A collection of your memories
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After years of taking the sleeper train to get to Italy, my mother bought a Morris Oxford in 1961 and got her driving licence. My Dad never learned to drive so she took charge. So began a decade or more of family trips across the Channel, through France and over the Alps to visit the family in Northern Italy.
These were epic journeys, we often took a full three days to arrive, as my mother would frequently stop somewhere by the side of the road to light the camping stove,
on which she rustled up coffee, or minestrina in brodo, all of which tasted the same, of paraffin! There were no motorways for years, and we found our way (or not,
quite often, we seemed to get lost more often than not) through towns and villages. Nor was there a tunnel through the Gottard, and I marvel to this day at how much
courage my mum had to cross the mountain pass.
In 1977 a family driving holiday was planned. (I was 12). My aunt, who had moved to Italy had purchased a brand new white BMW 520 in London (cheaper back then) and my father Roy was going to drive the family over in the lovely new car and deliver it to my aunt. The downside was that the return journey was in my aunt's Austin 1100 for which a buyer was waiting back in London. The outward journey was wonderful, Dad loved driving the BMW, that new-car smell lingers in my boyhood memory. (The first photo is my sister Lisa and my cousin Sergio on a sandwich stop by Lake Geneva).
We had a lovely holiday that year. One sad point was the news that Elvis Presley had sadly died on the day of San Rocco while we were still in Italy on August 16th. It was the return journey in the blue Austin 1100 that was most memorable. It's not a big car nor is it a powerful car, with five people and luggage on a 900 mile journey involving Alpine passes in August, it's just not the right car. 50 mph on a flat road with zero wind was about tops. Climbing was 1st gear stuff.
The first problem was shortly after Milan the thermostat jammed shut. This meant that the engine began to overheat. The solution was to divert the heat into that car via the heater. Basically you turn the heater on full power and the excess heat in the engine is dissipated into the cabin area! So we drove from Milan to London, in August with the heater on maximum and all the windows open. Then halfway across France, the throttle cable snapped. How he did it I don't truly know; but my dad somehow fashioned a makeshift cable using the remains and managed to bring it into the dashboard. He then managed to drive the rest of the way home using his left hand to work the accelerator!
To this day I strangely miss the unreliability of older cars. I know that sounds odd and I can't truly explain it. Modern cars that start when you expect them to and
warn you when something is wrong bore me. Much to the annoyance of my wife I tend to play Russian Roulette with fuel reserves on long journeys.
I basically drive until the tank is empty (the German on my Dashboard flashing the words '0 Miles Remaining' is a challenge to me) and see how far I am prepared to
carry on until I finally give up and look for fuel. It's the only way I can find to take me back to those long lost times and special memories of driving with my dad.
"...and it was the classic scene from a movie. We were in France and Dad had just overtaken a lorry in our Corsair. My uncle was following behind us in his Zephyr. Having built up some speed to get past the lorry and then get up the hill on those long stretches of up and down roads in Northern France it was not easy to stop when, just over the brow of the hill a tractor and cart pulled onto the road from the right. Dad made the lightening decision to swerve around it. I was on the back seat and looked behind me and saw that my uncle had managed an emergency stop too. It was a close call. No seat belts in those days either!"
We often travelled in a convoy of two cars, but with no mobile phones in those days you had to agree beforehand where to meet in case the two cars were separated. My uncle in his car signalled that he needed to stop for petrol soon but then, separated by a lorry we didn't see him pull over into a petrol station. Having previously agreed we would meet at the Simplon rail ferry tunnel at Iselle di Trasquera in order to use the tunnel to Brig, Dad headed for the terminal. Upon arrival my uncle was not there. Dad, thinking that my uncle was still ahead of us thought my uncle may have decided to do the pass instead of wait for the train so he elected to do the same.
It was on the downhill stretch on the Swiss side of the Simplon Pass that we caught up with a car towing a boat which, due to the bendy nature of the roads we couldn't overtake. Progress was slow with heavy braking at corners. Finally at the bottom of the pass we managed to get past the car and trailer. The first set of red traffic lights we came to Dad went straight through. I don't know how he managed to do it but he eventually came to a halt outside a garage. It was raining cats and dogs. Turning of the ignition and leaving the car in gear Dad managed to get an umbrella from the packed boot of the car and went to see if someone could fix the brakes.
The garage was closed as it was Sunday. This was the German speaking part of Switzerland and with a mixture
of odd words from a variety of languages Dad managed to ask a passer-by if they knew if there was a garage open nearby. The passer-by explained that they were not
open on Sundays but seeing the British car asked if we had just done the pass which my Dad confirmed. He told my Dad to wait for half an hour to let the brakes cool
and see if they would then work. Apparently it was a common occurrence in Brig. 30 minutes later, brake fluid cooled, we were on our way. It was the first time any of
us had experienced brake fade.
