RETURN TO SILVERSEA
I have returned to Silversea, after twenty years. I’m tempted to call it a whim, but it’s a whim that’s been germinating for years, and I knew in the end I’d do it. It’s easy to say it’s some trip down Memory Lane before I go to live abroad, but at the moment, at least, the job in France is only temporary and even if it turns out otherwise it’s hardly a million miles away and I’ll be coming home to visit, so it’s not the last chance in my life I’ll have to come back to Silversea. But it perhaps was the spur I needed to finally scratch that lingering emotional itch.
For three years, from when I was eight to when I was eleven, my family (Mum, Dad, my big brother Colin, and me, Gina) had a holiday home in the little resort on the North Sea coast of Lincolnshire. That sounds very grand, but I realise even more with the clarity of hindsight that it wasn’t. Mum made a point of saying, “It’s a proper house, not a mobile home,” and she was right, but with that same clarity I know what I suppose I did at the time – our little ramshackle white-walled cottage at the far end of the road with no pavements that went past the back end of the amusement arcade was not nearly as well equipped as the spacious trailers on the Sherwood Chalet park. I mean, it wasn’t a wreck, it had electricity and proper sanitation and all that, but the furniture was shabby (the sofa in the lounge had a twanging spring like one in a cartoon) and the little windows never let enough light in – we had to put on the electric light even when it was bright outside. If Colin and I had been expected to manage without a TV at home, even for a day, we’d have grizzled and groused, but at the cottage (we always called it just that, not by any fancy name) we were quite happy to manage with a radio, and we’re a family of readers anyway. Only the last year we were there did Mum and Dad decide that even I was old enough to be trusted not to run out onto the road without a pavement (which could get surprisingly busy at times) which I thought was a bit rich, as I was always more cautious than Colin, so while we were in The Cottage that door was kept locked, with only the adults having the key. But we had free access to the back garden, which was quite a narrow and scrubby one, the kind where weeds seemed to flourish better than flowers. Looked at in cold blood, it should have had far less appeal than the one at home – there were no swings, there was no slide, and it wasn’t even the right shape to get a decent ball game going. But it was at The Cottage. It was in Silversea.
Not that we spent that much time, especially in the daytime, inside The Cottage. There was too much to see and do in Silversea, and simply being in Silversea, at least so far as I was concerned, was enough. I knew even then that though Colin enjoyed our holidays there, he never quite shared my passion for the place.
I can’t deny some of the appeal was the name. Would I have loved it as much had it been called something like – well, Bungthorpe?
Only during our last stay there, when I was old enough to make enquiries of my own and then wish I hadn’t, did I discover that the explanation for the name was entirely prosaic and relatively recent. True, there was a cluster of buildings (originally fishermen’s cottages) dating back to at least the 18th century, but the general consensus was that it hadn’t had a name as such. An entrepreneur, as we would say now, called Thomas Sherwood, saw the possibilities of the place in the 1930s, and developed the original holiday camp there. It had long since been superseded, and none of the original buildings remained (in fact it had been refurbished twice, once after having been used as a military base in the 2nd World War and again in the 1970s, but it still bore his name, as did one of the town’s main streets. Was he ever tempted to call the town after himself, and did he decide against it because it seemed too self-aggrandising, because he feared it might be confused with Sherwood Forest (that was only a couple of hours drive away, but had nothing to do with the place!) or did he just like the name Silversea?
I comforted myself, on finding out that there was not some more romantic and mythical explanation, with the notion that Sherwood must have been (to use a word my English teacher, Mr Baines, whom I rather hero-worshipped in my first year at grammar school, had introduced me to) a visionary to come up with such a lovely name. Colin tersely informed me he thought it was soppy. We were, for the most part, pretty close, but let’s just say we had our moments!
To this day I can’t recall a happier day in my life when, entirely out of the blue, and with short notice, Mum told us we were having an extra holiday at Silversea, at autumn half-term. I swear (and our family made a lot of Christmas) I would have been far less delighted about an extra Christmas.
There was nothing about Silversea I didn’t love. I loved the old bits (though looked at realistically that was as likely to have been only from the 30s, though there were a couple of cottages that were said to be the original article) and I loved the shiny new bits. I loved the rock pools as much as I loved the amusement arcades, and I loved the little aquarium (grandly called Marineland) as much as I loved the sand dunes. I loved the sight of kites dancing in the wind, and the sound of the old-fashioned barrel organ that still played sometimes outside the Our Plaice fish and chip shop. Oh, and of course I loved the fish and chips and the ice-cream and how everything, even things I hated like peas or jelly tasted far better than they did at home.
