(The continuing saga of our holiday in Gloucester)
We were heading for Chippenham, but managed to completely miss it, ending up in Devizes instead. By now we were ready for lunch but Devizes was not ready to let us stop; the entire town was locked solid with parked cars, leaving us no choice but to allow ourselves to be carried on through on the rippling flow of stop-and-go traffic to be dumped into a wilderness that, on the map, was nothing but a criss-cross of red and white lines, many of them unlabeled.
From there we drove randomly, eventually stopping at a service station out in the middle of nowhere that, unaccountably, had a large and very busy Subway attached to it. Judging by the car park and the queue at the till, it must have been the only Subway in the entire county, a place the locals visit when they want to treat their families to a special meal, such as a foot-long tuna sub with sweet corn and a blue drink in a plastic bottle. Good thing it was merely the lunch hour—if we’d have arrived at dinner time we might have needed a reservation.
After that, we grew tired of adventure and headed north for the M4, where we covered the final half of the trip in a tenth of the time the first half took.
To continue our holiday tradition, we stopped at the Tesco in Chepstow to do a week’s shop. Later on, I knew, when we finally reached our destination, we would put the groceries away in logical places, hang up our clothes, pack everything away in drawers and quickly fall into our usual routine. For us, going on holiday, at least in Britain, is less like a week at a resort and more like living in someone else’s house.
Still, that’s not a bad way to have a vacation; it’s cheap, you’re surrounded by familiarity and comfort, you don’t have maids poking around while you’re out during the day and you get to visit all of the local attractions that you would never see if you actually lived there. It’s such a good idea that we spent one holiday in our own flat, using the week to tour a variety of local sight-seeing destinations we would otherwise have never gotten around to.
And so we left Tesco’s with our groceries, running into Kate Humble on her way in, ostensibly to do her weekly shop, or to slip into a blind cleverly hidden in the produce department for a special segment on “Autumn Watch,” highlighting the mating rituals among Chepstow Tesco shoppers.
We were now just past the time for check-in and we were close to our destination, but there was still one more holiday tradition to get through: the tradition wherein the directions—supplied by the cottage owners—leave off a vital piece of information. In this case, we were to take the major road we were driving north on through the center of town and turn at the Gagging Ferret. No problem. The trouble started when we discovered that the road we were on did not, technically, go through the town.
After becoming acquainted and reacquainted with the bypass several surrounding villages and a car park or two, we eventually reached our destination—later than we’d planned, knackered from the drive and stressed out from taking so many wrong turns (including going the wrong way up a one-way street), which is, of course, also part of the tradition.
The accommodation was lovely, the area quaint and quiet and the landlord friendly and effusive. He was a displaced Londoner who had come to visit the Royal Forest of Dean some 14 years earlier, fell in love with it and never left. He was filled with nothing but praise for the area, how peaceful it was, how beautiful and wild the landscape remained and how welcoming the locals were.
His wife was also from London but his three young daughters were locally bred, making them, in his estimation I imagine, true “Foresters.” I had to wonder how the locals might feel about this; if they were anything like the old Yankees of Maine, you continued to be regarded as an “outsider” for the first five or six generations.
“If a cat has kittens in the oven,” they would say, “that don’t make ‘em biscuits.”
So after getting the key and exchanging life stories, we set up housekeeping and took stock of the local area.
I love vacationing in the UK. Over the years I have discovered a host of stunningly beautiful locations and then returned home thanking my lucky stars I didn’t actually live there. Pretty and peaceful it was, but there was a single pub/restaurant (albeit, a very nice one) in the scattering of houses that masqueraded as a village, along with a single, small convenience store/post office combo. And that was it, no shops, no market, no cinema, no Starbucks, no fast food joints, no hair styling salon on every corner, no betting shops, no kebabs and no rail link to get you anyplace where you might find these things.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. This was, after all, why we came. I’m just saying—having been spoiled by the delights of civilization—that I’m glad I don’t live here.
I grew up in a very rural setting—more rural that this—and I loved it. But that was before the days of 24-hour television, internet, computer games, shopping malls and mobile phones, back when we knew how to entertain ourselves and could find diversion in the simplest activities, such damming up a stream or building a raft out of twigs and leaves and encouraging your little brother to try it out in the mill pond to see if it would float.
These days, we’re not happy unless someone or something is holding out attention, but not for long. We crave 24/7 connectivity but can’t communicate in more that 140 words at a time. As a culture, we’re addicted to sucking the teat of technology and we cry when it is pulled away. I’m not altogether happy about that, but having long ago sold my soul to the cyber-gods, there was little left to do but open a beer, light a cigar and settle down at the picnic table in the garden to check my e-mail on my CrackBerry™ and connect my laptop to the internet.
I turned them both on. There was no signal. None at all. No phone, no internet, no way to communicate with anyone, no way to update my blogs…
Imagine my disappointment.
(Next: coming to terms with our surroundings)