top of page
  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Car Memories at Aveton Gifford

I will start this post with a confession and an advance Mea Culpa for sins not yet committed. I am not a petrol head but my other half is. This means when I go to Classic Car events as I often do, I am looking at them through a different pair of eyes, so if you are a petrol head, ignore my narrative and just admire the cars. Because this is not a post about horse power or engines, chassis or wheel trims, it is a post about a typical British summer day out in a field, The Aveton Gifford Classic Car Show, only this time it isn't raining. This post is also home to anecdotes and remembrances that in this instance I have mostly kept car related.

In case you are about to pick me up on plurals, I have checked and the plural of chassis is chassis. I like anomalies like that, they keep you on your toes.

We British have a tradition of the village fete where everyone gathers in the open air in summer on the day it is guaranteed to rain. It just happens that way. This year, however, it has barely rained for three months and we have had several heatwaves to boot, so the grass is brown and all the cars are dry. To Boot? What a strange expression.

To Boot - You can say "to boot" to emphasize that you have added something else to something or to a list of things that you have just said. [formal, emphasis]. The term comes from the Old English to bote, (meaning advantage or remedy) which was once used as part of a legal term in English law, meaning something extra that is added as part of a bargain or compensation.

Speaking about cars there is also another anomaly, of the boot. The boot is the rear compartment of the car in the UK while Americans will insist it is the trunk. They are always insisting on something.

Boot - The word "boot"(which is commonly used by the English), goes back to 18th century horse-drawn carriages where the coachman sat on a chest, which was used to store, among other things, boots. Boots were needed because the roads were mud. This storage space came to be named the "boot locker", which soon became shortened to the "boot".

The American "trunk" of course is now obvious as you can see where the divergence occurred, because the trunk or boot locker are one in the same object. So American coachmen were probably sitting on a trunk while British coachmen were sitting on a boot locker. All is now clear.

So on with the show. ( Addendum. This post was started before the recent death of Queen Elizabeth)

A characteristic of Classic Car Shows is occasional period dress, and or props. This is why several participants had come ready prepared for a vintage picnic with vintage picnic sets and no vintage food. Although I suppose you could class sandwiches as vintage food in the sense that they were invented in the mid 18th century. These props do add to the ambience of the occasion. This one, below, looks like it has never offered sustenance, ever. Parts of it still seem to be in their original wrappers. My grandmother had bone handled cutlery like this and revolutionary new plastics too, all in wacky patterns and vibrant colours. Her classic car was just "the" car, not having evolved into a classic at that point.

Her car was white with a black vinyl roof, an Austin 1300 GT, the sort that baboons in safari parks love. Now you are impressed I was able to identify her model of car, fifty years later, so don't worry, I had the expert do it from an old photo. Inside, it was a strange shade of amber, everywhere. This, I later discovered, was a result of the permanently smoking pipes that both my grandfather and uncle chewed on and breathed through. He wasn't really my uncle either but we'll leave that for another day. Windows mean draughts, so the smoke, not having any means of escape just dissolved itself into the interior fabrics by osmosis. Kippers are the exact same colour.

Actually no, let's do it now. The fact that my non uncle lived with my grandmother and grandfather almost all his adult life never seemed odd in any way to us kids, ever. He was just always there. So when my grandmother got incredibly drunk at his 70th birthday do and announced loudly that "people had been talking" and that they had been suggesting certain living arrangements, bearing in mind she was nearly 80 " they are saying we live together", because my grandfather had now died, and it was just the two of them, my father came out with the immortal line, "well you are living together mama" to which my grandmother roared at the top of her voice, across the crowded bar of the very posh hotel we were in, just as there was a lull in the conversation "but not as lovers".

We had to carry her back to her house where she promptly threw up on the stairs as she was escorted to bed, whereupon my father, who had paid for the event, added to all the hilarity by saying loudly under his breath "well that's twenty quid down the toilet".

We used to have a friend who worked for the Rover car company and whenever we visited him, there was a different new car on the drive. My petrol head other half always insisted on a quick inspection before we were allowed to ring the doorbell and go in. At that particular point in time Rover had an abysmal quality record (choose your point in time and write it in here) and one evening during the inspection, it was noted that large pieces of the vinyl roof were torn or missing. Embarrassed, we said nothing, the car was fresh off the assembly track, as they always were.

Later, over dinner, they regaled us about how much fun they had had the day before at The West Midlands Safari Park. By now, you know where I am going with this. They proceeded to describe with hilarity how the baboons had been ripping off bits and pieces of other cars as they drove around the enclosure. The baboons apparently, were particularly partial to the vinyl roofs. We both looked at each other with frozen faces across the fondue set which was sizzling away, (I said it was a particular point in time) as we took on board what we now knew and they didn't. Would you have said anything?

I shall leave the great fondue fire of Solihull for another occasion, even though that anecdote also involves driving, on that occasion to the hospital. I think we must have missed the health warning on the cheese, "Fondue can Kill", and I'm not talking cholesterol either.

