A Pied-a-Terre of Yellow-Glossed Metal – The Van Beside the Sea (and Will There Be Cockles Still for Tea?)

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May Bank Holiday U.K. Monday 6th May 2019

A little longer than usual, today’s ramble, as I possibly won’t have the opportunity to post on Monday. Please feel free to read this in two parts so that you’ve got something to do over the bank holiday (when I know you will be at a loose end). Alternatively, you could try reading the paragraphs in a different order. You could try reading them back to front. I’m not sure if it will make that much difference: my grasp of basic grammar isn’t what it was so you’ll probably find the syntax is better that way anyhow. If I’m honest, you could probably drop all the words into a bag, shake them up and pour them out onto the table and it would make just as much sense. I’m sure some of you will remember caravans like ours – although they may not have been yellow and the little Perspex roof vent may not have leaked quite as much…

So… I was talking to a friend the other day about the new static caravan that he was thinking of buying. He had access to a website so vibrant and colourful that it would, with the addition of a Pathé newsreel and a Felix the Cat cartoon, have comprised an entire afternoon’s entertainment in my youth. He also had a shiny, full-colour brochure carefully furled in his sweaty palm and was anxious to share its content with me. At forty feet by thirteen feet (the size of a small cathedral) this de-wheeled beauty featured three double bedrooms – one of them en-suite – with separate ‘family’ shower room and W.C., ‘luxury’ fitted kitchen, central heating and double glazing. It was decorated and carpeted to a standard that would have had Sir Elton John checking his purse and… well, it started me thinking – or, more correctly, it started me remembering…

When I was a child, my grandparents had a static caravan. It was sixteen feet long and about seven feet wide. It was painted yellow. Their greatest pride was that it was not made of hardboard. It did not have a bathroom, shower or W.C. It did not have electricity, it did not have water. It most certainly did not have central heating or double glazing. It had a fitted kitchen that consisted of two gas rings and a plastic washing-up bowl. It was mostly waterproof and it contained a stack of ‘Astounding Tales’ and ‘Amazing Stories’ magazines. We went there every weekend between March and October for the greater part of my childhood and its memories are imprinted upon my mind with the clarity of the glossy brochure I was shown by my friend. Let me talk you through a weekend…

Straight from school on Friday evening and onto the bus. My grandparents did not have a car. Nobody I knew had a car. There was only one car on our estate. I never saw anybody driving it, but I did often see the owner polishing it. He worked for the council… The bus took a two hour meander through the Lincolnshire Wolds to the East Coast. My grandad told me that there were Indians (the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ kind) in the hills and I always looked for them. I still do.

Upon arrival in Cleethorpes (Pearl of the East) we boarded a local bus which took us part-way to the caravan site. From the bus we walked about a mile along the sandy path that skulked moodily in the shadows of decaying coastal flood barriers and grass-pocked sand hills. It was a much longer walk at the beginning and end of the season when there was so much more to carry. Bedding inadvertently left in the ‘van’ through the winter had a tendency to turn to mulch before spring so, twice a year, everything that could either rot or rust was transported to or from the caravan via a combination of bus and schoolboy legs. Except for the very height of summer, this walk tended to take place in the pitch black of storm-tossed night, illuminated by a one-candle-power battery torch. How fantastic it was, after the long, sea-speckled hike, to fling open the caravan door and smell the damp of home. The main feature of a weekend in the caravan was damp. In the morning the inside of the van was dripping with condensation. If ever the small gas fire was lit, folded-up newspapers were placed along the window bottoms to collect the water as it formed and ran down the inside of the glass in rivulets. Many a happy hour was spent running a mental ‘book’ on which of two similarly sized drops would reach the sill first and be roundly absorbed by page three’s carefully folded appendages.

