Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.


[25] ‘I know a Dark, Secluded Place.’

Having just come back home from a few days in sunny Bournemouth by the sea, I am led to reminisce a little about the topic of Holidays. [US: Vacations. What the US call ‘holidays’ are more or less our ‘Bank Holidays.’] Those not familiar with British idiom should appreciate that the word ‘sunny’ here is an expletive, in no way implying anything about the weather. We did see the sun a few times and it stayed dry but it was cold and windy.

Before we go further, we have to appreciate that the entitlement to Annual Leave has improved much now, with many workers being given five or six weeks off each year, in addition to several days for Bank Holidays. In those days, with only four Bank Holidays, almost everyone had just two weeks off – so these two weeks were important.

Holiday Location

Except for the very rich, holidaying abroad was not an option. There were very few air flights and no Channel Tunnel. British people went to the seaside, to towns with beaches. They were just seeking two weeks of sun, sea and sand.



[Pictures for this post are mine, taken quite recently, just to illustrate what sea-side holidays are like. Our coastal holiday resorts have not changed all that much since then, but their popularity has declined.]


Almost all holidays were taken from Saturday to Saturday and, with children at school, the choice of dates was small – normally two consecutive weeks in August. So if you wanted to drive to a holiday resort, you competed with vast numbers doing the same journey to the same place on the same day!

You can add considerably to the traffic congestion suggested by my earlier blogs about roads. It was a lengthy journey and had to be short in terms of distance.

Our Holidays

All of my early holidays were two weeks by the seaside. We were driven in a hired car a bit like a taxi, with fold-up seats to take the children. These were probably my only car rides as a child. (I can’t think of any others. I do remember being intensely jealous when one of my brothers was taken to hospital in a taxi with a broken arm. I never got to ride in a taxi.)

Once we went as far as Bournemouth but generally it was to the area of Margate, almost our nearest seaside. (I may say something about Southend-on-Sea in a later post.) It was a long, slow ride through slow-moving or stationary traffic.

Boarding Houses

We stayed at boarding houses, very much the downmarket end of the hotel industry. Bed and breakfast plus simple, no choice, evening meals at a fixed weekly price. Fortunately, most of my memories of boarding houses have gone. (I never stayed in a proper hotel until after I was married.)


On the Beach

We spent almost all of our waking hours on the beach in the sunshine. (Such are my memories. I think there might have been the odd rainy day and we must have found something else to do – obviously not so exciting of memorable as the beach.) With swimming trunks underneath, we dressed in shorts and t-shirts and took our buckets and spades. (Unlike modern plastic versions, our buckets and spades were made of metal.) Mum and Dad would hire deckchairs for the day and not move far from them. Once on the beach we would strip to swimming trunks. Beaches were full of people like us.

Our main activity was creating sandcastles. We only had simple buckets – so could only do simple ones, but there was the lengthy task of creating ditches and moats to manoeuvre the seawater to the castle. With rising tides, destruction of the castle was inevitable, but another one would be started higher up the beach.

(Rich people had buckets that made castellated towers, and little flags to stick in them.)

We also did paddling in the sea – not swimming, just walking into the sea, maybe splashing around a bit. As we got older and braver, we walked further. It was a cooling experience, not so nice when you got as far as the stones, seaweed and jellyfish! I don’t think any of us worked out swimming in the sea when we were young.

With paddling sometimes came sunbathing, at least to dry off, lying on an outstretched towel. Just as we watched the tide, we also watched the sun to keep the towels lined in the right direction. As active children, we did not spend much time just sunbathing.

[Generally we spent all day in the sun, with no knowledge of possible long-term ill-effects. There were sun creams like Ambre Solaire, which we never used. I would have described them as for the posh and the rich. In cases of excessively sunburn, we did have a sort of cream to put on when we got back to wherever we were staying – Calamine Lotion. Our only attempt at protection would have been to put the t-shirt back on.]

Our parents would also gradually turn their deckchairs to face the sun, but they were otherwise fairly inactive. I think Mum might have occasionally ventured with us to the sea, and she watched over us, as mums do. Dad just seemed to sleep all day. (It was his only two weeks off work.)

