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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10. A helping hand

I stayed longer in Canterbury than I’d intended to. I’d planned to hitch up to Derby in the early afternoon, but it was too late for that – the next coach wouldn’t get there until nine. My host, Peter, a good friend from college days, was expecting me around five. I decided to go by train instead, got to King’s Cross, then realised it was too expensive.

So I went up to Golders Green to hop on a coach. It was nice going back. My mum had grown up there, in pleasant flats that backed onto the tube servicing yards. As kids, my brothers and I ran around the spacious shared gardens where my mum had put on plays and pretended to be a pirate when she was a girl. It was all very exotic to us, growing up as we did in semi-rural South West Herts. And my earliest memories of London are very much framed by our family visits to NW13. The Northern Line tubes screeching, their siren calls beckoning me to head south to Hampstead and the West End.

As I left the Underground station at Golders Green, a coach heading up to Nottingham pulled in. And I thought I might as well jump on then transfer over to Derby when I got there. The driver did have room, but couldn’t take a debit card, and I didn’t have enough cash. I was only £2 short, and luckily he took pity on me, and said I could pay when he stopped at Milton Keynes. I put my rucksack in the hold. But in the meantime a woman, obviously concerned about the potential loss of revenue to National Express, let the driver know that there was no cash point at MK. The driver was cool though, and said I could pay him the difference in Nottingham. I thanked him, and smiled sweetly at the nice public-spirited lady, as I made my way up the coach to try and find a seat.

It’s always interesting climbing on board a coach that’s well into its journey. The incumbent passengers have settled, and marked out their territory with handbags, magazines, and soft cuddly toys. So it’s rare to find two free adjacent seats. I worked my way up the aisle looking for potential road chums. I couldn’t decide who I wanted to share this leg of my journey with, and found myself getting near the back, and running out of options. I settled on a seat in the aisle, which is good for my long legs. The only problem being that the window seat was taken by a young man, he was sleeping, and his legs stretched right across my seat. I tapped him on the shoulder: he grunted, I sat down, the coach pulled away, and I was heading north.

The guy next to me was still half-asleep, and shoved his left hand down his trousers, and kept it there for the rest of the journey. I think he just needed some comfort. Maybe it was like sucking a thumb; protection against the perils of the open road. In this instance, the M1, horribly busy on a Friday night. Commuters and weekenders spewed out of the city – looking forward to the weekend with family, pets or just a cold tin of soup, and a single, hopeful lottery ticket.

We finally pulled into Nottingham at nine-thirty, thirty minutes after I would’ve arrived in Derby, had I taken the coach from Canterbury. Peter, being a gent, insisted on picking me up. We cruised out of the city on Brian Clough Way, and listened to the World Cup on the radio as Ghana crashed out to Uruguay on penalties. We arrived at Pete’s neat, modern townhouse, drank Peroni and ate Lasagne. I crashed out too, exhausted, but this time in a freshly made bed in my very own room. Would Kerouac have approved? I doubt it. But I was cosy, comfortable, and in good company. It was time to dream.

Cape Wrath, 10/25

 

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9. The sinner’s tale

It had been 25 years since my last confession. And I hadn’t been to mass in that time either, apart from weddings, christenings, and funerals.

So as soon as I realised what the Service of Reconciliation was, I promptly turned around and fled. Not for me thanks: especially as the Anglican chapel was open to all-comers, and I used to divulge all my youthful indiscretions in a Catholic confessional box. This was shielded from the outside world by ancient carved dark wood. You were also safely partitioned off from Father Hellfire & Damnation by a latticed window. This was designed to preserve anonymity on both sides, but served to make the priest appear mysterious, otherworldly, and slightly demonic.

I paced up and down outside the chapel and considered my next move. Why not confess? What did I have to lose? Before I left, I’d developed a mantra – be curious and fearless. I was being neither. What the hell, there was a lot of fetid water under my spiritual bridge, so I could do with a divine colonic irrigation. I re-entered the chapel and there was a priest waiting patiently. Was that my confessor? No. She came in soon after and I immediately felt comforted by her presence. I tried not to listen in on the priest’s woes, so rehearsed my top ten sins in my head while I waited.

When it was my turn I thought it was best to be upfront and honest. I admitted to being a lapsed-Catholic and an existentialist, partly in the hope that she would send me away. But that was fine, she said. Most people she saw were from other faiths or just inquisitive. Many were shoppers who found their way there by accident: unburdening their troubles, as they set down their bulging plastic bags, lightening the load.

