Beachy Head 1973

The next (and last) snippet from my next book, again taken from my first marriage:

We had our adventures. At the time they didn’t seem like adventures but looking back, comparing my life then to my life now… they were adventures and I’m glad for them. There was the time when Rob decided, with no warning and no reason, that we would camp out on Beachy Head on Christmas Eve. Great idea! To hell with convention, with the boring traditions of family and food and endless telly. We would break free and do our own thing.

We packed up our brand new Reliant Robin (three wheel van, fibreglass, needing only a motorbike’s road tax) with sleeping bags, an old but much loved tent, camping stove, grub, wine and other essentials (chocolates, crisps, camera) in the back and set off.

She was just like this and we loved her!

When we left the Miss Behave the weather was fair to middling; it wasn’t raining, it wasn’t too cold and it wasn’t too windy.  By the time we arrived at Beachy Head, ricocheting down the country lanes (the Reliant Robin could be shifted sideways by the lightest breeze) the weather had progressed from middling to a bit threatening. With an eye on the glowering horizon, and remembering how many Robins were blown over in every storm, Rob turned off the road onto a track, and after about a quarter of a mile he parked the van in the corner of a field, in the lea of a hill and we lugged all our kit up the last stretch of hillside. That stretch of hillside was a lot longer than we had expected, and it took us the best part of an hour. I was beginning to think we’d overshot Birling Gap and were going to find ourselves  in Eastbourne when at last we were there. Fabulous Beachy Head. 160 yards above sea level, and even in the gloom we could see the chalk cliff face shining brilliant white, a beacon of hope for so many. 

The tent was a two man bivouac thing. You know, a serious camping tent for serious campers, but it was old and a few guy ropes were missing and it looked a lot cosier from the outside than it felt on the inside.  The weather was pretty wretched by now, but Rob was a past master at denying the bleedin’ obvious and I was his cheerleader, so we congratulated ourselves on knowing better than all those stay-at-home telly watching idiots, clinked our plastic wine glasses under the billowing canvas, and shouted above the wind, ‘Here’s to a fabulous Christmas!”  

Christmas on Beachy Head is not amazingly balmy. The rain there is particularly wet and the wind is a million violins tuning up in an echo chamber. At about 3am Rob admitted defeat and we flailed around in the dark, gathering up the now soaking and not – after all – waterproof canvas, scrambling to shove food and kit into flapping plastic bags,  tripping over the trailing guy ropes as we stumbled blindly down the hillside to the comparative comfort of the little Robin. Maybe we didn’t take the shortest route because it seemed to take half the night to reach it, but what a great relief to reach shelter, slamming the doors on the raging storm, hearing its fury now muffled and ‘out there’. We slept in the seats, because the back was full of our soaking gear, and every now and again Rob would turn the engine on to give us a blast of something akin to warm air. We fell asleep at about five. 

At seven we were awake. Christmas Day!  I got the camp stove going, a celebration breakfast of bacon and eggs, and it seemed at last that this was a great way to celebrate. It was a lovely morning, cold and windy but bright, with scudding clouds in a brilliant sky. Even Rob didn’t want to walk all the way back up to the cliff edge to see the sea, so we agreed to head off into Brighton, for a more sedate walk along the promenade. Breakfast done, coffee drunk, feeling returning to feet and fingers, we packed the van again, sorting out the worst of the mess in the back, and clambered aboard. There were two problems. One was that the battery was now flat and the engine wouldn’t start. Rob said “No worries, we’ll push her onto the road and get her going downhill.” That, of course, is one of the great advantages of a fibreglass vehicle, it’s very light. Our second problem however was that we, and all our camping gear, were not light at all, and we’d been in the van all night, as the rain steadily softened the earth below our three wheels. Now the decision to park at the bottom of a rising field, behind a hedge, where all the run-off would gather, didn’t seem so great. We were stuck, well and truly. The single wheel at the front was deep in mud, and the more we pushed the deeper she sank, wedge-like. Bum. We unloaded everything from the van to lighten it, but still no luck, the more we pushed, the worse it was.

This was 1973, before mobile phones, but we were only a couple of miles from the nearest village, East Dean, so it wasn’t too terrible. It was just a shame we weren’t absolutely sure which direction to take down the winding lanes. And was the AA recovery service even working on Christmas Day? We could only hope so. Rob set off to find a phone box, it started raining again, and I tried to cover all our belongings, lying in the open now, with the useless tent. 

Unfortunately, Rob had forgotten to take the Ordnance Survey map with him and I knew he wouldn’t remember our (rough, very rough) grid reference, so I set off after him, map in hand. When I came to the end of the muddy track I realised that I had no idea which way he would have gone, left or right, so I returned, swearing quite loudly, to the van. 

Rob came back, alone, at about 11. The AA were coming! Hurrah! After an hour or so, help arrived. Nearly. We watched from our damp field as the little yellow van came into sight, drew quite near and then went past, to vanish over the horizon. It came back, drove past us again, and vanished between the high hedges in the other direction. By this time we were monosyllabic, barely grunting and Neanderthal. I walked along the track to the road to flag the AA man down the next time he came along. He didn’t come along. For ages he didn’t come along. And when he did (well past Christmas Dinner Time) he didn’t resemble the friendly, smiling, saluting AA man of the TV adverts in any way at all. He didn’t quite call us bloody idiots but the sense of it hung in the air around him.

We arrived home in the early evening and went to bed. That was Christmas 1973. 

2 thoughts on “Beachy Head 1973

  1. A harrowing vignette! Eager to read the author’s full account — how and where this scene fits. Thank you!

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    1. hah! You have spotted my dilemma. Where do the scenes fit? How do I tell this? Is it a series of snapshots, short stories (I love that genre, especially American short stories of the last century) or should I be writing it as an autobiographical novel? You have pinpointed my problem with unerring accuracy!

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