The typical package holiday of the 1960s was not for my family. Rather than sitting on a plane to Spain we took the car — and not just to Spain. In 10 years of wonderful holidays we toured much of Europe and I collected experiences to enrich a lifetime.
My father and his brother owned a successful car- sales business, my mother was a vastly experienced motorist who had driven my father’s pre- war Lagonda before her marriage, and almost every other type of car after it, and I had learned to drive as a seven- year- old on country roads and disused airfields — so when I was 13 and it was decided I should see the Continent, it seemed perfectly natural that we should take our expertise and love of cars abroad.
That summer of 1966 we went to Switzerland, and I never forget the excitement of my first European travel in that holiday car of happy memory: our bright red Hillman Minx, BVU 356C. On our last night in England, taking coffee in the elegant White Cliffs Hotel in Dover, I watched crossChannel ferries ablaze with lights as they slid
in and out of the busy harbour, and knew that the morning would bring me a special rite of passage. “First time over there,” grinned my father in the manner of a Squadron Leader sending a novice pilot on his first sortie. “You’ll love it!”
And I did. Everything in France seemed so different, including the motoring: epitomised by the spectacle of a French farmer thrashing his matt- grey Citroën 2CV down a Route Nationale with a large pig on the back seat. We crossed poignant battlefields of the Western Front to spend our first night in the Champagne city of Reims. Later came the Rhinelands and the invigorating Alps. I was thrilled by the lakes and mountains and the bright flags of the cantons colouring the neat Swiss towns. Best of all was a magical vista of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau lit pink and gold in an enchanted sunset beyond the garden of our tiny wooden hotel.
In 1967 we drove the length of France again to make a tour of Spain and Portugal: a parching trek through dry hills and desert plains. There were places in central Spain, far from the tourist- traps of the Costas, where a car like our Ford Corsair Automatic had never been seen… and automatic transmission fluid unheard- of. When we ran out of this, a desperately needed top- up was obtained from the hydraulics of a
roadside digger — by means of sign language and the help of a local policeman while bemused villagers looked on.
In 1968 another Ford Corsair was hoisted aboard the Bergen Line ship Leda and we sailed from Newcastle to Norway, overtaken by a midnight storm. Almost everyone was seasick — even my father, an experienced ex- Merchant Navy sailor. I was nearly tossed out of my bunk; not that I cared, I felt so ill. My mother, stomach intact, was one of only a handful of passengers who joined the Captain for breakfast in an eerily deserted dining room.
When Leda stopped rolling and cruised with delightful rocksteadiness up the beautiful Bergen Fjord, I suddenly realised I had scarcely felt better in my life. Dazzling sunshine, blue water and lush green islands made our first view of Scandinavia look like a tropical landfall, but once out of Bergen we knew we were in fjord country. Amid magnificent scenery most of the roads were surfaced with loose gravel. This was ruinous to car paintwork and slitheringly dangerous; never more so on than on the notorious Stalheim Hill, as near vertical a drop as I have ever experienced in a car. But my mother kept the heavily- laden Ford in a straight line and we survived to celebrate with bigger meals than we had ever seen. When we ordered chicken we got a whole one — each! Sea trout meant just that: a whole sea trout, which is a lot of fish for
three people. Dessert was no escape from the calories: the trifle came in a washing- up bowl- sized dish. My father never quite lost the extra weight he put on in Norway!
A long drive to Austria was next in 1969: a delightful return to Alpine air and beautiful music. By 1971 I had a full driving licence ( and an International one, which looked like “papers” forged by POWs in The Great Escape), so I was entitled to take the wheel of the stately grey Wolseley we drove to Italy. We sat in Florence, overlooking the Ponte Vecchio in a romantic dusk, braved the hectic traffic of Rome and the infernal heat of the Autostrade del Sole where Ferraris and Maseratis zipped past us at a shocking 120 miles- per- hour, and came at last to spectacular views across the Bay of Naples and the haunted, sun- struck streets of Pompeii.
