Richard Conway tells us why you don’t always need to get away to get away. This article was shortlisted in the PureTravel Writing Competition:
Rest. What is it really? The fabulous book ‘The Art of Rest’ by Claudia Hammond starts by suggesting that lying in a hammock swaying gently in the tropical breeze is a vision a lot of people have of what rest looks like but actually questions whether that truly is restful when you factor in things like the getting in and out of the hammock, plus the sustained effort of staying in it and not spinning around and being thrown to the floor like something from a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
Is that rest? It’s better than working, but possibly isn’t entirely restful and this conflict between what sounds, in theory, like one thing but in reality is the opposite, is something I consider when thinking about what constitutes a breathtaking travel moment. It need not always be swimming with dolphins or catching the perfect wave, both of which require patience and no small amount of good luck. Sometimes the breathtaking moments aren’t those that occur when your expectations are primed to the point where they could only be disappointed or, at best, met but they are the ones that sneak up on you. The moments where we haven’t followed the guidebook’s rehearsed itinerary and found the best case scenario view or experience, but stumbled on it ourselves. The moment where contentment floods through your body relaxing you and making you suddenly at peace with everything. These moments are capable of drawing you outside that world of bills, and to-dos, and responsibilities, and just for a few moments nothing else matters.
The last 18 months have been difficult for everyone. Cooped up in our own four walls working, or straining under the pressure to use the time to learn a new language or cook the perfect banana bread we have all missed the ability to travel. For my wife & I to get to Scotland for a break was wonderful and it was whilst in this rugged, yet welcoming country that I experienced a feeling of peace in the most unlikely place.
Everyone knows that Scotland is a spectacular place with vistas dominating a landscape made up of hills, burns and glens of all sizes which are themselves broken up by varying degrees of lake or river. Taking advantage of the unseasonably good weather we grabbed our walking boots and headed for a walk in Newport-on-Tay. Our guidebook of choice had parked us in Bay road in Wormit, right next to the River Tay with its views across the glistening water towards Dundee and beyond. There was no time for stopping though as the book swiftly dispatched us onto the coastal path towards Balmerino and first up was a small, dense woodland where the thick wild ivy bushes full of bees draining the flowers of their last dregs of pollen before last orders are called.
Having left the cover of the trees we found time to appreciate the pocket of sun-filled blue sky before it was replaced again with the canopy of more old trees just starting to lose their Summer foliage. Moving on we skirted the edge of farmer’s fields seemingly left fallow of crop or animals but taken over by thick swathes of wild flowers all reaching for the skies. Red poppies and blue cornflowers were interspersed with yellow flowers of varying sorts, and together they all swayed in the gentle breeze; just waiting for the bees when they are finished with the ivy.
Balmarino is a place that sounds like a Costa del Sol resort English retirees go to for sun and fry ups in the Spanish sun but the reality is a long way from that. The coastal path spits us out of woodland and down onto the shores of the river where the the path into Balmerino passes between white-washed cottages and the water’s edge. As we did the water was just a few feet to our right, but the same distance to our left was a cottage that we surmised only a painter of those beautiful landscapes one sees in local gift shops can live.
Getting our breath back we stood on the shore for a moment – in silence – just looking out across the river and beyond. Birds dipped and bobbed on the surface looking far too small to be on such a wide expanse, like the single bee in the huge flower meadows we had already passed. They dipped under the surface in search of fish before re-appearing with a splash that made us both draw breath in hope it was one of the seals we were promised in our guidebook. It never was.
A search of the village took us to a ruined abbey. Dating back well over 600 years the large grey stones remain as a permanent tribute to the building skills of the monks and a reminder of the asset stripping skills of Henry VIII.
Nobody likes too prescriptive a guidebook and it always feels more relaxed to have the licence to do as you wish but as we started our return journey through more woodland we found the instruction of ‘keep walking and you will find it’ a little too laissez-faire. Before long we were navigating the inside edge of a farmer’s field that we probably weren’t supposed to be in. Actually, it was whilst trying to work out later where we actually did go wrong (including recalling the hoot of the owl we heard near the farm) that the breathtaking moment hit me. The moment of pure pleasure.
Having made it back to our car we were sat on the shore wall; our tingling, de-booted feet dangling over the wall with the shale a few feet below and everything seeming so peaceful. To the casual observer (i.e. the man who was walking past bemoaning the fact that the birds out on the river should actually be far out to sea by now), we probably looked fairly innocuous with our metallic mug of tea and homemade cheese and ham roll. I was entirely lost in thought as to how these things taste so much better when you’ve earned them but then I looked up and properly took in my surroundings again. The lapping water sprawled out in front of me with Dundee airport 2.75 miles across the other side. Close enough to make out the small airplanes landing at the airport but not close enough for the engine noise to overpower the sound of the birds chattering on the water.
The water lapped onto the stones beneath me with a gentle rushing sound that some people sat on the tube in London will be trying to visualise through a mindfulness app on their phone; I was experiencing it for real and as the water come in and out I found my breathing politely mirrored its rhythm.
Taking in the landscape it looked like the sort of scene that would be the first task on programme 1 of a TV series, the Great British Paint Off. Each contestant each being given the vista and told they have only grey and white paint to use; the clouds, water, shore and sky all being varying shades of those two colours and yet still retaining a beauty and peace that stops you dead in that moment. Overall, there was just a serene stillness to the whole scene where everything seemed to be in slow motion and from the train on the Tay bridge, to the birds on the water it all contributed to the sedate nature of the moment in that little bit of that beautiful country. Despite the birds and the paddle boarder (who claimed he had seen a seal on his travels) the peace remained. Even in the knowledge that nature is having to adapt to the changing planet around it we relished the fact that just for a moment we didn’t. No social media. No emails. No virtual demands at all. Not even a photo. Just a chance to stop and live that moment through our eyes and not a lens. To stop and reflect and rest. And no..being in a hammock would not have made it any more relaxing.