Distant Memories of Childhood
I think it must have been in 1967 that our family finally ventured abroad for a summer holiday. Prior to that we had mostly spent our holidays in Devon, freezing in a beach hut, shivering in the briny surf and eating hotel supplied packed lunches of white sliced bread sandwiches. Of course one year we went to Scotland but the weather and the midges ensured that we never returned!
So how did we come to go to France? Well, my Father knew a local Vicar who had visited France for many years towing and ancient caravan that I think was made around 1940. Well, he decided to upgrade to something more modern and we bought the old one off him. This caravan was a substantial affaire with a separate bedroom for the adults, a full sized metal cooker with a real oven and NO BLOODY TOILET! We tried it out over a half term holiday in the New Forest. We packed everything up including the yellow budgie that I had at the time. On arrival the "foul water hole" was dug and an attempt at privacy was provided by a canvas wind break which screened three of the sides.....hmmmm. Well, as usual for the UK it rained, and then rained some more. When it rains on a caravan with a metal roof you don't get much sleep due to the drumming of the raindrops. So we were all pretty grumpy the next day, and spirits got lower when we trooped out one by one to visit the foul water hole. My sister's first visit was aborted abruptly by a curious fox, much to everybody elses amusement.
After that trip my Father spoke to Mr Gill. Now Mr Gill was a handyman who we sort of inherited with our house. I think he eventually got some sort of hormone imbalance, grew breasts and died....but perhaps I have remembered that bit wrongly. In any event he was a champion "bodger" and after some discussion he set about converting the full sized fitted wardrobe in caravan into a toilet. Wow, things were looking up. The chemical toilet was screwed securely to the floor and admired by the whole family. Mr Gill had excelled himself again.
Eventually the preparations for France began. We had visited the Vicar again to get a briefing....never drink the water, don't eat the meat, don't trust the milk, take your own butter and protect yourself from mosquitoes. Oh, and always carry toilet paper. My Mum set about the planning with gusto. First off every window in the caravan was fitted with a hand made mosquito net. Next the food was procured and this consisted mainly of Spam, Old Oak tinned ham and, very daringly, Vesta Dried Curry.
The great day arrived and the Ford Corsair dragged the lumbering caravan slowly down to Dover. At each hill quite a queue built up behind us as my Dad had to change down into second gear in order thanks to the tins of Old Oak ham I think. Dover to Calais was the shortest and cheapest channel crossing of course and taking the early ferry around 4am made it even cheaper. I don't remember much about the crossing apart from being sick. After disembarking we started to motor through Northern France and were immediately astounded by the terrible roads with huge pot holes - today the French are able to gloat as it is the English roads that are in a complete state of disrepair. We soon got into a jaunty routine as we travelled slowly South. We loved the French bread, fresh peaches and melons sold at the roadside direct from old farm waggons. The chemical toilet however was not such a success. Of course we were delighted to be able to use our own private sit down toilet at first since it was far preferable to the French "hole in the ground" squatter version. And the Vicar was quite right we never saw a sheet of toilet paper once on that first holiday although one toilet did provide a supply of newspaper squares hung up on a meat hook. The problem with the chemical toilet was twofold. First of all it started to fill up with poop, and all the poop floated about on the top. Secondly it was filled with a toxic smelling chemical called "Elsan". Elsan was bright blue in colour, possibly radioactive and literally brought tears to your eyes as soon as you opened the toilet lid. Every few days my Father had to cart the toilet bucket off to a drain and empty it....ooooof.
After a week or so we arrived at a beach campsite near St Tropez. We were squeezed into a tiny pitch quite close to all our neighbours. By this time we had been drinking the tap water treated with purifying tablets for quite a while. What the Vicar had neglected to tell us is that the tablets made the water taste disgusting and that after several days you got the squits. Luckily the campsite had plenty of toilets so we were able to get a respite from the Elsan. Now it has to be said that the South of France in the late 60's was not all it was cracked up to be. The coast road was busy and noisy 24 hours a day...and every 15 minutes or so there was an ambulance siren since the French drove like kamikaze pilots in those days...and achieved a similar mortality rate. However, the best thing about the campsite was the open air cinema. Every evening at 9pm the US cavalry arrived with a fanfare of bugles thanks to of the John Wayne film they were showing at the time. One night we all went out and peeked through the bamboo fencing just to see that cavalry charge...it was side splitting.
Later in the week a new neighbour arrived in quite a modern caravan and pitched up opposite to us. Then something happened that was even better than the US cavalry. To start with I hadn't noticed, but I think My Father had because he started to spend a lot of time outside the caravan sitting in the awning and "reading his book"....particularly after meals. Then one day I caught on to the game. The new neighbour's caravan had an end kitchen and of course after each meal the lithe French Wife dutifully did the washing up......topless! Like wow...look at those tits, I had never seen any real one before...unbelievable. I started copying my Dad, but after a day my Mother caught on and I was banned to the inside of the caravan when the washing up was in progress. This didn't stop me making furtive peeps out through the mosquito blinds and fairly soon I needed an excuse to dash to the toilet in order to give the bishop a good bashing....not sure what the Vicar would have thought, but maybe he did the same!
The return journey was like a rewind of the trip down. Of course the Elsan Chemical toilet had been commissioned again which did put a dampner on things. To avoid the fumes we tried to use local facilities for "number twos" when possible and it was while tackling this task that I discovered a new kind of French toilet....the automatic flusher. The campsite had a neat row of four cubicles and on opening the door you were presented with the usual hole in the ground and two footplates. So I got on with the task in hand, with my trousers round my ankles. Part way through the procedure I was interrupted by a hissing sound and eventually a massive gush of water which completely flooded the cubicle to a depth of around 6 inches. I looked down at my sodden shoes and dripping trousers in horror. After that first soaking we discovered the trick; wait until the automatic flush has gone off and then dash straight in and get it over with in three minutes before the next flush. Well, since we were still drinking the chemically purified water we were all pooping like cows anyway so that worked well.
I don't remember much about the return ferry crossing either, except that I think I was probably sick again. Arriving back home was so exciting with the mountain of letters, the overgrown lawn and the garden turned into a jungle. That first trip to France wetted our appetites and we returned every summer for many years. My parents bought a new caravan and that was a big improvement since it had a small gas powered fridge. This meant that we could also take English cheese wrapped up in grease proof paper, real bacon and other fresh food for the first week of travel. The rest stayed much the same, particularly the Old Oak ham which seemed to have more revolting jelly in the tins and less meat as each year went by. We never returned to St Tropez again, but that didn't really matter since those boobs bouncing over the washing up bowl were firmly imprinted on my eleven year old brain.