Words and images by David Barnett
(Intro: A cheeky, witty travelogue from a writer we really need to hear more from. — Charlie)
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Ah, the summer of 2005 — what a time to be alive that was. A few months prior, I finished my tenure at the University of Wales, Cardiff, studying Journalism, Film, & Broadcasting. My lifestyle was a dynamic mix of sleeping, eating, and pornography, and yet, I wondered was there something more? Well, dear reader, there was. You see, I can’t say I live in a terribly diverse cosmopolitan locale. A day out around here usually means going around the shops, going to the cinema, or feeding the birds, tuppence a bag. No wait, that’s Mary Poppins, but you get the idea.
Not that life in Wales is boring, you understand. Endless shops, endless fields and mountains, and ah! singing coal miners, I’m reliably informed. I’ll take the moral high ground for a novel change and not draw attention to the sheep jokes often made about us, though. I’m often reminded how beautiful and peaceful it is, but quite frankly, its charm has long been lost on me. Like the average black hole, you come to Wales, but you never leave, or so that was the case for the majority of my life. Apart from one dire school trip to France and brief family trips across the border, I had never really ventured anywhere on my own. The shocking truth of a geek in life experience deficit mode.
On top of it all, I was in the midst of truly wondering what I wanted to do with my life, a dilemma that was killing my initiative in seeking gainful employment. Oh sure, in theory, journalism sounds like a great career where I could just type at a keyboard most of the time and think to myself how great it is that I’m serving the public. Heck, that is the prevailing rationale of a lot of those who do it; problem is they don’t really. So, life was uneventful even more so: no schoolwork, no actual work, what’s a guy to do?
So, I got thinking; dangerous, I know, but I had to risk it. A grand journey: I would explore locales of great repute and esoteric spots of hidden delight. By foot, by wheel, and by rail, I would explore these Great British isles on a journey where I would grow into the man I am: steadfast, tireless and moronic to the point of spectacle. Suffice to say, it didn’t really turn out that way; it didn’t turn out a fraction of that way really. But this be the tale I tell.
Every journey has its first step, and as I took mine and tripped over my shoelaces, I wondered what exactly does one need in order to travel? Now, one could consult expert sources on this; instead I took what I call “the maverick route”, or as some call it, “idiotic”, and I basically compiled a shopping list of items I associate with the somewhat nebulous term “travel”. Lets see… well, I’m going to need to know where I am and where I’m heading, so a map and compass seems wise. So far so good I think.
Then it got a bit silly. I wasn’t quite sure why I was buying one of those metallic containers that people use in the great outdoors to store their hot or cold beverages, but by damn, if it was on the list, then I was going to buy it. Never mind that it was more of a camping thing, really, and I had some distinctly more urban destinations in mind. I spent about six years in the boy scouts without ever going camping or feeling anyway inclined towards it — another great lifestyle choice that prepared me for adulthood, no doubt.
In fact, at this point, I was still pretty vague as to actually where I would be going and how much of it all I could actually fit in. The grand plans had to be downsized from their original lofty ideals once I realised just how much the entire damn venture would cost. So I would miss out on some of the more lesser-known spots and focus on the heavyweight division of British travel destinations. London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Newton Abbot.
Newton where? You don’t know THE Newton Abbot? That small town in Devon that I’m sure I will never return to. It was never part of my original itinerary, and I guess the only reason it ever got onto my radar was due to a request by an online friend of mine that I come visit her. So, like the sucker I am, I made THE Newton Abbot the start of my moderately downsized not-so-Great Adventure that upon further reflection of the financial costs did not include Ireland anymore.
So, after spending a small chunk of my student loan fortune on the “necessities” of travel, I arrived at the railway station in mid August, 2005, in a rather, dare I say it, optimistic mood. Needless to say, it wasn’t to last, but the memories will last a lifetime, I’m sure. A long train journey spent looking at the increasingly schizophrenic weather later, and I arrived. Well, first thing’s first; my online “friend” didn’t materialise, and in fact, never appeared. She would tell me much later she had to go into hospital for those few days, so that was my first stroke of bad luck right there.
Still, it looks nice, I thought. How bad could it be? Or so the ships captain of the Titanic asked as he looked down the wrong end of the telescope. On reflection, I suppose, it was very much like the small town that I had just travelled so far to escape from, and I suppose that’s what increasingly irked me as time went on. “No place like home,” they say. “Like heck-fire there isn’t,” I reply. Loads of small town shops nearly all owned by the same local company got me dubious as to the quality of this fine holiday destination. I was getting flashbacks to films of creepy rustic towns where they don’t take well to outsiders.
