We really do like to be beside the seaside. Lobster complexions, lurid windbreaks, every utensil but the kitchen sink: all the great British beachgoer stereotypes were on full display when I headed to the coast recently. But there was another, stranger habit that struck me as I picked my way through the crowd of sun-worshippers. Why, when the lone and level sands were literally stretching far away, had everyone chosen to sit right next to the car park?
A mere five minutes down the beach, the dunes were completely unpopulated, save for the odd barking dog or rampaging child. Yet the area immediately around the entrance was carpeted with beach towels and getting fuller by the moment. Given that the majority of people had clearly driven some distance to get there, the refusal to move a few metres further on seemed odd. But it’s a habit that you’ll find all over the place this summer.
Humanity’s herd mentality is at its strongest when it comes to our holidays. Whether heading for that reassuringly crowded restaurant, the biggest cluster of tents or an inviting gaggle of umbrellas, most of us find ourselves inexplicably drawn to our fellow vacationers. However much we say we want to, we are unable to escape the pack. The world may be ours for the taking but we’re really much more comfortable if Lonely Planet has thoroughly investigated it and made some recommendations first.
Just look at our travel patterns. Last year, figures from the Office for National Statistics show, UK residents spent a not inconsiderable 611.5 million nights abroad, an increase of more than 4 per cent on 2012. Our most popular 2013 destination? Spain, followed by France. Fair enough: good food, no jet lag, a chance to practise those dimly remembered GCSE language skills. But what about in 2012? Well, it was Spain, followed by France. And in 2011, 2010 and 2009? Yup, you’ve guessed it. Although budget airlines have delivered all of Europe to our doorstep, we remain creatures of habit. Poor old Portugal. One small step away, nine million fewer visits than its neighbour last year.
Our reluctance to push our boundaries is not just a holiday habit. Someone I know claims to have met a woman who, having spent her entire life in an inland village on the Isle of Wight, swore she had never seen the sea, a feat that would require no small effort. On a slightly larger scale, a Pew Research Center study from 2008 found that more than 50 per cent of US adults never live anywhere other than their home states. Londoners may moan about the horrors of city life but just try getting them beyond zone 3.
While we pride ourselves on our increasingly global existence, our horizons are starting to shrink at an ever younger age. Studies show a dramatic fall in the roaming radius of our children over just a couple of generations. While more than 80 per cent of primary-schoolers travelled home from school on their own in 1971 – forging their own paths and independence along the way – a 2010 Policy Studies Institute report shows that today only a quarter are allowed to do so.
It’s easy for this early lurking lesson not to stray too far from the pack to leak over into adult life. Matters are not helped by the fact that technology means we now carry the pack with us everywhere. We travel with a constant crowd of cyber companions, all jostling next to us on their own virtual beach towels, rating our travel plans and telling us which exact Instagram filter we should use to get the perfect bronzed beach shot. When your attention is constantly trained on a 5in x 3in object hovering just in front of your face, it can be hard to see any bigger picture.
But putting down our phones is only the first step towards embracing our inner explorer, though booking somewhere with zero mobile reception certainly gets things off to a good start. Other strategies can range from the old-fashioned pin-in-the-globe approach to finding a holiday destination to the more modest resolution to only eat in restaurants not mentioned in your well-thumbed guidebook. Do not be fooled into thinking that the more upscale your plans are, the more exclusive the whole thing will be. The crowd competing to get into the hottest St Tropez bar is just as sheeplike as the hardy holiday-goers who sit damply next to each other on my own favourite bit of Scottish beach.
Taking that initial step away from the mass of humanity can be unsettling: suddenly the world seems too quiet. But the worst boundaries are in our heads. And in the few weeks a year that we get a break from dodging elbows on commuter trains and juggling coffees in lifts, it’s all the more important to make a bid for freedom and space. If life truly is a beach, do you really want to be stuck next to the car park?
Illustration by Luis Grañena