Nowhere on Earth is made more beautiful by the presence of a tourist. Unfortunately, I find this is true even when the tourist is me. I was in Devon, walking the length of the River Bovey. It was a beautiful afternoon and the sunlight fell dappled on the path like silver coins and the water ran in mysterious eddies through wild parkland. I strode with a rakish step, warbling ‘I like to go a-wandering’, greeting fellow amblers with a cheerful ‘Hi-di-ho!’, a bacon sandwich and a bottle of wine in the knapsack on my back.
I took a break in a shaded glen. Of all the wine when walking, white mid-morning wine is most wonderful. I thought how clever I was to be here, in the beautiful West Country, far from tourist throngs, just me and the occasional strolling local. I flattered myself that I looked like one of them: no neon backpack or multi-pocketed hiking vest, no frowning face over a flapping map.
My presence subtracted nothing from the scene. As I sat there smug, a tennis ball came bouncing out of the woods and into the river, followed at a gallumph by a shaggy dog who splashed into the shallow water, emerged with a shake and trotted over to drop the ball at my feet. It was dirty and punctured and thoroughly chewed. An elderly lady in a light tweed jacket emerged from the woods. ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘Sorry! Come here, Buster!’
I assured her that I didn’t mind. I picked up the ball and lobbed it weakly down the bank, and Buster set off in pursuit and was back in a matter of seconds, looking subtly disappointed it wasn’t more of a chase.
‘Oh,’ said the elderly lady. ‘It’s nice to have someone else throw the ball. My arm gets tired.’
How splendid! I thought. Look how integrated I am! I’m not a tourist – a tourist gets in the way but I’m part of this. I add value! I gave the ball a hefty throw, and put in a little extra welly as a treat for Buster. There, Buster – aren’t you glad you ran into me today?
The ball made a great glorious arc and landed with a gentle splash in the middle of the river.
‘Oh dear,’ said the old lady in a concerned tone. ‘That’s quite far.’
‘He’ll be fine,’ I assured her as Buster went barrelling in, although I did notice that the current in the middle seemed to be stronger than at the edge, and the ball was moving downstream a little faster than Buster appeared to be swimming.
Then the ball disappeared. I suppose with all the time it spent out there, waiting for Buster to reach it, it filled with water through the chew-holes and then sank under its own weight.
‘Oh,’ I said.
Buster was a good dog, but not quick on the uptake. He started swimming in circles, looking for the ball.
‘Buster! Come back!’
Buster did not come back. His paws whirled at the water.
‘He’s being carried downstream!’ said the little old lady.
Buster’s barking was becoming weaker.
‘He’s drowning!’ screamed the little old lady.
What should I do? Should I go in after Buster? I was wearing my new walking shoes. How deep was it in the middle?
Then a man emerged on the far bank of the river and waded out. He must be a local – he knew where the rocks were and where he could stand. He reached out and plucked Buster from the current.
‘All safe!’ he called.
The old lady turned to me with great dignity and restraint, under the circumstances.
‘Please enjoy the rest of your holiday,’ she said icily.
Getaway, November 2015