacques and playing Crazy Penguins on the computer, we finally arrive at Portsmouth Harbour. If there was any sun in Portsmouth, it would be thinking of rising in the sky by now, but as it is, there’s a hint of dawn break and the torrents have turned to a light drizzle.
We turn into to the port and meet the somewhat impressive sight of 4 gigantic ferries lit up in their splendour. For the children it’s a veritable feast of vehicles and winches and lots of ‘big things’ they don’t normally see. There are numerous Royal Navy Vessels also dotting the harbour. As we wait in the queue for boarding passes, we count the old grey Navy ships with flight decks on them; imagining what they may look like with helicopters or harrier jets taking off. Nelson’s famous ship, the HMS Victory, nestles comfortably in a side dock, somewhat crowded out by her more modern counterparts. And as we set sail, watching the ghostly galleons turn to dots, it occurs to me that the contrast in the harbour is equally reflected in the outskirts of Portsmouth town that we can decifer. Rickety old half broken seaside fairgrounds lining the esplanade are remaining incongruously against the modern background of the city centre office buildings and new architecture.
Turning our attentions back to our own ferry and the children marvel at the sheer scale of ‘Le Mont St Michel’ (as she’s been named). All in all the vessel boasts ten enormous decks housing vehicles, cabins and entertainment decks. Something tells me we won’t be needing the sundeck on this cold and dreary morning leaving Blighty.
We take a wander round and it instantly strikes me how refined this form of travel can be, especially compared to the jostling queues of airports and railways.. Everyone is strolling around peacefully, enjoying the view from the windows or relaxing in a big chair (of which there are hundreds). There are no angst ridden faces due to the lack of leg room or being kicked by the kid behind your seat or vile food. What is lost in time whilst sailing is gained in comfort and ambience.
Invariably for our own circumstances, it’s not long before we find the playroom on floor 9. The whole deck is completely tailored for child friendly family entertainment complete with soft play, games room, face painting, a clown entertainer, a cinema, bar, and 3 restaurants. This is the only part of the ferry with any noise and bustle. Apart from the odd baby crying, the general sounds are of chattering children and happy voices. Within no time it seems, the kids have all lined up for face painting (my 2 opt for a camouflage face and a skeleton!) and Charlie the Clown has appeared to provide each and every child with a specially moulded balloon; whether it be a flower/sword/plane or dog. I giggle to myself as I observe Cheerful Charlie looking anything BUT cheerful this early morning. Even covered in clown paint, huge shoes and a multi-coloured outfit, he looks like he should be behind a desk in an accountants’ firm, fiddling miserably with his briefcase. Once each child has been kitted out with make-up and a balloon, pandemonium breaks out as they all play fight with their new acquisitions. Anyone not wishing to join in disappears to watch ‘Scooby Doo’ or HORRID HENRY – the Movie and presently, most adults seem to be sitting down in a bar or restaurant nearby ,trying out the surprisingly good food or drinks menus..
For almost the whole trip I barely see my boys unless I’m sitting watching them play. They lose themselves, chasing around with newly-made friends and only return for brief periods to refuel, looking sweaty, with their face paint sliding further away at each return. Near the end of our journey, Cheerful Charlie returns one more time to send the kids on their way with a magic show. He’s obviously either just had his pay cheque or a large whisky as he is actually looking quite happy this time. His tricks are abysmal. The kids love it!!
It is now full day light at Le Havre, we have docked, the kids are happy and we are about to set foot on French soil again this summer. My first point of adventure: Castle De Caen et Le Musee D’Arts….