17. Shore leave

The coach set off from Inverness and passed Acorn Pets who proudly announced, ‘We have baby bunnies.’ I desperately wanted one, but fought off the urge to ask the driver to stop and remained seated. I was heading to Thurso, spitting distance from John O’Groats. But on arrival, I’d be heading west instead of east, over to Durness, my last stop before Cape Wrath.

We hugged the North Sea coast for most of the trip, and soon I spotted two large cruise ships in a bay. They looked out of place; lost like beached whales washed in with the tide, confused and unable to find their way back out to sea.

We stopped shortly after and a few elderly cruisers climbed on board. They had set off from Tilbury Docks in London, and were heading around the British Isles before ending up in Southampton. Today they were on shore leave and were taking a trip up to Dunrobin Castle. They were a jolly bunch, full of joy, and excited to be on land. But their mood was not reflected in their dull, sensible clothing. It was standard pensioner apparel. They all had plenty of disposable income. They wouldn’t be gallivanting around Britain on a cruise otherwise. But they were splashing out on experience rather than fashion. A wise move, as you can’t take a pair of Day-Glo hot pants when you go.

I wasn’t jealous: my own personal pension will pay around £300 per month – although past poor performance is no guarantee against future lack of returns. I very much look forward to working in B&Q well into my 70s, and soiling myself in the plant aisle.

When we pulled into Dornoch, I noticed a sign that simply read:


It was good to see the museum had a higher status than the abbatoir. And fair play to Dornoch, on a road trip, there isn’t anything more important than a public convenience. Another roadside sign bore the legend, ‘Haste Ye Back,’ I’d see this a lot and promised I would. I was only on day two of the tartan leg of my trip but I’d already fallen in love with the Highlands.

The happy old cruisers limped off at Dunrobin. The coach became quieter apart from a token sulky teenager, whose tinny earphone music disturbed the post-pensioner day-trip calm. He was wearing a red top with the collar pulled up over his mouth. He was young and grumpy, not old and happy. But like the greyhairs, his mood was in vivid contrast to his clothing. I stopped thinking about fashion and drank in the views instead.

When we pulled in to Thurso I was the last passenger, which felt ominous. On the map it looked straightforward enough. A quick romp across the top of Scotland; taking in scenic views as I made my way west to Durness. From memory it didn’t look that far on my Michelin map. The train station was just up the road so I thought I’d try there first.

A train was just pulling into the station. Unfortunately it was heading straight back down south. No train went west from here; it wasn‘t the type of terrain that suited rail. There was too much zig-zagging, no flat plains, and lots of steep gradients. So I turned back and spoke to the first person I came across. A wise-looking white-haired old man with two slobbering dogs, one lovingly licking his face. I asked him about heading west. There was a bus, he told me, but it only went as far as Betty Hill. I could hitch cross-country from there. Or I could take a  train heading south west to Lairg, then catch a bus back up to Durness.

I chose the road and once again felt kinship with Kerouac. On the edge of the void, my spirit yearning for wild adventure, ready for anything: hemmed in by mountains and the sea, wind blowing through my hair as I sang ancient sea shanties, laughing in the face of adversity.

But first, I needed a nice cup of strong tea and a toasted teacake. The bus didn’t go for a couple of hours, its destination – Betty Hill Public Toilets. O the glamour of the road.

Cape Wrath 17/24

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16. North by north east

I caught a train from Carlisle to Glasgow. And once again, I hopped on the local service that was cheaper and more interesting than the slick fast link. Soon the station signs changed to Scot Rail and the accents became stronger. Hadrian’s Wall was the border and is impressive still. England straddling it: a fading beautiful whore, clinging on for dear life, and just about sustaining its seductive grip.

A bargain was to be had at Glasgow coach station: £35 for three days’ travel over a five-day period. I pounced on this budget-friendly deal. And I was directed to the right ‘Stance’: you see in Glasgow, even the bus stops have attitude. I settled in my seat. It wasn’t busy at all, so there was plenty of room to watch the world go by. We were heading north east to Perth then up to Inverness.

