The great Bank Holiday nightmare

Blame the Victorians. They thought (quite reasonably) that the public could use a few days of communal idleness every year. The reality couldn't be more different
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Bank holiday – the very words spell terror. You think: crowds, endless crowds, cold sunshine, walking in the streets of provincial towns, warnings of traffic jams, the Lake District, chocolate rabbits, Hangar Lane gyratory system, war memorials, crammed trains, pints of Taylor's Landlord Ale, Newquay Zoo, pony trekking in Wales, Longleat safari park, Legoland, and hearing about the death of an elderly politician or a comedian on a car radio. (It always happens, regular as clockwork – Easter Saturday, The World at One, and a sad radio voice informing you that a former foreign secretary or a Fifties sitcom king has popped his clogs. Trust me.)

Bank holidays have an eerie sameness about them. They begin with the same impulse to escape the drudgery of everyday familiarity as must have inspired the fun-seeking millions who enjoyed the first national holidays 130 years ago. It was in 1870 that an Act was passed decreeing that, henceforth, on Boxing Day, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and the first Monday in August (along with Christmas Day, Good Friday, 1 May and 1 November, which were already semi-official holidays) the British workforce should take the day off and devote themselves to leisure pursuits in the countryside, the seaside and the more picturesque towns of Yorkshire and Somerset (though the Act didn't specify the venue). An insistence that the population partied the days away lay behind the Act (just as this year's extra bank holiday on 4 June is meant to be devoted to celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee), and the population needed little encouragement.

There must be a Victorian narrative painting called Bank Holiday somewhere (along the lines of Derby Day) depicting a horde of unbuttoned young insurance clerks and hoydenish maidens whooping it up with ale mugs in their hands at country inns in the Home Counties. And these days of mandatory idleness find us still behaving, mutatis mutandis, with exactly the same innocent determination as our forebears.

God only knows why we choose Durham or Salisbury as the destination that epitomises our concept of existential freedom, but we fall on our holiday town with a passion. We strive like fundamentalists to find interesting sights to admire in the places we visit. We behave as if going to Chichester for the weekend had always been our Camelot-like dream destination, and we count ourselves thrice-blessed to be there. We walk on the battlements of over-restored castles in Kent as if gagging for a shot of medieval history. A bank holiday is like a multitude of tiny parties all happening at the same time, couple- or family-sized parties at which no one wants to be a pooper.

Public holidays were called "bank holidays" because they were days when the banks were legally deemed to be off-duty and any bills that were due on that date could be paid the next working day without incurring wrath or penalties. For most of the last century, they were days when all the shops and offices were shut, and there was nothing to do except skedaddle in the car to Wiltshire and inspect old houses. Today, of course, half the shops in the high street will stay open, the fast-food joints will teem and mill with humanity, and whatever residue of the population remains after the diaspora down the M4 will drive off, in a lowing herd, to Texas Homecare and Phoebe's Garden Centre, where they will spend 20 minutes wondering whether it's too early in the year to buy a) a lawnmower and b) a barbecue.

For those who remain behind, as non-combatants in this suburban crusade, the world becomes an oddly populated place where phones ring unanswered, no cars drive by your house for whole minutes on end, and every restaurant seems freakishly full of children. It's when your best friend bafflingly decides to take his family to Ripon for the bank holiday, without having shown the slightest interest in the place ever before. It's when you become stricken with impetigo or gout on a Friday night and realise you have no chance of getting inside a surgery until Tuesday lunchtime.

There are several rules that must be rigidly observed to make your Bank Holiday extra-authentic:

You must drive all the way to Cornwall, despite the fact that it takes nine hours and 47 minutes to get to, no matter where you start from. Some strange vestigial mysticism about England's western-most county makes you think that you are getting away from England. An inexplicable urge to take the children to the Eden Project fills your heart. An unseasonal longing for Cornish cream tea grapples with your soul. The awful reality hits you just outside Exeter when your offspring are expiring from boredom in the back seat, the floor is littered with empty Cherry Tango cans and you realise that it'll take another two hours to reach the county border.

You must reach stress breaking-point when miles from a service station. According to the Green Flag organisation, which conducted a nationwide survey last week, 78 per cent of motorists "often feel stressed, angry or agitated" when driving. What are the other 22 per cent playing at? You may as well give in to stress, rather than fight it. So many things will cause it – your passenger turning down the volume of your trucking music, your charming son becoming chalk-white and making vomiting noises in the back seat, the serpentine contraflow of orange cones outside Basingstoke and the weird twanging noise from the base of the steering wheel when you go over 90mph...

You must have a verbal dispute with your partner about some trivial environmental matter, which goes round and round in circles. Try the ever-popular:

She: "Do not go so close to this lorry. It is belching horrible, toxic exhaust fumes which will send us all to an early grave."

He: "If you are worried about the fumes, my love, perhaps you should shut your window?"

She: "But the fumes will only come in through the air filter and circulate around the vehicle to potentially lethal effect."

He: "But my dear, the whole point of an air filter is, indeed, to filter out noxious fumes from the incoming air."

She: "How can you be so naive? Do you know nothing about cars?"

He: "I know that carbon-monoxide fumes can't get into them because of the air filter, but can get in if you leave the window open."

She: "If you wouldn't go so close, there wouldn't be a problem..." etc etc

You must eat a series of high-carbohydrate and high-cholesterol meals because of their fancied native authenticity. If you are in a fishing village, then you must consume battered cod and french fries alfresco, seated on the cobbled perimeter of the harbour for that authentic matelot touch, while the wind whistles around your ears and flaps at your trousers. You must eat huge, thick pasties, identical to the ones that used to accompany miners down the shaft. You must try the "World-Famous Hotpot". And you must persuade yourself to try the £6.95 lunch in the Carvery.

You will search high and low for a second-hand bookshop. You will comb the faceless and interchangeable shopping precincts from Cheltenham to Carlisle, in search of a dirty, murky shop with a first edition of Dombey and Son, priced very reasonably, on a low shelf. But you will search in vain, you poor, deluded fool. All the second-hand bookshops are shutting down their premises and are now trading on the internet.

You must visit a stately home, despite the fact that your National Trust family membership card will always have just expired the previous Tuesday. The elderly attendants in the stately rooms will always include one man so terminally crestfallen and woebegone that you will feel obliged to ask some footling question about ghosts and/or mullioned windows in order to make him feel his life has some meaning. In the souvenir shop at the end of your guided tour, you will consider buying a crinkly polythene bag of non-local vanilla fudge. Every souvenir shop is required, by ancient statute, to sell vanilla fudge. But no one knows why.