‘Before there’s something new, there must be the death of the old’.
– Samantha, inside the Sahara, Falmouth.
A young woman is meditating right besides my tent, as I clamber out and blearily rub consciousness back into my eyes. I’m perched by the remains of Little Pendennis on the edge of Falmouth, a place where the average man and woman come to walk the dog, peer out at the distant tugs in the Bay for a moment, before boredom shoves them back into their cars. I wouldn’t mind a car. I’m getting worn out, mentally, particularly. Loneliness is singing its bitter catchy melody. One thing or another cheats me of a good night’s sleep. But at least I have the weather. This September has been unusually hot and dry, and the waterproof gear which I rarely took off during August has become crumpled and forgotten at the bottom of my bag. And improbably, there must still be some money left in my bank account, as my occasional card payments for a pint here, bag of granola there and ice-cream yonder are still going through.
So, this meditating girl…
She smiles as I wander over, and we get talking. Her name is Samantha, and she lives in a camper van, parked just nearby. She’s seeking a reliably safe and undisturbed spot to park for the next couple of weeks whilst she starts a full-time crafts course at the university. Something about the possibility of movement is very important to her. Despite the looming winter, she plans to live permanently in the van. She’s found a farmer somewhere nearby who will let her stay in his field for £80 per month. I am intrigued! She laughs, and invites me in for a cup of tea.
What a way to live! It is far cheaper than a static home and should you get sick of the weather, or the view, or the neighbours, stick some juice in the engine and move house in an instant. Sure, you may have to sacrifice bodily warmth, and I’m not sure how prospective employers or company payroll will regard a PO Box or ‘lower field’ as an address, but it’s a way of life well-suited to students, dreamers, and the bedouin of bohemia.
It’s not hard to recognise her home among the parked estate cars: a late-80s looking transit van with a desert scene painted on the side and the name ‘Sahara’. Two saucepans are heating on a small hob inside, porridge bubbling in one and water in another. It’s surprisingly capacious, with space inside for a bed, seating and a table to work on. Samantha’s just returned from a two year trip that began in Brazil and ended up exploring most of the United States. She tells me that an initial three-month escape out of a fragmenting long-term relationship and into the forests of Brazil became a two year odyssey across the Americas. She learned Spanish on the road and met other backpackers. Rather than continually roving, she settled down at different points and stayed in communities with other travellers. Money could be made selling fruit and snacks on the beach, or doing odd jobs like cleaning until she had enough to move on again.
Her only condition: no air travel. She reached Brazil by boat from Italy, then travelled across the country by bus. The distances between cities were huge, days could pass following the same route. There was plenty of time to read, and pick up new languages. The Man who quit money is one book that inspired her, about Daniel Suelo’s successful attempt to live according to his own resources, foraging, and by the generosity of strangers. She found the Amazon and followed its course. And then, bound by nothing else, decided to just carry on heading north.
Over two years, Samantha travelled all around central America, one of her favourite places, and across into the United States. She sailed to Hawaii and lived on Big Island for a time, her favourite place ‘most of all’, then returned back to the States. Samantha talks of ‘the freedom of not being attached’. ‘To places, people or objects?’ ‘With objects it’s easier, but people are hard’, she says, smiling.
She serves a cup of green tea and a plate of rice cakes and peanut butter, coincidentally my favourite snack. I’m beginning to wonder if – minus a chromosome split – I may have accidentally come across myself, or rather, myself has come across me, by way of a coincidental merging of two realities within the wider multiverse. She’s from the south-east of England, an dher way of life cannot be lazily explained or dismissed by some aspect of her background. I’m not sure I’d have the mental resilience to travel alone for such a long time – 110 days has been quite enough. But then, as Samantha points, after three months, why not continue on? No deadline is set. ‘There’s something empowering about getting rid of those objects and moving on’. Objects not of some external place, person or thing, but internal to the mind.
