Chapter 8 Half Term
"Do you realize that half-term is in two weeks?" asked Mrs Tamsett one morning when I arrived at school.
"Yes. Half-term holidays sound great. Peter's school has half-term next weekend which is a bit awkward, as he'll have to stay home by himself, and then have the following weekend off."
"Gracious, you don't mean to say you plan to go away? Where ever would you go in February?"
"I thought to Devon and Cornwall. I have an aunt who comes from Devon and we visited her there years ago, so I want to see it again. Also my great-great-grandfather on Dad's side was a shipwright at Plymouth, before he started shipbuilding in Australia. The children want to see Land's End and Peter wants to see Penzance... he was once in a production of 'Pirates of Penzance'".
"But not in February. It can snow down there and people can be stranded."
"It's the only chance. The other holidays are booked for Scotland and the Continent."
"Where do you plan to stay?" she was very concerned on my behalf.
"I've been looking up camping areas. There seem to be quite a few and reasonably priced."
"Camp !! In the Kombi! Oh no, you can't be serious." She was dumbfounded. I forbid you to go... you just don't know the difficulties, people freeze to death in snow, you know. I would feel responsible."
"I'm going to buy a heater next weekend. If we really get too cold we'll go into a hotel, but I really can't afford it for all of us."
We bought the gas heater, a gas cylinder and a few items we needed to be equipped for the coming expedition. I had done plenty of camping before, but in a different climate and not with children.
We set out on the Thursday afternoon and headed for Guildford, which I had selected from the map as being a moderate distance. Having negotiated the peak-hour traffic through a series of small towns, and a lot of road works, we arrived at Guildford and stopped to check the handbook for directions to the camping area.
"We have passed the turn-off six miles back. Before we began that tedious crawl through the road works. In future we'll have to study the map more carefully first."
When we finally reached the rather elusive area (was it Cherry Farm?) it seemed strangely quiet. I drove up and down looking for the office or an indication of which part was inhabited. But all the caravans we could see were empty. The place was absolutely deserted.
"It says in the hand-book 1st April," said Peter. "I suppose that means the date it opens."
"Great time to tell me."
"I didn't know what it meant."
"I should have thought of that myself. We'll know better next time."
"What will we do now? I'm hungry and it's starting to get cold."
"I think we'll stay. We can pay in the morning. They shouldn't mind. The toilets aren't locked, that's the main thing we need. Let's get cooking."
David had already connected the cooker and the heater to the gas, and we were soon eating sausages. The table had to be converted into a bed for me and Peter. David slept on the front seat and Jacqueline above the engine at the back. The engine heat had kept us warm while travelling and the gas heater soon brought the small closed van to the temperature of an oven, so we quickly cleaned our teeth, slid into our sleeping bags, turned off the gas and the light.
"Couldn't we play for a while?"
"No, because keeping on the light would soon run down the battery, and we wouldn't be able to start in the morning. It's after eight, so we'll just have an early night. Anyway, I'm dead tired."
The next morning there was still no sign of life, so we left a donation and proceeded through Guildford, past Winchester and Salisbury. Stonehenge was a must and we ventured out of the van, dressed in all our warm clothes. Vehicles are left in a parking area and visitors then proceed to the ticket office and through a tunnel under the road. The great ancient monument still has an atmosphere of mystery and a dramatic effect on the viewer in spite of the twentieth century traffic thundering by, a few feet from the Heel Stone. One must be amazed at the ingenuity and persistence of the architects.
Not relishing the thought of another night in a deserted camping ground we began our search early. Peter thumbed through the handbook, having learned how to interpret it, but could find none open.
"What about Plymouth? It's not too far." he asked.
"Is it on the way to Land's End? We haven't time to detour." I said.
"I can't find any others open."
"We'll keep Plymouth in mind for the way home. That's where my great-great-grandfather came from."
Eventually we saw a sign advertising a camping area half a mile off the main road, so I turned along a little track and reached a large stately home, with an impressive drive curving to the front door, but no camping ground. It was getting late and beginning to rain, so I decided to enquire.
