‘I’ve got the skills to pay the bills’. – Pub talk, the Marquis, New Cross.
This is it, the last one. Reader, you too deserve praise for making it this far on our strange psychosafari through Britain’s wilderness. All the comments, likes, and emails of support have truly kept me going. I’d never expected the blog to take off in the way it has, and it’s strange to imagine a world reading about a mad night that ends in sleeping in a park near Sheerness. 1,400 subscribers and 50 unique hits each day testify to a peculiar global voyeurism. Well thanks for that. We’re almost done.
Mayflies collide and tussle among the spindly reeds where I’ve laid my head. Last night, I gazed up at the clouds hovering over this no man’s land between Minster and Sheerness. White points drifted over the violet skies, reflecting the lamps of Sheerness and the surrounding rusting hinterland, possibly stars, or satellites, or distant aircraft. Teenagers had hollered and laughed in the distance, perhaps a mile away, but the sound carrying over the flat marshland, and it took some time to drop off, too tired to move, too alert in case they drew closer and happened on this sleeping man.
‘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.
‘You know what the difference is? At the weekends, people in Finland go out to their homes in the countryside, they exercise, they enjoy the air. In Glasgow, they just go to the shops.’
– Tommi and Michelle, Glasgow.
Warning: Glasgow is a small universe. Capturing it in an economical amount of words has proven more difficult than any place I’ve visited. As my write-up’s turned out so long (and yet I’ve omitted so much), it’s been sub-headed into days which can be read separately. But I dare not separate them into chapters. Just like the city itself, one element necessarily informs another and interweaves with it. If reading this on a web browser, I advise for the sake of time not attempting to read in one sitting. Same goes to the around 600 email subscribers to this blog.
Cherish those mornings where there’s no need to rush. When the alarm clock states the time factually rather than coercively. Get up now, or in half an hour? It doesn’t particularly matter. The pillow has taken on the texture and proportions of a heavenly cloud. Let the morning become afternoon without us dashing around, shoving on our shoes whilst hurrying out the door in a commuter’s cossack dance. The world will continue in its same majestic and ludicrous whirl without us bearing witness to it. Placing a quilt over one’s head is a perfectly respectable way of dispelling life’s demands for another day.
It’s a pleasure waking up slowly in Glasgow at Tommi and Michelle’s. Tommi I met previously in a pub in Dornoch: he invited me to stay with him when I arrived in Glasgow, and kindly lived up to his word. I met Michelle and Nico, his wife and son, the previous afternoon. Michelle’s a native of Dumbarton, but a career in business management brought her to Finland, Norway and back to Glasgow. She’s suffered from MS in more recent years, but has used her experience and skills to assist the MS Society with its campaigns and organisation. Nico is a nineteen year old tennis maestro. As can be the case with young men, he bounds away with more energy and life than life itself can keep up with, which can lead to a kind of post-teen/early twenties dislocation where what one should do isn’t clear, and indecision paralyses. Over cereal and tea – after camping, such luxury – we talk for some time about Glasgow and Scotland. There’s no need to rush, and each topic is treated carefully, without shortcutting to received wisdom or printed opinion as so often blights much discussion of current affairs.
‘Life doesn’t give you a user manual’ – Christy, Fort William.
Christy and I awake refreshed in our chintzy bed and breakfast on the shores of Fort William. The hotel’s a dive, and we’re both restless to escape out of the town in some way. But with a sprained ankle, Christy’s not able to ride any bicycle. Walking will only get us so far, and we’ve drunkenly lost ourselves in the wilds of Glen Nevis a previous night. The rain is still insisting on its responsibility to soak we weary humans to the skin, and fierce winds are affecting nearby boats.
Over a Scotch breakfast (like a full English, but with potato scones, black pudding and Irn Bru…) we decide to hire a car. It’s the one way of leaving the town and exploring and, besides, it can cheekily double-up as a cheap place to sleep. With that plan, we phone around til we find a cheap enough car on the outskirts of Fort Bill. It’s strangely exciting. Forget those steep mountains and hills, forget the bloody awful weather… none of these can restrict our striving to explore these landscapes. With the most basic of plans to head north, we decide to get lost on a spectacular level, to find and immerse ourselves in some rocky and remote wilderness. With provisions packed, we head out onto the open road.
Whoosh! It’s a brand new car and my driver handles it with some speed. It takes getting used to. Twenty miles, the subject of two to three hours’ meditative cycling and day-dreaming, expires in equivalent minutes. But it’s an opportunity to test how these landscapes feel at different speeds. Much of the north-west Highlands seemed like it would be as beautiful in a car. There’s a vicarious pleasure in reading about another’s travails and toils breaking their bicycles up the steepest of hills and most remote of midgey crannies. Surely in a car it’ll be much easier?
‘I think things are much more fragile than they seem. Poke at the right hole, and the whole thing could come falling down.’ – Ewan, Isle of Eigg.
I awake a little late in cheery Mallaig, a harbour town on the Scottish mainland. Disconcertingly, the sun is out already. Contrary to local wisdom, perhaps Scotland does have a summer?
It’s not long before I’m back in Mallaig harbour, boarding a small vessel with my bike that takes the twice-weekly journey to the isle of Eigg. This peculiar and remote island has a small community that was one of the first to buy back its own land. In the case of Eigg (pronounced egg), this was through a protracted struggle against an obnoxious and inconsiderate landowner Keith Schellenberg. The story of the island’s struggle has been shared with me in various pub conversations on the way, and I’ve found out more through Alastair McIntosh’s excellent book Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, a potent and inspiring book about community and the possibility of political change.
‘London? Too full of people.’ – heard twice in an hour, Berwick.
It’s a deliciously sunny and golden morning in sleepy Berwick, and I gaze out at the empty pier and lighthouse in the distance. Sat next to me is the ghost of L.S. Lowry, occasionally peering up from his easel as he converts the glory of the morning sea into one of his characteristic Berwick seascapes.
I am on the threshold between two countries, England and Scotland, one which lacks any real idea of its own identity, and another which realises it, and recognises the importance of political independence.
In truth England does have a kind of identity, one that belongs to upper middle-class London and the south-east. It has been aggressively normalised through school education, the centralisation of financial and political power in the capital, the Received Pronunciation of the BBC, the London-centric bilge that passes for popular journalism, and decades of casually ridiculing and economically depriving other regions of England. But this is not England, and the different regions I’ve travelled through have either quietly asserted their identity (like Yorkshire, or the West Midlands) or cried out for one (like south Essex).