So, I walked around a lot, took the scenery in, took some photos, and warmed up to the place –well, kind of. On reflection, it had some neat, old architecture that I have an odd fondness for. Gradually I got more hot and bothered with the way over-packed bag on my shoulders. Should have gone back to the drawing board with this venture, I remember thinking, the most productive thinking I had probably done in a while. Ah, the folly of a major walking adventure with worn out boots began to dawn on me as blisters began to cripple me. Oh, there was a smile in my heart, but not on my face.
So, things were not going too well; still, it was early days yet. Just a few minor hiccups in the planned schedule, nothing major, I thought. Then, the straps allowing me to somewhat comfortably carry my backpack on my back broke, forcing me to walk with a sideward slant as I struggled to carry it in hand. Then, the evening began to draw in, and I looked at my trusty B&B guide.
Well, how should I put it? Perhaps I should have better used that £8.99 on something rather more practical: a how-to guide on kicking your own ass, for instance. Yes, my patience was wearing thin, but hidden deep within this comedy routine I call a personality, there was a sense I vaguely recognise as pride that would not allow me to pack it all in and go home.
After some increasingly frantic searching through the local public houses, I finally found one for the night. A low-rent affair for a not so low rent, but at least it came with breakfast and a smile. Ok, so no smile, and I don’t think that much fried food should be considered breakfast by anyone’s definition of the term. Not wanting to give up on my absent friend too soon, I hung around, but resolved to keep within budget and find someplace cheaper should I stay a second night.
By the second day it became clear that I had pretty much seen everything there was to really see in this town. Better preparation here would have probably given me no ideas, but then you are forgetting the key word “moronic” that I used earlier in my all-time list of personal qualities. On a minor note, my attempts to find a cheaper place to stay proved fruitless and so, as the cheap bastard that I am, I resolved to do the previously unthinkable.
That night would become the first night I’ve ever spent out in the open without shelter. First, I hung around the railway, very impatient at this point and eager to get the first train out of town. Got bored with that and wondered around town. Church was closed; tried sleeping in its doorway, unsuccessfully. Listened to BBC World Service on portable radio and realised why I never normally listen to the BBC World Service. The night was long, windy, and wet, and it was only just beginning.
Oddly enough, I didn’t feel scared in my predicament. I think it’s fair to say I’m a sheltered child of parents who worried a lot when I was growing up (and had some very real reasons for that fear which I will spare you the melodrama of). Things like this just don’t typically happen to me. The fact that the dead of night in this town truly was dead played some part in it. No drunken yobs roaming the streets threatening to piss on me as I slept and all the other comforts of home. One of those moments where it truly dawned on me that the big bad world wasn’t as big or bad as I had been raised to believe.
As I recall, I ended up seeing in the morning trying to warm myself in the doorway of the local courtroom. Saw the somewhat fascinating if morbid sight of a large spider attacking and eating a smaller spider on its wall. Ever since, I always try to drop a few more pennies into the hats of those with no other choice than to sleep on the streets and realise that it’s not nearly enough. My brief experience of it, no matter how cold and wet it was, was not permanent.
The first train out of town was mine, and my train was off to London. Things were about to look up, like a rising phoenix or a falling Wiley Coyote. London, two visits in two years, and I still haven’t done everything I want to do there. On my first arrival there, I found a decent hostel right near St. Paul’s Cathedral. A shower and a lot of sleep later, and my poor mood vastly improved. At this point, any notions of an insightful great journey were abandoned. In its place, I was in full-on tourist mode –three days of totally superficial and totally enjoyable sight-seeing.
Found this really awesome art gallery down a side street somewhere that was based entirely on animation and comic art. You could buy stills of Bugs Bunny or an original drawing of Batman by who-ever for a couple of hundred pounds. Couldn’t buy anything there at the time naturally, but some day I will, by damn. Hyde Park and St James Park was pretty laid back and at one point a squirrel came to within an arms length of me on a park bench.
In Soho, I came across this rather tall chick that turned out to be a cross-dresser when I saw her face; pretty damn fine she/he was too. The tube is a pretty grimy but pretty good way to get around, too; something perhaps you only appreciate after living in small towns where the bus’ rarely arrive on time. Sights like Nelsons Column, Big Ben, and Marble Arch were pretty much just there, but they are worth seeing up close at least once in a lifetime; novelty wears off quickly though.
