Some of my happiest memories as a boy growing up are of our summer holidays at Westbrook in Kent. Westbrook is next door to Margate a favourite seaside resort for Londoners – at least it was in the 50s.
Margate is the brash, unkempt end of the area with strong touristy smells and sights. It was also the home of Dreamland – a permanent amusement park. Just the word Dreamland would make my heart flutter and give me a wonderful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I think I was in love with Dreamland – it was that kind of feeling. We were allowed to visit Dreamland once on every holiday.
We would never say we went to Margate on Holiday, we went to Westbrook which was more middle-class territory. Snobbish you say – well, those were the days.
We used to stay at a boarding house owned and run by Mr and Mrs Ward. Mrs Ward was a real gem. She made everyone welcome and had a special relationship with all the children. My first memory of going to Mrs Ward’s was when I was about five. At that time I had almost white-blond hair. Mrs Ward used to call me Snowball. My brother, who is six years my senior (I enjoyed saying that, senior), used to tease me – “Ahhh – Snowball…ooo-oooh Snowball” which I hated. But, secretly, I quite liked Mrs Ward giving me a special name. One of the things she did was to apple-pie the children’s beds on their last night there. This is a way of folding the sheets to make it impossible to get into bed! Lot’s of fun, lots of running around the house and laughing and screaming, it almost made up for the fact we would be leaving in the morning. Mrs Ward would look after the children in the evening so the mums and dads could go out. We received three meals a day and all for just a few pounds a week! To make it perfect Mrs Ward’s house was only a block from the sea-front and the sand! But leave your buckets and spades outside in the box, thank you.
We used to go for two weeks in July each year. I could hardly wait for those two weeks. As I remember it every day of the fortnight was happy.
The first story I want to tell you is an incident with a beach game called Jokari. A paddle game with a hard rubber ball attached to a wooden block by a very long rubber string. But more about this later.
We spent most of our holiday on or next to the sand. My Dad really didn’t like sand – he didn’t like the way it got in your shoes or stuck to everything. But he loved to be beside the sea. I loved the sand and the sea. All along the beach was a sea-wall and pedestrian walkway known as the promenade or prom for short. The town council had erected beach-huts along the prom which could be rented by the week. Dad rented a beach-hut for the two weeks we were there each year. These huts provided a small personal area outside and were equipped with a gas-ring inside for boiling water for tea (this was England remember). It was also where we kept our deck chairs, buckets and spades, beach-balls, cricket bats, beach towels and toys. It’s primary purpose was, however, as a changing room. The sea around the Kent coast is never very warm. Coming in from swimming and having turned a blue from the cold, it was wonderful to be able to huddle in the beach-hut and change into warm dry clothes and enjoy a hot cuppa tea (sic).
One year my brother bought or was given a Jokari set. As I mentioned above Jokari was a game that involved hitting a hard rubber ball with a paddle – the ball being attached to a long rubber string would bounce and then come flying back to be struck again. Jokari could be played alone – in which case the challenge was to see how many repetitive hits you could make before missing – or in pairs – the object being to get your opponent to miss the ball. It was a fun game. My brother being older (and more sporty) than me could usually win. He also spent a lot more time practicing while I preferred to make sandcastles on the beach. Most often we played Jokari on the prom as the ground was harder and more even than the sand and the ball bounced a little more evenly. However, some days the prom would be too crowded with walkers and we would have to keep stopping. On these days we moved the game to a relatively empty spot on the sand.
One day, while playing Jokari on the sand, we were visited by a local dog. This shaggy dog was often on the beach joining in games of cricket or asking for a stick to be thrown into the sea. In those days dogs were allowed to roam freely and most places had one or two friendly dogs well-known in the neighbourhood.
Shaggy, as I shall call this one, watched our game of Jokari – he would run after the ball as it was hit, then be surprised when it reversed its direction and came flying back towards the batters. Shaggy kept this up for a while before getting wise to the ball’s rather predictable habits. Once he figured it out, he changed tactics and laid in wait for the ball on its return flight. Springing into action, Shaggy leapt and snapped at the ball and caught it! Keeping a firm grip on the ball he was off. He started to run away with the ball, looking for a safe place to put it down between his paws so that he could chew and lick it.
Now, in those days people used to rent deck chairs to sit on the beach. These were wooden frames with a canvas slung seat. They could be adjusted to different levels of reclining. Comedians used to perform very funny sketches trying to set up a deck chair and always ending up by sitting on one that would collapse.
Shaggy, as I said, took off with our ball. We took chase to get it back. Shaggy was wily, he ran underneath a number of occupied deck chairs. He ran quite a way, and passed underneath quite a few deck chairs. We had to run around sand-castles and avoid the odd bodies sunning themselves (and odd is about as kind as I can be). Eventually Shaggy decided he had gone far enough – or perhaps the rubber attached to the ball could be stretched no further. Unfortunately for Shaggy, he didn’t understand the science behind stretched rubber! He went to set the ball down, very carefully between his paws, he gently opened his mouth. Immediately the ball made its escape. It was a very rapid escape, returning in the exact opposite route of its kidnapper. This route took the hard, bouncing, rubber ball, back under all the occupied deck chairs. It was quite a sight. The ball apparently was bouncing up and striking the people relaxing on their deck chairs. Men and women make quite different sounds when struck on the under side by a hard ball travelling at great speed. There were yells and high-pitched yelps. What was common among both genders was the sudden jerking upwards in surprise. There was also a commonality in the looking around to discover who had perpetrated this infringement of their privacy and attack on their nether regions.
Shaggy played it cool, looking rather innocent but perplexed. Mugwump and I also tried to look cool, and decided to wait before retrieving the Jokari block and ball. Trying to look cool also means trying to hold in a huge amount of laughter. We eventually burst – and did some terrible damage to our bodies, splitting our sides and laughing our heads off (this last was borrowed from a recent blog I read and comment on).
My Dad’s favourite Knock Knock Joke – Knock knock, “who’s there”. “Lucy”. “Lucy who”. “Lucy Lastic”. Nothing loose about our Jokari elastic that day.
Coming soon – Chapter II of Westbrook Seaside Stories: “Don’t rile us, we’re British”
Note: the antique photographs were mostly processed by my Dad. He made a darkroom out of our small toilet (very inconvenient when he was developing a lot of film!). I scanned these black and white photos and added the antique colouring. To see larger versions just click on the individual photos.