“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colours are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.” - Elizabeth Lawrence.
They dubbed it the long hot summer; the longest, hottest and driest since records began. Tarmac melted in the roads; a hosepipe ban was implemented and duly ignored as sales of paddling pools and garden sprinklers went through the roof. Just in case the rare nature of the weather had somehow gone unnoticed, news reporters fried eggs on car bonnets and pavements to clarify.
The Outlaw Josey Wales was the movie to see, unless like me you were a nine year old, then Bugsy Malone or Alice in Wonderland were the flicks of parental choice. The ice man, Bjorn Borg had won his second Wimbledon title with Chris Evert taking the ladies crown; and in good old British fashion, a novelty band called The Wurzels held the number one spot in the UK pop charts with a song title of a uniqueness yet to be surpassed; ‘I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester’.
The summer holiday of ‘76’ began for me, as I’d imagine it did for most pre-pubescent boys, with the promise of fun, adventure, lie-ins and ice-cream. I could look forward to lazy days, building sand castles and burning to a crisp on Barry Island beach with my Mum and sisters. In this time of innocent ignorance, before high factor sun-cream and today’s heightened pervert awareness; the beach front would be crammed with a glimmering, coconut oiled, writhing mass of bodies and naked toddlers would be allowed to wander freely in the murky shallows. Barely an inch of sand would be visible beneath the towels, deckchairs, discarded crisp packets and fish and chip wrappers.
On the weekends, if Dad wasn’t too busy with his business, he might take us boating on Roath Park Lake followed by an ice-cream and an hour in the adventure park. These were the fun days before the constraints of Health and Safety regulations; before the advent of our compensation nation, pouncing injury lawyer infested, ‘Nanny State; before conkers and British Bulldogs were banned from our school yards; and Roath Park had a huge slide with a bump half way down that would send you gloriously air born. With a fearlessness that only a child possesses, I’d slide down head first on my tummy, so that for just a moment, I was Superman. Launching myself from the top I would shout, “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” and with precision timing as I hit the bump, “NO! It’s SUPERMAN!” Arms outstretched and fists clenched, I would save the world again!
If we nagged him enough, perhaps Dad would walk us around the park’s gardens to the arboretum; a miniature rain-forest in the middle of Cardiff. There I could play at being a great white hunter in a quest to find the legendary giant gorilla King Kong, whilst imaginary cannibals, skulking behind huge carnivorous plants, looked hungrily upon us, aiming their poison-darted blowpipes in our direction.
Then Dad and I could spend a precious half an hour passing a rugby ball around and play-argue over which of us were Gareth Edwards. Dad would succumb to my protests and agree to be Jean Pierre Rives, which took a fair stretch of the imagination as he was as bald as the day he was born and the legendary French flanker’s trademark was his long blonde hair! Full time would inevitably be called on our game when my baby sister, Samantha, who was only three in 1976, grew weary and would be in desperate need of a hug from her Mum.
But what I longed for most of all from this holiday was one of Dad’s infamous Brecon Beacons expeditions. Infamous and usually met with moans and protestations as Dad always insisted that we men climbed Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales. Not by the easy, direct route up from Storey Arms either; Oh no, ex-army man that Dad was, he’d haul us around the twelve mile route from Neuadd reservoir, taking in the three peaks of Crybin, Pen-y-Fan and Corn Du; which, when you’re eight, or seven, or six years old as I had obviously been in previous years, is a bloody long way!
Truth be told though, Dad would inevitably hoist me onto his broad shoulders and carry me much of the way around; but this year was going to be different. I was looking forward to it like never before, determined to complete the hike unaided. Why this sudden enthusiasm?
Sir Chris Bonington and his team had conquered the South West face of Mount Everest in the autumn of 1975 and he was now my absolute hero. I had faithfully followed the expedition, captivated by his weekly reports on the BBC’s children show, Blue Peter. For so long I had dreamed of being Steve Austin, the world’s first bionic man, but now that had changed; my new childhood dream was to be a great mountaineer and conquer the mighty Everest.
Yes. I had it all planned out, the summer of 1976 was going to be a memorable one.
They say ‘Be careful what you wish for’ don’t they.