It may sound obvious, but when you have a big family, life is busy – very busy. Actually, I think, perhaps, that the collective noun for many children should be ‘tribe’ or maybe ‘platoon’ because it can sometimes feel like moving an army when you simply want to leave the house!
Despite the effort, family days are precious; being out in the open air away from the siren song of an endless to-do list. Added to that, we have discovered over the years, that the whole family is at their very best out of doors, exhausting ourselves in activity and then justifiably curling up in front of a favourite film with the fire roaring – or a relaxed bbq – depending on the time of year.
So activities that are spontaneous and, even better, free, (let’s face it those trips to the zoo/cinema/bowling etc. can really start to add up when you have to account for multiple people!) are hot favourites! A family bike ride is top of the list in our family. It’s free, healthy and fun!
My husband and I first bought bikes when we lived in west London and, child free, we would meander along the Thames for an hour or so until we came to a pub that had a beer garden in the sun and a decent looking lunch menu. Then, rather more lazily, we’d bumble our way back again, often stopping at some of the lovely little artisan shops under the railway arches that lined the river as we cycled past (we eventually bought baskets and panniers to allow for these spontaneous purchases after one memorable incident involving a determined husband, a bike and a floor lamp!).
We rather missed these lazy outings when our first son was born and so, when he was six months old, and after a great deal of debate and investigation, bought a strong, sturdy reclinable child bike seat that allowed for him to lay back a little when he inevitably was lulled to sleep by the motion of the bike – it’s horrible to see a child asleep and flopped forward so uncomfortably. We also chose him an adorable little pirate themed bike helmet and tentatively resumed our lazy outings – this time around the lovely bike trails of Richmond Park, pointing out the many deer and stopping at the lovely cafes for ice cream (him) and coffee (his knackered parents!).
As the family grew, we added another child, another bike seat, another helmet and another favourite route – still along the Thames but this time further west in the Thames Valley as we moved out to Berkshire. A little hillier this time thanks to the undulation of the Chilterns but still that wonderful, relaxed, spontaneous feeling of being in the fresh air. And now – hooray – the pub stops were back on the menu – praise be to the delights of a pub garden with a climbing frame and a decent children’s menu!
After one particular ride with a little voice saying ‘why isn’t mummy going faster, daddy?’ as I battled my way up a fierce incline, pregnant with baby number three and with thigh muscles begging for mercy (and really not helped or encouraged along by the rather heavy and particularly vocal three year old on the back.) we agreed that the time had come to swap the child seat for a bike attachment. He’d had his own little bike by this point, but was far too small and unpredictable on the road to manage family bike rides of any length.
Admittedly I was a little off in my visions of being able to relax entirely whilst our energetic pre-schooler propelled me up the steepest hills – but it was definitely easier for me and hugely fun for him to feel important on his ‘big boy bike’.
So where are we now? Nearly ten years on since those lazy, romantic bike ride/shopping stops as unencumbered newlyweds, we have settled in the beautiful sweeping countryside of rural Essex surrounded by fields of thick chocolate mud in the autumn and waving seas of golden grain in the summer – and we’re still peddling, albeit with rather more bikes!
The oldest boys have their own much adored multi-geared offerings (exactly the same to avoid arguments – lesson learned there!) the three year old happily pedals round the garden on her own little bike, and hops on the bike attachment for family outings.
Up very early one September morning, with the weather promising to be one of those gorgeous, ‘it still feels like’ summer days, we packed up a Famous Five style picnic; doorstop sangers of all types, fresh crunchy green apples, a large rich fruit cake, big bottles of water and – of course – lashings of ginger beer, and headed out. The route that we’d planned to explore took us away from the roads that still carried the threat of a Combine Harvester surprising us around a high-banked corner – instead taking us across the sun-hardened cycleways between fields and eventually, we hoped, to a lovely village pub (can you see a theme developing here?!).
Well, they say that mistakes make the best memories – it is still under debate who was meant to be navigating – but two hours and many, many miles and villages more than anticipated where we pedalled past hunting kennels, half ruined churches and stopped for our picnic in sight of an exquisite and utterly hidden away old stately home that we’ve never been able to find since, we eventually made it to the pub – legs scratched by stubble fields and faces glowing with a competitive sprint on the final climb.
Revived by cold drinks and sharp, salty crisps and armed with clear directions to get us home we free-wheeled back down the hill (strangely far less steep now that we were coming down it!) in the warm light of the early evening sun, legs stuck out either side and tickled by the wisps of grass; pretending that we were olden day ladies in carriages (me) or on motorbikes (the boys), faces smeared with dust, shouts of laughter on the breeze whipping past our ears and with a scent of autumn in the air.
And really, for me, that’s what family life is all about. Those spontaneous days together. Without them, life can pass in a whirl of scheduling and timetables. But when you can snatch those precious times; of fresh air, fun and bodies aching with laughter as much as exertion, you can lock them away deep inside.
With half term just around the corner, I suspect the bikes will be out once more, the great outdoors, the freedom away from screens, healthy exercise and spending quality time together, whatever the weather.
Those days, are the very best kind of memory making.
If you want to get out with your family this half term, make sure their bikes are safe to ride with a free Halfords bike safety check. Just bring your bikes into your nearest Halfords store and we’ll give everyone’s bike a once over.