When we pulled into Inverness it was cloudy and chilly. There was a hostel nearby which looked scruffy and smelled of stale piss: a convenient doorway too close to the bus station. It was full but a note on the door gave details of a sister-hostel. That was pretty rank too. The deskman was Dutch and had an air of debauchery about him. I wondered how long he’d been here. Was he just passing through, got waylaid by a local girl or lad then ran out of money? He only had double beds spare and was reluctant to book me one. He was saving them for couples, not a sad loner. A group of younger Asian lads had just arrived before me, there was a spare bed in their room but they didn’t want to share according to my man. Instead he pointed me in the direction of another hostel that turned out to be larger, cleaner and much friendlier.

The young guy on the front desk, Ahmed, had an air of quiet authority about him. He was brisk, efficient and pleasant too. I booked in. It was time for food so I went to Morrisons. My plan was to buy something wholesome and cheap, like smoked mackerel and couscous. Then I passed the Rotisserie. It was late and the store was about to close. It was bargain time so I bought a whole roast chicken for £2. I started walking back to the hostel. But I was so hungry I started ripping off its over-cooked limbs and made best friends with a scrounging seagull.

I threw it a leg, expecting it to gently lick and nibble the few strands of flesh left on the bone. But this was a Highland Seagull. There was no messing up here where food was scarce. This was not Brighton. It was too cold for ice cream cones, even in the summertime. It swallowed the leg bone whole. I was impressed and also relieved as it stopped following me. Later I realised that my new friend might well have choked on my leftovers.

At night there was entertainment laid on for free. The hostel’s canteen window overlooked the High Street, right by MacDonald’s. Things grew louder as the night wore on. A multicultural group near me were having an earnest discussion, and completely ignored the sounds of a comedy scuffle in the street below. Two large drunk men, with one screaming woman standing between them, were throwing punches at each other, none connected. No one outside took a blind bit of notice; this was usual, everyone was more interested in buying a burger before McD’s shut up for the night. I grew bored. So I bid my farewells to the earnest group, who still showed no interest in the rubbish fight outside, and went to bed.

Cape Wrath 16/25


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15. After the flood

The next day I got up early and walked along the river to Cockermouth. I saw the damage caused by the flash floods that swamped the town the previous November. There was a temporary bridge strewn with defiant decorations. Kids’ drawings in shop windows showing small stick people stuck indoors. I passed a pub with a flood marker. It was over two metres high, slightly taller than me.

In Main Street, I saw a fading ad for Fletcher’s Fearless Clothing painted on the side of a building. I love brick wall advertising. It harks back to slower days. A skilled sign writer would’ve taken a couple of weeks to give Mr Fletcher his fearless ad. And I’m guessing it’d been there for a good 50 years. It had a sense of permanence; it was part of the fabric of the town. Another ad made me smile. This time a poster for a local festival, Cock Rock, which included Sham 69 in the line-up.

I didn’t hang around for long, and hopped on a bus going back to Workington. I was the first passenger of the day. The driver didn’t have any change. But he waited patiently while I popped over the road to the newsagents to get some. I wondered if this ever happened in Cockfosters at rush hour. They say people are friendlier up north, maybe that’s true, because they simply have more time.

We rattled out of town through twisting country lanes before winding into Workington. But there was no time to stay. I was heading back up to Carlisle. There I’d catch a coach to Glasgow, before a switch and a ride right up to Inverness. The Highlands were calling. I was getting closer to Cape Wrath, and just the name itself was enough for me to go all tingly down below.

Cape Wrath, 15/25

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14. Down by the river

I spotted the road to Cockermouth, found a good place to stick out my thumb, and held up a hastily scrawled sign. It was a short way from a set of traffic lights, so I could be seen before the cars and trucks gained too much speed and whizzed by. I got out Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which I’d bought earlier in the trip. Because the best bit of advice I’ve had about hitching was from a friend’s mother in Canada years ago. ‘Read a book,’ she said, ‘so you look like a student rather than a crazy man on the run’. Which, funnily enough, was just how my wife described me at the time.

