‘You never know what’s around the corner’ – Adam, Portsmouth.
I wake up on the edge of a recreation ground, outside a sleepy hamlet on the desolate coastline of the Isle of Wight. This is the last Monday of this journey, and my plans indicate I should reach London by Sunday night. That gives seven days to come up with something remotely conclusive about these islands, Albion…
Because I should come up with something conclusive, right? I’ve come all this way… would it not be disappointing if I were not entirely changed, or if I could not say: this is England, that is Britain, here is the truth? Perhaps pick up and discover in some discarded object, or exchange, or moment, a definitive instance of this experience which encapsulates everything, everywhere, on these islands? Sure, I’ll need to make some concession to passing fashions, and ensure whatever thing is might be is appropriately politically correct yet still attached to a sufficient number of recognisable clichés – perhaps a non-white child dunking a digestive biscuit into a cup of tea at a royalty-themed street party. Just don’t mention institutional racism, child abuse cover-ups, poverty, ritalin, or that his disabled mum hasn’t eaten for two days because her ESA was cut off. But now I’m falling into another cliché, that of anger. The task I set myself was impossible: find an essence of life and the living in this part of the world. It is too big, too big for anyone. That’s what so irked me about everything I’d read about the British or the English, usually drawing on a heap of clichés for both, of pigeon-fanciers, cucumber sandwiches, warm ale,Wayne Rooney and the Queen.
‘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.
‘If something went wrong we’d say “10% off crabs and lobster!” Then I’d call the boss up and say stick an extra fiver on the shellfish.’
– a guide to good business management, aboard the ferry to Sark.
My sister and I awake in a cramped one-person tent, that through parsimony and a preference for adventure, we’ve elected to sleep in as we explore the Channel Islands. We’re camped on the north-western edge of Jersey, a pleasant yet surprisingly small island off the coast of France. For some centuries it is has been the possession of the British Crown, and much of its French or Jerriais identity has disappeared over the last fifty years, as English and Scottish migrants have arrived to work in its burgeoning finance sector. The country is a tax haven, though do not expect to see gated mansions or humongous yachts, and those who benefit most from Jersey’s arrangements are also offshore.
‘well what can you do? I’ve given up caring!’
– John’s life-philosophy, in St. Aubin, Jersey.
We awake at Pebble Bank caravan park in Wyke Regis, on the edge of Weymouth, overlooking the small island of Portland and the impressive formation of Chesil Beach in the distance. The caravan park is itself filled with silent, empty static caravans and motor homes, and the occasional grown-up biker with lambretta tattooed on a leg or a Harley tattoo on an arm pops in and utters a gruff hullo as I dress and brush my teeth in the loos. We head out early, hoping to catch the morning’s ferry to Jersey, and we’re joined along the interminable walk through amnesiac suburbia by the occasional schoolkid walking by. Most are being ferried to wherever in huge range rovers that’ve never seen a peaty bog or flooded ford. It’s dullness about us, of a safe and suburban kind that seems homely if a little dispiriting.
Further down the hill we pass Weymouth’s harbour, and cut along St Mary Street and down Custom Quay road towards the ferry port. Walking takes around two and a half times as long as cycling, but we reach the place on time. The cost of the ferries is very high, around £100 each for in effect a return journey and a one-hour crossing between Jersey and Guernsey. Pricey, eh! Given that these are tax haven states, and whose ferry company presumably also benefits from such low taxation,it’s a little frustrating, but not unexpected. This is a part of the world where they will refuse you tap water, remember, citing its cost. People are rich here without having ever sweated in their lives, unless you count that time they struggled to digest a third helping from the local chain pub’s Sunday carvery.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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.
‘You go home, put on the TV, put your feet up, make some dinner, go to bed, wake up, and then you die!’ – Jeff, Douglas.
I awake on Sonya’s sofa in the west end of Morecambe. The morning sun bursts between and beneath the sitting room curtains, distributing a calm and cheery aura about the place. With Sonya’s early-teenage son Zack, a sharp-witted and funny companion in our conversations, we head out into Morecambe for a spot of breakfast. As we pass along the sea-front, Sonya points to where fairs, swimming pools and other proud mainstays of the Morecambe resort once stood. Unlike Scarborough, there’s no conspicuous absence of these glories. The strange thing about Morecambe is that after spending time here, it seems unlikely that there ever was an overextended and wildly ambitious resort here, for good, or for ill.
Bye bye happiness, hello loneliness, I think I’m gonna cry…