We went to Walberswick the other day for a swim and a mooch about. We used to camp there every year when we were kids, pitching the tent at the beginning of the summer and leaving it up until the end. Family could come and go and whoever wanted it had a tent set up with everything they needed. These visits to Walberswick started before we moved to Suffolk – which was when I was about ten – so it’s probably around 30 years ago now that it became our family camping heaven. Needless to say it has changed an awful lot particularly in the last few years.
I was driving the van carefully down a lane so as not to draw attention to ourselves searching for somewhere to park (there is absolutely nowhere to park although Walberswick has become one great big car park). It was queue in and queue out which is why we sloped off down the lane to try and avoid facing that suffocating feeling that we are yet another, one among hundreds, messing up Walberswick for the day. Sad but true. Florence, my cousin, was with us. Now nearly seven months pregnant, she had her 21st birthday party in the village hall about 7 years ago and has camped at Walberswick with her mates and when we were all younger for years since she was a little girl. We’d had the run of the campsite back then. Kids, dogs, cats, goats – all were welcome when Margaret was in charge. The campsite now has limited delineated plots and is only open for the 6 week school holidays. Apparently it is booked up months in advance and Lady Bloyce who owns the land and sets the rules for the campsite is even rumoured to run the campsite as an invite only affair. It pisses me off the way everything has become packaged and sold back to us as a quintessential experience. Walberswick really is the perfect place but sharing it with that many people just doesn’t feel alright. I just read an article in Red magazine about Esther Freud’s love of her annual walk from Aldeburgh to Walberswick, and a week later I heard on Radio 4 about the annual crabbing competition – for goodness sake – what is going on? I know it has always been a retreat for middle class Radio 4 types but they seem to have told everyone else in the world too! How can this level of people driving in and out of Walberswick be sustained? The old curiosity shop is a contrived version of its earlier self when it truly was old and curious and Mary’s tea shop has shut down but then as kids we never went there as cream teas were out of our price range and not enough fun quite frankly.
More fun was to take our bikes over on the ferry for 5p and cycle up to the bakery in Southwold to get as many buttered buns as you were allowed (I think each person could have 4 because they baked limited amounts and only on certain days so I guess they were trying to be fair) and then arrive back on the campsite to share with all the kids who quickly gathered as the bikes arrived over Piddle Bridge. The fête was an annual event and as fêtes go it wasn’t bad. All the ladies of the village emptied their cupboards and you could be sure to find something interesting or tasty. The best part of the fête though was at the end when all the leftovers that didn’t sell were abandoned up at the bins by the toilets for us campers to claim. Nice.
We stopped at the Tuck Shop on the way in to Walberswick the other day to get a bottle of water. Florence remembered how she would get her post sent to the post office so that when she was camping she could keep in touch with her friends elsewhere. If she went away from the campsite she sent postcards to the post office to keep in touch with friends on the campsite! I asked her if she thought she would recognise anyone down on the campsite now. Florence thought not, it had been too long. How come in all those years camping at Walberswick, no-one I knew then or now owns one of those bloody beach huts. Surely at some point they must have been affordable, and surely it might have been possible that my family got to hear about one being up for sale. How come I don’t have a stake in Walberswick? Is it cos I isn’t posh enough? Florence thought that most of the beach huts had been replaced over time and many had been burnt down. I don’t really know but I have been day dreaming about finding out what goes on behind the scenes at Walberswick – what makes it tick? Who all these people are that team here every summer, and how did they get their beachuts? I want to write a witty and acerbic article about Walberswick in the good old days when a few noisy, wayward hippy families had the run of the campsite all summer long. Apart from the August bank holiday of course, when a load of Hell’s Angels descended on the place and made it their playground. But even then our mothers gave them a run for their money. One year my mum remembers it lashing down with rain and her and Trisha crept round the bikers’ tents tipping all their helmets right side up so that in the morning they were full to the brim with rain water. It was a way of getting their own back on these swearing raucous ruffians.
My mum leaned out of the van window and said hi to two women and a child walking their dog down the lane. Mum recognised one of the women from working at the Pupil Referral Unit in Ipswich. We shared our reminiscences about Walberswick and how much it has changed. Mum said to the women that when we were all kids we thought she was the Julie Christie of the campsite, with her dog walking along looking all brown and lovely – and we all wondered who she was. This made her laugh she said she wished she had been Julie Christie. We camped where we liked then – there was none of this plot business, no booking, no behaving yourself, no perfectly bleached white tents. It was much more rough and ready. One recurring childhood image is of looking down at my sandy brown legs in blue clogs, my jean skirt and my blond, curly, tangled, salty hair and a warm glowing feeling of complete freedom and abandonment running along Walberswick beach with my brothers and cousins. When we were there the other day, I overheard three young girls about 10 years old or so at the swings on the green discussing the details of baby P’s injuries and death which they had been following closely in the news.
My connection to this place is invisible – it’s in my head – it’s just a memory. I don’t know what to do with the feelings I have for the place I spent so much of my childhood in and which I feel so alienated from now. I return several times every year because my mum lives up the road and I feel like an on-looker. I wonder who the locals are or if there are any left? I wonder who the people are that camp on the campsite where there is now a standpipe – whereas in our day the water was a 10 minute treck up to the toilet block. It makes me smile that no matter what day of the year you go it will always be busy, it will always be windy and even at the height of summer when the sea is warm it is an imposing grey mass and no matter how bright the sun the sea doesn’t sparkle. I didn’t really notice this until someone I met on the street in Halesworth pointed it out after a visit to Brighton where the sea is blue and twinkly. Sizewell power station sits on the horizon looking more or less gleaming, domed and cathedral like. I remember my granny asking me, “what’s a size whale?” when I was trying to explain to her about nuclear power and ban the bomb and how the sea at Walberswick was always warm because of Sizewell.
I wonder, as I queue for nearly 40 minutes to pay 80p to the ferryman, whether or not we had the best of it and that now it’s over. I am calculating the amount of money the ferryman makes an hour – if he can take 10 people in his boat and cross the river in about 8 minutes each time. I don’t want to be thinking like this – but I am trying to drown out the noise of the other 40 people waiting behind and in front of me. How can this be a pleasurable experience?
It’s a beautiful place, but like everywhere else it is inundated with people and cars as far as the eye can see – and I feel like I have been forced to standby and watch the erosion of my childhood coastline.