It's not often that a car number plate has a movie quote on it. It's not quite correct though, call me picky, as the line is properly "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off". It is of course "The Italian Job". The doors of course were those on the van carrying the gold bullion. The escape featured three Minis in red white and blue and a bus which they drove into, by "drove into" I mean they drove up a ramp to end up inside, I don't mean they drove into it like in an accident. It probably had one of the most frustrating endings of any film in history. In case you haven't seen it I will leave you teetering on the edge with anticipation.

I was going to say the "original Italian Job" but I then thought better of it, not wanting to be forced to qualify it with the word "original". When a poor remake of a classic film is made, it shouldn't force a qualification on the title of the first.

I suspect we know who is boss here, and who is being taken for a walk. Come on now, stop lagging behind.

There's a definite mobile phone thing going on with the exhibitors, it could be that they have just discovered an unusual spot in the South Hams where there is a signal. This show is also unusual in being held on a relatively flat area of ground which are also difficult to find around here. There is one in Kingsbridge which serves as a rugby pitch and another in Prawle which serves as a cricket pitch. There are steep valley sides hemming in this field and it normally serves as the school playing area. The village rakes up the slope on one side. I recently did a photo walk of the village here.

Whenever I see a Bentley my blood runs cold. I am not a fan of old cars at the best of times, at least, not a fan of travelling in them. A few years ago my other half did a favour for an eccentric millionaire friend of ours who had an old Bentley, the words millionaire and Bentley go together quite well as you need to be one to afford to keep one of these beasts on the road.

The favour involved assembling a large model railway engine which had proved impossible for our friend. It was one of those models you get in bits in a regular monthly magazine. The first magazine when it arrives at a reduced price with it's pack of parts enclosed always seems like a total bargain, it's issue number two that is the killer followed by another twenty editions after which you realise you could have bought a full size steam engine cheaper. Anyway, our friend being an impatient eccentric millionaire just contacted the magazine and bought all the bits in one go which arrived in about five large boxes. It turned out that various parts were not best suited to each other and several key bolts were missing too, so it ended up being quite a struggle, but very satisfying apparently.

Having delivered it, our friend was over the moon and after dragging a signed Matisse picture out from behind a sofa, and then offering us a choice from an array of collectible watches as reward, all of which were turned down because it had been a labour of love, he resorted to insisting instead that we must at least have a ride in the Bentley. We foolishly agreed. First stop was the petrol station, it should have been the cash machine first actually as the petrol station served the opposite purpose to the cash machine. One gave out cash while the other consumed it.

Our friend drove us to the nearest stretch of motorway so we could really put her through her paces, not something I would recommend when the lady is elderly and on a zimmer frame. Anyway we managed to reach the motorway, and pedal to the floor, we were soon doing 75 MPH, in the middle lane. We were actually supposed to be in the inside lane, but keeping her in any lane and going in a straight line was proving a struggle. I should add at this point that being a classic car of a certain age, an age before seat belts, that there were none. Seat belt laws were never retroactive and so most classic cars don't have them. To be fair, when this one rolled off the production line, motorways were only science fiction, and there were still a few people around who believed propelling the human body to speeds above 30 mph could kill. To add to the experience, there was a strong smell of petrol, so bouncing around in the rear on a large overstuffed leather sofa, intoxicated by fumes, I started to see my life flash before my eyes. Luckily for us the distance between the two junctions on the motorway was only two miles so we were soon back on a dual carriageway doing a sedate 70. When it was all over and we were driving back home in the Skoda, I said to the other half "next time can we just accept the signed Matisse please"?

This car says it all. "People are strange", probably the most apt bumper sticker for a Classic Car Event.

I have always had a soft spot for these, the Triumph Herald or as we knew it the Standard Herald, it's Indian counterpart.

In India in the sixties you had a choice of three models of car, a small Fiat, the Standard Herald an Indian made version of this car, also small, or the Ambassador, also small. It was the Ambassador if you had really made it. Our family regularly squeezed into the Herald, we hadn't made it, to go on our various long distance adventures. One of our longest trips was to the hill station Kodaikanal, for the summer, and aged about seven, I knew it was a long way, as we had to stay overnight somewhere, but I have just Googled it on maps and I am astounded to discover that even today the shortest route would be a nine hour drive, and that is with motorways. Back in the mid sixties the roads would have been a bit more basic as were our tyres which blew out twice on the way.

Refreshments were what we could find on the way, more usually picnics taken with us, pulled over on the side of the road, tartan rug down, which never failed to attract an audience even in the middle of a desert. The audience would appear piecemeal as if by magic from the ether, whereupon half the nearest village would eventually all stand in a semi circle, silent, whole families watching every move we made, as if we were exhibits in some strange travelling show, which in a way we were. These people had never seen tartan before.

