Sunday, 4 August 2013

"Abroad' and other places

The summer of 1970 was a watershed for the Stamfords. Over the previous decade we had explored all the obvious British holiday destinations. We had watched the waves at Whitby, eaten crabs in Cromer, played pirates in Penzance and boated on the Broads. Stopping short of Butlins, a Rubicon none wished to cross, we had done it all. But where next?

"There's only Europe left" said father, somehow managing, in five words, to condense an entire continent to a single destination.

And so it was, faux de mieux, that we took we took our First Foreign Holiday. To Austria.  Quite why, as our first continental excursion, we chose far distant Austria rather than practically-on-our-doorstep France, I will never know. But that's what we did - ten days in a pension in Austria, bracketed by more than two thousand gruelling miles of unfamiliar motoring.

Being neophytes, we chose a package holiday, organised (if that is the word) by a tour company called Universe or something similar. They discharged their duties as holiday operator by booking approximately the right number of rooms at the destination and stopovers, and issuing all drivers with a faded photocopied itinerary in a near illegible hand. This geographical inexactitude was further compounded by my father's penchant for using what maps he had rather than what he needed. Even at age twelve I knew that any chart depicting the Maginot Line was probably not the absolute apex of 1970s cartography.

It was also soon clear that the photocopy's estimated daily mileage was based on the flight of crows rather than the contact of rubber and road. In practice, it took three full days to travel from Doncaster to Sellrain, each involving around four hundred miles of motoring. It looked even worse in kilometres.

A typical day might start with an hour or two of serpentine circumnavigation around one of those Belgian towns that appears on most maps under a French name but is known and signed locally under an entirely different Flemish appellation. This, remember, was nearly three decades before the advent of satellite navigation. Often the only navigation was in the form of my mother, God rest her soul, who struggled with Welsh names, never mind Flemish. An innate inability to distinguish left from right lent a further frisson of uncertainty to her verbal instructions. And the map, left by Grandad George, said less about the roads than the deployment of the Welsh fusiliers.  Sometimes an ill-considered remark by father would trigger a protracted sequence of non-cooperation from the navigator, often accompanied by an invitation to deploy the map into a location where steady sunshine could not consistently be assured.

Arrival at each stopover was less a cause for comfortable satisfaction than bladder-bursting tears of relief. Usually the hotel restaurant was long since closed. Reception too sometimes. Stale baguette and saucisson replaced the promised feast that had bought eight hours of our silence during the day's travel.

And while my mother flopped into bed in a huff, my father would make light of the cold war that had been that day's journey from Liege. From a suitcase he would pick out a map he deemed suitable, or at least usable, for the following day's journey. "Quite a tough day tomorrow" he said, pointing to a road that climbed some five thousand feet with more hairpins than the Andrews sisters and that we would have to negotiate in the twilight.

I stared at the map. It was indeed to be a tough day. Waiting for us south of Munich, was the 23rd Panzer Division.

No comments:

Post a Comment