‘Always go back to the source’ – Ariel, Horsham.
I awake in the cosy suburbs of Southampton. There are six days left now, sufficient time I doubt to ascertain the situation of these islands. Today I will push inland, off the coastal road, over the South Downs and into commuter belt territory. The South East, the ‘Home Counties’, lands of wealth and plenty, of twitchy curtains, casual hypocrisy and Daily Mail readers, those stiff-looking men and women in striped ties and floral blouses in the photos of Martin Carr, an area surrounded by as many clichés and ill-established assumptions as its mythic antithesis, the North. Let’s take a look at that.
My sleep’s been uneasy, and the fragments of some dreamt words lead to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the bees of England, a poem calling on the ‘Men of England’ to overthrow their exploitative overlords.
‘Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed and clothe and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat – nay, drink your blood?’
‘You never know what’s around the corner’ – Adam, Portsmouth.
I wake up on the edge of a recreation ground, outside a sleepy hamlet on the desolate coastline of the Isle of Wight. This is the last Monday of this journey, and my plans indicate I should reach London by Sunday night. That gives seven days to come up with something remotely conclusive about these islands, Albion…
Because I should come up with something conclusive, right? I’ve come all this way… would it not be disappointing if I were not entirely changed, or if I could not say: this is England, that is Britain, here is the truth? Perhaps pick up and discover in some discarded object, or exchange, or moment, a definitive instance of this experience which encapsulates everything, everywhere, on these islands? Sure, I’ll need to make some concession to passing fashions, and ensure whatever thing is might be is appropriately politically correct yet still attached to a sufficient number of recognisable clichés – perhaps a non-white child dunking a digestive biscuit into a cup of tea at a royalty-themed street party. Just don’t mention institutional racism, child abuse cover-ups, poverty, ritalin, or that his disabled mum hasn’t eaten for two days because her ESA was cut off. But now I’m falling into another cliché, that of anger. The task I set myself was impossible: find an essence of life and the living in this part of the world. It is too big, too big for anyone. That’s what so irked me about everything I’d read about the British or the English, usually drawing on a heap of clichés for both, of pigeon-fanciers, cucumber sandwiches, warm ale,Wayne Rooney and the Queen.
‘It can feel hard to escape…’ – the merits and de-merits of island life, Yarmouth.
We awake in Ricardo’s room in Bournemouth. As couchsurfing places go, it’s a little cosy, but after two days crammed into a one-person tent with my sister, the floor-space is vast and luxurious. You can even stretch your arms out, and turn over! Life in a tent has few perks, as one can imagine.
Last night we’d stayed up til really late, all of us talking, and the next morning we all sleep over our alarms. Ricardo flies out at ten am to start work on a regular Sunday Lunch at the carehome. He had a very funny take on what he saw as the typically English narrow food tastes of the residents (who are, all things considered, a mixture of ages and backgrounds). When he started work, he was outraged at the unhealthy and unimaginative processed slop that was served with punctual frequency. Each day, the same dish. So with the passion of a modern-day missionary (cue Jamie Oliver…?) he devised a new menu, filled with healthy meals, fresh ingredients and inventive combinations. Lo, the residents complained heartily about the unusual nature of the food. Of the new dishes, those that received approval happened to be either heavily fried or full of cheese. In the end, our crestfallen chef abandoned his campaign to reform the palates of the punters, and of England more broadly. ‘How can people eat roast dinners all year round?’, he asked us. My sister and I just looked at each other blankly.
‘They’re always taking the piss’ – Englishness, in sum, from a Portuguese view, Bournemouth.
Those distant eruptions of lightning during the night flashed over into a night of restless dreaming, but their promise of storms has, for now, been unheeded by Sark. Topping-and-tailing with my sister, as a kind older brother I’ve allowed her the roomier half whilst I’ve slept at the foot where rain condenses and falls inside the tent. I feel the patter of some early morning drizzle drip against my head, waking me a while to pull a paw over my face and continue dozing. By the time we wake it’s dry again, though a thick mist floats over the surrounding fields with an alarmingly swift motion, rapidly obscuring nearby hedgerows, adding to the eeriness of this strange and most unusual of islands.
