With thanks to Joni Mitchell, this line from her song Both Sides Now, fits so well.
This is my final offering from memories of our holidays in Westbrook Kent. Our preparations for the two-week holiday would start a long time before we were scheduled to go. At least, as a little boy it seemed a long, long time before.
There were buckets and spades to be painted, pyjama buttons to be sewn on, the suitcases brought down from the attic, the car checked from head to toe for the big journey (90 miles). We knew the holiday was getting close when Dad started to whistle his happy tune – I don’t know its name, but it sounded like a dance from the east with swaying hips and veils and fezzes (something about a bazar I think). Hearing Dad’s happy tune would get us all smiling – holiday time was near!
The night before we left it was hard to get to sleep. Nearly as hard as Christmas Eve. The excitement was almost overwhelming.
Dad would have us all up and in the car by 4 am (it may have been a little later, but the crack of dawn wouldn’t be far off). Dad was always concerned about beating the traffic across London. We had to take the North Circular Road which was well known for traffic jams.
So, bleary eyed but ecstatic, I would climb into the back of the car and settle in for the journey. I expect I asked the inevitable “Are we there yet?” many times on the journey. It seemed to take forever. My great desire, my greatest desire, in those days was to see the sea.
There was something magical about the sea and the sand. I suppose it was because we always had such happy times there. But the very best, was that first glimpse of the sea, as we came over a hill on the coast. “There it is” we would shout when we first saw that blue line on the horizon and I would feel that delicious feeling in the pit of my stomach.
However, it took forever to get there. At least it seemed to me it took forever. I just couldn’t wait to see the sea, and yet that was what I had to do – wait and wait and wait.
Dad would always insist that we stop in Canterbury along the way. Dad drank a lot of tea and needed to stop fairly regular on car trips (to fill up and, well, the opposite). Canterbury is a picturesque town with a wonderful cathedral, cleverly named Canterbury Cathedral. The most important Anglican cathedral in England. I never understood why the Archbishop of Canterbury lived in London. It was in this cathedral that Tomas Becket was murdered. Maybe that’s why.
I’m sorry, but when you are a young boy, waiting desperately to see the sea after a year, you don’t give a tinkers cuss (as Dad would have said) for an old town with an old cathedral – which we didn’t actually go in because it wasn’t open that early in the morning (small mercies).
I guess my memory about times isn’t quite accurate as the tea-rooms were open and we would stop in Canterbury for some tea and a bun. Afterwards we would go to Woolworth’s and were allowed to buy one toy each. My brother, Mugwump, would want to play with every one of the balls in Woolworth’s. He loved sports and seeing a counter full of balls for all the different sports and for the beach was as exciting to him as the first glimpse of the sea was for me. He would stand there letting his hands wander over all the colourful and different sized balls. Let’s just get going I would think.
After Canterbury we would drive through Kent towards Westbrook. Getting near, Dad would ask “Should I take the scenic route?” If he did I would get my glimpse of the sea sooner – but it would take us longer to arrive at the seaside. My preference was to go straight there.
Each year I longed for that retched journey to be over! Let’s just hurry up and get to the sea.
One year we were well on the way the other side of London and Dad announced “Wrotham Hill coming up”. It’s pronounced ‘rootem’ – ah English. I remember Wrotham Hill as a long steep hill. This year we had run into a summer fog. As we started up the hill we were enclosed in a heavy mist and Dad had to put on the car’s fog-lights. We went very slowly as visibility was quite poor. Up and up we climbed through the dense grey mist. Then it started to become brighter and suddenly we came out above the mist, and what a sight.
We were at the top of the hill, looking down on the clouds which were lit up by the brilliant sunshine. I had never flown and never been in mountains. This was my first time to see clouds from the other side. It was too beautiful for words. I had never seen anything as beautiful in my entire life (all seven years). It was a life changing event. I was captivated by the very idea of being higher than the clouds. The colours and shapes and the brilliance of the light were beyond anything I could have imagined. I wanted time to stop. I felt I could look at the scene for ever. The seaside, for the moment was forgotten. We had to keep going, there was nowhere to pull over.
That moment left an indelible image. It also changed my attitude towards the journey. The next couple of years I couldn’t wait to get to Wrotham Hill. Would it be misty? Would we get above the clouds again? We never did, and perhaps that was a good thing. I gradually learned to appreciate the journey. To realize that the next bend, the next hill, could bring something unexpectedly wonderful.
It was many years before I realized this event was a metaphor for my life. So often I had wanted time to go faster so I could get to some desired time or event. I looked forward to the conclusion of projects – reaching the goal. It took a long time to begin to love the present moment. Yes, it is good to have anticipation, but not at the expense of enjoying the journey.