I’ve recently been running some reminiscence sessions at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell, writing short pieces to read to the patients and creating “slideshows” of photographs. The first session was on the theme of holidays, so I wrote about childhood holidays at Sutton on Sea. I may have embellished a few things, but when you’re writing memoir, it’s okay to run events together and use details for effect – the piece of writing needs to be accurate, but it also needs to be entertaining, and I hope that you enjoy my article!n I’ve kept the tone quite light and informal.
Writing this article has also given me the chance to dig out family photos of our Sutton On Sea holidays. It looks like we had a lot of fun – and all we needed was the sea and sand (and sometimes, some sun!)
When I was seven, me and my mum went camping with my grandparents for the first time. Every summer, Nanny and Gardan (our family name for Grandad) towed their caravan to Sutton-on-Sea, a quiet seaside town in Lincolnshire. They were members of the Camping and Caravanning Club, and the Nottinghamshire District Association (always just called the Notts D.A.) hired a massive field for the whole summer holidays. The only facilities were standpipes for water and large holes dug in the ground for the waste from the chemical loos.
Nanny and Gardan invited their three daughters and their families, and we were also surrounded by Nanny and Gardan’s oldest friends and their kids and grandkids too. There were always lots of children to play with.
In Kendal, Mum woke me up in the pre-dawn darkness, and we packed our ancient turquoise Mini. The journey was exciting – Lincolnshire was a long way away. When we reached the county, it was really flat, with big fields stretching out to the horizon.
It was lovely to see Nanny and Gardan and after sandwiches on tasty white bread and cake, we put up the small ridge tent we’d borrowed. There was just enough room for our Lilos, snug in our sleeping bags, and if it was cold, an enormous thick green blanket, which Gardan called his “hoss” blanket. My mum had already explained that “hoss” meant horse and “noss” meant nurse! I loved Gardan’s Nottinghamshire accent but Mum and Dad had lost their accents at college, when you had to “talk proper” to get anywhere in life. Sometimes I didn’t know what Gardan was saying but he was always joking about and doing magic tricks.
Nanny was kind and practical. Everything she cooked tasted delicious and she was very talented at embroidery, despite an incredibly impoverished childhood. She did have a wicked sense of humour though and liked a good gossip. Together, my grandparents could make anything.
Nanny and Gardan hired a chalet for the weeks when their grandchildren would be visiting. The beach had a row of brightly painted wooden chalets, stretching in either direction as far as the eye could see. The concrete promenade and sea defences felt warm and smooth under my jelly shoes. The chalets were basic, just a few moth-eaten armchairs, a gas stove and a few tatty ornaments, but they were very handy to get warm and change after a swim in the sea or a change in the weather. The tide came right in every day, and the sand was moist and yellow, brilliant for making sandcastles. Gardan buried our legs in the sand and sculpted mermaids’ tails for me and my cousins. He’d get us all creating elaborate racing cars and palaces in the sand, before the tide came in and we had to run into the chalet. To warm us up, my uncle had a “job lot” of MaxPax drinks from work, stacks of paper cups with powdered drinks at the bottom. The tomato soup was alright but the oxtail was disgusting. I liked the orange squash but it still tasted slightly powdery and chemical.
The sea was fairly safe to bathe in. My mum always made sure we were well supervised, and I swore solemnly to never take an inflatable on the sea as I could get swept out and drowned, or would have to be rescued by the lifeboat. The sea didn’t go out that far, so it was always easy to run back to the promenade. I was still learning to swim but I managed a few metres of breast-stroke. Once or twice, a wave crashed right over my head and went up my nose but it was a good excuse for MaxPax hot chocolate and being wrapped snugly in a towel.
There was an outdoor paddling pool near the seafront, in the shape of a maple leaf as it had been donated by the Canadian Government after the disastrous East Anglian floods on 1952. Paddling, the ice-creams bought from the pool and the coin-operated go-carts, were the highlight of excitement in Sutton-on-Sea apart from the jumble sales for the Lifeboats. On sunny evenings, we would walk about a mile down the prom to Mablethorpe (although it felt like a really long way at the time). The chalets continued almost all the way, sometimes smart, sometimes peeling and shabby, but all with names like “Sea-spray”, “Beachcomber” and “Sunny Days”. There were sand dunes too. On our evening walks, we also discovered a cluster of pretty houses which turned out to be made from old railway carriages.
Mablethorpe was a small seaside resort, a bit more lively than Sutton-on-Sea. There were slot machines and a small fairground. Some of the games in the arcade were already museum-pieces, like the bagatelle where shooting ball-bearings into the correct holes gradually turned round puzzle pieces which made up a black and white picture of Mablethorpe in the 1950s. I’d saved up coppers for the penny falls and Gardan showed me the best techniques for pushing the pennies off the moving shelves inside the machines.
There were shops selling sticks of rock, candy floss and toffee dummies. My mum was usually very strict about sweets, but I chose a giant lollipop which I could wrap back up when I wanted. I made it last for hours.
My teenage cousins moaned about how “lame” and “crap” the funfair was, but I loved it. Bright flashing lights, loud music and dazzling colours are something I’ve loved ever since. We also made a special day-trip to Skegness, more recently christened “Skeg-Vegas”, a name that’s only slightly ironic as it’s loud and brash, with bingo halls, amusement arcades and a really cool fair – except my cousins still thought it was “crap”.
Back in Sutton-on-Sea, we’d have fish and chips at Waldo’s, where the fish was about a foot long, perched on top of masses of golden chips with batter “scraps” on top, eaten on the seafront or walking slowly back to the campsite.
We went to Sutton-on-Sea every year until I was eleven. That last summer broke the spell. I’d had a brilliant time with my cousins and other kids but then they all went home and I spent the last few days moping about by myself. It was cold and rainy. That year, my grandparents fancied going to Cleethorpes instead of Skegness. The town seemed grey and miserable. There were some chair-o-planes on the seafront, but I looked desperately for a funfair, only to glimpse it thought closed gates, closed and abandoned. It rained and nanny and my mum decided to catch a train to Grimsby to look around Marks and Spencer. I was bored to death. I’d been promised thrilling rides and flashing lights, and there they were discussing the merits of various cardigans.
I’ve only been back to Sutton-on-Sea once since we stopped going there on holiday. It hasn’t changed much. Apparently the arcade in Mablethorpe still has the really old amusements. Those times were spent as part of a large extended family, being known as “our” Anne, with various adults looking out for me but allowing me to run around on my own and make friends. The feeling of belonging and freedom is something I’ve yearned for ever since.