First job on arrival; put out the gas cylinder and light the lights. The lights all had ‘mantles’ – a very thin, lace-like structure of what appeared to be sculpted talcum powder. They were always broken. The lights wouldn’t work without them and the spares were impossible to find without light. They were impossible to fit without light. To tell the truth, they were impossible to pick up with or without light. Not that it mattered, the matches, like everything else, were always damp. Eventually, after much muttered grandparental swearing, the few functional lights were lit, the van was bathed in a sepulchral orange glow and the kettle was on. I loved the kettle in the caravan. It whistled. The kettle we had at home didn’t whistle. Mind you, it didn’t leak either.

In order, I think, to distance me from the National Service brogue of my grandad’s language as he attempted to cast light into the gloom, I was despatched to get the water for the kettle. Drinking water was collected from a standpipe in the middle of the site, in a large container that had a little tap at the bottom. We were quite a long way from the standpipe and, the container being almost as tall as myself, I was only able to carry it back with a very small quantity of water in it. Mostly I dragged it and got mud up the tap. Hot water was fetched from the toilet block. Now, I don’t want you to think that the toilet block had hot taps. It did not. The running water in the sinks was cold. What it had was a slot that took a penny and a tap beneath it that then dispensed a bucketful of hot water. Unless someone had been there just before you, when it dispensed a quarter bucket of lukewarm water. Much time was spent watching the toilet block from the caravan window, gauging just the right time to get the most hot water for your penny. This, I should point out, was an old penny; one twelfth of a shilling (of which there were twenty to the pound) and the size of a dustbin lid. A penny would buy enough sweets for the whole weekend, three pulls on a one-armed bandit or some warmish water to wash in. No shower, no bath, just enough water for a ‘strip down wash’ and one last rush to the toilet before bedtime. No ‘facilities’ in the van; not even chemical – no space. Not even anywhere to put a po’ unless you used the wardrobe.

And the bedrooms? No, none of those. Two narrow ‘settees’ to one end of the van were where children slept. A curtain separated these two sagging bunks from the double bed that was formed by laying the cushions from the daytime sofas across the benches that flanked the table, and the table top itself (in retrospect, not the most hygienic of arrangements). And then lights off, to drift to sleep to the sound of the rain on the caravan roof. Always rain on the roof…

Saturday morning cast whatever light it could muster through the tissue-paper curtains and illuminated the caravan’s interior from earliest dawn. This was the moment when you realised that you needed a wee and that there was no way of getting out of the van without stepping on the occupants of the double bed that now lay between yourself and the door. You watched and you waited until the partition curtain was drawn back so that damp clothing could be wrestled on and, as the kettle merrily hissed on the stove, you took the full-bladdered, doubled-up lope to the toilet block with your slab of Wright’s Coal Tar (a large, yellow bar of soap: I have no idea whether it was actually made from coal tar, but given that this was a time in which you were told that smoking was good for the lungs, it is entirely possible) a damp flannel and an even damper hand towel. Rain or shine, hot or cold; it didn’t matter.

Saturday, prince of days, was the day for trooping off with grandad: a bona fide war hero with an ever-burning pipe wedged under his splendid RAF moustache, the smouldering embers illuminating his vaguely rum-pocked nose on each wheezy inhalation. A grandad it was a boys dream to spend time with, and a whole Saturday in which to do it.

