We had to write another non-fiction piece. This time our remit was a bit broader. It had to be a childhood incident, or a remeniscence. I chose to write about our annual summer holiday. The piece makes an interesting contrast with New Zealand's clean and green image, but I promise that everything is reported accurately. I haven't made anything up at all. It really was like that in England in the 1950s...
For more than two hundred years the dark, satanic mills and factories of Yorkshire have closed down for a short time in the summer so that the machines can be serviced. The shutdown period is called Wakes Week. For unknown reasons, Wakes Week lasts for a fortnight, and during that time Yorkshire turns into a howling, desolate wasteland as everybody heads off to the seaside for their summer holiday.
When I was a child, we always spent our Wakes Week holiday on the Northumberland coast where many of our relatives lived. For several days before Wakes Week started, my mother made us wear our oldest and tattiest clothes because she didn't want to have to do a last minute wash of the things we would be taking with us. So my father and I dressed ourselves in shattered underpants, frayed pullovers and holes that were riddled with socks. Our proper clothes were carefully folded and packed into suitcases, ready for the big trip and my bucket and spade were rescued from the shed where they'd spent a whole year slowly rusting in peace and quiet.
When the day of departure finally came, we dressed normally for the first time in a week, and then took the bus into town where we caught the branch line train to Leeds, our closest main line railway station. There we boarded the big train to Newcastle-On-Tyne. These were the dying days of steam, and Leeds station was full of grimy black monsters huffing and chuffing and emitting sulphurous fumes. The carriages that these monsters pulled behind them were divided into compartments that would accommodate a maximum of six people. A corridor outside the compartments ran the length of the carriage, giving access to the toilets at each end. We always tried to claim a compartment to ourselves and usually we succeeded. My father heaved our suitcases up on to the overhead racks. We sat down and made ouselves comfortable.
There was always a small picture bolted to the carriage wall below the luggage racks. Generally it was a watercolour that portrayed a train travelling across the countryside. Presumably it was there to remind you that you were in a train travelling across the countryside, just in case you forgot to look out of the carriage window...
"Diddly-pom, diddly-pom, diddly-pom." The soothing, regular rhythm of the wheels on the tracks soon ate up the miles. When the train chugged sluggishly over the landmark bridge that crossed the River Tyne I knew that our journey was almost over. Not long after reaching the other side of the bridge, we pulled into Newcastle station and the train wheezed to a halt, panting slightly.
The Tyne bridge is a single, steel arch supported at each end by giant stone pillars. It has a very distinct and easily identifiable shape. Forty years later I travelled over the Sydney Harbour bridge and was immediately struck by a powerful feeling of deja vu. Both bridges have exactly the same design and both were built by the same engineering company, though Sydney's bridge is by far the larger of the two. I feel quite proud to have travelled across each of them...
When we arrived in Newcastle, my father pulled our luggage off the racks and we raced to catch the rattling electric train that travelled from Newcastle to our final destination, the small, seaside village of Cullercoats. There we checked in to the Bay Hotel.
By modern standards, The Bay Hotel was rather primitive. None of the bedrooms had washing or toilet facilities; everybody had to use the communal bathroom at the end of the corridor. The hotel was furnished and equipped with all the grim post-war austerity that typified 1950s England. The furniture was shabby and the carpets were threadbare. But I had nothing with which to compare it. The Bay Hotel was my first ever hotel, and I thought it was absolutely wonderful.
Once my father had unpacked our suitcases, we went straight to the beach. I took my bucket and spade with me so that I could build a sandcastle. My mother relaxed in a deck chair. My father knotted a handkerchief on his head to protect himself from the chilly, watery sunshine. He rolled up his trousers and he paddled in the sea. He had a big happy smile all over his face. Because I was still in short trousers, I didn't have to roll anything up. But the knotted handkerchief on the head was compulsory...
From the beach we could watch the merchant ships as they flowed out of the port of Newcastle, heavily laden with cargoes of coal. On their return journey, they washed out their empty holds just off the coast and consequently the beach at Cullercoats was covered with the coal dust that the tide brought ashore. All the sandcastles that I built there were speckled black and yellow. When we left the beach after a successful day of sandcastling, I looked rather like a coal miner who had just emerged from a hard shift in the pit. Many years later I learned that there were beaches in the world that were not infiltrated with layers of coal dust. I still find that fact astonishing.
We spent the fortnight of Wakes Week lazing on the beach and visiting relatives. My various uncles always managed to slip a sly half-crown into my hand when nobody was looking. If it rained, which it often did, we played the machines in the penny arcades instead of going to the beach. Thanks to the generosity of my uncles I always had lots of pennies to keep the machines well fed.
All too soon the idyllic holiday was over and we had to do our whole journey again in reverse. Throughout Yorkshire people were returning to work. The machines began to pound and spin again. The factory chimneys resumed spitting their evil black clouds into the sky. The dead rivers ran grey and stinking, scummy with the foaming detergent that ran off from the wool mills. Everything was back to normal for another year.