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caravan holiday hell in the ’70s

(Caravan hell – 1970s)

I’d have been new to the ranks of teenager in 1971 when my parents came up with the whizz-bang idea of buying a caravan.

“… we’ll now be able to take weekend breaks throughout the year, whenever we fancy. Won’t this be splendid?”

‘Splendid?!’ Are you mental? Weekends? What happens to my athletics / cross country races? What about my football? My school parties? Saturday morning cartoons on the telly? What possesses people to forsake their nice spacious homes to go live in a claustrophobic, formica lined box on wheels?

(1970s caravan)

I was already counting the days till I could be legally left at home to fend for myself. I’d even willingly do household / garden chores while the family were away. Maybe we could broker some kind of deal? Creosote the fence or something?

Resistance was futile though, at least for a couple of years.

“Do you fancy going for a golfing trip to Pittenweem this weekend?”

If I’m going to stay in a five, or even four / three star hotel, then maybe.

“It’ll be fun,” they lied.

And so it was … frequent weekends were spent collecting the caravan from the storage facility in the neighbouring town; bringing it to the house; uncoupling it overnight and loading it with clothes and provisions for the weekend; reconnecting the car and driving to Fife, usually arriving just in time for lunch.

Reverse that procedure on the Sunday afternoon, ensuring we arrived back before the storage facility closed, and we had just enough time to squeeze in a round of golf and fish supper on the Saturday, and a walk along the windswept and bitingly cold beach on the Sunday morning.

Oh yeah – this was fun, alright!

Then, horror of horrors! Emboldened by admittance into the Caravan Club of Great Britain, my excited parents announced we’d now be taking an additional summer holiday. An additional week. In Dornoch.  In the caravan!

(Dornoch caravan park.)

Heavens above! Dornoch, even in 2021, is a good four and a half hours drive away. Fifty years ago, and towing a bleedin’ caravan …. a letter with a second class stamp would get there quicker.

“It’s a lovely caravan site – right by the golf course. And there’s a toilet and shower block too.”

And that’s the best selling point you can come up with?

I suppose having a site toilet block is better than the family sharing the chemical filled potty that stank out the wee cubby-hole that passed as a toilet in most caravans. Oh, perish the thought! (We actually used that space for storing the golf clubs.) But really, is it such a privileged luxury to waken in the dead of night, scratch around for a torch, pull on a pair of wellies / sandals  / golf spikes, and trudge a hundred and fifty yards to a damp, smelly and cold toilet? I think not.

We’d play golf in the morning and weather permitting, another round in late afternoon / early evening. This was summer in Scotland, though. Weather has a habit of messing with your plans. So we’d then be dragged off on some Godforsaken sight-seeing trip.

John o’ Groats? Nothing to see. Still wet there. Dunnet Head? Naff all there either. And just as wet. Thurso did have a chip shop, though.

(Dining / bed area, 1970s caravan)

Back at the caravan, my mum, not renowned for her culinary skills, bless her, would prepare a hearty evening meal. Something along the lines of tinned Heinz macaroni on toast, followed by Birds Eye instant custard and jam. Yes. Jam.

Mmmmnn! Yummy!

(Kitchen area / dining area – 1970s caravan)

Meals would be served up in instalments because the ineffectual cooker, fired by a suspicious and sinister looking gas canister, had the power of a Christmas candle. While we waited in not-so-eager anticipation, the combination of body-heat times four, damp clothing and smoke from the burnt toast (told you, didn’t I?) would cause the windows to steam up. A decision then had to be made: open the windows to clear them and die from hypothermia, or risk asphyxiation from the steam, smoke and ever-present hint of leaking calor gas.

Thankfully, I managed eventually to extricate myself from these tortuous events, playing the ‘I best stay behind to study for my exams,” card.

A couple of years later, freed from the shackles of holidaying with parents, a few pals who like me were leaving school in the summer of 1976, decided to go away together. Benidorm? Majorca? Blackpool?

Nope. We had all recently bought our first motorbikes – one had a car, a Morris 1100, I think.

( Suzuki TS125 – my first / only motor bike .)

Why don’t we drive over to St Andrews and rent (no! please, no! I can sense what’s coming ….) a caravan for the week? It’ll be a right laugh.

Noooooooooo!!!!

