‘Ere Kel can I come in the toilet wiv ya?’ – courting rituals, Sheerness.
I awake with really bad fatigue. It aches to even stretch my legs, whilst elbows creak and crack. I haven’t had much sleep, finding it torturously difficult to even drop off, listening to the shouts and arguments of drunk teenagers somewhere nearby on Margate’s promenade. Everything hurts!
In most travelogues, one will notice that the ending is often hurried, inconclusive, even bad-tempered. Bill Bryson seems to lose it with everyone, Paul Theroux is increasingly impatient, whilst on their bicycles, Josie Dew and Mike Carter both tear through their final few days without seeming to even look up from their milometers. I used to wonder what malaise affects travellers on their tail-end of their journeys, but as I’ve approached closer to home, a great physical and mental fatigue has taken me over. With the exhaustion of yesterday still aching through my bones, I’m feeling like I’m repeating the beginning of this trip, as if I’m mirroring my old movements, those first few days where every part of my body wailed out its pain in a slightly different pitch so that I was able to hear them all at the same time. I’m back to that. The prospect of cycling even ten miles today feels unlikely. Perhaps I should’ve had some more rest days. But with darkness kicking in now at 6.45, and the cold beginning to bite, this has to be it. Nearly there…
‘It can feel hard to escape…’ – the merits and de-merits of island life, Yarmouth.
We awake in Ricardo’s room in Bournemouth. As couchsurfing places go, it’s a little cosy, but after two days crammed into a one-person tent with my sister, the floor-space is vast and luxurious. You can even stretch your arms out, and turn over! Life in a tent has few perks, as one can imagine.
Last night we’d stayed up til really late, all of us talking, and the next morning we all sleep over our alarms. Ricardo flies out at ten am to start work on a regular Sunday Lunch at the carehome. He had a very funny take on what he saw as the typically English narrow food tastes of the residents (who are, all things considered, a mixture of ages and backgrounds). When he started work, he was outraged at the unhealthy and unimaginative processed slop that was served with punctual frequency. Each day, the same dish. So with the passion of a modern-day missionary (cue Jamie Oliver…?) he devised a new menu, filled with healthy meals, fresh ingredients and inventive combinations. Lo, the residents complained heartily about the unusual nature of the food. Of the new dishes, those that received approval happened to be either heavily fried or full of cheese. In the end, our crestfallen chef abandoned his campaign to reform the palates of the punters, and of England more broadly. ‘How can people eat roast dinners all year round?’, he asked us. My sister and I just looked at each other blankly.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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 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!
‘We just sell things, we don’t make them.’ – Andy, Bridgwater.
I awake at Ellie’s after a good night’s sleep. I’m up early in fact, but the bright morning’s dedicated to the mundane business of emails arranging accommodation over these final weeks. By the time I’m up Ellie’s in the kitchen making tea and porridge. The sun is out, and she shows me more of the garden her and her mum have created from nothing in a mere nine months. There are few pleasures simples than the contemplation of life growing, thriving, in whatever form it takes.
It’s a perfect day for a bike ride – is every day not? But this September has been unusually hot, a fine relief after a rainy August, and today is especially sunny. So we cycle out to Glastonbury town. It’s bustling with an abundance of cafes, people leisurely sitting outside, and buskers in the background singing the counterculture hits of yesteryear. Middle-aged men and women share a unisex style of long-hair, tie-died clothes and leather waistcoats, and gently wander up the high street, past African art stores, esoteric bookstores, shops honouring the Goddess and the Green Man, and Glastonbury’s classic ‘Burns the bread’ bakers. We peer into the ruins of the abbey, sacked by the knights of Henry VIII, but don’t feel inspired to pay the charge. Then we head up to Glastonbury Tor, where many have come this sunny Sunday noon to watch the surrounding Somerset Levels.
‘It’s just intuition’ – Jason, with his girlfriend, besides an ancient stone around midnight, under the stars, Avebury.
To hell with alarms, or lack thereof. Mine’s not gone off, so the morning is like a firefighter’s scramble out of bed, leaping into a set of the nearest clothes, licking toothpaste round my mouth and hobbling out, half-shoed and hungry. Outside Pat’s place, I look on as a strung-out fella attempts to sleep whilst riding his bicycle. In his hand is a large sports store bag with his belongings. He stirs for a second, talks to himself, curses, wheels ahead a few steps, then dozes off again.
We’ve all been there, eh, victims of our misjudgements, an inability to say no… but sleeping on a bike?
Liberal attitudes towards drugs legalisation struggle when faced with situations where a person indulges in risky behaviour or becomes dependent on getting out of it, more than dependent on any particular drug (and alcohol’s one of the worst). He wheedles down an alley where I’ve locked my bike, then inexplicably reverses and returns to the street, where a phone drops out of his hand and shatters.
‘Are you ok there?’
‘Yes, we’re just doing a treasure hunt.’
— Meeting wanderers on a twilight path, somewhere near Newport, Pembrokeshire.
I awake inside the headmaster’s office of an old school building in Aberystwyth, a small but pretty university town by the sea. The students are still away for their summer break, giving the town a tranquil but not too desolate feel. I look out its jaunty multi-coloured Victorian terraces, so self-contained and sure of itself. Yet there’s little around Aber, and nothing in the landscape I passed earlier would suggest its existence. It’s not sucking the life out of its surrounding areas, unlike most of the major cities, nor is it desperately trying to prove a point, often badly, like many of the smaller cathedral cities. I hear the cry of the gulls in the air, and as Nia and I wander into the town for some breakfast, I can’t help noticing passers-by with a swing in their step.