Whitsun is almost upon us ( seven weeks after Easter) and my thoughts turn to childhood holidays in the Sixties. Holidays that featured a United final or two , the FA cup in 1963 and another one in 1968, at Wembley, against a team from the Iberian peninsula beginning with B, with a player regarded as the best in Europe. To us , our trip was the highlight of the year and most of my early memories recall these holidays.
From around the mid fifties to 1969 my father took us on a two week holiday to Cornwall, almost always around Whitsun which often fell around the last week in May or the first week in June. Initially his resort of choice was Holywell Bay, near Newquay, until switching his affections (and ours) to Polzeath further north around 1965 (before the hordes of the chattering classes made North Cornwall entirely their own). Our two week holiday set us apart from our neighbours in Lower Crumpsall who were lucky to afford a week in North Wales or on the Fylde Coast. Not for us the wind swept Welsh misery of Llanfairfachen or the tawdry boarding houses of Blackpool!
The 12 to 14 hour journey was all part of the ritual. My Dad worked night shifts as a compositor on the newspapers at Thompson House and so would like to finish work, return home and get an early start. We would often be on the road at 3.30 or 4am with Dad passing up his post-work pint or three in the Danzig Street Press club in deference to the long and arduous drive ahead. In the late fifties and early sixties the route to Cornwall, some 350 miles, was made on A roads (the earliest M6 section opened only in 1962) with few of the many towns having a bypass which could mean a hold up in each of these places. It did allow, however, the opportunity to see something of the character of these places at a time before high streets became so anodyne with Greggs, Clinton Cards and WH Smiths in each and everyone. Typical cars at the time such as our Austin A40 or Austin Cambridge estate were capable of top speeds of only around 70 mph and had derisory acceleration figures compared with today’s family saloons.
The choice of route was a source of much discussion between my father and his friends, each year having some new variant designed to avoid the invariable bottlenecks at Exeter or Wolverhampton. Nevertheless , by the age of 5 or 6, I could recite unprompted the litany of the 20 or so towns making up the main route….Bristol, Bridgewater, Taunton, Exeter, Okehampton, Launceston, Bodmin, Indian Queens, Newquay, Holywell Bay..who’s first to see the sea!
In the early years despite the early start, the journey would often require an overnight stop in some country B&B in Somerset or Devon. Other times, often on the way home, the route would be varied in an effort to save time or avoid some perceived traffic jam. I still have childhood memories of Wells Cathedral, Glastonbury Tor and the White Horse at Westbury in Wiltshire thanks to those many diversions.
Each of the towns and the “legs” between them had their own character too; hoping that we would be stopping on the quarter hour in Gloucester’s Southgate street to see the animated clock at Bakers the Jewellers, the unrelenting tedium of the long straight, featureless A38 between Gloucester and Bristol, the magnificent copper beeches on Clifton Down and the suspension Bridge at Bristol, the red earth of Devonshire fields, Launceston Castle, forbidding Bodmin Moor with the real stagecoach at the Jamaica inn and the first view of the sea and the silhouetted Gull Rocks against a westering sun at Holywell Bay.
Driving was very different then the roads were not as crowded. Owners of similar car models would often greet each other with a friendly toot, AA or RAC patrolmen on motorbikes would salute you if your car sported their organisation’s members badges, a stop for tea could mean using a primus stove sheltered by a metal biscuit tin in a lay-by, later in the day, after a pause for some “refreshment” at a wayside inn, Dad would take a nap and we would play in some field or a stream ever impatient, like all children, to continue on to the promised land.
The soundtrack of the journey would be provided by a portable Roberts radio with variable reception, but invariably tuned in to the Third Programme and Test Match Special. John Arlott’s Hampshire tones became the sound of summer for generations (it is a shame that so few of his many hours before the microphone seem to be preserved online. These are the only examples I could find)
A fragment of nostalgic poetry is recalled from Francis Thompson’s At Lords:
For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!
We self catered in Cornwall, at Holywell Bay in a marvellous old twenties bungalow rented from a Mrs Lanyon of Bristol ( who offered to sell it to us for £2000 – it would be worth half a million now) This was a fortnight’s transition to a middle class Betjemanesque world. Two weeks in this house, with a verandah around 3 sides, views of the sea across the dunes, sunsets every night streaming into casement windows in the dormer, a large garden and an old style water butt ( something of an extravagance in fifties Manchester) was paradise itself.
Our cultural exchange with the middle classes continued in Holywell Bay, the gentle charade facilitated no doubt by Dad’s wartime RAF Non Commissioned Officer status where we met people called Ralph ( pronounced Rafe), played on the dunes and sat outside the 15th century, thatched Treguth Inn. We walked about the sandy tarmac or unmade warm pebbly tracks barefoot like characters from the ‘Famous Five’ stories or some Arthur Ransome book.
Holywell Bay lay at the end of a cul-de-sac road some 2 miles from the tiny village of Cubert. Apart from the cluster of bungalows and a discreet caravan park in the valley, the end of the road was marked by a post office/general stores on one side and a cafe/beach shop on the other. They still remain today selling the same windbreaks, bucket and spade sets, surf boards, beach balls and Cornish ice cream. We always thought the cafe to be very cool, almost American, as it had formica topped tables, an authentic old-style juke box, sold Superman comics and real bottles of Coca Cola.
United won against the odds in 1968 and the man of the match was not Best, Charlton or Eusebio but Johnny Aston. Let’s hope that the omens are all in place.