“Welcome basket”. It sounds so nice, doesn’t it? So … welcoming. Driving up the M1 to the holiday cottage you booked online, you picture the delights that await you, and smile inwardly even as the sign ahead says: “Queue after the next junction.” You know already there’ll be a lemon drizzle cake from “our local farm shop” (ie a factory in Derby). Also, a jar of marmalade, a bottle of apple juice and a loaf of bread. There always is. But everything else – ginger snaps? Black pudding? A Peking duck? – is still, at this point, subject to the kind of moderately wild imagining that has you pushing your foot down just a little harder on the accelerator.
What you’re forgetting, of course, is that welcome baskets are not, in fact, even remotely welcoming. They are passive-aggressive acts, timed to remind you of both your own desperation (“How much did we pay for this, again?”) and of the fact that a “self-catering holiday” is basically a contradiction in terms (true in any year, but never more brutally so than in 2021). The first rule of the welcome basket – congratulations, you’ve arrived! – is that it will not be a basket at all, but a cardboard box or a plastic bag. The second rule is that, though the house is for four people, it will invariably contain only two, or six, of everything: two yoghurts, two scones, six sausages. (You do the maths, as they say.) The welcome basket’s essential message is: please don’t imagine for a minute that you’re going to be able to get away without visiting Tesco tomorrow.
Needless to say, the nearest Tesco is 20 minutes’ drive from where you are, unless it’s raining or the market’s on, in which case you can double that, and by day four – how time flies when you’re running a boutique B&B! – the route is already drearily familiar. Naturally, you knew that all the fresh things you stowed in the boot of the car before you left would have to be replenished eventually. What you did not expect was that the cottage’s owner would provide no pepper, no salt, no oil for cooking, no vinegar, no spices or herbs of any description, and only two loo rolls. Yes, yes: two loo rolls should have been plenty. No one has gastroenteritis (yet). But half of one is currently wound around the finger you almost sliced off because the knives in the cottage were last sharpened around the time Hardwick Hall was built.
Still, it’s not all bad. After two days, you managed to work out how the hob works, and after three, the dishwasher. It is a bit tedious, the way that even now you still have to open each cupboard three times before you find the mugs, but on the plus side you can feel pretty smug about the fact that you brought your good frying pan with you. Everyone laughed when you hauled it out, from a box that also contained a microplane, a cafetiere and two bottles of gin. But they’re not laughing now, are they? (Except when they’ve been at the gin, another bottle of which you now add to your mental list.)
Looking ahead, you’re about to get a night off: trial-by-omelette will be on hold tomorrow, because you’re all going to the Indian that’s recommended in the folder. (There’s always a folder, though reading it lends no clarity to anything, whether you’re talking about local attractions, jigsaws or where to put the recycling.) No, it won’t be as good as the one at home. But at this moment – ah, the last mini roundabout is finally in sight – you’d give anything for a poppadom and a chicken korma.
And the day after that, it’ll be time to start packing up. To leave or not to leave the untouched jar of marmalade: that is the question. (You don’t want to be petty, but you’re still smarting about what they’re charging for the logs you never thought you’d need in mid-August.) It’ll be so nice to get home, almost like a holiday, and next year there’ll be – won’t there? Please tell us there will be – a hotel somewhere hot. You’ll have no need of a frying pan, then. The breakfast buffet will be almost as long as the Pennine Way, and just as beautiful.