The much anticipated trip to France for the Gardners began with a relatively low stress morning of cleaning and checking the car and then loading it up with enough stuff to equip Napoleon’s armies for an entire tour of Russia.

In the meantime, Kas was doing last minute shopping with Ami and finishing some emergency work, Izzy was having a last morning at nursery.

For the first time in ages, we set off at roughly the time we planned and seem to have remembered to bring everything. A quick stop at the Burlaces to drop off some keys and off we go. D’oh! No, we don’t, we’re missing one child. OK, round to Acorns to fetch Izzy, and then off on the road around 12:30. It should be plenty of time to make a 17:50 train through the Channel Tunnel ( ). The M25 on a Friday afternoon. What could possibly go wrong? Our previous experiences have shown that any trip near London on a Friday afternoon is a nightmare with nobs on.

The weather around the M25 could only be described as treacherous, with masses of rain, thunder and lightning. This, combined with the usual Friday afternoon traffic, conspired to slow us down to a snail’s pace. It’s just as well we allowed 5 hours. And as if to prove the point, we then got stuck in 5 miles of queues trying to get over the Dartford QE2 Bridge ( ). The only reason for it seemed to be that there weren’t enough toll booths open. Never mind, we didn’t want to be early anyway.

Eventually we arrived for a much needed stop at Maidstone Services ( ). Some tea for the daughters was also required. Neither of them managed to sleep much on the way, so things were getting a bit crazy in the back. However, I never cease to be amazed by the restorative powers of fish fingers and a bit of a run around. So having suitably fed and watered everyone, we dashed back to the car through the best thunderstorm yet, and completed the remaining 20 miles to the tunnel.

The Channel Tunnel ( ) has obviously invested some pennies in new technology since we last came. At the check-in gate whilst Kev was fumbling around for the booking details under the seat, Kas (driving) was merrily confirming our position and accepting the kind offer of an earlier train. They have character recognition software at the gate, and this determined that the car was indeed related to one of today’s bookings. Nuff said. Cunning use of technology, I thought. So yes please, we’ll have that earlier train. We arrived at check-in at 16:55 and got on a train at 17:20. Can’t be bad.

Izzy’s first trip through the tunnel (the first since she was born, anyway) involved both girls doing their best to scare daddy by running around the front of the car and generally causing havoc. I must say that having two kids to chase makes the 30-minute train journey seem more like 2 minutes, though. By the way, our train was a bit packed, but Eurotunnel don’t like it if you take photos,  apparently, so I can’t show you how packed. I guess it’s not a wonderful thing to encourage people to take photos inside the carriages.

Our first out-of-car experience in France was a quick wee stop at the first garage. This was packed with Brits busily buying warning triangles and everything else they’re supposed to have for driving in France. Has anyone actually got a high visibility jacket in the back? And so off on our way down to Rouen for the night.

The highlight of this stretch of the Pas de Calais, Picardie and Haute-Normandie was the repeated restarts of the DVD player as the bumpy road surfaces played havoc. We listened to the introduction to “Barney the Dinosaur does some irritating stuff and then sings about it…” far more times than anyone could ever want. This was punctuated by an increasingly stressed Ami smacking the restart button in the strange belief that the player would restart more quickly if it was smacked every couple of seconds. I believe it’s called percussive maintenance.

Apart from that, it was fairly uneventful until we reached Rouen, at which point it went a bit Pete Tong. This was something to do with Felicity the satellite navigator speaking from one side of the car whilst Ami the irritated five-year-old was shouting from the other. Ami was louder.

All of which led us to the unwanted equation : Too many signs + too many distractions = a couple of missed turns + where the hell are we?

The last time we came through Rouen we ended up pulling a U-turn on a bridge over the Seine at 3 in the morning. Maybe Rouen is a portal to a different dimension. Felicity eventually got us back on the right road for our hotel, the Etap Rouen Sud. From the centre of town we just followed the Avenue des Canadiens, south past the Stade Robert Diochen, home of FC Rouen ( ). We didn’t see many Canadians there, though.

We’ve never used an Etap ( ) before, but we would probably do so again, purely because it was clean and slightly bigger than we expected. OK, there’s no restaurant and no bar, but then with two young kids such things serve no purpose anyway. What you really need is a comfortable, dark and quiet room with sleeping space for four, which is precisely what we got. The only unfortunate moment was the nappy of mass destruction that Izzy produced just after we arrived. Obviously that nappy wasn’t the fault of the Etap chain, and we apologise for any implication that it might be. Kas did the dirty (quite literally), but there was no way that thing was sleeping in the same room as us, so Ami and Kev decided to brave the turned-up noses and gagging noises from people in the reception area as we carried it out and deposited it in a bin halfway across the car park.

A restless few hours was then spent playing musical beds in a futile attempt to get sufficient sleep for a shed load of driving the following day.

Izzy had the pumper bed. It makes a farty noise every time she rolls over, which in Izzy’s case is once every 2 seconds.

Ami the Bush Kangaroo got spooked by the dark and so spent the night kicking Kev in the double bed while Kas enjoyed the whole farty, kicky, snory cacophony from the relative peace of the top bunk.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that Ami had a cold and Kev forgot to pack nasal spray in the overnight bag, so the whole thing probably sounded like Darth Vader with a chest infection. Actually, I think the big fella designed the decor in the room. The bedside lamp was an upright flourescent tube screwed to the side of the bed.

I wonder what’ll happen tomorrow.