‘Do you want a chocolate bar?’ – weird conversation, weird men, weird pub, Weymouth.
It’s around 8.30 on a drizzly weekday morning. I zip open the thin coversheet and poke my head around to see where exactly I’ve landed. It’s the edge of a small chalet park on the edge of Lyme Regis. My tent’s at the edge of this park and beneath Lyme’s fossil-rich cliffs, and just about concealed from the confused eyes of retired pensioners by a series of fortunately-placed bushes. The weather’s damp and grey, matching my mood, hungover, a little worn out, but these September mornings are deceptive, threatening hell in the morning then brightening up by the afternoon.
I exit quickly, still undetected, and head down towards the sea. There’s a wide expanse of white and grey rocks that reflect the mood of the skies. A murky tide laps against them. Look hard enough, and you can find the remains of ammonites up to 200 million years old along this beach. Much of the coastline is older than ancient, some of it unchanged since the early Jurassic time, when a warm sea covered most of the British islands and massive ichthyosaurus and pliosaurus stalked the ocean. The name of this beach is Monmouth, after the Duke who landed here in 1685 and attempted to seize the throne from his estranged uncle, James II. Like almost every revolt preceding it from the rebellious, mysterious South West, the uprising was a total failure. Twelve of his supporters were hung on this beach, whilst it took eight blows of the axe to separate Monmouth’s head from his neck back in London. The beach is deserted. I look out to the placid sea, to the cliffs and fossils to my right, and the Cobb and Lyme to my left.
‘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 lovely, you forget how blue it can be.’
– Conversation by Porthmeor beach, St. Ives.
Who makes the English?
A common History story. Regular defeat in football, cricket and rugby. The earth beneath the feet, the place of one’s birth or the place that one works, or lives to work, or works to live, whichever’s first. The national curriculum. The tax man, the lawyer, the politician, figures most loathsome. A driving licence, or other government documentation. Milky tea and stiff conversation. Roast beef and fried bacon. A bit of ooh err, hanky-panky and how’s yer father. Getting knocked out on penalties, again, again! A national anthem that no-one can sing. Ancient buildings where no-one’s been. A dragon-slaying Palestinian patron who never stepped foot in the land. Michael Caine, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed. Bowler hats and a spiffing good day old bean. Unseasonably seasonal weather. Going to the dogs. And going to the dogs. Inexhaustible yet tedious moratoriums in the broadsheets about the national character. Embarrassment about, well, umm…, everything.
My sketch is affectionately ridiculous, because I want to point to how a collective identity, like being English, Cornish, Welsh or Scottish is something imagined. I’m not the first to make that point, but there’s something useful in considering it as a label or ’empty signifier’, absorbing different values and meanings imposed on it. To me, it suggests that just as it can be associated with anything from pisspoor football performance to the atrocities of imperialism, so it can be used to group together some common values and a desire for a new kind of political settlement, for a better kind of society. One where fair play, equality and equal opportunity, toleration, democracy and due process rule the day.
‘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.’
‘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…
‘The most terrible creature on this planet? It’s the human. We destroy everything… closely followed by the midge, and the tick!’ – Greg, Lochinver.
I awake with a fierce hangover on a shrubby hillock in the heart of Culag woods, a small but dense forest overlooking the fishing village of Lochinver. The beer, whisky and good times made sleeping easy, but the surface around me is uneven and boggy. Some strange little insect has lodged itself in my arm and with some difficulty I manage to squeeze it out. I’ll quickly become accustomed to these nasty critters. My socks and much of the tent are soaked through, and a pair of damp and whiffy socks are unhappily thrown away as tribute to the rain gods.
It’s a Sunday morning and the overnight rain seems to have cleared. Being dependent on tourism and fishermen, Lochinver actually has a shop and tourist office open, with a little museum at the back. There’s nothing about the wretched people of Assynt that Pennant saw, but the collection completes the pieces of a familiar puzzle. After Culloden, the local MacLeod chiefs had their obligations to their clans removed. Like other highlanders, they took well to making money from their lands, and gradually adopted a London-based lifestyle of the rich, spending the income of their estates in coffee houses and card tables. Debts lost them the land to the enterprising Duke of Sutherland. Over the early 19th century local farmers were burnt out and cleared to make room for sheep farming. Economic profit continued to trump traditions and human lives.
