CHARLIE GOES CAMPING by Val Vassay
“Guess where we’re going for our holidays this summer?” my Dad, Charlie, said to us kids one Sunday afternoon in the Spring of 1960.
“Dunno. Where?” was the unanimous response.
“We’re going to Cornwall. That’s where.”
“Where’s Cornwall?” brother Billy asked.
“It’s right at the bottom of England, surrounded by sea. We’ll go to the beach every day.”
“Oh, are we going to England?” I remember asking, nervous at the thought of it. The only English people I’d ever met were a family who’d moved in up the road from us in Dunfermline. I didn’t like them. Going to the beach every day scared me, too – my Dad was the only person in the family who could swim.
“Yes, we’re driving out of Scotland and down through England until we get to the end.”
“Will it take a long time?” I asked.
“Yes, ages. We’ll have to stop somewhere overnight but we’re going camping, so that won’t be a problem.”
My brothers started jumping up and down with excitement, asking all sorts of questions. I said nothing. Being the family worrier, I was still anxious about going to England, that foreign country full of strange people who speak funny, and now there was camping to worry about, too. I wasn’t sure what camping was but somehow I knew it wouldn’t be anything I’d like. My mother, Mag, sat in her customary armchair, also saying nothing. Thinking back on it, how my father managed to get my mother to agree to go camping, I have no idea as she was the least likely person, apart from myself, to do such a thing.
The long-awaited day in July finally came and the six of us piled into our black Morris Minor with all manner of tents, ground sheets, lilos and goodness knows what that my father had borrowed from a friend at work, not to mention several suitcases full of clothes. And so, off we went.
From Dunfermline to Cornwall is a very long way, especially for four children squashed into the back seat of a Morris Minor. We passed the time belting out whatever songs came into our heads (no radios in cars in those days), playing I-Spy or, of course, falling out and doing our best to kill each other. Charlie had to stop the car several times on the journey and roar at us to:
‘Get out, before you drive me mad with your racket. And if you don’t shut-up I’ll drive off and leave you all here.’
We were never bothered by this threat as we knew my mother wouldn’t let him go without us however badly we’d been behaving.
After driving for hours, we stopped at a camp site – well, it was a field, really - where my father announced that we would spend the first night. Goodness knows where it was. Charlie then spent what seemed like hours wrestling with the tent, while Mag sat in the car with the door open, drinking tea from a flask and looking frostier and frostier. Dad eventually managed to erect the tent and then started blowing up the lilos which were to be our beds; needless to say, we didn’t have a pump, so more hours were whiled away in this engaging activity. Once tent and lilos had been dealt with, it was time to have something to eat. Yes, we had a little primus stove on which my mother was supposed to cook for the six of us throughout the holiday. I can’t remember what we had to eat that first night – probably something exotic like baked beans.
Eventually, we hit the hay, or in our case, the lilos. At some stage in the night, we were all awakened by my mother yelling: a cow had stuck its head through the tent flap and moo-ed at her! That was the end of the camping. As soon as it was daylight we all scrambled into the car - tents, lilos and all, and tore off down the road. We stopped at the first café we came to for tea and bacon rolls then belted on, trying to make it to Cornwall and a caravan site before nightfall.
We never did make it to Cornwall but we did get to Devon and in Torquay Charlie managed to hire a caravan close to the beach for a week. That week in Torquay more than made up for the disastrous start to the adventure. The sun shone from morning to night every day. We spent all day on the beach and my brothers and I never tired of paddling in the sea (which we thought was lovely and warm), making sandcastles and playing with bats and balls. My father enjoyed swimming and chatting to everybody and anybody. My mother enjoyed sitting on a tartan travelling rug on the beach, reading magazines, nibbling her way through assorted packets of biscuits, and drinking tea from the ever-present flask.
But Charlie and I almost had one adventure too many that week. As I mentioned before, he was the only member of the family who could swim and often lay on one of the lilos and paddled out to sea, far away from the crowds on the beach, far away from the demands of his four children. One day, seeing that he was about to paddle off, I jumped on his back and - surprise, surprise - he didn’t tell me to get off but took me with him. I was thrilled to be sailing away from the beach and doing something my brothers hadn’t yet done. The water was calm and clear and everything was perfect until a big wave hit us head on, upending the lilo and knocking the pair of us into the sea. I remember touching the bottom – it seemed a long way down - then grabbing my father round the neck. Next thing, we bobbed up out of the water just as quickly as we’d dropped into it. I held onto Charlie like a limpet as he swam back to the beach with me. We were almost at the beach when an extremely tall man, who must have seen what happened, waded out to us and said to Charlie:
“I’ll take her back now, if you want to swim out again for the lilo.”
Charlie handed me over to the unknown man then turned and swam out again in pursuit of the lilo. I remember not being very sure about being in the arms of a man I’d never seen before, but we were soon back at the beach where he put me down near my mother, said goodbye and left.
I didn’t think of it at the time but now I wonder if Charlie wasn’t exhausted: he’d already swum quite a long way with me hanging onto him, without having to swim back to look for the missing lilo. It would’ve been easier to let it go and pay his friend for it when we got home. But, of course, we were always short of money, so he wouldn’t have wanted to do that, however tired he was.
I didn’t tell my mother what had happened, just got on with playing with my brothers as usual. But when Dad got back he, of course, gave my mother a blow-by-blow account of the episode. Instead of hailing him as a hero for having saved their only daughter, he got a right telling off for being so stupid as to have taken me out all that way in the first place!
You might think that after this misadventure my Dad would at least have tried to teach his children to swim, but no attempt was made to do that. We were told we must never go out on the lilo with Dad – far too dangerous – and we must only go into the sea up to our knees. As I was the only one who’d ever dared get on the lilo with Dad, and my brothers and I had never gone in deeper than our knees anyway, these restrictions didn’t trouble us in the slightest and we continued to bask in the sunshine and enjoy every minute of our days at the beach.
I was none the worse for our escapade, neither was Charlie, and my mother soon reverted to reading her magazines and drinking her tea and the magic summer continued, with only one sore point: every night before we went to bed we were plastered from head to foot in calamine lotion as we were all burnt to a frazzle, having never experienced so much sun in our lives before and, of course, coming from the frozen north as we did, none of us had ever heard of suntan lotion.
My father tried to hire the caravan for a second week but it was impossible, everywhere was fully booked. So, sadly, we had to make our way back to Scotland, leaving the sunshine and the beautiful beach behind. Camping was never mentioned again in our family and we stayed overnight on the way home at a Bed and Breakfast in Weston-super-Mare and were taken to the beach. But that so-called beach was more of a giant mud bath, plus there was a cold wind blowing. We were all miserable.
All too soon, we were back in Dunfermline. Charlie went back to work soon after we got home, but my brothers and I had almost five weeks of summer holidays remaining with nothing to do except play or fall out with the neighbours’ children and run in and out of the house complaining to Mag about being bored, while she complained to us that we were driving her off her head.
None of us ever forgot that glorious week in Torquay and I don’t remember ever having better weather in UK until the long, hot summer of 1976, which I was lucky enough to spend in Henley-on-Thames, by the river and with access to an outdoor swimming pool. Almost as wonderful as Torquay, but not quite!