They don’t look like much.
Simple wooden chalets tucked back from the road, barely visible through the trees as you drive though a tiny Scottish village. But something about them prompted my grandparents to look closer, way back in 1978.
And that’s how my family discovered Ardwell.
Six chalets in a row, facing a quiet beach. The accommodation was simple – no TV, no shower, and an electricity meter that needed to be fed regularly to keep the lights on.
My Dad always forgot the torch and the lights would also go out at the most inconvenient moments. But what it had in abundance was space, and freedom.
The first time I came here I wasn’t quite four years old. For a kid, Ardwell was a magical place. We’d wake up in the mornings, and stand on our tiptoes to see over the grass to the beach. We’d race between the chalets, saying good morning to Aunts and Uncles, cousins and grandparents.
If the tide was out, we’d grab wellies and buckets and go rock pooling. If the tide was in, we’d walk up the hill into the woods, and gather sticks that my grandfather would make into swords. He loved us to collect whelks on the beach. Then he’d cook them up over a fire, and we’d eat them with tiny pins.
There were games, too, played on the strip of grass that separates the chalets from the beach. Football, rounders, cricket, even badminton, one year. We’d collect rocks and watch seals and read books on the many rainy afternoons (well, it was Scotland). There were trips to the village shop (home to the only phone box for miles) where we’d stock up on Creamola, an annual holiday treat.
The years went by, and we still came. In my late teens, my Mum ran a home for adults with learning disabilities and we’d bring the residents to Ardwell on holiday.
Late in the evening, after everyone was in bed, my brother Ross would open a couple of beers and we’d sit up talking into the small hours, playing video games and putting the world to rights.
Going back was hard.
It’s been over 15 years since my brother died, and mostly my memories of him are a gentle thing. “Remember when…” we’ll say, with a smile. We were lucky to have so many good years, so many good moments.
Finding myself in Ardwell this summer was more like having a ten ton truck land on my head. Repeatedly. With every familiar corner turned, a little voice in my head couldn’t help saying, “I want my brother to be here.”
We visited last week, the whole clan. Me and Flea, my brother and his family, my parents, two of my cousins, both with their partners and children, my aunt and uncle… it was quite the crowd. And somehow in a crowd, the person who’s missing becomes more obvious, I think.
But kids have a way of dragging you into the future whether you like it or not. Seeing Ardwell through Flea’s eyes reminded me of how magical we used to find the place.
So it was a week of barbecues, and walks, and looking for seals, and reading books. There were board games and picnics and nights sitting around a fire. There were family rounders matches and silly races, and even a birthday celebration for my nephew, complete with cake. It was perfect.
So if you find yourself in that corner of Scotland, and notice those little chalets tucked behind the trees, do stop for a second look. They’re pretty much the same as they every were. They have tiny TVs now that sometimes have a working signal, and this year for the first time since 1978, there were a couple of chalets with a double bed. You’ll still need a stash of coins for the electricity meter. But it’s pretty special, even so.