Doughnuts for a railway child

29th August 2003 at 01:00
For almost 40 years, my dad worked for British Rail. In those halcyon days before privatisation, a railman's family enjoyed privilege and, occasionally, free travel across the network. So, every July we would embark from the west of Scotland on a grand summer holiday that would take us as far south as possible.

Not that we were particularly adventurous in our range of choices from year to year. It was either Kent or Kent. Specifically, it was the Isle of Thanet: Ramsgate for eight years in a row, before heading for Broadstairs and then Cliftonville. Unlike the pack-up-and-go of today's holidays, a trip to Ramsgate required meticulous pre-planning. For a start, there was the hamper. This large, woven, wooden basket was packed a good fortnight in advance of our trip with clothes and everything else we needed for the holiday. It was then delivered to Central Station in Glasgow to be taken on a train so that it would be awaiting us upon our arrival in Ramsgate. Not a service offered today by Virgin or GNER, I am sure.

The journey itself usually began with the incredible luxury of the sleeper train between Glasgow and London Euston. Departing at 22:10 - my first introduction to the 24-hour clock - the sleeper would arrive in the capital at just after 06:30 and part of the fun was being allowed to stay on the train for 90 minutes after it pulled in. Breakfast in London was at a restaurant in the fine Golden Egg chain, which has sadly disappeared.

Our privilege travel, or "pt" as it was known to railway families, extended to London Underground. For someone used to only the Glasgow subway, the Tube was another world. Even today, after a year of commuting into London, I still have a sense of excitement when travelling on the London Underground.I would never have thought all those years ago that this was something I would do on an almost daily basis.

The trip to Ramsgate was out of Victoria Station on the same slam-door trains that ply the line today. Outer London soon became Kent and the stations rolled on. Herne Bay always seemed as if we were within striking distance but it was not until we got to Dumpton Park, the station before Ramsgate, that we really felt that the holiday had begun.

It might be my memory playing tricks but the sun always seemed to shine in Ramsgate from the mid-1960s through to the mid-1970s. Maybe I was just used to the summer rain that was, and is, an enduring feature of Clydeside.

Our self-catering flat, for many years at 11 Albion Road, was sufficiently close to the town centre for my brother and me to walk. How times change: I can hardly imagine allowing my own children, who are the same age as we were 30-odd years ago, such freedom in Ramsgate or any other town for that matter.

There was only ever one centre of gravity in Ramsgate: the Pleasurama. This was the most fantastic amusement park and arcade that I have ever seen, before or since. It was a kids' paradise with the dodgems, racing cars, bingo, slot machines that you could actually understand and which did not cost you a-pound-a-go, shooting galleries of every description and, luxury of luxuries, "hot do-nuts". Many happy hours were spent there or on the beach across the road. Chips from Harrison's restaurant would round off every day, as we walked back up the hill to our cosy flat.

Pleasurama was not the only attraction. There was the model village, which long pre-dated Legoland and which came back to my mind recently when I took my children to the up-market but less charming Windsor version.

Ramsgate also boasted the King George VI park, one of those great municipal parks bequeathed to subsequent generations by our forefathers. And there was the hovercraft port at nearby Pegwell Bay, from which I got my first taste of life abroad on a day trip to France.

I revisited Ramsgate in the late 1980s and was quite shocked by what I found. Were my idyllic childhood memories false or had Ramsgate never been quite as I had remembered it? Probably a bit of both. The reality is that life has proved pretty tough for seaside towns in England, as cheap flights and guaranteed sun make the Costa Del Somewhere much more attractive.

I have not been back to Ramsgate since. My itineraries as a chief inspector have yet to include it. But my parents were back there in March this year.

Much has changed and many of the attractions that I remember are long since gone. But to mum and dad, and to me as well, Ramsgate will be forever a place of happy holidays and even happier memories.

David Bell is Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools

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