Road trips are big in other countries, but in the UK we hardly have the distance to consider our journey a road trip. This summer was different. Living in Somerset our holiday home in Orkney is a very long way away. 705 miles away to be exact! This is a scary figure for anyone, let alone a single parent with two energetic boys and no co-pilot for the trip.
I think most people put me down as insane when I posted this on Facebook, but I knew we could do it and all would be okay. The trip itself was relatively easy. M5 to Birmingham, M6 until the end, a few motorways around Glasgow and Edinburgh, until we hit the A9, which we followed from just north of Edinburgh until we dropped off the end of Scotland at Scrabster. We then had a chilled 90-minutes on the ferry followed by the empty roads of Orkney until Brekkan came into view on the brow of the hill at Swannay.
Usually we fly to Orkney but I needed to take some furniture up and having never done the drive all the way (we usually fly to Inverness and pick up a hire car for the last 150-miles), it seemed the summer with light evenings was far better than a winter trip when darkness creeps in at about 4pm, the roads north of Edinburgh through the Cairngorms can be ‘interesting’ and the ferry from Scrabster can be delayed or cancelled – a disaster after driving 650-miles to find we are stuck on the mainland. So after lots of planning we set off. This planning took time, but was worth the effort and after a few trial runs over shorter distances I think it is finally perfected.
Have an early start
Going on holiday, the kids always wake up early so I make the most of their early start. The day before I try to send them to holiday club or a day with Nana and I clean the house (my OCD rears its face when it comes to going away and leaving a clean house!), load the car and ensure that everything that is going into the car at the last-minute is lined up. There is no messing in the morning. We get up and go, fruit is available for snacking but breakfast is served at our first stop after at least 2 hours on the road.
Plan the route
I know the sat nav tells you where to go, but it doesn’t show you where to break the journey. That needs to be planned. I always have the ideal stop with a traffic jam back up (essential if going around Birmingham) and a plan if we have an exceptional run and get well ahead so the times don’t work. I plan to drive for a maximum of 8hours in a day. Beyond this we all start to wilt and I have learnt my lesson from trying to push my luck with distances in the past. As well as having food breaks I always prebook the hotels we need on the journey. The best services in the UK have to be at Gloucester and Tebay. Beautiful farm shop, nice food and lovely surroundings. We could do a day trip just to visit the services.
Leading on from stopping is that boy essential in life of food. Snacks are non-stop but rationed, they never get the whole day’s allowance at the beginning. That would be asking for a sugar rush and starvation by mid-afternoon. Again my pre-planning kicks in and I do half day picnic bags. Snacks, sweets, drinks and fruit all in a bag to be consumed as needed during the day. I have tried all sorts from one big bag for all of us, having the sweets with me and handing them out when the begging gets too much to giving them a big bag and telling them that is it for the two days. Self control is not a bored boys forte, especially when sweets are involved so rations are the way to go. I have one who eats the whole lot in one sitting and one who has squirrel tendencies and saves them for later in the week. When we stop there is always a proper picnic or hot food, the rations are just to keep them going.
16-hours of travelling in two days is a lot to expect from an 8 and 12-year-old. One is hooked on his iPod for the entire journey. A blanket over the head helps with glare apparently and a charger is essential. The other one is a puke monster and is worse on the motorway – absolutely typical. His options are limited even with drugs and remedies. We have however discovered that an iPod in a phone holder on the front dash enables movie watching while still looking ahead. Peace from the running commentary without the trauma. They always choose to take colouring books and stickers, books to read and UNO is a hotel room essential. They have their holiday bags that they pack themselves which they keep for the journey, the hotel and on the ferry. Once we get on the A9 the gadgets get put away and they absorb the surroundings. This is never planned they just seem to get to a point that they are ready to look at this little corner of the world.
Letting off Steam
After 8 hours in the car the last thing I want to do is have two bouncing kids in a hotel room too early. All of our overnight stops start with a few fun activities. Lots of energy burnt off, a little bit of learning and always something fun. This time the stops were Hadrian’s Wall, dolphin watching after a long beach walk and Landmark at Carrbridge.
Perfect activities for two energetic boys. I always make sure there are changes of clothes and towels to hand, we never manage to stop without mud or paddling being involved. This is also essential as one is guaranteed to lose an ice cream or have a drink explode.
After exploring and dinner it is unlimited TV and so long as they are in bed and quiet they can stay awake for as long as they last, usually it isn’t long but it beats the sitting in the bathroom hoping they will go to sleep soon in the dark room.
I always book somewhere to stay well in advance. After lots of experimenting we have found that Premier Inn gives us the biggest rooms with comfortable beds and big breakfast. This is essential to get as far as possible before lunch on day 2. We have tried B&B’s but breakfast is always late and leisurely and with one boy who eats everything and one who will manage a crumpet if I am lucky the Premier Inn kids eat free is well worth the money. They are also good as there is always a child friendly restaurant attached and booking this in advance takes the stress off the day. Knowing where we will be having dinner and at what time gives the final bit of structure to the day.
So that is the kids sorted. Planning helps me survive along with a big steak dinner at the hotel and some pre-planned cake stops. My favourite stop is at the Storehouse just north of Inverness at Foulis, the cheesecake is amazing!
I have my play list on my phone along with the sat nav counting down the miles. Teaching the boys how the sat nav works also stops the ‘how much longer?’ questions, they can see how much longer and this is one less annoyance. I give myself more time than I need and factor in traffic jams which makes it all better when we arrive ahead of plan.
I wouldn’t want to do this too often and knowing where I am going helps spur me on. The isolation of Orkney and the escape to my little bolt hole makes every mile worth the effort. Am I mad or do you know something to help me improve this trip?
This was first published in 2015, but has been updated for 2017. We still make this road trip and I still follow my journey rituals!