I got a heatwave, burning in my heart

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.

Severn Beach 1976It 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)

Year end & year beginning

Reflections on 2016 and excitement for 2017

Reflecting on 2016 this New Year’s Eve, I have much to be happy about – I’ve achieved lots and had new experiences – but I’m not entirely happy with the balance I’ve achieved in the course of the year. So here is my end of year reckoner and ideas for what I plan to do in 2017 to achieve better balance.

Home life has been joyful in 2016 with children coming and going and playing and growing. After 25 years we had our first taste of being “empty nesters”, for about six weeks, and we adjusted fine. The house stayed really tidy and a packet of Oreos lasted a whole fortnight.

Social life in 2016 has been good too, particularly re-connecting with school friends most of whom I hadn’t seen for 30 years.

2016 saw my second, full year following a plant-based diet. Having been vegetarian since the age of 18, I haven’t found the transition to veganism difficult. I haven’t even missed cheese, or my former guilty pleasure of Gregg’s vegetable pasties, which I anticipated I would. The biggest challenge I encounter is sourcing decent, nutritious vegan food when travelling for work, particularly if I fancy something warm. No doubt this will continue to be a theme in 2017. All in all a big tick in this area of my life, the occasional wiping of sour cream from my avocado on toast breakfast and mayonnaise from my lunchtime salad leaves notwithstanding.

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A once beloved vegetable pasty from Greggs, the Bakers

My professional work in 2016 has been very fulfilling. Having made a significant career change at the beginning of 2013, I think last year really saw me hitting my second and third careers’ grooves (yup, I have two, quite different careers at the moment). With my principal role, I have enjoyed travelling to, and working with colleagues in, Basel, Geneva, Zurich, Madrid, Luxembourg, Dublin, Cambridge, Peterborough, Reading, Swindon, Watford, Cheltenham, Bracknell, Marlow, Monmouthshire, Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton, Milton Keynes, Welwyn, Hertfordshire and, of course, London. Phew, what a lot of travel this year. And ok, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think I experienced the full beauty of Peterborough and Watford…

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Oftentimes on my travels I get to enjoy views like these, each of which I have had fun trying to photograph in 2016

The second string to my professional bow had me clock up 3,600 miles to run a small performing arts-based business on Saturday mornings. Hugely enjoyable and rewarding, except the bit on the M25. Yeah, those 1,500 miles were less enthralling.

Don’t misunderstand, I love my travel. Hiraeth travels with me though and when away from home I often feel wistful for the cwtchiness of my little cottage in Surrey (and all my kitchen gadgets and vegan cookbooks, naturally).

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Occasionally on my travels, I get to “enjoy” views like these. Yes, these are actually the sights from two of my hotel rooms this year. On these weeks, the hiraeth is very strong with me.

Lots achieved and much to feel proud about. On the other hand, not enough exercise, too many pots of hummus eaten in hotel rooms and too few moments of calm. So, to help address the imbalance, here are my plans for 2017 (I am resolutely not making resolutions, if you see what I mean; I’ve made them for years and never stuck to them, so I don’t see the point):

Travel will remain a feature of my professional life in 2017. I plan to take an evening walk around whichever town I have rocked up in (assuming it is not raining and I am not booked into an “express”-type hotel on the side of a motorway or dual carriageway) and I plan to seek out a local vegan or vegetarian restaurant. And I need to try different tactics to take home with me, so that I have just enough, but not too much, hiraeth to see me through to the end of my working week;

I want to expand my mind, not in an LSD way, but in a cultural growth way. I plan a visit to a gallery or museum once a month;

I have a collection of 100s of vegan recipes. When I’m not travelling, I plan to cook many more of them in the coming year. Eat the rainbow and all that;

I adore taking photographs. I plan to take more and better photographs.

I’m pretty excited about all of this. Right then – let’s make a start.

Hiraeth

Hiraeth is a word from my native Wales that brings together ideas of home, happiness, warmth and longing, distance, separation, pining for the past:

The Land of Lost Content

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A E Housman