‘When you first cross into a country, you’re unsure how it’ll be’. Different countries, different cultures of hitching and hospitality. She crossed over the Mexico-US border with only five dollars after having to pay her other fifty to the Mexican border police, leaving her without the reddies to catch her bus to Denver. So out of necessity, so decided to hitch-hike. It took four days to get to her destination. She met and stayed with an English millionaire, a group of homeless people (‘very down on themselves, like they’d internalised society’s negative labels’), and a Mexican gangster lookalike who turned out to be a remarkably sweet gay nurse. After that, hitching proved the best way of meeting people and travelling around, and without money or needing to work. And all those times waiting for someone to stop? Optimism worked. ‘You’ve just got to think that the person you’re waiting for is about to turn up’. What began as something of a holiday and taking time out became, over the months, a more inspired and free way of life.
‘I discovered an inner freedom and strength. I realised I could do anything I wanted to, after that. I’d made it. It felt like anything was possible, like living the American dream. … People there were so friendly, they loved the English accent… And because I was a girl, travelling on my own, they wanted to shelter me, feed me!’
Her stories are remarkable. Can one just go and close the door on an old life and venture out, towards the new? People have, and on this trip I’ve crossed paths with some of them. They’ve given up on old obligations and compromises and have restlessly sought friendship and adventure amongst the unfamiliar. We talk until around noon about our lives and experiences. She finds herself now in Falmouth, ready to begin a new part of her life, though already planning a trip in her van next summer. Conversation ends on the future. Though she’s ‘not that political nowadays’ and focuses instead on ‘what’s at hand, what’s possible’, she anticipates some kind of looming collapse which, coolly, doesn’t alarm her. She speaks of the death of the old, the forcible termination of a harmful, currently-existing world around us. ‘I think there’s going to be turmoil, with people, and the environment.’ The words are not chilling, but instead strike me as indicating some kind of creative possibility, some kind of brave new world beneath the bullshit.
The morning’s conversations have been revelatory, reminding me of how little one can live well with. Courage, curiosity, a bit of charm and a glug of serendipity can go far. I’m grateful that my road has a terminus, heading east now until the eastern edge of Kent, then round to London. Had I a whole continent ahead of me, I’m not sure how ready I’d be to stop. I ride from Pendennis Point back down into Falmouth, where I catch the ferry from Custom House Quay over to St. Mawes. In the distance, the small pastel rows of Falmouth’s terraces appear like layers in a birthday cake. The harbour is very busy with small boats and a large Navy tug. In the distance is Pendennis Castle, and beneath it I make out Samantha’s mobile house as it recedes in the distance.
We arrive in St Mawes, a ferry ride that for once seems to justify the price. It’s a tourist village by the sea, with a small castle, gift shops, cream tea cafes and holiday cottages cosily pocked into a hillside. I find a large coach park behind the main drag and have a second course of breakfast and gee myself up for a long ride today. I have a couchsurfing place arranged in Plymouth, around sixty-five or seventy miles away, and there’s a couple of ferries in between that’ll no doubt slow things up.
From St. Mawes I ride up and out towards St Austells, along a quiet and uninteresting country lane. There are undulating fields all around, but no drama to this scene, no wilderness, just hedgerows and tame fields, over and again. I’m riding through the Roseland, a remote and depopulated peninsula. Unlike the Lizard, Roseland’s rich in rural scenery. Villages with thatched roofs, a prissy community noticeboard, trestle-tables and jumble sales, then outside, small fields that suggest generational ownership, and bushes with blackberries that burst in one’s fingers. I ride out of St. Just and later, Veryan, then lose track of the eastward trail, veering up to the larger village of Tregony before following a road towards St. Austell. The scenery’s pleasant but little stays in mind. Mind drifting into itself, I decide to skip the old fishing village of Mevagissey on the eastern coastline and push on.
