Let's face it: flying abroad isn't getting any easier. Your shoes are coming off, your Fanta is going in the bin and a large man with eczema is searching your anus for napalm. We need to remember that's there's a country right here to explore, that places in the UK are exciting in their own, different way. This series is a look into the heart of the British day out; the queerness and quietness of this strange, strange land.
Diggerland: It's a theme park based around JCB diggers. Almost every ride there is digger-related, includes a digger in it, looks like a digger or is just the deep, mustard yellow of a brand new forklift. It seems like something that could only exist in the hungover fever dreams of a construction worker, before everything starts to melt and attack him.
There are four Diggerlands in the UK, with a fifth in Worcestershire on the way. There's also a branch in New Jersey, USA, which opened this year. They are all the brainchildren of Hugh Edeleanu, a man who looks like the archetypal sad dad in a Mike Leigh film and owner of HE Services, the biggest supplier of diggers and other industrial equipment in the whole of Europe. Apparently he regularly drops into the park in his helicopter – who is this Ground Force Gatsby? This Howard Hughes of hydraulic excavators? This Tonka Wonka? Basically, he's got a lot of diggers, and he's well, well into them. He even comes up with the ideas for all of the rides.
The first park was opened in Strood, Kent, 14 years ago. It was this inaugural soil-thumping paradise that I was to visit.
It was a typical Kentish day: bleak, grey, chilly. From the train window, the rain in the distance made the clouds look as if they were being scraped down from the sky, like a painter does with a palette knife. It was nice to get a glimpse of the green pastoral country, but also made me think: 'I'm going to a place which facilitates the destruction of this natural land, of all natural land. I am going to sit in machines of arable doom, machines that help demolish ecosystems in the rain forests, crushing the tiny skulls of poor exotic birds.' The smiley yellow Diggerland logo suddenly seemed a lot more sinister.
My train crept under a bridge, and the Eurostar whipped overhead, filled with people bound for Paris and Brussels. They were going on continental adventures, to eat foods without gravy on, to experience the excitement of hearing a language that's incomprehensible and doesn't have "cunt" as every other word. Basically what I'm getting at is they weren't going to Diggerland and I felt sorry for them.
It's not that I have a white-hot fetish for sticking parts of myself into diggers or digging equipment, more that I'm in love with the idea of Diggerland itself. It's an idea that I feel could not have been dreamt up anywhere but the UK. It's taking the banality and sciatica of ground work and turning it into a friendly space for kids to play in. It's magnificently peculiar, yet totally po-faced. There are no sideways glances to the camera at Diggerland, no one here taking snide selfies with the tractors and hashtagging them "AMAZE".
It was spitting rain on arrival but walking in, even the shit weather couldn't ruin the magic. Diggerland was – is – beautiful. In front of me was a giant JCB with a huge bucket on a mound. The bucket was filled with seats and the operator had raised it in the air and was spinning people around in it. This ride is called the "Spindizzy". To my right was a greasy spoon-type restaurant called The Dig Inn. It had a large sign in the window saying: "We now sell BEER and WINE." It was as if this place had been specially built for me without my knowledge.
I went inside and ordered a fry-up and a bottle of Stella from a friendly woman called Ozlam. I went to get some cutlery and condiments and what did they have? Fucking Encona West Indian hot pepper sauce. The choice of pepper sauce for every Caribbean and non-Caribbean I've met, apart from those Tropical Sun traitors. What the fuck was it doing at The Dig Inn? I poured it on my beans and wondered how a place so perfect could exist in Strood.
It was time to sample what Diggerland had to offer. Out of the corner of my eye I could see two strange figures, unmoving. It was the park mascots, Dougie and Dottie. I thought it odd that they would have two mascot-scarecrows, until one of them waved at me and it made me jump, even from about 50 feet away.
I left the Spindizzy for the time being, as the mirepoix of beer, fry up and hot sauce sitting in my stomach wasn't ready for the G-force. There was a row of smaller, child-friendly yet still industrial JCBs set up for parlour games – use JCB arm to hook ducks, use JCB arm to knock over skittles, etc. These were presided over by some pretty but sad-looking girls. They'd lost their chirp in the drizzle, only smiling slightly at the scurrying children around their feet.
I went to the back of the park and decided to work my way forward. I drove a digger slowly around a small track while a guy who works there bemoaned how shit the go-karts were. "I keep telling them," he said, "they need to get petrol go-karts, but they don't listen." The go-karts and the dodgems were the only non-digger-themed attractions at the park, not including the indoor playground. Unsurprisingly, they were also the worst bits. The go-karts moved at snail's pace, one child letting go of the wheel and coasting as he rested his hands on his knees in boredom.
To be honest, the kids almost felt superfluous at Diggerland. Of course it was built for them, and its infrastructure relies on their existence, but there's something too mindless about the enjoyment they were having. They couldn't quite grasp how truly ludicrous it is to have a whole theme park predicated on the entertainment value of industrial machinery. They scurried around, shouting and dribbling and tripping over things, but they weren't reading the signs above the ride entrances that tell you how much each machine costs, or what they weigh, or any of the other intriguing stats. You could see the dads sat in the diggers with their children on their laps, enjoying the quality time with their offspring, sure, but also secretly wanting their offspring to hit the road so they could be left alone to enjoy lifting piles of mud around with a giant mechanical scoop.
And what fun it is. I tried one of the smaller diggers, only marginally smaller but smaller nonetheless, after I'd got bored of the driving. A young man instructed me on how to dig, so I dug. I cannot overstate how satisfying it is. Pushing the dirty metal teeth of the bucket into the earth and lifting it up to obscure the sun, you feel like God in a hi-vis jacket. Somehow it manages to be simultaneously exhilarating and centring; the excitement of moving dirt, coupled with the steady repetition. You feel like you're learning something, like you can feel the foundations of a thousand buildings being laid, like you're part of the earth. I went over to the slightly larger diggers and obviously they were even better; the larger the amount of soil you're moving the more gratifying it is. I felt as if I would never be sated, unless I was in control of a gigantic, monolithic colossus of a digger, my very own black and yellow leviathan that could move worlds. I want to rearrange the stars to spell out my name in my interstellar JCB.
I wandered back to The Dig Inn to get another drink. Ozlam was there. "Another Stella?" she said, without me having to utter a word. "That'd be lovely," I replied. I briefly entertained the thought of marrying Ozlam, and living out the rest of my life at Diggerland, dividing my time between serving beers and poor quality fish butties at The Dig', and showing people which joystick does what in the mud pits.
Diggerland is incredibly simple. Most of the attractions don't go faster than about 10 miles per hour. But it isn't about the speed. It's about sitting in a mini tractor going round in circles after a couple of bottles of cheap-ish beer. It's about looking into a young father's eyes as he silently guides his son's hand to dump a load of dirt onto another pile of dirt, and seeing him realise it'll be a while before his kid really understands what it means. And that's what makes it so English: it's about the quiet appreciation of what you have. The zealous excitement of an American family unit is not to be found under the rain here in Kent, rather the loving sternness of a parent who wishes to show their sprogs as much of the world as they can, and the world starts with a bucket of mud and a diesel-pumping JCB.
Oh yeah, I went on the Spindizzy in the end. It was fucking great.