Gosh, it was hot in London this afternoon. But, so far, we haven’t seen the temperatures and drought of the summer of 1976. In 1976, there were 15 consecutive days when temperatures reached 32C (89.6F) or higher somewhere in the UK, according to the Met Office. We haven’t managed that yet.
As I sat in St James’s Park this lunchtime, daydreaming just a little bit, I tried to remember what the summer of 1976 was like. Several nostalgic memories ebbed and flowed, reminding me that the UK is a very different place today.
I was eleven-years-old at the time, though I would turn twelve over the summer holidays. The youngest in my year at school, I remember arguing with my headmaster that summer term about a rule that I thought at the time was very unfair. At Beaudesert Park prep school you had to be twelve-years-old to wear long trousers. Throughout the year, the rest of my class had gradually achieved the grown-up status brought about by wearing ‘longs’, until I was the only one left in what I perceived to be the juvenile trappings of shorts and long socks. So, unlike today’s young people, who fight to be allowed to wear shorts to school in hot weather, I was campaigning for the right to wear itchy crimplene long trousers in a heatwave. I can’t remember whether or not I won. I suspect I lost.
That year, the Wall’s ice-cream factory in Gloucester reported an ‘all-time peak’ in production. I wasn’t interested in Walls ice-cream, though. All I wanted to eat was Winstones ice-cream, bought from a green and cream coloured ice-cream van on Minchinhampton Common. The texture was slightly gritty; there was only one flavour – vanilla; the cones were basic and perhaps not quite as crispy as they should have been; but a Winstones ice-cream was the best thing ever. Their factory on neighbouring Rodborough Common now has its own cafe and ice-cream parlour – and they sell a myriad of flavours, designed to tempt discerning Cotswold palates: spiced plumb, rhubarb crumble, honey and ginger. But for me, the only ice-cream to buy remains their basic vanilla. It tastes of childhood. As long as it comes with a flake, of course.
We holidayed in Bosham, in West Sussex. The journey, in our green Saab estate, windows down (no air conditioning), Jimmy Young on Radio 2 going in and out of reception (medium wave only) took about 4 hours – with the traffic “bumper to bumper”. Waggoners’ Walk and “Raymondo” demanding, “What’s the recipe today, Jim?”. Mum was (and still is) a saint. Dad joined us briefly on one weekend. (Things were not good between them at the time.) Our holiday home, owned by family friends, was right on the quayside. My brother and I were able to sail toy yachts and swim directly off the front steps of the house when the tide came in. We could amuse ourselves by watching the sea rise over the parked cars of tourists who hadn’t believed the “this road gets flooded at high tide” signs. When the tide was out, we played tennis and flew kites, made for us by our next-door neighbour: exquisite paper fabrications, quite different from the Peter Powell Stunt kite we had back home in Gloucestershire. We built sandcastles on West Wittering beach; made the annual pilgrimage to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum and the strange little museum of taxidermy in Arundel. There were no iPads, no X-boxes, no music on demand.
For the rest of the summer, we were at home. My brother and I really were sent out of the house first thing with packs of sandwiches, crisps and a fizzy drink (and the family dogs to look after us) – and told not to come home before tea-time. The same went for our friends. Children and dogs all pretty much went feral for several weeks. We played in the fields that surrounded the village, built camps, made and sailed toy boats on the brook at the bottom of the hill, though I guess there wasn’t much water that summer. Mum didn’t have to organise ‘playdates’ for me and my brother, though we did, every Tuesday, make the trip to Bristol to go ice skating; and I also remember the thrill of the very modern wave machine at Swindon’s then new ‘Oasis’ leisure centre. At some point that summer, there would have been Scout camp, but my Troop didn’t do a full week away, just a weekend at Cranham.
The dogs were allowed to roam the village, with or without accompanying children. Hodges, our Labrador-Boxer cross, was very friendly with the vicar’s dog, Garth. The two of them had a habit of sprawling in front of the main door of the church on a Sunday morning. The congregation was expected to step over them, quietly so as not to wake them, when they left after Sunday matins.
I have no doubt that today’s children will look back on the summer of 2018 with fondness when they are middle-aged. They too will marvel at the comparative simplicity of their childhoods and the modest fun they enjoyed. But I can’t help feeling that my generation may have been the last to have enjoyed a real British childhood – one of scraped knees, uncomplicated pleasures and, of course, lashings of ginger beer.