Over the Easter holidays we took Ben away for an activity weekend. We went to Istanbul for a long weekend with Max in March, so now it was Ben’s turn to get uninterrupted time with his parents.
I did not grow up with activity holidays. My family holidays involved weeks in the British countryside going on long walks, or staying on a smallholding in Spain and swimming in a pond full of frogs. Our dad would occasionally take us to the local swimming pool but we were more likely to be taken round Ronda bullring for the twentieth time than to be put in a canoe. Our meals involved omelettes and family arguments. Not once did we stay anywhere fully catered.
The Calvert Trust Exmoor enables people with various disabilities to experience outdoor activities that might be complicated or impossible otherwise. We had heard great things about it, but I was a bit nervous. Mainly about how Ben would feel about it all, but also because activity centres remind me of school trips. All of the schedules and rules and mealtimes make me feel like I’m 11 years old again, and when we arrived I actually felt a bit homesick, even though I was there with my husband and child, and I’m an adult with a car that I can drive away if I really want to. I had a small weep about leaving Max behind, and then cracked in to the red wine.
We were there for a long weekend. And what a weekend it was – undoubtedly one of the most intense of recent memory.
It’s quite hard to summarise how it went. It could be written one of two ways:
- Brilliant adventure! New experiences!
We were told our timetable when we arrived. We were worried about how Ben would deal with any of the activities, but particularly the canoe trip – it would clearly mean an extended period of time with no ipad or books or distraction beyond calm water. And he wouldn’t be able to sit in a supportive chair like normal. What were we going to do when he flipped out, in the middle of a lake on a boat we were sharing with other people?
In fact, Ben was great. He was patient as we got ready for the trip, sat perfectly cross-legged in the boat and lasted almost and hour and a half before he got bored.
The next day he was attached to the ceiling of a sports hall in a harness and swung around. As far as we are aware that was the first time he’d done that too.
Then in the afternoon, we pushed him down a zipwire at high speed. Twice. He reacted to this extreme sport by closing his eyes for the entire thing and giving us a wry smile. He looked more relaxed than ever.
On both days he went swimming and hung out in the Jacuzzi, where he was relaxed and happy. We walked round a lake, sat by a fire, and read a lot of stories.
Our instructor was friendly and accommodating. He was skilled and experienced so knew how Ben could be supported to do each activity, and quickly worked out if Ben was getting impatient so made sure he went first when possible. He fits in to the category of people we come across pretty often who specialise in maximising the lives of disabled children and do it really well.
In the two days of activities, Ben took part in AND ENJOYED canoeing, swinging from a ceiling and zooming down a zipwire. He had never done any of these things before. If we achieved just one of those things in a normal weekend we would be inordinately pleased with ourselves. We’d spend the rest of the day watching the Paddington Bear film and congratulating ourselves on going canoeing. Canoeing!
- Really, extraordinarily hard work
Between all of these amazing activities which Ben enjoyed, we were working incredibly hard to keep the show on the road. Ben was a bit tense almost all the time in such an unfamiliar environment. We were in a group for each activity so there was inevitably some waiting around for our turn. As the weekend went on, we found we couldn’t wait for longer than a couple of minutes before he was getting grumpy. It also became apparent that Ben hates wearing a helmet.
James and I were working overtime to keep Ben chirpy in between the action. Our timetable was packed with way more stuff that we would usually do with him on one day. Through a combination of fractiousness and tiredness, he didn’t enjoy a forest walk, or a challenge course, or crate stacking. He cried often and whinged a lot. We didn’t even try abseiling – we just stayed in our room listening to audiobooks and napped.
Ben was almost the youngest child there (most of the visitors are adults) so it’s not surprising that he was a bit overwhelmed. I was a bit thrown at times!
Meanwhile, all of our meals were provided but that didn’t include Ben’s gastrostomy feeds, and we didn’t have a kitchen. So we were washing syringes and cleaning the blender in our en-suite bathroom, storing his food in a mini-fridge, preparing medicines on a windowsill. It worked, but nothing makes you appreciate your own kitchen like not being in it.
When I was thinking about visiting The Calvert Trust, a friend told me it was the only place she had ever been where disabled and able-bodied people were viewed equally. She said, if only the rest of the world were like The Calvert Trust it would be a much better place. And she is totally right – we have never been anywhere where people (including James and I) assume Ben will be able to take part in every activity, and someone will have thought carefully about exactly how to achieve that. It is inclusive – both in terms of people participating in activities, and because it brings together a group of disabled and non-disabled people to get to know each other, talk to one another and eat together.
But… I didn’t anticipate that being in a place with lots of disabled people, would make me see Ben as more disabled, rather than less. Even in a group of disabled people, Ben is noticeably less able than most. That is what it is – he’s brilliant, and cute, and clever, but his body just doesn’t work very well.
So by the time we got back to London, James and I needed a holiday to recover from the holiday. But instead James went back to work that afternoon, we decided to move house next month, and embarked on a series of hospital appointments with Ben. We are glad we went, and will definitely go back, but let’s be under no illusions that it will be a restorative holiday!