Every summer holiday from when I can remember until 1970, when I was thirteen and we’d moved making the journey more problematic, we stayed with my grandmother in her Georgian terraced house overlooking the sea at Herne Bay on the north Kent coast. These memories are culled from those holidays which, like so many early memories have seeped into each other to create one whole.
Life moves on, of course it does. But one truism of the sixties was the relative freedom – some might say abandonment – of we small children. My parents didn’t want us around all the time. They had things to do, my mother had people to see, some relatives who didn’t necessarily want two curious well behaved but fidgety children. And my father quite fancied a few hours with the paper and his pipe… We’d be fed breakfast by my Gran – like all grandparents she spoilt us by buying the breakfast cereals that my mother considered decadent – Frosties for instance – and sent out ‘to play’.
The choice was whether to leave by back or front door. At the start of the holidays it was the front door because of one main attractions: the sea.
If you stand with your back to my gran’s house, straight in front of you are the roofs of the sea front buildings – a series of single story, flat roofed shops, arcades and knick-knackery emporia. If you lift your eyes above those roofs you can see the dark green and frothy white of the north sea, swirling away towards the artic. Slightly to the right is the start of the pier – at the landwards end there was a pavilion and 700 yards away was another building that held shows. No, we never went. Not improving enough. The pier was free to walk – people fished off it, often for crabs. One third and two thirds along the boarded surface was raised like a bridge. I was told this was a consequence of the pier being disabled during the war to stop enemy aircraft using it as a landing strip and when it was repaired after the war they didn’t repair it flat. Was that apocryphal? Probably; it seemed filled with glamour to me, the idea of ME 109s trying to land. What was true was my mother watching the Heinkel bombers with her brothers as they followed the coast round to the Thames estuary and then along to the docks for day bombing raids as part of the Battle of Britain as well as dog fights between Hurricanes and Spitfires and those ME109s in the clear blue air above the sea.
To me, an imaginative preteen it was just so exciting, as it had to have been to my uncle…
… but looking back there was pain in those memories of mum’s, no doubt the thought of those shot down.
To the left of the pier were two seaweed covered sea water swimming pools. These were awful things that were so slippery it was impossible to stand in. We were admonished never to go near them; neither of us swum then and they sloped to a deep end from which we cold only ever be dragged. I never recall seeing anyone swim in them either but I imagine there must have been some hardy souls.
The beach in front of Gran’s, at high tide was just pebbles, awful hard unforgiving things to small feet. But the tide went out miles, some times literally and then it was sand and more sand. Mind you it wasn’t golden, more like aged all paper paste, as grey as death and reeking of old age. Brilliant. We’d wander out as far as we dared as the risks of finding quicksand or fast turning tides made the thrill all the greater. Maybe we were lucky but we never had any real scares of either sort.
What we did do, with our father and uncle was cockle hunt. You made a cross of wood and then hammered long nails through the cross piece. Using it like a rake, you dragged it through the soft wet sand and bingo, the cockles were just below the surface and thus pulled free. We must have harvested tonnes, which we took home, and had, boiled with brown bread. We ate all sorts of shell fish, then – apart from the cockles, there were mussels and whelks. Off Whitstable – a mile to the left of Gran’s house, there are famous oyster beds but back then they were polluted or something. I never had an oyster. Later, when I was twenty two or so I found I had, and still have a violent allergic reaction to these sorts of shell fish – bivalves, they’re called – but not then. I loved the salty, gritty chewy delight of our own harvest.
Before you reached Whitstable, were you indeed to go that way – west – you reached Hampton. There was nothing to Hampton beyond two boating lakes, so far as I recall. Once every holiday dad took us there and we hired these diesel powered dodgem boats and set off to bump and bore the other users. Health and Safety would do for these today, as well as those worried about the polluting exhaust which I remember burning my eyes and throat, not that I wanted that to stop. It was a real treat, much looked forward to.
More often, however, if the tide was in, we’d head to the right past the pier and along the Front. There was a promenade, a clock tower, regimented gardens and deckchairs in which, for two old pence you could hitch your bloomers and dream a dream or ten. Yes, they were only ever used by the seriously ancient. On hot July days, some rolled down their stockings or up their trouser legs, handkerchiefs, knotted at each corner might be placed over balding pates and occasionally, no doubt some expired. Not a bad way to go.
My brother and I hurried past. This traditional sea side fayre wasn’t for us. No we wanted to reach that part of the town where the road curved away from the Front and headed inland as the elevation grew. We’d stick to the beach because the cliffs there, as Herne Bay receded behind us and the ruined church at Reculver came into view, were crumbling sandstone and clay and often fossils emerged from another sticky landfall. We saw shark’s teeth and ammonites, or maybe that’s just memory – the Archaeologist will probably read this and let me know. I was happy to tag along, not really understanding fossils as he did. I was just as excited to find a razor shell or a cuttlefish bone.
Equally attractive to nosey children were the bits of gardens and houses that loomed above us, soon to fall into the sea. If I may digress, it’s odd, our obsessions with protecting children by doing everything for them. My brother and I knew how to cross a road safely – cars weren’t as common but they went faster and had few protective features and braked like an oiled otter on ice. We knew to avoid quicksand (and how to spot it) as well keep away from the sticky clay and cliff edges, all by the age of seven. As for stranger danger, well if we were ever approached by some creepy miscreant asking what we were doing, my brother would happily tell them. 45 minutes later they were only too happy to leave us alone. We were trusted, even at that age to be sensible and largely we were. Of course we occasionally fell down the odd cliff or threw a stone rather too close to the other’s head but we learnt the hard way and survived. I for one am very happy we had that freedom.
We’d probably be told to be back by lunchtime, because by then whatever my mother wanted to do with her mother, whatever crisis my father had to resolve with the car – there was almost always a crisis with every car we had – would be done and dusted and we’d be going off on some trip. Meanwhile, if lunch wasn’t ready we’d be sent on some errand. One stands out, even then it seemed a bit odd. We’d be given two old wine bottles and sent to an odd dark shop behind the cinema. This must have been an off licence but all I recall of it now is the smell – the sticky heady sweetness of spilt booze – and the large barrels from which the owner – a balding smiley tweedy man – decanted sweet sherry into the bottles. Expertly he’d insert two corks with cringe-worthy squeaks, confirm that the cost was on my Gran’s tab and admonish us ‘not to drink it all on the way home’, before sending us on our way. We both knew this was the most precious cargo so we’d clutch these two bottles of Spain’s finest like votive offerings to the devout. This happened once every week – looking back my Gran was practically pickled but lived well into her nineties and sherry remained her tipple of preference.
Next time we’ll go out the back door and consider our alternative mornings’ peregrinations.