‘Always go back to the source’ – Ariel, Horsham.
I awake in the cosy suburbs of Southampton. There are six days left now, sufficient time I doubt to ascertain the situation of these islands. Today I will push inland, off the coastal road, over the South Downs and into commuter belt territory. The South East, the ‘Home Counties’, lands of wealth and plenty, of twitchy curtains, casual hypocrisy and Daily Mail readers, those stiff-looking men and women in striped ties and floral blouses in the photos of Martin Carr, an area surrounded by as many clichés and ill-established assumptions as its mythic antithesis, the North. Let’s take a look at that.
My sleep’s been uneasy, and the fragments of some dreamt words lead to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the bees of England, a poem calling on the ‘Men of England’ to overthrow their exploitative overlords.
‘Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed and clothe and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat – nay, drink your blood?’
‘You don’t buy and sell idiots. You don’t buy and sell chavs, like you do here.’
– conversation in a Trebetherick boozer.
The dawn light suffuses into the open cottage living room where I’ve slept. As it creeps across the ceiling wall, these dusty dressers and dining tables seem to shriek and recede, shrinking from incongruously large shapes to something more everyday. This cottage has been uninterrupted for many decades. The walls could crumble into nothing in your hands, but are strong and robust, like the hives of termites. It breathes an aged air, exhaustedly occupying the intelligence of its years like a hyperthymesic savant. The carpets and furniture have been preserved in tea and tapioca pudding, board games and bridge, and quiet disagreements, stiffly stewing the atmosphere as lips are chewed, from the christening of a child’s name to the executors of the selfsame will.
Cast open the curtains. Today, the sun has risen without an email alert. No alarm clock stirred the cattle from the warmth of their grassy-belly-beds. The songbirds flittering over those hedgerows had no automated reminders or morning emails to motivate them from their slumber. Tammy’s doggy, still coy from the kick of a malicious horse, has not been reassured of his existential importance by Facebook or Twitter notifications. This delightful late-summer morning is not trending. Such losses, theirs!
‘Appearances can be deceiving’ – Sandra, Wavertree.
I’m up and about on the top floor of a rather grand house in Longridge, a place that sits between town and village in the heart of Lancashire. There’s not much that particularly characterises the place except a kind of low-level, ambient normality – it feels like the suburb to a larger city, and yet it’s self-contained. This could be entertaining territory for a playful study of the dark sides of human boredom, conducted by J.G. Ballard or Sigmund Freud: what goes on behind those privet hedges or Laura Ashley curtains? Our interest in maintaining our own privacy is at times coupled to a gossipy fascination in the lives of others. It’s no surprise that England gave birth to the peeping Tom.
There’s a kind of suburban war taking place here. Upon entry to Longridge one is greeted with a barrage of high-quality banners exclaiming ‘Save Longridge from mass development’, producing in the colours of a nuclear radiation warning sign and with a similar sense of urgency. The short-line of the campaign’s address is ‘save Longridge’. But save the place from what?
Rain awakes me from a bad night’s sleep. It’s been cold and very windy, and setting up the tent last night was difficult, gales thrashing the sheets, becoming a wrestling match between man and tent with no obvious winner. Rain falls with great intensity, and I imagine some desperate helicopter overhead, stalked by mad flashbacks of a forest fire, practising this morning over Callanish. At least I’m under some shelter, but will it ever clear? I doze off, wake up again to hear a hail storm, then doze into the mid-morning. The sun has now heated up the tent into a humid jungle. I’m missing my bed, my home and my partner so very much.
My bicycle is starting to feel heavier, and though the scenery has been at times enchanting and inspiring, the cumulative effect of spending all day cycling in the rain through great abysses, without birds, animals, people or much else, just a single track road, is wearing on me. The injuries from the previous day are aching with renewed intensity, and I spot that my luggage rack has warped and snapped. These places would appeal if one just needed to escape from a busy and stressful job, packed up with annoying people. But my life thankfully isn’t like this. I’m missing towns and their life. It’s the people and their stories that make these adventures feel alive and interesting.
I’ve camped just at the foot of the Callanish standing stones, perhaps the one thing aside from religious quirks, flat expanses and secluded beaches that Lewis is known for. The tent is between the glorious Callanish bay and a field full of cattle. In the distance I spy two smaller stone circles, called Callanish two and three, names no doubt inspired by the muses. In the dark I couldn’t make these out, but the pretty bay and the morning light is glorious, and the peaceful view and unusually clear light is tranquilising.