Beware the three Ws! Wind, wet and w-shaped hills. Thankfully there’s no rain, but the hills zigzag up and down, making it impossible to relax into a rhythm. Spend ten minutes struggling and huffing up a hill, then plunge down it again in ten seconds. Repeat twenty or so times. The wind is tough today today, grinding down progress, beckoning me back west. By the time I reach St Austell I’m quite knackered.
St. Austell is a large town, neatly arranged and modest in appearance. There’s a viaduct and a council built high-rise in the distance, so strange to see here, a reminder of home, dispelling the magic aura of Cornwall. That aura is perhaps an effect of the tourism industry, from the tales of King Arthur to its mythic surfing beaches. The town itself has no obvious centre and is underwhelmingly workaday. The town has been subject to a number of half-hearted attempts at development. A misguided attempt at producing an identikit British Town Centre has been effective. The White River Place is filled with familiar shops away from the older part of the town, causing whatever was the former shopping precinct to be taken over by charity shops or left derelict altogether. It’s eerily empty. A little like Helston, St. Austell seems to be a place for the tourists to pass through on their way to the Eden Project, and where the Cornish themselves can actually afford to live. But where is anyone?
I take a stop in the Seven Stars Inn, a locals’ boozer on the edge of the older part of the town. Inside, the barman and a local studiously rolling a cigarette are happy to banter at the bar. ‘There’s great highs, and great lows’, the man tells me. He speaks authoritatively about the place, and reels out facts and stories at a rapid pace. ‘Fifteen years ago, it was very closed to outsiders. Now there’s a new shopping centre. … The pubs, the atmosphere, there’s things for children to do, the Eden Project, stalls and events in town. … But there’s pockets of unemployment, long-term, people that just don’t want to work. Some drugs. But there you go.’
People that don’t want to work… this is a familiar complaint. It’s like those welfare-sucking illegal immigrants and freeloading healthcare tourists. No-one seems to know one, but seemingly they’re everywhere. St. Austell has been particularly hit by unemployment, like Camborne and Redruth to the north. The area here was once dominated by china clay production up until the Sixties when, like much of the UK’s industries, it began to decline. Clay production still continues, though numbers employed by it are a fraction of their former scale. Some pits have found new economic uses: the massive Eden Project greenhouse complex is built in one old quarry pit, and brings tourists to the nearby town. But great pockets have been ‘left behind’ as industrial employment diminished and nothing was planned in its place. Perhaps this wilful abandonment is Thatcher’s particular contribution. For areas like St. Austell and Camborne seemingly blighted by this hidden poverty, there’s not much evidence of any obvious decline or trouble. The council estates I ride through are well-maintained and there is no obvious problem of homelessness, drug misuse or petty street crime. I suspect it’s a poverty kept behind net curtains, of occasionally skipping a meal or tilting the balance further into debt, of DWP sanctions and a lack of confidence challenging these, of young families heavily relying on older relatives for financial and personal support.
Outside the local Liberal Democrat MP’s office, another local woman lays it out more plainly: ‘there’s not much life here’, she says, and directing with her finger, points west towards Truro. The Cornish are not quite the proud people one might expect! Cornish identity is either stifled or dispersed. For instance, Camborne, I’m told, has a major international mining college. Yet the forms of employment – or let’s call them what they are, or were: ways of life – that bonded communities, gave purpose, structure, a liveable income and a historical link with traditions provided by farming, fishing, and mining, have been either allowed or encouraged to die out. These traditions are thousands of years old in some places, like tin mining. A price is paid that no flashy metric or pie chart can present. ‘It was a good palce until they built the new town centre’, she adds. ‘Where?’ I ask, confused, as we stand on East Hill. ‘Exactly.’ From her curt reply, it dawns on me that the centre of the town might not just be simply a space, but a time-zone, a value-system, a way of seeing.
