“Britain. We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare. Churchill. The Beatles. Sean Connery. Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.”
Richard Curtis’ Love Actually sums it up far better than I am able to; Hugh Grant’s Prime Ministerial list of all the things that make Great Britain so great, whilst not exhaustive, makes a good go of rounding up the national attributes that the British are proudest of. Awe-inspiring poesy. Musical genius. Celebrity feet. But note that nowhere in that list do the phrases ‘exquisite landscape’, ‘extensive range of beauty spots’ and ‘tropical climate’ figure. Or even ‘passable climate’, for that matter. Britain is, for all its quirky cultural charms, soggy, grey and meteorologically unenticing for a large percentage of the calendar year.
But interestingly, figures from the Association of British Travel Agents show that over the last two years, numbers of holidaymakers booking domestic breaks and staying in the UK for the summer have hugely increased. Back in July, the Guardian reported that UK residents had ‘shunned foreign travel’, causing a 15% drop in visits abroad and heralding the rise to popularity of the ‘staycation’. When asked to imagine a typical British town, one might be more inclined to paint a mental picture more beaten-up than beautiful. Graffiti-strewn walls and shut-up shop fronts, litter-strewn industrial estates and run-down town centres. Even though such scenes aren’t exactly a nationwide reality, why is it that more and more of us are opting to holiday here, in even the better bits of broken Blighty?
Plenty of personal experience of the staycation has perhaps earned me the right to speak on the subject. When I was little, at least once a year every year, my family would take a caravanning holiday in the tiny seaside town of Overstrand, not far from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. Ours was a posh caravan, just to be clear; one of the swish, static ones that has its own bathroom (admittedly the shower was only big enough for about half a person, but still). As cushy and cosy as staying in the caravan itself was, if a pastime required going outdoors, it usually brought with it a perilous battle with the elements. So simple a summer pursuit as going to the beach could often prove a treacherous experience; if you’ve ever tried to erect a windbreaker in a sandstorm, you’ll sympathise.
More often than not, a dip in the sea was a delight reserved for the brave of heart or those with an impaired ability to feel cold. One memory that stands out for me in particular is that of the day when my dad decided that we were going to walk along the seafront to the nearby town of Cromer. Being about seven at the time, the mile and a half walk might as well have been a cross-country trek as it was, but add to it the hail storm that we then trudged through for what felt like several hours, and you’ve got the day trip from hell. All in the name of the Great British family holiday.
Nowadays, our caravan having been sold long ago and yearly holidays largely taking place abroad in the interim between then and now, holidaying in England is a more civilised affair for my family. Days spent casually freezing on the beach still happen, but mercifully rarely. A week or two on holiday in the UK is more likely to have us holed up in a renovated cottage somewhere in the depths of the Dorset countryside. Hours are whiled away with visits to quaint and quiet villages; the kind where everyone makes their own jam and where people who visit from the outside world are treated with careful and haughty suspicion. On these holidays, I’ve discovered that I actually enjoy perusing antiques and lunching at the odd teashop. Call me an old woman if you will; I give it twenty years before you’re all begging for my homemade gooseberry jam recipe.
But amazingly, it’s not even this more comfortable kind of holiday that more and more Brits are ditching their exotic trips abroad for every year. Two months ago, the Telegraph reported that camping is now a more popular staycation choice than staying in a B&B, with at least 5.4 million families expected to embrace the traditionally uncomfortable pastime during summer 2010 – a 29% increase on summer 2009. “If that sentence right there isn’t a statistical loudhailer, numerically underlining the crippling effect that the recession has had on the average British family, then I don’t know what is,” I hear you cry. Surely camping isn’t that much fun. The family staycation must be enjoying said revival because money is tight, and people are looking closer to home for affordable breaks, no? As the Independent phrased it when holidays abroad took a downturn last year, record numbers of Brits are simply being ‘grounded’ by the poor value of the pound and other effects of the recession.
Students, for example, have always been poor. As a section of the population who, in theory, have never been able to afford to holidays abroad, the staycation should surely be no stranger us. If anything, we should have mastered the art of it by now, if not cultured it into something of a fashionable trend. And many would argue that we have. Newquay, famed for its surf culture and plentiful supply of youth, has become something of a classic student holiday destination in recent years. The University of Nottingham is one among many universities that enables its students to take group holidays to the Cornish camping resort through Summer Break; an annual student event in Newquay run by Outgoing, a company that specialises in frugal and fun holidays for young Brits.
Camping in a caravan instead of a tent is about as luxurious as this trip will possibly get, but roughing it is all part of the expected excessive experience in any case. When I went to Newquay with tens of others from my hall of residence at the end of my first year of university, we witnessed a day and a half of sunshine, followed by roughly a day and a half of cold, and three days of rain. But just like the staycations of my childhood, it didn’t matter that the weather was bad: we hit the beach, wore swimming gear on nights out, slept soundly in tents of questionable safety and made the week a holiday to remember regardless.
Alright, so the cliché is true: it rains here a lot. The British sky spends a good 80% of the year coloured grey (in no way did I just make that statistic up), and any spell of hot weather that lasts longer than a week or two is considered unnatural, if not intensely worrying. But Great Britain is responsible for hosting many of the best holidays of my young life; in spite of the hail, wind and the days when it rained and my parents took us to the campsite’s outdoor swimming pool anyway, I loved every minute of the family staycations of my childhood. In spite of the lack of beach-suitable weather in Newquay, I had one of the best holidays of my adolescent life there. Maybe being trapped by bad weather together in a confined space like a tent, cottage or caravan gives a family time to talk in a way that the average technology-centric home of today doesn’t allow. Maybe foreign sun, sea and sand are pleasant, but don’t make memories any more vivid or wholesome than those that can be made in the prettier corners of England. And perhaps the reason behind the 2009/10 rise of the staycation is as much emotional and nostalgic as it is economic after all.