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a blog by Chris Barrow

The Austin A35

Christmas letters #7

The Austin A35.

That car did some miles.

I’m dating this photo of my Dad to the mid 60’s – during one of our many holidays to Cornwall.

In the front, my Mum and Dad (him driving, she never learned).

In the back, me and my maternal grandmother Ellen Mellor, who had become a widow in 1964 and subsequently became my/our constant fellow passenger, with an endless supply of Murray Mints and vigorously clutching her Rosary and muttering “Hail Mary mother of grace” and other mysterious latin phrases under her breath as my Dad navigated the perilous highways and byways of Britain.

Between us and around us, luggage, bread, various cold meats and soft drinks for “the journey”. Somehow in that minuscule boot, enough clothing and toiletries for a 2-week holiday and no doubt some books and comics for me.

I was brought up in the Church of England and the sound of my Nana mouthing Catholic mantras was intimidating at one level (was she part of some greater conspiracy?) and confusing at another (who was this “Grace” and why wasn’t she mentioned by our lot?).

One has to put these journeys into context in the pre-motorway era.

Manchester to Newquay would be an annual pilgrimage in August and our journey would inevitably commence around 05:00 in the morning (so as to beat the worst of the traffic).

I retain vivid memories of being hauled out of bed at 04:00, downing milk and toast and then setting off and travelling through Knutsford and on down to Holmes Chapel, Stoke, Stafford, Birmingham, watching the sun rise over the mist-covered fields of Cheshire.

As the day wore on we would join the madding throng heading for the South West and, by mid-afternoon, we would be navigating our way through Bristol and heading further south to Bridgwater where, in the absence of an M5 link to Exeter, we would turn sharp right and work our way across Somerset and on to the North Coast of Devon to do battle with endless caravans struggling to climb the hills of that beautiful county.

Stops for a lay-by lunch, hopefully with a cafe from which we could buy tea (always tea, never coffee) and some kind of cakes to supplement our basic nutrition.

Minehead, Ilfracombe, Barnstaple and Bude, onward, ever onward, an endless single-lane queue of similarly frustrated families, caravans eventually pulling off into fields, until we glimpsed Bedruthan Steps against a setting sun and arrived at our guest house or rented cottage.

On average a journey to Mawgan Porth (our traditional destination year after year) could take 12-15 hours of driving and we would all arrive exhausted, my Dad sometimes hallucinating from fatigue and reading Morse Code messages in the throbbing and clanking of pistons and crankshaft.

Arrive hopefully in time to be shown to our room/rental and in time for “tea” with the similarly bedraggled guests or in time to swoop down into the village and pick up the biggest stash of fish and chips imaginable as a reward for our endeavours.

What followed would be two weeks of glorious sunshine or thunderous rain – there never seemed to be a half-way house.

In the sunny fortnights we would spend every day on the beach, in and out of the waves with belly-boards, exploring the cliffs and rock pools, both of my parents steadily blistering in the sun – no oils or potions to help – I remember spending one summer holiday with a huge festering burn on my shoulder – another when my Dad spent 3 days in bed, his back a mass of blisters.

Somehow Norma always managed to keep herself in the sun just long enough to avoid permanent damage. She knew that the height of neighbourhood status would be to return at the end of the month with a “suntan” – which in the case of a ginger-haired lady and her son (me) simply meant looking like a letter-box with teeth.

Other times it rained – and rained and rained. After a succession of trips to historic piles of rock, fishing villages and amusements we would usually give up after a week and make the long drive back to Manchester to avoid the relentless downpour.

My Dad would announce “I’d rather watch telly at home” and we would forlornly pack the car, settle our bills and splash our way out of the county and back to the home comforts of chip butties and Z Cars.

2 weeks in August – that was it in those days – they were your annual holidays – and if it poured we felt cheated – not even Ellen’s mystic chants could help. We lived under the gaze of a vengeful God who would reward our year’s travails with pleasure or pain.

Through it all, that little car just kept going and going, ever faithful and reliable. Impervious to the weather, the traffic jams and our demands.

They don’t make them like that any more.

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