Travel Memories – Family Holidays

Until last year I had not been on a proper holiday in the United Kingdom since 1986 when I went to Wales in a self-catering chalet near Caernarfon and it rained so much that the wooden chalet leaked and it was so cold and damp that I 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 ladies wear fewer clothes.  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 totally absurd, I knew of people who had been to France or Spain of course (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!

Body Builder

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, an Austin 10 four-door saloon, shiny black with bug eye lights, a starting handle, pop out indicators 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.  Well, I didn’t worry obviously but I’m sure the driver did.  Just getting to the coast could take the whole day and usually involved stopping off along the route at some point for a rest and 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 blanket on the ground and we would all sit down and eat sandwiches and Battenberg cake and 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 said that I would 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.

In 2000 the National Statistics Office estimated that British families took 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 six-year-old child but I certainly wouldn’t choose to do it now when I am ten times older.  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 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 five degrees centigrade or just slightly below 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 even too tough to be included as part of Royal Marine Commando basic training.

It was rather like being submerged in liquid nitrogen and whilst swimmers in Australia were worrying about sharks we were busy avoiding bits of iceberg that had broken off in the Arctic Ocean.  I can remember one holiday at Walcote, Norfolk, in about 1965 when it was so cold that there was a penguin on the beach!  That is seriously true and I can only imagine that it had escaped from a nearby zoo or aquarium.

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After the paddle in the sea we would cover ourselves up in a towel and making sure we didn’t reveal our private parts 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 you looking like the victim of a nuclear accident.

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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 bullfighters 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 most of the time I think on reflection I probably preferred Mundesley and Herne Bay.

I Spy At The Seaside

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 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 abnormal amounts of patience to get into the air and then the aeronautical skills of the Wright brothers to keep them up there.

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, we used to go to Cornwall and Devon and North Wales, to the Nalgo holiday camp at Croyde Bay and the Hoseasons holiday village at Borth, near Aberystwyth.  The last time I went on the family holiday like that 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 ever again.

In 1976 I went to Sorrento in Italy and nothing has ever persuaded me to go back to British holidays in preference to travelling in Europe.

Do you have any family holiday memories to share?

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46 responses to “Travel Memories – Family Holidays

  1. Andrew as I may have mentioned prior I grew up on a farm on the Canadian Prairies. Our only holidays were to nearby lakes. I have wonderful memories of simple joys of playing in the water. I didn’t start to travel until decades later. Your post really took me back to those simple days.

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  2. What a nice stroll down a memory lane – loved it, Andrew 🙂

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  3. Thank you very much for bringing us with you back in time to the summers of your childhood!

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  4. You could have been describing our family holidays. They were very simple days in Skegness, but I’ve not enjoyed many things as much in my life as the threepenny Kit-Kat I used to be given for supper. A wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing, thank you.

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  5. Thanks Andrew for those holiday memories which I know many of us will have shared. In our case itwas holidays to Folkestone, Dorset and Devon – living in Esex made us turnour backs on North Sea holidays and head for warmer spots! Your piece brought back so many happy memories.

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  6. Hilarious post! We had Pontins chalets – not overly different to a caravan!

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  7. Ah, the good old days, Andrew! Simple life’s pleasures… When we lived in Wales, our holidays were going to Barry Island time and time again. I’m sure by the end of our holidays, Dad’s car could find its way there on its own. l0l

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  8. In 1960 my dad hired a car to drive from Yorkshire for a holiday in Christchurch. “Where’s that?” asked my grandad. “Near Southampton.” My grandad looked concerned. “You’ll never get there son!”.
    We nearly didn’t. It was pre-motorways and we got hopeless lost trying to pass through Leicester. After going round and round for over an hour we stopped and asked someone. “Are you lost?” he asked. “You are one of many!”

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  9. I so enjoyed reading this as it reminded me very much of my family vacations. To summarize, we did what my parents could afford and the trips were not exotic.

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  10. Great post — a chapter for your memoirs. I spent my childhood having summer holidays in California (the closest beach to my Arizona home) or Hawaii (where my paternal grandparents lived). That’s a dream for other people, but I would have killed to have spent them at an English beach resort, where Jane Austen’s characters always went.

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  11. Loved this post – brought back memories of my family holidays in the ’70’s – a caravan on the north coast of Ireland, bracing….. Great fun though and we loved it although no more caravans for me!

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  12. You haven’t changed a bit, Andrew. I’d recognize you anywhere. Oh, the memories this post brings back.
    Holidays anywhere except the local beach were for movie stars and the rich. We’d go on the odd family drive and bring a picnic, but more often it would be a day at the beach on a blanket and enough food to feed everyone else there. We didn’t just go for a few hours; we stayed the whole day.

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  13. Those could have been my childhood vacations to Stinson Beach, California. Except I remember a lot of fishing. Did you fish?

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  14. Oh, I enjoyed the read, Andrew! We went camping mostly in the UK for family holidays…then every few years my parents had saved up enough for us to go across the channel, and three times we got just into Austria, to the Vorarlberg …quite an adventure

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  15. Great post. I didn’t realize camping was so popular in the UK. Though I’m not sure if you were pulling the trailer (caravan) or if was something you rented in a park. For years, my family holidays were spent camping at lakes in Minnesota. Dad would load the boat on the top of the station wagon, fill a small trailer with food, tent, gear, etc. and we would pile into the car and head out. Not easy with two adults and eight kids. Idyllic times times swimming, fishing, sitting around the camp fire, and gazing at the milky way.

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  16. Enjoyed this so much I came back to read it second time and to look again at the photographs. What I remember most about the tin caravans is the unpleasant sickly smell of the calor gas used for cooking, and the condensation it caused, steaming up the windows and running down the metal walls on to your bed, making everything damp and smelling of last night’s food. Like you, never again.

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    • Thank you. That is a great contribution to the family holiday memory file. I had forgotten that but now you mention it and can recall that smell and the damp. Do you remember just how long it took to boil a kettle on those gas rings?

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  17. Loved this. My family never “caravaned”, but we made many road trips and I’ve had my share of roadside picnics. Our favorite beach was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where our next door neighbors had a beach house. i remember spending hours out on the beach, chasing waves, building sand castles and seining for dinner. We usually didn’t catch enough fish to be dinner, but it was so much fun to drag the net and see what would come up.

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  18. Your story reminds me of my own beach adventures. What happy memories!

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