Reflections is a series of essays embracing the power of introspection, taking on personal topics and rooting out what is just below the surface.
“We never went abroad thanks to a blend of being on a budget and my Mum’s deathly fear of flying, so the ‘staycation’ – or the holistay, if you go against the grain – was our only choice for summer holidays.”
And just like that, my brother face-planted a pile of sheep shit.
You are reading that correctly. He fell over, face first, into shit. That’s the kind of memory that stays with you; even more so when the camcorder your Mum has been recording the family holiday on is still rolling, capturing perfectly the precise moment that a young boy torpedoes into excrement. If my brother isn’t happy that this moment is immortalised forever in film, I certainly am.
I have lots of memories like this from the holidays we took as children (not all shit-focused, you’ll be happy to hear). We never went abroad thanks to a blend of being on a budget and my Mum’s deathly fear of flying, so the ‘staycation’ – or the holistay, if you go against the grain – was our only choice for summer holidays.
While nowadays the term has become somewhat synonymous with luxury log cabins, faux fur throws and relaxed hygge vibes, back when I was a kid, staycations looked like working farms and sharing beds at the edges of this island.
Either my grandparents would take my brother and I to some remote pocket of Scotland, to feel rugged earth beneath our feet and marvel at the vista of lochs and lakes, or my Mum would make the 4 hour drive to Roxby in North Yorkshire and we’d stay with Uncle Col, who was no actual relation to us but who we’d call Uncle Col all the same.
I can picture him now, leaning against the doorframe of his little stone cottage. When he wasn’t working he’d always wear a white vest, and his hair would sprout in tufts at the neckline and back. He had an impossibly strong Yorkshire accent and looked like a different person when he took his glasses off, but I suppose adults have a way of shapeshifting in ways you can’t comprehend as a child.
“My peers were jetting off to Spain, Turkey and France while we were pulling on our walking boots and waterproofs, trying not to eat the packed lunch we’d been given for the journey.”
Col’s farm had cows, sheep, chickens and a couple of horses in the adjoining field next door. We’d visit for a week at a time and all three of us would squeeze into the spare room upstairs, my brother, Mum and me all tucked up under heated blankets. In terms of excursions and activities, there wasn’t much for us to do. But in terms of our imagination? It was a playground of possibilities.
We would spend hours building hay forts in the barn, piling the bales higher and higher so we could slide down the front in a tumble of dust. We’d help guide the cows from field to barn at night, dwarfed in stature by these gentle giants who’d let us weave in between them with little notice or bother.
One time Col painted one of the cows blue as a joke to make my Mum laugh.
Another time one of the horses galloped across the field toward me and stopped short to sneeze on my head, and I had to be frogmarched to the bathroom to clean the snot out of my hair.
Another saw Joe and I hiding from the adults because we’d been tasked with collecting the eggs, and instead of delivering them back as expected, we chose to throw them all against the barn door in a competition of strength. It’s my opinion that asking a 5 and 7 year old to collect eggs is asking for trouble anyway, but maybe we didn’t need to sacrifice the whole tray. Either way, whenever I see a full tray of eggs, the urge to rekindle an inch of childish impishness floods back and I have to resist the temptation to smash the lot.
“It felt like a different planet. It was space and rain and cows and bread, borrowed bedrooms and backwards caps.”
Staycationing with my grandparents was a little more ordered. Each day would be meticulously planned out by my Nan, including scenic stops, toilet breaks and a time allowance for getting lost (which we often did, in the archaic time of paper maps). We’d wind steeper and steeper up hills and cliffs, parking up in lay-bys to pop open the boot and munch on crusty, corned beef rolls. Scottish summers were midges galore, so we’d invariably be swatting and spraying, soothing cherry-red bites with thick, cold creams.
Cattle grates and sheep’s wool on metal fences; a lot of my staycation memories were shaped by landscape and livestock. Whichever holiday cottage we stayed in, there’d often be some creature nearby, either a farmer’s dog or auburn Highland coo. And who can forget the Loch Ness monster? I don’t know what I enjoyed more: the squinting ritual of trying to spot Nessie amidst the water, or revisiting the same museum and being delighted by the same exhibition, over and over again.
In the evenings we’d eat around a big table and play the card game Newmarket. My Nan would pull pennies from various plastic pouches and divvy them out, one by one, while my Grandad likely poured a single malt whiskey and tried to find a football match on the 90s TV.
Scotland was hardly a world away from our home down south, but between the ferry-hopping to satellite islands and deserted beaches occupied only by gulls and shells, it felt like a different planet. It was space and rain and cows and bread, borrowed bedrooms and backwards caps. Neeps and tatties and my Grandad carrying me on his shoulders whenever my legs grew tired, this great, big, towering man with a tiny ragdoll wrapped around his neck.
When I think of staycations now, it’s all clotted cream and countrycore dining, but before the word held any weight, it shaped the summer holidays of my childhood. My peers were jetting off to Spain, Turkey and France while we were pulling on our walking boots and waterproofs, trying not to eat the packed lunch we’d been given for the journey.
“I wonder now if there is some deep-rooted affinity for staycationing, woven into the very fibres of my bones. A kind of childhood hook that simply won’t give.”
And though I’m older now and have the means to go further afield, when I cast my mind back, I see staycations rising with regularity throughout the short span of my adult years. I make time for it, every year, to go and stay somewhere in the UK. I’d never really thought about why I love to do this so much – it isn’t cheaper, it isn’t easier and the weather will almost definitely be bad – but I wonder now if there is some deep-rooted affinity for staycationing, woven into the very fibres of my bones. A kind of childhood hook that simply won’t give.
Would I go back to sharing a room with my Mum and brother? Our ages span from 27 – 56 and we all live separately, so bunking up may be a little close for comfort now. But I’d like to hold on to the charm that flooded those annual weeks of escape, the fondness for flirting with the pastoral, the appreciation for space and silence which has passed down the maternal line.
I sent a text to my Mum when I started writing this article, and we’ve since decided that we have to go back to Yorkshire. The trip this time will be one born of choice, rather than the lack thereof, but looking back at the rural bliss of my childhood years, the expansive beauty of nature and the idyll of quiet and peace – well, I certainly wouldn’t choose any differently.
Illustrated by Anna Jane Houghton, a Liverpool based researcher and artist. Drawing influence from the ‘motel’ aesthetic and beatnik literature; her illustrative style combines florals and fruit, amongst plant-life and mid-century interiors, to reimagine the classic still life.
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