The Hatch family - Ben, Dinah and their two kids Phoebe (8) and Charlie (5) - are spending the summer travelling more than 10,000 miles round France researching the sequel to Ben’s travel bestseller Are We Nearly There Yet?
In our VW Passat on the drive from Brighton to Portsmouth to catch the Brittany Ferries crossing to Santander in Spain Phoebe says:
“I’m bored. What will I do on a boat for a WHOLE DAY?”
“Design passports for the teddies,” I tell her.
She groans. “That's SO boring.”
“Do you know what a passport is? You have to show a passport to get into a different country. It has a picture of the person on it. There’s a guard on the border of the country who checks this photo on your passport against your face.”
In the rear-view mirror I do an impression of looking down at a passport picture then up at her face.
“And if they’re the same you're let in. Otherwise you're not. You're telling me you don't want to design passports for your teddies? Do you not want them to come or do you want them to be stopped at the border?”
“Daddy, they don't NEED passports - they're bears.”
“I thought they were real. You said they were real.”
Her face goes sly.
“They'll be at the bottom of my case. They're not going to make a sound. The guard won’t hear them.”
Aboard the Pont Aven ferry we stand at the back. The white plastic deck chairs float around in the crosswind as we watch the Spinnaker Tower fade from view. The sky is a curtain of angry mauve and the kids run around the circular markings of the helipad demanding a swim on lido deck 9. We pass Southsea Common, Southsea Pier. The Wightlink ferry in our wake peels away. Yachts and battleship grey frigates cross our path and a line of seagulls coast a thermal above us like a balloon of bunting.
Below, in our tiny four-berth cabin, there are lamps at the end of the beds. We have a small toilet and a shower, a wall-mounted telly. The rain lashes the portal window and the kids find CBBC; they have already arranged their bears on their beds. Unpacked, Dinah sips champagne from a plastic toothbrush mug and says from the flip-down bed opposite me that Charlie has already smeared chocolate muffin on the sheets. “Well, I'm absurdly happy. That was one of the most stressful mornings of my life. But here we are. On our way.”
We’re driving around the whole of France, covering more than 10,000 miles, researching family friendly activities to do. When you’re away months you have to tie up every loose end of your life. You must pay every bill, say goodbye to those you love. When you rent out your house while you’re away like we do you must also fix everything that's broken. It’s like putting your affairs in order, a bit like a mini-death.
Dinah and I crush our paper cups together and toast the adventure and it's a cascading feeling of relief and contentment, like the trick of filling stacked and overflowing champagne flutes, only it's bubbles of happiness coursing through us.
The cabin’s smaller with the bunks down. It's about the size of a Homebase shed. Charlie bangs his head on the handle of the bathroom door and cries. Phoebe’s already done the same on the overhead upper bed. And we get in each other’s way the whole time. Sometimes up to 3 people have to move to let one other person cross from one side of the room to the other. We must be incredibly well coordinated.
“This is ridiculous. You almost need to pass a form of driving test to manage it,” says Dinah at one point, looking at Charlie making a traffic jam on the floor with his cars while Phoebe sits by the bathroom door playing with her teddies. “That took 5 minutes to get to the loo.”
“Can you imagine theory questions,” I ask, “What is the correct speed limit moving between the cabin beds when the clip-on ladder is up?”
“When a vehicle is looking for dolphins out of the starboard porthole how does a second vehicle lean over them to fetch the tea cup to wash it up without knocking the other vehicle?”
“If a vehicle needs to leave the shower and there is another vehicle using the sink how does the first vehicle execute this manoeuvre without anyone getting their feet wet? Oh God!” says Dinah. Her hand goes to her face. “That reminds me. We left Phoebe’s bubble shoes for the pool in the car WITH the bag of presents!”
It’s Phoebe’s birthday in the morning. She’ll be 8. All the presents we carefully wrapped and brought with us are back down on deck 4, locked in the car.
“You’re not allowed onto the car decks until we dock,” says Dinah, half an hour later. She’s been down to the information desk. “Unless, get this, you’re feeding an exotic pet. People with exotic pets get to go down once during the whole crossing at 9.30pm.”
“That’s what she said.”
“My presents!” says Phoebe. “I’m not getting my presents!” She stares up at me.
“Didn’t you argue with her?”
“And anyway Phoebe is exotic.” I pull Phoebe towards me. “You can’t get more exotic.” I try and lighten the atmosphere with a joke. “Just cos she doesn’t change colour on a rock.”
