Mavis Johnston and the 1950s travel revolution that shrank the world

CNN  — 

The glamorous black and white photos appear to be straight from a golden age of travel. The postwar era of streamlined airplanes, stylish bathing suits, swish hotels, empty country roads and cool cars.

In these snapshots, Englishwoman Mavis Johnston is the apparent embodiment of the sophisticated, jet-set traveler.

And in many ways she was, experiencing the kind of tourism that would become hugely popular in the decades to come.

In one photo, she’s lounging on the grassy hills surrounding Loch Lomond, Scotland, caught mid-laughter.

On the next page, she’s sat next to her husband on a Spanish terrace, surrounded by terracotta pots. They’re both beaming under the Catalonian sun.

In another, she’s snapped disembarking an airplane, descending airstairs emblazoned with the BEA logo of British European Airways – a forerunner to British Airways – binoculars and trench coat in one hand.

The reality, of course, is travel is never as glamorous as it looks. But, says Johnston – now 87 and reflecting on a lifetime of glorious summers – these trips were no less happy because of their ups and downs.

Johnston’s striking photos offer an intriguing insight into British vacations at the onset of the mid-20th century travel boom.

And for me, they’re particularly interesting, because Mavis Johnston is my grandmother.

Johnston’s story begins in the north of England. Born in 1933 in the city of Leeds, the few vacations of her childhood took her to traditional seaside resorts less than 100 miles from home, where entire industrial towns would often decamp for a week’s break at the same time.

Her childhood travels were cut short by World War II. On August 31, 1939, she and her parents arrived in the Yorkshire seaside town of Bridlington. The next day, Germany invaded Poland and the family went home.

“I’d got a new bucket and spade especially, but I never got to use it,” she says. “That was the last time we went on holiday as a family.”

Like many in her generation, during the war Mavis was evacuated from her city center home to the countryside. Her father passed away from illness towards the end of the war years.

In her late teens, she moved to Manchester for work, less than 50 miles from Leeds. Here, she met Peter Johnston, my grandfather, who was fresh from completing his compulsory military service. He’d also grown up in a working-class northern English neighborhood, but a year spent in the RAF, working and bunking with men from across the world, had broadened his horizons. He was hungry to see as much of the world as possible.

Britain was only just emerging from years of conflict. The austerity endured by many during the war was still visible. Rationing had only just ended. Vacations, even modest ones, were a luxury.

Mavis worked in a clothes shop and Peter was a textile salesman. When they married in 1955, neither of them had ever ventured far beyond the north of England, let alone traveled abroad. That photo of my grandmother disembarking the airplane marked her first time traveling by air.

“I was just relieved to be on the ground,” she laughs when asked about the snapshot.

She was traveling with my grandfather to the Isle of Man, she says, not long after they were married.