One delay, waiting for a replacement tyre, involved a visit to a very large noisy restaurant in some sort of industrial shed, where our food arrived served on banana leaves, and we sat at long shared trestle tables. It was some sort of joint, offering mass catering for travellers, most of whom didn't seem to have shared a room with a European before, as once again the circus was in town. Restaurants were a novelty for us kids generally, while eating off leaves just got us thinking we were in a Tarzan movie. I have a vague recollection of our overnight accommodation which was some sort of private club, left over from the Raj, not unlike the one in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I only remember it being dark and wood panelled with very high ceilings, with aged and slowly rotating fans and a Billiard table which seemed to be made for giants.

When we decamped to a hill station for the summer it was usually for a period of about six weeks so we had to take most of what we owned with us, which admittedly wasn't a lot. It did however include a roof rack which had strapped to it, a cast iron two ring gas burner for our cook, along with a large gas cylinder. The cook and ayah travelled there on the bus, which was probably marginally more roomy than the back of the Herald. The ayah was our nanny whose grim task it was to try and civilise three free range boys, while speaking no English. We of course were the age that children are when they become language sponges so we had eventually become bilingual without any effort.

Years later when we returned to Wales much older our actual uncles would remind us of what we always used to say when we visited them during a short return, back to the UK, a few years before. Apparently all they remembered was us kids saying repeatedly "mala pani pahije" which was "can I have some water" in Marathi because we had to always ask for it as it had to be boiled before we were allowed to drink it. It was so drilled into us as kids never to drink water, ever, unless it was given to us by someone we knew, that when we did come back to the UK we weren't sure we believed you could actually drink straight from a tap. I remember a conversation with my older brother in the farmyard where he was trying to convince me that yes, it was perfectly OK to drink from the outside tap. I really was not convinced but eventually did try it, convinced I was going to be struck by lightning or something.

I'm sure our dashboard looked pretty much like this one below with the main feature being a teak drawer containing the ash tray. We had the advantage of no air conditioning in this case as it meant the windows had to be opened in the tropical heat, so we were not smoked like Kippers on this occasion.There is a windscreen wiper and a couple of lights and indicators and that was pretty much it. Thinking about it, I'm not sure ours was even teak lined.

The car only had two doors so my two brothers and I were shoehorned into the back. On my lap was a small cage containing Sian, my Grey Slender Loris, a tiny nocturnal primate with large owl like eyes, while on my brother's lap was a small cage with a bright green parrot called Thomas. My mother up front in the passenger seat was accompanied by our insane Dachshund called Tankam who was quite happily asleep in the footwell for most of the journey.


When we eventually arrived, having climbed endless mountain roads and hairpin bends, dicing with death, we found that we were all very light headed and Mum nearly fainted when she got out of the car. This was our first experience of high altitude and at 2133 metres we were twice as high as the highest mountain in England and Wales and nearly 1000 metres higher than Ben Nevis in Scotland, and with a garden that seemed to be on a cliff edge, we spent most of the summer in low cloud admiring the exotic looking red hot pokers that seemed to flower in profusion like a wide row of stage lights at the end of the lawn, framing the vista of the plains below, thousands of feet below.

On arrival Dad constructed some sort of climbing frame in a deep window niche with tree branches from the garden, for little Sian to climb around and occasionally hang upside down. I, as usual had to go on a live grasshopper hunt every afternoon to feed her. She would take the grasshoppers from me in her tiny hands and bite their heads off, before crunching her way through the rest of the body. At night her large round eyes would glow like headlamps in any reflected light. Tankam meanwhile would just run everywhere, usually round and round in circles, his huge silky ears flapping around like wings. I had two shirts made for me by the itinerant taylor, ready made clothes were unheard of, and those shirts were designed with two large front pockets, inside which little Sian could sit, with her tiny hands gripping the edge of the pocket and her face looking out, to the amazement of most people, as I was often allowed to take her out with us.

Both the Daschund and the parrot had been adopted from other expats returning home, and several years later Tankam who had served us well, was adopted a second time when we eventually returned to the UK. By then, Thomas having more sense, had prised open the wires of his cage and long ago flown the coop. The day he escaped there was much fuss as he was spotted in one of a row of large trees in front of the house. The gardener broke off from watering all the clay pots full of flowers, to scale the tree, bare foot, in an attempt to catch him, but Thomas had tasted freedom and just hopped to the next tree, and then to the next, until he eventually, feeling a little more adventurous, flew off into the distance, never to be seen again.

Sian met her demise when she got a fever and the local vet had no idea what she was, let alone what was wrong with her, and could only offer up this advice, "Do not feed her any more hop-grasses". The biological diagrams on his wall did include one showing all the vital organs of an elephant, although where his elephant clients were seen was not clear, as his surgery was quite normal in a cats and dogs sort of way, and no elephant would have got through the door.

