Backtrack – June 2022
English | 64 pages | pdf | 163.87 MB

Carry on camping
As I put pen to paper, an early spring (though inevitably a false dawn) put thoughts of holidays into my mind and indeed to book holidays to visit narrow gauge railways and attend sporting events or concerts. Armed with English Heritage and National Trust memberships I have compiled a list of halls, castles and gardens which have been too long in waiting to be ticked off. There are places in the world at large as well which I wouldn’t mind setting off for, though as many lands that I wouldn’t set foot in -where the governmental system seems best steered well clear of, whose food makes me gag at the prospect of it, where ill-humoured snakes slither about unrestrained …
Mulling over the places which I should long since have been to, but haven’t, diverted my thoughts to a range of actvities I’ve never engaged in and am thus set apart from popular opinion which would have me defined as ‘unconventional’ for not having done so, a state which it would be my intention to perpetuate. For example, I’ve reached this maturity without ever having bought a lettuce or a Chinese takeaway, considered eating a lobster, seen a single episode of Friends, Eastenders or Strictly come Dancing, watched any programme presented by Ant and Dec (I don’t even know which is which!), attented a pop music festival – or been camping.
Camping is an actively which has simply never appealed to me. In general I reckon that holiday accommodation would ideally be better than what you enjoy at home – but should at the very least be of an equivalent standard. But three words come to mind when I think of camping -cold, wet and uncomfortable, none of which I want to be when staying somewhere for recreation. Back in the days when I read those books in which smugly self-confident youngsters went off on spiffing camping adventures during boarding school hols – the ‘Famous Five’ and suchlike – in none of those thrilling escapades did it pelt with rain for days on end, or a vicious breeze chill them day and night, or their field flood, or their tent get invaded by flesh-nibbling insects or trampled by resentful cattle, let alone it being blown away in a storm. The field where they pitched was always dry, the weather was always idyllic, there was usually a bountiful farmer’s wife to supply milk, eggs and lashings of home-made lemonade … and the matter of lavatorial arrangements was never raised at all! Then I looked out of the windows as the rain fell steadily, or as we took shelter as best we could for entire days during the summer holiday, and reflected on how glad I was not to be camping miserably out in the sodden countryside!
Whilst it’s great to be out in the fresh air, there are times when I’d find it preferable, when that air is full of wet stuff or blowing strongly enough to cut straight through you, to look at it through the window of a cheery pub with a decent menu! I’ve been intrepid enough to spend holidays in well-equipped caravans or floating enchantedly along in a canal barge, but these come with the advantage of an adequate bed, tolerable plumbing and protection from the unkinder elements. But there used to be another option in the past which I think I’d like to have experienced (and this is where it becomes relevant!) – the railway camping coach …
on the verge of disappearing into the past. The closure of branch lines and rural stations was fast cutting the number of attractive locations at which these coaches could be situated, while the steady growth of private car ownership and the gradual spread of foreign travel possibilities were probably reducing the appeal anyway of a ‘fixed’ holiday in an old railway carriage.
But if the family had entered the camping coach world earlier, I think it would have suited me rather well! To be in at the ‘front line’ of railway operations, to make the acqaintance of friendly railway staff who enthusiastically welcomed the attention of a lad who was interested in their world, perhaps to be shown behind the public scene – inside the signal box, for instance, or even to be invited on to the footplate of the engine on the local goods …
This issue of BT contains the concluding part of Mike Fenton’s article on camping coach holidays on the London Midland & Scottish Railway, following on from previous series on the schemes run by the Great Western and the London & North Eastern. Their operational logistics are fascinating enough but what has brought the articles to life has been the stories and lasting recollections of those who participated in those holidays – and did so, it seems, joyfully!
These were holidays for people not generally drawn to the bustle of the more formal resorts with their variety theatres, cafes, boating lakes, amusement arcades etc. Coach campers usually settled for locations away from those vibrant pleasure grounds, where simpler pleasures could be indulged in at a time where any week’s break from the daily grind of working in a mill or factory, office, shop or even at household chores was a delight. What we might consider today as ‘roughing it’ in a camping coach would likely not be regarded thus by those who flocked to book them in their early years in the 1930s or in the post-war boom years of the ’50s. Domestic life was still fairly down-to-earth back then; whilst ‘bathroom’ arrangements for the coaches aren’t dwelt upon in the articles, ‘outside privvies’ were still an aspect of life for many. And the coming of local traders to deliver groceries to the coach door might well have been an improvement!
Holidays inevitably involved a measure of taking things as they came and making the best of wherever you were staying. If it rained, well, that was something which came with holidaying in Britain! Many a camping coach family would book again for another year and it seems a good number of folk returned to the same site for several seasons running, such was their contentment. Not that there was anything extraordinary in that: patrons of bed-and-breakfast guest houses were known for booking ahead for next year before leaving for home at the conclusion of their current holiday! I can’t help but think that holiday satisfaction used to be more easily attained before the whole business became so sophistocated!

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