‘Once you’re wet, there’s nowt you can do.’
‘Yeah, you might as well just get wet.’
‘You might as well go out, get wet, stay out for the day, then go in.’
– Punters in The Bush, Cockermouth, dispensing Zen weather advice.
Perhaps sleeping in parks isn’t so bad after all. I’ve managed to get eight hours sleep for the first time in too long, and I’ve not been disturbed by any passing policeman or local dog-walker. Indeed the small green is quiet when I get up, and I pack up my tent and belongings before another soul strolls by this way.
The morning is dry and relatively warm for a change. Feeling enthusiastic, I drift back through Gretna and towards the border. There’s a huge ‘outlet village’ at a roundabout directing traffic to and from Scotland, boasting its slightly higher-end mass high street chains on offer. Golf shops, American clothing brands, Costa coffee, luxury kitchenware and the like. Despite almost everything being closed, the car park is relatively full, and the mock-high street inside has a surprisingly large number of people strolling aimlessly up and down, content to be just near the retail gods.
There’s something obviously crass about these places. Large companies use underpaid staff and manipulative advertising to sell things most of us don’t need, and probably deep down have little interest or use in. Like the retail parks, McDonalds and KFC drive-thrus and massive supermarkets that border almost every large town I’ve passed through, these places thrive on human laziness, offering things in one place that one can drive to, rather than walk around or come by bus. There’s no threat of sociality, just a till cashier who one doesn’t look in the eye. People often take their families to these kinds of places, and they’re usually the most busy part of any town I visit, though never really near anywhere, or a part of that town. There’s always the physical separation of roads, and the mental separation of the town one lives in and its people, and these dream-parks that are the same everywhere, that appeal to our impulses, a little more sugar, just a taste of this, go on, treat yourself…
Street-markets and covered markets in most towns are either in major decline or gone altogether as a result. We could lament this, but then we may be guilty of attaching ourselves to a melancholy impossibility. Country fairs, lairy sports, multi-generational living have each passed by similarly. I wonder if we over-estimate our capacity for assent or dissent. Convenience has a greater steer in human choice than anything else, even greed. The outlawing and enforced difficulty of certain practices has them disappear, and others take their place. One must shop. One can no longer buy objects that will last more than two years without breaking. Perhaps better to have it all compartmentalised and out of the way, in one place that doesn’t cause immense traffic blockages or drive up town centre rents?
I have a wash in the disabled loo, and decide to take advantage of Costa’s plugs and wi-fi to charge up my things and write. Men in bright pastel shirts and cuff-links huddle over cappuccinos and discuss the large of figures of some property plan. Others are pensioners, sat here with no purpose, as they might’ve in those glorious classic caffs of the 60s and 70s that once used to light up most town centres. ‘So ladies, what do you want to do now?’, asks one woman to them, seemingly the coordinator a day trip out here.
I get back to my bike, but spot that the front light has disappeared. I head back to the park where I’d camped, but don’t see it there either. Has it been stolen in genteel Gretna? Or lost in idiotic circumstances? It’s hard to determine, though personal culpability is more probable.
Either way, with pretentions in younger life of being a poet, I’m prone to improbable symbolism. My way of seeing and travelling through Scotland will need to change (right…?). I’ll need a different kind of light to understand the remainder of England, and to understand Wales, and the other islands I plan to visit.
So, in search of enlightenment (right, that’s enough), I follow the road out of this retail Shangri-la and out over the border. A small river now defines the line between Scotland and England, with a derelict campsite building and a pub on one side, and on the English side, a slightly penurious and undersized road-sign saying ‘Welcome to England’, in front of an anally-kept privet hedge. No fanfare of fluttering flags, or snack vans serving English breakfasts and Carling beer. Instead, the road parallels the busy M6, and takes me by warehouses with mysterious purposes, and the odd dilapidated building. And a ceaseless roar of heavy lorry traffic. Welcome to England.
