It’s the time of year when many of us are planning our summer holidays, which sets me thinking about my earliest experiences so please indulge me while I hike off down memory lane…
Holidays when I was a child inevitably meant a caravan, one parked in a field, I mean, not one you pulled along. Caravan holidays were cheap, and you didn’t have to travel far to achieve that ‘getting away from it all’ feeling, which was just as well as we didn’t have a car in the early days and long distance train travel wasn’t an option.
My first ever holiday was spent in a caravan just outside a village called Burwash, which seems unbelievable now as it’s less than an hour’s drive from Brighton. But, as I say, we didn’t have a car so we dragged our suitcases onto a green Southdown bus. As it trundled through the country lanes it gave the illusion that we were making an epic journey even though we hadn’t left the county. The caravan was on a farm and was parked, or rather had taken root, in an orchard. We soon realised that we weren’t the orchard’s only occupants as we were woken on the first morning by the sound of snuffling and discovered, much to my delight, a family of pigs rootling about in the grass. The caravan was tiny, full of spiders, and had no facilities, by which I mean none at all apart from somewhere to lay our heads. We had our meals in the farmhouse but goodness knows what we did about the toilet. Used a bucket I expect. That’s Mum and me outside the caravan in the photo.
I learned two important lessons on that holiday. I fell in love with the farm collie and the farmer let me take him along when we walked down to the village pub in the evenings. Lesson 1: I was never going to be allowed a dog of my own no matter how much I pleaded. (OK, we lived in a flat and they got me a budgie but it wasn’t the same). Then I discovered that the pigs being driven into the back of the lorry were not going on holiday. Why would you tell a five-year-old the truth about that? But the truth is what I got. Lesson 2: Do not get attached to farm animals. What with the pigs and the collie, I must have spent much of that holiday in tears, miserable child that I was.
Our next caravan holiday was to Climping Sands, again a stones-throw from Brighton, and again, the Southdown bus. We were so close to home that my nan and grandad came to visit us. My mother wasn’t best pleased either, since they turned up unannounced and for her they were part of the ‘getting away from it all’ thing in the first place. The caravan was larger and slightly less basic than the farm one, on a proper campsite with a shop and everything. All should have been well, but it wasn’t because it rained. And it rained. And it rained. Maybe not solidly but the rain is what I remember, and because we were so far from the toilets, a bucket we found under the caravan was duly installed for night-time use. A bucket with a hole in it. Only we didn’t spot the hole until morning.
Gluttons for punishment that we were, more caravan holidays followed. I remember particularly a trip to the Isle of Wight to which we travelled in comparative luxury by train and ferry. The campsite looked idyllic and we were delighted when we saw it – until, after a route march around the site lugging our cases, we eventually found our caravan tucked in the furthest corner imaginable, miles from the facilities, and not exactly up to the standard of the luxurious specimens we’d admired on the way. But the weather was glorious, the beach golden and sandy – always a novelty when you live in Brighton – and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
Sometimes I wonder how much of all this I merrily recorded in my back-to-school compositions, ‘What I did in my holidays’. All of it, probably. In Technicolor. Well, I loved composition and I wasn’t going to sell myself short.
When my friend Val and I were about seventeen, we went on holiday together – in a caravan. The vast campsite overlooked Torbay, the caravans teetering down the side of a steep hill towards the cliffs. The train journey from Brighton was quite an undertaking, burdened as we were with heavy suitcases containing all the decent clothes we owned, tons of make-up and hair stuff we couldn’t possibly do without as well as the food supplies our mothers had provided, including a ready-cooked gammon joint, packets of instant mash and Angel Delight. I think they thought we would starve otherwise.
We spent so much time getting ready in the mornings we never saw the sun until about midday. Goodness knows how we managed to tart ourselves up so much in the confines of a caravan but we did. See the evidence in the photos – me posing like nobody’s business and Val in mid-hairwash. If the seagulls hob-nailing it over the metal roof weren’t enough to wake us up in the mornings, a man staying alone in a nearby caravan would oblige by beating his fists against our van, and then rib us mercilessly when we appeared to run across the field in our nighties. (Still no toilet, you see.) Nowadays someone would have the police on him but those were innocent times and we thought it was a laugh.
I might use that holiday in a book one day, maybe in the sequel to ‘Dirty Weekend’. (I’ve only just thought of that, which goes to show how writing on an entirely non-related topic can inspire!)
But I digress… By the time we took our boys on caravan holidays, things had moved on and the vans had proper loos and showers, separate bedrooms, TV, and on site there were swimming pools, restaurants, a gift shop with seemingly endless appeal for our youngest, and live entertainment every night in the club-house. I don’t think they would have gone for anything less. Not for them the midnight sprint among the cow-pats to the toilet block or the sinister hiss of calor gas if you hadn’t connected the tube properly.
Caravans are miracles of design when you think about it. All the essentials folded into a small metal box. Ingenious. That’s what I liked about them, the dinkiness of everything, like living in a dolls’ house. Not so sure about now though. These days, caravans only feature in our holidays as something for my husband to shout and wave his fist at as he struggles to pass them on the road. If we have to cannon into one another as we attempt to get dressed in four inches of floor space we’ll do it in a hotel room, thank you very much.
I can’t help feeling nostalgic, though, whenever I see a field full of caravans. I always want to wave and shout ‘Hi-de-hi!’