Her name was Claire, she was warm, wise and far from sanctimonious. I liked her and was happy to offload my many moral transgressions onto her very broad shoulders. We sat side by side, a cosy fireside chat, far was less confrontational than the Catholic model. And when I was finished she gave me a blessing. I kneeled for this and she put her hands on my head. I thought of Lizzie the hairdresser, and the old men she told me about who came in for a hair wash, but really, all they wanted was a head massage.

This was spiritual though, rather than sensual. I asked if I had to say 100 Hail Marys as penance, but she let me off with a simple but uplifting instruction for the rest of the day. I came to use it throughout my trip, and still do now. All she asked was that I noticed the good in everything and everyone. To seek it out and recognise it when I experienced it. And to see what a difference that made to my spiritual wellbeing. It was a wonderful idea, and it worked. What a remarkable woman. And what a strange morning, it was not what I’d planned at all.

I thanked Claire and roamed around the cathedral feeling incredibly light and content. But it had been an intense morning, so I found a pew and sat down to rest. Soon I heard the voices of angels. I was charmed and beguiled. So I followed their seductive sounds down to the cloisters. There I found a gaggle of tourists, in brightly coloured cagoules, enraptured by the King’s School choir. They were practising for a service that evening under the astute and supportive tutelage of their choirmaster. I found a place to perch and floated away.

I’ve always loved music but had never been moved in such a deep way before. Perhaps it was the confession, or just something magical in the air. I welled up, and let one solitary tear trickle out the corner of my left eye. It’d been bottled up for weeks. I thought it might’ve popped out to say hello when I said bye to everyone at work. Or when I left home on the first day. But obviously I’d been saving it up for this one perfect moment.

After they finished, I told the choirmaster how intensely moving an experience it had been. The music of the gods descending from the heavens, sung by spotty teens to one thankful, mixed-up, middle-aged man – redeemed now, and clean.


Cape Wrath, 9/25

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8. The sinner’s prologue

I have a confession to make. In my haste to catch the train on the first day of my trip, I left a few vital items at home, all of which would’ve undoubtedly come in handy on my journey north:

1. Camera – SHIT
2. Reading glasses – DOUBLE SHIT
3. Michelin map – SHIT CUBED
4. Addresses and contact details of friends I’d be staying with – SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT

Never mind, I would simply rely on the kindness of strangers and my fairly good knowledge of mainland Britain. I learned this through play: a jigsaw map of England, Scotland and Wales from childhood, each county having its own separate coloured piece. I loved it. But you can’t really get lost in the UK, can you? It’s not that big. We’re not Greenland, Texas or Siberia. And surely, all roads lead to everywhere, don’t they?

After I left the hostel, I found my way into Canterbury. It was 10am and the locals were revolting: the Wetherspoon’s pub was open, and a shaky handful of people were sitting outside in the sun drinking cold pints of discount lager. They had been there since 9am according to the shop assistant in the newsagent opposite. I was impressed and appalled at the same time. I thought Canterbury was going to be wholesome.

I wandered into the ancient city centre, and I thought how everything seems fine on a sunny day. Canterbury was wonderful. I love history. I’m a sucker for crooked old buildings, cobbled squares, and children with rickets selling lark’s tongues. To add to my general feeling of well being, the busker outside the cathedral sang a neat version of Waterloo Sunset, so I threw him a shilling for his troubles.

I should’ve hung on to my money because entry to the cathedral was £8, which was too much of my budget for the day. But I was determined to explore this medieval masterpiece, so I asked the nice spindly lady at the gate if I had to pay to attend a service. This is always a good way to avoid entry fees to great churches. ‘No, that’s fine’, I was told, and next up was a Service of Reconciliation in the chapel at Noon.

It would’ve been crazy to go to Canterbury and not see the inside of the cathedral. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s stood the ravages of time and is an outstanding work of architecture, and a beautiful, ethereal light-filled space.

I felt I had to at least attend the start of the service having conned my way in for free, so I asked for help in finding the chapel. An officious WI-type lady led me there. She strode off at an unholy pace, before summoning a subordinate to take me the last few hundred yards to ‘my place of destination’. I thought that was an odd phrase for a place of worship. I assumed it came from ‘destiny’, and started wondering what mine might be: lonesome traveller or homeowner, shirker or earner, man-child or doting father.

My new guide was nice and pleasant and I arrived with a few minutes to spare. This was lucky, as it turned out that my destination wasn’t hosting a ‘service’, it was time for confession.


Cape Wrath 8/25

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