Sometimes we played games on the beach for a while. All we ever had for this was a ball to throw between us, or perhaps a small rubber hoop. Maybe when were a few years older there were people with beach cricket or more sophisticated games.

It was virtually a solid two weeks on the beach. Only the need for food, or rising tides, (or perhaps rain) would drive us off the beach.


Punch and Judy

We did find some time other than building sandcastles. We usually managed to extract the promise of at least one ice-cream each day. (Normally just one, just a plain vanilla cornet.) We would look at the shops, the postcards (full of pictures of fat ladies in the sea – with double entendres,) and souvenirs. We would pass the penny amusements, which we were rarely allowed to enter.

Somewhere along the beach, down on the sand, there would usually be a Punch and Judy Show – a little tent-like booth with unrealistic, wooden puppets enacting the story, which varied but kept to the same theme. It involved Punch (with a squeeky voice), his wife Judy, a baby, a policeman with a truncheon, a crocodile and some sausages, and generally the Devil or a hangman.

By the standards of modern political correctness, Punch and Judy was sexist and violent. Characters were beaten with a truncheon, eaten by crocodiles, hanged, or just thrown out of the little tent-like kiosk. I was surprised recently to find a Punch and Judy show on the beach. I presume that it has been made at least a little less violent.



All the best resorts had a pier. A long walk to the end with shops and booths after our money – souvenirs, amusements, ice-cream, candy floss (US: Cotton candy), cafes and restaurants. We mostly just walked. Maybe we had fish and chips once or twice – I don’t remember.


Until we were about ten, our only photographs were holiday ‘snaps’. Ordinary people did not have cameras. They were expensive, slow and difficult to use. When we walked along the Promenade on holiday, professional photographers would stop family groups and take a picture or two. This might happen a couple of times each holiday.

The process of developing and printing pictures was not easy. A reel of up to 36 pictures had to be sent away and pictures would come back in a week. Photographers at the seaside could do the processing themselves in a dark room in a day or two. (Maybe more about photography later.)

They would produce glossy photographs (not ‘photos’ for many years!) Pictures smaller than a postcard, one copy of each, would be displayed in the shop window of the photographer somewhere along the Promenade. You had to check each day and if you liked them, you bought them. Copies or enlargements were not an option.

They were all we had, so at best growing children might have a picture taken every year or so. (Schools only did the whole class pictures.)


Keeping to the peak of summer, concentrated into school holidays (The end of July and all of August,) almost all of our two weeks would be sunshine and we would come home tanned. If it rained, we must have found something to do in the dry.



As were a family of six children, we sometimes split into two groups for holidays, the boys and the girls. I have vague memories of Margate and Bournemouth.

When were a little older, we made use of a holiday home owned by Dad’s boss. I don’t know whether it was a perk of his employment or a commercial hire arrangement, but we stayed in the same house for a few years.

If you follow the Kent coast westward from the great seaside resort of Margate, you pass Westbrook to Birchington-on Sea, a more insignificant little resort. Further west on the coast you find Minnis Bay, even more insignificant. That was our location. Memory is such that I cannot identify how much the map has changed, but I think our house was in King’s Avenue, facing West. We could certainly walk to the beach – a distance of about a hundred metres, not far enough to have to put shoes on.

Holidays would have been much the same as earlier ones, mostly on the beach. But we had a location we could use for lunch and we could play cards and games in the evening (or when the weather was not good). I remember Mum bemoaning the fact that it was not so much of a holiday as she still had to cook for all of us.

[I will leave later holidays, at Clacton-on-Sea and Butlins to another post.]


Dark, Secluded Place

You may recognize the quotation. Our visits to Birchington were in the early years of pop music. There was a record-player at the house and just six records left by the owners, only two of which were good enough for us to play them more than once.

The Ying Tong Song, sung by the Goons (with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe) was a nonsense song, with nonsensical verses and a chorus of nonsense, to a pretty nonsensical tune. It reached number three in the UK Top Ten charts in 1956.

Hernando’s Hideaway is a tango tune from the musical, The Pajama Game. Many versions were issued. I think the one we listened to was by the Johnston Brothers, a UK hit in 1955. It starts: ‘I know a dark, secluded place.’

There will be whole blog (or possibly two) quite soon about music …