“The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.” So said writer Isak Dinesen in the 1920s, and I’m not sure a great deal has altered since. It’s something of a universal truth; although my ability to combine all three every time I go surfing is, I suspect, entirely unique.
There hasn’t been a day of the interminable lockdown we’ve all endured when I haven’t reflected my dumb luck in living on the coast, although it has to be said that all of us, regardless of location in the UK, are never more than 70 miles away from the sea. As such, a whiff of salt is a defining feature for everyone – we are all islanders in some shape or form.
But my genuine proximity to the coast, a mere hermit-crab scuttle away, has meant that I’ve been able to explore the cliff paths, the woods in the valleys, and of course, the many coves and beaches here in South Devon.
I’ve long said it, but the UK has some of the most bucolic, wondrous landscapes on Earth, it really does, and sometimes it takes a spell of enforced nearness to our surrounding to bring that home. “Britain has some of the most reliably beautiful countryside anywhere in the world,” says none other than Bill Bryson, and there’s a chap who knows a thing or two about travel.
Anchored to our homes
But the irony is, of course, that we haven’t been able to travel, we’ve been anchored in place, moored to the earth, shackled to our homes.
We’ve been forced to sit and stare at our near surroundings, to gaze at our environment navels if you will, for a very long time indeed.
This has been double frustrating in the Halls household, because at the start of 2020, we took delivery of our shiny new campervan, resulting in a frenzy of maps (remember them?) being laid out on the kitchen table, itineraries created, and ambition forged into reality in the white heat of family energy and excitement. All swept away in a series of ominous public announcements.
So our new motorhome was transformed in an instant from magic carpet to driveway shed, albeit a shiny and well-equipped one. This latter characteristic saw a new phase to our relationship with the ‘van, one worthy of note today as we are being ordered to oil our front door hinges and rev our engines for the year ahead. And that is the merit of the camper as basecamp and hide.
The first manifestation of this occurred when I was sitting in the camper on my drive, making ‘vroom vroom’ noises as I turned the steering wheel from side to side, only to glance up and see a greater spotted woodpecker dangling rather acrobatically from the bird-feeder in front of me.
This was a terrific scene, and got even better when a grey squirrel bounced into view, chased off the woodpecker and then hung upside down off one toe to pilfer some peanuts.
Perfect for wildlife-watching
I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, the sudden realisation that a campervan makes a pretty good hide when you’re trying to photograph things. The one object our local wildlife is used to seeing is a car, and if that car happens to be parked, then all the better. It represents no threat whatsoever.
I’d long admitted the stories of those doughty photographers living in a hide in the Himalayas for months on end., being left warm only by their long johns and unshakeable optimism, eventually rewarded by capturing a fleeting glimpse of a snow leopard. But I rapidly came to realise I preferred my version. I had a) a comfy sofa, b) endless coffee, c) heating, and d) Classic FM.
So, over the next few months, I could at times be found in the camper, long lens at the ready, eyeing the bird-feeder and the valley beyond. It was, quite simply, bliss.
The easing of the restrictions meant we could begin to explore albeit only within our postcode. I swiftly resolved that the ‘van would become our kit store on wheels, a way to sample the coastal ecosystem, reveal its inhabitants and marinade the kids in the wider world beyond our garden.
Thus it became a basecamp – where we return to restock and refresh, a store for our surfboards, frisbees and climbing gear and a haven amid the bedlam of two newly-released, hyperative kids.
What does all this tell me? The simple lesson is, there can be an urge to voyage relentlessly in a ‘van, to define a trip’s success by miles covered,. But sometimes the greatest journeys – those of discovery, adventure and exploration – are made simply by staying in the same place.
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I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, the sudden realisation that the campervan makes a pretty good hide when you're trying to photograph things