Curious Questions: Were our summer holidays in Britain actually better in the good old days?

Quieter roads, no stressing about dodgy wi-fi and the comforting pong of the cooler opening — were things really better in the 1970s? Ysenda Maxtone-Graham investigates.

It’s time to prepare for the glorious annual moment: setting off on the summer holiday. Garden watered, fridge emptied, doors and windows locked, neighbours alerted to your forthcoming absence, car loaded, strongest-willed family member sitting in the front, everyone else squeezed dutifully into the back, youngest in the middle not daring to complain, father switching on the ignition — and off you go.

Spot the differences, however, between setting off on a summer holiday today and 40 years ago. No roof-rack, for a start. Those madly flapping polythene covers on other people’s roof-racks used to be one of the most amusing sights of summer: other fathers’ efforts failing in plain view, their suitcases exposed to the elements due to imperfect positioning of the roof-rack octopus.

‘Today, each child will have inserted an earphone bud into each ear within two minutes of the journey starting and will vanish into their own separate worlds’

Nor will there be a heavy road atlas weighing down on the knees of the chief navigator; it’ll be a satnav or phone giving out clipped instructions — far less likelihood of a nasty family row on day one.

No smoking parents or loaded ashtrays. No open windows blowing everyone’s hair about and making it impossible to have a conversation, only the efficient fan noise of the air-conditioning. No burningly-sticky black car seats, painful on bare legs, but heat-resistant nylon ones instead.

Blackpool, August Bank Holiday, 1981. Yikes.

Blackpool, August Bank Holiday, 1981. Yikes.

These are all improvements on journeys of the past, but there are other, more regrettable differences. Whereas 40 years ago, the family was thrown together in an enforced state of boredom that led to the singing of communal car songs, today, each child will have inserted an earphone bud into each ear within two minutes of the journey starting and will vanish into their own separate worlds of music or films.

Forty years ago, you would drive through town after town and, therefore, past pub after pub, playing pub cricket — points are earned for the number of legs in the names (four for the White Hart, two for the Swan) — but, on a motorway, the only game is collecting the girls’ names on the fronts of Eddie Stobart lorries.

The car picnic also seems to be less of an institution. When researching my book on British childhood summers between 1930 and 1980, I discovered that a typical 1970s family would bring not one, but three Thermoses on a day’s car journey: one for the elevenses picnic, one for the lunch picnic and another for the tea picnic. Children dreaded discovering their mother had poured the milk into the coffee or tea before setting off, giving the drinks a revoltingly curdled flavour after hours in a moving car.

Holiday makers at Blackpool, British seaside town, Lancashire, England, United Kingdom. Image shot 1981. Exact date unknown.

Holiday makers at Blackpool, British seaside town, Lancashire, England, United Kingdom. Image shot 1981. Exact date unknown.

Today, you’ll stop at a service station for lattes and shop-made sandwiches. Gone is the strangely comforting pong of the picnic box when you opened it, releasing aromas of sweating hard-boiled eggs and lukewarm sausages in plastic bags, mingled with browning bananas.

However, the main question is where is today’s family going? Provence or Penzance? In fact, staying in Britain is, increasingly, winning over sizzling abroad. ‘Staycations’ (a hideous word that panders to a need to make normal things sound glamorous) are on the rise, increasing by 6% per year, thanks to a succession of summer heatwaves, Brexit uncertainty and the punishing exchange rates that make going out to a cheap and cheerless French restaurant in a town square, for chewy steaks with rock-hard oven chips and a single dark-green lettuce leaf, a bankrupting experience.

More and more, we Britons are quietly deciding ‘Let’s go to Lavenham this year’ or ‘It’s about time we explored the Pembroke-shire Coast’. A major joy is that you can bring your dog along, without having to worry about rabies vaccinations or a passport.

A poster produced for British Railways in conjunction with Butlin's.

A poster produced for British Railways in conjunction with Butlin’s.

Until the 1970s, going abroad was a rarity. It was adventure enough for children to stay with grandparents on their farm and help with the milking, take buckets and spades to the British seaside or pitch a tent in the hills.

In a way, summer holidays have come full circle. When you’re lazing on your favourite beach or Scottish loch, on a cloudless day, there’s nowhere in the world you’d rather be — and you haven’t had to take your belt off for a demeaning airport-security frisking to get there.

