Justin Webb: Summer holidays matter

"It would be a little oversentimental not to acknowledge that disputes over tent poles can cause divorce in extreme circumstances, but I am still in favour of holidays for all"

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You know how children of five or six squeal sometimes with pure unreserved starburst delight? And you think, “Can you bottle that?” – not for our use but for the child himself or herself in later life, when things get tough and sad and complicated. Then they will be able to remember the moment, or the feeling; or even if they don’t remember it, still possess it somehow as part of their being.

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I saw it the other day on a sand dune near Hillend campsite on the Gower coast of south Wales. Mum, dad and a young son walking back towards the tents from the beach. Mum looked tired and dad looked sunburned. It was the end of the weekend and they were trudging back, I got the impression, towards a journey to a place that might be considerably less idyllic than the Gower. Suddenly dad – seizing his boy by the hand – announced, “You see that sand dune? Let’s climb to the top. Let’s have an adventure!”

And the boy squealed. And they ran.

Holidays matter. Where you do it, how much you have to spend on it, matters far less. But the ability to get away – for a few days at least to a place that does not look or smell like home – can recharge not just individual batteries but relationships as well. People who have done it recently in Britain have had the bonus of sun. But sun is not necessary. Time is what counts. Time spent planning the trip. Time spent anticipating it – which in the mind of a child can be a near eternity of eagerness. And then time spent doing nothing much – playing cards, or chatting. Going to bed without setting an alarm clock. Seeing mum and dad less frazzled.

The sight of that man and boy took me back to my own childhood, which was not that happy or sun-filled. I had a loving mother but before I went to school money was tight and laughs, in a troubled home, not that frequent. But, oh, when the summer came, what joy. I lived in Bath in the West Country and I wanted to be a coach driver. Every summer, mum and I would go on day trips run by Roman City coaches. That was our holiday and it could not have been better. I can still remember the names of the trips: Plymouth via Dartmoor (my favourite as it involved the longest time on the coach), Brighton and Hove (another long one), Cheddar Gorge (disappointingly close) etc. I don’t remember actually squealing with delight but inside I think I did, and I am sure the happiness I felt on those trips has stayed with me, a kind of nurturing warmth when times are tough.

Then through sheer coincidence a few days ago a friend was talking about an organisation he supports called the Family Holiday Association. It’s a charity whose sole purpose is sending people on holiday. I know nothing much more about it but I know a good idea when I see it. Their website has a snippet of an interview with a seven-year-old describing the caravan they have been staying in, “It doesn’t look big from the outside but when you get inside…”

You can picture the little chap’s eyes widening. He cannot find the words to describe the wonder of their little caravan.

If you ever went on holiday as a child – and particularly if the holiday-making was infrequent and modest – you’ll be transported back to a time when your eyes widened as well and not, as they do now, because of the size of your gas bill. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that wonderment needs to be a part of a healthy life. And it would be a little oversentimental not to acknowledge that disputes over tent poles can cause divorce in extreme circumstances, but I am still willing to nail my colours to the mast: I am in favour of holidays for all. And I have sent a contribution, from the little boy I was, to the Family Holiday Association. Cue rain…


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