Memories of childhood are notoriously imprecise, but certain things, whether entirely accurate or not, somehow lodge themselves in the brain and refuse to budge. One such recollection is a family holiday to the Welsh seaside town of Porthcawl during what must have been the summer of 1960, when I was five/six. Porthcawl was considered the holiday mecca for us Valleys folk; in fact, it was impossible to visit the place without bumping into someone you knew from home - no place then to fly off to for an illicit weekend liaison, not that such thoughts would have had any place in my innocent mind back then; any fantasies I entertained were wholly confined to fighting injustice and righting wrongs like my heroes the Lone Ranger and his ever-faithful Indian companion Tonto.
Wales, a mountainous place with a large coastline, is famed for its rain. I’ve heard it rumoured that some of our sheep, if not a few of the locals in some rural parts, are web-footed. Back in the Porthcawl summer of 1960 a natural proclivity for an amphibious lifestyle would have come in useful. I wouldn’t entirely trust my own memory here; my parents however always maintained that over a two-week holiday we did experience fourteen days of almost non-stop rain. The first week we boarded with a lovely lady called Mrs Jones (the names of both saints and sinners were always faithfully recorded by my late mother); the second week, we suffered the misfortune of lodging with a Mrs Martin. Mrs Martin was a widowed lady who quite evidently detested children, which naturally didn’t bode too well for my brother and me. Even my father, normally big-hearted, found his good nature put to the test by this woman; Mrs Martin was more strict Victorian governess than welcoming hostess, and to top it all, she was a rotten cook to boot - this is probably what riled Dad the most! I think Dad regarded a bad cook as a work of the Devil (well, not far off!). I recall him, after one of numerous inedible meals, gruffly muttering to my mother that perhaps the late Mr Martin had gone to his heavenly reward after consuming one of his wife’s dinners.
Mrs Martin’s guest house truly was cold and unwelcoming. In those days, families like us who lived on modest incomes purchased their own food and had it cooked for them by their hostess. I’ve no idea what this practice was called, eventually it was of course succeeded by B&B and half-board. I have a feeling it may have been called something a bit misleading like ”All found”. So, our domestic situation only made matters worse; outside it continued to rain and inside the guest house we were subjected to Mrs M’s culinary abuse and sneering dislike of children. One evening, shortly before the evening meal, Mrs Martin accused my brother and myself of vomiting over her bathroom and leaving it in a terrible mess. She was very condemnatory and quite scary in her manner I recall. My mother, like all good mothers, would not stand for her ‘chicks’ to be maligned thus, “I can assure you, Mrs Martin, that It wasn’t either of my boys!” she protested. “Who on earth was it, then?” sneered the awful Mrs M, “I don’t know,” replied Mam on the verge of tears, “But it wasn’t either of my boys!” At the same moment as Mrs Martin scoffed scornfully at this, a plaintive voice called down from the landing upstairs, “It was me!” a frail male voice called out. The Joneses were a kindly, elderly couple from the Rhondda who were the only other paying guests in the house. “I’m very sorry, it wasn’t the boys, I was taken ill and I was about to clean up the mess!” Mrs Martin looked appropriately shamefaced as she shuffled away from my mother who was standing guard over her boys, proud and victorious. As far as my brother Ian (seven years older than myself) was concerned, the confrontation was the final straw. The next morning he caught the bus back to my grandparents’ house. I don’t recall him coming on a family holiday again - Mrs Martin had been the line in the sand for him!
I don’t think I gave my swimming trunks an airing at any time over that holiday, but I did manage a few paddles in the odd rock pool between cloudbursts. One evening we went to see the variety show at The Grand Pavilion. I remember Dad particularly enjoyed the comedian, and was still telling a joke he heard that night about a family of rabbits thirty years later. The local cinema had only one offering as I recall, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula. It had an X certificate (i.e. eighteen and over!) so no good for me, in fact I recall my hair standing on end just looking at the black and white stills that were displayed in a glass case outside the cinema. The large shelter on the promenade with its multiple rows of benches was filled to capacity every day. Each day we did the same circuit of shops around the town - Woolworths was by far the best, of course, and hours were spent browsing its aisles. Every day we’d have a Fulgoni’s ice-cream cone or two; we’d generally escape the rain mid-morning and mid-afternoon by going to a cafe to have cups of tea for the grown ups and a glass of pop or a milk shake for us. Sometimes, to avoid Mrs Martin’s meals we’d have faggots and peas from the stall in Coney Beach (to allay the concerns of American readers here, faggots are a ball of minced lamb and offal, traditionally served with mushy peas) or Mam’s lifelong favourite, fish and chips. I think the putting green, a traditional holiday pursuit, and still surviving in Porthcawl to this day, was waterlogged and closed up those weeks, I certainly don’t recall us playing. But not all was lost, on the last night of the holiday I was taken to the fair and allowed to go on half a dozen rides and to spend any pocket money my grandparents had pressed into my hand before leaving.
One of the best things I remember was going out one evening after dark when it was high tide and dodging the waves that surged into the air like a blowing whale and left its spume washing across the promenade.
Here is Another Porthcawl story