Summer Holidays From Britain to Brittany

When I was a child, my family lived near Bristol in South West England, so summer holidays usually meant a fortnight on the beaches of Devon or Cornwall, all within a few hours’ drive of Bristol. Anyone who has been to this area will know that it is of outstanding natural beauty. The weather, however, can be extremely ugly, even in the middle of summer. In those days my father had a ‘cine-camera’, a kind of primitive version of a video camera and a rare luxury in the 1970s. For every image of us playing beach cricket or braving the Atlantic waves, there is one of us huddling under blankets or sheltering from the rain.

We stayed on campsites, in short-stay holiday homes or, on at least two occasions, in a ‘holiday camp’ with organised activities for children and live entertainment every night. This is a uniquely British experience in which the ‘campers’ do not stay in tents but in ‘chalets’ (very small cabin-like dwellings), queue for the showers and eat at communal tables. It might sound a bit like being in prison but it really is a great way to make new friends.

Then, one year, I was told that we were going to France. This seemed so unlikely to my ten-year-old mind, that I could not quite believe it until we were actually on the ferry and heading out across the Channel. I can still remember the beads of sweat on my father’s forehead when he drove off the ferry and a few minutes later as he negotiated his first right-hand traffic roundabout.

We had a long drive ahead of us to La Baule on the Brittany coast, so we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. This is where my parents realised that it might have been a good idea to invest in a French phrase book or to have at least learnt some basic vocabulary. My elder sister, who had just started to study French at secondary school, took charge and ordered food for the rest of the family. She had no idea what moules meant but decided that it must be something nice because it was the first item on the menu. When a huge steaming bowl of mussels arrived at the table, my parents’ faces dropped. Aside from the occasional prawn cocktail, none of us had ever eaten seafood before. I tried one and, much to my surprise, found it to be delicious. My parents and sister then watched in amazement as I polished off the whole bowl.

Since that holiday, I have revisited France many times and eaten more portions of moules-frites than I care to mention. I have also returned to the shores of Devon and Cornwall. As an adult, however, it is difficult if not impossible to recapture the essence of those childhood summers.


Jon Ostler

Keep Reading