‘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.
‘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!
‘And then I came back to Wrexham. And the streets were clean! And the buildings weren’t falling down. And there were no lepers on the street corners, taken out by organised criminals and left there all day without water.’ – Sandra, Chirk.
Fear makes us feel alive. Think about that little daily dose of terror provided by newspaper headlines. The terrorists, global epidemics, sex criminals and looming military invasions that each day are reported as immediate dangers to our comfortable lives. There’s a surge of adrenaline, a threatening figure on the horizon with malevolent intentions. Teeth start to bare, the mind races with tenuous analogies to ‘jungle warfare’ and ‘survival of the fittest’. Turns out social mobility, welfare or the right to a fair trial were luxuries that this nameless, faceless horror might steal from us: let’s remove them ourselves. It’s as if we’re supposed to enjoy this ‘pure’ or ‘natural’ state. Nature’s had such different meanings in different eras, and its status now makes me uncomfortable. I myself prefer the soppy and gushing lyrics of the Romantics. The Ancient Mariner, Ozymandias or Endymion didn’t harangue us with shrill terrors about benefits cheats, travellers or irresponsible single mothers.
‘Without them, this town would be shut down.’ – taxi driver, Blackpool.
Have you woken to the sound of pure electricity flowing above your head and this fragile polythene sheet that some would call a tent, and others a place of rest? If not, then strive for it, even if it means sleeping in the most exposed and strange of waste grounds in Heysham, near Morecambe. Where are either? Then you haven’t lived. These pylons sound like rain, their voltage dangerous and yet strangely tranquilising, even for all the shouting during the night nearby, as drunken kids raced up and down the road right by my tent. Thankfully I was not discovered, but it adds to the night’s strangeness.
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
– Mary, reciting William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, Carsaig.
Stillness… peace. The tide laps against the jetty of Carsaig pier on the southern tip of Mull. It’s an untroubled morning, and a gentle breeze carries the sighs of the seas into earshot. I’m camped just by an old Victorian boathouse with the words ‘virtue mine honour’, the motto of the local Clan MacLean.
In the distance, a smart little sailboat bobs about untended. I’ve allowed myself to sleep in, and the only other tent on this remote pier-side stretch of grass and rock has disappeared. I have this wondrous place all to myself.
I pack up with the luxury of slowness and start to cycle back up the steep and narrow track. It’s excruciating work, a near vertical ascent across the most rough and basic of roads, and my heart feels like it might burst under the strain. Eventually I reach halfway up the hill, catching my breath by a most improbably-placed telephone box beside a raging waterfall. Quite defeated, I decide to call in to a little cottage by the impressive-looking Carsaig House.
‘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.
‘You’re beautiful!’ – a woman to a man, supermarket, Berwick.
So, I bet you’re wondering whether the local Laird had me escorted off his castle grounds in the night?
Well… everything went quite fine, and I had a good night’s rest. I sneakily packed up my tent and things and cheekily went on my way, and took the road back towards the small harbour at Seahouses, grabbing some coffee and cake in Coxon’s café.
Travelling by bicycle is wonderful, but there are instances where alternative means are called for.