This was it. I was on the road. My original intention was to pay homage to my great literary hero, Jack Kerouac. He died aged 47, and I was 46. I’d hitched and travelled before, but I was someway behind him in road miles and writing ability. I knew I wouldn’t catch up and overtake him on either front. But this was my story not his. Why try and fail at being someone else? Why not just enjoy the trip for what it was? I realised that the detour to Workington was just my way of trying to imbue this foolhardy jaunt with some meaning. The truth was, I just wanted to get away from it all for a couple of weeks. Shorn of responsibility, to live in the moment: to be single, stupid and selfish.

I wonder what people thought of me, standing there, pretending to read Chaucer? Was I a bohemian intellectual, striking out on my own pilgrim’s progress? Could I be an aging student perhaps, buying books by saving on bus fare? Or was I just a lonesome restless man, heading anywhere for the sake of it? Happier moving than staying still: no roots, no love, and no joy. Of course people drove by, some pretending I wasn’t there and looking stony-faced at some unseen object a mile or so up the road. Others smiled, but then drove on all the same. I couldn’t blame them; it wasn’t the best time to hitch in that area after the recent shootings. And it would’ve made sense to be clean-shaven too. But despite that, within 10 or 15 minutes, I got my ride. A lovely couple pulled over in a nice spacious clean car, and they were not only going in my direction, but knew the hostel too.

Ruth and Allan were retired, and had moved up to the area from the Home Counties a few years ago. The journey was short, and as I said goodbye, Allan handed me a small pamphlet on the local area ‘from a Christian perspective’. I accepted with good grace, maybe still feeling wholesome after my experience in Canterbury. Then I made my way to the hostel, down a stony cutting through fields with steep banks on either side, the sound of birdsong chirping in my ears. I’d like to think they were singing to me. Just like the angelic choir in Canterbury Cathedral. I didn’t cry this time, but felt content and anchored; like tall grass with deep roots, happy to sway with the wind.

The hostel was an old stone mill house right by the river, bathing in the soft evening light. I couldn’t have hoped for better. Now all I needed was a spare bed. Ray, the grey-haired pony-tailed manager, let me know that all was fine. The only other guests were two cyclists in their early 20s, and a biblical-looking bearded man in his early 70s.

I went out for a walk down to the gurgling creek by the hostel and stumbled onto an idyllic scene. A summer evening; light glinting and dancing on the water, and cows from a field on the other side of the river sipping water. It was cocktail hour for cattle, brushing off bothersome flies flirting with their bottoms and tormenting their nostrils. I stayed down there for a while. There was something odd and intriguing about this: cows drinking from the river through the bankside trees, not from their designated trough; my very own three-dimensional Far Side scene. It was surreal. I smiled. The cows ignored me, and the flies did too, and that was ok with me.

Cape Wrath, 14/25

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13. Land of my father

The next morning Ollie drove to me to Leeds coach station. I was heading northwest, probably passing Sellafield to continue my nuclear-tinged trip, which started in Dungeness. My next stop was Workington, birthplace of Mr Anthony Hayes, Tony to his friends, but just plain old dad to me.

I could feel the ancient family blood stir in my veins as we crossed the Pennines, before coasting up the rainy windswept M6 all the way to Carlisle. We arrived late Sunday afternoon. Nothing was open. But there was a bus to Workington in half-an-hour. I felt excited. I bought a ticket and sat on the back seat. I started fantasizing that this was where my dad would have sat when he was a boy, and once spotted Mr Bill Shankly, manager of Workington Town at the time; happy to use the local transport, but with fame, glory and immortality just a few leagues away.

I’d thought twice about heading to Workington, after the shootings in nearby Whitehaven a month earlier. I didn’t want to be seen as a snuff tourist. But the pull of family history was stronger so I decided to go. I’d always intended to head up there, but like most people, never ventured further west than the Lakes.

