‘The poor man, he asked me what do I want, as if I knew…’
– street talk, Falmouth.
For most of its history, Cornwall has not been considered a part of England, but a separate country in itself. Over the last few days I’ve explored its unusually rugged, desolate and mysterious landscape, one where neolithic dolmens and hillside forts stand besides ruined chimneys of tin and copper mines. Few people, few signs of settlement. The terrain seems to reject any settlement. Each act of building feels like a tenuous incursion, one that’ll be washed or blown away by the storms and the sea, unless it meets with the approval of this magic landscape. If so, some air must hover it over it, rendering it jagged, granite-like, immovable and ancient in appearance. The extinction of humankind will not disturb this place. One can picture the great rows of satellite dishes, like those I’ll pass today, surrounded by glossy bracken and covered in lichen, still receiving the faint bleeps of satellites circling in orbit, obsolete, our final trace along with the concrete ziggurats and plastic waste.
The Atlantic lashes against the snarling coastline with unusual ferocity, and the maws of each secluded bay hide the remains of countless drowned men and wrecked ships. There is only one cathedral in the entire county, a late 19th century extravagance in Truro, built when Cornwall was starting to fall under the culture of England. As Wilkie Collins wrote around this time, in Cornwall ‘a stranger is doubly a stranger’. Elsewhere there are countless incidences of very different religions, from the innumerable standing stones to the frequency of non-conformist chapels serving the fishing and mining communities.
‘It’s pure viridian’ – Marianne, Halangy Down, St. Mary’s.
Long distance cycling can affect you in all manner of ways. First, there’s the continual smiling, laughing and singing. It’s impossible to keep a straight face as you plunge down a quiet cliff-road and into some tranquil fishing village or secluded aquamarine bay. Pleasure is your mainstay, even on those stiff hills back up again. Then there’s the loquaciousness. Starved of friends and loved ones, you’ll find yourself making conversation with absolutely anyone around. There is a very basic need for contact and communication with others. This, like the singing, or a new awareness and sensitivity to the weather and climate, are abilities that you’ll probably have neglected or not realised you had. The shape of the clouds or the cut of the breeze are things you can read. Experience corrects instinct, until one can glean the same information from these as a mundane work email. And then, strangest of all, is sleeping. Or a lack thereof. Despite the long gruelling days I am struggling to sleep for more than five or six hours. Perhaps this isn’t a common experience. Overstimulated with sights and scenes, my dreams are turbulent and often leave me as weary when I awake as when my head hit the pillow (– or forearm, as is the case when wild-camping).
I’m up early in Penzance, at a youth hostel on the edge of the town. The dorm is deserted except for a friendly old German man, who tells me about his Catholic faith and his travels across England. Rarely one finds any youth in these hostels, particularly from these islands. One can stay (or live) in these places very cheaply, but I can understand why. The thought of holidaying in the British islands elicits heavy laughter and grumbles about the weather. Yet these last few months, I’ve rode through one of the warmest summers, and never before has my skin been so tanned . The morning is cool but clear, and I cycle by the quiet and grey promenade to the Penzance’s busy harbour, where I wait to board the large Scillonian III boat. I’m leaving the mainland for a day trip out to the Isles of Scilly, a rocky archipelago set apart from the south-western tip of Cornwall.
‘It’s lovely, you forget how blue it can be.’
– Conversation by Porthmeor beach, St. Ives.
Who makes the English?
A common History story. Regular defeat in football, cricket and rugby. The earth beneath the feet, the place of one’s birth or the place that one works, or lives to work, or works to live, whichever’s first. The national curriculum. The tax man, the lawyer, the politician, figures most loathsome. A driving licence, or other government documentation. Milky tea and stiff conversation. Roast beef and fried bacon. A bit of ooh err, hanky-panky and how’s yer father. Getting knocked out on penalties, again, again! A national anthem that no-one can sing. Ancient buildings where no-one’s been. A dragon-slaying Palestinian patron who never stepped foot in the land. Michael Caine, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed. Bowler hats and a spiffing good day old bean. Unseasonably seasonal weather. Going to the dogs. And going to the dogs. Inexhaustible yet tedious moratoriums in the broadsheets about the national character. Embarrassment about, well, umm…, everything.
