When I was young, Easter was eagerly anticipated. Not that we were a religious family, you understand. Easter was a time of school holidays, visiting relatives, and eating chocolate eggs, and hot cross buns. The long weekend, with two public holidays, meant that everyone tried to get away from London. Whether for a day trip, or longer break, the prospect of bad weather (seemingly compulsory at this time) didn’t put anybody off. After a long winter in the city, this was the first chance to get out, and breathe some fresh air, hopefully close to the sea.
Unfortunately, the road network was not well developed in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. This meant that all the thousands of cars and caravans had to crawl through tiny villages and larger market towns, to get to their destinations. It seems forgotten today, but traffic was terrible back then. Cars were unreliable too, prone to overheating, and getting punctures. The Easter trip was something to endure and tolerate, as long as the couple of days at your getaway of choice could reward you with some relaxation. Traffic jams were so long and convoluted that families could often be seen outside their cars, pulled up on a verge, making tea with a camping stove. The small rest areas, called lay-bys here, were full of overheated cars, steam billowing from tired radiators; the occupants seeking to relieve themselves unseen in clumps of handy bushes, or sat glumly next to their expired vehicles.
For much of my youth, our Easter trip would be to my Grandparents’ caravan. This was situated on a static site in Essex, on the northern side of the Thames Estuary, adjacent to the River Blackwater. This site had the enticing name of ‘Happy Days’, and the caravans could be used from Easter to October. The facilities were primitive by today’s standards. There was a communal washing and toilet block, a small park with swings and play equipment, and a site shop and club house. This contained the highly-regarded bar, which saved the adults having to leave the site in the evenings. Water for the caravan had to be drawn from a tap, and carried over in large containers. There was a coal fire inside for cooler evenings, and some basic furniture. Despite the fact that the caravan was built to sleep only four, we would often have double that, as well as beds on the floor, for the smaller children. Nobody minded the proximity, we were all family after all. There was a tiny patch of grass alongside, which was ours to use when it was warm enough to sit outside. A short drive away, the large town of Maldon provided sufficient shops, as well as a large public park with a funfair and boating lake.
Despite the fact that it usually rained for at least some of the stay, those trips to the caravan were a delight, to both youngsters and adults alike. It was the closest we would ever get to outdoor living, a real change from our lives in South London, and it was only 52 miles away. We would eat our Easter eggs and delicious buns, and our parents and older relatives would have too much to drink in the club house. We also met some new friends; local kids who did things like going out in boats, swimming in the river, and helping out on farms. It was a simple life, with no TV, electronic games, or fashionable trainers. But we had a great time. Times do change though. These days, many people still go for an Easter break. They go to places like Center Parcs, where they can try archery, ride mountain bikes, or buzz around on Segways. If they are lucky, they might go to EuroDisney near Paris, or enjoy a trip to a theme park in the UK, riding on terrifying roller-coasters and similar machines. Some travel further afield, to gites or villas, enjoying croissants or pains au chocolat instead of hot cross buns. I don’t envy them though.
When you get older, such short holidays lose much of their appeal. Working shifts for most of my life, the chances were that I would be working anyway; perhaps both of the days, or at least one of them. At least there was financial compensation for missing out, in the form of double pay or time off in lieu, sometimes both. Easter eggs started to appear in the shops not long after Christmas, and hot cross buns became available all year round. The unstoppable march of retail reduced national holidays to little more than seasonal marketing opportunities, until they just became a day like any other. Saying that, Easter Sunday must still have some significance, because other than Christmas Day, it is the only day that Tesco is closed.
This last Easter, for us in Beetley at least, was very peaceful. On Friday, we took Ollie (and ourselves) to a place called Mousehold Heath, in the centre of Norwich. We had never been there before, so it was an opportunity to get out together for a change, and to see somewhere new. Norwich is not a large city. Despite being the largest city in Norfolk, a population of around 133,000 places it around 30th in the UK. It does benefit from some nice public areas though, and Mousehold Heath, almost in the city centre, provides a welcome escape from the busy roads that surround it. Once parked, and inside the woodland, only some distant views of the buildings and the sounds of traffic remind you how close you still are. There are many paths to choose, and also attractive open areas and a pitch and putt golf course. The new surroundings were much to Ollie’s approval. Numerous other dog-walkers and some dog-admiring families, meant that our dog got his fair share of attention. We stopped halfway at the American-style burger bar, that has outside tables. Thankfully, this is tastefully presented, using a lovingly restored Edwardian pavilion. Other than a sign near the car park you would be pushed to realise that it was even there. After enjoying coffee, and sharing a delicious burger, we crossed the road towards the bandstand, and explored the rest of the heath. The journey home was less than thirty minutes, so it made for a stress-free afternoon out.
Julie had to work until 2pm on Saturday, so we went out that evening. We don’t have a pub anymore in Beetley. But we do have the building that used to be the pub, and it has kept the same name, The New Inn. It is now a welcoming Thai restaurant. Lovely people run it, and the food is delicious too. The bar at the front still serves as a sort-of pub for those not wishing to dine, and it remains popular with many local people. On Sunday, we stayed home, and cooked a turkey for our evening meal, a nod to another Easter tradition from the past. Ollie enjoyed eating some of the bird, and there was plenty left over, which we used for a tasty turkey curry the next day. With the skies grey, and a threat of rain, we also stayed home on Monday. I went and did the regular shopping trip to Tesco, which was closing earlier than usual, though still open until 6pm. The shop was extremely busy, more so than normal for a Monday. As the TV news had promised no rain, and possible sunshine, many shoppers were stocking up on items for a barbecue that evening, and the aisles were packed.
This morning, Julie had to return to work, and I stayed home, nursing my still-aching back. It didn’t stop me taking Ollie for his walk of course, he has to go out. Easter was over for another year, though I am sure that I will be able to buy hot cross buns next week, if I want to.