What an incredible summer we've had. For a warm weather-loving family like us, the past few months have felt like the most amazing gift. Guaranteed sunny weather and clear skies at night has made everything feel so easy. We love to have a simple life - as few plans as possible, the school two minutes from the house, dinners at the houses of local friends while the kids run around in the garden, inviting people over for braais and lunches and drinks and parties, spending weekends together as a family in our lovely house. This summer we decided to take a few more trips than usual - partly encouraged by the weather, and partly because after a couple of harder years, our youngest daughter (now a delightfully imperious two and a half) has finally decided that sleeping all through the night is where it's at, and that sitting peacefully in a car seat without feeling the need to scream until she pukes is A-OK too. Bring on the family fun!
We began the summer in earnest with a trip to our beloved Meganisi, a tiny, enchanted Greek island surrounded by the turquoise Ionian sea. Accessed only by boat, it has sleepy little villages filled with roses, bourgainvillea, lavender, basil, jasmine and geraniums. A lovely harbour lined with tavernas with blue-painted furniture that have been run by the same local families for decades. Fishing boats bobbing in the crystal clear water. Black-clad ladies carrying parcels on their heads. Mythos beer, tiny fried fish, tzatziki, white wine, baklava and orange honey cake. Secret white shingle beaches. Cats everywhere. Starlit skies and warm, scented evenings. The wall of heat when you step off the plane. Racing through the darkness at midnight past tiny, private islands from the safety of a speedboat. Warm, friendly people who greet strangers with genuine delight and affection.
Visiting for the first time in seven years with my husband and all three daughters was a bittersweet experience, encountering as I did on every corner the ghost of my younger self sunbathing on the beach, drinking ouzo by the pool, and zooming around in the scented darkness at 2am on the back of a Greek scooter heading recklessly towards an unknown location to party to the previous year's dance music. Everything was exactly the same as it was twenty years ago, and I was exactly the same, and also completely different. Two versions of me passed each other on the hotel steps - my twenty-something self in a cheap turquoise TopShop bikini ran down to the poolside bar in search of ouzo, while my thirty-something self headed back up the steps in a coral Calvin Klein bikini, carrying my adorable sweaty two-year old who refuses to wear clothes in hot weather, while her two elder sisters scamper happily ahead. My younger self would never have predicted the life I have now, but I know it's exactly what she would have wanted.
Back home, and our eldest girl was part of the parade for the Didsbury festival, and I cried a little bit watching her march past with the Didsbury Theatre School, shaking her scarlet pompoms.
Shortly after this, we discovered that Cookie puppy can scale our six foot garden wall. I was on a conference call at the time, watching him playing in the garden, when he vaulted onto the wall, charged along it, leapt over the fence onto next door's trampoline, bounced like the animals in the John Lewis Christmas advert, and scaled a tree in hot pursuit of a squirrel who seemed to find the whole thing highly amusing.
We celebrated the summer solstice with friends - I decorated the house with green branches from our garden, and blue hydrangeas liberated from a kind neighbour's garden. We painted flowers and third eyes on everyone's faces, dined on ham, new potatoes with mint, roasted cherry tomatoes, butternut squash and asparagus with goats cheese, and strawberry tart. As it began to get dark we moved outside, lit a bonfire, poured magic crystals over it to turn the flames rainbow coloured, and wrote wishes on little scrolls of paper before tossing them onto the fire. The kids were still up and playing at 11pm despite it being a school night, but worth it as a special treat and something that we hope they'll always remember.
Next up was a camping trip to our favourite wild Welsh campsite, Aberafon, with five other families from the school. We took the hounds with us, which caused absolute carnage as no one else in the crew has dogs, and so kept doing things like casually putting entire plates of curry on the ground, which Enrique pounced upon joyfully (sorry, Andrew!). My lovely friend Caroline gave her little boy a very large sausage in a bread roll, and I said "be careful he doesn't put that down, cos Enrique will have that in a flash". Three seconds later he put it down, and me, Caroline, and Enrique all threw ourselves towards the sausage - me with horror that Enrique might eat a massive sausage and be really poorly, Caroline in horror that a naughty dog might eat her little guy's meal, and Enrique with absolute joy and conviction that he was being offered a truly delicious lunch. He won, obviously. Sorry, Caroline! The kids ran free on the beach, played in the water as the tide rolled out and in again, paddled around in an inflatable kayak, and generally had an absolutely glorious time in relentless 30 degree sunshine.
I took the two big kids camping at Catgill near Bolton Abbey, along with a couple of mum friends and their kids. We drank pink wine and ate Ferrero Rocher (can't beat an unexpected little camping treat) while the kids played swing ball. I'd never been to Catgill before, but had heard good things about it - a massive field with incredible views where you just turn up and pitch wherever you feel like, resulting in a massive scrum of tents. We managed to bag a spot on the front row, meaning we had an uninterrupted view of the hills from the tent, which was blissful. Camping is so good for the soul (the fairy lights and tins of gin help too).