This stretch of road passes the occasional field, and the land here has been intently purposed to either an agricultural end or become barren wasteland, awaiting some warehouse to be built on top of it. It eventually takes me into Carlisle, the first major town on the other side of the border. It feels familiar. I pass retail parks, then an excessive glut of roundabouts, before filtering through mean-looking, arrogantly-appointed semi-detached housing. If anyone’s still got their ‘British Town Centre’ bingo cards, you’ll be looking at a full house.
We pass through Kingstown first, an ugly suburb of Carlisle. There’s an unnecessarily aggressive statue of a medieval footsoldier on a very high plinth above the road, recently erected. Signs of parochialism and anxieties about invading Scots still abound, it seems. It’s just so idiotic when one compares the lack of such things on the other side of the border, but with a xenophobic national press like England’s, unsurprising.
Things improve when the road suddenly enters Carlisle proper, at a busy junction with the remains of a large gatehouse type fortification and a Victorian railway station in the distance. There’s a number of pubs and shops in the distance, and I get the impression of a market town, strange stories and rewarding secrets spangled into its polychronous built fabric. I talk to a couple from Gretna just here for the shopping. The border seems very porous to them, but then, as Baz said yesterday, many Scots in the lower areas tended to support staying with the union. They’re more up for a laugh then talking politics, and I get directions to a bike shop down a road heading towards the south of the town.
Palace Cycles is open, situated along a busy street where multiple wetherspoons pubs jostle next to kebab shops and the remains of grand Victorian stores. A young man inside has no similar kind of bike light, but sells me their cheapest light, a mere twenty notes for a wee little light in the shape of a heart. Other lights come in at forty, ninety and higher. There’s no choice with it, and I think of Marvin Gaye and his endorsements of human love as some consolation for this unlikely light for a whisky-supping, wild-camping exploits in the public parks of this land. Saddle sores aren’t going away either, and for a further thirteen notes I’m sold some kind of magic balm which smells like Vick’s vapour-rub. I have no idea how the people of Carlisle can afford to cycle.
Finally – or firstly? – I don’t know where to start with the catalogue of minor faults that the bicycle’s picked up – the gears are no longer shifting as they should, and something seems a little wrong with the pedals. In Berwick, a friendly feller fixed this problem for free. Here I’m quoted £25 for a quick job. It’s pretty harsh, but such is the variety of bicycle shops one comes across. Some are excellent, like in Berwick and Matlock, and some are, well, in Carlisle.
I decide to check out the rest of the town centre before heading out, and discover a busy central street. It’s been pedestrianised but without simply feeling like a disused road – there are well-maintained trees and benches all around, and a merry-go-round nearby. People are enjoying sitting here and watching the world pass. One lady hails from Kent, but has lived here for some time with her husband – ‘I had no choice!’, she laughs. It’s a more expensive town than most, she thinks, because of the dependence of the surrounding Cumbria countryside on shopping here. She also warns that the town can be a little crazy at night when people drink, but gives the impression of a nice, small town. She directs me towards the cathedral, and another man I banter with nearby offers the same suggestion.
As I wander through the town, more insights into its overweening defensiveness arise. Situated so close to the border, it is the most sieged city on the British Isles. Hadrian’s wall passes nearby, marking the older line of the border, and Luguvalium, as Carlisle was then known, was an import town for them. It’s not possible to walk along the fortifications now, I find out from one disappointed tourist, but there’s plenty to see and explore nearby.
The cathedral is surprisingly eccentric. Much of it is slightly misaligned, with its central hall having an organ an entrance somewhat out of sync with the rest of the structure. I stare up at its ceiling with its gorgeous gilded stars on a midnight blue background, bring the heavens all-too-close to the redemption-seeking sinner. An older gentleman in grey gowns approaches me, reading on my face a series of unanswered questions. His name is Brian, and he’s the architect of the cathedral here, as well as those at Penrith and Blackburn. He points out some of the more extraordinary features of the large stained glass windows, and shares many facts about the cathedral.
