I TRIED TO ENJOY MY STAYCATION, I REALL DID...

Like many townies, I often fantasise about quitting my urban eyrie for the bucolic delights of the countryside


Part of me knows this is a madness — 25 years ago I moved to a wood in Sussex and moved back to London pretty sharpish — but years of brainwashing by property programmes and surfing of property porn has plainly enfeebled my reasoning faculties.

‘When people say they want to move out of London what they need is a weekend away. Or a few hours at the cinema,’ advised one townie friend.

How right he was.

This summer we exchanged the horror of foreign hols and airport security paranoia for a quiet and peaceful staycation in deepest Devon. We’d just pack the car and zoom off, what could be more liberating? While we were there we could visit a few estate agents, check out some cottages. My mouth was watering at the thought.

Admittedly it was a mistake to go anywhere in August. I’d pitched for September, but S insisted he needed a break and I foolishly gave in. I’ve never understood why so many people (those with inflexible jobs and children are excused) insist on fleeing the city when it is so quiet and one can move around Waitrose supermarket without being crushed by hordes of people.

I could have just sent him off by himself of course, but men don’t like to be alone. Besides, I felt I should the challenge of paying a lot of money to stay in accommodation far less comfortable than my own home was something I should embrace. Everyone regards this is a fun thing and, after all, ‘a change is as good as a rest’. And I really should leave my comfort zone before I get even older and more set in my ways.

And so I waved goodbye to my luxurious 7-foot Vi-Spring mattress, free WiFi (unlike hotels I don’t charge myself for this facility), a Maytag fridge full of delicacies, and access to everything I could possibly want within a five-minute stroll — all exchanged for peace and quiet and swathes of green.

It took quite a bit of time to pack the car, which was soon stuffed to the gills with all our stuff, plus the three dogs. Because of all my ‘special needs’ there was quite a bit to take. Though a good thing about travelling in the UK is that you are never more than five feet away from a kettle so at least I didn’t need to pack that.

Some years ago every Buddhist course I attended had a ‘special needs person’ appointed; this was a job I always volunteered for, as being a slave to my own special needs I was rather an expert. Unfortunately, the post seems to have been abolished in recent years, so now we must all muddle along the best we can, carting around mounds of gluten free food in the depths of our handbags, specially adapted pillows, mattress protectors, hot water bottles, space-clearing sprays and all the rest of it.

And so we set off. The cottage owner had insisted it was an easy four hour drive from London. Liar, liar pants on fire! After a lot of shouting and a dangerous alteration with the Sat Nav, which at one stage was hurled out of the window, we eventually located our cottage inside a labyrinth of tiny country lanes, six miles from the nearest village, six hours after leaving London.

The cottage was one of several converted small barns adjoining a farmhouse belonging to the owners. Ours was very pleasant with an open plan kitchen and wooden floors, but eek, only a shower and no bath! The latter was the cruellest of all blows. A book in the bath at the end of a long day is my favourite thing in the world, sadly denied on this staycation.

By the time we arrived we were starving. We’d vaguely assumed we might eat at the local pub, but as townies we’d forgotten that you can’t find anything to eat in the countryside at the best of times, and having stressed and strained to find the place, had no wish to throw ourselves at the mercy of the tiny lanes – once out how would we ever find our way back? Besides we had no idea where the nearest hostelry was. Just as well the car was well packed with emergency rations to see us through the long, cold, dark country night.

A long week lay ahead. My top floor urban eyrie is an oasis of peace and quiet compared to our rural billet. We were deafened by the racket of enormous four wheel drives whizzing down the country lanes as well as the shrieking from the London escapees and their hordes of children staying in the surrounding cottages.

Every afternoon we would stagger back from our activities to find this was a cue from the owner to get out his top-of-the- range seated Porche lawnmower and zoom around just outside our window. When he’d finished that he would get out his flymo and whir around noisily and annoyingly with that.

