Holiday doppelganger

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 15 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:641
  1. Kevin Barraclough, general practitioner
  1. Painswick, Gloucestershire

    From the verandah of this Landmark Trust cottage, I can see across the north Devon bay to the white Saunton Sands Hotel, maybe 20 miles distant. The sea is an uncharacteristic blue. The fractal coastline and the faded patchwork quilt of the far peninsula look like something out of a textbook on painting watercolours.

    I have attended several pleasant residential courses at Saunton Sands Hotel. But it is rather odd sitting here, looking through binoculars at the hotel's shimmering, 1930s, Hercule Poirot exterior. It is, I think, the juxtaposition of the working visits on the far side of the bay—national service frameworks, revalidation—with the complete holiday tranquillity of this verandah.

    The cottage in which we are staying is actually more like a wooden cricket pavilion with extraordinary views. Ninety years ago it was a summer house, set in the grounds of a palatial seaside residence, surrounded by tennis courts, lawns, and elaborately landscaped gardens. But now, nearly a century later, the ruins of the great house are deserted. They lie hidden beneath a dense, luxuriant undergrowth, while this isolated wooden bungalow is all that remains—surrounded by wild flowers, butterflies, and a steep, overgrown path down to the pebble beach. The summer afternoons of the leisured rich, who drifted their hours away in this pavilion, are now all forgotten, and the young men and women who played on the vanished tennis courts are long dead. But such is the atmosphere of the place that their ghosts are almost visible, hiding beneath the trees, in the sunlit scintillation spectra at the edge of vision.

    The wonderful thing about holidays, good holidays, is that they shock you out of the familiar. That suited general practitioner in the bar at Saunton Sands Hotel, a doppelganger of myself, who pretended he wasn't bored senseless by national service frameworks, is as distant as if viewed down the wrong end of my binoculars. He moves slowly across the whitewashed vistas of the distant hotel, like a blind man, unaware that the true reality lies across the bay, in the faint echoes of privilege, boredom, and mortality, buried beneath the bracken on this steep hillside.

    And then the British weather breaks and I run to get the deckchairs out of the shower of rain, and try to mediate the children's squabble.

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