By the early thirties, my parents had abandoned the Workers’ Travel Association, purchased two white ridge tents, and become pioneer car-borne campers. For a number of years, our regular summer run was to Pendower Beach on the south Cornish coast, via Honiton, Exeter, Dartmoor and Truro, sometimes with detours via Exmoor or to see the Torquay illuminations – little roadside grottos lit with coloured lights.
Pendower Beach was at the time backed by a single large sand dune covered in soft springy turf. It had been thrown up by a severe storm a number of years earlier, demolishing a road that formerly crossed the valley behind the beach. In the thirties this dune was in the early stages of marine erosion, a sandy scar taking infrequent backward bites. It was an exhilarating sport for two small boys to jump repeatedly from the turf at the top of the scar and roll in the soft warm upper-beach sand at its base.
Behind the dune was a slightly neglected grassy meadow with a small wooded stream running down the western side to issue in erratic loops on the beach. Upstream were dark dampish woods and on the flanks of the valley hot bracken covered slopes with quite frequent adders. We set up camp in the meadow close to the stream, having first checked with the farmer.
It was a wonderful location and in the early years we were pretty well alone, although by the mid-thirties we were beginning to be joined in our meadow by two or three other tents and caravans. There was swimming on the sandy beach, an inexhaustible supply of prawns in the rock pools and elvers under stones in the stream, walks along the foreshore and cliffs, trips with fishermen out of Portloe, helping the farmer with the grain harvest, and visits to Portloe, Veryan, Portscatho and farther afield in Cornwall.
Later we became expert at catching adders by seizing them round the neck with a cleft stick, and there were bluebell bulbs to be collected as they fell from the sandy scar of the dune (the descendants of these bulbs followed us from garden to garden and in 1980 some returned to the south-west with us in Devon).
At times the local people put out a land seine, usually in the evenings. A rope started from the beach, the net was bundled out in a wide semi-circle from a small rowing boat, and the other rope end returned farther along the beach. Pulling in the net was a lengthy process, in which all and sundry joined vigorously, the two groups of several dozen pullers gradually closing as the net approached. There followed a session of splashing, grunting, shouting and flashing lights, after which a mass of struggling fish lay on a tarpaulin.
The fish were divided into as many near-equal piles as there were in the combine which owned the net, one man turned his back whilst another pointed to each pile in turn saying, ‘Whose be this?’ Names of the official participants were shouted out until all the catch had been disposed of. There followed little bargaining sessions at the edge of the crowd, and we usually returned to our tents with a few mackerel for breakfast. Sometimes, though, the net contained little except a few squid and spider crabs.
The unfortunate spider crabs had a very raw deal from Cornish fishermen, as we saw when we occasionally went out in their creel fishing boats. Lobsters and edible crabs were collected in buckets, but everything else was tipped back, the spider crabs first having their shells cracked open on the boat’s gunwale as a gratuitous parting gesture.
The Cornish fishermen had a very different approach…