Riding east, my road hugs the edge of St. Austell Bay, though any view of the golden around is obscured by the trees, hedges and occasional warehouse along the road. Just south of the town, the shaggy sea shanty harbour of Charlestown is regularly used for Hollywood films. But east, as I go, a general air of abandonment hangs over the place. I ride through Par, an ugly old docking settlement with rows of tightly-cramped terraced housing. Whatever form of late-19th century industrial employment nourished the town has clearly vacated, and the area looks deprived and emaciated. By here is Carlyon Bay and the Cornwall Coliseum, once a popular music venue and seaside resort where big crooners like Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey and the Who would come and provide musical form to people’s fantasies and dreams. Since the 90s it has been abandoned, and today it rots in the bay with the same permitted neglect as a world war submarine base, roof ripped off, waiting for one sharp wind to put it out of its misery and crumble it down.
The road out of Par passes through a curious terrain which ought to be woods though remains pocked with derelict factories and semi-operational warehouses. I pass one tree garlanded with flowers, and the large hulk of a ruined structure which seems to have found new use by urban explorers. The road ends at Fowey (pronounced Foy), which is a bizarre albeit quite lovely contrast with everything else I’ve travelled through today. It retains the charm and character of an old fishing village, with tiny cramped streets barely able to allow cars clear passage. It is full of tourists, here to feign interest in its connection to Daphne du Maurier, but really enjoying the fairytale ambience and Cornish ice-cream. Intentionally or not, Cornwall’s tourist spots are always proximate but protected from anything remotely urban or industrial nearby, like Camborne/St. Ives, pretty St. Mawes/Falmouth, or even Newlyn/Penzance. Only Newquay allows both to ellipse into one, with mixed effects.
A regular ferry service runs from Fowey over to the hamlet of Bodinnick. The afternoon sun casts a pleasant glow over the sailboats and jutting bay windows of the harbour houses, and there’s always something about undisturbed water which has the lungs operating at a slower pace. Even the smuggling which once boosted the local economy feels twee and romantic, honourable rogues, a gentleman’s agreement, ‘brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk’, as Kipling puts it. All things forgiven in fair weather and surroundings.
And ach, I’d like to stop. What eejit committed himself to all these days of long-distance cycling without rest? The sleep-fatigue is becoming a problem. I devour what food I have, some Rowe’s hevvas buns and yeast cake (basically just sugary scones and fruit cake), and force myself up a steep height out of Bodinnick and towards Sandplace. It’s the late afternoon, and my plan is to veer off the coastal path and reach Plymouth by way of Saltash. But I forget to pay attention as I ride besides the quiet Cornish fields, and end up inadvertently taking a very nice but massive wrong-turn at Pelynt, and ride instead towards Looe (pronounced Loo – are these Cornish pronunciations a ruse to identify outsiders looking for Fowwey and Looey?). A touristy fishing town, it’s a little less charming than Fowey but has more for the visitor to do, with wide beaches along its bay and opportunities to fish or feast on local pasties. Some detours are nice, mind, and I don’t begrudge whatever gremlin flipped the sign right instead of left.
Checking the map, it looks like it’ll be quicker to catch one final ferry of the day, the hop from Torpoint to Devonport over the Tamar. From Looe I pedal to St. Martin, the landscape now relatively flatter, with hedgerows, hay-bales and undulating fields making up most of what I see around me. I’m cheered on by a retired couple happily riding up besides me on a tandem. ‘You’re just like him, when he was younger!’, the friendly lady at the back shouts, nodding towards her partner at the front. ‘You have that relaxed glow, and none of the lycra!’, he adds, with a cheeky chuckle.
Together with a hearty slug of water, the words push me on, and I play back a montage of happy memories as I pedal through the golden fields of ‘No Man’s Land’ and out towards Antony and Sheviock. The daylight is drawing back, and a combination of traffic warning signs, derelict boozers and military complexes in the distance all suggest that the Cornwall leg of the journey is coming to an end, with rusty, musty Ingerland ahead. The effect’s compounded at Torpoint, a small and ugly town where there seems to be just nothing to do. Boredom and frustration seeps out of the broken paving stones like some fastidiously over-applied municipal weedkiller.
