Not going on holiday

Our first family holiday was in 1971, a caravan in Lyme Regis for the week. 1973 was our most extravagant year, a week camping in a field outside of Saint Ives in Cornwall in August and a week in a chalet in Lyme Regis in September. Nearly every holiday in the 1970s was spent at a campsite at Westward Ho!

Once the 1980s came, Mum and Dad seemed to stop taking holidays. There were some years in which they came to Ireland to visit, but generally they stayed at home.

What was their reason for not going on holiday? Money was undoubtedly a factor in the earlier years: we didn’t have any. We were not untypical, few people in our community took holidays. But in later years, when there were only themselves, and when holidays were a more common experience, there was still a disinclination towards going away.

Perhaps Dad’s preference for staying at home was a recapturing of a sense of holidays in their original form when a holiday was a “holy day,” a religious feast when there was no work to do for a day. Holidays were about not doing things.

Perhaps not going on holiday was a better use of time, it left days and hours for doing the ordinary things that brought pleasure to everyday life.

Going on holiday might have meant sitting in lengthy traffic jams on country roads. It might have meant searching for parking spaces in expensive beach car parks. It might have meant jostling through crowded streets. It might have meant eating overpriced food in busy cafes. It might have meant passing much of the day in a hot car getting nowhere.

Not going on holiday allowed hours in the morning to sit at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and a book to read. It allowed limitless time to go to Langport on errands that might have been completed in twenty minutes. It allowed time to stop and talk to people who might otherwise have been passed with a wave of the hand. It allowed days of postponement of jobs that might otherwise need to be done in a short time. It allowed afternoons to catch up on black and white films and old television series. It allowed evenings when programmes could be watched until the early hours because there was no need to get up in the morning. Not going on holiday allowed time just to do and to be.

Dad’s reasons for staying at home were not so hard to understand.


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A survey of fourteen  year olds shows that while few went to church, most believed in a divine power; while few believed in hell, most believed in heaven; while some thought life ended when you died, others believed in reincarnation.

The opinions were familiar, I could show you exercise books where such views were held by twelve year olds. What was surprising was that the opinions were from a group of fourteen year olds sixty years ago.

In his groundbreaking book Teenage Religion, Harold Loukes reported on surveys with fourteen and fifteen year olds around the country. Young people who were about to leave school, and enter the world of work at the age of fifteen, were vocal and consistent in their religious ideas.

The surveys were carried out using tape recorded class discussions and open-ended questionnaires. The results would not have been encouraging  to the church leaders at the time, (and were undoubtedly rejected by many who preferred not to accept uncomfortable truths), but would have been intriguing to those who sought to understand young people born in the post-war years.

One of the fascinating aspects of Loukes’ book is the cover photograph. Other than the name of the photographer, no details are provided. There are no clues as to which class in which school were on the other side of the lens, but even without details the shot tell a story of the young people of the time.

I remember teenagers in 1970. You could have told straightaway from their hairstyles and their dress that the 1960s had changed everything.

Loukes’ teenagers are less easily located in time. As most of the class look towards an unseen speaker, one girl stares fixedly at the camera. The girl is wearing a short sleeved dark dress and a pearl necklace, it is an outfit that might have been worn by her mother. There are boys wearing sports jackets with collars and ties. A handful of teddy boy haircuts suggest the 1950s have been reached. At the front sits a boy with a teddy boy haircut and a leather jacket, the only undeniably youthful fashion in the picture.

Perhaps 1960 was in a transition period between times when teenagers were younger versions of older people and times when being teenage was to be different. The traditionalism of the way in which many of them are dressed perhaps makes the non-traditional religious views they expressed more fascinating, or perhaps their beliefs are the way in which people have thought for generations, but only in 1960 had the courage to say.

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More books

The lockdown has brought a greater appreciation of simple things, like brown bread, English butter, Cheddar cheese, McVities Digestive biscuits, Yorkshire tea – and books. Overseas travel has become practically impossible, as a consequence of which, everywhere in England  has become overcrowded and overpriced, leaving few options other than sinking deep into an armchair and reading.

Books were always a means of escape. Even in childhood years, they offered an avenue into worlds different from the one one in which I lived, the world in which I was a pale, underweight asthmatic reclusive who was frequently too shy to go out to do even things that he enjoyed. Books presented a different reality. Well-written, they had the capacity to create a feeling of being completely detached from life in a small, unremarkable village deep in rural England. Sometimes, even chores were performed with a book in one hand, a few lines being read each time an opportunity presented itself.

Books have assumed a new significance, perhaps it is because they are tactile. Given the choice between reading from a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone or a book, there is no question about the choice I would make. There is something reassuring in the feeling of a book: there is a sense of permanence, a physical weight, the smoothness of the cover, the crispness of the pages.

Reading academic books, I am noting are details of which I would never have been aware in my younger days. There are dates and places of publication and the names of publishers. There are footnotes and tables and indexes (should that be indices?). There are careful and considered structures, chapters with sub-headings, points that are bulleted. There are books that seem works of a very skilled craftsman.

It was a childhood ambition to be a journalist and a writer, to see my name above a report, or a column, and then to see it on the spine of a book. I slowly came to a realization of what an intimidating prospect that would have been, to have work that has taken many hundreds of hours dissected in minutes by reviewers who are quick to pick up on any weakness or failing. It became an ambition that I was glad passed unfulfilled.

