How a trip to Peppa Pig World taught me the value of nostalgia | Emma Brockes

I promised my kids a trip to a theme park in return for indulging my own holiday memories. Guess which proved the biggest hit?

I felt bad about what I was going to do – drag my children to a town off the south coast where I used to go on holiday as a child – and I thought they deserved a reward for indulging me. At the end of the trip, there would be a two-day pass for Peppa Pig World, vaguely on our way back to London and as tedious for me, I assumed, as the experience of eating crab sandwiches on the front at Ventnor would be for them.

The entire vacation this summer has featured this kind of unstated trade-off; for my twin four-year-olds, the price of the fun fair, the endless cave-in to demands for sweets and ice-cream (and some heavy lifting in the Sainsbury’s toy aisle), was two cathedrals, a museum about Roman Britain and a trip up a 14th-century bell tower, featuring 249 steps and some commentary about the tomb of King John. But the Isle of Wight was the big one: four days devoted entirely to the experience of watching me wander, misty-eyed, around small gift shops and a lot of extremely long walks along the cliffs.

This was the definition of a wholesome holiday itinerary. And yet it wasn’t one I entirely approved of. Revisiting the past can be a bad idea and when it came to the Isle of Wight, I felt sheepish about my own needs. It seemed a bit mawkish, travelling the vast distance from our home in New York to a tiny corner of southern England, and for what? The people I had known on the island were long gone. It was an exercise in nostalgia that promised to be entirely lost on my children.

Last summer I made them walk outside the house where I grew up while they bickered and remained stoutly uninterested. Driving through central London last week, my excitement at passing Gray’s Inn Road and reminiscing about the times I’d walked up it failed, amazingly, to elicit any follow-up questions. When your kids are young, you can hit on any destination or activity and call it tradition, coding them to remember it fondly in adulthood. We could make a pilgrimage to the beach on Long Island every year and they would, of course, connect with it as strongly in adulthood as I do with my own childhood memories.

When it comes to vacations, however, sentimentality seems to be a general condition; this summer almost everyone I know has been marching their children across the country to some out-of-the-way place where their parents, in turn, had marched them. The strength of this impulse has proven weirdly irresistible. It is partly, I suspect, because of the special status afforded to summer holidays in one’s memory, and partly a foreshadowing of midlife crisis, with its panic that the world is too changed.

To my eyes, the Isle of Wight seemed in some ways bizarrely altered. It was smaller and a little shabbier. It also seemed more eccentric. We wandered into a second world war-themed coffee shop one day, where gas masks dangled peculiarly from the walls, and backed up to wander straight out again. Union flags flew on many buildings throughout the town. “It was always like that,” said my dad when I rang him, and I had a momentary realignment of memory. In other ways, the place was gloriously as I remembered. The clifftops were gorgeous; the crab sandwiches sublime. The food was so fresh it made our decision to live in the city seem foolish.

One day, coming back from the cove we visited every day of the trip, my friends and I stopped by a clear-running stream and had a full Swallows and Amazons moment – watching our children fish in the shallow water with nets, shrieking with delight at the pebbles beneath their feet and shivering in the under-par weather. It might have been sentimental, but the continuity with my own childhood was so soothing it was practically narcotic.

On the way home, we duly went to Peppa Pig World. The buildup for the trip had gone on for three months, and the kids were almost hysterical. I can hardly blame the park for that, but still; the queues were too long, the rides were too short and the entire place seemed to have a problem with wasps. My kids fretted and groused and lost their minds in the gift shop, which punters were forced to walk through before they could exit the park.

Given the choice, I’m sure my kids would pick fairground rides over a walk along a cliff, or a 14th-century bell tower at that. But the fact is that the no-frills theme park of going back in time was the best bit of the holiday for all of us. Very occasionally, the past beats the present.

• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist based in New York


Emma Brockes

The GuardianTramp

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