I haven’t been on holiday in the UK since September 1986 when Sally was one year old and we went to Wales in a self-catering chalet near Caernarfon and it rained so much and the leaky wooden chalet was so cold and so damp that we gave up after four days, returned home and vowed never to do it again. Since then I have spent my summer holidays on Mediterranean beaches where the sun is guaranteed the beer is always cold and the ladies sunbathe topless. It wasn’t always like this of course. When I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s family holidays came once a year and were rotated tri-annually between a caravan in Norfolk, a caravan in Cornwall and a caravan in Wales. I’m not being ungrateful because these holidays were great fun and in those days it was all that my parents could afford. To be perfectly honest the very idea of going to Europe was faintly absurd, I knew of people who had been to France or Spain (or said that they had) but I always regarded them as slightly eccentric and certainly unusual. As for going further than Europe we might as well have made plans to go to the moon!
In the 1950s about twenty-five million people went on holiday in England as life returned to normal after the war. Most people went by train but we were lucky because grandad had a car, it was an Austin 10 four-door saloon, shiny black with bug eye lights and an interior that had the delicious smell of worn out leather upholstery, which meant that we could travel in comfort and style. Although there were not nearly so many cars on the road in the 1950s this didn’t mean that getting to the seaside was any easier. There were no motorways or bypasses and a journey from Leicester to the north Norfolk coast involved driving through every town and bottleneck on the way which meant sitting around in traffic jams for hours and worrying about the engine overheating. Just getting to the coast could take the whole day and usually involved stopping off about half way along the route for a picnic. Grandad would find a quiet road to turn off into and then when there was a convenient grass verge or farm gate he would pull up and the adults would spread a tartan blanket on the ground and we would all sit down and eat sandwiches and battenburg cake, they would drink stewed tea from a thermos flask and I would have a bottle of orange juice.
I seem to remember that one of the favourite places to go on holiday at that time was Mundesley which is about ten miles south of Cromer where there were good sandy beaches and lots of caravans. I last stayed in a caravan in about 1970 and I have vowed never ever to do it again. I just do not understand caravanning at all or why people subject themselves to the misery of a holiday in a tin box with no running water, chemical toilets and fold away beds, there is no fun in it whatsoever. The National Statistics Office has estimated that British families take 4,240,000 towed caravan holidays a year year, how sad is that? To be fair I suppose it was good fun when I was a five-year-old child but I certainly wouldn’t choose to do it now when I am ten times older and a hundred times fussier. Caravans simply had no temperature control, they were hot and stuffy if the sun shone (so that wasn’t too much of a problem, obviously) and they were cold and miserable when it rained, which I seem to remember was most of the time.
Bad weather didn’t stop us going to the beach however and even if it was blowing a gale or there was some drizzle in the air we would be off to the front to enjoy the sea. If the weather was really bad we would put up a windbreak and huddle together inside it to try and keep warm. Most of the time it was necessary to keep a woolly jumper on and in extreme cases a hat as well and Wellington boots were quite normal. As soon as the temperature reached about zero degrees centigrade, or just enough to break through the ice, we would be stripped off and sent for a dip in the wickedly cold North Sea in a sort of endurance test that I believe is now considered even too tough to be included as part of Royal Marine Commando basic training. I can remember one holiday at Walcote, Norfolk, in about 1965 when it was so cold that there was a penguin on the beach! After the paddle in the sea we would cover ourselves up in a towel and making sure we didn’t reveal our privates struggled to remove the sopping wet bathing costume and get back to our more sensible woolly jumpers. Then we would have a picnic consisting of cheese and sand sandwiches and more stewed tea from a thermos flask.
If the sun did ever come out we used to get really badly burnt because when I was a boy sunscreen was for softies and we would regularly compete to see how much damage we could do to our bodies by turning them a vivid scarlet and then waiting for the moment that we would start to shed the damaged skin off. After a day or two completely unprotected on the beach it was a challenge to see just how big a patch of barbequed epidermis could be removed from the shoulders in one piece and the competition between us was to remove a complete layer of skin in one massive peel, a bit like stripping wallpaper, which would leave us looking like the victim of a nuclear accident.
We didn’t always go to Norfolk and we didn’t always stay in caravans. If we went on holiday with Mum’s parents who lived in London we would get a train to Herne Bay or Margate in north Kent and stay at a holiday camp in a chalet which was just about one step up from a caravan. Actually my grandparents were probably some of the first people that I knew who went abroad for their holidays when in the mid 1960s they went to Benidorm and came back with gifts of flamenco dancers and matador dolls and I can remember thinking how marvellous that sort of travel must be. I went to Benidorm myself in 1975 and although the sun shone I think on reflection I probably preferred Mundesley and Herne Bay.
Beach holidays in the fifties and sixties were gloriously simple. We would spend hours playing beach cricket on the hard sand, investigating rock pools and collecting crabs and small fish in little nets and keeping them for the day in little gaily coloured metal buckets, stirring them up ocassionaly before returning them to the sea at the end of the day. There were proper metal spades as well with wooden handles that were much better for digging holes and making sand castles than the plastic things that replaced them a few years later. Inflatable beach balls and rubber rings, plastic windmills on sticks and kites that were no more than a piece of cloth (later plastic), two sticks and a length of string that took enormous amounts of patience to get into the air and then huge amounts of aeronautical skill to keep them up there for anything longer than thirty seconds.
I remember beach shops before they were replaced by amusement arcades with loads of cheap junk and beach games, cricket sets, lilos, buckets and spades, rubber balls and saucy seaside postcards. I can remember dad and his friend Stan looking through them and laughing and as I got older and more aware trying to appear disinterested but sneaking a look when I thought no one was watching. For a treat there was fish and chips a couple of nights a week but this was in the days before MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken so most of the catering and the eating was done in the caravan or the chalet or if we were really unlucky in the dining room of the holiday camp. I think that this is what put me off school dinners later in life. I once worked in a holiday camp kitchen, at Butlins on Barry Island in 1973 and based on what I saw believe me you really don’t want to eat in a holiday camp restaurant because it isn’t Masterchef I can assure you.
Later, after dad learned to drive and bought his first car, we used to go to Cornwall and Devon and North Wales, to the Nalgo holiday camp at Croyde Bay (still there but now called the Holiday Village) and the Hoseasons holiday village at Borth, near Aberystwyth. The last time I went on the family holiday like that with my parents was in 1971 to Llandudno and by my own confession I was a complete pain in the arse to everybody and I don’t remember being invited again. In 1975 I went to Sorrento in Italy and nothing has ever persuaded me to go back to British holidays in preference to travelling in Europe.