Susan Morrison: The strange history of the ‘city break’

Judith Chalmers visits Karnak during an episode of Wish You Were Here. Picture: ITV/REX/Shutterstock
Judith Chalmers visits Karnak during an episode of Wish You Were Here. Picture: ITV/REX/Shutterstock
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Yorkie and the Scot are on tour. Oh yes, me and him are on what we used to call back in the 80s ‘A City Break’ and, being of a typically expansive nature, we made it two cities to break.

It may have been British Rail who came up with the concept of packing some clean pants and a toothbrush to go and visit another city. It was pretty revolutionary.

Holiday travel at that time was entirely based around two weeks beside a beach, be it North Berwick, Girvan or anywhere Spanish. The idea of going to another urban sprawl for a visit was unheard of.

Holiday programmes from the 80s were fronted by weirdly tanned presenters extolling the joys of little Greek islands, the best deals for Torremolinos or narrowboating on the Norfolk Broads.

A stately woman by the name of Judith Chalmers was considered the action gal of the team. She was forever leaning over the gunwales of a converted Second World War minesweeper as it cruised about the Broads or rambling like an Amazon along the Yorkshire Dales.

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She radiated the sort of jolly enthusiasm those English public schoolgirls generate on hockey fields in the winter, when the only thing between them and death by exposure is the ruddy glow of a clean-living House Captain exhorting the Upper Sixth to greater achievements. Looking at you, Theresa May.

I have often wondered if Judith ever threw a hissy fit at some point and demanded just one cruise to the sun and “shove yer North Yorkshire Moors, laddie”.

Then along came the 80s and folk started to ‘Go Away For The Weekend’. It became A Thing. In the era of dayglo neon and legwarmers, I suspect we wanted to see our cities before the Tories closed them. Liverpool, Birmingham, even Glasgow, all seemed to be heading for the breakers yard.

Fast forward to 2018, and the old fogeys have hit the highway. Liverpool first, to the Maritime Museum. They have a shipbuilders’ model of the RMS Titanic. I want to hug it. Those who know me and know my long, somewhat bizarre relationship with the world’s most famous ship, will not be surprised.

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And then to Bristol, so I can go and strut about the SS Great Britain telling all within earshot that Leith beat Brunel to steam across the Atlantic. The Sirius got there first.

Yes, you’re right, there is a ship theme to this road trip, but I don’t think the Yorkie’s noticed.

We’re off for a weekend in Alcatraz

At the birth of the City Break it was considered quite racy. It was the sort of thing the twosome of an office romance would sneak off to do, even if they were married to other people.

And once you had reached the city of your dreams, where would you stay and what would you do? Hotels were not for the likes of thee and me back then, and anyway, good luck finding one. No Premier Inns, Holiday Expresses or even Travelodge.

The best you could hope for was a Bed and Breakfast that hadn’t modelled its customer care plans on Alcatraz.