No matter how much you profess to love children, having 20 of them is surely the stuff of nightmares, or at least nervous breakdowns particularly at 8.20am on a school day.Today, just as one teenage daughter has drawn on her white school-shirt with felt-tip pen and another (toddler-sized) has trodden biscuit into the carpet, even Sue Radford still high on the scent of new baby has to agree.’I mean if you were handed them all at once, with someone saying, ‘Here, have all these children’, you’d be sitting in the corner, rocking, wouldn’t you?’ she declares, over din, simultaneously picking socks off the floor, fixing schoolbag handles and wiping Nutella off faces. When you have 20 children over the course of 28 years though, you adapt.’It creeps up on you,’ says Sue, 42 years old.’You get used to it. To us, it is completely normal everyday life.’On Monday, Sue Britain’s most prolific living mother and surely the most exhausted gave birth to her 20th baby, little Archie.He may now be lying in his mother’s arms, but she has had to wrestle him out of quite a few sets of arms just to get a cuddle.First there was Archie’s big sister Aimee, 11 years old who lifted him out of his cot, before handing him to Ellie, 12 years old.Now little Tillie, seven, is asking to have a hold, even though she is already busy brushing the hair of her little sister Phoebe, 13 months.Not to be outdone, the younger boys in this astonishing family are keen for Archie to join their gang while they, variously, watch cartoons, chase each other with Nerf guns or play superheroes.Casper, four, has appeared downstairs dressed in his Spider-man outfit rather than his school uniform and plants a kiss on his new brother’s head. Then he saunters into the kitchen and sloshes milk into a cereal bowl with such force that it leaps straight out again.Archie might just be the most in demand baby on the planet, it seems, although his arrival in this household has just made it that teensy bit more difficult for them all to get to school on time.
‘The older ones have been fighting about who should change his nappy, which was a new one for me. I never imagined any child would want to do that,’ says Sue, reaching for another baby wipe as she swipes at a passing child.Perhaps the biggest miracle is that baby Archie manages to doze through the noise.How best to describe the racket that a family this size can make, of a morning? Feeding time at zoo suddenly seems sedate.When one of dogs (yes, they have three of those, too) leaves a puddle on the floor, sending poor Sue scurrying off for the mop, it’s a sign that we have reached peak pre-school carnage.Does she mind, though? No. She’s in her element. She even trots over to the microwave to warm some milk when several of the little minxes declare theirs to be too cold.This is either a woman who has a rare knack for fuss-free parenting, or one who has already been sprinkling Valium on her Cornflakes. I suspect former.’The only annoying bit is when we are late for school, which we can be,’ she admits, a little sheepishly. ‘That they are at three different schools doesn’t help.’Ten of children are at school. The five older of these troop off to secondary school on their own. Then her husband Noel drops two of the younger ones at their primary school, on his way back to the family bakery.Sue walks the other three to theirs, along with the youngest pre-schoolers (‘We thought we’d struggle when they didn’t all get offered places at the same primary school, but we’ve managed’), then comes back to enjoy ‘relative calm’ with the youngest until they need to reverse the process for school pick-up.Only Sue could describe having three under-twos at home all day as a ‘nice little breather’. That Sue is happy to invite me to her home just two days after she has arrived home from hospital with her latest child is indication enough that this is no ordinary family.What a jaw-dropping (not to mention toast-dropping) morning it proves to be. Just making sure everyone gets some food is quite challenge.This lot get through three boxes of cereal on an average day ‘Although that’s not just in the morning. Some of them like a bowl in evening, too,’ says Sue.Ideally, she needs to have a couple of loads of washing completed by the time they leave for school if she’s to get through eight or nine loads they need to do on an average day.How does she possibly keep track of which clothes belong to which child? ‘I don’t know, but I’m pretty good with that.’
Is Dad as good? She laughs. ‘No, Noel can’t tell whose clothes are whose, but he can put the loads on.’ Bang on cue, Noel (who has already done half a day’s work at the bakery by the time kids get up, rushing home to then do his share of the school run) comes scurrying through with a load, most of which seems to have been picked up from the living room floor.There’s an astonishing moment when kitchen pretty much trashed all the primary school-aged Radfords pile into the living room to put on their uniforms.Sue has put them in a big pile the night before and it’s pretty much every child for him or herself.The littlest ones might need help with buttons, but they are pretty self-sufficient, more so than most children of their age. When help is required, it is likely to come from older siblings.By the end, though, the room looks as though an earthquake has hit. The family Dyson stands ready for action. ‘I have to do the living room twice a day,’ says Sue. ‘If I didn’t, we’d lose some of the kids in mess.’So who is who in the brood of Britain’s biggest family? That’s a fiendish one to work out, since there are children everywhere.There is a little girl under kitchen table. There is a boy peaking out from behind the sofa. Max? I say. Ooops, no. This one is Josh.I ask Noel to help and he points me in direction of a canvas on the living room wall, which charts every name and year of birth, ‘except for the last few. We are a bit out of date,’ he says.’With their birthdays, I’m hopeless,’ Noel admits. ‘I remember the first three. After that . . . well, I have to look at the chart. Or ask Sue.’For record, apart from newborn Archie, the Radfords consist of Chris, 28, Sophie, 23, Chloe, 22, Jack, 20, Daniel, 18, twins Luke and Millie, 16, Katie, 14, James, 13, Ellie, 12, Aimee, 11, Josh, ten, Max, eight, Tillie, seven, Oscar, five, Caspar, four, Hallie, two, and Phoebe, 13 months.Very much part of family is little Alfie, who was stillborn in 2014, but is still touchingly present in spirit. One piece of artwork has all other children represented as little figures, with Alfie as a tiny star in the sky above them.Sue insists baby number 20 is the final child. ‘You have to stop somewhere and this seems right,’ says Sue. ‘It’s a nice even number.’
