‘London? Too full of people.’ – heard twice in an hour, Berwick.
It’s a deliciously sunny and golden morning in sleepy Berwick, and I gaze out at the empty pier and lighthouse in the distance. Sat next to me is the ghost of L.S. Lowry, occasionally peering up from his easel as he converts the glory of the morning sea into one of his characteristic Berwick seascapes.
I am on the threshold between two countries, England and Scotland, one which lacks any real idea of its own identity, and another which realises it, and recognises the importance of political independence.
In truth England does have a kind of identity, one that belongs to upper middle-class London and the south-east. It has been aggressively normalised through school education, the centralisation of financial and political power in the capital, the Received Pronunciation of the BBC, the London-centric bilge that passes for popular journalism, and decades of casually ridiculing and economically depriving other regions of England. But this is not England, and the different regions I’ve travelled through have either quietly asserted their identity (like Yorkshire, or the West Midlands) or cried out for one (like south Essex).
I’ve been blessed with a degree of support and generosity on this trip that has completely overwhelmed me. I had no idea how friendly, helpful and open people would be. And I’ve been stunned by the more harmonious and tightly-bonded communities I’ve come across that have welcomed me in, despite being obviously a stranger. I have come across a kindness and generosity of spirit that would be entirely alien and despised in London. Outside London, it is largely the norm, and in about three quarters of the cities, towns and villages I’ve passed, there is a quality of life on offer that is superior to London. I would say higher, but I’m equally aware that much poverty and suffering is hidden from me and my snapshot travelogues.
So, I’d like to thank everyone for the messages and offers of support, those fantastic tips and anecdotes sent in so far, which have been immensely helpful. At the same time, there have been a couple of criticisms of my project that, from my sunny perch in Berwick, I’m now in a position to answer.
When I talk of ‘Albion’, I’m not referring to some ideal of England as it stands. Borders and names on a map mean nothing to me, or to you, because our lived experiences are relevant to us now, and are always in transition. So when I say ‘Albion’, I mean a concept fashioned by the poet William Blake to describe, collectively, humanity as a whole, the island of Britain, and the human individual. I don’t want to downplay its religious elements too much, but for me it’s an attempt to present what might be possible for a group of people who act together and cooperate for a shared set of common interests. So Albion can apply to England, or to Scotland, or to Wales, or to any of the distinctive regions in each of these countries.
I’m trying hard to clean my palette before I leave England and to open myself up, ready to make sense of Scotland and its diverse regions and scenery. I’ve visited Aberdeen once, and grew up for my first three years in Glasgow, even boasting a broad glasge brogue for a time, but beyond memory’s splintered shards of the botanical garden, nothing’s there. I don’t know many people in Scotland either, so I’ll be even more exposed to new influences and the elements on my journey. If anyone reading this has friends or tips about the Scottish mainland, Orkneys, Shetlands and Hebrides, please, if you can, do contact me with these. I’m apprehensive and excited about the roads ahead.
The first thing I want to document is the future of Scotland, and the experience of Scottish nationalism. Is it possible that what Scottish nationalism offers ought also to be possible for any progressive movement towards regional self-government, perhaps within a democratic federation? Couldn’t other regions also be independent?
But the morning’s in danger of disappearing, and I’ve still to see the remainder of Berwick.
I’ve awoken early, and started my day in Wilson’s bike shop. Serendipity has placed it next to the hostel, and I pop in to find out if they can do something about my slippery chain. Ian is immensely helpful. He finds the problem and fixes it quickly. When I ask him how much, he laughs heartily for a bit, then replies ‘ah, it’s nothing!’ He tells me about the town, and is interested in my observations. He notes that the place is unusually poor and has the lowest household income per head in England (I’m pretty sure the statistic he quotes is for the North-east as a whole, but it’s significant enough that he considers it true of the town). There once was some fishing here but this disappeared after the world wars, and little has filled its place since. There is some tourism here, like the Lowry trail, but on the whole the town is quite ‘local’, albeit very friendly. Ian’s a native of the town, and again speaks with an accent that to my ear is distinctly Scottish, but he considers the place ‘British’, a mixture of English and Scottish. It’s a fair judgement on this town which has been a part of both countries countless times during various scuffles over map markings.
The danger with such ‘local’ places is their insularity, one which is sometimes enjoyed with a certain pride. Ian finds London too full of people. As he wisely notes of the capital,
‘People don’t have enough time, and they get stuck worrying about the small things.’