Lochinver was built in 1812 as a fishing port for these evicted farmers, and over the following nine years the surrounding area – that Jurassic wilderness I passed through yesterday – saw burnings and evictions. There were riots in nearby Inchnadamph against the collusion of the local church with the lairds, but most people were forced by starvation to move to Canada, Australia and elsewhere. By the 1870s the price of wool collapsed, and greedy lairds faced financial ruin, until Queen Victoria turned the Highlands and hunting into an English aristocratic retreat. Whilst the rich came to holiday, those locals who managed to eke out a living through croft-farming or fishing struggled to survive. It was a bleak place. Some organised deer raids against the rich, driving away toffs and their game to preserve ‘the land of Assynt to the people of Assynt.’
‘Stay with life’ – Father Michael, Tongue.
Thibault and I awake in our separate quarters of this mostly-refurbished flat in Thurso. It’s an unloved town on Scotland’s northern coastline, and the end of the line of the railway route that runs from Inverness to the very end of the land. I stayed up late the previous night talking to my partner on Skype and then writing. The alarm wakes me up several hours too early, but it’s no good: time to get up.
We breakfast on bananas and shreaded wheat. Our warm host, John, pops back in from the other nearby flat he’s doing up, and conversation kicks us all awake. The morning’s subject is midges, a terrible scourge of the north western part of Scotland. Thibault tells us about one man he heard about who became so crazed from midge bites that he began to scratch away at his face and arms, inflicting terrible wounds, until he had to be sedated in hospital. I’m frightened for the days ahead, and John offers to give me a lift to a nearby fishing shop where there should be some kind of better protection beyond a trucker hat, flapping hands frenetically, and DEET cream.
Thibault boards a bus back to Inverness, off to continue his walking across as yet-unknown parts of the Scots hinterland. John and I drive through Thurso’s small town centre. There’s a prominent church and a small area around a few streets with some grubby shops, but much of Thurso is of an ugly dark-yellow/brown brick or of pebble-dash. Low-levelled narrow streets continue on an improbably long scale with ugly houses and shops. The town’s dirty appearance gives the impression of wearing beer and sand spattered sunglasses.
‘Aye, there’s people in the country. But I’ve never been there’. – George, Lerwick.
I’ve gone off the map…
There’s been a gradual imperceptible transition from what felt like normality – retail parks, major supermarkets, traffic lights, dual carriageways, petrol stations, Greggs’ the bakers, mass unemployment and a depressing concentration of abysmal overpriced housing – into a smoother stream of forests, fields of heather, and great gliding spaces of well … nothing I’ve ever been prepared for.
The name of this beautiful wildflower scattered across these fields where red deer cross, untroubled by cars? The origins of these great rising bens, touching the skies like the vertebrae of fallen giants? Or the geological explanation for these eye-boggling gorges and glens that tear through the terrain like a hyperactive seismograph?
To a person familiar only with the largest of cities, all this is disturbing me, seizing me up, shaking my imagination, a violent ventriloquism. At times it’s too bleak to be pleasant, but the mind is twisted and transformed by it. Beauty becomes a kind of normality.
‘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.
‘No, but where are ye heading?’ – Richard, Montrose, asks me this repeatedly and keeps forgetting the answer, over many beers in the Royal Arch pub.
Now I knew Scotland would be quite special, but these landscapes are starting to take the biscuit. Aside from the jerry-built crassness of the occasional industrial satellite town and its barrack-like social housing, the terrains and built design are unremittingly beautiful and spell-binding. There are houses and public structures built to last, not built to pass, and by some magic spell the misguided callousness of 1960s town planning has largely been avoided.
Even Dundee, a town that people on the road have struggled to report much good about, comes along with many a pleasant surprise. The previous evening I swept over the wide River Tay, immortalised in the bloody awful poetry of William McGonagall. I’m alert to distant lights on the other side signalling a harbour and a bustling town dense with life. Time in the hostel threw me against the diverse stories of Dundee’s visitors and, after a pleasant enough sleep in a dorm full of student backpackers, I get up and wander about the town’s high street.