I’d love to tell you it was a right laugh. I’d love to tell you it was a right nightmare. I’d love to tell you it was a right anything. Truth is, I can tell you next to nothing! It’s all a bit of a haze.

I do recall we upset someone in a neighbouring caravan who was always on our case. So we did what any self-respecting gallus teenagers would do, and threw a pan-loaf worth of bread chunks onto the roof of his caravan in the dead of night.

(Angry bird.)

Yeah, you’re there – come first light, his caravan was besieged by a flock of noisy, ravenous seagulls pecking the bread and stomping around on the roof.

Have some of that!

(Pernod. )

Other than that, my only other recollection is suffering my worst ever hangover after a night on Pernod and lemonade. That took care of one of the seven days.

The hangover from Hell – and in a caravan.

I’d said it before, but this time I meant it. To this day, I’ve never even sipped a Pernod.

And to this day, I’ve never again set foot in a caravan.

I’d rather wash my mouth out with soap.

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the holiday

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – April 2021)

As the nation crawls steadily towards a brighter horizon with the roll-out of the Covid vaccination programme, we can’t be blamed for turning our collective thoughts towards a much-needed holiday. My family have twice postponed our long-awaited week in Cornwall to celebrate several BIG birthdays but that’s OK; Cornwall isn’t going anywhere.

The term ‘staycation’ hadn’t been invented in the 70s. And since when did the British use the term ‘vacation’ anyway? That’s what it’s called in the USA but surely, the British say ‘holiday’? We didn’t know anyone in Birmingham who had vacations, apart from one or two academic types in kagouls who forced their poor families to ’embrace the great outdoors’ and went camping in muddy fields in damp tents. Their kids were called Rufus and Martha.  My parents didn’t go in for camping. In fact, any vacation – especially a ‘foreign’ one – never occurred to Mom and Dad. Having emigrated here from the States in 1970, Dad always said,

 “We live in a foreign country, for Pete’s Sake!” 

Cambrian Mountains – Wales.

However in October 1970, a twist of fate set us on a legendary road trip into deepest Wales when a teaching colleague of Dad’s invited us to spend half term at his ruin of an old, rustic shepherd’s cottage in the Cambrian Mountains. We’d only been in England for a month. Mom envisaged a cosy cottage with mullion windows.

The reality was a dilapidated pile of stones which stood atop a steep hillside overlooking a deep valley. The ‘ruin’ boasted no heat or running water, an outside ‘toilet’ (hole in a lean-to with a hook of squares of Izal) and a well in the garden. Dad was full of the American spirit of adventure:

“Why, kids – we’ll have FUN! Hell – we’ll make our own fun!

Mom was less enthusiastic about the prospect of a holiday without a bathroom.

Ahead of the one hundred or so mile drive from Brum, we had to sedate our German Shepherd, Zoo, who suffered greatly with travel sickness. Concealing a pill in a Mars Bar (we obviously had no idea that chocolate was bad for dogs), she swallowed it whole and soon became drowsy as we loaded up the little bright red Citroen 2CV with half a ton of luggage. Once on the road, Zoo slept scrunched up on the small back seat between me and my two older brothers as Mom drove west from Stourbridge, through the beautiful old town of Bridgenorth and on to Much Wenlock, before heading into Wales.

Dad, who was a terrible driver, took advantage of his role as passenger in the front to point out places of historical interest to us as we tootled along. 

“See those caves? Why – they’re where Charles the First’s army hid their gunpowder when they were under siege from Cromwell.”

“The Cliff Railway is the steepest in England, kids… now we’re on Watling Street, the old Roman Road.” 

In his element as storyteller and history teacher, Dad revelled in being able to see some of the places he had only read of in his youth in Atlanta, Georgia.

 After an hour in the car Zoo roused from her drug induced slumber and began retching. Sensing what was to come, Dad shouted ,

 “GODDAMN IT HONEY – THE DAWG’S GOING TO VOMIT!! STOP THE CAR!” He stood up and peeled back the roof canvas.

“I can’t stop honey – we’re on a steep hill!”

Zoo stood on the back seat with her head sticking out of the roof, drooling and panting in the breeze as her slobber whipped back onto our faces. Mom began the ascent at the front of a long line of cars. Being only two horse power, the Citroen struggled to advance up the incline with our added weight.

