Age sixteen: it's a tricky phase alright. You're not quite an adult, but definitely no child. Cigarettes and booze are still off-limits but yet you can theoretically work in full-time employment and even get married.
In life's journey it’s like a no-man’s-land, where you're waiting in the wings of neither here nor there for ... who-knows-what?
My youngest son, Finn, reached that sort-of milestone this week and I wanted to mark the occasion by doing something a bit different. Something that would appeal to both the lingering child and the burgeoning adult in him, but was also fun and might prove a precious memory in later years.
I found the perfect solution.
Instead of the usual party with pizzas, DVDs and loud music, or a trip to the cinema for half the class with the obligatory extortionately priced popcorn and drinks — both of which I've done for both sons on their birthdays and were soon forgotten — I decided to spend approximately the same amount but downsized to a party for him and his two best mates that lasted a whole weekend.
Our destination — The Loft: a quaint, yet immaculate self-catering cottage directly opposite the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Castle Espie in Comber. Not only is this situated in one of the most idyllic and unspoilt spots of Co Down, but the place itself held a special poignant significance for us, too. Ten years ago this week, when Finn had turned six, and his dad and I were still together, we had brought him and his brother there for a birthday treat. In fact, it was the last birthday when we were all still living under one roof.
Finn had absolutely loved it, despite the fact that a Barnacle Goose had chased him, hissing and spitting, until he dropped the bag of duck food we'd bought and ran for his life. I remember he was almost bereft when the sun started to set behind the golden stretches of Strangford Lough and we had to go home before the gates were closed.
This time around, though, for two idyllic days, our temporary home was a stone's throw away and we could watch the same sun setting in the same spot from our perfect cottage doorstep.
As I made the tea and the three teenage lads ran around the grounds of the estate playing a boisterous version of hide and seek in the dark, I knew this would become a new memory these three pals would treasure forever.
Then, on Saturday night, once the sky turned pitch black — with no light pollution for literally miles, save the finest sliver of a crescent moon — we all walked down to the shore and gazed at the most spectacular starry sky I've ever seen.
“Wow!” “Awesome!” “Amazing!” “Holy c**p!” All four of us were completely enraptured by the silent yet spectacular celestial display.
Then as we cut through a creaking pine forest on the way back to the cottage a startled flock of roosting wood pigeons suddenly and noisily burst into flight, scaring the living daylights out of us all.
“Zombies! Run for your lives!” Finn shouted. And instantaneously a new game was invented — Zombie Torchlight Attack.
Of course, the other highlight of our special weekend was going into the hides at Castle Espie and watching the Brent Geese dabbling in their thousands along the salt marshes.
On the way home, just to add one final funny memory to our cache, the boys were chased once again by an errant goose, with the usual hilarious results.
“He obviously recognises you from the last time!” I said to Finn as he ran for his life back through the safety of the gates, laughing and whooping as he thwarted the hissy fit attacker.
Such a fabulous weekend it was, despite the midnight zombie invasion and the flesh-eating killer geese. As we packed up the car on Sunday afternoon all of the three boys agreed that it had been “the best weekend ever!”
Phew, what a relief. But oh, to be sweet sixteen again!
The Loft at Castle Espie sleeps up to four and is available all year but is not suitable for younger children as there is a private, deep lake in the grounds. For details, go to irishcottagesdown.com/theloftcastleespie or tel: 028 9187 0778