Spending eleven days in Somerset, there were moments of temptation to get in the car and to drive. To go to places that were filled with memories of childhood, places that were unalloyed in the happiness of their recall. Then there was the thought of what could happen when I tried such outings. Westward Ho! was an object lesson in not going back to somewhere that was fondly remembered.
It is ten years since I was last there. The disappointment began with the fact that The Malibu Café had gone. Perhaps it had been gone for a while, for it had been thirty-three years since I had last visited.
Sadly, the village where we spent family holidays had disappeared, almost without trace.
We first went there in 1972 – and then for five years in a row from 1975 onward. Each visit was to leave its own impressions.
In 1972, the memory was of The Malibu and its jukebox, which was probably the first I had seen. 1975 saw a fourteen year old drinking lager and blackcurrant, one of the foulest concoctions ever devised. By 1977, entertainment was being sought further afield, James Bond was being screened in Bideford. In 1978, there was a day trip to Tintagel, amidst the traffic of a Cornish summer. 1979 was the last visit, the only memory that lingers is of catching a bus from Barnstaple to Taunton on the day of the Mountbatten murder and the Warrenpoint massacre.
The definitive Westward Ho! holiday was in 1976. Camping can be miserable, but that August it was perfect. Sitting out under afternoon blue skies, playing games on the vast beach, listening to music in the beer garden at nights; there could be nowhere better. Skin cancer had not arrived among us and tans were deep and dark; suntan lotion was something used by people who flew off to Costas on holidays far beyond our pockets. Only on the journey home did the weather break and the drought end with a cloudburst.
The seaside village had never been more than a cluster of streets, a string of caravan and campsites, and extensive grasslands leading down to the beach. In the three decades since the last family holiday, virtually all that had remained in the memory had disappeared – the beach, the pebble ridge and the cricket pitch seemed all that was recognizable.
Perhaps it was progress. Progress rarely pleases anyone and someone who has not been near the place in thirty-odd years can hardly have grounds for complaint, but development had been uncoordinated and without a trace of sympathy for the Victorian origins of the resort. Would it have been so hard to have had sensitivity to the character of the village, character that took our family there for holidays in six years out of eight?
Nostalgia is never what it used to be. Sometimes there are places that can evoke the delight they did on visiting them years previously; more often, it seems, the disappointment of a lost past is only compounded by the reality of a found present.
It’s best not to go back.