Conversation turns back to his life, and how one becomes an architect of such a place. He grew up in Hull from the late 1940s. He tells me ‘it was a building site for as long as I lived there. At least with Coventry, that was in one night. With Hull, it was less bombs, but throughout the war.’ He trained in town planning in Preston, and had a successful career before moving into conservation. It’s curious to talk to someone clearly involved in the desecration of most town centres with the new age carbuncles of the Sixties and Seventies, but it’s hard to feel acrimonious. Bill in Arran retired from working in property developments for out-of-town supermarkets, another hex on the landscape. These are good, kindly people!
‘We fought and died together’. Brian’s very much opposed to Scotland leaving the union, but his remarks miss the point of the Scots seeking political freedom. Still, he’s a liberal critic of the establishment. He tells me about the aristocratic families that still own great swathes of England. In Carlisle, it’s the Cavendish family who own much of the land; in Chester, the Grosvenors, the same family who own much of Belgravia in London (‘they bought it when it was just a swamp, now look at it!’)
He’s just as appalled by it, but conveys the impression that it’s no longer his fight, but a younger generation’s. In the Scottish Highlands, it seemed almost obvious that local peoples would want to work together to buy back their land. Perhaps the problem – obnoxious absentee landlords – was more obvious. In England, it’s much more insidious. The ugly secret of inherited wealth and its vast dominance in political and economic life today ought to be brought to the light.
I recognise that he’s sustained some kind of acquired brain injury, and he tells me about the local Headway support group he and his wife have set up. He tells me about their visits here and there, and points me out towards Carlisle’s castle before I head out. It’s a relatively small looking thing, an 11th century red-brick structure separated from the rest of the town by a motorway.
That’s enough Carlisle for me, so I find a road heading west, passing a McVities biscuit factory and out west. I want to pass through the Lake District, but have been warned many times on this trip about its excessive tourist developments. The road out is not promising, full of traffic and ‘fast’, filled with frenzied cars. It’s an unpleasant journey for some miles along a bumpy road, with a scenery of industrial farmhouses, thick hedgerows and the occasional rolling field with sheep. I pass one or two villages like Bosel, but there’s little sign of life. After around twenty miles of this kind of thing, harassed by showers of rain as I go, I start to ask the question of the disappointed tourist: is this it?
I arrive into the small market town of Cockermouth, greeted by heavy rain, busy traffic, and a jolly sign for the local Jennings beer. The road snakes round into a narrow main street that parallels the river one crosses to enter. I pass the house where the poet William Wordsworth was born, a large terracotta-coloured structure that backs onto the river, now owned by the National Trust. I picture Wordsworth gazing out onto these waters, perhaps playing a game with his sister or local friends. In the distance now is a park with outdoor gym equipment, and some bloody awful new-built housing resembling a cross between a supermarket and a privately-owned young offender’s institute.
Cockermouth seems a little shabby and down-at-heel for the birth of Wordsworth. I head further down this main road, and besides a statue of a man named Mayo, head into The Bush pub to escape the rain. Just by the door is a level-line marked from the floods of November 2009, around the size of the average adult. With rain like this, I begin to fear that history might repeat itself.
The disappointment of the scenery and village has me pondering about the possibility of a romantic movement in modern times. One that might reject the increasing speeds of digital information flows and the blind faith in economic and technological progress of globalised capitalism, in favour of – what? Some kind of return to the importance of communal well-being, to the pleasure of learning, of exploring one’s imagination, and crossing one’s boundaries, perhaps. Of sharing instead of competing, of giving time freely to others instead of counting it away. Of making do, compromising, and creating from scratch, instead of maliciously arguing, shoving people out of the way and buying more than what one needs. Oh, in a place like this, surrounded by traffic, in such politically and emotionally constipated times. Is it possible? Well, consider the revolution in human nature that Romanticism led to. The future is unwritten, and nothing can be confirmed impossible.