We surface and venture around the small, unoccupied campsite. Those two half-built houses still stand unoccupied and seemingly abandoned. A lady appears on a bicycle and disappears down a lane, then returns twenty minutes later and invites us into her house. It’s not as cordial as it sounds. We’re paying after all. The transition from bed to tent is severe enough without putting in the chaos of sleeping in dark forests alive with the whoops and whitters of a hundred different kinds of creature. It’s not for the faint of heart. In we head, to pay seventeen Guernsey notes for our stay, and in the process, discover a little more about Sark.
‘If something went wrong we’d say “10% off crabs and lobster!” Then I’d call the boss up and say stick an extra fiver on the shellfish.’
– a guide to good business management, aboard the ferry to Sark.
My sister and I awake in a cramped one-person tent, that through parsimony and a preference for adventure, we’ve elected to sleep in as we explore the Channel Islands. We’re camped on the north-western edge of Jersey, a pleasant yet surprisingly small island off the coast of France. For some centuries it is has been the possession of the British Crown, and much of its French or Jerriais identity has disappeared over the last fifty years, as English and Scottish migrants have arrived to work in its burgeoning finance sector. The country is a tax haven, though do not expect to see gated mansions or humongous yachts, and those who benefit most from Jersey’s arrangements are also offshore.
‘well what can you do? I’ve given up caring!’
– John’s life-philosophy, in St. Aubin, Jersey.
We awake at Pebble Bank caravan park in Wyke Regis, on the edge of Weymouth, overlooking the small island of Portland and the impressive formation of Chesil Beach in the distance. The caravan park is itself filled with silent, empty static caravans and motor homes, and the occasional grown-up biker with lambretta tattooed on a leg or a Harley tattoo on an arm pops in and utters a gruff hullo as I dress and brush my teeth in the loos. We head out early, hoping to catch the morning’s ferry to Jersey, and we’re joined along the interminable walk through amnesiac suburbia by the occasional schoolkid walking by. Most are being ferried to wherever in huge range rovers that’ve never seen a peaty bog or flooded ford. It’s dullness about us, of a safe and suburban kind that seems homely if a little dispiriting.
Further down the hill we pass Weymouth’s harbour, and cut along St Mary Street and down Custom Quay road towards the ferry port. Walking takes around two and a half times as long as cycling, but we reach the place on time. The cost of the ferries is very high, around £100 each for in effect a return journey and a one-hour crossing between Jersey and Guernsey. Pricey, eh! Given that these are tax haven states, and whose ferry company presumably also benefits from such low taxation,it’s a little frustrating, but not unexpected. This is a part of the world where they will refuse you tap water, remember, citing its cost. People are rich here without having ever sweated in their lives, unless you count that time they struggled to digest a third helping from the local chain pub’s Sunday carvery.
‘Do you want a chocolate bar?’ – weird conversation, weird men, weird pub, Weymouth.
It’s around 8.30 on a drizzly weekday morning. I zip open the thin coversheet and poke my head around to see where exactly I’ve landed. It’s the edge of a small chalet park on the edge of Lyme Regis. My tent’s at the edge of this park and beneath Lyme’s fossil-rich cliffs, and just about concealed from the confused eyes of retired pensioners by a series of fortunately-placed bushes. The weather’s damp and grey, matching my mood, hungover, a little worn out, but these September mornings are deceptive, threatening hell in the morning then brightening up by the afternoon.