This will please her own mother, she admits, who first started despairing of her need to keep reproducing around baby six or seven. ‘By eight she was saying: ‘You are not going to have any more, are you?’ I think she gave up after that.’Husband Noel seems less sure. ‘We shall see,’ he says, with a rather mischievous grin. ‘It’s not as if we’ve ever planned anything. I mean no one sits down and says: ‘I think I’ll have 20 kids.’ Not any sane person, anyway.’This is man who had a vasectomy after baby number nine, then promptly had it reversed when he and Sue decided they had more baby years left in them.Actually, Noel seems eminently sane. And also, like his wife, astonishingly calm.Just after 8am, as the mayhem is peaking, we find ourselves talking about children’s shoes. Fittingly, we are standing next to a storage tower in the hallway that looks like stock room of Clarks.’Every morning there is one who can’t find their shoes, or who denies that they have any shoes,’ he says. ‘The trick is not to stress. If you were a stressy sort you’d be six feet under by now.’The Radfords are as ‘unstressy’ as they come. As I bemoan how hectic modern parenting has become, what with having to ferry your son to taekwondo on the same day your daughter goes to karate, they look at me as if I am mad.’Oh, we don’t do that,’ says Noel. ‘A few of the boys like football so they go out and play with their friends, and the girls went through a phase of dance classes, but mostly we don’t do it. There’s no need.’Nor do they seem to fret about things like quality time.’Even when we make a point of trying to have one on one time with them, they say: ‘Can we bring so and so?’ ‘ says Sue. ‘They want to be with each other, and I think that’s lovely.’The more time I spend with them, the more the penny drops. The sign on the front door the one that says Free Range Kids is not entirely a joke. They may pitch in to help out when asked, but they aren’t assigned chores.Sue doesn’t have rigid rules about anything much. If the children want to pour their own sugar on their cereal, they go ahead. If they want to skip their homework, she doesn’t fret.’The primary school ones do their homework when they come home. But if they don’t want to one day, I don’t worry. Why would you?’ There is an air of laissez-faire that some might find disturbing; others refreshing. Sue laughs about how she used to be ‘more of a fretter’.’With your first one, you worry about everything. But by the tenth or 14th, as long as they are fed, watered and clean, it is OK.’Neither Sue nor Noel comes from a large family although, interestingly, both were adopted.
Does Sue think there is a link there with her ‘addiction’, as she has previously put it, to having children? She shrugs. ‘I never thought about it. I just love having kids. I feel it’s what I was put on this earth to do.’She was only 13 when she fell pregnant for the first time. Noel was 17 at time. These days the police would be calling.’But they were very different days,’ she says. ‘And we celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary next week, so we proved them all wrong.’ She’s as laid back about the idea of teenage pregnancy as she is about homework.’I don’t think it was that unusual, actually. There were two other girls in my school who were pregnant at same time.’How would she feel if one of her girls became pregnant at the age she did?’It wouldn’t be ideal,’ she concedes. ‘But I don’t think it would be end of the world either.’The two eldest children, Chris and Sophie, no longer live at home and have children of their own (Sue and Noel have four grandchildren so far).Still, the house a rambling nine-bedroomed period property that used to be a residential home and which they bought around 13 years ago for £240,000 is bursting at seams. The entire middle floor is the ‘kids floor’. The older teenagers have their own rooms; the younger ones share.’We still have a few of them in with us,’ says Sue. ‘Obviously Archie is with us, and Phoebe, too. And most nights, Hallie comes in as well. We hear her padding over the floor and then she just hurls herself in between us.’At the weekend, they can have four, five, six (who’s counting?) young ones piling in for a cuddle. They must have a super king size bed, then?’No!’ Sue shrieks. ‘We only have a double. Mostly Noel ends up perched at one side, almost falling out, and I’m at other.’Quite how they make all these babies when even their bed isn’t their own is a mystery, but they do carve out a little couple time.’We went to the cinema a few weeks ago, and try to have odd date night. It’s important to not just be Mum and Dad,’ Sue says.Do they have a rule about not talking about the kids? ‘That would be quite difficult,’ shesays as Noel rolls his eyes. They are a lovely family but, my goodness, their life is tough. When Channel 4 made a documentary about them back in 2013 (17 Kids And Counting seems woefully out of date now), much was made of fact that they were not a family of scroungers, and eschewed benefits.Even today, only state handout they claim is Child Benefit, receiving in the region of £170 a week. How they manage on Noel’s salary of under £50,000 is anyone’s guess.The weekly visit to the supermarket sounds as arduous as an expedition up Alps, and about as much fun. As Sue points out, with a weekly shop costing £200 to £250, ‘You have to be very careful about how you spend every penny.’That means batch-cooking and careful planning. It also means going from Aldi to the market to bag the best bargains, none of which is easy if you have a gaggle of children in tow. Even the minibus they drive, an 11 seater, doesn’t fit them all in.’Oh no, we can’t take them all,’ says Sue. ‘I might take a few. It’s rare to be able to get out of the house without two or three children, but I draw the line at taking them all to supermarket.’Every day they get through 18 pints of milk, three litres of juice, and those three boxes of cereal. They might eat out as a birthday treat and they manage a big family holiday most years, but only with careful planning.What if sickness strikes? Sue tells a rather gruesome story about the time, two or three years back, when every child went down with a tummy bug. ‘It went round like wildfire,’ she says, shuddering at memory.It brings me back to the obvious question: how does any woman end up having 20 children?She presses her nose to little Archie’s head. ‘Because the good bits outweigh the bad bits,’ she says. ‘Every time.’