Natalia turned six, and we celebrated by taking 12 of her best friends (who are all dudes) go-karting after school. We collected them at the school gate, shepherded them to our house, and packed them into two massive taxis ("are you a nursery?", asked our slightly bemused driver). The whole thing was absolute carnage. After much effort, we finally managed to get them to the house (they all danced, jumped, leapt, and sprinted up and down the pavement, frequently stopping to dart back and pick up random treasures from the ground). They immediately swarmed into the house, swarmed upstairs, swarmed to the back door, removed their identical black shoes and swarmed outside onto the climbing frame. "Don't let them go out.... side", I called out fruitlessly to my husband from the rear. Too late! By this stage we were both too weak with laughter to take control of the situation in any way shape or form, so we just rolled with it. The kids had an absolute blast, and all the other parents were very grateful for the convenience of us picking the kids up, rather than trying to get everyone to take their kids to the venue at half four when most people would have been working. You're welcome, folks! :-)
We celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary with a candle-lit dinner on the deck, surrounded by fairy lights and our homemade wedding bunting. We held our wedding reception in the back garden at our old house, so it felt only appropriate that on the evening of our first big anniversary we dined in the back garden of our new(ish) house.
A couple of years ago we went through a phase of eating loads of Gu chocolate puddings, you know, the ones that come in those little glass tubs. I saved all the tubs on the basis that they'd come in useful for something - we have literally a hundred of them, which is an awful lot of pudding! - and of course they didn't come in useful for anything until I had the bright idea to use them as tea light holders. Never mind this Marie Kondo nonsense, hoarding is totally worth while :-)
The school holidays began officially, and we flew to Germany to spend a couple of weeks with (German) friends who live over there. We camped next to a beautiful lake in a little tunnel tent, that we bought from German Decathlon and shipped to our friends' house, as as our bell tent was too heavy to bring with us. Being a majestic packing ninja, I managed to take a pink camping moon chair, canvas tent awning, bunting, fairy lights, Pocket Rocket stove, camping espresso cups and mugs, two sleeping mats, two sleeping bags, spare tent poles and pegs, and a tarpaulin on the plane in two hold suitcases and five pieces of hand luggage. Along with all the normal paraphernalia required for a family of five to spend two weeks in a hot country. Totally bossed it.
The campsite had tent pitches and an array of semi-permanent structures, comprising vintage caravans with awnings underneath marquees with swing seats and gnomes in the front garden. There were signs everywhere saying NOT and FORBIDDEN but we don't speak the language so were basically clueless about all the things that we must not do. As a local friend said, if the Germans don't like what you're doing, you'll sodding well get told, and we didn't sodding well get told so I figure it was all OK :-)
We were there during a major heatwave - it was about 38 degrees during the day, a soothing 30 degrees at night, and we all got bitten mercilessly by various insects and beetles. We largely dined like 16th century peasants on bread, sausage and beer. We had fish and chips on the beach - fish on the bbq, and chips from the local cafe. The cafe did include a salad bar, but I appeared to be the only person who partook of it. We had four cold showers a day each and were still sweaty and filthy (while the challenge with English camping is keeping warm and dry, we quickly learned that in a hot country it's all about staying cool and clean). We hired massive pedal go-karts called dino karts, and were the only grown-ups on the site using them (we did reluctantly let the kids have a turn too). One of them had a passenger cart on the back, so I loaded Andre and the girls into it and peddled them around while we all screamed with laughter (he peddled us too, of course).
Back at our friends' house, we drank alcoholic custard made with corn liquor,. The girls learned to ride bicycles in the local park, which was filled with camels, donkeys, sheep, porcupines, deer and guinea pigs - one of the camels damn nearly ate my sun glasses after I tried to take a selfie with it. Animal parks are a normal thing in Germany - can you imagine it working in England? You'd have loads of drunk folk thinking it would be hilarious to let all the animals out, or ride the camel, or get the deer to drink beer. We went to a really cool beach festival at the local lake where we dined on bread, sausage and beer, swam in the lake at 10pm, and went to the fairground.
We raced down a secret bobsleigh in the woods, run by a gentleman who looked exactly like Alice Cooper. We went to Leipzig zoo, and had lunch (bread, sausage and beer, of course) overlooking a natural compound filled with giraffes, zebras and buck. It's a lovely zoo - the animals live in massive natural enclosures, many of them side by side with each other. Seeing so many zebras together was incredible - fancy nature making the zebra, how amazing. And we had ice cream every day, including rhubarb, lemon, almond, chilli chocolate, fig and strawberry.