He thinks it’s not a problem round here, but there’s a degree of local pride in making these points against a Londoner too. The experience of poverty and stress isn’t unique to London, but life does feel slower here. I hear the same point earlier in the day at the hostel, but this time from the loud and imposing voice of a middle-aged man from somewhere in the south-east. Earlier I’d heard him yatter overconfidently about his expenses and flights. As he explains to the German tourists,
‘London, it’s too full of people. It’s too full of….’
Full of what?
A racist comment is on the verge of his lips. He circumvents it by talking about eastern Europeans. Whilst lauding the ‘hard-working’ Poles, he blames their ‘bad reputation’ on gangs of criminal Albanians who steal cars and send them to Africa. It’s such a nauseating reflux of casual racism that my brain is reeling and I find myself marching out of the room not quite fully dressed, cowardly seeking to avoid a confrontation. I’ve been away from domineering southern business scumbags and middle-class toffs that I’d forgotten just how vacuous, self-centred and utterly arrogant so many are, and why perhaps Londoners have earned this bad reputation. For people born in south or east London, we speak with different accents and live different lifestyles just as much demonised as ‘chavvy’ or dangerous as Grimsby or Glasgow. Do not associate us with this minority of managers, businessmen and idle rich who have stolen power from the people of this island.
I take some consolation in the visions of Lowry in the peaceful morning town. Lowry often stayed in the Castle Hotel and visited Berwick each summer, completing countless sketches and images of the place. He would often gaze out at this pier like me, depicting the fishermen, or simply trying to transform the cold and cruel North Sea, ‘a terrible sea’, into some painted thing understandable to other human beings. He was interested in ordinary life, of people going about their business, of football matches and everyday scenes. His approach is careful and sympathetic, a kind of Pieter Brueghel of early 20th century industrial Britain. There’s something quietening from it which I need.
I head up through Berwick town and listen to a man blowing heartily on the bagpipes. The milling crowds take great pleasure from this and shower his cap in small change. I spy an Edinburgh wool shop and more of the same large grey bricks and thickly-framed buildings that remind me of Aberdeen, and will recur I expect across Scotland.
I wonder, who are they kidding that Berwick is in England?
So, I take a shooftie around me. I’m fair puggled already, and I’ve still to scrieve a wee bit more of me travels. Luckily it’s nae dreich day, and I dinnae want to be a numpty and miss out on the braw countryside.
A mile north of Berwick up the A1 and I reach the border. On each side pubs advertise being the last English or Scottish pub – Carling or Tetley, Belhaven or Tennents, such choices. Freight trucks are clustered in one lay-by by a hot food kiosk selling Irn Bru and black pudding. So close! A great sign in gaelic, surrounded by three flags, greets me with Failte gu Alba. As I pass over an invisible map-maker’s line, I shout out to no-one: Scotland, here I am!
In the course of four weeks, I’ve met some extraordinary people and enjoyed all manner of odd and interesting encounters. It’s been an unlikely triumph. I was never fit before I left. I’ve only cycled regularly for about a year. Before I left, I could do about 20 miles on a good day by bicycle and that was it. Playing the bass guitar was the extent of my physical exercise. Why did I even think I could get away with this kind of travel?
Naivety, largely. The first six days were excruciating and filled with more misfortunes and small mountains than I could bear with. Excitement about discovering the next town has seen me through, and still does. After a week I could feel that my body was becoming different. My legs became like concrete bollards, and hills became easier to deal with. I’ve coped with exhaustion largely by eating tons of food, mostly bananas and dried fruit, and excessive amounts of cheese, kidney beans and wraps to provide cheap protein and fats.
And the bike? Well, it’s lived through its own dramas, breaking down or falling apart on a near-daily basis. It was never a particularly good city bike, and even in London it stood out for its heavy frame and battered appearance. To me it feels like an elderly friend, one fully sympathetic to the journey we’re sharing, but often not quite capable of keeping up with my idiotic demands. Sometimes when I’m quite fatigued I have little dialogues in my mind with it. It cheers me on, or encourages me to slow down. Yes, the loneliness of long-distance travel will induce madness by degrees.
I cross into Scotland, and the landscape quickly whacks you in the jaw with its epic beauty. I drift off the A1 and down a little road that takes me through rolling back-lanes, with fruity smelling hedgerows and a luscious diversity of trees and wildflowers. Fattened lambs bleat to my left and right as songbirds trail above, doves cooing to each other in distant trees. The sun hovers overhead, proud of its own majestic perfection. As I roll up and down gentle sloping hills, I’ve found exactly the kind of cycling experience and terrain I’d always dreamt of on this trip. It’s here, north of the border, where time and miles completely disappear on lanes silent of humankind, alive with the music of the natural world.
