‘What do people do for work around here?’
‘… Jobs.’ – Without irony, outside the Eagles Hotel, Corwen.
I awake in Chirk Bank, a small hamlet just on the inside of the English border. It’s a cosy place that my parnter’s aunt and uncle have here, and I’ve been made to feel welcome. Sandra’s given me a crash course in the Welsh language.
Bore da, a chroeso i Gymru! Mae’n debyg y dylwn ddysgu ychydig o ymadroddion, ond yn eu ynganu un anodd iawn.
I cheated a bit here and used an online translator, but just consider those words. If you have no Welsh, take a moment to attempt to pronounce them. So different does the language and appear, and flowing and unusual its sound, yet it’s the tongue of England’s neighbour.
‘You know what I’d wish for right now? A fifty pound note on the floor.’ – Group of teens, ascending Nevis.
I’d vowed to give myself a day off the bicycle, come what may. Scaling Britain’s highest mountain then may not seem like a choice destination for gentle perambulation, but I awake excited and apprehensive.
Ben, my Swiss cycling companion found along the road to Fort William, awakes nearby and together we scour a map. He’s unsure of his next destination, ‘somewhere to the west, I think. Or maybe south!’ I’m pleased just to be able to see a map. Following roads and local directions has left me with a different cartographic take on the terrain. Five miles of steep hills and sweeping views constitute more space in my mind than thirty miles on a flat and dull track. The Hebridean islands I’ve travelled seem so close to each other now, and it’s remarkable how different the landscapes and seas appear on each one. Months could be spent exploring them. One might still be no closer to making sense of their captivating mystery and tranquillity.
Glen Nevis is the flat valley that sits beneath the mountain, lush with forests and streams. We’d camped just by a picnic area along one walking path. Leaving Ben, I follow the road further into the Glen, towards another small forest with a – groan – Braveheart car park, and a little ahead, beyond the caravan parks and car parks, a tourist visitor centre.
‘And on the eighth day, God opened his bowels and out came…’ – Russell, Orkney, on home.
A weird young man greets me on the road leaving Auckengill where I slept the previous night. In the midnight confusion, what seemed like the disused remains of a former country lane turned out to be a road drainage ditch. Once nestled inside my tent, I could hear and feel great piles of discarded plastic bottles and car debris crumpling under the thick grass. The cool morning and unfamiliar landscape is already disorientating.
He has a large rock tied to the back of his bike, and dons an old farmer’s tweed blazer and a pair of dirty jeans, several sizes too large. At first I can’t understand him. Accents have changed since Wick, gas a more lilting and Irish twang, a kind of Hollywood attempt at rural Irishness. That’s not to make light of this distinct north eastern Highlands lilt. Kevin asked me where I’d heard the best spoken English. ‘I’m not sure, everywhere I hear good and bad’, I’d told him. I don’t think there is a good model. He disagrees, and says that it’s in the Highlands. ‘Here people speak most clearly. We’re the easiest to understand, it’s our articulation’.
‘It was the allure of big money, but it didn’t last. Now things have got worse, for all of us.’ – Jim, Brora.
Journeying across this far north-eastern Scottish coastal countryside has been tough, desolate and trying. Yet the people I’ve encountered and the conversations shared have been like a rubber ring, keeping my mind focused on the pleasure of this adventure. It’s not in reaching the end, but the pleasure in the means. These conversations and journeys are starting to feel like a kind of method for travel that I hope to use after I return to London. It’s about seeking out people and their stories as much as seeking out locations and their landmarks.
One recent pleasure has been the discovery of Scottish hospitality. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some bloody fascinating and generous people across the border. Human nature doesn’t cease to delight me. Those that despise other human beings should try instead spending time among them. You’ll be surprised.
But there’s something that feels practised and culturally routine about the kind of warm reception I’ve had from the Scots, be it in Lowland or Highland. Outside Edinburgh and Dundee, it has been a standard experience in small towns and villages to smile at passers-by. It feels rude not to! In smaller villages, people will even shout ‘hello!’ to you as you pass.