Their activity means your tranquillity

30th June 2000 at 01:00
From pony-trekking to Munro-bagging, you can get the children off your hands - at a price, reports George Hume.

NOT SINCE Enid Blyton's Famous Five came "home for the hols" to catch spies, snooker forgers and trap smugglers - and do it all on a diet of rich fruit cake and "lashings of lemonade" - have there been so many innocent activities to divert the young, ease parental strain, put sunshine back into summer and, let's be frank, get the little darlings out from under your feet.

Family holidays, whether stoically midged at Machrihanish or Tony-spotting in Tuscany, seldom run to more than two or three weeks. After which the good humour wears off, children answer back, parental pleasure wanes, the TV risks meltdown, and what was supposed to be "quality time" is anything but.

Just as soon as the ice-creams stop coming and rat-burgers go back on ration, it's ennui all the way. "Mum, I'm bored," is the refrain . . . weeks and weeks of it before the time comes to round them up, sharpen last term's pencils, supervise a draconian bathtime and say a heartfelt thank-you to every teacher at the chalkface.

But now, let joy be unconfined, there really are heroes and heroines prepared to step into the breach, take Wayne and Tracy off your hands in the holidays, give them a good time, and manage to keep on smiling.

They will care, supervise, entertain, instruct, serve up nutritious meals, suffer no back-chat and generally behave as though they come from another planet: civilised, urbane, no-nonsense, patient and definitely in charge.

Yes, they will even take on your tots and teenagers, too.

The magic balm with which you must anoint these saints is - surprise, surprise - money. But not necessarily a great deal of it. Your son can imagine he has Formula One potential while learning to drive go-carts, all-terrain quad and trials bikes, while your daughter can pretend she is riding against the Princess Royal at the Badminton Horse Trials.

Only pound;349 a week for the high- revving lad, use of crash helmet, grease and a spanner included, and pound;240 for his sister, for four days in the saddle and all the dung she can shovel. "Mucking in" is the phrase used which, in equestrian circles, means "mucking out".

If your children are of a more gentle persuasion, there are pursuits such as model-making and arts and crafts: activities that will leave them energy sufficient for a day on an assault course, stunt kiting or one to give mum and dad worry frowns, "blind date".

The following menu is by no means exhaustive: aerobics, archery, athletics, badminton, board games, canoeing, computer games, cricket, disco, drama, football, golf, model-making, music, rugby, sailing, squash, sub-aqua, swimming, tennis, and on and on until your pride and joy falls exhausted into a sleeping bag.

Which takes care of junior, all ages from five to 18, safe, happy, busy, learning new skils, making new friends, finding out how the world wags, away from home with no time for Home and Away, occupied by the day, the weekend, three- and four-day mini-breaks, by the week, in Britain or in France, on multi-activity holidays or specialist courses.

But what about the crumblies, those impossibly out-of-touch couples who will be paying for the fun and games, the mums and dads whose high summer largesse might just prevent their children from believing that they suffer from parental thrombosis?

Relax. The secret of activity holidays is that they are really run for the benefit of parents whose teenagers can be packed off for weeks at a time before the mast, or whose tinies can be picked up and dropped off on a daily basis to have their faces painted even as they put more arrows into a target than the entire Royal Company of Archers can manage after a good lunch at Holyrood.

Sons can train for a career in the armed forces by spending a week on the rifle range, under canvas, and sampling jolly camaraderie while daughters can discover the thespian risks of which Mrs Worthington was warned, learn to paddle their own canoe or hack it on an Exmoor pony.

Do these activity holiday folk work to please? Like beavers. Here in Scotland, one company knows exactly what hard-working parents want. Operating from bases at Fettes College in Edinburgh - yes, you can honestly say your child went to the same school as the PM - and Hutchesons' Grammar in Glasgow, its workers will pick up the light of your life and deliver it back, stretching the hours to accommodate the parents' full working day.

But how much will it set you back to give your child a great time, and yourself a chance of hanging on to summer sanity?

A multi-activity ticket for five days, Monday to Friday, non-boarding, costs pound;124, while five half-days come in at pound;66. Minibus pick-up and delivery service costs extra, around pound;27.50 a week within five miles of the camp, over pound;40 if farther.

If you want to put a bit of distance between yourselves and your 16 to 18 year-olds, pound;439 will get them seven days' training in France and, at the end of it, an internationally-recognised National Beach Lifeguard Qualification if they apply themselves. The only prerequisite is the ability to swim 400 metres in under eight minutes. Baywatch, beware.

Closer to home are the Munros, not to be recommended to other than the hardy, those Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet.

Munro-bagging, say the hyper-active, is as natural as lotus eating. But some are remote and to get at these, suggests one brochure, the best bet is to hand over pound;365 and spend five days experiencing the ups and downs of life in the north. Youth hostels provide the accommodation.

Here, there and just about everywhere - when it comes to tranquil summers for parents it is only a question of how far, how long and how much. Bonnes vacances.

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