Tilbury Ferry during the Suez Crisis
In the 1950s preparation for our family holidays began several months ahead. In 1956 there was more excitement than usual because we were travelling a long way. As soon as the caravan was booked, my father wrote to the RAC for a map showing their recommended route from Newmarket to Kent. He had bought a nearly new Hillman Husky in the spring. In previous years our mode of transport had been a Panther motorbike and sidecar. My mother, younger brother and my sister or I were squashed into the sidecar and the fortunate remaining sister sat on the back of the motorbike, clad in cotton frock, sandals and socks, with no head protection and the only safety provision an instruction to hold on to my father’s waist.
An exciting, and slightly alarming, aspect of our journey was that the RAC instructed us to cross the Thames by the Tilbury ferry. I had no idea how long the crossing would take and had never travelled in a boat before. I was a little anxious that I might be seasick, but decided not to tell anyone. My father, obedient to the expert advice, booked a passage for the car some weeks ahead, and we set off early one Saturday in August with the feeling that all eventualities had been planned for.
Our route through Essex was interesting, I remember, as it took us through a lot of villages called Roding Something or Something Roding. An observant child, well trained by my I-Spy books, I was intrigued by that. Even better, we had breakfast in a transport café near Rayleigh, and for the first time, at the age of 11, I encountered a teaspoon chained to a counter and saw someone pour several cups of tea out at once using a teapot with multiple spouts.
When we approached Tilbury, we felt all was going well. We were due to cross the Thames at noon, and there was at least three-quarters of an hour to go. Then all the organisation went awry. We turned a corner and found stationary vehicles ahead of us, stretching a long way into the distance. Nothing happened for a very long time. We ate our sandwiches, and my mother started to worry. It grew hot. The three of us in the back, being well brought up, made no complaint, but were increasingly uncomfortable. We ran out of games to play. Mother, who was prone to migraine, announced that she was getting a headache so thereafter we sat in silence. After another very long interval noises were heard behind us, and suddenly what seemed an endless stream of khaki-coloured vehicles, headed by one bearing a flag, overtook us. Father got out of the car at this point and conferred with other drivers. We had missed the news on the Home Service because of our early start, but others were better informed. We learned that Britain was invading Egypt because of the Suez Canal crisis that had been rumbling all summer, and we would all have to wait until the troops had crossed over on the ferry.
The rest of the day is something of a blur. We did eventually cross the Thames. It did look very wide, and I was relieved that I was not seasick. We could see other vessels transporting army vehicles over the river. Finally we got to Herne Bay and the caravan had, to our relief, not been let to anyone else. A kind temporary neighbour produced some codeine and Mother retired to bed. Our journey to the ferry and our brush with international history remains what I remember most about the week that followed – except that we went to see Bambi on a wet afternoon. That was even more memorable.