It was almost inevitable that the days of hot weather last week, culminating in record-breaking temperatures on 21 June, would trigger rampant hiraeth in me – if hiraeth is capable of being rampant – for the summer of 1976.
As a kid growing up in the 70s, I was blessed to be part of a family with a keen sense of adventure. My parents, my maternal grandparents, my Mum’s sister and her family, as well as various aunties and uncles all had caravans: we were a “carra” family (you need to pronounce “carra” with the hard, South Walian “a” sound). We had tourer caravans, the type that hitch to the back of the car, and later my parents and grandparents graduated to a couple of second-hand static – and bigger – caravans at Dave’s campsite.
I don’t know whether Dave’s campsite had a formal name, I guess it must have done. To us, it was simply Dave’s, or Dave’s over Severn Beach. Do not let the beach part fool you: travel as far south as Weston-super-Mare and the England-side of the Severn Estuary does indeed widen out to allow sandy beaches; up towards Avonmouth and Bristol, our Severn Beach comprised sticky, gooey and, at low tide, huge mud-flats. I know about the sticky and gooey because another summer a few years later, I ventured on to them in my out-of-the-box new, suede sandals. Walking back to the campsite that afternoon in a ruined pair of sandals and knowing how my Mum would (very justifiably) react was one of the scariest moments of anticipation of my life to that point. The scary anticipation scale was subsequently topped by some excellent work on my part, including, placing the iron face-down on the arm of a new sofa and quitting my first degree “cos I didn’t like it” (not on the same day, even I wouldn’t be that foolhardy). Anyhow, Dave’s was where we spent weekends, and several weeks once school had broken-up, of the nine-week, super-summer of 1976.
Our gang of kids, with me and my brother, Ed, and cousins, Michael and Mark, at its core, was supplemented over the summer by numerous friends and other cousins. Paul, Karen, Jackie, Tony, Chrissie, Anthony – the names conjure such vivid memories and because we were there every weekend, we ruled the roost.
Dave’s had a children’s playground comprising swings, slide, seesaw and witch’s hat. Yes, of course they were all set in concrete – have you seen the angle of my nose? Top of the slide misstep meets concrete base: I was fine, and frankly nobody noticed I had a wonky nose until 10 years later. The witch’s hat was our base, and you weren’t allowed on it unless you were part of our gang. It was all very innocent – we didn’t have initiation hazings or anything. On days we weren’t out exploring nearby towns and castles (lots of wonderful castles in my childhood), we would be at the playground from sun-up to sun-down.
Dave’s also had a disused railway line running along one boundary which you could follow to take a short-cut from the campsite into the village. I say disused, perhaps infrequently used would be more accurate as I’m sure I can remember at least one train travelling by. But it must have been very infrequent use as my most powerful memory about Dave’s railway line was that a goat was tethered to it, and occasionally we would happen upon Mrs Dave (I have no idea of her name) milking the goat. She never let us try milking, but she did once let us try the still-very-warm, fresh from the udder, milk (yes, they are called udders on goats too). I really wish I could say, “mmm, it was delicious”. It wasn’t; it was goat-in-heatwave temperature and tasted strange. It may have looked the same as the stuff Ken the Milk delivered each morning at home, but it certainly did not taste the same.
The campsite grass turned first yellow and then brown over that summer. Usually Dave would be out and about cutting the grass on his sit-on mower; he didn’t need to that summer as the grass stopped growing. And we were at Dave’s the days the ladybirds descended. I didn’t mind them: I’m not the biggest fan of flying insects, but I have quite some affection for ladybirds. I remember I was wearing a yellow tee-shirt on one of the ladybird days, and went on an errand to the communal tap to fill a small water container for my grandparents. I stepped into their carra bearing the water, to be told in no uncertain terms by Nana Chris to get out as my tee-shirt was covered in ladybirds who would get into the bedding. I thought me and my ladybird festooned tee-shirt looked lovely.
We drank gallons of Wells Orange Squash out of Tupperware beakers (which grabbed and retained the smell of orange squash like nothing else on earth. Decades later, I was helping Mum clear out some loft items, came across a couple of these beakers and they still held the smell of Wells Orange Squash. But, a bit like the concrete base in the playground, it didn’t seem to do us any lasting harm). We ate rectangles of Wall’s ice cream cut from long blocks and sandwiched between two wafers and, as a special treat, mint choc-chip choc-ices. Mum’s favourite was an orange miffy lolly, though she’s moved up to Magnums these days.
That was the summer Nana Chris – a ladybird-swotting non-driver, whom none of us kids had ever seen operate a mechanised vehicle of any sort – eventually allowed us to nag her into having a go of Michael’s bicycle. Yes, of course it was a Chopper, and God love her, after a bit of a wobbly start, she did ok, which is all the more commendable given the bike’s iconic (high) cross bar and saddle design and that she’d not ridden a bike since she was a girl. “Just like riding a bike”, she said – somewhat redundantly – as she dismounted and lit up a Players No 6 non-filter (which Mrs Dave was very happy to sell us kids from the campsite shop, because she knew “they were for our Nan”). I adored my Nana Chris.
It was also that summer that my grandfather hitched his little trailer to the back of one of the cars, helped us kids clamber in and proceeded to give us the bounciest and giggliest rides around the campsite field. Oh, the achy arms the next day, from holding on for dear life. The discomfort was so worth it! The core gang of four is supplemented by a visitor – undoubtedly a cousin – in the picture above, but I can’t work out which one. You can just see the beloved witch’s hat in playground next to the carra furthest left.
The weather has been much cooler and wetter this week. I do hope we get a return of the heat in July and August even if we don’t manage a full nine-weeks under a hot grill.
By the way, the various aunties and uncles I mentioned above, turned out to be nothing of the sort, at least not by the strict definition of the word. Rather, these were the many second and third cousins and friends of my parents on whom the honorific had been bestowed. When grandparents and great-grandparents had lots of siblings, you are never short of several hundred cousins at varying degrees of “remove”, the older of whom get cast as auntie this or uncle that. Several of them have been profound influences throughout my life, I’m grateful that most of them are still around; I think about them all very often.
(posted on 30 June 2017)