As for Kodaikanal itself my main memory was a beautiful lake and mountain sides draped in acres of blue flowers, everywhere. By chance we had arrived during one of nature's rare little miracles, the flowering of the Neelakurinji flower, an unusual plant that only flowers every twelve years. It is a vibrant blue and carpeted almost every open piece of ground, interspersed with Eucalyptus forests.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Before going out to India for the second time my father had the foresight to buy a complete set of Britax retrofit seat belts that we took back with us. The trusty Mr. Das at the local garage who thought nothing of knocking off spare parts for any make of car as the need arose, with only his bare hands, fitted the belts to our little Herald, so if it ever did live long enough to become a classic it is the only classic Herald still going around with period seatbelts, albeit retrofitted ones.

I am reminded of the time my father in law stopped driving due to ill health and had to sell off his old Austin Ambassador. At that time, pre-internet, the way to sell your car was to phone up Exchange and Mart, a weekly magazine full of everything for sale. In fact it looked more like a magazine sized newspaper, with black ink, that after a good pore over on a weekend usually left you with black finger tips.

The advert duly appeared and his definitely not a classic model in not a classic condition at £500 seemed to attract surprisingly keen attention from buyers all over the country, all of whom wanted to know in great detail all about it's condition. My father in law who always looked at his cars through rose tinted spectacles really sold it to all of these interested buyers, so successfully, that eventually someone drove about 300 miles to check it out in the flesh. When he arrived he was most disappointed with the price, not because it was too expensive but because it was too cheap. As it turned out the people on the other end of the phone at Exchange and Mart had misheard the description and had advertised it at £5000, leading every collector in the land to believe this must be the best example left in the world.

What better way to spend a late summer Sunday afternoon than sitting on a camping chair knitting, while the world passes by. There's a very pleasing colour coordinated effort going on here too.

Below is a classic example of a travel rug. I am not sure why almost every travel rug ever made is in Scottish Tartan but it seems to be a tradition. It may be that in the old days of early car travel the people doing the travelling were mostly the type of people who had town houses and places in the country too. Many went to Scotland for the summer and in hunting fishing and shooting seasons, and Queen Victoria had already made all things Scottish fashionable. Balmoral Castle was built expressly for holidays in the Highlands and the Royal family still hang out there to this day, wearing kilts and killing deer.

We followed in their footsteps in the late seventies in something very like.......

......this camper van below. The extended roof in our hired version contained hammocks, one of which I had to sleep in. I think ours was a later version than this one. My younger brother slept over the engine in the rear and we spent our evenings being eaten to death by midges, like most visitors to the Highlands.

Speaking of kilts, well tartan at any rate, I still remember going to various Highland Games and theatrical performances where kilts were de rigueur. We went to one performance in Pitlochry, at a theatre, a sort of variety show, which involved much singing and leg kicking. One of the acts was a pair of very robust young women, which, to quote a great comedy line from somewhere, had "hams you couldn't smoke in a forest fire", in mini kilts, which left little to the imagination. As they thundered across the stage to some Highland tune, trip toeing and high kicking, mini kilts akimbo my father started to giggle, then my mother, then us. Unfortunately we were in the front row and it was the sort of laughter that propels itself forward like a chain reaction headed for a meltdown. The more we tried to stop, the funnier it got, the more the rest of the audience didn't see the joke, the funnier it got, the more the dancers tried not to notice us, the funnier it got. The more the act crescendoed to a climax of jumps and kicks and the volume of the thunder on the boards increased, straining under the weight and impact of the Highland Fling, the funnier it got. I am almost ashamed about it now, thinking back, but it was just one of those times when instinct took over from modesty.

The very worst thing about a camper van though has to be waking up in the cold and dark of the night wanting to pee, especially if you are hanging from a roof in a cradle. The realisation that you definitely can't ignore this, it won't go away, and you need to struggle to get out of the van with the least disruption to everyone else and then to walk across several hundred yards of wet grass in pitch blackness to get to a toilet block, built for prisoners of war, thirty years ago, only to have to then do it all again in reverse. Those holidays though were very memorable and fondly so.

This photo below reminds me of many a driving holiday through France where we always knew the picnickers up ahead were British because they would be parked up in a layby with an Everest sized pile of gravel next to the car and their chairs set out usually facing the gravel not the fantastic view in the other direction. We on the other hand would drive for several miles scouting out the local fields for a suitable spot with a view, where we usually drove in through an open gate on to some recently cropped piece of land and put out our tartan rug to feast on whatever we had just found in the last hypermarket we had passed. There was always some sort of hammy cheesy croissanty thing, a small pot of celeriac remoulade and some Paprika Bugles washed down with lashings of Orangina. "Shake the bottle wake the drink". There was occasionally a strawberry custard tart.

At that time celeriac was unheard of in Britain and this ugly gnarly root always seemed exotic, while Bugles were a holiday treat only found in France. I can now get celeriac, Bugles and Orangina in the supermarket three miles away. It's a small culinary world these days. The Bugles were usually Paprika flavour so I am still waiting for Celeriac remoulade flavour Bugles.

