It has been well documented on these pages that we have had holidays with the boys since they were born. In fact, in their two and three quarter years (at the time of writing, if not publishing, owing to delays in actually finishing this post) on this planet, we have had three summer holidays, two of them abroad, and a couple of autumn mini breaks.
The one one common factor in all of these holidays has been that we have driven to the destination. Just the sheer amount of crap that you have to carry around for babies and young toddlers had put us off flying. It would be difficult enough taking one small child and I am full of admiration for any couple taking a child abroad on an aeroplane, even more so if it is a lone parent and child making a trip.
Just before Christmas though, almost a year in the planning, we took a winter break abroad. Over the years we have been regularly visited by a friend from Sweden, an ex-colleague of Mrs Aitchworld’s from when she worked for a Swedish company. Every time we see her she suggests we go over and visit Sweden and stay with her and her husband. Their three boys have all reached adulthood and have left home so there is plenty of space for guests.
It is also mentioned, every time she posts a picture on social media of the winter snow they have in Sweden, how much the boys would love to play in it, go sledging and build a giant snowman. We don’t really see much snow in the UK, and what little we do see has normally melted long before we get organised enough to even leave the house, never mind get a sledge out of the shed. And every time the invite over is re-iterated.
We decided to put our friend to the test – a shit or bust situation. Did she really mean it when she said we could stay with her? Would she really be so accommodating when faced with two adults and two identically-aged toddlers turning up on her doorstep, suitcases in hand? Well, yes, yes she would. So way back last January a short break to Sweden was organised for the end of the year to coincide with my birthday. Sweden is pretty much guaranteed snow in December.
In view of the distance between rural Cheshire and Sweden, this could only mean one thing – we had to grit our teeth and take Arthur and Henry on their very first flight. Looking back through my journal notes to when we booked the flights, I see that I wrote down “what have we done?”
The thought of flying with the boys has always filled me with dread. I think I inherited this from my parents. I’ve never asked them directly about whether fear factored into their decision making process when choosing their holidays when I was a child, but we never flew anywhere – we always drove to get to our holiday destination, even when going abroad. Given this was the ‘70s and my dad favoured British Leyland cars over any other brand, this was quite a risky endeavour.
One of my earliest memories of a holiday was sitting on a bonnet of my Dad’s 1972 Austin Maxi (JTU483L) in a lay-by on the shores of Lake Bled in what was then known as Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, in 1975. I would have been three years old. Nowadays I wouldn’t even think about driving there, even in a modern car, never mind something built in the Midlands in the 1970s. I’ve just checked and it’s over 1100 miles away!
My memory of the event is slightly enhanced by the fact there is, somewhere, a photograph of me sat on the car in said location, although it is probably 30 years since I have even seen that. But I remember more what happened next, in very clear detail. A gentleman driving a Volkswagen van (a bay window type 2) pulled up and parked in front of us in the lay-by. I am fairly confident it was dark green in colour. The driver got out of the van to admire me.
In the 1970s, middle-aged men getting out of Volkswagen vans to admire small children wasn’t as suspect as it sounds, although with hindsight it probably should have been. My shock of bright blond hair was a sight unseen and quite a novelty in Yugoslavia and drew attention and admiring glances wherever my parents took me. The man was a sweet salesman and once he had finished admiring me, he wanted to give me some sweets…
I’m not painting this well am I? However, it was wholly innocent and my parents did accept a gift of some sweets. I don’t remember them exactly, but I do know they were a jelly type of sweet and delicious. I also recall being particularly distraught some weeks later back at home when I went to eat some and discovered they were all gone and I had finished them. It may be a coincidence, but I think that this is where my love of Haribo and Volkswagen vans may have started.
Back to the modern day, we have never been able to travel light with the boys. Earlier in the year when we went to France, we took the camper van (a Volkswagen, naturally). Of course, back then it was just a van but none of the camper part of the conversion had been done though, which meant we could take anything we wanted. And indeed we did. With flights, we had to fit everything that we needed for a few days holiday within the confines of suitcases. And as winter in Sweden involves sub-zero temperatures packing light isn’t easy – snowsuits for toddlers are bulky items, and we’ve got two of them. By the time we had packed everything, we realised we had more suitcases than we had adults to wrangle them around airports and into cars. This was going to be interesting.
For months I had intended to take the boys to the viewing park at Manchester Airport. Now that we’ve been to an airport waiting lounge, sat eating a breakfast overlooking the planes taking off and coming in to land, I don’t have to go to that expense, although I can’t help but think that the cost of flights to Sweden for four might somewhat have exceeded that particular outlay.