We pulled into Workington bus station. And I guessed it hadn’t changed much since my dad lived there just after the war. From what he told me, I wasn’t expecting much, and it lived down to my scant expectations.

I went for a wander. I shambled past some teens playing footie in an otherwise empty shopping arcade. Nick Drake’s Northern Sky was floating down over the PA system. It felt both apposite and wildly inappropriate at the same time. Drake was a gentle soul, his songs bleak yet uplifting in a melancholic way. It was a soft soundtrack at odds with the shrill-voiced teens, tittering at my rucksack. I guessed they thought I was just another lost Lakes’ tourist. I wanted to stay and find out what song would be played next. If they were playing Drake’s album, Bryter Layter, the next track would be Sunday. A gentle pastoral instrumental: something written for urban audiences longing for an idealized version of the countryside that never really existed.

I didn’t stop. The kids were intimidating. I walked on and spotted an old cinema converted into a Wetherspoons pub. I’m not a big fan of Wetherspoons, but I needed the loo, and when you’re traveling, absolutely anywhere will do.

I wandered in and the tennis was on. It was Men’s Finals Day, and I’d missed that. But it had a toilet. It wasn’t broken, and had been checked ten minutes previously by someone called Brian. Things were looking up. I decided to stay and grabbed a table. I was happy, and wondered whether my dad had ever sat in that very spot when this place, the Oxford Picture House, was a cinema. I checked a couple of weeks later, and sure enough, he used to go every Saturday morning to catch the latest ‘flicks’ featuring his schoolboy hero, Gary Cooper. So I’d connected with my past. I was among my people, in the land of my father. But I had itchy feet and wanted to head to Cockermouth.

The last bus had left hours ago, so I had a choice: look for a place to stay in Workington or hitch. I did a brief half-hearted sortie around the town’s three or so hotels, which were all too expensive for me. So at last, up in Cumbria, I had to hitch. I had no choice; it was finally time to hit the road.

Cape Wrath, 13/25

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12. The magnificent swollen exploding nipple

Peter dropped me off at Derby coach station. We’d looked up times earlier but hadn’t bothered to book in advance. We were too busy talking and listening to music. It was Saturday, late afternoon and the coach was fully booked. I thought about hitching up to Leeds, but wasn’t really up for it. I bottled it again realising I wasn’t 22 anymore. My romantic Kerouac inspired trip was just all puff and no substance: more On the Buses than On the Road, The Railway Children rather than The Road Less Travelled.

So I dropped the hitching plan and did a short hike instead. I walked to the train station through a pleasant park blighted by the roar of traffic and snog-happy Goths. Didn’t they realise they were meant to be miserable and downcast? But were they actually being subversive by not conforming to their stereotype? I found the station and bought the cheapest ticket to save money – a local train to Sheffield then another local to Leeds. It was slower than the express train, but far more interesting. Small rusting, post-industrial towns passed by my window, punctuating the beautiful countryside: blots on the landscape or burst bubbles of enterprise depending on your point of view.

I was heading to Leeds as I studied there from 1988 to 1991, and two of my friends from those days, Ollie and Sarra, still lived nearby. As we pulled into the station it was obvious how much the city had changed over the last 20 years. Sadly, The Tetley Brewery no longer made beer. But there were gleaming new flats by the canal in The Calls, which used to be the red light district.

When I first went up there, the first thing that struck me was the row upon row of redbrick back-to-back terraced housing. You don’t get that in the Home Counties. It felt foreign, slightly intimidating, but exciting. It was new, not like home, which was cosy and nice. This was what I wanted at the time: a new experience in a new place, my own Wild West, or in this case, West Yorkshire.

So it was good to be back, and great to hook up with Ollie and Sarra. I found their house. No one answered the front door. So I let myself in through the side gate guided by the sound of chatter and laughter coming from the back garden. I announced myself and was rewarded with a lovely hug from Sarra, and an even better man hug from Ollie. Ollie always was a cheerful bastard. We used to share a flat together in Kilburn. And he was always far too happy in the morning for my liking: singing a jolly show tune from The Sound of Music or South Pacific as I retched from drinking, stress or both in my sad single room.

