It’s a year since I abandoned my old blog and moved here. In terms of readership, it was probably a mistake – I have gone from a total of over nearly 1.8 million hits to 13,000 – but I feel strangely happier about it.
I’ve noticed that a number of bloggers have gone quiet over the last year or so. I don’t know if it’s part of some social media phenomenon, or simply a case of running out of steam. I suspect that it’s both.
In my case, laziness has resulted in several blog posts being whittled down to a photo on Instagram and if you follow my account, you’ll have seen that I recently spent some time outside the Truman Show bubble of Lewes.
I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow account of my travels around Yorkshire, Scotland and Wiltshire, except to say that it changed my attitude to travel and when I read several newspaper articles about anti-tourist protests, I nodded my head in agreement.
The contrast was most striking in Wiltshire, where I began a day in an extraodinary Neolithic tomb, over 50 centuries old:
It is situated less than half a mile away from a main road, but it might as well be ten times further, as it felt so removed from the modern world. I had expected a handful a visitors, but it was silent and empty.
A small tunnel leads to a wider chamber that had a faint smell of damp and woodsmoke. It was so quiet, I felt as if I could hear the faint, dull roar of all those past centuries, but it was probably just the A4.
I felt very privileged to be alone in a place that was 500 years older than Stonehenge and tried to imagine the tomb’s builders, huddled around a fire in winter. We know next to nothing about them and the language they spoke and I was brought up to regard these people as primitive. However, they had moved these huge, impossibly heavy stones and created a structure that has lasted for over 5000 years.
To compliment the Neolithic theme, in the afternoon I took my family to Stonehenge. Sadly, it was a very different experince:
This photo doesn’t do justice to the full horror of visiting Stonehenge. It doesn’t include the huge car park, money spinning vistor centre or the fleet of buses that ferry visitors to and from the stone circle. Also, it doesn’t show how many of the visitors seem more interested in the stones as a backdrop to a selfie or group photo, rather than as a place worth contemplating (perferably in silence).
These people had obviously gone to some effort to get here – many had come all the way from China – so why were they behaving as if they were at a rock concert?
During the next couple of weeks, I observed the same phenomenon in a number of places, from York Minster to the Isle of Skye and I concluded that many of these visitors were simply interested in these places because they were ‘bucket list’ destinations.
Stonehenge is, to use that vapid phrase, an ‘iconic’ place; particularly since it became a World Heritage Site. It is a boxed that needs to be ticked and for some of the visitors, the impetus to take photos is, perhaps, about adding a prestigious place to the narrative of one’s life. This is me, in Stonehenge.
We’ve all done it, in varying degrees and I’m as guilty as the next person. My photo albums include the obligatory shots taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge and New York skyline. But over the last few years I’ve begun to see how much damage tourism is doing to some places, negating any short term benefits to the local economy. Even a day in London is now an 80s video game, requiring an ability to dodge wheeled suitcase and selfie sticks coming from all directions.
Venice and Barcelona now have anti-tourist activists and while I don’t agree with all of their methods, I fully sympathise with their sense of desperation. Barcelona has always been on my bucket list, but unless things change I’ve decided that I won’t become part of the problem.
A very good article in The Guardian recently commented that “We should learn from Henry David Thoreau that one can travel as much – and develop as much as a human being – in one’s own locality as in the far-flung and exotic corners of the globe.”
It reminded me of the famous Blake verse:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
In fairness, he probably didn’t live in Croydon.