On the 21st May 2014 I set out on this improbable journey, which was as lucid and meticulously conceived as the above map suggests.
I was unsure how long my travels would take. Six months, I thought, though I had no idea how many miles a day I’d manage. In the end I took a slightly different route, more illogical and strange than even this map above. I ended up averaging around sixty-five miles per day, without rest days, over a four month period. Before I set off, I had no experience travelling before and had undertaken no training whatsoever. I couldn’t even assemble a tent. Fortunately naivety, beer and whisky saw me through.
Here for posterity is my original route plan.
From south London, my home, I’ll set out first to Essex, following Cold War whispers and the ghost of John Clare. After escaping beyond the M25, I’ll reach the cold war bunker at Kelvedon Hatch, and Britain’s first modernist estate in Braintree. From there, it’s on to Basildon, then Burnham-on-Courch, an inspiration to Hitchcock and H.G. Wells, and to the desolate Dengie Peninsula, the rock n roll histories of Canvey Island, and the submarine traps at Shoeburyness. I’ll pass Bradwell nuclear power plant, one of many precarious sites of the UK’s even more precarious energy production. Between the sleepy countryside, more ancient signs emerge: St. Peter on the Wall chapel, one of the oldest churches still in use, settled by one St. Cedd back in 653CE. Maldon, home of the first English language epic poem, comes after, and then Northey Island, where Vikings once invaded these shores. I’ll sleep on the isolated pretty Mersea island, then head to the ancient capital of Colchester, before drifting through the dilapidation of seaside Jaywick, Clacton, and Walton on the Naze. I’ll pass through the peaceful nature of Hamford before reaching Harwich. I hope to pop over for tea at the bizarre independent principality of Sealand after.
Some new mythmaker’s needed to map the landscapes of mega-container port Felixstowe, where I land. Everything’s become factory-built, including ourselves. I’ll head on to Ipswich, then Woodbridge, site of the Sutton Hoo burial site, stopping at Bawdsey manor nearby, where radar was first developed. With M.R. James and W.G. Sebald for company, I’ll follow the coast to Aldeburgh, and ghostly Dunwich, and from there through the yuppielands of Orfold and Southwold, before resting at Lowestoft.
I’ll move on to Yarmouth for some Time Crisis 2 and a Wetherspoons brew, before drifting inland to Hoveton, and Norwich, then Wymondham, site of the great Kett’s rebellion. I’ll be looking for signs of ancient peoples and religious beliefs among the unusually high amount of sacred sites around Norfolk, where the praiseworthy polymath Thomas Browne once meditated upon an urn, passing Foxley Wood, then the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham. Brine, birdshit and blissful peace set the scene through Wells-on-sea and Scolt Head Island, Hunstanton and the Wash, where a king with a rude name once tried to defy the gods, and from there to Kings Lynn.
The journey gets less pretty and way more interesting now. I stop at Peterborough, place of huge immigration, where conversations will piece together a new story of England beyond UKIP fictions. Deep-fried mars bars will power me through Corby, Scotland’s one remaining colony, onto Coventry, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton, unloved ex-industrial cities, where repetition is built into the landscape. Magnus Mills will be instructive. From there, I may join the tourists down at Stratford-upon-Avon and Edgehill too.
Onwards to Burton-upon-Trent, Derby, then Nottingham, land of Sleaford Mods, Shane Meadows and D.H. Lawrence. Via Ripley and Matlock, I’ll venture up to the Peak District, lurking among Dark Peak, Blue John cavern and the Devil’s Arse, names too good for caves. I want to reconnect working class radicalism with popular sports, so I’ll try to piece together what the Hayfield Trespass was about, before snaking out.
I start in Sheffield, blighted by Nick Clegg and bad music, to get some sense of what became of the ‘workshop of the world’. I head off the Londoner’s cultural map thereafter, touring through the ex-mining communities of Orgreave, Rotherham, Doncaster, Armthorpe, Barnsley, Dodworth and Wakefield. After Huddersfield, Halifax, where E.P. Thompson wrote with love The Making of the English Class, just as they were being unmade. Then Bradford, following Andrea Dunbar, and on to Saltaire, home of Salt Mill, once the largest factory in the world. I’ll rest in Leeds, a familial second home to me, and then on to York, Selby, and on to the gruff ex-fishing ports of Scunthorpe, Grimsby, Immingham and Hull, home of the great William Wilberforce, and the ghost of a distracted Philip Larkin. The north Yorkshire coast will be rapturous: cheery Bridlington, bird life of Bempton Cliffs, sunny Scarborough, then along Robin Hood’s Bay to pay adolescent goth homage to Whitby, and discover what Captain Cook wanted to escape from. Anywhere out of this world. I’ll follow the road up to Boulby, where a new kind of dark matter is discovered in labs.