My mother liked to drive barefoot, especially in summer, and there were many days during our hot trips across Europe when she didn’t wear shoes at all. The Italians and the French thought her cool and chic, the Spanish, to whom bare feet signified poverty or penitence, thought she was crazy. But once behind the wheel, no vehicle was beyond her capabilities and no drive beyond her endurance. She nursed a variety of big cars through heat, thunderstorms, and bewildering traffic jams. She negotiated the rugged mountains of Spain, swung us over Alpine passes, and roared down the blistering length of Italy — all with superb driving skill, elegant style and tireless good humour. High above Monte Carlo she stripped off her dress just so she could say she had driven the Grande Corniche road in a bikini!
Occasionally we became lost, almost never on major roads ( one of us was always navigating from a sheaf of maps) but sometimes in the towns or cities as we tried to find our hotel. Somewhere deep in France
we stopped outside a bar crammed with men watching football on a flickering black- and- white television. My father and I ventured nervously in; our mixture of schoolboy French and war- movie German, which got us through most situations, failed to extract any meaningful directions. Indeed it stimulated chaos as different men offered different ways to the hotel. We had to walk out and find our own way, leaving an arm- waving argument between barman and customers as the football was ignored and the various routes furiously debated.
By 1972 we thought we should tour our native country of England; amazingly blessed with good weather almost all the way. The following year found us in the South of France: the glamour of the Riviera and the elegance of Nice. In 1974 we sailed for Denmark: more seasickness on the voyage to Esbjerg, then into our red Ford Cortina Mk. III to cross the flatlands and bridges to Copenhagen, which seemed a stylish, fun- loving city.
Our last family motoring holiday came in 1975 when we toured Scotland in a Hillman Avenger. But I had already fallen in love and wanted to spend my holidays with my girlfriend while she took a summer job in Kent. By this time my mother was growing tired of the heat and dust and the long hauls to foreign hotels of dubious quality, there was also illness in the family, so the car tours came to an end. But over 10 glorious summers we had seen the fascinating sights of Europe in a most exciting and satisfying way.
If I give the impression that these holidays were jolly jaunts packed with excitement, amusing incidents, the occasional hardship and a few hair- raising escapades, that’s true enough. But for me they were also intensely spiritual experiences which have inspired me throughout my life. In those years, the trips abroad seemed the most important things I was doing. Winter months would be spent on intense planning with my father, the latest maps spread across the dining table: more absorbing than any homework offered by
school. The journeys themselves were as valid an education. I treasure the constellation of youthful memories and images they gave me, some of which found their way into the written works and novels of my maturity.
I thought I might never find another writer who could express something of what I had experienced on those soul- stretching trips — until I read this passage in Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities:
Driving a fast car abroad is one of my keenest pleasures: the eight o’clock departure with some distant luncheon stop as target, the intermediate stop for ‘ elevenses’ on the shady terrace or under the fruit trees of a Gasthaus, the good moment when the target is reached and luncheon comes… then the shorter run in the afternoon to the chosen hotel, the walk around the village or town, dinner and a deep sleep after planning the next day. What is so pleasant is that, combined with the delicious new sights and smells of ‘ abroad’, there is a sense of achievement, of a task completed, when each target is reached without accident, on time and with the car still running sweetly. There is an illusion that one has done a hard and meritorious day’s work… Every touring motorist knows these sensations and I expect, for all of us islanders — from the first cobbled kilometres at Calais to the sad day when you re- embark as the lucky ones’ cars are being unloaded — Continental touring is one of the most delightful experiences in our lives. I know exactly what he meant.
The author’s parents with the bright red Hillman Minx, which took them on holiday to Switzerland in 1966.
Another year, country and car! The author, his mother and their Ford Corsair.
Dover was the starting point for the family’s Swiss adventure.
An English lady driving barefoot prompted admiration in some countries, astonishment in others!
Newcastle upon Tyne, the author’s home city, where the family sailed from on their 1968 holiday to Norway.