The need to travel is like nostalgia in reverse: it is the longing for strange lands or unfamiliar places. So it is ironic that I often feel nostalgic when travelling. As I walk through the English countryside and quaint English villages, I am overcome with acute nostalgia for ‘home’ and the feeling of belonging associated with it. I have been known to stop in a particularly beautiful spot and say with a deep feeling of contentment “I could live here”. I had never considered my nostalgia a harmful indulgence, but now I’m not so sure.
England is littered with ‘Tidy Towns’ – picture-postcard perfect villages. Typically, they are within commuting distance of a major metropolitan area. They have a quaint village pub, an equally quaint village store, and immaculate homes and gardens. They are quiet and tranquil. It is easy to let these villages evoke my familiar and comforting “I could live here”. However, they are not what they seem. In fact, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t live in any of them.
The problem with Tidy Towns is that they aren’t real. And they never were. David Troy, a resident of a Tidy Town in Cornwall says, “See all this? It’s all a lie. It’s like Disneyland”. Tidy Towns are gutted of their sense of community. Like Disneyland, ultimately they provide no more than a momentary sugar rush.
“Heritage has been commodified”, says Chris Balch, professor of planning at Plymouth University. “We go to mining communities that don’t mine. We go for the nostalgia – nostalgia for these places that haven’t really existed”.
The commodification of our heritage has caused real harm. Tidy Towns prevent us from seeing our past accurately, and allow us to ignore the unattractive realities of our present. It’s easy to visit a bucolic Cornish village and forget about the poverty endured by the miners. For a decade, I lived in village in Canada where wealthy retirees and owners of second homes are busy creating their version of a fishing village. On the surface, the homes and boats are beautiful. But behind the multi-million dollar waterfront homes is a community with no jobs, high levels of substance abuse, low levels of education, and little hope. Ironically, this real community is derided or ignored by the wealthy incomers.
This commodification is out of control in England. Entire villages have been lost to interlopers: wealthy retirees, urbanites able to afford second homes, property investors who can realize 12% returns by renting to tourists seeking nostalgia. These groups have displaced the real residents who have decamped to places where they can actually find work and actually afford to buy houses.
Who is served by the creation of Tidy Towns? Is it the original residents who sold up? Is it the retirees, tourists and owners of second homes who are able to indulge their nostalgia?
Unfettered nostalgia is spoiling the travel experience. We travel because we long for a strange lands or unfamiliar experiences. But what we increasingly find is another Disneyland. And Disneylands around the world are all the same.
This post was written by Julian.