I’m going to learn how to discern the difference between Mackem, Smoggie and Geordie by ear alone. That’s the plan, drinking and journeying across Middlesbrough, once an ‘infant Hercules’, and Billingham and Wilton, whose factory-skyline inspired the dark visions of Huxley’s Brave New World and, later, Blade Runner. Next, with the desolate coalmen photos of Don McCullin to hand, I’ll follow the Durham Coast to Hartlepool, and Seaton Carew. I’ll pass the ex-miners towns of Blackhall, Horden and Easington, continuing a preoccupation of the journey. There’s beach glass at Seaham, and delightful vistas at Durham, then more drinking to be done in South Shields and Newcastle. Hunger, mass unemployment, and serious social unrest? They knew about that in the 1920s and 30s, in places like Jarrow, home also of Bede. By way of Tynemouth and Whitley Bay, I’ll trace the legacy of Ashington’s pitmen painters, and talk to locals about mining, Thatcher, and liberal paternalism.
The landscape is one of war thereafter: Scots against English, man against man, in the meaningless and fascinating way that alters the terrain wherever humans settle. Dreamy Warkworth, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh Castles mark shifting frontiers, and nearby are the birds of Farne Island, and holy Lindisfarne. Via Flodden Field, the most lethal battle on these soils, I’ll make it to Alnwick for second-hand books, and Berwick on Tweed for the beautiful light, Lowry, and a rest.
I’ll sleep in the woods and fields (legally now, thanks), before making it up to Edinburgh, searching for David Hume, James Connolly and an elated late-80s Mark E. Smith, and to talk to locals about looming independence. Over the Forth Road Bridge to Falkirk, then Stirling by way of Bannockburn, and onto Dunfermline and posh St. Andrews, a landscape of the idle rich. I’ll follow the eastern coastline up to industrial Dundee, and Arbroath and Montrose, and Dunnottar Castle, to draw out another story of republican Albion, its civil war, and perhaps the last time the English stood for egalitarian social progress against the Scots. There’s another story too to be told, the Highland Clearances, where a combination of anti-Jacobitism and property enclosures led to the cultural genocide of the Scots Gaels.
I’ll be really out of my territory thereafter. Twisting back inland, through Cairngorms Park I’ll reach Braemar, where Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, before making up to Aviemore and Grantown-on-Spey, real whisky country. I’ll reach the northern coast at Findhorn, where an outpost of ’60s counterculture spirit still survives, passing next the beautiful light of Moray Firth and whatever survives of Culloden at Inverness. It gets weirder and isolating after, at the crown of the mainland: Dingwall, Tain, Lairg and Shin Falls, before up to Wick and John o’ Groats at the northern edge.
Orkneys and Hebrides
At Thurso I’ll take ferries up to the Orkneys and Shetlands, viking lands, an unreal landscape of stone circles and ex-POW camps. Back on the mainland, I’ll pass the decommissioned nuclear reactor at Dounreay, then Sutherland, Bettyhill, and Talmine, and onto Durness, a second home to John Lennon, and the melodramatic-sounding Cape Wrath. Near is Handa Island. From Ullapool, I’ll trade bicycle for ferry as primary mode of transport, to reach the Isle of Lewis, and the Callanish stones, then the Isle of Harris, Leverburgh and Luskintyre beach, and through places whose names belie ancient norse: Uist, and Uig, their suffusion with Scots Gaels. If I survive the midges on Skye, I’ll head to Fort William and climb up Ben Nevis (really). It’s back to island-hopping, via Strontian and Ardnamurchan Point, to Mull, and Staffa, inspiration to Mendelssohn. Then holy Iona, and Jura, Islay and Arran, dropping back a well-deserved dram.
