The School Holidays
It is the School Holidays and as families across Britain prepare to jet off to their short-haul, long-haul, mini-break, city-break, hotels, apartments, cottages, villas, gites, Center Parks, Disney Lands, Disney Worlds, all-inclusives, or just having a staycation while glamping in a yurt, it makes me take a pause. To pause and reminisce about the holidays of my childhood. It was a very different time. A very different world. Back in the day…….
Now, two things were constant in my childhood no matter how hard times were – Sunday lunch and an annual holiday. Mom and dad scrimped and saved and did without all year to ensure that we always ate a Sunday roast with a pudding, and, to give us two weeks away. I am sure that this was often very hard for them. But, I am glad they did. I have many happy memories, some of which are preserved in glorious technicolour polaroids, or on stuttering cine film. Others just live in my memory.
Now, we didn’t go far and we were often “persistent” – four years on the trot at Whitecliff Bay in the Isle of Wight, three years at Ogwen Bank in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Peak District, and the occasional foray to that far off, foreign land which is Scotland. One of the advantages of living in Birmingham in the 1960s and 70s was the fact that all four corners of Great Britain were accessible to us in our Mini Van, the Bedford Van (in which dad had side windows fitted so that my sister and I, sat in the back, could enjoy the views on one of those Scottish excursions), and the Vauxhall Viva. The world was our oyster.
Holidays were a flurry of preparation. It seemed that mom would be washing clothes for weeks in advance. There would be the annual shopping trip (which cruelly seemed to coincide with the yearly new school uniform hunt) for t-shirts, shorts, sandals, wellies and sparkling white pumps. Trainers had yet to be invented. Our pumps were usually sourced from dad’s staff shop. Fortunately dad was the company chauffeur for Dunlop, so we went on our holidays wearing Dunlop or Slazenger. I am sure they were aspirational brands…..
And, once bought, these new clothes were locked away “for best” until the holiday proper.
Dad would take a couple of days to pack the car. No fancy roof boxes or luggage systems back then. We filled the boot, strapped things to the roof, sat on suitcases and my sister and I would be separated in the back by a row of deck chairs and a swing-ball.
And, on the day itself we would be woken in the middle of the night “to beat the rush”. We never did “beat the rush”. These were the days when the motorway system was still in its infancy and A roads were often still cobbled (well nearly). It took forever to get anywhere and our holidays invariably started with a four, five or six hour stint stuck in a queue of traffic in a hot, un- airconditioned, and increasingly fractious car. The A5 from Birmingham to North Wales was notorious for its traffic jams. No number of Quells (I think that was what they were called – little melt-on-your-tongue tablets) could stop the car-sickness. It was always touch and go whether I would throw up in the car or at the side of the road. No number of games of I Spy or sing-a-longs to Puff the Magic Dragon, could stop the boredom and repetitions of “are we nearly there yet?”.
Occasionally, we would break the journey. If we were travelling alone, this often meant unwrapping home-made cheese sandwiches with a flask of tea on the verge of a major road or in the car park of a motorway service area. Or, if we were travelling with grandma and grandad or our wealthier aunt and uncle, there was the occasional treat of venturing inside the motorway service area for breakfast. While our cousins tucked in to a full English, my sister and I would be perfectly content with our white toast and marmalade. This was a real treat. “Eating out” was not something that working class families did in the days before Wimpy, McDonalds and KFC. A piece of toast in a greasy spoon was a treat indeed.
Our accommodation got better as the 70s progressed. The decade began with a “family tent” – a huge construction of canvas and inter-connecting poles that took eight adults to assemble correctly with reference to a two-volume instruction manual. But, there were never eight adults. There was no instruction manual. It was just mom and dad. A mom and dad who were probably not talking to each other after a fractious eight hour car journey with two small bored monsters strapped in the back. It was usually pouring down and blowing a gale. And, no matter how many practise runs had been undertaken on the back lawn in the weeks before; no matter the meticulous colour and numbering system dad had invented to try and ensure the correct poles were connected to each other; it always took forever.
Most of our summers back then were taken up with a) unpacking and cleaning the tent a couple of weeks before setting off, b) practising assembly on the back lawn, c) patching rips, tears, leaks, and scorch marks, d) packing the tent, e) arriving at the camp site and assembling the tent, f) taking the tent down (which always seemed to take twice as long as putting it up), g) drying the tent on the back lawn at home, h) packing the tent. We needed all seven weeks of the school holidays just to complete this cycle.
The decade progressed through a trailer tent to our pride-and-joy four-berth caravan. Four berth if you were a family of Pygmies, which we were not. Compact and bijou, it was a masterpiece of British engineering. It was full of cleverly maximised storage compartments, tables that deconstructed to form beds, levers for pumping water, and a much needed vent in the roof. A caravan containg a family of four and closed-up against the rain, midges and gales of a typical British summer was not a pleasant environment to wake up in.
We had an awning which provided a much needed outside room in which we could spread out in the many times when the weather was too bad for venturing out. And, we had our own portaloo which we placed in a mini-tent of its own alongside “the van”.
Our holidays were spent doing chores. Hauling huge plastic containers of water from the standpipe in the far corner of the field (you never pitched close to the water because of the constant stream of strangers that would be hauling water past your windbreaker); slopping out the loo; taking the dishes to the washing room for a wonderful communal washing up experience; taking the rubbish to the wasp-infested bins in the opposite corner of the field; and, trips to the site shop for bottles of milk and rashers of Danish.
Our holidays were spent making our own fun. Games of cards; dominoes; swing-ball and shuttlecock (like badminton but without a net); or, in the rare event that we were not greeted with “No Ball Games Allowed”, a game of catch or a kick-about with my dad.
Our holidays were Calor Gas, tinned food for dinner, mugs of tea that tasted of the plastic containers that the water was stored in, communal showers and toilet blocks, water bottles (for heating rather than drinking), sleeping bags, wellies and Pac A Macs.
Our holidays were mom and dad, me and my sister, grandma and grandad, auntie, uncle and cousins.
Our holidays were bliss.