I exit quickly, still undetected, and head down towards the sea. There’s a wide expanse of white and grey rocks that reflect the mood of the skies. A murky tide laps against them. Look hard enough, and you can find the remains of ammonites up to 200 million years old along this beach. Much of the coastline is older than ancient, some of it unchanged since the early Jurassic time, when a warm sea covered most of the British islands and massive ichthyosaurus and pliosaurus stalked the ocean. The name of this beach is Monmouth, after the Duke who landed here in 1685 and attempted to seize the throne from his estranged uncle, James II. Like almost every revolt preceding it from the rebellious, mysterious South West, the uprising was a total failure. Twelve of his supporters were hung on this beach, whilst it took eight blows of the axe to separate Monmouth’s head from his neck back in London. The beach is deserted. I look out to the placid sea, to the cliffs and fossils to my right, and the Cobb and Lyme to my left.
‘Things change when people start to talk to each other, positively, to the people around them, about what could happen’. – Colin, Christow.
This is not the first time I’ve woken up on a railway carriage. Usually exhaustion from work or plain drunkenness played a part. They were huge and sophisticated things, with plug sockets, automated announcements, passenger wi-fi and space age toilets. The Toad brake van by contrast is modest in proportion, built for the needs of a Fifties’ rail-guard, but comes with a comfortable bed, sink, cooking area, dining table and bookshelf filled with treasures. There are no automated announcements, only a sense of silent stillness, at times interrupted by the trill of birdsong outside.
No rush today. Sadly, I’m one of the very last guests to stay on this camping van run by the Teign Valley railway. The world’s changing, as Colin described it yesterday, and the effort and motivation to continue running an underused resource has waned. I wander around the goods yard, past an open freight shed, and the tiny Tadpole brake carriage, also converted into a camping van replete with children’s books and a ukulele. There’s a number of old freight stock carriages, and I wonder how the Teign valley railway might have become if Colin had realised his plans to buy up the land on which the line once ran, and reopened it again. It is such a huge undertaking for one lone individual, and Colin has made remarkable progress in the yard so far. With the help of a young environmentally-minded apprentice, perhaps looking for an interesting and rewarding one-year project, the Teign Rail could become far more widely-known, I think. The sheer breadth knowledge and skills that Colin has deserves to be shared and passed on.
‘The world’s changing.’ – Colin, Christow.
I’ve stayed the night in Plymouth, with Imke, Andrew and their three teenage children. Their large family home is cluttered with the treasures of lives well-lived. Down at the breakfast table, I drink coffee slowly and talk with Andrew, a farm manager back in Cornwall.
He sees himself as one of the last of this dying way of life, and is pessimistic about the future. ‘Young people now, they don’t want to work hard’. Would more and better-paid apprenticeships make a difference? ‘No, no’ he chuckles, heavily. ‘People just don’t want to do hard work.’ As a child, there would be long days at school, and then ‘we used to go into the fields in the evenings, and the weekends, picking spuds’. He looks back on these scenes with disappointed nostalgia, like the veteran of a narrowly-defeated platoon. Like many experienced farmers, he describes his work not in terms of animals but of food, working with ‘beef, some corn, some lamb’. Despite his experience, he owns no farm himself, but manages one for a retired couple who have bought some land as a ‘hobby’. By contrast, he describes the farming culture he grew up in as ‘a way of life’, as others do.
This culture has been a blessing and a curse on farmers. Unable to take up any other employment, they’ve been ground down into accepting decreasing pay for their produce. The public have (mostly) wrongly associated them with CJD disease, bloodsports, GM foods and the needless slaughter of badgers, when instead responsibility lies with conflicting government directives or the toffs who own much of the countryside. Meat and veg have become unsavoury. Apples and potatoes must now conform to an ad-agency’s glossy image of roundness or greenness, or supermarkets will not sell them, claiming we will not buy them. The general public has become ignorant of its own food production. Fruit must be chopped into ‘five a day’ salad bags; meat must be de-boned, skinned and bread-crumbed. A niche has opened up among the urban middle classes for organic and ethically-nourished foods. Unaware of the necessary intensity of food production to feed a massive human population cheaply, the criminal antics of massive agricultural companies have been conflated with the everyday practices of farmers. Ask for immediate word associations with ‘farmer’ among your average town-dweller, and the results will not be positive.
‘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.