Glasgow and borders
From Oban I drift inland to the oldest living tree in the land at Fortingall. Then onto the Buddhist centre in remote Glenogle, and past Glengyle, home of Rob Roy, passing the epic beauty of Loch Lomond to reach Glasgow, the only city aside London I’ve ever lived in. There’s much to see and investigate there and I’ll take a few days’ rest after the sinew-snapping heights of the highlands. Onwards to Ayr, and then Galloway Park, for an extraordinary view of the stars. I’ll pass frontier towns like Dumfries and the joyously naive romantics of Gretna, then over the border to Carlisle, through Cumbria to grubby Maryport.
Three clichéd authors haunt my journey: Wordsworth, Orwell, and Samuel Johnson. I have no time for the latter and owe it all to Orwell, but I’ll try to take Wordsworth seriously whilst cycling up the Lake District, by Cockermouth, Keswick, Windermere and Kendal, places that to me sound like south London council estates. English regional autonomy is the subject of a detour to the Isle of Man. Then through pretty Lune Valley to Morecambe, its lethal bay, to seek hidden signs of the underpaid migrants who increasingly power the land’s basic services and agriculture.
In Blackpool, then inland to Preston, Blackburn, Burnley, Bury and Oldham, I’ll talk to those left out, or left behind, whose stories are rarely told. The white (ex-)working class, abandoned by the left and drifting to the right, for instance. Michael Collins is instructive here. Though I’ll try to reach the Indian and Bangladeshi families who also moved to the north for industrial work, which has since shut down, and who are also left out of any ‘Blue Labour’ style narrative. I’ll probably meet re-settled Londoners, evicted from the capital by the bedroom tax and benefits caps. I also want to find out how Roma families are settling in, and talk to as many as I can about what identity means. Nearby is Heptonstall, where Sylvia Plath now rests.
Manchester, yes! There’s some serious pre-90s musical homage to be paid. I’ll investigate regional autonomy, homelessness, gentrification, and whether Manchester really does have the best pubs. Chetham library, the oldest public library in the world, will be a good place to trace the neglected history of Victorian liberal paternalism. Via the yuppified docks of Salford I’ll reach Warrington, then Liverpool, where the abandoned streets tell other stories.
Via Chester I cross into Flint, then Prestatyn and Colwyn Bay, passing Penmaenmawr and Conway Castle. Comparing experiences of regional autonomy in Wales and Scotland will be intriguing. How does cultural identity relate to political autonomy? Getting my head round the place names will be equally tough. I’ll reach Anglesey, seeing Penmon and a departure point familiar to anyone with Irish links. With the sea to my right, I’ll follow the coast along the Lleyn Peninsula, stopping at holy Bardsey island, before touring down to Machynlleth, Aberystwyth, Aberaeron to Cardigan, and the Carreg Coatan stones. There is an intense layering of cultures and belief systems in the terrain. Fishguard next, and Carregwastad point, where the last invasion of the British mainland occurred in 1797. After, St Davids, holy Ramsey island, and St Govans Head, passing Tenby and Pembrey Forest.
I’ll venture next to the most left-wing and historically militant part of Britain: the Valleys, through Swansea, Bridgend and up to Tredegar, seeking the ghost of Nye Bevan. Merthyr Tydfil, where Thomas Carlyle once saw a ‘vision of hell’ in its men – harsh-hewn by centuries of mining and tough industrial work. What’s to be learned of the Merthyr rising of 1831, where the red flag was first raised against debt and exploitative conditions, for nearby Amazon warehouse workers today? Against the work exploitation of the Victorian factories, a workers’ movement came into being that by 1945 had finally achieved some kind of political representation and social contract. And today? Histories of mining, early trade unions, and evangelical Christianity need to be brought up. Via Caerphilly Castle, evidence of another kind of brutal domination, I reach Cardiff, for beer and good music. I’ll pass through pretty border country and its many ruins, from where William Gilpin gave us the term picturesque.
Like with Liverpool, I want to trace the stories of slavery, abolitionism and ambivalence about ‘Empire’ today, so Bristol’s an ideal place. My hypothesis? The slums of Dublin, Glasgow and the East End demonstrate that the ‘British’ working class lived in a equal state of exploitation and poverty as their kin in Kingston, Calcutta, or elsewhere. Late 20th century Commonwealth immigration and property speculation, built on Victorian empire spoils, demonstrates that the empire still continues in some form today. I’ll clarify on the road.