It doesn’t work. Phoebe’s chin wobbles.
“Of course I argued. She’s French, Ben.”
“Rules! You know what they’re like. You can have a go if you want. She speaks English.”
“So Salamanders get their dinner but little girls don’t get birthday presents. What we going to do?”
“She’ll just have to wait until the next day.”
“My presents,” says Phoebe. For the next five minutes she wanders about the cabin like some dazed bombed out World War II survivor looking for her ruined house. “My presents,” she keeps saying. “All my presents.”
“Ok,” I say to Phoebe, eventually. “Come with me.”
I take Phoebe to the Grand Pavois café on deck 7. I buy a Roquefort salad.
“What are we doing, Daddy?” says Phoebe.
“Is it a plan?”
I bring the salad back to the cabin. I eat the cheese, give the walnuts to Charlie and then empty a see-through bag containing teabags, replacing them with the lettuce.
“What are you doing?” says Dinah. “I need that bag.”
“We need to feed Hoppy,” I say.
I take out a highlighter pen from the kids’ pencil case and on the plastic bag I write: “Hoppy.”
“Oh God!” says Dinah.
“Who’s going to know?”
“Please don’t get us thrown off the crossing, Ben.”
“Are you ready, Pops?”
“Then let Operation Hoppy begin.”
I walk Phoebe to the information desk. She sits on a sofa in the waiting area. I tell her to look “concerned,” which is easy - she is concerned. I approach the information desk. Here I smile at the woman. I tell her I have a hungry lop-eared rabbit on deck 4 that urgently needs lettuce. Half of me is wondering if Dinah is right. Maybe she mistranslated exotic pets. The woman does looks surprised. “It’s a sick rabbit,” I say, going further. I use the word “malade”. Then I casually put the bag of lettuce with the name Hoppy on it on the counter while I look across at Phoebe and sigh. “It’s my daughter’s,” I say. The woman smiles over at Phoebe and like I ordered she just looks concerned back. The woman asks my name and jots it down on a sheet and tells me to come back at 9.30pm. A steward will then accompany me down to lower decks with three other passengers, who it turns out will be feeding a macaw, a snake, and a tree frog named Peter.
Back in the room, after my successful mission at 9.30, Charlie becomes head of the bedchamber. We’re trapped in the top bunk and he passes Dinah and I up our glasses of water. He gives us each a teddy of his "for the whole night". It feels claustrophobic. My bed in the top bunk above Phoebe’s is about a foot from the metal ceiling. It’s like trying to sleep in a ventilation shaft. We leave the curtains across our porthole open so the room is partially lit by the luminous white surf being thrown out of the side of the ferry.
“Here are your glasses,” says Charlie to Dinah.
“I don't need them.”
“But I'm head of the bedchamber.”
”I know. But it's bedtime now.”
“Daddy, here is your camera.”
We celebrate Phoebe’s birthday at 6am. Dinah’s brought a cake. She lights eight candles. We hand over her presents and put her cards up around the cabin with Blutac. Her birthday treat is to do anything she wants on the boat. The day starts with the movie Top Cat at the cinema on deck 6. We play bingo, watch Little Laura perform and then move onto Crazy Kev’s kids’ show on deck 8. We see a common dolphin on the upper deck. We arrange for her to hug Pierre Le Bear, a mascot in a bear costume. We swim. Excited, the kids run everywhere - down the narrow galley between cabins, around the lido pool. They exclaim at random items: “Look, you can buy a teddy in the gift shop!”… “Look, there's an advert for Disneyland Paris, Daddy” … “Mummy, mummy, there's a picture of the ham and chips Charlie had for dinner!” We move breathlessly from activity to activity, Charlie, every now and again stopping to train out to sea the plastic binoculars he now keeps permanently around his neck that came with his kids’ ham and chips yesterday (“Anything?” He shakes his head. “I thought I saw a fin.” He runs on).
It’s a relief when we finally reach Santander. On the top deck we watch land approaching. It’s greener than I thought. There are fishermen angling on the banks of the narrow channel we pass through. Charlie’s still looking for dolphins and I say to Phoebe, “So was that a good birthday then?”
“And have you designed those passports?”
She shakes her head.
“I didn’t have time, Daddy.”
Read a synopsis of Ben's last book - ;"Are We Nearly There Yet? A Family's 8,000-Mile Car Journey Around Britain".