As a child I never went abroad. My family was not well off so getting on an airplane and flying to Spain would never have been an option. My step dad would never have been happy eating “foreign muck” anyway and my mum can’t stand the sun. When my siblings and I were very young my grandparents moved to Ilfracombe in North Devon. My Nanna grew up in Croyde. Her parents worked for a wealthy family who lived in a big house overlooking Baggy Point, a wild, craggy stretch of coastline with a stunning beach. When my Nanna was a teenager, her younger sister caught tuberculosis and the only real treatment back then was fresh air. My Nanna told me how she had to sleep outside with her sister to keep her company for weeks at a time. She recovered eventually but apparently the illness left her sister weak for the rest of her life. They had a wonderful childhood, she would tell me, free to play in the sand dunes and explore the beach for hours at a time. She moved to Reading when my Granddad left the Army and they settled down with my mum and her younger sister Linda.
Nanna always longed to be back by the sea in Devon, so they moved to the big house in Ilfracombe, overlooking Hele Bay. The house was set high on a hill, with a huge flight of steps up to the front door. The garden stretched up behind the house via more perilous steps and there was a steeply sloping vegetable plot to the side of the house. Granddad built a summer house right at the top of the garden where he could perch in an old armchair and look out to sea and Lundy Island in the distance. When we visited in the summer holidays my Grandad was often balanced precariously at the top of a ladder painting the window sills or mending the roof. The winter storms and sea air caused catastrophic damage to the paintwork and there were always repairs to be done. Having worked as a painter and decorator back in Reading, he was a dab hand with a paintbrush, which was a good thing because the little maintenance jobs were never ending!
Our parents took us, me, my younger sister Em and my baby brother Daniel to Devon for two weeks every year. It was the highlight of our summer, we loved going to the seaside and staying in the big house. At first we didn’t have a car so we would catch the train from Reading, changing at Exeter onto a little single gauge railway line to Barnstable. Then it was an hour- long journey to Ilfracombe station, changing to a local bus from the station to Hele Bay. It took all day to get there and I’m sure we drove our parents crazy with constant chants of “are we nearly there yet”? These days, with new links from the motorway, it takes about three hours in good traffic, but back then it was a mammoth journey, sometimes made in scorching temperatures, sometimes in torrential rain and all the other weather conditions you could possibly imagine. My memories always feature endless sunny days but I know that we had many fortnightly visits where it rained non stop and we spent all our pocket money in the amusement arcades.
One year, my step dad had bought a beaten up old Volvo. We were so excited to be driving to Devon. It was a big ship of a car which seemed to float over the roads. Twenty minutes outside of Reading my sister turned white and started to cry. Mum rummaged through her bag and found a plastic carrier bag and all the way to Bristol she vomited into the bag. I will never forget the smell of warm sick in the car! We stopped half way on the hard shoulder of the motorway to “stretch our legs” and Mum unpacked a picnic. Stopping at a service station for a meal was unheard of then, although it is a rite of passage during our journeys now. For us it was soggy cheese rolls, custard creams and milky tea from a flask. If one of us felt the call of nature it was a long climb down the embankment and a prickly wee in the grass! We made our own entertainment to pass the time, playing eye spy (this was often both impossible and hilarious, especially if my brother chose the item we had to spy. I swear he is dyslexic). We also sang holiday songs and tried to spot Minis going past. Once we left the motorway, things got more interesting and we all strained to be the first to “see the sea”. The long winding roads through Combe Martin finally brought us to the crest of a hill and that elusive sea. We would scream and shout in a bid to win, the excitement was thrilling. Pulling up on the road outside Nanna’s house we would all scramble to get out and race up the steps, leaving our parents to drag the suitcases up. If Grandad was outside, and he invariably was, we would throw ourselves at him, smothering him in kisses. His rosy cheeks would glow and his brycreemed white hair would fall down over his face as we hugged him. His favourite thing to say was “Oh, lummie!” I don’t know what it means but it was his trademark comment for all occasions. Then we would go round the side of the house, underneath the fuchsia bushes to the back door. Grandad had built a little covered porch area where they kept plants and ripening vegetables, alongside all our beach paraphernalia, windbreaks, fishing nets and buckets full of shells.