The landscape in France, as we mostly traversed the north of the country, was to us remarkably flat and the roads remarkably straight. It was also very open with virtually no hedgerows between the fields and the road, this made picnicking easier. On one occasion we pulled over on to a field to discover a wartime shell upended and standing at the edge of the road. It was likely an empty shell case but you can't be too sure, our guide around the 1st World War museum in Peronne warned us to be careful as her uncle lost his life in the late 60's ploughing up some sort of bomb. We didn't hang around and some of the advantages of piles of fresh gravel in laybys opened up to us.

On one trip to France we spent hours following signs to a place called Gravillons only to eventually discover it meant loose chippings. In an earlier post I tantalised the reader by mention of an anecdote about staying the night in a brothel, by accident. No really. I threatened to elucidate at some future date in some future post so here we go. Apropos of nothing.

We were trekking across the endless flatlands of sunflower infested France on a very hot day deciding that we ought to start looking for somewhere to spend the night. We hadn't stopped driving since we'd had our celeriac remoulade several hours before and we needed some cheap wine and something small and vital from a cow with lots of added garlic for our supper.

We stopped in a small unremarkable town called Aubis sur Arse*. The name Arse carried some element of foreboding but by now we had had enough of sticking to the car seats for one day. We pulled into the square and there was a hotel right there, with a parking space in front of the entrance. We rummaged in our large box of information guides and books to see if it was mentioned anywhere and wonder of wonders, there it was in the Logis Guide, with only a single fireplace. If you have not been inducted into the world of the Logis Guide I should explain. We only stayed in Logis and the number of fireplaces it had was important, even on a very hot day, because the Logis were graded from one to three fireplaces which was the Logis logo. We rarely stayed in a one fireplace Logis unless we were desperate and now we were. Notice that Logis like chassis is the same singular or plural, so that's two examples for you in one post. Real value for money. In a one fireplace Logis you could easily find yourself with towels you could see through, but downstairs, there would always be an excellent restaurant with superb food.

This hotel entrance was a bar with the traditional zinc countertop and beehived barmaid with cigarette in her mouth. We mentioned the possibility of staying the night in her beautiful establishment, which seemed to take her by surprise, which was disconcerting. She had no intention of leaving the bar, so instead appeared to remonstrate with and instruct an aging customer, who was nursing some sort of noxious green liquid in a very small, very thick and heavy glass, to play host.

This old man with a limp and one milky eye grabbed a key fob and motioned us to follow him, so we traipsed and limped across the bar and through some cowboy style swinging saloon doors into the restaurant which was empty, and out through the far end, past the open door into the kitchen, and up an extremely narrow steep and dark twisting staircase, where we ascended about three floors to emerge onto a landing, pressing minuteries or light timers all along the way, due to the lack of windows, which dimly lit our progress albeit briefly as they all swiftly clicked themselves off after about ten seconds of illumination. We dragged our wheelless cases along the landing thinking one day someone could do with inventing the wheel and adding it to a suitcase. At every second or third door he grandly opened the door as if it might be our room, only to find each one in turn occupied, with couples all of whom seemed to have retired very early to bed. Eventually we came to another landing at right angles and several steps down which led to another staircase which we descended. We now had no idea where we were and for all we knew could have been in the neighbouring town.

After interrupting several more clients as I will now describe them, who were desperately and energetically trying to get some rest, the latest corridor came to a corner door, which he once again opened dramatically and which thankfully turned out to be unoccupied. It was almost totally dark, so at first we weren't a hundred percent convinced that it was unoccupied but as our eyes accustomed to the striped gloom from the closed window shutters, we thought yes, this was the one. Looking very pleased with himself the host slash customer, eager to get back to the green liquid, disappeared through a door next to ours which led to yet another staircase, which it transpired was only one flight down into the bar where we had started our epic journey. Sure enough when we had got the window shutters open there was our car right outside below the window. With some light now flooding the room we realised that apart from the novelty wheeled bidet, the mystery of which we never did solve, it was actually quite conventional, clean, nicely decorated and comfortable, even if every flat surface was coated in yellow floral wallpaper including the furniture and door. Today they would probably check for epilepsy before allowing guests in there, and I'm sure that in a state of mild inebriation it would probably be impossible to escape the room at all.

I will always remember waking up the next morning to find that the whole town, seemingly, had the aroma of fresh croissants. The perfect start to a new day.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Here is a classic view of a classic Stag, they are usually found with their bonnet open, waiting at the side of the road for a tow truck, even I, car ignoramus that I am, know that their engines have a habit of blowing up, a friend of ours used to own one. I believe there is some sort of modification that prevents it, but call me stupid, isn't that something you expect the manufacturer to do before it hits the showroom? I can't vouch for this one obviously and I don't think cars can sue for libel, but the friend that had one soon found that his dream car, turned into a nightmare. If the cars in this field could all talk what a cacophony of woe and disappointment it would in all likelihood be.

With bonnets and hoods we are back to a similar case as with boots and trunks. As George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have said "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language" , at least it wasn't Oscar Wilde the other knowitall. Bonnets and hoods are both forms of covering for the head and they both transferred from the item on the head to the item over your head in the early automobile in the form of stretched fabric covers to keep out the rain. Eventually the words transferred to the cover over the front of the car that covered the engine.

