My first clear summer memory is of a rainy beach in Cornwall sometime in the Seventies. I recall building a helter-skelter of sand with my mother and rolling a rubber ball down it repeatedly. I think I was five. This means that between that moment and the official onset of adulthood, there were only a baker’s dozen of summers: 13 formative seasons to provide a bedrock of memories for one entire life.
It’s not much, really. Especially not when you consider how quickly you’re changing in that period. Each childhood summer holiday contains milestones: the first time you ventured out of your depth in the sea, or opened your eyes under water, the first jellyfish sting, the first long bicycle ride, the first fizzy drink.
There are also more idiosyncratic landmarks: the first Punch and Judy show, the first encounter with black pudding at a hotel breakfast. And, of course, there are first crushes, first kisses, first loves. There’s a reason that summer holidays crop up time and again in fiction and cinema. It’s in their spacious weeks that you begin to experience your own life turning from potential into reality.
Now, as a parent, I find it hard to look at photographs of my children on summer holidays without a lump in my throat. The beach towels and T-shirts I recognise in the pictures are still folded away in some drawer awaiting sunny weather. But the children – vulnerable, impossibly tiny, water-winged and sun-creamed – have transformed. Now they’re strapping, independent and starting to chafe at the limitations of childhood.
The bulk of my childhood holidays were spent in the United States, in Massachusetts, where my dad was from and most of his family lived. My mum worked at the BBC and so my brother and I found ourselves alone for quite a lot of the time each summer. My brother and I watched Wheel of Fortune on a black and white telly, nursed futile crushes on girls, visited the beach (cold, pebbly), cycled to the library, went on camping expeditions and came back itchy with poison ivy. We swam, read a lot, and longed to have more freedom. I’ve returned with my own children to the beaches I knew as a child and have been amazed mainly that the vast creeks I remember have shrunk to tiny streams, the huge distances between landmarks are now a mere Frisbee-throw apart. Brobdingnag has become Lilliput.
Those summers taught me independence and the uses of boredom. In retrospect, I see that key parts of a summer holiday are those valuable longueurs, the hours spent sitting around chatting in a friend’s bedroom, playing football in the park, trying to pluck up courage to talk to someone you fancy. These are the moments when you think you’re waiting for life to start, but which you look back and realise were life itself.
And when I was old enough, unglamorous summer jobs – carrying furniture, peeling potatoes – gave me a glimpse of the qualities – turning up, being conscientious – that life mainly requires of you.
In those years, parents felt less obliged to provide their offspring with life-changing experiences. Summer was a time without school or childcare that just needed to be got through. Social media hadn’t arrived to give parents a nagging sense that every other parent was doing a better job of it. No one expected to return to school in September having visited Antarctica, speaking Mandarin or with a brown belt in ju-jitsu. Some children went abroad with their families, more of them moped around the city in record shops and arcades.
Few and fortunate still are the parents who can afford to take six weeks off work for summer and spend it with their children. Juggling work and childcare, calling in favours from grandparents, parking children at friends’ houses – isn’t that how most of us manage? But it does feel important to have some kind of joint adventure together over those precious weeks.
Our best summer holidays as a family have had an element of unpredictability. Some have been road trips: one across Iceland, while we listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and looked at the other-worldly terrain beyond the windows. Last summer, we drove to Quebec – my ancestral province – through northern New England, staying in cabins and swimming in the region’s deep glacial lakes. We took a punt on the Skowhegan State Fair in Maine. In a land of hyperbole, its claim to specialness was intriguingly hedged with qualifications: “the nation’s oldest, consecutively running agricultural fair”. I heartily recommend it as a strange, eye-opening slice of old Americana.
Above all, we’ve had huge fun on cycling holidays together. I love cycling with my children, not because I love cycling – I own the world’s heaviest bike and no Lycra – but because we’re all in it together. Two years ago, the four of us spent a week cycling through the archipelago of little islands around Turku in Finland. It followed a very happy holiday cycling along the Danube and it suffered initially by comparison. The islands were surprisingly steep, the opportunities for refreshment far apart, and there was little strudel.
Looking back, that holiday provided us with more collective memories than any other: the doll’s house of a shared cabin at a campsite in which we barely fitted; the panicky cycles to catch departing ferries; the fresh cinnamon rolls whose aroma perfumed the waterfront at Nagu; evenings playing the card game Love Letters. It didn’t have Instagrammable moments, but it was full of companionship.
The bucket lists of life-changing summer moments don’t include Skowhegan or even Turku. Wet Cornish beaches are unlikely to feature. We’re urged to make it to the Galapagos, to the Maasai Mara, to Santorini for the sunset, to Angkor Wat at dawn – and fine they are, I’m sure. But the time is very brief, money may be short, and when it comes down to it, perhaps there is not much more that’s necessary for a memorable summer than being able to roll a rubber ball down a sandcastle on a beach, eat fish and chips, and play Bananagrams with someone you love.