It helpfully turns out that when you're a parent, you can still go to festivals! All you have to do is fly home from camping in Germany, do mountains of laundry, work for two days in between laundering every item of clothing you collectively possess, take your camping kit out of your suitcases and pack it all into the car, farm the dogs out to various friends, drive down to London wedged between two large carseats in the back, leave the kids with your brave and exceptionally generous sister-in-law (who already has three kids of her own) and belt across to Cornwall to go to Boardmasters festival.
The trip to Boardmasters was our main treat to celebrate our ten year wedding anniversary. I told one of my colleagues at work about this, who said his wife had insisted on a five star hotel for theirs. Clearly his missus is a bit less naturally scruffy and feral than I am - although we did spend a bit extra on a 'VIP' ticket to get access to *slightly* nicer facilities, and obviously didn't stay on the actual campsite cos I frown upon drunk teenagers pissing on my bell tent at 4am. Instead, we camped peacefully twenty minutes away overlooking the rolling Cornish hills.
It was only our second time away from the kids in nearly eight years (there's too many of them for anyone to look after them all) and we made the most of it, beginning with getting glittered up and ending with joyfully bellowing "pretty smiling people, we're alright together" along with Mr George Ezra. We also ate loads of poncy festival food including churros and melted chocolate, went on the ferris wheel, listened to Charlotte Carpenter, Rosborough and Sam Fender, slipped around in the mud, warmed ourselves by the VIP firepits for middle-aged people (they only had these in the VIP area, presumably because they were worried that the general teenage peasant population would fall into them), watched the sunset, admired the commitment many people had made to their outfits, and took two hours to get out of the car park at midnight. Way more fun than a boring old five star hotel, right?
On the way home we stopped off at stunning Polruan, which has got to be a contender for the most picturesque village in the entire world. Never mind the predictability of the boring old Amalfi coast, it's all about Cornish pasties on a teeny tiny beach overlooking the ice cream Victorian houses of Fowey, while a fleet of little boats bob merrily in the sparkling bay.
In between all these bigger trips, we also visited my parents in Yorkshire to attend the local gala (quintessentially English with floats parading through the village), spent the day at St Anne's beach with NCT friends, where we lunched on sausages from a Thermos and apple pie with custard (from another Thermos), went to a cute little festival at the local park where the girls made flower crowns from ivy and tissue paper, and beasted the maize maze at Red House Farm, where we also rode more dino-karts.
We're still not done! Yet more camping - this time a week on the Isle of Wight, where we pitched our tent in the pouring rain, please may I. The rest of the week was as lovely as always, though. We stayed on a little farm and had a view of sheep, piglets, geese, duck, ponies and a very grumpy and loud donkey called Moses from the door of the tent. St Helen's beach was a ten minute walk away, where the girls scoured the rock pools to find their 'favourite' crabs (they found a whole load a few years ago and promptly named them Crabby, Crabben, Rainbow, Robbie, Baby Tomato, and Gorgeous Dad. Howl!). I took my laptop and headset with me, and worked from the tent for a couple of days, at one stage hosting a conference call while simultaneously chasing a wasp around the tent with a frying pan.
Now are we done? Nearly! *wipes sweat from brow*. We held our summer closing party this weekend, having six of our eldest girl's BFFs over for a camping birthday sleepover. I put the bell tent up in the back garden for one last hurrah, decorated it with every single fairy light we possess, and made it super cosy with duvets, mats, sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, and an oil-filled radiator. The girls made gorgeous flower crowns, had lots of pizza, ice cream, Haribo, and toasted marshmallows over the bonfire outside. They all changed into their jamas, and we projected one of Eva's favourite movies, Ballerina, onto the ceiling of tent so they could snuggle up and chill out. After a 6am start, we breakfasted on croissants and chocolate-coated strawberries, as requested by the birthday girl.
And now we're done. It's misty and cool outside, and we put the heating on for the first time yesterday. Autumn is coming in resolutely, as it does every year. I don't know if we'll have another summer quite like this for a long time. The crazy weather that helped to make everything so easy and carefree, all the trips, sleeping under canvas and waking up to blue skies morning after morning, glitter on our faces and flowers in our hair, sleeping peacefully in a big family bundle in our tent tent and being woken up by all three dogs shaking their ears one after the other, running on the beach at sunset with the wind in my hair. Our two big dogs are both eleven, nearly twelve - they could have a few more summers in them, or this could have been the last one. And the girls will never be this small again, with little Elodie waking up in the morning, absolutely overjoyed to find she's tucked up in a sleeping bag in between her Mummy and Daddy, patting our faces and saying "wake up, Mummy, I luff you". But time goes on. Time goes on. And I'm grateful for the summer we've had.