The delightful accent, which greeted my knock, was a complete surprise to me, and well worth coming to hear.
She said "Well now, the camping area be over there but we aren't open."
"Oh dear, do you know where there is a place open?"
"No. I don't think there be any open at this time of the year. How many of you?"
"Just me and three children. I'm rather worn out."
"You'd be welcome to stay, but the facilities aren't in order. There be a toilet at the end of the house, if you could manage without hot water."
"Where would we be able to buy fish and chips or hamburgers?"
"I'll do you fish and chips if you like. Pull the van up a bit and then come inside. It won't be long."
We did as she suggested and were soon enjoying an excellent meal served by their sixteen-year-old son, who helped his parents during school holidays. They then invited us to watch TV and sit in front of the crackling open fire, watching and chatting until bedtime. They were a charming Cornish people who had bought an old house, which they were renovating with the idea of converting it into a guesthouse. He was doing most of the work in the winter; she was a district nurse, called out at infrequent but often inconvenient intervals. In the meantime they ran a camping ground in the season, which allowed plenty of time for their other activities. Trust Australians to arrive when they were not expected. This experience taught us two things... it is not done to travel out of season, but if you do you are likely to be treated like long-lost friends.
When we said goodnight, it had begun to snow.
"Won't be much," they assured me. "Don't worry."
But I had Mrs Tamsett's warning in my mind and was rather worried next morning when we set out with snow still falling gently. A little way along the road I stopped for petrol and received a confirmation that there was not likely to be a heavy snowfall.
"You'll be out of this in ten miles."
Somewhere in Devon
And he was right. We pressed on to Land's End, which was bleak, even grim. It was easy to picture sailing vessels battling the elements as they left England behind, perhaps for months. Dad's great-grandfather, William Yabsley had been a ship's carpenter, and I could see him setting out on the 'Beagle', on the long journey to the Antipodes on just such a day as this. The line of rocks, far below jutting out into the surging water, pointing the way, the furthest rock barely visible in the murky weather. The 'Beagle' after its famous journey with Charles Darwin aboard, was setting out to explore the western and northern coasts of Australia in 1837. A year later, William's wife and daughter would set out to join him, timber cutting in NSW.
Seriously cold sitting on that seat!
We had reached our destination, and now headed along the southern coast of England. We could not resist driving down some of the Cornish lanes... until we met another vehicle and had to back up for about half a mile to the nearest gap in the hedge, not easy in a van with limited rear vision.
The peninsular of tiny farms and rolling hills has remained untouched in its isolation. Penzance is charming and it is understandable why Gilbert and Sullivan chose it as the setting for their operetta, apart from the music in the name. Whether there were in fact any pirates there before G and S, I don't know, but the town now boasts a dozen pubs and guesthouses with piratic names and decor. Even more charming is the tiny village called Mousehole (pronounced Mouzal), picturesque with small colourful craft, and houses serried around the cove, and the smell of salt water and fish, and the cry of sea birds on the little wharf.
"That is something you could draw," I suggested to David.
A little further along the coast, we bravely decided to explore the Cornish by-ways again, and passed a girl carrying a large pack with a small Australian flag sewn on it. I pulled up.
"She will know we are Australians because of the map I painted on the back of the van," said David.
It didn't matter that her home is in Perth, 2000 miles from ours. She was a nurse, at present working in Southampton, and looking for friends in Cornwall, with whom she was to spend the weekend. We were going nowhere in particular, so we were glad to take her to the address given her. However we had some trouble locating the actual house. Her friends had told her they were renovating an old granite farm-house, so we were searching for a place with some sign of building activity. We found one such place and were almost convinced that this was it, and that they were out. After a thorough inspection we changed our minds... it didn't really fit the description after all. Trying to turn in the narrow muddy drive, I became bogged, miles from any possibility of help, and we came to the conclusion that the owners of the house had not been there for some time. Everybody got out, and tried to find some firm ground on which to stand while they pushed, they all got splattered, and David fell full length in the mud, as I managed to get going. So much for getting off the beaten track. The address we were looking for was not too far away, so we left our now rather disreputable-looking friend, and headed for Lizard, the most southerly point in England.
