Thanks to a terminological coincidence, the tiny Lincolnshire village of Althorpe (population 600) has achieved what every local councillor craves for his bailiwick: It has been put on the map.
Less than a year ago, it slumbered in peace, its heart beating to the rhythm of late 20th century life in Britain. By day its inhabitants would sit in their darkened hovels, gazing through half-closed eyes at flickering screens telling of events in the lives of fictitious people. By night the graffiti artists would ply their sullen craft, the heavy rural air would pulse to the pub’s disco beat, and, come the witching hour, the inky sky would fill with the mournful bellowing of the drunk plodding their weary way home.
Now the idyll has been shattered. Not a day goes by without the cobbled streets ringing with the chatter of backpacking hordes and choking with coach parties of cameras, each attached to a Japanese tourist. The invaders clamour for ice-cream, bawl at their children, and demand to know where they can relieve their bladders. Grey-faced locals are assailed by obese men in ten-gallon hats shouting, “Say, Di’s grave?”
It’s all down to mistaken identity. What the strangers seek is 100 miles to the south in Northamptonshire. Their shouts, their bladders and their curiosity belong in the Althorp estate, family seat of the Spencers and the resting place of the Princess of Wales. Althorpe, near Scunthorpe, has discovered by chance the degradation and misery that other places achieve by design: it is a victim of the most enduring of modern myths – that there is enjoyment and instruction to be derived from tourism.
At this, the height of the holiday season, stories appear daily of the tragedies and disappointments of those who discover that it is better neither to travel hopefully nor to arrive.
Consider the 900 tourists who went on a cruise around the Canary Islands on board the recently refitted SS Apollo, a vessel that they subsequently renamed the SS Terrible. The decks, they allege, were littered with broken glass and building debris, the swimming pools were dirty, the water in short supply and the lavatories unspeakable.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Edith Knowes, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. “Cabins were flooded. Our toilet wouldn’t flush, but one night it flushed all night. When we used the ladies, excrement flooded over the top of the bowl.”
Needless to say, many of the passengers are suing. As is Brian Philpott, a British holiday-maker who slipped on the remains of a ham sandwich left on a carpet in an airport at Houston, Texas. He broke his knee and wants 150,000 compensation. His lawsuit says: “The condition of the sandwich indicated that it had been on the floor for a substantial period of time. In addition, there was a cleaning person adjacent to the scene of the fall who had not attempted to clean the floor or to post warnings of the dangerous conditions.”
Well, that’s abroad for you. It stands to reason that any cleaners who are too overcome by lassitude to do any cleaning are not going to trouble themselves to fetch a sheet of cardboard, inscribe upon it in legible writing, “Danger. Ham sandwich in unreliable condition underfoot”, and post it adjacent to the aforementioned hazard.
There may or may not have been a warning notice on the 15ft wall in Mumbles, South Wales, from which a tourist recently fell, but there was an adjacent Member of Parliament. Labour MP for Croydon Central Geraint Davies, who was himself in Mumbles in the capacity of a tourist, rushed to the stricken man’s aid and successfully gave him the kiss of life.
“The man was unconscious and his eyes were rolling into the back of his head. He had stopped breathing and I couldn’t find his pulse so I knew I had to act quickly,” explained the fast-thinking Davies.
What a pity that he, or perhaps another MP, was not aboard SS Terrible. I feel sure that Knowes, night-time victim of the perpetual self-flushing lavatory, would, on recovering from a faint induced by flooding excrement, feel much refreshed and consoled to regain consciousness, the lips of a New Labour representative breathily pressed against hers.
If only tourists knew how they were secretly mocked by those who they visit, they might feel more inclined to stay at home.
The derogatory word “grockle” was coined in the Torbay area sometime in the Sixties after a local remarked that the hordes of visitors looked like clowns, or Grocks – a reference to the famous circus clown. Whence grockles, or little grocks. The word quickly gained widespread currency throughout the South-west. Today, Search & Rescue helicopter crews describe their work as grockle-grappling and talk ironically of high seas and dense fog as good grockling weather. Cheap arcades are grockle bait, motor coaches grockle cans, and fish and chips grockle fodder.
The South Downs near Eastbourne are becoming so damaged by the tramping of tourists and the burrowing of rabbits that the local borough council plans to take drastic action and gas with cyanide hundreds of thousands of the rabbits. This is a classic example of a splendid idea marred by imperfect execution. It would be kinder, more humane, and better in keeping with nature to spare the rabbits and gas the grockles.