In those days we didn't book hotels in advance, we would just stop when we were tired and hopefully find somewhere to sleep and often you could get the last dregs of the rooms available. We got to a place called Dormelletto just on the southern shores of Lake Maggiore. Dormelletto literally 'Sleeping-Bed'. Well, it was anything but that.
The beds in the room were arranged headboard to headboard and, with the hotel was situated between a blind bend on the main road and a busy railway junction,
every time a heavy lorry went by on the main road it would sound it's bull horn, and then the beds' headboards would shake and knock together. As if that wasn't bad
enough, every so often a train passed at the back of the hotel so you would hear bells ringing as it approached and then clatter of the wheels over the points as it
whooshed by. It wasn't exactly a restful night's sleep.
Well, with seven of us crammed in our Granada Estate our toilet stops were zero. Mum made us kids pee in a bucket! I'll be stopping every two minutes with you lot, my dad would moan.
I remember going over the Mont Cenis pass in our old silver Mk4 Zodiac. Uncle John was following in his car. Suddenly he started flashing his lights frantically. We pulled over to see what the problem was so see my cousin Rob got out of the car crying because his sister had been sick on his head!
To say our car was loaded is an understatement. Dad would inform Mum of the 'baggage allowance' a month before departure every year. Only two suitcases. Of course when he wasn't looking she would sneak parcels and bottles of shampoo and toothpaste and other little bits and pieces in every available nook and cranny. The car was super full. Five of us seated and two of us kids lying ontop of the luggage like it was a bed! We once had a puncture on the Paris Periferique and had to take out all the luggage out of the Granada Estate on to the hard shoulder to get to the spare tyre. We looked like a bunch of peddlers setting up a stall on the road.
Coming from Wales we'd often take the overnight ferry from Southampton to Le Havre. The cars were packed into the ship's lower deck bumper to bumper. We were one of the first cars on. Asleep in our cabins we suddenly heard a loud knock on the door. We hadn't woken up. We'd held up all the cars waiting to alight from the ship. My dad blamed us kids of course but probably he'd had a beer or two in the bar the night before himself so hadn't woken up. It was so embarrassing. All the other drivers behind us were effing and blinding when we eventually turned up at the car deck.
There was a time when Diesel vehicles were sought after in Italy and fetching good money so in one of my get rich quick schemes I bought an old white Commer Van at auction and decided to drive it to Italy and sell it on from there. I used to get my holidays around Easter time so I packed the van with a number of things including a piano of all things, and a load of kid's clothes. We only had two kids at that point in the 70s as my youngest hadn't been born yet. Anyway we set off at the modest speed the van was capable of. Unfortunately the fuel gauge had also broken so being cautious I would stop far too often for petrol onIy to find that often the tank needed very little fuel. We decided to take the Geneva- Mont Blanc route.
As we got further into the Alps it started to snow to the point where there was about 20cm of snow at the sides of the road and I was having to drive more and more in the middle of the road. The downhill stretches were particularly scary. I decided to pull over near some houses in case we needed help and try and get some sleep. It was about 3am and it was so cold we made good use of those kids clothes we'd packed and ended up wrapping ourselves them. My fingers were too cold to attempt to play the piano!! As if to add insult to injury the battery wasn't charging too so I daren't turn the engine off for fear of not being able to restart it. Unable to sleep very much I decided to try to whack the regulator which seemed to unjam it and the battery started to charge again. By 8am the daylight enabled me to get going again.
Anyway, my great money-making scheme came to a sad end as I hadn't realised that the engine had had a crack in the head which had been welded, quite well, as it
happens but made selling it on difficult, so much so that after all that, I ended up driving it back to the UK.
Me and my father watched the 1982 World Cup final in a hotel in France with a load of Germans - it was Italy v Germany. You can imagine my father!
With not a service station in sight and not having seen one for miles we finally found a place to pull over at the side of the road for a quick emergency toilet break. Auntie Joyce went down the little path which led into a corn field. Of course not wanting to be seen she went in amongst the corn. When she finally re-emerged my grandmother said "Joyce, look at your shoes!". It seems that many people before us had been in a similar situation and had used the cornfield as a makeshift toilet. She took one look at her now nice 'brown' shoes, took them off and launched them straight back into the cornfield!
