Dear Dave

Friday 11 January 2008

Letting the train take the strain

Dear Dave,

You're thinking of going on holiday where?

With two small children!?!!

Well, rather you than me - that's a lot of traveling. Then again, other parents are frequently impressed over my family's expeditions to Norfolk. It's about three and a half hours to Peterborough, another hour and a half to Norwich and then a further twenty-five minutes to Baskerville Station which is conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, in most directions, there's nothing but grass and cows for miles. It's a little disconcerting. In the other direction, there are some scattered dwellings but this is small comfort, since most of the inhabitants have names like Seth and Ahab and own shotguns. If we're lucky, we arrive at twilight, just as the mist is rolling in over the marshes and the baying of a hound echoes eerily in the distance.

Not good.

It's always a relief when my parents do actually turn up to collect us. Of course, this requires two cars these days but at least my folks have enough carseats of the appropriate kind now so that we don't have to take any with us. Anything which reduces the amount of stuff we have to carry around stations and over foot-bridges is a blessing. It also makes it easier to run from irate locals who've mistaken us for coypu.

We travel by train because it's cheaper than flying, doesn't take much longer door-to-door and allows the kids to move about. It's far less stress than driving. The only problem is dealing with the luggage - there's seldom enough space to stow things. That's partly to do with the design of the trains and partly to do with the amount of stuff we need to take. Last summer, when we went on holiday, we took two rucksacks, a suitcase, three carseats, a changing bag, three backpacks, a carrier bag and a large camera case. Getting that lot and three children on and off a train in a hurry is no picnic. It will improve in a few years, when the kids are bigger and I have my own team of little sherpas. For now, though, getting everything and everyone safely stowed is the major stress of any journey.

At least, it is once we're on our way. Before that, comes purchasing tickets.

Working out the best deal for a train journey is Deep Magic that I leave to Sarah. All the different companies have different offers and restrictions so it all depends where you're going and when, and whether you know the arcane incantations to obtain the unadvertised cheap day supersaver advance only-every-other-Wednesday-in-May bargain return. It's madness.

Since Sam and Daisy are under five, they don't need tickets, but you'll probably want to buy at least one of them a ticket anyway in order to save money. (Told you it was madness). That way, you can use a Family Railcard. With a railcard, you get a third off the tickets for you and Liz and sixty percent off the cost of the kids' tickets (which are half the adult price to start with). You have to pay a small amount for the railcard but it lasts a year and it'll pay for itself easily on a single long journey. Also, if you buy tickets for the kids, you'll be able to reserve them a seat. Admittedly, seat reservations frequently don't work but it's worth a shot trying to book space round a table. Watch they don't try and put you in the quiet coach, though. (Been there, done that. I switched all my gadgets to silent mode but I'm yet to find that button on my children...)

On our last trip, the boys mainly played Nintendo and the girl stared out the window. This was fantastic. In the past, though, we've used a number of methods to keep the kids busy:
  • Reading stories. Works OK but involves effort and carrying books around.
  • Simple toys. A purse with a zip and a small pile of loose change keeps Marie quiet for hours.
  • Games. Snap, Pairs and Top Trumps are preferable. Anything involving dice always ends in hunting around for lost ones in sticky recesses under the seats. (You might want to pack a torch).
  • Drawing. At last! A use for all those little sets of crayons they're forever giving us in restaurants.
  • Running up and down the aisle screaming. It keeps them entertained but, after a while, they start wanting to join in...
  • Food. A meal always makes a long journey go more pleasantly. Well, usually:
I keep a mental Top Ten of disasters involving my children leaking bodily waste. Deciding on a chart position gives me something to take my mind off the smell while cleaning up. I have individual charts for each type of waste and an all-formats Super Chart of those unforgettable 'OK... What do I do now?' moments. I've worn snot, imbibed dribble, scrubbed poo off walls and poured pee out of a child's shoes but guess which chart is loaded with public transport incidents?

Remember - always keep a change of clothes handy for the kids. On at least one occasion, I needed a change of clothes for me, too. When Fraser was a toddler, he was grizzly during a train journey and so I took him into the vestibule at the end of the carriage and sat on one of those fold-down seats by the door while I held him in my arms and tried to rock him to sleep.

He threw up spectacularly into both our laps.

Sarah was out of line of sight, so I couldn't signal for help. There was no one else around to go and get her. Standing up would have meant the pool of milky foulness escaping everywhere. I had to limbo to the toilet with a one-year-old clasped to my chest and then mop up with paper towels. Sarah was somewhat surprised when, a few minutes later, I plonked a naked child on the table in front of her and then raced off to rummage in our suitcase for non-toxic trousers.

On another occasion, Marie was sitting in the buggy by the door with our cases and carseats piled up around her, ready for us to hastily disembark. Without warning, she spewed her entire lunch all over the floor and our luggage. We stood there, staring in horror. Then the train pulled into the station.

We hastily disembarked.

Then, of course, we had to mop the carseats as best we could and find a taxi...

Which handily brings me to the most important travel advice I can give: wherever you're going and whatever you're planning, always pack plenty of wipes and plastic bags. Oh, and don't look funny at anyone called Seth who's carrying a shotgun. Remember that and you'll be fine.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS You might want to apply for the kids' passports now. They've relaxed the standards for photos a bit but it's still liable to take a few attempts to get something suitable. Leave yourself plenty of time.

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