During my childhood our summer ‘holiday’ involved long walks and homemade picnics. However, one day was always special. Sandwiches, homemade shortbread, fairy cakes filled with fruit and topped with a crunchy, sugar coating, flasks of milky tea, swimwear and most importantly buckets and spades, were soon packed and ready for a grand adventure. Everyone carried something as we set out from our home in Purbrook Way, for the long walk to Havant. Tired legs were soon forgotten once we arrived at the station. Anticipation mounted as we watched the ‘Hayling Billy’ take on water and link up to the carriages, preparing to transport us to our idyllic destination. Sometimes, the occasion was made even more special when our uncle was the engine driver. He wore a shiny cap and navy overalls, and carried an oily rag to wipe his hands on. The evocative smell that is unique to steam engines permeated his clothes. When he came over for a chat all the other children looked on in admiration.
Once on board the windows were lowered, to enhance the smell and sounds of the railway. It did not matter that the rough material irritated the back of our legs, or that we were packed along the seat like sardines – we were off! Soon the chatter began to pick up the rhythm of the wheels as they made contact with the track. When the Billy reached the bridge, the competition to see who could keep the rhythm going was on. (‘I think I can, I think I can, Bottle of beer, bottle of beer, bottle of beer’.)
When the journey was nearly over, the realisation that the seemingly endless walk along Station Road was ahead registered in all our minds. Any disappointment was quickly dispelled by the prospect of a day playing on the glorious sandy beach. Dad had saved his coppers so that now twelve heavy pennies weighed down our cardigan pockets, ready to be lost on the bagatelle machines in the fairground.
On reaching the pebble ridge we always hoped the tide would be out, so that we would be able to sink our toes into the soft, soggy sand and walk into the warm ripples of water that tickled our ankles and sucked our feet under until they disappeared. With no hidden ledges or dangerous undercurrents to spoil the fun, we were soon swimming safely, swallowing mouthfuls of salty water and squealing when the seaweed clung around our legs.
Just as our lips were turning blue Mum would wrap our shivering bodies in towels and we would hug our knees up under our chins to get warm. We were more than ready for a picnic of lukewarm tea and sand-filled sandwiches, even though there was always a risk of being stung by wasps. The day stretched on as we built sandcastles decorated with pebbles and searched for seashells among the seaweed. Finally it was time to pack everything away; shoulders red, and pennies won and then inevitably lost, we began our weary journey home.
The euphoria of the day, a promise of a bottle of lemonade and packet of crisps (the kind with a little blue packet of salt inside) to eat in the pub garden on the way, and the anticipation of the return train journey, magically shortened the walk back to the station. Once on board the games were still played and the rhymes still sung, but the excitement of the day was now replaced by a sleepy reluctance to accept the adventure was nearing its end.
Then one day we were waving our Puffing Billy goodbye for the final time, not realising the significance of that final farewell. My visits to Hayling Island are rare nowadays, but every time we drive over the road bridge, the wooden remnants of the railway bridge, standing silently, always evoke those memories and make my heart skip a beat.