I was convinced I was heartbroken when Mum said that instead of going to The Cottage we were going to Spain. But like most children, my passionate loyalty was tempered by a certain fickleness, and as most of my class had already been abroad – well, about time I caught up with them. I don’t have especially happy memories of that holiday, and not just because we weren’t going to Silversea. The truth is, I suppose, that I was the wrong age. A year is a long time and transforms a lot as you head towards your teens, and I was too old for dolls of Spanish ladies in flamenco dress (though I did like those postcards with real cloth and lace and sparkles on them!) and straw donkeys, but too young for discos and holiday romance. It wasn’t traumatic, or a disaster, I just wished I were at Silversea. Still, at least I had now Been Abroad and that was no bad thing.
What was a THOROUGHLY bad thing was when Mum and Dad told us that they had sold The Cottage. They treated both of us as if we were grown-up enough to hear a sensible explanation, and said that we must have noticed the place was deteriorating, and the flooding last winter hadn’t helped, and they had been offered a good price, and especially as we were more likely to be going abroad for our holidays more often now …..
I howled my head off for an hour and sulked for considerably longer, and begged them to change their minds, but they gently said at first that they wouldn’t and then that it was too late.
Yes, it hit me hard, but I didn’t go into a decline. I wrote some excruciatingly awful poetry (which inside I recognised even at that age) about my lost paradise, not to mention a whole exercise book full of wish-fulfilment fantasies about going back to The Cottage. And in the end – well, I don’t know if I wrote it out of my system, or if it would have changed and abated anyway. Probably the latter. I enjoyed the next holiday abroad far more, not least because it was in Brittany, and French was one of my best subjects, so I got to show off, and I had to admit that I loved both the profiteroles and the strange standing stones.
Yet I never really quite grew out of or away from Silversea.
And now I’ve come back, and the job in Toulouse makes a very handy pretext.
I’m staying at a pretty little guest house called The Lodge on Sherwood Street. The owner, Rebecca, is friendly and helpful, but not your archetypal prying seaside landlady. This afternoon, I had the strangest feeling – at one and the same time it was as if I’d never been away, and as if I were in a strange place. Fair enough, there’s some logical explanation of that. There’s that curious paradox of seaside resort towns – the mixture of being down at heel and stuck in a time warp, yet modernised and in constant flux.
I admit I hesitated before deciding to have a look at The Cottage, but told myself it was defeating the whole purpose of returning to Silversea if I didn’t.
The road itself was little changed, still with no pavement, and the back side of the arcade was shabby (as it probably always had been) though I had seen the front and knew that the games were now louder and brighter, and even little kids seemed to have a glazed look as if they weren’t really enjoying it.
The new owner – or I suppose I should say the current owner, as there may very well have been more than one since – appeared to be in. The windows were double glazed now, with white Perspex squares in them, and I was torn between thinking it had ruined the place’s character and admitting it was an improvement on the old chipped ones that looked dusty even when they were clean. I tried not to be too obviously nosy, but could see that there was a TV on in the lounge, as there had never been in our time, and it seemed to be turned to some daytime property show. I was not unaware of the irony of looking into a house to see others looking into a house! A window was open, and I caught the whiff of a cooking smell - the sort I, perhaps unkindly, call old lady’s lunch – not horrible, not nauseating, not even really unpleasant, but with a kind of slightly stale blandness that makes me glad I won’t have to eat it. Something redolent of a mixture of weak, over-brewed tea and slightly stagnant gravy.
I wondered if the back garden were still scrubby and full of weeds, somehow thought it probably wasn’t, and wasn’t sure if I was impatient or reluctant to move on.
Marineland has been closed for twelve years now, I’ve found out, and the building been demolished. It just couldn’t compete with attractions like The Depths not that far away. “There were rumours about Joe not looking after the fish properly, either,” the chatty lady in the café told me, “But I don’t think I believe it, or at least not that he would neglect them deliberately. He struck me as a decent enough sort, but his heart hadn’t been in it for years.”