So, plan for the day:
1. Dig lugworms from the beach with which to fish for dabs: little flat fish which were, to my recollection, not unlike tiny plaice or large squashed goldfish. Best thing about them; shallow fried in a little flour, they barely tasted of fish. The beach at low tide was full of lugworm casts and, after the many fishermen had been digging, resembled a First World War battlefield. I think it’s illegal to dig for them now without a licence.
2. The fishing was done at a brackish ‘creek’, a fast running tributary of sorts at the very end of the river which remained after the tide had drawn the main body of water into the distance, beyond the muddy flats, and into the sea. It involved a simple nylon line with a hook, a lead weight and the aforementioned lug worm. There was little skill involved except in casting the hapless, skewered worm out to sea without shredding your ear, and pulling it back in a few seconds later with a flapping dab at its end. The fishing was easy – always successful – and after a suitable time had passed, the creek swelled in size until it mingled with the incoming tide and boy, grandad and bag of fish were forced to retreat. I swam the creek a few times during the summer holidays – it was always deep and fast-flowing – but if you got your timing right, once on the other side you could wade to what I now know is the Haile Sand Fort. If you were lucky, and could pick your way through the barbed wire in time, you could climb up the base and walk around it. You could cast your eyes into the misty distance and look out for the German fleet; scouring the surface of the deeper water for the tell-tale periscope of a German U-boat… If you were unlucky and your timing wasn’t great, it was a frantic paddle/swim back to shore before you drowned. I still bear the scars of bare-footed scrambled retreats across concrete base covered in razor-sharp shells. I don’t ever recall being asked what I’d been doing. Times were different. Adventure was part of growing up for a boy – even if it involved the risk of death.
3. Cockle beds were exposed in the sandy flat river bed/sea shore at low tide. The cockles lay a few inches under the surface and were easily located from the little bubbles they blew through the wet sand from time to time. Presumably evolution, being what it is, will eventually recognise the success of non-bubble blowing cockles and they will suddenly become much more difficult to locate. They were dug and sifted through a big sieve – once again leaving the shore like a nightmarish wartime no-man’s land. I’m pretty sure that digging cockles is no longer allowed without a licence…
4. The marshes were green with samphire I remember; it took minutes to pack a carrier bag and was easy work as long as you kept moving. If you didn’t, you could sink up to groin level in the smelly, sandy gloop in seconds. I can’t see that you need a licence to collect samphire now, but to tell the truth, it’s probably much easier and less messy to collect it from Waitrose.
5. Grandma would soak and prepare cockles and samphire and gut the fish whilst the ‘men’ had a cup of tea and a butty and snoozed away the morning’s exertions. (I know, I know. I cannot be held responsible for this. These were very different times.) The memory of Saturday tea time: fresh boiled cockles, samphire with pan-fried dabs and the smell of stewed socks lives with me to this day.

…And then, after a quick change into smarter ‘evening’ clothes, a wander through the caravan ranks for an hour in the on-site ‘Amusements’. A few pennies in the slots if I was lucky and then Prize Bingo. A tanner in the slot lit one card. The adults played two. Four corners or a line; vertical, horizontal or diagonal for a single ‘win’ and the full-house for two. With a bit of luck you could save up enough wins over the season to replace the leaking kettle or the padlock that secured the Calor Gas container for what added up to little more than the cost of a new caravan over the season. And always to the chip shop on the walk home; the heady scent of a salt and vinegar laden caravan lingering around my nostrils as I began my descent into sleeping bag enveloped oblivion …

So passed the Spring, Summer and Autumn weekends of my childhood – in a happy, damp, vinegar-sodden tin box with all of the modern facilities of a cardboard tea crate. Sunday was tidy, clean and stow everything away until the next weekend. Long walk, short bus journey, long bus journey, short walk and home. Bath night. School in the morning…

…So, I sense you pondering, what exactly is the point of this self-indulgent twaddle? Well, truth is, it’s not all twaddle: it depends which way you choose to look at it. It could be a business plan. Glamping – is that really attractive to the over-somethings? No, I don’t think so. But give me a field and I will give them a no frills holiday experience with all the lack-of-utilities they could possibly wish for – all shrouded in the cosy, if damp, glow of nostalgic yesteryear and a quarter bucket of lukewarm water…

4 thoughts on “A Pied-a-Terre of Yellow-Glossed Metal – The Van Beside the Sea (and Will There Be Cockles Still for Tea?)

  1. Ahh, you’ve warmed the cockles of my heart with such a happy memory. Although, now I’ve been reminded that my heart can have warm cockles after learning that cockles are bubble-blowing, mud-dwelling creatures, destined to get boiled, I am also disturbed. 😀

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  2. Wonderful memories. We sometimes stayed in a similar caravan and raked for Cockles and harvested Samphire… We used to bring enough of the old green stuff home to fill the bath and after much washings (the Samphire, not us!) It was pickled and eaten with every Sunday night tea until it was all gone… A few years ago, the good lady and I traversed across those mud flats in flip flops! I’m sat here now laughing at that memory… Keep them coming…

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