As Crocodile Dundee might have said, "Now this is a car". Looking at this interior it is fairly obvious that the servants quarters are up front, there is a certain disparity in space as you can tell from the sizable rear Edwardian Drawing Room complete with fresh flowers in a bud vase. There is probably a downstairs too, where the butler prepares the drinks.

At least the servants driving this car had their own roof, I have seen many slightly older models that only have cover for the passengers. You have to actually go out of your way, surely, to design a specialised roofless section for the driver.

Our childhood in India was a strange one, looking back. Of course it was perfectly ordinary at the time as are all childhoods, it's only when one enters the real world of adulthood that one realises these things. So it was that we found ourselves as missionary offspring sent by a church charity so that Dad could man an aging church and tend to an aging congregation, left behind by the enormous changes that India had undergone only recently when we arrived. The church, a towering edifice in grey stone, could have been anywhere in the Home Counties, while the members ranged from retired Brigadiers to Spinster Sisters, like those in The Waltons, minus The Recipe.

Schools were a luxury we could ill afford, like most things, and the commonest reply to any question we asked when growing up was usually no! We were church mice, even in our "Grace and Favour" home, attended on by two servants, and with our little car and even a fridge all supplied by the charity, we didn't have two paisa to rub together, so this was how we came to be in the best schools available, while barely able to afford the uniforms, mixing with the scions of local industrialists and entrepreneurs, while returning to our little semi-detached house every day after school.

Grace and favour - (modifier) British (of a house, flat, etc) owned by the sovereign and granted free of rent to a person to whom the sovereign wishes to express gratitude. It is possible that the term crept into English through the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote of advisers who are ministers per grazia e concessione, which has been translated as "through grace and favour" I use the term loosely, as our house was supplied by the parish not the monarch.

Getting invited around to your friends house for tea on a Saturday afternoon almost always involved a car like the one above, and a uniformed chauffeur. On one occasion the visit also involved a choice of two miniature petrol driven sports cars that we kids could drive ourselves, around the plush acres of the mansion. Our most exciting outings were on occasional Sunday afternoons after church when the State Governor would send his car for the whole family, to drive us out to the Governor's Mansion, hidden behind high walls and higher gates, patrolled by real soldiers with real guns. This state alone, one of 28 in India, had a population twice the size of the UK. At the mansion we were expected to behave ourselves in our Sunday best which definitely meant not speaking unless we were spoken to first and eating everything that was placed in front of us, while holding our knives and forks correctly at a very formal dining table that sat about twenty and had as many liveried staff waiting table.

I was reminded of this formal dining this week in a very nice restaurant in Torquay, not far from here. It was a very unpretentious place on the sea front with superb views across the bay caught in a time warp. The decor appeared to be late 60's to early seventies, what I would call Brett Sinclair from The Persuaders, a TV show currently being re-run after many years. (The best opening titles and theme tune of any TV show before or since).

Sixties style chandeliers and finely upholstered banquette seating with much bright orange and lime green, set the mood. The bar was straight out of the casino at Monte Carlo a la James Bond, and an old style Maitre 'D was always on hand to get the fine line between attention and nuisance just right. We were two at a table for four and there was a large pillar behind me and then another table. The food arrived to my right and my friend was served from his left and it being many years since I have seen anyone strictly serve only from the left, I was quite surprised to see that the waiter, instead of just serving me on my right at the same time, went to the extent of carrying my plate around my other half, around the other two empty chairs going full circle, to ensure I too was served from the left. For a moment I was back in the Governor's mansion. Although I prefer informal dining, never having owned a bow tie or a suit, it was a novel change.

Back in India, on one day out to my friends house which ended with a visit to the cinema we decided it would be a great laugh if he travelled there in the boot. It was a large car of the vintage type and this time his mother was accompanying us. She agreed that we could put her son in the boot, but this was easy as the back of the rear seat folded down, so we only had to drop it as we approached the cinema for him to roll in and put the seat back. When we arrived and parked out front in full view of the queue of cinema goers waiting to go in, his mother and I cooly got out closed the doors and opened the boot for him to get out. All of us had to keep absolutely straight faces though for the full effect as if this was the most normal thing in the world.

Sitting in cars on a hot day always takes me back to our Dutch adventure several years ago. We were on a driving holiday around the Netherlands which is one of the few places you can have a holiday driving around on the seabed as the Dutch have this fetish for building very large earthworks across bits of the North Sea and then draining all the water out. Many people wrongly assume Dutch windmills in their serried ranks were built to grind corn or make electricity, when in fact most of them were built to raise water from one level up to the next in a series of giant steps until ultimately it all gets tipped into the sea, leaving behind rich farmland and quaint towns and villages. This is something they have been beavering away at for hundreds of years. Many years ago quite a few Dutch people decided that they should come to eastern England too and start it there, presumably in some sort of cunning plan to join the two countries and remove the entire North Sea, so we also have an area of drained Fenland as we call it.

