Thoughts from a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey

First published August 12, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Funny, how our brains make us hang on to things that make little sense in the new scheme of things. For as plastic as the brain is, there are worn grooves that cannot be denied. We are creatures of habit and those habits comfort us, making us feel in control of our environment. Even when there is no rationale for our recurring behaviors, habits keep things plowing along, giving us a sense of equilibrium.

Every time I cross the Atlantic, where history is the natural state of things, I gain a new appreciation for this clash of the new and the old. It creates a fascinating juxtaposition of digital efficiency and deeply carved human habits. Europe is steeped in this paradox, but somehow it seems to keep wobbling along. Traditions don’t die here; they just lift one foot and plant them on the speeding express train that is technology, hoping to maintain a tentative balance as the other foot drags along the accumulated baggage of the centuries.

Hotchkisses in the ‘Hood

Today my family and I returned to my ancestral homeland, in the shadow of the Wye Valley, a picturesque vale that separates Wales from England. This area could quite justifiably be called the cradle of tourism. When the industrial revolution created a leisure class in England, they started getting cabin fever and itchy feet. Their leisure travels started fairly close to home and the picturesque Wye Valley was an early destination. Writers, poets and painters including William Wordsworth, Robert Bloomfield, Thomas Gray, William Thackeray, Alexander Pope, Samuel Coleridge, and J.M. Turner visited the area and effectively created the very first tourism ads.

The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape.

From “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” by William Wordsworth

The Jury-Rigging of a Continent

Fast forward to today. I sit in a 200-year-old cottage a mere stone’s throw from the Abbey that inspired Wordsworth’s idyllic reverie. In fact, the cottage was probably built during Wordsworth’s lifetime. I like to think that his carriage could have passed it by on the way to his vantage point above the Abbey the day he wrote his poem. Today, the cottage has been retrofitted to keep up with the times, with a satellite dish tacked onto the front and a digital lifeline from British Telecom snaking up the outside of the white plastered walls.

This cottage isn’t the only thing that’s been jury-rigged for the future here. The Welsh Tourism Board is no stranger to the benefits of technology. They were early adopters of the Web, putting together one of the better online tourism resources and being early believers in the power of search marketing. It’s appropriate that the originators of the modern tourism industry should be one of the first to recognize the rational beauty of digital information. No wasteful resources required, global accessibility and the ability for the user to find and interact with specific information. Even a Luddite (a movement, interestingly enough, that started not too far from here about the same time Wordsworth was penning his poem) would have to grudgingly concede the benefits of virtual tourism brochures.

Old Habits Die Hard

Yet today, in the shadow of Chepstow Castle (close to the Abbey and the oldest surviving stone fortification in Britain, dating from William the Conqueror) I went to the visitor information office and left toting at least two pounds of anachronistic, impractical, highly irrational literature. Somehow, even though my family travels with a digital inventory rivaling that of the average Apple store, I felt more comfortable with a good old printed piece of paper, or rather, several hundred pieces of paper. I, of all people, should realize how stupidly wasteful this is, but I couldn’t help myself. It just felt right. And somehow, it felt even more right with the accumulated weight of the ages pressing down on me.

But all is not lost. Tomorrow night, I’ll be taking my family to see an outdoor production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which will be held at the Abbey under the stars (the Abbey has been roofless for centuries). And I’ll be booking my tickets online. As I said, clashes between old and new abound here.

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