I’ve written about many holidays and travel and walking trips I’ve undertaken as an adult, to give a flavour of the places I’ve visited, what I’ve seen, how they’ve struck me and what I think about them.
If I’m to give a complete picture, I think I need to wind the clock back to the 1960s and my family summer holidays as I now remember them. It is fair to say that some of the memories might be honey tinged, some darkly horrific and most intense since I was viewing these momentous events through the prism of a pre-teens eyes; and moreover, a preteen with an older, smugger, brighter, stronger and generally all round more everything brother, somewhere a few paces ahead and, understandably desperate to remove this persistent shadow as one might something canine and faecal if it attached itself to your foot. He was my superhero; I was his bad smell.
The family holidays were set in stone; my mother’s mother, my Gran, lived on the north Kent coast at Herne Bay, a holiday resort with the second longest pier in England. If you look at the above photo, you’ll see me posing for the camera, the Archaeologist discovering new life forms and the pier as a backdrop. That pier was probably the perfect metaphor for Herne Bay – a not quite resort, second best. Pebbly beach, cold north sea water and the pier. Even the sea food that, today makes its neighbour Whitstable something of a magnet was denied Herne Bay. Discerning holiday-makers headed further east to Margate, of sandy beaches, lidos and Dreamland. We went (and stayed) in Herne Bay.
I loved it.
To get there, we drove, though to be fair that’s because the pre car days are a little hazy, due to my youth. I have one memory of watching my brother being hoisted up onto the footplate of the train we were catching to Herne Bay. A steam train so it must have been 1960 or before and me a four year old. I remember it because I was denied it. I had to watch him having fun. If there was a recurrent emotion that I can recall to this day it is jealousy. He was fifteen months older than me and my parents were scrupulous in rubbing that difference into everything we did; bedtimes, pocket money, choice of which side to sit when we had a car… No, of course I don’t bear the scars. I read somewhere recently that we parents can never make mistakes. Once we do our children will remind us of them throughout their lives. Now I’m a parent I understand. Back then I just seethed.
Holidays were formulaic things. Dad had a fortnight’s leave during the school holidays and these will filled, based in Herne Bay. We drove to my gran’s, the longest most exciting experience, car-wise at that time. It went something like this…
- We came home from school (if it was the first week of the said holidays) or back from wherever we were making mischief to find the car packed and mum shutting the house down. We were encouraged to gather together whatever would keep us entertained on the two hour drive to my Gran’s – sometimes that might involve a game I could play with my brother, but mostly he would be reading something ridiculously advanced for a seven year old – Dickens, Conan-Doyle, HG Wells – while I would dig out a Beano, or Dandy or Beezer, or Eagle or some other comic.
- At shortly before 6 we would drive the mile to Whyteleafe station – we lived in rural leafy north Surrey – to meet my father off the train from Victoria. We would be bouncing with excitement which set off the dog – our family pet was a huge Boxer called Punch and the choice of sides occupied by my brother and me was crucial as Punch tended to lean against the left side of the car – it was a form of estate called a Hillman Huskey – and drool throughout the whole journey. Mostly on me.
- Dad would settle in the passenger seat – Mum did most of the driving as Dad had only recently passed his test while Mum had been driving since the War. He would kiss Mum, turn to us and methodically take off his tie. That was it. Cheers all around. Yay! Let the holidays begin!!
- There were very few motorways back then. Our route took us along the A25, the precursor to the M25 for those who know south of London. The total journey was almost exactly 70 miles and with the best will in the world, doing it in 2 hours was an achievement.
- At some point we did a small section of motorway, the M2 that ended needs Leeds Castle – I’ve always wondered why it was called that given Leeds is some 300 miles to the north – and we boys would be on the alert, staring at the hillside to the left. This was to spot a cross carved into the chalk; as soon as we saw that we knew we’d be stopping for our ‘break’ and it was our job to let mum and dad know we were there. The layby gave us the chance to have a male bonding pee against a tree while Mum dragged the reluctant dog to see if he’d perform. Usually he was more interested in pursuing some rodent.
- Back in the car the journey slowed as we headed for Canterbury which we’d circle and then make for Herne Bay. There’s a famous poem in the Ingoldsby Legends called the Smuggler’s Leap about Smuggler Bill and Exciseman Gill that dad knew. It incorporates the towns and villages between Herne Bay (and the next door hamlet of Reculver) and Canterbury and we’d look out for each as we passed. He’d happily recite as we hastened through the darkening evening.
- Sometimes I guess I slept because suddenly we’d be pulling up in front of Gran’s wonderful terraced house – 4 St George’s Terrace, with a direct line to the sea, the pier, and often obvious to all and sundry, even in July, the North Pole. It could be a sharp old wind.
- We’d tumble out to be enveloped in Gran’s warming hugs. She was a small, tough, white-haired wonder who had energy to burn. We loved her though she was hard on her sons and her son in law. Beyond us the one person who could do no wrong was mum. Quite right too.
- By now we were well beyond our customary bed times but the ritual continued with fish and chips. I never really liked the fish but I loved the chips, the energy, the banter though I understood little of it. Back the early 1960s my middle uncle had emigrated to Australia not to reappear until the 1970s and my younger uncle, Les was in the merchant navy. Sometimes, though, he’d be at home on leave and Gran would hustle Mum, Dad and Les out to go to some pub while she happily babysat.
This was repeated year on year throughout the 1960s; the routine was a perfect start to the holiday, which was also to follow a routine, as we will see. Nothing could go wrong. Of course…
Next time: the sea and the front and the beach. What to do when you’re six, allowed to wander here and there and you have an inveterately curious brother with whom to poke at the world? You followed him, of course along with the dog, who mostly did his own thing but was usually there when called. Did we get into trouble? Not really. Much.