In the distance I spot the council high-rises and naval bases of Plymouth. The final ferry is, fortunately, free. Pleasantly tired after a long sunny Sunday’s exertions, a batch of car-drivers and motorcyclists wait patiently as the boat is pulled by chainlinks to the other side.
Plymouth town is a strange thing on the other side. Much of it, at least by the docks, is derelict. I pass an extraordinarily grand monument to the civic pride and pastimes of yesterday in the New Palace Theatre, now boarded up and left to rot. It’s hard to make out the town in the night skies, but aside from a few new build apartment blocks besides the dock, much of it seems run-down or forgotten about. The next day I will explore far further, and find much to commend the town, but right now the town feels pretty all over the place. Just shy of its centre is a huge road artery that bleeds any sense of peace or ambience out of the town, as well as making it dangerous and confusing to cycle in. A humongous Toys R Us holds pride of place on one main road where one would ordinarily expect a library or museum of the same scale. Further ahead I spy a massive Sixties shopping precinct. But it’s dark, and I’m tired, so I decide to give the town a fair chance tomorrow. I ride towards the railway station and university in the north-east of the city, where my host Imke and her family live.
Well, I’ve arrived pretty late, around 8pm. Winds, weariness and wayward paths, I think. Imke’s relaxed and friendly, and quickly makes me at home, serving up some food whilst asking about the motivations behind these travels. People participate in the Couchsurfing community for often similar reasons – they’ve travelled overseas, found out about it through a friend, thought it was a good idea, decided to return the favour, give something back, a basic altruism at work – but Imke’s rationale is quite interesting. As well as these reasons, she wanted to expose her children to people from other backgrounds. They’ve only recently moved from Truro. Cornwall is ‘very white British, and that’s not normal’, she adds. She wanted them to be more open to the world, have their horizons broadened at an earlier age, and hopefully go on to travel and explore the world independently when they grew up.
It seems to have worked. Her teenage children are remarkably articulate, sociable and interesting to speak with, confident in their opinions but able to qualify them. Her son Aaron is not yet 18, but has already travelled across Europe, and plans to travel across the world using Couchsurfing and HelpX, an online service in which people can volunteer to work on farms, ranches and hostels across the world in exchange for food and board. His interest is Philosophy, but he’s leaning towards study in Germany. With dual citizenship, there’ll be no tuition fees, but together they raise whether the UK today even is an appropriate setting for Philosophy. ‘It’s not very British, teaching philosophy. In Germany, at schools, we’re taught to always begin with the bigger questions’, Imke adds. As a postgraduate student and occasional teacher of the subject, what is my response?
Unfortunately, in part I have to concede: the further education college where I studied Philosophy (and Sociology) ten years ago has since closed both departments, and in recent years there have been struggles to keep open several university departments. The arts and humanities subjects have particularly suffered as universities have been transformed into glossy, employability centres selling expensive student experiences and walk-in careers. What do you do with Philosophy, think better? What do you do… But, I point, these islands have produced some of the world’s most significant and interesting philosophers, like Duns Scotus or William of Ockham, John Locke in nearby Wrington or Hobbes in Malmesbury, David Hume, even Mill and Jeremey Bentham. Perhaps the difference is – and something that differs between even England and Scotland – there is nowhere near the same public awareness or fanfare about them. Questions of politics, philosophy or ethics are missing from the school curriculum. Instead of learning about the House of Lords or what exactly is a constitutional monarchy, as children we were instructed in osmosis, algebra and Of Mice and Men. No problem with these, but to create an informed, curious and reason-seeking society, discussion of what and why our society is politically organised feel essential.
We stay up talking and debating until a little late. I’m able to wash my clothes here, quite gladly, take a bath and rest. And my, after today, how I need it…