My sketch is affectionately ridiculous, because I want to point to how a collective identity, like being English, Cornish, Welsh or Scottish is something imagined. I’m not the first to make that point, but there’s something useful in considering it as a label or ’empty signifier’, absorbing different values and meanings imposed on it. To me, it suggests that just as it can be associated with anything from pisspoor football performance to the atrocities of imperialism, so it can be used to group together some common values and a desire for a new kind of political settlement, for a better kind of society. One where fair play, equality and equal opportunity, toleration, democracy and due process rule the day.
‘I think boyfriends are irrelevant, because of what’s happening to the planet. This is about the planet, and it’s called ‘Foolish Man’.
– Open mic night at the Kettle and Wink, St. Ives.
The feeling from up above Greenaway beach is serenity. I climb out of my tent and into a clump of shrubbery, all that protects me from the suspicious glares of dog-walkers behind me, or an easy tumble down into the maws of the seas below. This beach is special in the memories of people I met yesterday. It was also preserved in poetic aspic by John Betjeman, the poet who died and was buried by here.
‘I know the roughly blasted track
That skirts a small and smelly bay
And over squelching bladderwrack
Leads to the beach at Greenaway.’
‘You don’t buy and sell idiots. You don’t buy and sell chavs, like you do here.’
– conversation in a Trebetherick boozer.
The dawn light suffuses into the open cottage living room where I’ve slept. As it creeps across the ceiling wall, these dusty dressers and dining tables seem to shriek and recede, shrinking from incongruously large shapes to something more everyday. This cottage has been uninterrupted for many decades. The walls could crumble into nothing in your hands, but are strong and robust, like the hives of termites. It breathes an aged air, exhaustedly occupying the intelligence of its years like a hyperthymesic savant. The carpets and furniture have been preserved in tea and tapioca pudding, board games and bridge, and quiet disagreements, stiffly stewing the atmosphere as lips are chewed, from the christening of a child’s name to the executors of the selfsame will.
Cast open the curtains. Today, the sun has risen without an email alert. No alarm clock stirred the cattle from the warmth of their grassy-belly-beds. The songbirds flittering over those hedgerows had no automated reminders or morning emails to motivate them from their slumber. Tammy’s doggy, still coy from the kick of a malicious horse, has not been reassured of his existential importance by Facebook or Twitter notifications. This delightful late-summer morning is not trending. Such losses, theirs!
‘I’d read something in the news, something I knew about, and I knew it was untrue. It gets you thinking, what about this other thing? What can you believe?’ – Tammy, over dinner, Weare Giffard.
Seasons change, sadly they must, and as I twist around in this thin little sack under a polythene sheet, camped out on some faraway hillside in the middle of nowhere, my mind’s pacing back to the journey that’s taken me here, and the good people I’ve met. Chaotic and times crazy, it’s true, but I wouldn’t’ve ever dared imagine that I’d encounter so many kind, wise and generous people. I’ve been fed, sheltered and watered by strangers. In the supermarkets and pubs, harbours and farms, community centres and chippies, and in so many little street corners we’ve talked politics and ethics, love and loss, friendship and family. And could I call all those people now friends? I think so. Everything I would’ve cynically ruled out as a possibility has instead been proven true. And all these people who’ve helped me have been modest, politely laughed, seeing it as just their nature, just the course of things. No bother! And I realise how common and wrong it is to underestimate our equals.
‘We just sell things, we don’t make them.’ – Andy, Bridgwater.
I awake at Ellie’s after a good night’s sleep. I’m up early in fact, but the bright morning’s dedicated to the mundane business of emails arranging accommodation over these final weeks. By the time I’m up Ellie’s in the kitchen making tea and porridge. The sun is out, and she shows me more of the garden her and her mum have created from nothing in a mere nine months. There are few pleasures simples than the contemplation of life growing, thriving, in whatever form it takes.
