It was a 1938 Act of Parliament that guaranteed Britons a week’s paid holiday each year; it is hard now to imagine the change of attitude such legislation represented. Opportunities for enjoyment of the new provision were to be limited, in September 1939, war began and it would be six years before a trip to the seaside would again be possible. However, once the war was over, the holiday revolution began.
Railways carried hundreds of thousands to seaside towns and boarding houses; holiday camps developed that offered a complete package of all that people might want. The expansion of car ownership allowed the growth of camping and caravanning. By the 1960s, the package holiday to the exotic destination of Spain appeared and transformed the holiday industry.
Looking back at pictures of women in their frocks and best coats and hats arm in arm with men in suits with white shirts and ties, it is hard to imagine how much those holiday moments meant to people. Even in their expressions on the old newsreels there is an intensity, a look of determination; holiday moments were rare and were to be taken with the utmost seriousness.
J.L Carr’s ‘A Month in the Country’, one of the most atmospheric novels ever written, captures a sense of what even a day out meant to a community in the 1920s. The ‘Sunday School Treat’ comes from an unrecognizable world:
There was a throaty smell blowing off the bilberry shrubs and withering heather when we disembarked on a sheep-cropped plain high up in the hills. There was no shelter from the sun, but it was dinner-time and the women and girls unpacked hard-boiled eggs and soggy tomato sandwiches wrapped in greased paper and swaddled in napkins. It was Mr Dowthwaite (for you laboured for your prestige amongst the Wesleyans) who built a downbreeze fire of twigs and soon had tin kettles boiling. Then he struck up the Doxology and, when we’d sung it, we settled to some steady eating.
Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woollen underpants and astonished their children by larking around like great lads. The courting couples sidled off, the women sat around and talked. So eating, drinking, dozing, making love, the day passed until evening came and the horses were led from their pasture. Then, as the first star rose and swallows turned and twisted above the bracken, our wagons rumbled down from above the White Horse and across the Vale towards home: the Sunday-school Treat was over.
Ninety years on, the thought of going on an outing by horse and wagon and sitting in a field while children played games would seem, at best, quaint, but what has not changed is our human desire for special moments. The newsreels recall the holidays of the post-war generations, what they could not recall was how much those moments meant.