At the beginning of the 1980s, my parents had friends with children who lived a comparatively short distance away from us. There was a narrow, overgrown and tree-linked track next to their garden which lead to a more secluded house; in the depths of the undergrowth there was what I remember as a dried-up stream-bed, overhung with trees and bushes.
I used to brave crossing “the main road” at one of the little traffic islands and cycle there to play. We used to spend time coming up with stories and situations in the undergrowth, long before the fields on the other side of the divider were tarmaced and covered in starter homes. For some reason, there were little fake gemstones made of plastic in my memory, and despite only just reaching a double-figure age, we’d somehow been able to get hold of a little glass-doored lantern, a candle, and presumably some matches.
Sometimes, when I was a little older, my games would take me with my bike into the woods, past other ignored streams buried under bracken and scrub, and to a red-brick structure a few feet high which is long-since gone. A very vague memory of red-painted pipes and some kind of opening filled with water indicates a water company station, but I was cautious, even then. I never put myself in any danger, but returned from time to time, feeling both safely close to — but unimaginably far from —home. The spot on the wooded lane along the edge of the fields is now adjacent to a years-old play-park and a small housing estate, built since my memories, and it’s just a 400-metre walk from my parents’ house. It felt much further away when I was twelve.
Back then, the whole area was a place to explore. With my child’s eyes and imagination, going around the small patches of woodland and the local streets and alleyways was a bit of an adventure. When I was older, probably around fourteen or fifteen, I got the wind in my sails and cycled what was then an unimaginable distance to the large town where I went to school. The feeling of being so far from home and having travelled under my own steam has stuck with me. The memory and the achievement haven’t been diminished the fact that when I now look at the route, I see that it’s only five miles each way. The teenage Mark didn’t care about that or even register it: cycling over such a distance was one of the biggest solitary “adventures” I can remember from that part of my childhood.
On a short-lived paper-round, I’d walk through the dark streets in the town where I grew up to deliver free advertiser newspapers. I’d think how much I’d like to live in a house like one of those when I grew up. The lack of imagination at that young age didn’t consider that I might live somewhere else: my day-dreaming was limited to having my own library/snug/office in one of the little rooms next to the front door. Even if I didn’t know what I’d do in that room, I knew that I wanted a little space of my own like that when I grew up. Thinking so far ahead when I was so young, imagining what life would be like as a grown-up as I plodded around the damp streets and looking into the warmly-lit interiors of other people’s lives, was possibly the beginning of a lifetime wanting to go on “adventures”.
When Jo and I go out for the day, we have been referring to the trips as “adventures” for years. This moniker is a nod to the fact that we like to do things which are new or different. Visiting old haunts is all well and good, but I also get enjoyment from doing new things or things which other people will find unusual. That doesn’t always mean seeing new places or driving along roads just to see where they go, but also going to places simply because the experience sounds adventurous or interesting.
When we head to the west of Switzerland for the afternoon and chat to our neighbours about our day out, they’re always a little shocked that we travel “so far” in a day. (The shore of Lake Geneva, our most regular destination in the west, is a little less than an hour-and-a-half away.) Many people in our region have never been to the French-speaking part of the country, and many don’t see the point. A former colleague once left to go on holiday in the south of France and returned just two days later, saying that it was much nicer in the mountain village 25 minutes from where he lives.
Few can fathom how I can get so much enjoyment from our road trips over Christmas and the New Year. I’ll admit that a six-thousand kilometre drive through five or six countries (depending on our route) is hardly one which is taken lightly. But the sheer number of little experiences gathered when we’re travelling around are worth a huge amount to me. The uncanny familiarity of a distant motorway service station and a traditional national dish from the restaurant, smells wafting from memories in my youth. Visiting a packed shopping centre in an unfamiliar city in the country where I grew up feels somehow familiar and yet so foreign. There is a mountain view in Cumbria to which I return if the schedule allows to try get an ideal photo. I get to see rain squalls trailing fronds across the sea, as I watch from a windy headland or a shore-side car park. Endless streetlights stretch across huge cities, reaching to the horizon. I sit in a well-known automotive cocoon which provides safety, comfort and warmth as we barrel along the motorway heading north. Ever-changing landscapes, so far from home and yet so familiar to me now.
An experience doesn’t have to be monumental for it to feel like an adventure, though. When we can’t go further afield, we go for a walk in an extended lakeside park not far from where we live. There’s a little bit of land submerged by trees and the track which leads to it isn’t marked. It’s well-known by locals and easily-found, but going there though a copse of trees and sitting on a little bench made out of driftwood feels like an escape. In winter, the water level drops and an expanse of lake-bed, stony and cracked in the winter sun, lies bare and frost-bitten. Standing there, looking at the blue-white view, always makes me truly feel that we’re in a foreign country. The simple act of going to places like this, rather than sticking to the path like almost everyone else, makes life a little richer.