On a grey day in a dull August, in a time that is out of joint, a pile of books sits on the floor beside me. Some date from the 1960s, but are as fresh in their wisdom as when they were published. There are few situations that cannot be remedied by more books.


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A locomotive at the window

Looking out from the delightful La Fleure shop in Langport, the view is of The Hill and of the corner at which North Street meets Bow Street. An Instagram picture prompted reflection on a familiar story. What if one had looked out of the window and had seen a steam locomotive turning the corner from Bow Street into North Street?

One of the stories with which I grew up was that a locomotive had once steamed through the streets of Langport. It had always seemed an exciting story, the vision of a steam engine puffing its way up the street of our small town. However, the vision was clouded a few years ago by a railway enthusiast friend who questioned how such a thing might have taken place.

The initial question was “why?” Why would anyone wish to take a steam locomotive by road when all it needed to have done was to travel out to the junction where the two lines line and travel back to the town on the other line? Why embark upon an exercise that would have taken hours when it could have been completed in minutes on the tracks?

The second, and deeper question, was “how?” Trains did not run on roads, they sink into soft surfaces and come to an undignified halt. How would anyone have driven a locomotive through a small town? Thinking about the particular circumstances of Langport, the story became more and more unlikely. How would a locomotive have been removed from the tracks at Langport West and then been driven up the sharp incline that approaches Langport East? How would it have negotiated the narrow streets? How would it have got around the ninety degree bend from Bow Street to north Street? And, had it found its way to the far end of the town, how would it have been put back onto the tracks? Anyone who has seen pictures of railway derailments will know how difficult it is to get a locomotive back onto the line.

Discussing the story with my mother some years ago, she said that if there had been no truth in the story, how did it begin? Why for so many years had we been told about the Langport locomotive? Presumably, there was some logical source for such an unlikely tale?

A copy of a book published more than forty years ago by the Somerset Federation of Women’s Institutes offers an answer. It includes a collection of anecdotes on the local railways, including the following:

When the new railway line was being built from Castle Cary to Curry Rivel Junction in 1906, it was necessary to bring an engine from Langport West Station to the new line at the other end of the town. As it would have to be taken right up through the main street, it was decided that the operation should be carried out late at night, in as much secrecy as possible. However, the rumour spread, and the whole town stayed awake to see the sight. Crowds lined the streets, children stayed up, people from the neighbouring villages poured in. Presently the engine under its own steam, came chugging up through Bow Street, with driver and fireman bowing gallantly to the assembled populace. What would happen when “Town Corner” was reached where the road took an almost right-angled bend, with a bow fronted shop window on the corner? Here the crowds were thickest and faces appeared at all the windows. However, the railway engineers were equal to the task. Steel plates were laid on the road, and a gang of men with long poles were stationed outside the shop, with instructions to “Hold her up if she starts to tip.”. All went well, the engine safely negotiated the corner, the driver waved his cap, and to the cheers of the people, shouts of “Good old Charlie” and “the Great Western’s done it again,” the victorious little engine chug chugged along North Street to its work on the “new line” at the East Station.

The story still seems an odd one, there is no explanation as to why it was necessary to carry out such an operation. If Langport East was open, then why not follow the line that had been laid? If Langport East was not open, then where would the locomotive travel? Apart from the turn outside of La Fleure, there is no explanation of how the locomotive was lifted from the tracks, nor how it was lifted back onto the tracks, yet the unlikely seems true.

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A tractor made slow progress up the lane, cutting back protruding branches. The work was necessary to allow the combine harvester to reach a field of grain at the top.

Within an hour of the way having been cleared, the huge green Deutz-Fahr harvester arrived and rolled at walking pace to the field where the barley was to be cut.

It is a measure of how much bigger farm machinery has begun that a path had to be cleared. The harvester must be twice the size of the combines that worked in the area fifty years ago.

Paradoxically, the number of tractors and combine harvesters has declined.

Partly, the decline is explained by the smaller number of farms. As one farmer now farms the land once occupied by three or four former, he no longer needs the number of tractors that were once used by his predecessors.

Partly, the sheer cost of agricultural vehicles means that it doesn’t make sense for a farmer to have machines he only uses for a limited time  each year. With new tractors at over £100,000 and combine harvesters at £250,000, the machinery demands huge investment. The answer has become to hire contractors to carry out the work that demands the use of machinery with a high capital cost.

A friend told me of a farmer he knew who had a dairy farm milking five hundred Frisian cows. The dairy farmer had a single old Zetor tractor for doing work in the yard, everything else demanding mechanical effort was carried out by contractors.

Farming has changed beyond recognition from the days of farmers with fifty to sixty acres driving a grey Ferguson tractor. Perhaps the days of my childhood were the final times of the old owner operated farm, the farmer cutting and baling his own hay and harvesting his own crops. Of course, the haymaking and the harvesting could not be achieved by a person working alone, family, friends and neighbours would gather to assist a farmer, who, in turn, would provide assistance in return for the help received.

It is strange now to look back at the machinery used on the home farm in the 1960s and 1970s. The threshing machine that was brought to the farm once a year now only appears in museums and at vintage fairs. The Ferguson tractors are now painted and polished leisure vehicles. The balers and binders and miscellaneous other devices are rare sights.

The machinery that went up our lane used to be very different.

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