Day 120: Horsham to Brighton

‘I’ve never done this before’, says a female pensioner, ‘but I’m sitting out here watching the world go by. And there’s a lot of young people here…’
‘And they’ve all got mobile phones glued to their ears!’
– street talk outside the Swan Walk shopping centre, Horsham.

I awake at my old teacher Ariel’s house in Horsham, surrounded by collections of William Blake’s prophetic writings and intricate pen-drawn maps of mysterious scenes produced by his son. ‘If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character, the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ration of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again’, I read in Blake. ‘Warning, this is a teenager’s room’, announces a sign next to that. I hope he doesn’t mind.

The wound on my knee is now definitely infected and has become painful to move. As I pack my belongings away, the lettering from my replacement pannier peels off in my hands, the Altura brand logo reduced to ‘RA’, whilst a sizeable hole has appeared in the other bag as its stitching unravels. Even the saddle is torn, spilling out foam. I’m wondering who’ll collapse first, me or this faithful bicycle.

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Day 116: Sark to Bournemouth

‘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.

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Day 112: Christow to Lyme Regis

‘Things change when people start to talk to each other, positively, to the people around them, about what could happen’. – Colin, Christow.

This is not the first time I’ve woken up on a railway carriage. Usually exhaustion from work or plain drunkenness played a part. They were huge and sophisticated things, with plug sockets, automated announcements, passenger wi-fi and space age toilets. The Toad brake van by contrast is modest in proportion, built for the needs of a Fifties’ rail-guard, but comes with a comfortable bed, sink, cooking area, dining table and bookshelf filled with treasures. There are no automated announcements, only a sense of silent stillness, at times interrupted by the trill of birdsong outside.

No rush today. Sadly, I’m one of the very last guests to stay on this camping van run by the Teign Valley railway. The world’s changing, as Colin described it yesterday, and the effort and motivation to continue running an underused resource has waned. I wander around the goods yard, past an open freight shed, and the tiny Tadpole brake carriage, also converted into a camping van replete with children’s books and a ukulele. There’s a number of old freight stock carriages, and I wonder how the Teign valley railway might have become if Colin had realised his plans to buy up the land on which the line once ran, and reopened it again. It is such a huge undertaking for one lone individual, and Colin has made remarkable progress in the yard so far. With the help of a young environmentally-minded apprentice, perhaps looking for an interesting and rewarding one-year project, the Teign Rail could become far more widely-known, I think. The sheer breadth knowledge and skills that Colin has deserves to be shared and passed on.

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Day 47: Durness to Lochinver

‘Not everyone could do it. It’s his choice, he loves it.’ John on John, on the island of Johns, also known as Cape Wrath.

I could gaze at this view forever. Scatter my ashes here. This is a longer post, but the sights, stories and scenes ah, it’s worth following!

It’s 8.30am. At different times in my life, I’ve spent this time cattle-trucked on morning tubes and trains, fellow passengers arguing and fighting, stress and frustration sweating from people’s shirts and ties like a miasma of tolerated suffering. Or buses caught in interminable south London traffic, making me late for school, then university, some arsehole’s music blaring at the back from his phone. Or in the last year, dodging blind taxi drivers and the horsey wives of the rich in Chelsea tractors along the south circular to my current university on this very same bike besides my tent today.

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Day 42: Auckengill to Orkney

‘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’.

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