Where dads can be lads

By Edward Marriott, Evening Standard

Last updated at 16:58 16 April 2003

There comes a time in every married man's life when he looks around at his beautiful house, his beautiful wife, his beautiful children and his beautiful mortgage and asks himself, in the words of the great David Byrne, 'How did I get here?'.

At such moments, what better way to stave off a nasty bout of introspection than by fixing up a lads' weekend.

Take doubts, soak in beer and mindless male activities, then attempt re-entry of society once more. I fancied a weekend off with my friends Bob and Fergal. Bob lives in north Devon; Fergal is a writer and lives in London.

How about meeting for a couple of days of surfing, clay-pigeon shooting and - I forget whose idea this was - cliff-jumping?

Fergal was on for it. Bob, though, is a father of three. He could, he said, squeeze in a couple of hours here and there. I turned it over with my wife. Could she come, too, she asked? And bring our two small boys?

Which is how my lads' weekend turned into something altogether more complex: was it possible to be both a lad and a dad?

The venue was the Woolacombe Bay Hotel, in Woolacombe, north Devon. The best arrangement was for me to stay at the hotel with my family, and Fergal to bunk in Bob's house nearby. Which, when we arrived on a cold but sunny February morning, seemed exactly the right choice.

The hotel - with its deep velvet armchairs, chintzy décor, nightly children's entertainer and crèche - has 'family hotel' written all over it.

Yet they can also lay on a bit of testosterone, and so it was that - while my wife, Bob's wife and the children played in the hotel's indoor pool - Bob, Fergal and I took pot shots at clay pigeons scudding low over the village golf course.

Fergal, the eventual winner, began boasting about his game-shooting that season. 'I've done quite a lot, it's true. I'm in a syndicate, you see. The other weekend we shot 350 partridges in one day.' Hard to suppress a small smile, then, when his BMW got stuck in the mud trying to exit the field.

Gender differences, though, are curiously malleable concepts. Later that day, while the women watched England beat France at rugby in the hotel bistro, Fergal went shopping. 'It's fantastic,' he enthused on his return. 'I've just managed to buy an anorak for £50. And I got another one for £10 - a tenner! In London they'd cost three times that much.'

He sighed dreamily. In an attempt to defeminise him a little, we ate a large and supremely male Sunday breakfast of porridge, black pudding, baked beans, bacon, fried eggs, sausages, mushrooms and tomatoes and headed off, burping noxiously, for a morning's surfing.

Hunter, Woolacombe's surf shop, is run by Neil Clifton, who was English surfing champion in 1996. Clearly expecting some seriously hard punters, we had been assigned instructor Nick Thorn, who had recently returned from a six-year sojourn in Australia, during which time he had made the podium in the Iron Man competition.

Woolacombe beach, as we walked out in the February cold, was clearly a fantastic surfing beach. Three miles of pale sand, bookended by National Trust headlands, it faces directly into the prevailing west wind.

It was sparsely populated with kite surfers, dog walkers and a single family playing frisbee. Astonishingly, there was only one surfer to be seen.

Clifton, who acknowledged that, in terms of renown, Woolacombe was easily eclipsed by beaches such as Newquay in Cornwall, claimed that the surf here was just as fine. It was here, he added - as if proof were needed - that he learned to surf. Today, though, the water was cold: a mere 9C.

We wore wetsuits and neoprene hats, gloves and socks. We stuck it out for 45 minutes and then floundered towards shore. Walking back, I glanced over at Fergal. He looked downcast.

'You okay?' I asked him. 'I'm just thinking about my tummy,' he mused sadly, patting the front of his wet suit. 'It's getting a bit big.'

Needless to say, we never did end up cliff-jumping. On Sunday night, though, we briefly managed to engineer our first mixed-sex activity: round-the-table ping-pong at the hotel.

It was a sweaty, frenetic game, punctuated by triumphant raised fists, suppressed cursing, rapturous victory shouts. And the winners? The women, five games to four.

The Woolacombe Bay Hotel (Tel: 01271 870388; www.woolacombe-bay-hotel.co.uk); from 25 April to 16 May, two-night weekend break £120pp dinner B&B; half-day surfing lessons with Hunter (Tel: 01271 871061) cost £20, full day £35.

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