Tom Sutcliffe goes on holiday

I have never taken a ‘package’ holiday as such, but when I was 13 I went on a school choir trip to Holland. We stayed in a youth hostel in Scheveningen with triple-decker bunks, sang concerts in a few churches, and visited the Keukenhof bulb fields. It was fun, and one got a quite different impression of various schoolmasters and of the school chaplain. I especially recall the fact that Mike Boyce, who was also in the choir and from my house, spent the entire crossing from Harwich to the Hook below deck being seasick. Mike was the most successful naval officer I have ever known—Chief of the Defence Staff at the time of the Iraq war and thereafter, on retirement, a baron and finally knight of the Garter. His seasickness propelled him into submarines, and the rest is history. One great grandfather, both grandfathers, and my father were in the forces. Both my godfathers were in the Royal Navy, and one of my godmothers (from Tasmania) was mother to one of my dad’s best friends, Tommy Luxmoore, who went down with the Hood, and after whom I was named (along with my mum’s father, also a Tommy).

When I was a child we never had family holidays. This was partly because we were a service family, and when dad had leave he wanted to enjoy being at home in our rented flat in Pompey. Yet, as a child with a father killed at Gallipoli when he was a baby, he and his mum used to go and stay on a farm outside Wells in Somerset belonging to some people called Chilcott (whose adopted great-granddaughter Susan, a sublime soprano who died young, memorably played the Governess in Turn of the Screw in Brussels). For my dad as a kid, holidays were a chance to ride ponies and see how a farm worked. He was always very keen on gardening, and in the 1940s there were chickens and a massive loganberry bush growing along much of one wall in our small garden

My first holiday, apart from the three months we spent in Denmark in 1946 when dad was minesweeping in the Baltic, involved a train journey from Fratton station with four changes to get to Burnham-on-Sea where Uncle George and Aunt Evy lived in big house called Abbeywood. Aunt Evy was my first favourite relative, though I had to hear an awful lot there about the brilliance of my cousin Adrian Hollis who was her grandson, and son of Roger Hollis who was later head of MI5. Hearing about someone else’s outstanding brilliance when one is young and untested can be discouraging, though Evy was incredibly sweet and sent me Kipling’s Jungle Books at my next birthday and Christmas. A year later my mum went to George and Evy’s Golden Wedding celebration dinner. Also at Burnham I met other cousins my age who are still dear to me, as well as tiny ancient aunts never seen again. Family began to mean something.

Perhaps my best holidays were spent with my godfather Dave Gordon, who had been at Dartmouth with my dad from 1927 and had had a series of wives before his current one, an artist called Anne Hayward. Dave, Anne and their little daughter Fiona lived in a flat above one wing of Cobham Hall in Kent, opposite the flat where Hugh and Margaret Williams (struggling with straitened circumstances and a son about to go to Eton) wrote The Grass is Greener, a hit West End comedy (later filmed) about an aristocrat who sneaked down to his butler’s flat to watch telly, not having one himself. Cobham Hall was a ramshackle estate in those days, with neglected gardens and a semi-ruinous mausoleum. The chapel in the house had never been consecrated because the earl in the nineteenth century had fallen out with the Bishop of Rochester during dinner before the planned consecration. The present Lord Darnley had been through a number of marriages, and now had two young daughters—Lady Melissa and Lady Harriet—with whom I was welcome to play. Lord Darnley and his wife gave us tea and cakes—he was pretty ancient but child-friendly. In a jungle-like section of the gardens lurked the decaying ‘Dickens Chalet’ given to the author by a former earl. From a large pond in the courtyard of the house I was allowed to take some goldfish, but not all of them survived my early and rather sad discovery that a washbasin with a plug in it cannot be trusted.

Dave’s Indian first wife had been a champion bridge player. He was an excellent player too and taught me the game. He was also a semi-professional stamp collector (who made money from collecting rare covers as well as stamps). He gave my existing enthusiasm for collecting a big boost, and gave me sackfuls of unusual stamps too. Wandering round the grounds of Cobham Hall that included a somewhat ruinous Repton dairy was mysterious and suggestive. The house of course had a bedroom where Queen Victoria had slept, as well as coats of armour and treasures such as rare eighteenth century Chinese wallpapers. And Anne had a red American soft-top sports car to dash around in.

Learning to be a good guest is at least as much fun as having the wealth to indulge one’s tastes by staying in an expensive hotel, something which as a journalist I occasionally managed to do. Travelling and seeing and meeting the unfamiliar is incredibly rewarding. However, travelling on the scale of ant-like hyperactivity that we can now observe as part of the immense global holiday industry is an ecological threat to the planet and to all the creatures and plants, as well as human beings, that now struggle to share the goodness of life.