Tag: Alain de Botton

Trying to get away from it all


It’s been a good summer for Alain de Botton’s accountant.

The man behind the spreadsheets must have been rubbing his hands with glee after a procession of newspapers ran articles penned by the PR-friendly philosopher.

In them, his central hypothesis was that we need to be challenged by our holidays. Time away should, he mused chin strokingly, take us beyond our comfort zones.

He wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

“The point of travel shouldn’t be constant bliss; it should be an encounter with interesting new disturbances of the soul.”

Mr. de Botton is, of course, talking out of his de Botton.

I’m just back from an escape to the island of Anglesey in North Wales. I arrived exhausted and in need of a retreat with just a few home comforts and some soul-salving company.

I hadn’t come to be challenged.

I didn’t cruise down the A55 to push myself to new limits of tolerance and personal discomfort. After the trials and tribulations of recent times, I was there simply for some peace and quiet.

But relaxing wasn’t easy.

The thing about escaping the daily grind is that you don’t put down your worries like the bags in the entrance hall of the holiday cottage. You can’t pack them up neatly away in the sock drawer of a strange cupboard.

You carry them with you and turn them over in your mind on the first night in a new bed, chipping away at them slowly over the ensuing days as an act of reckoning. That’s challenge enough.

Slowly I started to find my peace.

It drifted by on the breeze as I sat in the back garden of the cottage eating breakfast. It swirled around me like ancient spirits amid the ruined cloisters of Penmon Priory. And it pursued me down 500 slippery-stone steps as I ventured out to South Stack on a blistery afternoon.

It light up the sky on a cottonwool-cloud lunchtime over Puffin Island [pictured above].

Call me cynical. The coverage de Botton garnered over summer was, it could be said, a thinly veiled promotional push for the repackaging of his 2002 book as The New Art of Travel.

I read the original and admired it greatly.

In particular I was drawn to the section in which he discussed how, on a luxury trip Barbados, he realises that he had “… inadvertently brought myself with me to the island”.

To me, it seems a shame to sully the thought-provoking original work with a rehashed follow-up and a few headline-grabbing soundbites during silly season.

I came to Anglesey nursing my own challenges. But I didn’t need some cash-in claptrap to help me find my own peace.

So apologies to the man with the profit and loss ledgers.

But, when it comes to PR guff dressed up as philosophy-based travel advice, I’m simply not buying.


Telegraph: Why holidays shouldn’t be relaxing

Visit Wales: Anglesey holidays

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Far from the madding crowd


I’m forever going absent to get present.

We all do it at this time of year, using a summer escape to find some space to think away from hum of our spin-cycle lives.

But the distraction of exotic surrounds, foreign aromas and new horizons are often just a distraction – not a solution.

As the philosopher Alain de Botton writes in The Art of Travel,

“… on the tropical island we learn that the state of the skies and appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy, nor condemn us to misery.”

To make the absence truly count, we need to embrace the art of being alone more than the journey itself.

The shepherds Thomas Hardy describes in his breakthrough tome, Far From The Madding Crowd, understood how to be alone.

The story’s protagonist, Gabriel Oak, breathes it with every exhalation of summer breeze, tastes it with every morsel of his handkerchief-wrapped meal.

Isolated in a limitless landscape, only the elements and their flock to commune with, the self-imposed exile of the shepherd is a true act of conscious absence.

Hardy observed these shepherds seeking refuge from the heat of the day and the demons of the night in their little huts. During the 1870s, when they liberally speckled the landscape alongside scarecrows and horse carts, Hardy described these humble dwellings as like a “little Noah’s Ark.”

These days the likes of young Gabriel are increasingly rare but their sanctuaries are returning to the pastoral landscape of Britain.

A new wave of living sheds, hand crafted from local wood and engrained with centuries of nomadic tradition, are appearing on fields and dales as places of escape of writers, artists, thinkers and dreamers.

They are places to embrace being the anti-establishment joy of being present in your act of absence – blissfully lost in nature. Better still, there are no airport queues or surly security guards to be negotiated.

Many are just a short drive from our own backyard. Rhydd Farm, a five-acre smallholding on the verdant fringes of Penyfford, Flintshire, was just 20 minutes from my own.

The shepherd’s hut [pictured above], handcrafted from red cedar and with furnished with thoughtful touches, offered me more than a simple woodland-shrouded home from home. It was a place to think and write.

That night, after a couple of pints of summer ale at the local village pub, I bedded down on a soft mattress to a lullaby of owls. My hosts were just across the fields in the farmhouse but I was wholly alone with my thoughts.

But the true sense of absence came the next morning. Beating the dawn chorus of farm livestock and domestic pets, I stood in the fields at 6am, a mug of tea in my hand and a gentle dousing of morning dew on my walking boots, to take in the view across the fields to Moel Famau.

According to Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, an inspiration for Hardy’s febrile passion for English rural life, I was at last:

“Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife … / Along the cool sequester’d vale of life.”

There would soon be bacon frying on the grill then daily grinds to return to but, in that moment of delicious calm, I knew the isolation of the shepherds and made peace with it.

My absence had, at last, delivered me to a place of pure presence.


Rhydd Farm Penyffordd