The café was a cosy, gingham-curtained one called The Nice Bite where the Post Office used to be. Unlike the old Marineland Building, Our Plaice hasn’t been demolished, but it’s now a vaping salon, apparently one of 3 in the town, which possibly explains the slightly sickly-sweet scent I keep smelling that is worse than Old Lady’s Lunch. There’s no bank in the town anymore (it’s not the kind of thing a child pays much heed to, but I’m pretty sure there were three) and no secondary school, though the primary one still clings on. The Sherwood Chalet Park is still there, but it’s not called that any more, it’s called Happihols after the national franchise that took it over five years ago, with their corporate logo of a smiling starfish in an unnatural shade of orange emblazoned on a large sign by the entrance. And you have to have a card to make the gates open. The lady in The Nice Bite told me that the bar, which they now call the Family Entertainment Hub, at least officially, is called after Thomas Sherwood, in some nod to the founder.
Polly (as her name badge told me she was called) said, quietly, “You’re obviously visiting one of your childhood haunts, love, and thought I’ve done it myself before now, some folk say it’s never wise.”
“There are some things I do quite like,” I mused, “The wrought iron benches, and that deli over the road where the off-license used to be, didn’t it? Not that I’m a teetotaller!”
She laughed. “Me neither, but let’s be frank, the place was a dump – not a quaint dump, just a dump. I’ll let you into a secret – I get some of my stuff from there rather than making it all myself, though that lemon curd sponge was made by my own fair hand.”
“And very tasty it is, too,” I said, truthfully.
But I was clutching at straws and I knew it.
I decided to have a walk to clear my head, though I’m inclined to be a tad cynical about the miraculous powers of walks. But I told myself they couldn’t mess around with the dunes and with the sea, and those memories, at least, would emerge intact.
Wouldn’t they? Well, my first thought was yes and no. Probably the dunes never were as tall or as golden as I thought when I was a child, and even less tall and golden than I had painted them in my memories. Had I really made a marvellous collection of beautiful shells or had the vast majority of them been cracked and holey once taken from their sandy bed even then?
And instead of the vista of the rolling North Sea only being interrupted by a bobbing boat, there was a massive offshore wind farm, its turbines dominating the horizon. I’ve always been in favour of renewable energy, and still am, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a sudden, treacherous surge of sympathy with those who’d objected to such things. It wasn’t that I found them ugly in themselves, but it was another thing that, on a very grand scale, wasn’t how it had been then.
At least there were still kiosks selling ice-cream, and I bought one. But whether the lemon curd sponge had “spoiled my appetite for it” as my Mum used to warn, or whether I just didn’t like the taste very much now, I don’t know. I didn’t eat all the cone and crumbled some that was immediately seized by a swarm of seagulls, though they looked at me (I swear) disdainfully as if to say “is that all?” and squawked and flapped away to find richer pickings on some discarded chips – where they’d been purchased, I wasn’t sure.
I trudged on, getting sand in my shoes and in my eyes, and not even finding that much solace or delight in the area’s famous multi-shaded cloud formations. I would be relieved, I thought, when it was over. I wasn’t going to cut my holiday short, though I was tempted, but would take trips to neighbouring towns, or even just read in my bedroom, pleading a headache or a tummy bug – I thought I knew Rebecca well enough to be sure she would be sympathetic, and offer to pick up any necessary – or unnecessary! medications (Silversea has at least kept its pharmacy!) but then leave me in peace.
The clouds ARE beautiful, I tried to persuade myself, and atmospheric, and I can see why they’re reckoned to be the best in the whole country. But it was a routine thought, an “ought to” thought. Then I heard the squeal of “Look, look! Daddy, look!” The shrillness of the voice grated and I thought it would give the seagulls a run for their money, but something about the sheer excited joyfulness of it transcended that. A little boy, perhaps five or six years old, was running across the dunes in the way children do at their chubby stage; body a little awkwardly upright, little legs going like pistons, and high above him, seeming to touch the clouds though of course I knew it wasn’t, was a kite – an old-fashioned one, triangular, and parti-coloured in red and yellow and green. A little behind him, plainly not sure whether to help him or let him do it all himself, was a tall man in jeans and a grey sweatshirt. We nodded a greeting, but his eyes were all for his little boy, and the little boy, apart from a brief glance back now and then to check his Daddy was still watching, only had eyes for his kite. Eventually, inevitably, it would fall to the ground, and perhaps there would be tears, but his father would probably make everything alright again, and that would happen over and over, and neither of them would tire of it until the sun set, perhaps.
I don’t know if I’ll come to Silversea again, now, but I’m not sorry I came this time.