If I’d had my way, I would have spent most of the day pottering around, sitting at my laptop, buying books on Amazon, emailing, making myself hot drinks and snacks and all the rest of it. But the WiFi didn’t work (I would have been relieved at the absence of electro-smog, but it was the worst of all worlds. The WiFi was fizzingly active, but neither of us could get the laptop to log on).

By now, S was in action man mode, jumping out of bed at the crack of dawn, guzzling down cold salty porridge then dragooning the recalcitrant dogs and me into the car for long drives to the nearest freezing river.

There we would lug his enormous blow up plastic kayak to the river bank and spend ages blowing it up. Both of us, including the dogs, would then get into the kayak and paddle about for a bit.

Sometimes it would rain and sometimes we would be blessed with a chilly watery sunshine. Once I threw myself out of the kayak and swam alongside it for 20 minutes, earning some brownie points from action man. I love `wild swimming’ as a dip in a river is now thrillingly called, however I don’t need to drive for 6 hours to do it as I can swim outside in a blissful rural setting at the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

After all this frantic action we would spend ages dismantling the kayak, putting the dogs back into the car and drive somewhere in search of food. I dislike the homogenization of the high street, the ubiquity of dreaded coffee chains and laud the citizens of Totness’s fight against Costa coffee’s bid to open a shop in the town, but I do remember that before the advent of the dreaded coffee chains it was impossible to find drinkable coffee in Britain.

Although Salcombe, Dartmouth and many towns in the West country have successfully fought off Starbucks and their like, I’m must confess that we didn’t drink one cup of decent coffee in a week.

No decent coffee or internet access, a hard thin mattress and no hot bath; such are the stringencies of a holiday away from one’s home comforts. Thank goodness we were both chanting a lot, especially during the interminable car journeys. I was reminded not to moan when we recalled one of Nichiren Daishonin’s letters;

Just chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and when you drink sake, stay at home with your wife. Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens. Then you will experience boundless joy from the Law’.

We didn’t have any sake but champagne provided a morale boosting substitute.

And despite exchanging the polluted air of London for fresh country air, I felt shattered all week. How can this be? Just more proof that I am a completely urban organism?

Anyway, I was coping pretty well with the low level discomfort when disaster struck. While taking the dogs for an evening walk Daisy, our feisty Bichon bitch, refused to come to heel and started to chase the sheep (a shootable offence in the country).

One of the terrified sheep (sheep look quite peaceable in a distant herd, but up close are absolutely enormous – this one must have weighed 20 stone), detached herself from the herd and came charging towards us, Daisy hot on her tail. We ducked out of the way but to our horror, elderly deaf Nutty, the loveliest sweetest dog in the world, was not quick enough and was tossed aside by the demented sheep.

Fortunately Nutty was able to walk the short distance back to the billet where he was promptly sick. He fell asleep and I had a wakeful fretful night. To my amazement, in the morning he seemed as right as rain. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. What with Daisy and one of our chickens falling off the roof and surviving and now Nutty, I do feel our chanting is embracing pets as well as humans!

Our final day eventually dawned. We packed up the car, installed the dogs, and set off. This time it took 7 hours to drive back.

But the week was not wasted. As American philospher William James wrote, `Every man who possibly can should force himself to a holiday of a full month in a year, whether he feels like taking it or not’.


A month! I don’t think I could cope with that.

To me, the great joy of going on holiday is the heightened appreciation of home, all one’s special needs catered for, free WiFi, the joy of a hot bath, and then the bliss of sinking into a deep feather bed.

These days people fantasise about escape from their daily lives and live for their fortnightly break in the sun. But if you really enjoy your daily life, the desperate need to escape to a different reality becomes less pressing.

Samuel Johnston wrote; “ To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends.”

So while I can see the joy of a country retreat, it would have to be much closer than Devon. I am now of the same inclination as late gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, who kept a flat in central London and a country pad in… Richmond




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