Ordinarily, the boys love aeroplanes. Whenever they hear one when we are outside, their eyes are drawn to the skies to look for it. I therefore, wholly reasonably, expected that the whole boarding and take off experience would be one of wide-eyed wonderment and excitedness. The reality of the situation was that by the time we had queued to board the flight, boredom with the whole situation had set in and as the plane took of Henry, sat next to me on the outbound flight, couldn’t give less of a shit if he tried. He was distinctly underwhelmed, and even Arthur wasn’t overly fussed about the whole event. And skipping forward to the journey home, during it both boys slept for a time at some point during the flight.
During our stay in Sweden, the sum total of snow that fell on Södertälje, where we were staying, amounted to little more than two centimetres. By the time I got the boys in their snowsuits and outside, it had started to drizzle. Do you wanna build a Snowman? Henry decided he didn’t wanna. He also decreed he didn’t like snow, or drizzle, and went inside pretty much instantly. Only Arthur and I were left outside to make what can only be described as a half arsed snowman, rushing it so we could get inside before we got too wet.
Meanwhile, in the UK, for the first time in years, the country was enjoying a huge dump of snow. Roads were closed, business and schools shut, and everyone was having lots of fun sledging, adopting penguins, hunting Polar bears and building igloos and equally impressive snow structures that would last a little bit longer than a mere few hours before the drizzle washed them away.
As usual, the British press were full of stories of the worst winter of ever, and for once, they were right in their assertion. January passed without incident, as did most of February. Then, right at the end of February, what was coined “the Beast from the East” struck and the UK was covered in a duvet of snow. Finally, I could see my boys enjoying the snow; take them sledging for the first time maybe. Well, I could, if only I hadn’t been on a business trip in Ireland.
I flew out to Dublin on Monday the 26th February for two and a half days of business meetings in Ireland, leaving from Cork on the afternoon of Wednesday 28th. On Monday one of my meetings scheduled for the Wednesday morning in Cork was cancelled by the customer, due to the weather forecast. I believe I used the words “nesh ponce” to describe said customer. Not to his face, of course, when I met him on the Monday at a revised meeting point. But at that stage, it just felt a bit cold.
On Tuesday, it felt a bit cold and there was the odd flurry of snow. At my last appointment of the day, with still another 30km of travel to go after it the customer called time a little early on the meeting for my safety – the weather outside, to him, looked a little foreboding. Again my assessment of their caution was less than charitable.
That night it snowed, both in the UK and Ireland. In Ireland, the last time they saw any sort of snow of merit was in 1982, according to the news. That night it snowed. Where I was staying, a small town called Clonakilty, it snowed so heavily so quickly, it knocked the power out. Fortunately, it happened just after my food and pint of Guinness turned up at my hotel table.
When I awoke the next day, there was about 20cm of snow and no such thing locally as a gritter. Indeed, between Clonakilty and Cork airport, there was no such thing as a gritter and the only method of applying grit and salt to the roads was a tractor with a digger bucket attached to the front occasionally tipping out a bit of grit onto the roads.
The news was that flights out of Cork had been suspended for the morning for snow clearing operations at the airport. My flight was due to leave at 3pm. When I arrived at the airport I was told that all flights to the UK for the rest of the day had been cancelled because of snow in the UK. All hotels near to the airport had been fully booked. I rang Mrs Aitchworld to tell her the news. She managed to find and book a hotel for me, and I booked onto a flight at 7am the next day.
At 2am the next day, I received notification that my 7am flight had been cancelled. This was for two reasons: a weather front of severe snow called The Beast from the East had done it’s stuff in the UK and was making its way to Ireland, followed by Storm Emma, which was bringing gales to whip up the snow into drifts of a magnitude never before seen. That morning, at Breakfast time, the Prime Minister of Ireland appeared on the telly box in my hotel room to tell the entire country it was on red alert, to ensure we we were inside from 4pm that day, and stay inside until the all clear was given.
Everybody did. The hotel I was in was in a suburb of Cork called Douglas, which was almost like a town within a city. At 2pm it shut. The whole town and everything in it. Staff at the hotel stayed there. The only thing that stayed open was one bar; it is Ireland after all.
I didn’t get home Thursday – all flights and ferries were cancelled. I didn’t get home Friday. All flights and ferries were cancelled. I kept re-booking my flight, only for each booking to be cancelled, one after the other.
I eventually left Ireland on Saturday evening, four days after I was due to leave. It was, however, after all the snow had left the UK, so I still haven’t got to see Arthur and Henry playing in the snow; we still haven’t been sledging or built that giant snowman we talked about.