‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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’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’.
‘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.
‘Come up with a solution, any solution, and I’m gonna agree with ya’
– two Jamaican men in an Easton street, Bristol.
It’s my last morning in Wales. The sky hangs heavy over this steely, stunted, security-shocked city. A few more clouds and military helicopters and the whole cumulus’ll come crashing down under the great burden of its own greys.
‘And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum’…
‘We can’t just say it’s all bad man, we have to think about what could happen.’
– Jimmy, Cardiff.
I awake in the northern suburb of Roath Park, Cardiff. I’ve set an alarm, but what has me up and out of bed are the affections of a dog, Ropo, who runs into the room and licks my face and feet with his barbed and tickly tongue until I manage to shoo him away. I have tea and breakfast with Sebo, an accomplished photographer and, typically for that profession, overly perfectionistic and self-critical. Since the couple moved to Cardiff from Finland after Hanni got a PhD scholarship nine months ago, Sebo’s been volunteering at local galleries and organising small workshops, as well as occasional bits of work here and there for the BBC.
He’s also made friends with the guys at Punk Bikes, a small cooperatively-run bike shop on the junction between Newport Road and City Road to the east of the centre. My back brake has started rubbing against the wheel and the spring seems to have gone awry, once again – this curse previously afflicted me across the Midlands and Nottingham – and I’m starting to despair. At my insistence we cycle at a slow pace so I can keep up (!), and we cycle past a collage of neon and ruins, cuisine houses that span the continent of Asia besides tatty phone shops, neglected Victorian townhouses turned into cheap bedsit lets and, a little behind the scenes, garagelands besides one-way streets cutting hither and thither on this quiet sunny morning. We follow one down til we reach a tight alleyway marked with stylised graffiti. Here’s Punk Bikes, and the service is friendly and off-the-cuff. I’m shown some of their bizarre home-made cycles, odd trikes and bikes which somehow succeed in travelling from A to B. The brake spring is adjusted though they’ve no brake pads suitable for my old-fashioned bike, so I’m pointed elsewhere and head out. The repair’s overpriced but the ethos is sound, though by the end of the day the spring will go again.
‘I’m worried, there’s a generation of young people, some around thirty, who have never had a job in their life. And what’ll happen when they get older, and these people retire then? There’ll be no-one to do the jobs, cos they won’t have the skills.’
– talk at the Miner’s Institute, Blackwood.
I wake up in Aberdare, a little tired after another late night writing and trying to catch up with emails. Sleep deprivation’s dragging over many days, and the recent journeys have pushed my abilities, covering the most miles and steep hills in recent days. Fatigue I can deal with, but the slow starts are hard. There’s not enough time in the day for all the things I am trying to do. It’s not simply writing what’s happened, but arranging the different places I’ll be staying over the coming weeks, as well as keeping up with the modern dance of emails and their replies. Cut away meetings and emails, and what would remain of the activities of the average workplace?
‘I’m shackled here.’
– Neil, St. Clears.
Breakfast is ready!
I’m woken by a friendly shout and the smell of frying bacon in the other room, after a lovely deep night’s sleep in Tenby. Everything is good: the friendly company of Declan and Dorie, who have kindly put me up through the Couchsurfing website, which I strongly recommend to any travellers considering a similar journey. Then there’s the small town of Tenby, dotted on the south-west Welsh coast, a delight of a place to pass the time. And then there’s the prospect of a full Irish breakfast this morning. This is the start of a good day.
Matt and Morgan rouse too, and we rub our bleary eyes at the sight of a feast: scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions, baked beans, mushrooms, slices of warm buttery toast, avocado (there must be something healthy here…), black pudding, bacon and sausages for the meat eaters. There’s fresh coffee and tea too. Wonderful. We talk about the tricky business of living together with other people, of moving in as couples, and the complex etiquette of domestic work between house-mates. Everyone round the table has sufficient experience to draw on, much of it humorously negative. We’re laughing and eating together, and I wish this was the start and end of the day’s activities, but there’s some distance still to travel.