‘Favourite beach’ is an understatement, as I discovered. The correct question to ask is not ‘Where did you go in Cornwall?’, but ‘Where do you go in Cornwall?’. We’re a nation of fervent repeaters: we like to go not only to the same beach, but to exactly the same spot on the same beach that we’ve been going to for years, if not generations.

In a world of increasing job insecurity and rootlessness for our far-flung families, we crave the reassurance of ‘owning’ the same spot, with its familiar undulations and view. We’re outraged if another family has got there first and we laugh our heads off if they’re caught out by the speed of the incoming tide.

A family relaxing on Tenby beach, Wales.

A family relaxing on Tenby beach, Wales.

The unchangingness of the sea itself is deeply comforting, although it’s gone black since the 1970s — black with wetsuits, that is. As with epidurals, wetsuits are a sensible improvement (why suffer?), but their proliferation means that the sea is overcrowded with surfers because they no longer have to get out when prompted by symptoms of hypothermia.

Health-and-safety trends have also made the spaces between the red-and-yellow flags increasingly cramped. You’re now more likely to have your teeth knocked out by a 16-stone surfing maniac than to be carried away to a solitary drowning by a rip current. That’s certainly progress.

A modern-day dilemma is whether you do or don’t want to escape wi-fi. It’s hard to remember a time when this wasn’t an issue, a time when parents said to their children: ‘Stop reading and go outside.’

Stop reading! Imagine that. Most families are now genuinely torn. We long to prise children off their screens — it’s one of the main reasons we go on holiday in the first place, to get them away from their addiction — but, secretly, we’re addicted, too. Can we really bear to do without the internet for a week or fortnight?

‘No wi-fi is good. Good wi-fi is good. The worst thing is bad wi-fi’

I asked two of my interviewees about summer holidays in the wi-fi era. ‘We all throw away our phones with gay abandon,’ admits Jo Ropner, whose family summer house is in one of the remotest spots in Britain: an hour’s drive north-west from Inverness, then 15 more miles up a single-track road, then another 10 miles in a boat to the far end of a loch.

‘Is there any phone signal?’ I ask.

‘Signal? None at all. There’s not even a landline’ comes the reply.

‘It’s a total digital detox. No withdrawal symptoms at all: everyone just goes out fishing or stalking and, in the evening, we play all the old games in the house.’

‘No wi-fi is good. Good wi-fi is good. The worst thing is bad wi-fi,’ says Rachel Johnson, whose family still goes to the hill farm on Exmoor where she spent every blissfully happy summer of her childhood.

‘With bad wi-fi, everyone’s distracted. I’m trying to work or the children want to watch a football match and we can’t get it to work.’ This scenario is today’s holiday flashpoint, replacing getting lost in the car.

Another major consideration is crowd avoidance. The soul-destroying sight of the satnav’s estimated time of arrival shuffling further and further into the future, as you grind to a halt and read on the overhead gantry that there are ‘major delays’ between junctions 24 and 27, is now very much part of the modern British summer. You need to leave at dead of night to avoid this, but then there are overnight roadworks, which can be the most brutal of all.

Don’t be fooled about the golden past, however. It used to take 12 hours (including picnic stops) to drive from the Home Counties to Cornwall or from Cheshire to the Cotswolds, along clogged A-roads, behind tractors and hearses. I’ve lost count of the number of people who spent hours of their childhood in ‘the bottleneck in Honiton’.

The places you’d like to go are also more crowded. Adorably pretty Norfolk towns, such as Burnham Market, or Cornish ones, such as Padstow, are overrun. You can’t turn up at a pub and expect to get a nice table out of doors. This is the era of the National Trust overflow car park, of booking a table online. Spontaneity is becoming less and less viable.

At those moments, one almost longs for France, where the roads are still wondrously empty and villages sleepy. However, drive through the vast, dreary, hedgeless landscape between Calais and Amiens? Really? I’d rather be stuck in a bottleneck in Honiton.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s book ‘British Summertime Begins: Childhood Summers, 1930–1980’ will be published by Little, Brown next year.

1979 v 2019 - How our summer holidays have changed