The rain pauses, and I head out to explore the rest of the village. On the way back down I bump into Patrick, a very gregarious and somewhat inebriated feller wandering down the road. ‘Is there friendly bacteria in that?’, he asks.
There’s not much friendly in the sugar-hefty kids’ milkshakes I often drink, but he asks about my bike, and soon his eyes light up when I mention William Blake. ‘I was supposed to meet you!’, he tells me, with sincere enthusiasm. His banter is a rapid-fire attack of jokes, curious observations and offensive comments about passers-by. ‘I’m a part-time comedian!’ His pet hate is car drivers, and he finds in me a kindred spirit. One guy unlucky enough to park nearby us is inunduated with a series of insults, followed by a ‘y’aright mate?’. He greets everyone who passes, and they return it with an awkward smile.
‘I’m from this town, I love it here, but Dan, there’s too many wankers. … I used to work in London. People say the streets are paved with gold. Believe me, they ain’t.’
He’s a cyclist himself, and tells me about his bike, and about the sons of a friend who cycled all around the world. He’s passionate, friendly, a real character. I’m glad to have found one here. We exchange contact details, and I drift on.
Keswick’s my next point of call, but I’m not sure how to get there. After all the car-cluttered roads, is there another way? Another local man suggests a nice route via the Jennings brewery and up Market street, passing by the older part of Cockermouth and by its river. It’s a lovely route, just what I’d been seeking. Deserted of traffic, I can finally cycle slowly and enjoy the lovely evening around me. Swallows dart just above my head crossing from field to field, and I see the occasional rabbit hopping across the hillsides. Leaving Cockermouth and heading south, I can feel the landscape change, from those flat and over-farmed fields near Carlisle towards forests, and then the mountains like Helvellyn for which the Lakes are well-known and beloved to hikers.
I pass through the small hamlet of Embleton, but it’s mainly by small woods and sleepy fields I cycle through. So lovely it is, but unfortunately the road rejoins the major A-road, though now a little less busy. Along one lay-by I spy a large pack of raspberry bushes. They’ve grown and ripened early, and the blackberries are ready to eat. The purple juice stains my fingers, and they’re a little sour but already delicious. It’s amazing where such treasures can thrive.
Eventually I come into Keswick, where the traffic starts to coagulate together. The river Derwent runs by here, and on the opposite bank to my left is the Cumberland pencil museum, the least riveting subject for a visitor attraction I’ve passed. The town is a little larger than Cockermouth but shares the same 18th century small market town architecture and feel. Roads are a little cramped, and its development has seemingly been carefully managed by the local council. There are no retail parks or petrol stations scattered around, mercifully. The interior of the small town is a pedestrianised meeting point of several lanes in a kind of compressed X-shape. It’s utterly packed with tourists, mostly middle-aged or retired couples, or small families, each wandering up and down, unable to decide which of countless pubs or restaurants to dine in this evening, or sitting on the benches outside the town’s moot hall, chewing on Old Keswickian fish and chips.
I’m not particularly enamoured with the place. It feels too frenzied and, despite good efforts, a little superficial. It reminds me of being in a tourist town in the Canary Islands or the south of Spain, in those main drag places where waiters stand outside and solicit you in, each offering bogus local specialities. One becomes more and more irritated and indecisive as one passes pizzeria after tapas bar after Chinese buffet. In one’s frustration, the banal nature of tourism and the transactional fly-traps of the resort-town become more and more noxious and offensive. Drink is called for, lots of it. A week later one flies back to the reassuring comfort of a depressing occupation and pile of commitments, reassuringly safe in its familiar nature. The passing of time is also a subjective experience. When the same things happen each time, it feels like time has become arrested. Years pass like this.