At any rate these areas of reclaimed land are a very interesting landscape to drive around and we did it in a heatwave. The landscape takes a bit of getting used to for us Brits, because when we drive to the seaside we mostly arrive on land sitting above the sea with us looking down at it. In some parts of the Netherlands when you arrive at the seaside all you can see is a small mountain range, because way up top, if you climb up it, you eventually come to the sea, from where if you look back you see your car way down below on a road which was actually the seabed not that long ago. It's all a bit disconcerting, but the Dutch don't seem to mind and they had already arrived in their tens of thousands, so for mile after mile we passed half of the vehicles in the country deserted on the roadside all on the same day out. The vehicles were empty because the people had all gone over the top, to find the water. We had a sweltering but enjoyable week, during which we even bumped into quite a major Dutch celebrity.

Our last day in The Netherlands was spent in the strangely named 's-Hertogenbosch, the only place I have ever been to whose name starts with an apostrophe. We were leaving early to get to Calais so we could cross the channel and make our way home. During the holiday we had used our trusty guidebook to look up places of interest and one that I kept coming back to was Heusden which got a big mention mainly for being painfully quaint and old and at 134, had the largest number of protected ancient buildings in one town in the entire country. But it was not to be, as it was always out of reach on our route and in fact driving along the motorway to Calais was the closest we were going to get to it.

We had only been on the motorway for about ten minutes, with me, head down, examining the map, when seemingly a bomb went off causing me to leap out of my seat. Every warning light in the car went red and every alarm sounded as we started to lose speed in the outside lane. I looked up to see an exit slip road fast approaching and the announcement from the driver that the car was dying fast. We managed to quickly swerve off to the slip road which as luck would have it sloped down, quickly propelling us to a small road lined with some large houses that backed onto the motorway. We managed to come to a halt parked up outside these houses. The car had now expired, there were no trees and we were in fierce sun headed for 40 degrees C. We had no option other than to stay sitting in the car as there was no shelter to be had.

We managed to phone for breakdown help after we worked out what had happened, a large block of concrete had fallen from a truck and bounced up off the road smashing through the radiator, while we were doing about 70 mph. It didn't escape our attention that if it had bounced a little higher it would have smashed through the windscreen instead. Our breakdown cover involved ringing the UK where a rescue was set in train.

After looking around we noticed that we were outside a property that appeared to belong to some Hell's Angels, great. Two very large Rottweilers were barking at us and throwing themselves against the thankfully sturdy gates at the end of the drive. There were dismantled motorbikes on the drive and a leather clad man getting his hands dirty. Eventually the dogs got bored and probably hot, so skulked off to the back of the house

About two hours later our biker neighbour noticing we were still there came over and it turned out he was concerned for our health and safety which was a relief. He offered us cold drinks and food. Never judge a book by it's cover.

Eventually a tow truck arrived driven by a fourteen year old smoking a spliff, he was either very mature for his age or a lot older than he looked with a great skin regime. During our wait I only had the guide book to browse through to while away the time, so, realising we were not going home today, I decided to search for a hotel nearby. The nearest one turned out to be slap bang in the middle of Heusden. Our teenaged rescuer insisted on ringing them himself to book us a room and then towed us to a large garage. We were wondering how we would get to Heusden when the receptionist who was finishing work pointed to her car and made clear that she was taking us direct to our hotel. What had started the day as a disaster was fast becoming a treat. We had no idea how long we would be staying in Heusden, but there are certainly worse places to be stranded.

The next day after waiting all morning for news we rang the garage to be informed the car was almost ready and that they had sent a taxi to collect us. How they managed to repair the car so quickly we have no idea but we were certainly very grateful. When we finally got home we sent them a crate of local English beer as a thank you.

Earlier in the trip we were staying overnight in a typical old town with a canal right around it and we had arrived early so went for a look around. We came to a group of very old buildings which were surrounded with crowds of people, TV trucks, lights, and flags. Not knowing what was going on we walked further and crossed a small bridge over the canal to find ourselves across the water looking back at this event. Now people were gathering on our side of the canal too. Everybody was waiting for something to happen so we decided to as well. An elderly man came to stand near us and we asked if he spoke English, but he shook his head. So we carried on waiting. We hadn't noticed that the elderly man had wandered off and reappeared with a young man who told us that the old man had been trying to find someone who spoke English, and did we need any help? We thanked the old man and asked the young man what was going on and why was everyone waiting, and he said "the Queen is coming". Well that doesn't happen every day.

