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Those nice people at the Sunday Times showed again their excellent reporting skills and remarkable taste, this time with a full middle-page spread covering our family holidays in the Brecon Beacons.
A family activity week sounded spot-on to Simon Spilsbury - until the kids put him on the spot.
My family is not from the PlayStation set. We don't watch Big Brother. We don't eat turkey twizzlers. We're active and healthy — in fact, our weekly sports itinerary reads like a Commonwealth Games programme. The problem is that we do all our sport separately, rather than enfamille. When was the last time I dived between goalpost jumpers or gave the kids a leg-up a tree? Got my wellies stuck in a swamp with them? When had we last climbed a mountain together? Cantered through muddy fields on four semi-retired ponies? Shamefully, I can't remember. The Spilsbury family appears to have gone its separate sporty ways.
It was in order to repair this neglect that we arrived at Llangorse Lake, in the Brecon Beacons, for a family adventure break: five days of boats, slopes and ropes, a dose of good old-fashioned, mud-splattered adrenaline . . . all together as one family unit.
First impressions weren't particularly uplifting. A crescent of 20 garage-size plastic tents awaited 10 families, and cupped the wind blowing off the lake.
But we weren't here to sunbathe — we were here for action.
On the first morning, squeezing our heads between the two jagged sides of a thick tent zip, we inhaled an invigorating Welsh dawn. A briefing over breakfast in the mess tent and it was tallyho to the first challenge.
I'm not sure what our girls — Kiah, 10, and Imogen, 8 — were thinking when our group was told we'd be starting with "zipwire". I was thinking "baptism of fire". If they could deal with this one, I reckoned, the rest of the week would be a breeze.
For those of you who prefer to know what you're in for, zipwire isn't a medieval torture, but a remarkably quick way to get from the top of a large oak tree to the bottom — assuming you have the nerve to get up the tree in the first place.
The girls whooped with excitement as they put on full-body harnesses. Sportingly, we parents let the children go first and, as they received their instructions, each of us craned our necks in anticipation, hoping our babies wouldn't bottle out at the last minute. Not in a competitive way, of course; just hoping they wouldn't be scarred for life.
Our expressions fused parental hope with the impending doom of being up next. What if we bottled, showed visible signs of sweating, got "disco leg" halfway up? Show fear this early in the proceedings and our offspring would smell it like a dog.
Our attention suddenly turned to seven-year-old Alex, who was dangling 10ft from the ground, trapped in the safety rope. He'd been desperate to go first, but was now probably regretting it. The instructor's stepladder proved practical, if a little Frank Spencer, and Alex was lowered to safety. A minor blip, and it didn't put the kids off: Kiah was harnessed, roped up and ready to rock. She had a little wobble before getting airborne, but fear was shrugged off in favour of fun the minute she was moving.
The adults acquitted themselves without humiliation. Zipwire safely negotiated, our second nerve-jangling activity involved an oversized children's climbing frame and more baboonery. My breakfast had barely settled when I found myself kneeling on top of a 20ft pole, under orders to stand, jump and catch the trapeze that dangled 10ft in front of me.
We humans have no wings, no prehensile tail, no rubbery skeleton, so why would we want to jump? I certainly didn't. Compromised but determined, I could hear muffled laughter from my wife below, and the kids shouting the playground chant: "Go daddy, go daddy, go daddy ... " I was being held by a rope that could support a rhino, but I was body-locked with fear — a shocking state for a 43-year-old father of two. Eventually, I leapt. "Ooh, you've gone yellow," said Wendy, as I was lowered down. Yeah, thanks. WHAT IS IT about kayaks? When you first get into one, you feel as if you're ice-skating in a huge shoe, grappling with an oversized cotton bud for any sense of stability. Then, suddenly, everything is fine. It was the same for the girls. For 10 minutes on that second morning, they were convinced a watery grave awaited them; half an hour later we couldn't get them out.
It was Dave and Will, our instructors, who made kayaking such a favourite. As a warm-up, we'd gathered in a circle to perform a haka, followed by an action song that went: "Riding on my big fat badger ... " Not the height of sophistication, but it had 25 kids — and Andy, a senior hospital administrator — dancing and singing all week.
In the swirl of activities, it was easy to forget that the scenery was worth more than a cursory glance. Nestled in the Usk Valley, embraced by the Brecon Beacons, Llangorse is the largest natural lake in South Wales, its 400 acres and five miles of reedy shores playing host to 38 species of rare fauna and flora (though when you'd find the time to study them, I'm not sure). Parents in need of peace can grab a dose of serenity at about 7.30am — as long as the fighter pilots are still having breakfast — when the children are comatose from the previous day's workout. I got used to taking coffee, legs dangling over the end of the jetty, watching herons deftly spear their breakfast. Getting back to nature was short-lived, though. There was still adventure to be had. On day three, after a short minibus ride and the badger song, we were fighting over the least cheesy safety helmet in preparation for the climbing wall. There was a lot of banter about "wedgies", but harness trauma didn't deter the girls from summitting. Wendy topped out first, with an admirable display of agility, and Kiah followed like a vertical gazelle.
You find out lots about your children's hidden abilities when you do a trip like this. Kiah had never climbed before, but she had climbers' skills, deftly switching feet to accommodate the lack of holds and cleverly using three points of contact — climbing jargon that roughly translates as "don't let go with more than one limb". In contrast, by the time I was lowered to base camp, my forearms were screaming and my hands were set in the shape of dead birds' claws.
BY DAY FOUR, we had to make a break for Brecon: with all the exercise, three square meals a day just wasn't enough. A carrier bag of crisps, crackers and chocolate HobNobs did the trick and, brimming with sugar-fuelled energy, we tackled the challenge course against the clock. Leaping over and under logs and tyres, avoiding the leg-hole tangle of the cargo net and sloshing through mud-filled trenches had us all gasping. This was as close to hard-core as it got, with real cuts and bruises, along with a crisp shell of sunbaked mud and blood, removed by high-pressure hose to the sound of delighted squealing.
Since trying to float down a brook on a pallet aged 12, I'd never had reason to think about building anything water-worthy until our final day. Raft-building was probably the most unexpected fun of the holiday. Our task was to create a craft to transport 12 passengers around the end of the jetty and back to shore, using six logs, six barrels and a pile of old climbing ropes. The design was down to us.
As we split into two teams, it became ridiculously competitive. The kids rolled barrels into place and untangled mangy wet ropes while the adults wrestled with logic and got blisters lashing logs to barrels. This was our last chance to achieve and, as we launched our rafts, critical eyes were cast over the opposition's construction.
Under starter's orders, teams exchanged piratical gestures; seconds later, 24 people who hadn't met until a few days before were working like army gun teams ...
Until we collided. The initial calm deteriorated into a frenzied, flapping free-for-all. Rafts rolled and tipped, children were catapulted overboard, ducks left at speed. This was unbeatable family fun and a great finale. There was a winner, but I can say nothing for fear of recriminations.
With the comprehensive-injuries insurance still in its envelope, we assessed the wisdom of our decision to expose the kids to so much action in such a short time. Will they become yachtswomen, climbers or acrobats? Probably not, but the week gave them a platform to launch themselves at anything that might come their way, with complete conviction. Oh yes, mum and dad learnt a skill or two as well.