Watching the TV adverts for Haven Holidays leaves you initially admiring the fact that they seem to have crammed a lot of good stuff for kids to do into their holiday sites, but a little later leaves me in particular wondering if taking a holiday these days involves handing over your imagination at the gate.
There was a time when holiday sites gave you nothing but the site.
France in 1973 was a good example.
We arrived to our holiday camping site late in the evening during a torrential downpour, not a good start to three weeks under pre-erected canvas and it was the next morning with the early sun causing steam to rise from all of the tents inside the quarry location that Ralph unzipped our canvas home and declared, “Eee come out here kid and have a look, we’re in the elephants graveyard” causing that phrase to be written indelibly in all our minds for the next forty years, even now when we meet up with the octogenarian Ralph the first thing we will talk about is the elephants graveyard holiday.
Put simply the elephants graveyard holiday was probably the best that we ever had and yet all that was provided by the holiday providing company was the ferry tickets and a six berth tent in an old abandoned quarry, the only facilities on site being a toilet block and a washroom, your entertainment being provided mainly by yourself and the two mile long beach and sand dunes which were a two minute walk away.
It helped that the rain never returned for the whole of those August three weeks of course and it helped that we were all teenagers and had the freedom that youths were given in the 1970s to disappear all day long and not have the police out searching for you if you hadn’t come back before it got dark.
I was 16 years old, at the end of my “normal” school career (see previous entries for the disaster that was my “further education” year), we took along a mate of mine Mick Gamble, he of the sweet shop owning dad, and there is another freedom that we had in the 1970s – we took someone else’s kid out of the country with just his passport required, no explanation or special documentation needed at customs to explain why this kid in your car didn’t have your family name, indeed my father told the customs man “His dad owns the sweet shop round our way, can’t close it for three weeks see, so we’ve brought him with us” and that was adequate.
In the elephants graveyard that August was also a three family party of Scousers with eight kids in tow and so our gang was formed for the holiday and we arose early every day, feasted on Corn Flakes and toast, stuffed our pockets with chocolate for lunch and waved our parents goodbye every morning to spend the whole day seeking amusement among the miles of coastline dunes and cliffs.
We had an inflatable dingy and on days when someone could be arsed to carry it would take it to the beach and row out to sea in it without any adult warning us of how dangerous it could be or calling for the coastguard to come and bring us back, we never got whisked away by a rip tide and returned more or less safely each day with tales of daring do on the high seas.
But the biggest attraction for us on the coast of Northern Brittany was the mile upon mile of concrete bunkers and secret passageways left behind by the Nazis just thirty years previously. The whole of Brittany had been heavily fortified by the Germans during WW2 with huge gun emplacements located every hundred yards or so along the coast, all of them linked by underground concrete lined tunnels most of which were still easily passable, none of which had yet seen a local council health and safety officer come along and bar them to kids on their holidays.
We spent days underground armed with small torches or candles, walking in tunnels that we had not the first clue of where they would lead to, emerging hours later at a point on the coast that we didn’t recognise at all, thinking back with an adults head on it would be every parents nightmare to let their kids wander off out of sight and then disappear into an underground maze for the rest of the day with no clue as to where that maze would lead and if our parents had panicked and organised a search they would never have found us, ever – but they didn’t, it was normal for kids to do their own thing and we returned every night without harm or hinderance and the only suspicion that our parents had was that none of us seemed to be getting much of a suntan during those long hot August days, which we surely would have done because of course we didn’t bother with sun protection cream either.
I still have the photos that we took inside those Nazi tunnels, a small Kodak Instamatic camera with one of those little four-flash cubes, our mother wondered why there weren’t many flash cubes left in the box when they came to go out on a night time but she only learned why several weeks later when we were back at home and the photos came back from Boots the Chemist to show us kids posing in a variety of underground passages alongside signs with wartime stuff such as “Achtung!!!” written on them, she all but fainted on the spot when we explained where they’d all been taken.
The sea was our water park, the incoming tide our wave effect swimming pool, wartime bunkers our adventure playground, our legs the means of being shuttled around, and we had absolutely no need for an entertainment staff or anyone to organise games of football for us, we ate chocolate during the day as and when required rather than be “catered” and we had no need of Tourist Board star ratings to enable us to pick the destination, if we fell over and hurt ourselves (and we did, one of the Scousers broke his arm while we were there) it was our fault and not the holiday operator and we were not covered by any insurance policy whatsoever for hospital benefits and repatriation by air ambulance – the Scouser with the broken arm simply spent the rest of his holiday with a broken arm when climbing down ladders into our underground Nazi bunkers.