It’s a perfect day for a bike ride – is every day not? But this September has been unusually hot, a fine relief after a rainy August, and today is especially sunny. So we cycle out to Glastonbury town. It’s bustling with an abundance of cafes, people leisurely sitting outside, and buskers in the background singing the counterculture hits of yesteryear. Middle-aged men and women share a unisex style of long-hair, tie-died clothes and leather waistcoats, and gently wander up the high street, past African art stores, esoteric bookstores, shops honouring the Goddess and the Green Man, and Glastonbury’s classic ‘Burns the bread’ bakers. We peer into the ruins of the abbey, sacked by the knights of Henry VIII, but don’t feel inspired to pay the charge. Then we head up to Glastonbury Tor, where many have come this sunny Sunday noon to watch the surrounding Somerset Levels.
‘We’re all being treated like sheep’ – future self to younger self; or, a conversation with an eccentric enemy of English Heritage, Stonehenge.
I awake at around eight, weary and cheated of restful sleep. The previous night’s intoxicated visions have left me with a headache, though reaffirm my scepticism about the divine origins of prophecy that so many mind-fugged messiahs have purportedly possessed.
Sheltered by a huge sarsen stone, I ensure that no damage or sign of my stay remains, and push my cycle out into the misty morning. In the village’s local shop I’m told a little more about the area, which the friendly shop-owner tells me should be called ‘Kennett’. My fuel for the next sixty miles is water and granola. Fortunately I have enough of it, and chew my gruel by the public loos. Inside is some graffiti that sums the mood: ‘the stones make me hungry & tired. 2012 AD’.
‘It’s just intuition’ – Jason, with his girlfriend, besides an ancient stone around midnight, under the stars, Avebury.
To hell with alarms, or lack thereof. Mine’s not gone off, so the morning is like a firefighter’s scramble out of bed, leaping into a set of the nearest clothes, licking toothpaste round my mouth and hobbling out, half-shoed and hungry. Outside Pat’s place, I look on as a strung-out fella attempts to sleep whilst riding his bicycle. In his hand is a large sports store bag with his belongings. He stirs for a second, talks to himself, curses, wheels ahead a few steps, then dozes off again.
We’ve all been there, eh, victims of our misjudgements, an inability to say no… but sleeping on a bike?
Liberal attitudes towards drugs legalisation struggle when faced with situations where a person indulges in risky behaviour or becomes dependent on getting out of it, more than dependent on any particular drug (and alcohol’s one of the worst). He wheedles down an alley where I’ve locked my bike, then inexplicably reverses and returns to the street, where a phone drops out of his hand and shatters.
‘This is my lifestyle. Work work work then go home.’
– conversation among strangers, Bristol Harbour.
I wake up in Jackson’s front room in Easton, north-east Bristol. It’s been a warm and cosy welcome from the city so far, a distinctively laid-back, liberal place that stands out for its cool, calm bustle and plethora of ambitious street art. It’s a vision of what British cities could be. Much of its built environment is similar to other cities, from the terraced townhouses of Victorian family life to the technocratic Austin Maxi utopias of car-centred road planning. The malls like Cabot Circus could have been built in any other city south of Aberdeen and north of Southampton, and the regenerated harboursides with their cobbled paths, hipster boozers and art galleries are lovely but, in fairness, nothing unusual. No, wandering around Bristol yesterday as the afternoon became the evening, I encountered a city that charmed me with its ambience and mood. Music, art and conversation felt not simply possible here, but inevitable; freely created, exchanged and shared. There’s life all about the place. It feels like it would be a very hard town to be parochial, bigoted, or just plain dull in. That is wonderful.
Jackson dashes out after improbably little sleep to help a friend decorate. I’m realising that the older I get, the less I can tolerate less than six hours’ kip. There was a time when I’d go to work with little more than five, ready to hit the high-stress coalface and attempt to prove some kind of validity and worth in places where having no personal life or weird anxiety tics were positive signs of personal commitment. You get em! Now I can sleep in ‘til nine or eleven if I choose. Bristol’s my business, and my CV’s so chequered that I’m no longer burdened with the delusion of aspirational employment. These travels are taking place in a hole in time, sustained by small pots of money that come with conditions whose implications I’m ignoring right now, as I climb into my least-smelly clothes whilst sipping a herbal tea. Untethered to a deadline or obligation, to a pressure to pay an inflated bill or appease a miserable boss.