I look out onto the Derwent river, my view obstructed by the high flood-barriers. I’ve lived near so many places named after this part of the world. During the 20th century, how many suburban streets or council blocks were named after parts of the Lake District? Derwent, Grasmere, Windermere, Ambleside, Bowness and the rest. Derwent Road in Penge has utterly no relation to this small flowing stream here. The Lake District was always an idea of a rural idyll. In a sense it’s set the place up on such a pedestal that I, a city-dweller, am finding the place so disappointing. And in another sense, it was an insult to those ambitious housing programmes and new streets, to be named after something so unlike it, as if to suggest to residents, “you’ll never live somewhere as lovely as the Lake District, as you’re just too poor. But don’t worry, we’ve named your cheap shit concrete high-rise after Grasmere, how’s that?” And so those architects and planners of the 60s and 70s have now retired and moved to those expensive cottages that dot this area, completing their own dream, whilst the fruits of their labour are being knocked down and replaced with betting shops and Tesco Expresses.
The light’s setting, but I decide to give Keswick more of a chance. After a wander around the town, I find a pub that catches my eye, the Oddfellows Arms, and head in for a half and a chat. The pub’s full with holiday-makers eating, but the bar’s clear and I stand there, chatting to the barmen. I share them my opinion, curious to test it. ‘All these tea rooms, dull museums, and all these people packed into these streets. It feels like an English Lanzarote…?’
The guy laughs, and smiles. The other barman agrees. ‘We only have two locals who come in here. They work in bars too. Only late, after people have left.’ The town is pretty dead between October and March, which is why this feller works behind the bar. He tells me about his outdoor activity centre. During the summer months he has sufficient trade, from walkers to adventurers of various kinds, but the winter is a killer. He works here most nights of the week to save money to last the quiet season. He seems to like the job, as many bar-staff secretly will admit it.
I head out into the dark, and cycle out of Keswick, taking a wrong road which leads me back into the town. I try again, cursing my lack of a map, and this time ascend a steep hill heading south. Riding into the night with my meagre heart-shaped light, along a road whose edges I can no longer make out, I feel like some medieval pilgrim following some penitential folly. There’s few settlements ahead of me, and I’m unsure where to camp. I have in mind to reach Thirlmere, but the road is pretty dangerous. There are no lights, and the occasional car that passes speeds by with some ferocity. I carry along, looking out for a stretch of woodland, but nothing emerges for a few miles, until at last, by the southern edge of Lake Thirlmere, I spot a disused lumber yard. There’s a stretch of hillside above it where weeds grow freely, which eventually reaches a thick forest. I pitch up my tent right above the road and in earshot of some nearby waterfall.
Rain starts to fall with some vigour, and the tent gets pretty wet before it’s up. Oh for a dry day! The frequency of the rain recently has been frustrating, to say the least. But this is the ‘English summer’, as the cliché goes! The rain seems to have shaped this island’s cultural development, I begin to ponder, teeth chattering inside the tent. It forced peoples away from the beach or outside recreational pursuits and into their homes. Crafts, metallurgy, musical and technical skills would’ve developed in the need to amuse oneself and others. The communal house, and then the public house, become our places of warm socialising. And why else have Scots, English, Irish and Welsh people been some of the most well-travelled in modern history, but to escape the cold and bloody awful weather, the difficulty of farming the land, and the desire for some kind of better way of life? There’s nothing one can do about these rains except make one’s peace with it. Even the stoicism, modesty and self-restraint that also seems to typify some of the (accurate?) clichés around the social behaviours of peoples from these islands could spell from it.
At least I’m kind of dry. The tent feels like a warm cocoon, and it’s a pleasure being sat between a forest and a beautiful lake, looking up at the moon and what few stars I can make out between the clouds. Being inside, looking out the world, there’s a wonderful pleasure in that kind of solitude, like the tranquillity of sitting alone in a parked stationary car. Such peace, this feeling, when one has come to terms with one’s solitude, without feeling a compulsion to work, or to escape, or rack the mind with some false problem to solve. Just the forest, the lake, the rain and the stars.