Robert Hanks: Man About World

The world can wait ... happiness is a shrimp net

A report in the press on Italian holiday habits: according to a psychiatrist who has conducted a survey on this topic, Italians are being driven mad by the dreary sameness of their annual breaks - staying in the same room in the same

A report in the press on Italian holiday habits: according to a psychiatrist who has conducted a survey on this topic, Italians are being driven mad by the dreary sameness of their annual breaks - staying in the same room in the same

hotel, eating the same food, seeing the same old faces, year after year. Instead of getting out of a rut, they get into another one, and end up being even more stressed than when they are at work. Apparently, nearly half of Italians have been going to the same holiday destination for "at least 10 years". "The implication," the report went on, "was that they were insecure, conservative, obsessive and afraid of innovation."

No, hold on, that's going a bit far, isn't it? Isn't it? But this seems to exemplify an assumption that is all too common these days: that the enjoyment derived from a holiday is all about novelty - the more exotic and exciting, the richer in new experiences and tastes, the better. It's an assumption encouraged by travel agents and airlines, eager to sell their wares, and, I'm afraid, by newspaper travel sections, always keen to find something new to splash on the front page. The corollary seems to be that to go to familiar places and see familiar sights, to undergo the same old sensations, is bound to be less pleasurable.

This is not my experience. This year, as every year except one for the last decade, we will be taking two holidays: a week in Cornwall, and a fortnight in Norfolk (thought sometimes it is the other way round, a week in Norfolk and a fortnight in Cornwall). We will be sleeping in the same beds, eating the same food, indulging in the same small pleasures. Does that make us bad people?

The routine doesn't vary much. In Norfolk, we will get some bacon from a local butcher, tie it to nylon lines, and go crabbing off a jetty when the tide is high: on a good day, we will catch anything up to 60 crabs, which we will stockpile in a large bucket until we are bored, and then pour back on to the mud, so that we can watch them scuttle back to the sea. We will feed the ducks at a local ford - probably several times - and I will wade across the riverbed, slippery with weed and dotted with sharp stones, in my bare feet, possibly with one of the children on my back.

At Cley-next-the-Sea, my wife will go swimming, however cold the water, while I will preserve my dignity sitting on the steep shingle beach, and watching terns diving for sand-eels - they bob like puppets over the water, then drop as if their strings have been cut. In the evenings, we will drive out around sunset to watch for hares and owls at their favourite haunts. And I will read one of the ancient paperbacks, Michael Innes or Raymond Chandler, that have been sitting on the bookshelves in the cottage for as long as I can remember. In the evenings, we switch on the radio and listen to the Proms.

The Cornish routine offers differences of detail: shrimping rather than crabbing, my feeble birdwatching efforts revolve around peregrine falcons, wheeling beneath as you stand on top of the cliffs. In Norfolk we treat ourselves to samphire, steamed and dipped in melted butter; in Cornwall there are pasties, and fresh vegetables from stalls that people put outside their gardens.

But it is madness to talk about a "routine". Perhaps in Italy, where the sun always shines, the days blend into one another; but our roster of activities is shaped from day to day by the struggle with the weather. And the weather defines the difference between our two holidays: Cornwall is warm and wet, the air gentle; Norfolk has a drier heat and a colder, more driving rain.

We didn't set out to be this dull about our holidays: the dullness just accreted. When my wife took me on, about 14 years ago, she had already been going to our village in Norfolk for 16 years, and loving the place seemed to be part of the deal. Then her sister told us about the place in Cornwall, and we slotted it into our lives without much thought. Over the years we've had occasional bouts of wanderlust, but lack of funds and the innate conservatism of children have mostly put paid to that.

Still, I can offer you a principled defence of our vacationing style. The consensus may be that travel broadens the mind, but there is an opposition party. Paul Theroux once wrote: "Extensive travelling induces a feeling of encapsulation, and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind." And Ralph Richardson, pointing out that Jesus, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Milton hardly travelled at all, said: "Travel is for people without imagination: dullards, clods; those who need to animate the landscape, otherwise they see nothing there at all." In The Plato Papers, Peter Ackroyd imagined a society where travel sickness is understood as a sickness that the spirit suffers when it is removed from the place where it belongs.

What is the point of travel but change? And we, who stay in the same place year after year, so that all the years blend into one another, can observe and appreciate change far more precisely than people who go in search of new experiences: we see how the trees have grown from year to year, what birds are about, we get to know the tides and the different lights on the beaches.

I suppose if I were being consistent, I would not go away at all, but would stay at home all year round, in our house in London. But after all these years, so much happiness is bound up with our holiday places in Norfolk and Cornwall, we feel so at ease there: for us, going on holiday feels like going home.

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