My mother sent me photos of the old caravan. For as long as I can remember, more than 25 years, my parents have owned a caravan at the Naze Marine Holiday Park in the English seaside town of Walton-on-the-Naze. 25+ years is a long time in the sea air and on my escape weekends from London over recent years it was obvious the green and white caravan was suffering. The wonderful salty smell that lingered in clothes for days after holidays, breathed in to bring back memories, was tinged with a damp more serious than that which simply caused the salt to solidify. The thin white ceiling boards were buckling, furry mould creeping from the corners; less fun than the occasional leaks from summer storms dripping into old saucepans. The vivid orange curtains (well, it was a child of the 70s), which accentuated the sun’s glow, had needed occasional patches over the years but, framed by the fake wood panels peeling from the walls, they were merely doing their best to put a bright, brave face on a doomed situation.
On my most recent visit to Walton, last spring, I knew it might be my last stay in this holiday home that had hosted families with babies and toddlers, gangs of kids, holidaying teenagers, adults escaping to the solitude and sea breezes. I took my SLR camera and tripod to capture what I could of this place that seemed never to have changed. The orange and white tiles which were cold underfoot in the morning. The white glass gas lamps hanging from the walls (one of which fell onto my sister while my father changed her nappy), merely ornamental ever since electricty brought us two fluorescent tubes. The bunk beds with their grey mattresses patterned by vibrant blooming roses, now too short for anything but storing black bin liners full of old clothes. The skylight that never seemed to close properly, that rattled in the coastal winds, but that let the smell of toast cooked under the tiny grill drift away. The ancient bottles of washing up liquid, of salt, of Worcestershire Sauce, of sun tan lotion. The second-hand cutlery and crockery, a mis-matched but friendly assortment purchased from Walton’s cluster of curious junk shops.
This year my parents decided P25, as its position coded it, was too far gone, and we’d have to look for a replacement seaside home. Living in Texas, I managed to avoid the process, just as I try to avoid most emotional events. But at least I had a good excuse this time. The new caravan, or rather the new-used caravan, looks much fancier but more reasonable than some of the over-padded and ornamented units available. It’s in a new position too, tucked up by a tree, against the sea wall, over which the sounds of gulls and bobbing boats drift from the tidal backwaters. We’ll also have running water, an almost obscene luxury but an end to the trips to the water tap and the night time stumbles to the brick toilet block. The whole caravan site has changed over the years. The whole site is slowly but surely being fully plumbed, and a map shows half the area is now divided up by car-friendly cul-de-sacs with room to park by each caravan. A dramatic change from the endless, regimented rows of caravans, with neighbours in every direction, and the buzzing communal facilities. These days the toilet blocks are locked to prevent vandalism and signs forbid children from riding bikes or playing ball games.
But I’ll always look forward to escaping to the town, sister to the brasher Clacton-on-Sea in one direction and the sleepy Frinton-on-Sea in the other. I can still see where I fell in the water while fishing for crabs, where I got a splinter in my hand from some old wooden steps on the beach, and all the same old toys and cutlery will be safe in our new, damp-free caravan that should see us through another couple of decades. I’m just glad my family never had to move house.