I was introduced to their friends and offered a sausage. Titters were suppressed around the table. I was missing out on something. I’ve never enjoyed being the only sober person in drunken company. But this was fine. It was summertime in God’s Own County, Yorkshire: the land of booming voices, proper chips, and the best pint of bitter in the whole wide world.

I soon found out the source of the hilarity. It turned out that one errant nipple had been doing the rounds all evening. It was huge and swollen. It was disgusting and horrific – awe inspiring even. Every time the magnificent malignant specimen went on show it was accompanied by gasps of horror followed by seagull squawks of laughter. Then, ten minutes later, pleas for, ‘One more time… just once… go on’. The owner, Marvin, gladly obliged and the more alcohol we consumed the more hilarious it became. And, it seemed, more swollen – probably the constant chafing as Marvin’s shirt was raised and lowered on demand for us, the baying mob.

Poor lad, he had to go into hospital the following week to get it lanced before it exploded like Mount Vesuvius swamping Pompeii, destroying everything in its path. So of course it would’ve been wise for us to run away, or cower indoors with the kids, but we stayed outside, drinking, talking, and laughing – demanding repeated viewings. It kept us amused. Marvin enjoyed his time in the spotlight, and I hoped he fared well on the operating slab under the surgeon’s knife.

Cape Wrath, 12/25

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11. Derby day

I woke up with John Lennon…

… George, Paul, and Ringo too. Mick and Keith were there with Bill, Charlie and Brian. The Who, The Small Faces and The Kinks all greeted me a cheery ‘Good Morning’. The sun shone through a gap in the curtains throwing a heavenly light onto my bed covers. Was I in heaven: no, just Peter’s spare bedroom, which also doubled as his recording studio. He had a sweet little 12-track mixer, three guitars, two mikes, and framed posters of his favourite bands on every wall.

Peter was a huge Beatles fan. We met at college through a shared love of the Fab Four, early REM, and Aztec Camera. Peter had a guitar and I had a Badminton racket. He was still a musician but made his living as a teacher.

I got up and met Peter’s six-year old daughter, Daisy. She had a lovely smile and a close relationship with her favourite cuddly toy, a tiger called ‘Tiger’. I asked her if I could borrow him, as I would be far away from my family way up high in the chilly north. She refused point blank, but minutes later, came back with a doll that she said I could borrow. I was touched. She said it was her least favourite toy and the dolly was going spare. Peter’s wife Alison joined us shortly after and plonked a great big smacker right on my lips. There was no fake two-cheek air kissing up here.

Alison and Daisy were going camping but Peter had refused to go. So once the girls had set off we had the whole place to ourselves. And what did we do? Well, not much at all really, and we both agreed it was one of the best Saturdays we’d had in a long time. Why, because sometimes nothing’s better than sitting on the sofa, listening to music, and watching football on TV. And that’s exactly what we did for most of the day. Apart from one interlude when we walked into town to visit a basement record store. We spent a happy half-hour flipping through obscure 70s vinyl; in the same way I spent my lunch hours and spare cash at Charlie’s Records in Watford Market back in the 80s.

While we were together Peter said one great thing and one silly thing. We were complaining about our wives complaining about us. Peter said they didn’t realise that relaxing was an activity. I agreed. And I hope Peter imparted that knowledge to his young charges. His job, he also said, required a lot of ‘behaviour management’. I laughed. Could he have seen himself saying that back in 1988, in his student bedroom, showing me the chords to ‘Radio Free Europe’? On the other hand, could I have foreseen my beloved record player rendered inaccessible by my kids’ maths and spelling books stacked on top of its protective lid? No.

We all grow up. And the more we learn, the more we realise the truth of the saying by the late, great George Melly that ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ Mine went too fast, but I had my fun. And now, I have to say, I’m glad to be grey.

Cape Wrath, 11/25


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