These landscapes will produce immense pleasure in anyone who chances to pass through them. There is a cycling trail here, Route 76, that will take you through many of the delightful places I pass. It is the best-kept path I’ve come across, intelligently devised and clearly-signed. Please, do not deny yourself the opportunity of travel, like I once did for too long. After all, pleasure and joy are requirements for philosophy. Here is my hero, Spinoza, proving the point in his Ethics:
‘It is, I repeat, the part of a wise man to refresh and invigorate himself in moderation with good food and drink, as also with perfumes, with the beauty of blossoming plants, with dress, music, sporting activities, theatres, and the like, in which every man can indulge without harm to another. For the human body is composed of many parts of various kinds which are continually in need of fresh and varied nourishment so that the entire body may be equally capable of all the functions that follow from its own nature, and consequently that the mind may be equally capable of simultaneously understanding many things.’
I follow the trail through the countryside of the Scottish borders and into East Lothian, heading broadly north and occasionally meeting the coast. I’m reunited with the sea at Pease Bay, where the red cliffs give way to a gentle beach, currently occupied by a caravan park. The park owners wander about wearing only denim dungarees, compounding the Deep South of the US impression the place, and families and dog-walkers drift across the beach.
I look out onto the bay, empty of boats and gently tranquil. Any placid sea hides its ghosts, like the 189 dead who died in a hurricane here back in October 1881. As Lowry noted earlier, the North Sea is truly a terrible one. To my right is Siccar Point, a quiet stretch of sea, and an unlikely location for the demise of Creationism. Back in 1788 though, James Hutton took two friends out on a boat to scrutinise the cliffs. He saw that a lower level of sedimentary rock had been contorted and weathered before red sandstone had naturally laid over. Such processes would have taken far longer than the Bible’s claim that the world was 4 000 years old.
Which was right? Either the new evidence of geology, and the evidence-based discoveries of natural science more broadly, or a book written by humans thousands of years ago to define and dominate the Jewish people? John Playfair was in that boat with Hutton. He later described the revelation of discovering that humans knew far less about the world than they thought:
‘The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time; and whilst we listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible how much further reason may sometimes go than imagination may venture to follow.’
Sometimes it takes an imaginative leap to establish a new footing of reason. I drift on, struggling back up the steep cliffs before taking an easy path towards Dunbar. I pass pockets of thistle jutting out among weeds, a great quarry hacking deep into the earth, and a mysterious power plant where greater Manchester’s recycling has ended up in unlikely circumstances. Dunbar itself unfolds a little after, and I reach a small market town defined by a wide high street flanked with an imposingly high but pretty terrace of shops and restaurants. The town is bustling in the early afternoon, and I peer about at the chip shops, tandooris and fancy craft shops, seeking out a good destination for a stop. I slip down a road towards the working harbour, sailing boats rocking together like the movements of the guillemots on the nearby Farnes, then turn around and find the Volunteers Arms pub, which promises to sell the locally-brewed Belhaven beer.
Inside the cosy old boozer, a drunk Londoner sways about on a bar-stool and throws out small talk with a desperate enthusiasm. He tells me how good the town is, but the effect of the beers means that the details is scant and scatty. His family moved up here from north London, and soon after he soon followed, finding a job fixing washing machines. ‘You don’t fall far from the nest’, he says, swaying about and belching.
I sit outside and listen to the sound of the gulls, before doing a little writing. On another table a young couple eat lunch and talk about family.
‘Funny thing, family. Not funny in a bad way, but…’
Meanings are always on the edge of people’s tongues. They’re too stiff and stuffy. ‘Very polite and proper. It’s English, old school English.’ I wonder to myself how these stereotypes become generated. Are they true? Are the English unable to express their emotions (except when drunk)?
I’ve heard this charge before. I feel it is false, and sometimes a poor excuse. I wonder if it relates to a certain kind of emotional constipation hungover from the austere brands of Protestant Christianity that once gripped imaginations. I wonder if it still permeates through the socially aspirational middle-classes, with their au pairs and boarding schools, and their preference for emotional intimacy with animals over humans. The man is Italian and it’s curious to hear how an English person attempts to explain this kind of familial awkwardness. He later makes friendly conversation with me, and we talk about Brixton life and the qualities of the Hebrides. A couple nearby contribute tips about the coastline of Harris. It’s a jolly place, and the pints of Belhaven stout are truly delicious, with a sweet maltiness that trumps the usual Guinness fare.