Suddenly a car tried to overtake the on-coming traffic down the hill, heading straight for us at speed. Mom screamed and Dad, red faced and apoplectic, stood up again and  shook his fist out of the roof with the dog as he shouted a string of obscenities at the driver which are probably still hanging in the ether,

“GODDAMN SON-OF-A-BITCH! WE’RE GOING TO CRASH! DADGUMMIT! GET OVER – YOU DAD-BLAST-IT STUIPD ROAD HAWG!” 

Zoo suddenly puked a ball of mucus and Mars Bar which splatted the sun roof and Dad. 

“GODAMMIT!” 

 Somehow Mom kept her cool and control of the car, which swayed and rocked like a pram as we veered sideways onto the hard shoulder; bobbing up and down like nine pins.

**********

In Brummy speak, to ‘Go Round the Wrekin’ means to go the long way around on a journey. The Wrekin is a huge hill in Shropshire which can be seen for miles – but not by us. We ‘stumbled’ upon it on our epic journey, prompting Dad to explain about the Wrekin’s ancient volcanic origin. I still laugh to think that we literally drove ‘around the Wrekin’.

 The approach to the cottage took us along a winding unmade lane that gradually became barely one car wide. We bumped along with Zoo’s head lurching in and out of the roof as she gagged, until we reached the final stretch. Zoo was by now fully awake and becoming boisterous on the back seat. She spotted the sheep grazing nearby and began to salivate.  Mom struggled to get the little car up the hill; prompting Dad to jump out:

“Come on everyone – PUSH! Goddammit – why is this car so heavy? Honey, what on earth have you packed? PUSH! At-a-girl Kid! Mother, keep her in first and give her some throttle!”

If we could have seen Mom’s face at this point, I’m sure we would have recognised one of her ‘looks’, although her serene demeanour gave nothing away.   We finally arrived and piled out into a field full of sheep.

“Andrea – get that dawg back here! Dadgummit!”

Grabbing armfuls of luggage, we teetered along a narrow, ancient footpath forged by millennia of sheep, where we found the ‘ruin’ perched on the precipice of a sheer drop to a ravine. 

“Well, this is it!” said Mom, breezily.  “Have you got the key honey?” 

“The key? Sure – why of course I’ve got the key – it’s here in my pocket somewhere. Must be in my jacket – hold on, Dadgummit!”  

Fumbling in his pockets, Dad realised to his horror that he had left the key on the dressing table in their bedroom. 

“Well for Pete’s Sake, I’ll just go back and get it!” 

Dad rolled up his shirt sleeves and strode purposefully back to the car and drove the two hundred miles round trip to get the key. We all stood outside the ‘ruin’ on the precipice with Zoo for the next five hours.  No mobile phones in those days. No nothing except sheep and bracken. What is staggering is that none of us had the presence of mind to try the back door or see if a window was open. We accepted our fate without question. Eventually Dad reappeared: 

“I have it now! It’s OK - here’s the key honey! Don’t worry kids – your old man’s here! Yes-Siree-Bob!”

Mom asked: “Honey – did I unplug the iron?”

**********

That first night as Dad lit the log fire with great ceremony we huddled around to hear his glorious rendition of the ‘Hound of the Baskerville’s’ as Zoo drooled on the rug. Within seconds, great clouds of smoke billowed into the room, until we were all choking and rubbing our eyes.  Mother calmly opened the front door. 

“DON’T LET THE DAWG OUT HONEY! DADGUMMIT – SHE’LL CHASE THE SHEEP AND GET SHOT!” Dad lit his pipe.     

I shivered in bed that night as I lay listening to the wind howling through the chinks of daylight in the old stone walls – or was it the Hound? 

**********


My childhood diary entry reads: 

October 30th, 1970

“We went to our friend’s little cottage in Wales It was a very beautiful drive all the way. The cottage doesn’t have a toilet. They have a out house (clean).  They drink purified (spelt: ‘purofied’) water from a well. You wash up with rain water. Today we are coming home. I am glad to be back!” 

With no TV or radio, we made our own entertainment, which I groaned about at the time.  Now at a distance of fifty years, I miss those simpler times and I miss my parents.   Zoo lived a long and happy life but never got over her travel sickness.  

Dad.
Andrea – aged ten.
Mom.


(Copyright: Andrea Burn March 27th 2021)