THE JOY OF OUTDOOR HOLIDAYS
Old is the new old (and as such the new new)
Words and images by Will Turner
Just before the castle on Walmer Beach, if you’re walking from Kingsdown, just past the White Cliffs on the Kent coast, there is a section of shingle exploded with the wildflowers of mid-July. Hardy flowers, flowers used to the wet salty air and the stoney ground celebrating the season in purple, yellow and blue hues unified through the creamy pigment of the chalk soil. In their midst is an alien. Not ragwort, that beautiful hardy plant whose yellow bloom is poisonous to grazing livestock and is thus despised as an invasive species, but a real alien. It is sprouting, in about a five metre squared area only, on both sides of the path. The arms are highlighter yellow-green, slightly translucent, thicker than the nearby plants and sticking out at much more jagged angles than the usual smooth curves. It looks like the arms of a many legged creature, stuck deep down in the earth.
I have absolutely no idea what this plant is. I have spent ages looking up the flora of the White Cliffs Site of Special Scientific Interest, reading up on the sheep’s fescue, wild carrot, ox-tongue broomrape and early spider orchid. Nothing. My best guess is that it is a plant that initially evolved to live in the air, then by some quirk evolved to live in the sea, and now is back in the air. Its structure just looks like it is designed to sway in the force of water not wind. But who knows.
I don’t normally spend a lot of time looking at plants. There are other things to look at, normally. Buildings, people, adverts, tv shows etc. But when you’re camping the world is so much smaller. And thus richer – there is really so much information in the world. I just went camping with my girlfriend for four days on the Kent coast and had the most wonderful time.
I want to make the case that there are really three kinds of holidays. There’s the Nomadic Wander, where you live a life on the move, travelling from point to point perhaps by motorbike, campervan, train, car, bus. You break from sedentary existence and temporarily tapping into some deep desire for the nomadic life. There’s the Luxury Hotel holiday, in which your every need and desire is catered to, all decisions are outsourced to service and hospitality professionals. Then there’s the Camping Holiday. You are in charge of absolutely everything. You build your home and put it down. If you need power you provide it. If you need food cooking you get a camping stove, buy the canister, figure out how to make it work, protect it from the elements. You think about how to stop your stuff getting wet, what pitch has the best view, you remind yourself to keep the bug-shield closed. You wear a fishing jacket with lots of pockets with all your essentials in.
A holiday is about resetting and refreshing your mindbody by taking you out of your normal environment and encouraging you to live in a different mode. This requires reorienting how you pay attention, and what you pay attention to. In normal life you have to pay very close attention to clocktime – to not being late for things, to turning up to things when others do. You wake up by an alarm, you get transport on time, you work for a certain time, you go home, you pick up some food before the shop’s close.
Amongst my generation there is a tendency towards the Air BnB city break. This involves maybe booking a long weekend off, staying in a small self-catered apartment somewhere like Lisbon, Barcelona or Milan, and desperately trying to see everything there in three days. You spend your days looking up opening and closing times of restaurants and galleries, checking Citymapper to see the most efficient way to link two important sites together, seeing if Vittles or Blackbird Spyplane have the recs for the coolest shops, restaurants, cafes, museums. The ones that will be worth your while, will make you feel in-the-know, commensurate with your expectations of how trendy and cool you are.
AirBnB city breaks aren’t holidays, because you are paying attention in exactly the same way you normally do. The trendy small plates restaurants are the same, the underground speakeasies are the same, the public transport is the same, the walking tour you abandon halfway through because you prefer unguided psychographic exploration are the same. The art gallery might have Monet’s Waterlillies in, but here’s a secret: there is an edition of Monet’s Waterlillies in every significant art gallery in the world. On an AirBnB city break your orientation towards the world is exactly the same as it normally is, you’re just in a different part of the world. There is no reset.
The truth is that if you are on a budget and want to see cool trendy cities then you have to do it on a Nomadic Wander holiday. Give yourself the time, leave with an interrail pass and a big rucksack and some hospitality skills you can trade in for volunteer hostel work, and, hey presto, Madrid and Berlin are yours If you do a stint volunteering in a hostel then you’ll make friends all over the world, so when you do want to pop over to Warsaw for a long weekend you’ll have somewhere to stay and genuine on the ground knowledge.
But basically having cool experiences isn’t what holidays are about. Luxury hotels aren’t cool. What they are is a completely different way of paying attention. Allowing the small sensorial pleasure of a perfect cocktail, a towel robe, those tiny little roses petals on your bed to envelop you. Ensconced in the perfect luxury hotel, all you have to pay attention to is these tiny slices of perfection.
Camping isn’t cool either. There have been various attempts to make it cool (I currently have to stop myself whenever I see anything by Snow Peak in an outdoor store) but it really can’t be. Camping is the activity of boy scouts and school trips, of characters straight out of Nuts in May, of Northern grandads called Clive who will lend you a firelighter and let you in a top secret of where to see hen harriers this time of year. They are the holidays of you, screaming at yourself, having to take yourself off for an emergency flapjack, because you have spent a full hour trying to inflate a Sainsbury’s airbed designed by someone who doesn’t understand what a valve is.
But when the world shrinks, and you start paying attention to everything within it absolutely, little things emerge. You figure out what the North Star Polaris is (the one that doesn’t tilt when all the others do.) You stare out at the sea, and consider that if our brains processed sensory information differently we might experience the gestalt of all the waves as a song. You play chess for two hours, letting each move take as much time as it needs, with no thought of what is coming next on the agenda. You spend a good half an hour on Walmer Beach, on the way to Deal for some fish and chips, staring at an alien plant on the shingle beach.