The back door led straight into the kitchen. There we would find Nanna in her pink nylon housecoat, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, her steel grey hair in curlers. The kitchen was usually full of steam from the cooker top as she whipped up her lovely dinners. She tolerated hugs from us all but was never overly affectionate. I think she liked seeing us but was not a natural host, preferring to sit in her rocking chair in the kitchen, poring over her crossword puzzle to socialising with us. It was Grandad who entertained us. He would come to the beach with us and paddle in the sea. He liked watching the local news which always included a shipping forecast and tide times for the following day. He would always warn us to make sure we knew when the tide was coming in so we didn’t get cut off on the beach. Every year the Coast Guards would have to rescue idiot holidaymakers who got themselves stranded on the rocks at high tide. Every day started with Grandad bringing us tea and biscuits in bed. By the time we got up he had already walked into Ilfracombe to buy fresh supplies. The biscuit barrel was full of our favourite custard creams or bourbons, along with rich tea. The rule was that we were allowed one plain and one cream biscuit each day. Then we would get dressed and crowd around the big dining table for breakfast. This was a long affair, with bacon and eggs, followed by racks of toast, Grandad’s homemade marmalade and cup after cup of tea. I think this is where I get my slow eating habits from. I always finish eating long after everyone else and if I go out to a restaurant with my husband I get really annoyed when he wants to leave as soon as he has finished eating. I love to linger over coffee and talk. He wants to get the bill as he swallows his last mouthful!
As children though, we were impatient to get out onto the beach. While Mum would have been happy to sit and drink tea all day with my Grandad, we nagged her relentlessly until she gave in and got up from the table. If it was a dry day we would drag everything we needed for the day down the steps and then down the hill onto the beach. Hele Bay is not a pretty beach by any means. It is mainly pebbles, shells and seaweed. Across the road was a tiny ice cream shop, which later became a cafe with a range of toys and sweets. There were a couple of grotty public toilets built into the hill and a footpath which led up to the top of Hillsborough. It was a good thirty minute walk, uphill to the summit, from where you could see right across the harbour on the other side. Much of the footpath collapsed into the sea over the years so the route to the top of the hill is now more direct and takes much less time. Large rocks divided the beach into several sections and that was where the rock pools were. In the warmer weather they would hold crabs and shrimp. If we went all the way along to the very end of the beach there was soft sand and deep rock pools but that section got cut off at high tide so we had to keep an eye on the sea. We had a few close calls and had to paddle round sometimes, our bags over our heads to keep them dry. Some years, after a storm or in very hot weather the beach would be covered in jelly fish and we would be too afraid to go onto it.
Once a year we would go to Combe Martin for a cream tea in a cafe. Nanna would often bake scones but a “proper” cream tea was a real treat and I know it was a stretch on our limited budget. If the weather was good most of the time my parents were happy because we would play all day on the beach and the only thing we would ask for was an ice-cream from the shop. Dad would pick a spot on the sand, roll up the legs of his jeans and send my sister and I to the shop for a pot of tea on a tray. He would stay sitting in the same spot for hours, behind a windbreak, reading the Sun newspaper cover to cover. Mum read a book or paddled in the sea. Sometimes she helped us build sand castles or collect shells. As the sun went down and it got a bit chilly we packed up and trudged back up the hill to the house. Nanna would be waiting for us at the back door to check our feet for tar. We trod in lumps of tar on the beach regularly and Nanna would scrape it off with a sharp stone, then remove the black stains on our feet with surgical spirit so we didn’t bring it into the house. We also rinsed the sand off our feet and hands in a bucket of water. On Fridays there was always fresh plaice, coated in breadcrumbs and fried in lard, with fluffy mashed potatoes and runner beans or peas from the garden. On Sundays we had roast brisket of beef and the best roast potatoes I have ever eaten with lashings of gravy. Nanna was a wonderful cook, although sometimes the ash from her cigarette fell into the food! Grandad was a prolific baker. He made yummy lardy cake and huge pillow like sponges. We ate like kings, slept like babies and woke to the seagulls crying overhead. Even now, the sea is hypnotic to me. I’m drawn to it like an addict, it is instant relaxation. I have travelled extensively as an adult but Ilfracombe still holds a special place in my heart.
Thanks for reading. xx