To our left was one of those old fashioned drawbridges over the canal which was used by pedestrians walking into town. After about twenty minutes there appeared from over the rooftops, thousands of blue balloons rising in a cloud and disappearing slowly off into the distance. The drawbridge suddenly rose, creating a large crowd now, of people who couldn't cross the canal. After another few minutes a boat appeared puttering along with about eight people in it, including the unmistakably large orange hatted head of The Queen of the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix and her husband and some other official types in posh suits and tricorn hats. Being British we know what to do when the Queen appears but this was strange, as everyone just stood there in silence, so we started to clap and cheer, and Queen Beatrix, looked over wondering what was going on, maybe thinking she was about to be assassinated, but here is the really strange thing, everyone else also started to clap and cheer, almost as if they needed our permission. Suddenly the applause spread the full length of the canal and to both sides and then just as quickly she was gone.

The bridge came down and we joined the crowd that had built up waiting to cross, and heard one woman say to another woman "what is going on?", only to get the reply, "an old woman in a boat was going past". Later that night we had a meal in the town and got chatting to our waitress. We were still excited and told her we had seen the Queen, and she chuckled and said our Queen is just like your Queen, a woman in a big hat, which she found hilarious

When I started writing this post we still had a Queen in our country, but this post has taken me so long to write that we now have a King. In two days there will be a funeral the like of which has never been seen before. It has been a strange week for people of my age who were born after her accession to the throne and who have lived their entire lives with her presence all around us, represented in its many forms. Some of my earliest memories as a child, who collected stamps, was growing up in India, where one of the highlights was mail from home, all of it with an image of the Queens head on. Each envelope was carefully soaked so that the stamps would slide off, when they were placed on an old towel to dry, before being argued over with my brothers, after which, one of us would stick them in our album.

Occasionally gift sets of new stamps would arrive from our grandmother celebrating some new wonder, like The Post Office Tower, or the latest Transatlantic Liner or commemorating the death of Winston Churchill. We were always proud of the philatelic factoid which explained why the only stamps in our album without the name of the country on were the ones with the Queen's head on. Britain invented the postage stamp, it's really that simple, so when the first stamps appeared they didn't need the name of our country on them, and that has been honoured internationally ever since.

My non uncle had a grey tractor just like this one below, which I once got to drive, his was nowhere near as shiny. My summers on the farm were idyllic. I loved staying at my grandmother's house on the farm, because she had what she grandly described as a library. This room was in the oldest part of the house with three feet thick stone walls and small windows. It was lined with the type of books that my grandmother thought should be read, although I never saw her read one. She also used to say "church is good for you" although she never went herself.

I would spend hours in the library with the only sound being the faint tick of the grandfather clock, the silence sometimes seemed to be pressing on my eardrums. Whenever I sat in there the tick of the clock became part of the background after some minutes and you didn't hear it, although it was ever present. You subconsciously knew it was still there but you had become immune to the sound, until one afternoon, when the tick I wasn't listening to suddenly stopped and it was the silence that I noticed, the sudden silence that was unsettling. The stopping of the clock even made the silence louder.

Yesterday as the funeral of Queen Elizabeth drew to an end and thoughts were running through my head, I tried to make sense of my emotions after what I had witnessed. I had never really thought much about monarchy or the Queen, she had just been there all my life like the tick of the clock in the library, and then it suddenly struck me that my whole life was like sitting in that library and the ticking had just stopped. I wasn't wracked with grief, just unsettled, like something already intangible had now gone forever, and I think that left a small empty space somewhere.

34 views6 comments

Related Posts

See All


David Nurse
David Nurse
Sep 30, 2022

Great post Gethin. I really enjoyed this post and the images of many of the cars bring back memories for me (I am no petrol head either).

Loved the reminisces and stories.

I too had a Herald, an estate, which may grandfather insisted on calling a "shooting brake". It was a great car and very reliable even though it was old when I got it. It belonged to a farmer's wife. I spent months finding pieces of hay in every nook and cranny.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Sep 30, 2022
Replying to

As long as you didn't sit on any long lost eggs.🤣


Unknown member
Sep 21, 2022

I scrolled down half way, because you know me have to say something before I forget. Looking at the Herald's dash and then looking at my new car dash...."how we have come a long, long way, Mr. G.!!" 😂

Your brother, short on words? Calling the parrot Thomas??? Really??😉😊

"hams you couldn't smoke in a forest fire"😂😂 Don't know where you found this line, but sure does give a great ( not so great) visiual!

You had the pleasure of meeting Igor's cousin? You lucky guy......

Wheeled bidet??? How does that work with plumbing?

I can see why you are not a "motorhead" as we call it seemed to have issues with cars and drivers.😉

What an ending!!! WOW!!…

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Sep 21, 2022
Replying to

Thanks so much Camellia. Mainly for sticking with it to the end.😊 by the way we inherited Thomas, what's one more when you are already 5.


John Durham
John Durham
Sep 21, 2022

Incredibly personal story of remembrances, with some fine photos, to boot, especially of the smiling young lad on the boot of the car (like how I worked both usages in there?). Glad to know sneaking into the movies in the brunk (I have now created a new word from boot-trunk to satisfy both sides of the pond) is more universal than I had imagined. Thanks for the reminiscences.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Sep 21, 2022
Replying to

Thanks John.

bottom of page