It may sound a bit odd, but one of the most reliable bellwethers charting our progression as a family is our annual trip to one of the final bastions of the great British holiday: Butlins.
We’ve just returned from four days in Bognor Regis. This was the sixth year in a row we have ventured into the realm of the Redcoats and while the holiday camp itself has remained virtually the same in that time, a lot has changed in our little world.
When we first went in April 2010, Isaac was two and Toby barely three months old. The following year was noteworthy for Toby taking his first steps. Our 2012 trip was our first as a family of five: Kara was just six weeks old. My abiding memory of our Easter 2013 holiday was of near-zero temperatures and being violently ill, while the October half-term last year was liberating because it was the first time we hadn’t had to organise our days around one or more kids’ daytime naps.
This year was different to the previous ones too.
The single biggest change was that this was the first time we hadn’t been with an under-three-year-old, which for us meant no buggy and the possibility of later evenings.
And even though it’s only two months since our summer holiday in France, it was noticeable how much better Kara is now able to hold her own in everything. She was so much more involved and included in everything, rather than being the fifth wheel on the family car whose needs had to be specially catered for. Although we did often split up, with the boys doing rides and activities for older kids such as circus skills, it didn’t feel like we were always having to manage Kara separately. The age gap between her and her brothers becomes less significant with every passing month.
So while the boys did pumpkin carving on their own, on our final evening all the kids got dressed up in their Halloween costumes and went to the themed evening shows. We couldn’t have done that a year ago.
And Kara was also enthralled by the Scooby Doo stage show we all went to see. She understood what was going on and joined in with all the interactive elements in a way that would have been beyond her 12 months previously. (She’s going to love the pantomime this year.)
Probably the best part of our holiday, though, was the way the kids embraced simple, old-fashioned pleasures with the same genuine enthusiasm they do when we go away on our big summer holidays. From traditional fairground rides – Kara declared the helter-skelter her favourite part of the trip – to mini-golf to playing card games, they lapped it all up.
The boys spent hours upon end in the amusement arcade, feeding 2p pieces into the coin pushers and playing other games in an attempt to accumulate yellow tickets. It’s a slightly bizarre arrangement, where you have to invest the GDP of a small African nation for the right to exchange tickets for 11 penny sweets and a Pac-Man keychain. Hey-ho.
From a personal perspective, four days at Butlins has served to remind me that I really am getting old. I have returned home suffering from a series of minor physical niggles ranging from a twisted knee sustained in the pool to Ball-Thrower’s Elbow (too many games of Down the Clown) and Arcade Thumb (a variant on the smartphone user’s ailment Repetitive Scroll Injury).
Oh well. It’s a small price to pay to see the exhausted but contented smiles on the faces of three sleeping kids on the drive home, I suppose. Now where did I put that Deep Heat?