Camping in the 60s
It’s 1961. My dad decides it’s time we see Scotland. We pack our camping stuff. He has 10 days paid leave and our 1953 Vauxhall Velox will carry everything for a family of four for a fortnight. It was a crazy car and he was so proud of it. 2.2 litre straight 6 but we very nearly didn’t have it or the garage it was parked in.
My father, for some obscure reason asked me to push the car into the garage while he was at work. I can’t remember why it was out the garage or why he couldn’t do it, but being a teenage boy, I asked myself why would one push something with an engine? I started it, clutch down, steering column shift into first gear – it fought against my motions and was suddenly in gear and clutch up.
Why do beginners never realise that the hardest thing is to drive safely in a small space? The massive torque of the 2.2 took off like a racing car and hurtled me to the back of the garage. I have no idea how, but I hit the brakes just as the car hit an aluminium tool tray at the end of the garage. That turned out to be my crumple zone. The Vauxhall Velox had vast chrome-plated steel bumpers. The tool tray was crushed and the breeze-block garage end, didn’t collapse, although to this day, I don’t know why not. It still had a substantial crack last time I looked, (2009) but by then all cars were too big to go in a 1936 build garage. That meant that the Vauxhall Velox was, de facto, the size of a modern mini and was one of the largest cars on the market, in its day.
I straightened the tool tray and left the scene of the near disaster.
The next day we left for Edinburgh. It started raining around Stamford on the north-bound A1 and stopped raining as we reached Blackpool on the way home. I waited until 1972 to see the Mountains of the Lake District. I think they were in cloud until then.
The tent my brother and I were to use, leaked on the first night in Scotland and so we were moved into the parent tent, which left my parents with a sex-free holiday. My mother wouldn’t do it anywhere anyone could hear anything and as my father left for work at 7.45 and returned at 20.15 and worked Saturday mornings, too, that fortnight a year was a big deal for them.
Campsites were rudimentary and had no washing facilities. But several times we couldn’t find one and had to do wild camping near a water supply. My brother and I solved the problem by bathing in the sea off Balmedie – but only once. Call us soft Sassenachs, but I have never been in water so cold. Loch Ness was not a disappointment because with that much rain and mist we boys could imagine everything and anything. We saw monsters and plenty of them.
John ‘o Groats lived up to its reputation of being the furthest distance from Land’s End. Apart from that, we had to hang onto the sign telling us the direction of Land’s End, or be blown to Land’s End.
Thurso was memorable, too. The Royal Yacht Britannia was berthed about a mile out to sea and tourists arrived in droves to see the spray. Occasionally, the spray settled for seconds and one had a glimpse of a black spec. Her Majesty was safely tucked up in Balmoral if she had any sense.
Our next stop was Gairloch. There, I learned a lot about my body. Sharing a tent with three others meant in my youthful shyness I thought a 13-year-old could restrain for a fortnight. I learned of my folly when I considered propositioning the first attractive woman I saw in Gairloch. I allowed my teenage hand freedom of thought thereafter, and my shyness saved me from making an ass of myself with a woman twice my age, on that occasion.
August in Gairloch taught me other things. An old widow living in a thatched crofter’s cottage took pity on us and invited us in for tea and to warm up. My father later told me she was worse off than us. That appalling August would give way to worse weather. She knew that she would see no one interesting until spring and probably wouldn’t be able to go out before March. But that was her life and she wouldn’t have considered any other. Loneliness was not our problem. We were struggling to stay sane, four in a tiny car, but at least it was warm. The tent was a nightmare.
Gairloch is famous for its palm trees, warmed by the Gulf Stream. It must be true – my dad said so. Internet pictures don’t show any palm trees. It was freezing in August – colder than London in January.
And yet I have fond memories of the holiday. The landscapes, the harshness of the weather, but the moments when the sun broke through the cloud were life changing. Thus, I was surprised my father announced we would be going to Marina di Ravenna for 1962. The weather there was guaranteed to be dry and warm, and my father would hopefully get a stress-free holiday, although how that worked, I have no idea. We did the mammoth trip in the Vauxhall Velox, but with fewer clothes. It took 3 days to get there, with stops in Dijon and Lausanne. Today, with motorways it would be 1500 km but then it was much more. The Velox never exceeded 50mph and probably averaged 30 mph. I enjoyed the trip down so much that I wasn’t troubled by the fact that we had only 7 days by the Adriatic. I couldn’t wait for the journey home. Nowadays, through traffic doesn’t use the Simplon Pass to cross the alps. In 1962 there was no other route. It climbs to 2005 metres before descending into Italy and is rated as being one of the most scenic routes in Switzerland – all 35km of it. The Vauxhall had no trouble, despite its idiotic 3 speed gearbox.
Memories for a lifetime were gathered in those days.
I fell in love with France and Switzerland, but Italy had to wait for me to realise its charm. Ravenna was such a new concept, (architecture, diet, people, life-style, climate), that I couldn’t digest it, which is a pity, because, there were no tourists off the beach. The wine was good and there were girls a plenty, but kept out of the way of the youth by observant mothers, except that is, Yvonne from Leeds. She had a Belgian mother, who used far too much garlic in her cooking. If that was perhaps her way of keeping her daughter safe, it didn’t work. Garlic might be effective on vampires, but has no effect on hormone-driven teenagers.
It wasn’t just the teenagers whose hormones were on the march. Italian twenty somethings let their hair down. Nowadays any couple can hook up and spend the night together. Not so in 62. I doubt one could have got an hotel room if the couple couldn’t convince, they were at least engaged, so the holiday flirts, and more, took place under canvas (not much sound insulation) and the next morning on the beach. The attraction of something different, something special, was easier to satisfy. The Alps were a sufficient barrier to make the other side seem exotic. North and south couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
The war was fresh in the minds of my parent’s generation. Suddenly, Dutch Jews who had enlisted in the US Army, were camped alongside Germans, probably with a Nazi background, (but no one spoke of that), were alongside Brits who carpet bombed cities like Cologne and Berlin, were alongside French, who had mental scars from the occupation, and the Italians, who wondered how Mussolini hitched their wagon to the fascist cause, and why were they paying for it. And that melting pot, under canvas, living within metres of each other, forgave everything – without question.
That was the most amazing Vauxhall Velox moment.