Jeremy Clarke spends a week with his son in a caravan in Cornwall and meets some first time holidaymakersby Jeremy Clarke / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
After I returned from Los Angeles, my six-year-old son and I spent a week together in a caravan at Polzeath, on the north Cornwall coast. It has become a fixture in our lives to spend the second week in June there. As we do not live together but would like to, it is a time of unaccustomed completeness. We look forward to our unclouded longest day with a yearning. At incon- gruous moments on wet winter weekends we turn to each other and say: “I wish we were in the caravan.” As my son is a creature of habit, we tend to do the same things every year. We hire the same bikes from the same man (who used to keep goal for Plymouth Argyle) and cycle the Camel trail. We go for a ride on a speedboat called Jaws 2 and sit at the back. We catch the same unfortunate crab from the same grotto in the same rockpool. We go to the Sea Life Centre at Newquay and stroke the friendly rays. And if we see a policeman anywhere, we hurry to buy an ice cream, for it is a criminal offence in Cornwall to be seen in public without one. This year, we made friends with three children-James, 9; Melanie, 14; and Martin, 15-who were staying in an adjacent caravan with their mother. Their holiday had been organised jointly between Torquay’s social services department and the local church; they had come at a moment’s notice. It was their first ever. We met them in the road as we were about to set off for our speedboat ride and, recklessly, I suggested that they come with us. Melanie ran to their caravan to tell their mum, then the five of us set off for Padstow across the hallucinatory sand flats of Daymer Bay. Our new friends were inappropriately dressed and turned out to be penniless, hungry and surprisingly ignorant about almost everything. (Martin, a big, credulous, incoherent lad, was convinced that the green fields on the far side of the Camel estuary were in Wales.) But they were polite, unassuming companions, and Mark and I relished our roles as old Polzeath hands condescending to show the newcomers the ropes. On the way, Melanie collected cockle shells to send to their father in prison. We passed the tiny church hidden among the sand dunes where John Betjeman is buried, and skirted the windy hill where local poets recite his poems to respectful tourists. The boat trip was an unqualified success. Our new friends had never been in any kind of boat before, let alone skimmed the waves at over 40 knots in a power boat. We sat squeezed together along the back seat, laughing and cheering and soaked to the skin. I felt very noble. In previous years, Mark had endured the ride sitting on my lap with his face averted; now, I noticed, he sat close to Melanie with his face set against wind and spray like an old sea-dog. Afterwards, we sat on the harbour wall eating some vile Cornish pasties and were swooped on by gigantic seagulls. James, Melanie and Martin hardly left us alone after that. They spent more time in our caravan than theirs. Their mother, who refused to go on the beach-less than 100 yards away-came over for a cup of coffee and sat with her elbows on her knees and hair hanging in front of her face. She seemed a quietly humorous, defeated woman. “Damn sand gets everywhere,” she said. The following day, the three children joined Mark and I on the beach. The two boys were dressed as if they were going hiking in the Scottish mountains. We decided to build a sea defence in front of some rocks so we could stand behind it as the tide came in and scramble to safety over the rocks when it was inevitably overwhelmed. I bought some spades and we went to work with a will. Predictably, Mark soon went into a trance and wandered away singing to himself, but the rest of us kept digging until we had raised a semi-circular wall about three feet high. At this point, a dispute broke out about the final design of the ramparts. One faction wanted to further impede the incoming tide with a series of frontal revetments; the other to divert it into a pond via a system of channels. After long and acrimonious bickering, those championing frontal revetments gave way, and we began constructing an intricate network of channels which, if successful, would have defied the laws of gravity. When the returning tide came gliding across the strand towards us, I did my imitation of an air raid siren and we crowded behind our fortifications. Melanie, virtually nubile, tucked her skirt into her knickers. The water lapped feebly around the base of our defences and the children jeered. But as the tide advanced around us, surging and sucking at our crumbling wall, a note of uncertainty crept into their taunts. Mark and I were confident that we would survive; we had defied the sea in this way many times before. But to Melanie, James and Martin, despite living in Torquay all their lives, it was a strange and threatening element. “Is the tide coming in or going out?” Martin asked me as waves crashed over the wall and Melanie and James screamed. The sea rushed in coldly about our legs and we abandoned our redoubt. Clutching our shoes and socks, half tiptoeing, we hobbled away over the sharp rocks.