I make tracks back into the town and grab some chips from Adrianos. I fully appreciate being in Scotland afterwards. This is the best fish and chip I have ever been to. It is also perhaps the busiest. A production line that puts Nissan or Toyota to shame are bent low, hammering and clanking away, producing chips, deep fried pizza and sausage, haggis and cod with the dexterity of an octopus. The frying cabinet is packed with all manner of bizarrely battered goods. Irn Bru comes as standard. The chips are delicious, and give sufficient fuel for the road north.
I take a detour up the way, leaving the superb cycle trail to investigate North Berwick. It’s a bit of a gamble in terms of the added distance, but the journey becomes quite spectacular. After a series of bouncy hills I reach the top of a great cliff where, below, the picturesque ruins of old Tantallon Castle perch opposite the equally sublime Bass Rock. The road plummets down towards the little town, where a large Tesco is dwarfed by the North Berwick Law, a gargantuan volcano that looms over the surrounding countryside and the almighty Firth of Forth. Immersed on all sides by a glorious golden sunset, I wonder if I have accidentally stumbled into heaven.
North Berwick is a very pretty small seaside town. There are a few ice cream shops and pubs, but the feel of the place is rest and refuge from the travails of town life. The harbour and beach are quite lovely, and I mill about a little while before heading north, passing through Gullane and a mysterious country estate, thick brick walls struggling to contain a forest of gnarled trees growing on the other side. The road takes me through Seton Sands, a coastline village with a caravan park and a few houses, where I catch sight of my first Edinburgh bus, all whites, maroons and reds. The reality of Scotland is coming into view. In the distance, I glimpse Carlton Hill and its ruined pillars, and realise that the Scots capital is closing in.
Seton Sands marks the start of a long conurbation of small settlements that melt into one another. I pass through Prestonpans and its pretty almshouses, where once Bonny Prince Charlie’s army stole a great loot from the British soldiers of King George. I drift by Cockenzie and a large power plant that feeds into the Firth, and a little later, via a pretty coastal path, find myself in Musselburgh, a charming suburb with a pretty river and the impressive and stern brickwork that seems already to confirm a Scots identity in the built environment. They are dignified and sturdy, so unlike anything I’ve seen. I feel like I’m in another land, a northern European country where public affairs are administered without incompetence or corruption.
Looking out onto the river and the men attempting to catch fish, I see three girls teasing a boy. He pulls at the clothes of one playfully, and then she jumps on his back. He carries her up to the river and pretends to drop her in. Laughter and shrieks, it reminds me of those first heady evenings of summer, when everything feels possible. I feel lightened in my thoughts and heavy in heart, reminded of how far experience takes each of us on our own life’s lonely but marvellous journeys.
A binge of milkshakes and flapjacks at a nearby Tesco Express gives enough energy for the final slog into town. Edinburgh takes a long time to get to: it feels like you’re there and, lo, there’s four more miles of dull-looking low-rise suburbs to pass through. I start to spot black cabs, and the roads become increasingly damaged and dangerous, indicating that the city is approaching. Indeed Edinburgh has the worst-kept roads by some distance, and I’d warn any motorcyclists to take care, these pot-holes will easily fling the hapless rider over their handlebars and into a nearby hedge or bus. High grey-brick tenement blocks appear suddenly and with regular frequency, matched by the odd brown pebbledash of public buildings. I’m in the centre now, surrounded by patient traffic and droves of tourists.
I pass Holyrood park, pretty in the evening, and twist round to Princes Street, detouring by the elevated castle, just about able to avoid passing Americans and Europeans meticulously documenting anything older than twenty years with their cameras. I’m taking a few days rest here, and will write about Edinburgh in one post, and so I avoid snooping about too much. I’m tired from the length of the trip, inspired by the Scottish countryside, and troubled with thoughts about this project. What should I seek from Scotland? I remember Rumi – better to let one sense be overwhelmed and bewildered.
I reach the flat of Josep and Delwar, my friends and hosts for the next few days. Over snifters of smooth and sweet Springbank Campbeltown whisky, Delwar tells us about the journeys of Laurie Lee. He grew up with a restless heart, and after a variety of odd jobs as a labourer, office clerk, and violinist, he went out one morning and walked across England and Europe, eventually reaching Spain. Once over the Pyrenees, he came across a new kind of experience he didn’t have words for. I feel quite similar. I have no words now for what I have seen, and I’m increasingly reluctant to hold onto my prejudices and former opinions. What will come?
Let the road decide.