We wanted to reach Plymouth, the only 'all year' camping site. It was in fact full of on-site vans, housing workmen. We were the only ones passing through, and I suspected I was the only woman. Again we were a surprise to the proprietor, arriving in the pouring rain.
"William Yabsley came from here," I told the children the next morning when we explored the town. "He became a ship builder at Coraki, near Ballina. I wish we could see more, but in this rain we might as well go on."
Near Torquay, in Devon, is a minute village of thatched houses where even the birdcages are thatched. Most of the cottages are lived in and all are tended with loving care. A cottage weaving industry is carried on in one, and there is a water wheel turned by a creek at the back of a teahouse... all closed of course, off-season!
Snow was beginning to fall as we explored. This was very much Auntie Dorrie's England, and I felt nostalgic on her behalf. She had lived near here as a girl, had run away to marry a young Australian soldier during the First War. I had been honoured by being named after her. In her home town it was snowing heavily, but workmen ignored the weather. They were spreading hot tar, and as it was laid, the snow coming into contact, melted in sizzling clouds of steam.
We camped beside a telephone booth near Salisbury, and in the morning found frost inside and outside of the windows. The boys and I slipped on our shoes and quickly watered the grass, then scraped some of the frost off the windscreen. Jacqueline insisted on a proper toilet as we were near houses and she had visions of a frozen hindquarter in view of residents, so I drove quickly to Salisbury, parked near the Cathedral, by which time she was dancing.
"Where is the toilet?" I asked the guide in an urgent whisper. He looked at me strangely as we followed his directions. He was obviously not used to early morning visitors making such requests.
Having overcome that problem, it was possible to explore the beautiful cathedral in comfort. Completed by one architect it is simple and elegant, not a conglomeration of styles as many are. The spire is the tallest in England, the decorations very impressive.
"It says in the book that the Magna Carta is here," said Peter.
"Yes, but it also says on view at two o'clock, not eight in the morning."
I liked Salisbury and its quaint houses and crooked streets very much.
"What did you like best this weekend?"
"That ancient clock in the cathedral," said mechanically minded David. "I could make one like that, with wheels and strings and a weight. I'm going to draw it now."
"Stonehenge," from Peter.
"Cockington Village," said Jacqueline, who was charmed by the thatched roofs.
Typical of their tastes, but we had managed to find something to delight each in his own way.
They got out their road-sign game while we sped back along the M3, Motorway number three.
"You can't play that until we get off the motorway. There aren't any of those signs."
They mostly got on well together, but when the road was tedious they became quarrelsome and began to bicker.
"He's annoying me."
"She's making faces at me."
Peter at this time was inclined to think of little sisters as an affliction common to many boys, whose parents were thoughtless enough to produce them, and then forbid their sons from protecting themselves.
After a while they generally decided that enough was enough and they might as well be sociable. I hoped they would always be good friends, and be able to work out their differences. Too much parental interference in children's squabbles can often make a major event out of a minor disagreement. In spite of the fact that they have had only one parent since Jacqueline was two, I think they are independent and well adjusted.
"What games did you play when you were little?" they asked.
"Well we never went travelling around like this. Uncle Bill and I mostly stayed at home and played in our big yard when it was fine, climbed trees or played in the creek. In wet weather we read or played dominoes and things. I used to do a lot of knitting even when I was quite little."
"Does Bill mean the same as William?"
"Yes. My Dad was Harold William, the William after his father. He was named after his father, I've told you about William Yabsley. His eldest daughter Jane married William Kinny who came from Scotland. I'll show you where he was born when we go there."
"What's that Scottish song you've been singing?"
"A far croonin' is pullin' me away
As take I wi' my cromak to the road
The far Cuillins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' the sunlight for my load."
And the miles flew by toward Maidstone.