I’ll visit Lundy Island, once home of English pirates (another secret history), then detour inland to Malmesbury, home of England’s most difficult philosopher to my mind, Thomas Hobbes. Weaving between tourist buses at Bath, I’ll visit the ancient stones at Avebury and then Stonehenge, tracing their story. I’ll dodge bullets at the ghost village at Imber, then onto Glastonbury, home of legal highs and pat new age platitudes. I’m more intrigued by the development of Arthurian myth, Avalon, and the apocryphal tale that Jesus visited this place as a young man, accompanied by his trader uncle Joseph of Arimathea, inspiring the lyrics of William Blake’s Jerusalem.
Through Bridgwater I’ll reach Exmoor, where the land gets horrendously steep. Porlock Hill, Lynton, and the Valley of the Rocks, following the north Devon coast to Barnstaple, Bideford and Hartland, whose deceptive beauty masks its deadliness for countless sailors and fishermen lost on its rocks. I’ll reach Morwenstow, home of visionary vicar-poet Robert Stephen Hawker, who once smoked opium in a cliffside hut and wrote poetry to the music of the tides. I’ll pass Bude, where today the current regime monitors all our communications from its GCHQ base, then along the North Cornwall coast to Padstow and Bodmin Moor, reaching Trebetherick, where Betjeman’s buried and Doom Bar brewed. Onwards to Newquay and the extraordinary light at St. Ives, passing the ‘promised land’ of Zennor Head, as DH Lawrence put it, before passing through the myths and mystical sites of St. Just and the Penwith Peninsula. I’ll reluctantly rejoin the lycra brigade at Land’s End.
Newlyn once wrestled with Grimsby as the UK’s biggest fishing port. Today it’s another story, again. I’ll pass Penzance, detouring to the Isles of Scilly, then along the southern Lizard peninsula to Falmouth, Goonhilly Downs, and St. Austell. Fishing and London property-buying yuppies are a poor mix, but both will preoccupy conversations in ‘bespoke’ (how I hate that word) Salcombe and Sandbanks. I’ll see whether Plymouth offers anything more than ‘lumpen, thuggish mediocrity’ as one recent traveller has sneeringly put it, by actually conversing with local people, finding out what concerns and inspires them. Next, Slapton Sands, site of a botched D-Day rehearsal massacre, and across Dartmoor, to Teignmouth, Torquay, through Exeter to Chesil Beach and Portland. I’ll reach Dorchester, visiting Melcombe Regis, where the Black Death first entered the mainland, and onto Tolpuddle, where against great injustices and overwhelming power, the modern trade union movement was born.
Piracy and illicit foreign goods are nothing new. There’s smuggling stories to be traced along the coast, through Swanage and Bournemouth. I’ll get to the Isle of Wight, and venture over to the weird medieval polities of Jersey, Guernsey and Sark, then back to rough Portsmouth, through the uncentred and featureless suburban sprawl that represents the nadir of political and cultural aspiration in our deeply inadequate age, to Southampton and the New Forest, then inland up to the ancient capital of Winchester, to trace the story of King Alfred, who alongside fighting people with great names like ‘Ivar the Boneless’, introduced one of the first constitutional systems of trial by jury and democratic representation: that’s the vague myth I seek to explore.
Kent and home
Across the tranquil South Downs to Brighton, where I’ll see familiar faces at last, and visit the Grand Hotel where Debussy writes La Mer, before skulking the streets in drunken exuberance to piece together Brighton’s historic seediness, in Graham Greene, Patrick Kavanagh, and the psychological ‘escape’ of a Brighton hotel room. I’ll pass the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill, along Hastings to Winchelsea, for visions of Turner and Millais. Back off any map again, across weird Romney Marshes, Ridley Walker country, to Dungenness and Llyd, and from there to Folkstone, and Dover, mapping stories of migration and trade, and finding remnants of Marconi’s radio tests and secret tunnels.
I’ll follow the coast along to Broadstairs and the lost futures of Margate, along Herne Bay to Whistable and Faversham, and the Medway Towns. Mining, docking and industry defined these landscapes as much as they did the North or south Wales, yet the tale’s rarely told. By way of Gravesend, Dartford, and Greenwich, where an anarchist once tried to explode international time, I’ll head back to my home, the Great Wen of London, where after so many months away, I’ll write to life with new insights. That’s the plan.