Saturday, August 09, 2008
The Week it Rained Forever
I have just returned from a caravan holiday in Devon. I use the term caravan loosely. In fact it was more like a building site portakabin, albeit a very comfortable one with plumbing, electricity and an en suite bedroom.
On a list of desirable ways to spend a holiday, I must admit that a caravan holiday would normally be fairly near the bottom of my list, with only Pontins and East Anglia coming lower. However my efforts to find a cottage or hotel for under £500 during the peak season didn't meet with any success, so my options were limited to staying in a caravan or tent.
The prospect of a week in a tent with my family seemed like purgatory at best. Hell if it rained. On the other hand I had many happy childhood memories of a caravan site in Devon. A quick search on Google confirmed that it was still there and charged around £400 a week for a four-berth caravan. Bingo! But there was one serious obstacle: my wife.
Since I commenced my descent down the social ladder, my wife has become increasingly like Margot Leadbetter. I'm not entirely surprised. She grew up in a huge Tudor farmhouse and her family took it for granted that they had very few social equals on their island (my mother-in-law remembers locals calling her 'Miss Anne'). My wife is one of the least snobbish or materialistic people I've ever met, but everyone has their breaking point.
When I suggested a caravan holiday, my wife looked at me as if I had suggested a very indecent act. Luckily I was prepared and played my trump card: 'This holiday isn't for us, it's for the boys'. I knew then that it was only a matter of time before she gave in.
We enjoyed a traditional British holiday. It rained most of the time and our days were occupied with long car journeys to places where we would walk around, get bored and drive back to the caravan.
If I had to pick five highlights from the holiday, they would be these (in no particular order):
1. Model Railway Exhibition, Exmouth
Although I have no interest in train sets, I love model railways and their utopian vision of an Ealing Comedies Britain that is stuck in the 1950s.
This display was markedly different, containing dystopian elements that, had they been intentional, would have had Charles Saatchi racing down the M4 ready to sign up the new Jake and Dinos Chapman. I particularly liked the Ceaucesceau-era social housing in this photo:
If this display had been the work of an artist, it would have been acclaimed as a poignant work of social comment.
2. The beach, Seatown
I hate the naff tourist board signs that welcome you to 'Shakespeare country' and the whole of Lyme Bay has now been 'branded' the Jurassic Heritage Coast. If I was a kid who'd just watched Jurassic Park for the first time, I'd feel cheated. However the fact remains that this is an amazing stretch of coastline, with millions of fossils that predate the dinosaur age. In less than an hour I found the remains of an ammonite:
I've no idea what this is, but it looks impressive:
And these are Belemnites - the skeletal remains of an ancient variety of squid:
If you want to feel a sense of awe, there's nothing like cracking a rock open to reveal the remains of a creature that has been hidden for hundreds of millions of years.
3. Woodbury Castle:
This prehistoric hillfort is sandwiched between two roads and there are no signs announcing its presence. I only discovered it by chance when I got lost during a walk and although I don't believe in ghosts, it had a very strange atmosphere. Historical sites usually betray the presence of visitors with the occasional wrapper and coke can, but this place seemed completely forgotten.
Dartmoor is the largest wilderness in southern England and even in summer, it can be a harsh environment. I climbed up this tor and felt a great sense of achievement until I saw an unsupervised three-year-old higher up...
Nestled in the middle of the moors is Widecombe, an idyllic village that has been almost ruined by tourism. Every shop seems to sell the same depressing selection of tea towels, mugs, kitsch figurines and naff postcards with an inebriated yokel on the front. However, the local church has a few gems inside:
An elderly Welsh woman kept asking me questions about the church. I answered as well as I could and she thanked me. When I failed to answer her final question about the age of the church she looked a little put out. Apparently she thought I was the vicar.
5. Lyme Regis
On the last day of our holiday the sun came out and the beach turned into WP Frith's Derby Day. I enjoyed watching people of all shapes and sizes making the most of the sunshine, wondering if this was their last chance to feel the sun on their skin until next year. Some people were reading books (I was very pleased to see a teenage girl reading Margaret Atwood), whilst others sunbathed, built sandcastles with their children or sat eating fish and chips.
There was a play area for children manned by smiling young people in red polo shirts. Posters promised activities and prizes, but there was no mention of the fact that they were evangelical Christians. It seemed a little dishonest to lure innocent heathens into their bouncy tent under false pretences.
There are two fairly decent secondhand bookshops in Lyme Regis and I managed to pick up an out of print Josef Skvorecky novel which I look forward to reading.
Overall the holiday was a success. My sons really enjoyed it and my wife, to her surprise, said that she would consider going on a caravan holiday again. The only dissenting voice was mine, but I had to keep quiet because it was my idea.