I remember our non-laminated windscreen was hit by a stone in roadworks just south of Paris. It suddenly shattered and luckily as we were moving slowly through the roadworks my brother managed to punch out the glass. Not deterred we put any bit of clothing around our heads as scarves and put our sunglasses on and we continued rather inelegantly and wind-blown into Paris to find a Ford garage. As luck would have it they actually had a Granada Mk 2 laminated windscreen in stock which fit our Mk1 Consul Granada perfectly! Within a couple of hours we were on our way again.
We once stopped at a lovely deli - near Pontalier I think. My Mum bought fresh rolls and lots of cheeses and salamis, some to eat en route and some for the holiday. By the time we reached the border into Italy, you can imagine what the inside of the car smelled like, what with the unpacked food and five kids. My Dad opened the window to hand over the passports. The guard leaned forward... then back... didn't bother to check the passports and swiftly waved us on.
Oh goodness! 'Déviation, déviation'. There were so many on the French roads that year. So we pulled off the main road and drove and drove for miles down one country lane after another, following the Déviation signs. Eventually, when we got back onto the main road we were less than 100 yards further down from where we'd left it!
Of course some people treated it like a grand prix race. Who could get there in the least time. We were in a two car convoy with Geraint. I was navigating but instead of taking them via Lilliers in France I led them to Lille in Belgium. That was a big detour! Dad was pissed off. No bragging about how quickly he'd got there that year!
In 1974 my father had decided to move to Italy. He had one of those long-wheelbase diesel Land Rovers (ex-council with big wheels and a speed limiter installed). He wanted to take it over with him along with some other things including, quite literally, a sink, and a mattress. I offered to drive it over for him. Before leaving I was told that on long journeys it was better to have it in two wheel drive instead of 4. However it seems that only the front wheels were working anyway so in 2 wheel drive mode it would move at all. I had to get that sorted out by Land Rover before leaving.
The land Rover sorted, we set off. Living in Bournemouth then we took the ferry at Southampton during the night and reached Le Havre at 8am. The Land Rover had seats all across the front so Anne and I had the kids between us. At 37mph top whack, progress was leisurely and the kids fell asleep instantly. It was quite a warm April that year and the heater was stuck on full so my son had that blowing on him all the way so we had to keep the windows open making it quite noisy. We decided to go via Nice, Ventimiglia and Genoa that year and we slept in the Land Rover two nights.
I say slept but in reality what I did was that I tried sleeping on top of the
mattress which in turn was on top of the sink and other luggage but I ended up being so close to the ceiling I started to feel very claustrophobic! As if it wasn't
hard enough to get some sleep, the kids who had slept all the way, then woke up once we'd stopped and were full of energy and making lots of noise. We reached Bardi
on the afternoon of the third day.
We found a place we could pull the car over to have a quick toilet stop. There was some kind of obelisk and a load of bushes so I went behind the bushes. Suddenly I could hear voices. I peeped over the bushes to see that a coach party of tourists had turned up who were having a guided tour of local monuments. Well, I could not suddenly jump out of there so I had to wait there behind the bushes till they had finished hearing all about the monument. "Gosh you were a long time mummy, did you do a poo?" my daughter asked me when I eventually got back to the car.
In 1976, my brother Michael broke his shin bone skiing when we were in Pinzolo in the Italian alps. They plastered it up at the local hospital, and we decided to return to London earlier than planned. With five kids in the car, a Peugeot 504 estate, there was just no room for him. The plaster went half way up his thigh and he could not bend his leg, so he had to stick it out of the window all the way home :(
My Italian grandad made his own wine and always gave us some to take back to London with us. He gave us four bottles. Two sparkling white and two red. In the days before Schengen you could only take only bottle per adult. We were three adults and two kids. Well Dad thought he would take all four and lined them up at the back of the Zephyr's cavernous boot, piled all the luggage in front in the hope that any over-zealous customs officer would not see them.
I remember when we were in the vicinity of Reims in the heart of the Champagne region my mum saying that you could tell we were in that region because you could smell the champagne. When we got to Dover we got a real sod of a customs officer who wanted everything out of the car and the luggage off the roof rack. My dad said that he would only do that if he lent a hand as it had taken him ages to pack the car. The officer reluctantly obliged.
After not having found anything in the
roof luggage and having emptied the last of the suitcases out of the boot his face filled with glee as he spied the four bottles standing at the back of the boot.
One by one out came the bottles until he got to the last bottle which was completely empty. He looked slightly mystified and but conceded that there was nothing
to declare and nothing to confiscate. The lovely Champagne smell at Reims had been nothing more than the bottle popping its cork and losing its contents on to
the boot carpet!