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Camping in the 1950’s – A Time for Reflection
Back in the 1950s a camping holiday in the UK was a pretty grim experience as there were very few dedicated campsites apart from those farm fields where you were likely to wake up next to a ruminating cow passing wind, or, possibly, something worse. Fortunately our parents were aware of the dangers of Scabies from sheep ticks and that is one good reason for our camping holidays in France.
My first memory of a proper camping holiday, (I mean “proper” as opposed to a weekend or two thoroughly drenched in the English rain) was in the summer of 1957 when I had just turned 10, my sister Liz was 15 and our parents planned a three to four week excursion into darkest southern France; enough of an undertaking all those years ago, as you will read on.
Of course these days such a trip is almost routine and we do it, or a similar self drive holiday almost every year, but in the 1950s things were just a little different. For those of you whose geography lessons consisted of making paper airplanes to fly around the world in class, you might be interested to know that Britain is an island – that means there’s a sea around it, right?
That being the case, if you wanted to cross the channel to France for your holidays, then that meant taking a ferry – similar in shape to those in use today but about a quarter of the size and without stabilizers, which meant that in a stiff breeze (there’s always a stiff breeze in the Channel) the ship, boat, or whatever the dreadful thing was called, heaved from side to side like a drunken sailor, and men of hitherto robust constitutions turned a rather hideous shade of puce before speeding off. to be sick over the side. There were few exceptions to that rule!
There were no Motorways in England then so it took us most of a day to get to Dover from our home in the Midlands to where the ferry was based for the 22 mile crossing. Equally, there were no Motorways in France so a journey of almost 800 miles or 1200 KM took several days.
Does that sound long to you? Well, well, but imagine that instead of going around built-up areas like today, the road went through every hamlet, village, town and city on the route, and not only that but the approaches to them, the roads through them and far the other side of they were paved! Probably they have never reappeared since before the Revolution!
The last time I did that trip before the start of Motorways was ten years later in 1967 and nothing had changed.
Now our dad was an army officer in World War 11, so it follows that he’s been to some pretty rough places and seen some amazing sights, in France and other countries, but I’ll always remember when he told us about the cemeteries of the World War I, who ranked on World War I. road south of Calais for many, many miles. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of white crosses were visible on both sides of the road, and each one represented some poor fellow who had perished in the line of duty during the wars. It was a time of deep reflection, even for a ten-year-old.
We finally reached the south of France after stopping for a few nights on the way. Dad was aiming for a small place called Frejus, close to another village called San Rafael. They’re pretty much joined at the hip now, but back then they were both sparsely populated, dusty little villages, peaceful places where other Brits weren’t in abundance, something that pleased our parents because they planned this venture as a learning curve for us as. much like a vacation.
Both Liz and I started learning French at school aged about 5 and this and subsequent holidays were the “practice exams” where we were expected to test our (lack of) conversational skills on the unsuspecting French nation, and because dad was ex-army, so holidays were about some of those all important character building exercises to prepare us for later life as well. Things like being able to cook, pitch a tent with one hand (that came later, much later), but most of all being able to stand on your own and cope with different circumstances.
Luckily our respectably well-to-do parents owned a big car in those days, because Dad was what we would now call a Fatcat Legal Eagle, otherwise we would never have been able to cart our tent and all the other equipment like stoves, sleeping bags, food, etc. Everything was much bigger and heavier in those days, especially the tent, which took ages to put together.
Yes, the tent weighed a ton and I couldn’t lift it on my own, so Dad went in and held it up while the rest of us tried to fit poles into other poles and tie ropes to thick wooden tent pegs that were knocked over. into the ground with a large wooden hammer, which I was told time without number is a mallet, NOT a hammer. Unfortunately, Pop-up tents and pop-up tents had yet to be invented!
The great thing about the South of France, apart from it being kind of ‘abroad’, was the sunshine that seemed to hit you at breakfast around 7am and stay non-stop up there in a huge blue sky until almost bedtime.
Rightly or wrongly, our parents took us away not just for vacations but to learn about other cultures, and that’s how Liz and I both learned so much about the French, their way of life, (some) of their language and a lot about their history.
We had a lot of fun and the learning never seemed like lessons, so clever were our mother and father in their knowledge of various histories that they made the days seem too short when we still wanted to ask questions and explore buildings placed there by the. Romans a few thousand years ago.
We were also encouraged to travel on holiday so that we could pick up bits of history from previous civilizations – in this case the Romans who established settlements in southern France and the Cathars who lived in Languedoc-Roussillon and who were almost exterminated by the Catholic Church.
The Cathars rejected parts of the old and new testaments, were anti-materialistic, pacifist, and critical of the corruption of the established church, and so it was that in 1208 the pope, Innocent III, proclaimed all the Cathars as heretics, and persuaded the king to to launch a campaign to crush them, which he and his successors did for the next 30 terrible years. So much for Christianity in those days!
But back to camping and vacations where things have turned twice since the 1950s. I got married in the early 1970s and the result of that was a couple of kids who Pam and I took camping around Europe when they were young and who now follow the tradition set by their grandparents by taking their own kids to some of the grandparents . places they themselves had visited years before.
The great thing about it is that Pam and I are often invited along, and as we are still quite fit, we can do the walks, the swimming, the snorkelling etc. with our own children and grandchildren, but our days under canvas are counted and today we prefer a little more comfort that comes with caravans or apartments.
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