The Only Way To Spend The Summer

Summer weekends meant long walks out on the Yorkshire Moors, or up in the Dales, playing on the stepping-stones which stretched across the river at Goathland, or picnics at one of Yorkshire’s many Abbeys or Priories. But most importantly Summer holidays meant going down to Anglesey.
Granny and Grandad lived at Four Mile Bridge on the Holyhead road, not far from the Valley Air Force Base. Most of the family – there were still seven in Mother’s generation, and over twenty in mine – spent their Summer in and around Four Mile Bridge. Of course Granny and Grandad were in their cottage all year round, and Uncle Ernest farmed not far away; Auntie Jean had a house in the village, and lived there a good part of the year; Aunt Alice lived in a second home right on the shore when she wasn’t working in Oxford, and her son and daughter, being very much of the older ones, came and went as they wished. But as soon as school finished the rest of us descended like a plague of locusts and stayed for the duration of the holidays.

Not all the adults could take the whole of the School Holidays off work, but there were enough older cousins and even au-pairs to keep an eye on the younger ones, and no one dreamed of the words Health and Safety! Even Granny, who was renowned for ‘having visions’ if we were late for lunch or tea, and who must never be allowed to see us climbing trees or scrambling up rock-faces in case she got into a worry, didn’t for one moment think of seriously limiting our freedom. As long as one of the older cousins was with us, we could go off on our own ploys with impunity.

Coming across from York, our family usually camped in the field opposite our grandparents cottage, using a combination of an ex-army bell tent, a caravan and some semi-permanent bunks put up in the old barn-cum-garage. Uncle Charles’ family always camped in a large caravan just up the road in a copse of trees, and we younger ones took it in turns to live with our grandparents when our parents returned to work – something of a mixed blessing, as they were rather strict.

The resident families had dinghies and sailing boats of various sizes moored not far from the bridge, and Uncle Charlie usually brought his with him from Sheffield. We didn’t have a boat yet, (we’d been promised one as soon as all of us could swim well enough, and you know who was the youngest!!) but we used the others’ dinghies, and were taken out sailing quite regularly. On account of my not being a “proper” swimmer, my early trips were anxious times; but with my brothers’ ‘encouragement’ I learned, and then enjoyed going out fishing for mackerel, or learning to crew one of the smaller sailing dinghies.
Some days we piled into a variety of vehicles and went off to spend the day at Trearddur Bay, Rhoscolyn, or some other beach, where we had huge picnics, and even a bonfire at the end of the day. A special treat was seeing the Red Arrows practising their aerobatics out over the sea, not as fast and furious as they are today, but we thought they were magnificent.
Otherwise we walked and bicycled nearer to “home” (how did we bring five bicycles over from York?) and, according to the state of the tide, played above or below the bridge, paddling, swimming, shrimping with nets on sticks, and at the safest moments when the water was lowest actually going under the bridge itself. The older ones would swim through, or ‘shoot the bridge’ in canoes, when the water was pouring from the northern side into the channel which led southwards to the open sea.
If I got my elbows onto the flat top of the stone parapet, and scrabbled with my toes, I could heave myself up to look over and watch for them to come racing through. (I went back when I was eighteen the wall is about hip high!!!)
Later on, when we’d moved from York to Lorton, in the Lake District, we couldn’t go as a family any more, but at different times my brothers and I went on the train: Cockermouth to Penrith, Penrith to Crewe, and Crewe to Valley. ‘You’re not travelling on your own are you?’ anxious adults would ask; and when I was coming home Granny would pin a label on me and write a long letter for the Guard. In those days I often stayed on Uncle Ernest’s farm and my cousin Edward and I were thick as thieves.

There are other isolated memories, each in its way quite special, but, like a jewel which has fallen out of a bracelet or necklace, they’ve lost their setting.
      Early in the morning walking over fields above cliffs with Grandad, filling a basket with fresh mushrooms; crossing the bridge to the South Stack lighthouse, and then getting ‘stuck’ on the spiral staircase, and having to be led back down (I still can’t do spiral staircases, I get panic attacks); going blackberrying with Daddy, or with Grandad much better than with anyone else, because they were both tall and used walking-sticks for pulling down the highest berries; and walking along the dusty track from the farm with cousin Edward to fetch water from the spring. (Why? They had piped water at the farm. But we did, and I could draw the spring for you, and the horsetails which grew beside the track.)

But whether we went to join the gathering as a family, or later as individuals, the Summer holidays were a special clan thing, and in our innocent, childlike superiority we thought pityingly of those who holidayed at crowded seaside resorts, or even worse, in holiday camps like Butlins, and who would never know our way, the right way, the only possible way to spend the Summer!

It was very Arthur Ransome, and Swallows and Amazons-ish. And the full set of his books was on the shelf in the cottage bedroom above the front porch.

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