Brian Viner and the Great British Holiday
PUBLISHED: 11:56 08 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:40 20 February 2013
Cream teas, traffic jams and sunburn, the stuff of the annual getaway... Journalist and Herefordshire holiday cottage owner Brian Viner talks about his new book on the great - and not so great - British holiday
In the summer of 2002 my wife and I moved, with our three children, from an Edwardian terrace in north London to a rambling early Victorian house in north Herefordshire, between Leominster and Bromyard, with three self-catering holiday cottages in the grounds. We hadnt planned on this dimension to our new rustic life, but the cottages and an established business came with the house, and so here we are, nine years later, with our very own perspective on the Great British Holiday.
My experiences as a holiday cottage proprietor, and of course as a holidaymaker myself, duly helped to fill my new book, Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn: The Great British Holiday. It is the fifth wholly or partly autobiographical book I have written: of the previous four, two chronicled our move out of the city to the country, while the other two were purely nostalgic, one about growing up in the 1970s as a sports nut, the other about growing up in front of the telly in the age of Dads Army and The Generation Game. With all of them, I hoped to strike a chord with readers. But not everyone has moved to a rural idyll, just as not everyone is nuts about sport, or remembers 1970s television.
What just about all of us have in common, however, is the experience of taking a holiday, whether in this country or overseas. Sitting in a seemingly endless tailback on the way to the seaside, or making a Cornish cream tea last three hours because low grey clouds outside are releasing a steady drizzle with intermittent torrential downpours, or realising at the end of a sunny afternoon that we werent quite as diligent in applying the Factor 25 as we should have been, and have consequently turned the colour of the Provencal ros we were quaffing at lunchtime. These are essential parts of what it means to be British and the reason why my publishers and I chose Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn as our title. Heaven knows, though, there are plenty of other words which evoke the Brits on their holidays.
Two of them are Thomas Cook. He was an astute East Midlander who on 5 July, 1841 chartered a train to take almost 600 people on a day trip from Leicester to Loughborough. Cook was a fierce campaigner on behalf of the Temperance Society, and the appeal of Loughborough, for him and all those like-minded folk who believed that in alcohol lay the likely ruination of mankind, was that it was a dry town, without pubs. Cook did not know it, but that short, pious journey marked the start of the era of mass tourism. Indeed, it is a striking and rather cruel irony that the origins of the modern 18-30s package holiday to places such as Benidorm and Ibiza lie in the temperance message.
Even more than he was a teetotalling evangelist, though, Cook was a businessman, who saw the potential for holidaymakers of Britains expanding railway system. In 1845 he started taking trippers to the seaside, which until then had been a holiday destination mainly for the affluent classes, or had been since the mid-17th century when a Sussex doctor called Richard Russell wrote a pamphlet catchily titled, A Dissertation on the use of Sea Water in the Diseases of the Glands, particularly the Scurvy, Jaundice, Kings-Evil, Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption. The seaside was democratised by Thomas Cooks railway packages, and even more significantly by the Bank Holidays Act of 1871, so that by the turn of the 20th century most working-class inhabitants of even the most landlocked British towns knew what it was like to feel the sand between their toes.
In writing my book, I became fascinated by the social history of the holiday, but I tried to balance it with accounts of my own experiences, and those of my friends. My pal Ian, for example, has vivid memories of travelling every summer from Richards Castle on the Herefordshire-Shropshire border to stay in a caravan at Borth on the Welsh coast.
You know how youre supposed to remember childhood holidays with affection, Ian told me. Not me. To this day if I was offered the choice between a caravan holiday or staying at home, Id stay at home. We had no privacy, we had to trudge through a muddy field to the shower block, but worst of all was the journey there. My dad drove a Morris 1000 van, so the three of us boys sat in the back, where there were no windows and no seats. One of my brothers used to start spewing up pretty much as soon as we left home. My mum gave him a bucket even before we got in the van.
At least the poor lad got a bucket. If there is a common theme among people of my generation, in the 45-60 age bracket, it is that our needs on childhood holidays were deemed secondary, if they were deemed at all, to those of our parents. Another friend, Becky, recalled the interminable annual drive to a French campsite from the village of Dilwyn near Leominster, the air in the car a ripe blend of cigarette smoke and her mothers perfume. Moreover, if a back window were opened even an inch, there would be hell to pay. Kids these days, insisting on being plugged into their iPods and PlayStations the second they hit the back seat of the car, phone ChildLine for less.
It is Becky, too, who considers Ottery St Mary in Devon completely and irredeemably synonymous with driving rain. She described to me the family holiday there in the 1970s, when her dad repeatedly thundered that if it rained once more, they would pack up and go home. On the Wednesday, mid-way through the holiday, it rained once more. So back they went to Dilwyn. And as Ottery St Mary is to Becky, so I should think that everyone who has ever holidayed in the UK has an equivalent destination, a place which in your minds eye is permanently soaked with relentless rain.
For me it is Barnstaple, also in Devon. I went there with my parents when I was six years old, a holiday I can unhesitatingly date to May half-term 1968, because on the long drive home, over the car radio, came the dramatic news that Senator Robert F Kennedy had been shot, possibly fatally (as it proved), while in California campaigning to become the Democratic Partys nominee for the US Presidency. I had no clue who Robert Kennedy was, but with my parents aghast in the front of our Vauxhall Viva, I knew that the news put the tin lid, or however I might have framed the thought at the age of six, on a disastrously soggy holiday. For decades afterwards, I thought of Barnstaple simply as a town awash, a demon I tried to slay when I returned for the first time in the summer of 2009. Naturally, it bucketed down then, too.
Yet I must hasten to add that I also have keen memories of happy childhood holidays, the kind of memories I tried to kindle in my own children by taking them back, year after year, to Constantine Bay in Cornwall. As I say in the book, there are no spectacles anywhere in the world quite like that of an expansive English beach on a warm summers day, with its extraordinary kaleidoscope of activities; the games of Frisbee, cricket, football, paddle-tennis, catch and piggy-in-the-middle; children burying their dads in sand, dads making sand racing cars for their kids; the kite-flying, rock-pooling, sandcastle-building and paddling; the windbreak-erecting, sandwich-making and barbecuing, and of course the people wriggling in and out of swimsuits under towels barely big enough to hide their private parts, a triumph of flexibility over modesty at which the British excel. If it were an Olympic event, wed be guaranteed a gold medal every four years.
My book is about Brits on holiday abroad, as well as in our own islands, but whether we go to Bali or Bromyard I think certain generalisations apply. When we moved into our house and prepared to become holiday cottage proprietors, our predecessor passed on to us a statistic that shed once heard at a tourist board conference, namely that 95 per cent of the holidaying British public are perfectly nice, that four per cent can have niceness forced upon them, and that one per cent are utterly impossible to please. Nine years on, Id say thats about right.