Spent most of a day trying to get to the British Museum and repeatedly getting lost, only to arrive there 20 minutes from closing time. One might not think that one eating an ice-cream in the grounds outside a museum would be the most intolerable of activities, but then again, I don’t have the keen eye of a British museum attendant who told me to stand just outside the gates in order to eat my ice-cream, dick! Found a decent comic book shop down the road, though; always helps to ease the pain, that.
So my budget was promptly abandoned at this point. Now you would think paying £1 for a bottle of soft drink that cost 75p back home wouldn’t be something that would empty your bank account any faster, but it did. In another of a great legacy of great decisions, I just happened to choose the hottest days in August, and so those very same soft drinks were going down at a mighty rate. But anything that maintained my good mood at this point was pretty essential in my view; hearts and minds and all that.
Heck, everything in this city costs more; you know capitalism has gone too far when you have to pay to use the toilets. Despite wanting to stay there for a great deal longer, I decided to move on. But when I left there, I promised myself that when I finally escape this berg I call home, I’m going to live in London although I bet even the cardboard boxes there cost an arm, a leg, and a head in rent.
The next and final stop on my Diet-Grand Adventure was the city of Edinburgh. Now, my memories of that place are pretty good too, although the journey there was anything but. In a money-saving exercise, I decided to get there via a coach to Glasgow. I figured, if I took a late night journey, I would essentially get a night in away from the elements and arrive in Scotland all rested and ready. Did you hear that? Listen carefully now, it’s the sound you get on quiz shows when a contestant gets it WRONG! Shame I didn’t hear it at the time.
I spent about six hours next to this whiny bastard who really got on my bad side quickly. Add to that the air conditioning of the coach fixed on the charbroil setting, a lack of leg room, or any room, on that packed coach, and a fun time was had by all. Initially, I thought about spending a night in Glasgow before moving on to the capital. Initial plans that were quickly dashed upon arrival; you see, I’m sure Glasgow is a wonderful city populated by some great and fascinating people. But arriving there on that early Sunday morning, when it was all grey and rainy. Well, I’ve seen happier post-apocalyptic war films, to be honest. Couldn’t find a place to stay and didn’t have the patience to wait; onto Edinburgh it was.
If I had planned myself much better, I might have arrived here much sooner in August and caught more of the Edinburgh Fringe. If I had done a lot of things better, the venture on the whole would have just been a great deal better than it was. Still, I count my victories where I get them. After finding a hostel reeking with the smell of what I assume to be recreational drugs, I caught myself a load of street performances the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Some of the finest talent I’ve ever enjoyed I enjoyed for those few days. Magicians, acrobatics, comedy, sometimes all three-in-one, and certainly one of the main reasons I must return to this city some day.
There was this insane Australian guy that had so many great qualities. He juggled sharp objects and flaming torches whilst perched on top of a unicycle –a unicycle, I tells yah! No small one either; he was perched high up in the air on that thing. Think he called himself The Space Cowboy. Cute ass too, but let’s not divert my ever so charming prose with such lechery.
There was this charming old gent cracking dirty jokes and innuendo as he made things disappear and reappear with a knowing smile. An American dressed in basketball regalia conjuring so many basketballs in a perilous balancing act on his head. Add to that an Indiana Jones themed performer who juggled flaming objects with some (unsuccessful but amusing) audience participation. Now that’s a day out, I tells ye.
I found it to be a peaceful and chilled-out place too, apart from the late night music of the main festival. I found myself getting into conversations with random people about whatever, and I found it all quite incredibly refreshing, especially compared to my hometown, where random people are more likely to shout obscenities at you from passing cars. After three days here, I was pretty sad to call it an end here, but I had to call it somewhere, the whole thing came to about 10 days in total and I was exhausted.
So that was pretty much it as far as my Grand Adventure went, in 2005, anyway. Did I learn anything? Well, you can’t underestimate the importance of good preparation, that’s for sure. It was my first time doing it, so I always expected things would go a little haphazard and then some. But it felt good to get out of this sheltered existence of mine, even when I was freezing my ass off during the night in a strange town.
I will certainly do the sequel someday soon; I still haven’t really overcome the dilemma of that whole what-to-do-with-my-life thing, and I could use a chance to do it all over again, but better. Little things need to be taken care of first, like getting a driving license that’ll help me get a job. I better insert a seamless segue here about the metaphor of life as a journey for no particular reason. Let me see, if the journey isn’t always a whole can of laughs, you can always guarantee a good ending, unlike this account, which does not.