Innocence Abroad: Chapter 6a



Footloose, foolhardy and freezing in Britain


London: end of April, 1991...




he Journey with Jolene never did happen. Her plans were for later, and mine had to be earlier if I were to see the rest of Britain. The Home Office, in charge of immigration, had given me until the 7th of June to be out of the country. With little enthusiasm for the cold countryside of a British spring I didn't want to attempt a road trip before the end of April, so it left me only five weeks in which to accomplish it.

Though small by American scale, Britain is packed with places worth seeing and I quickly realized the inadequacy of five weeks. Wanting to maintain, as well as I could, a leisurely pace I made the hard choice to stay with the main island and forget about its partner across the Irish Sea. I mapped five regions, and wrote to secure weekend Good Neighbors hosts to pace my progress. For weeknights, I would take whatever was handy and affordable wherever I should find myself. That was the plan, and it looked good on paper; but the road sets its own agenda for footloose travel. Only one of my intended hosts ever materialized, and when the time came I almost wished he hadn't.

The one thing I could hardly afford to be loose about was my money supply. I wanted to use my Social Security income as a budget basis, taking it in a weekly VISA draw of $95. But the whole thing had come under a haze of uncertainty because of a foolhardy thing I did in February. My card was due for a July renewal with an increase in its limit, from $700 to $1200. But knowing I might be anywhere in the midst of Europe by then, unable to get the new card and suddenly without any money access at all, I had sent VISA a request to advance my renewal time to May, even if it meant holding my limit at $700, and asked them to send the new card direct to me in London rather than routing it through Terry in Seattle.

It was innocence in its worst aspect. I full well knew the risk of interfering in a computer process, especially with such a complex request. I was courting the full power of Murphy's Law. But all I could see at the time was the equally Murphy-prone risk of a VISA card chasing me around through Europe.

The net result of my effort was nothing at all: I heard not a word from VISA up to the moment of my departure. It would seem the gentlest retort that Murphy could come up with, but it left me in a complete fog of uncertainty as to what would develop in the matter. Westminster Bank came to my rescue, for the moment, providing me with an ATM card that I could use in cash machines around the country, so long as I kept funds on deposit. A backup that would end, once I left England.

The rest of my trip prep consisted of a hitch-hiker's guide to Britain's motorway system, a stripped-down road atlas annotated with every shred of locational information on hosts, hostels and sightseeing that I could cram into it, and a Vibram renewal of my Rockport walking shoes. I would take no tent or camping gear, just my sleeping bag and ground cloth with a thin, back-length piece of padding, plus an easily rigged overhead mosquito cover. I had a full-size rain poncho that could serve as an over-all tarp in case of emergency. The only new gear I bought was a super-light water-resistant windbreaker that rolled tightly into a belt-pack. At $50 it was my biggest expense, but it allowed me to leave behind a much heavier all-weather Gore-Tex jacket. My final carrying weight was only 25 lbs. I was gambling weight against weather, of course, and it could backfire on me.

Marjory had consented to be my London base, as Terry was my Seattle anchor. I left my excess belongings with her and planned my return for the few days before June 7th, when I'd make the final arrangements for either going on into Europe or heading for home.

The adventure would begin by rail. I wanted none of the hassle of trying to hitch out of the world's largest city. Marjory once more offered a transition zone for me, as she had when I first settled in Southfields. I vacated my Balham residence with Mrs. Firfirey at April's end for a final weekend of Marjory's 'bed and board' comfort, balanced on the knife-edge of uneasy tension between anticipation and apprehension.

MONDAY'S GREY OVERCAST was no energizer. I lingered through the morning at last minute stuff, almost hoping that rain would provide an excuse to wait another day. But by noon it was still dry so I shouldered my pack and headed for London's Paddington Station, from where Oxford was only forty-five minutes away. Even as the train pulled out, the sky was still trying to decide whether to lighten-up or unload.

By the time we got to Oxford the decision was in. Water came down with pluvial abandon, confirming the most insistent of my pre-trip fears. I later learned it was the heaviest single day's rainfall in six months. But there is something singularly liberating in such a beginning. When the worst happens right at the start, all you can do is laugh at how pointedly the Universe responds to your sense of limits.

I found myself, in fact, revelling in the downpour, as I walked through Oxford town taking it full blast. I had placed just one call at the station, to a friend of a friend back home who'd sent me the name. Relief at Martin's spur-of-the-moment welcome was part of my cheer, but mostly it was the cathartic lift of being at last on the open road, done with winter's long wait and all the pre-trip anxieties. The rain was a baptism. I could have taken a bus, but I walked the weather-ravaged mile joyously getting soaked.

Martin was involved with right-livelihood issues and alternative economics. I knew that already, but I had forgotten my further information that he had been a Labour Party city councilman, and I plunged into instant quicksand with a comment on Britain's recent election that could be construed as a positive assessment of the Conservatives. What I thought was a cold glare, however, turned out to be Martin's normally serious way of pursuing political discussion. I angled out of it with some discomfort, and after that stayed carefully away from politics. Reminiscing about our mutual friend took up the slack, with small talk on what might be seen in Oxford on a rainy day. Martin's russet-haired wife, Mandy, was an easier conversationalist, if just a bit intimidating by her straightforward way of nursing an infant as we talked.

I almost hadn't come here at all. For uncertain reasons, Cambridge has always held a greater fascination for me than Oxford and I thought I'd have to choose one or the other at the very end of my route. This first week was for the southwest corner of Britain: Devon and Cornwall, with Oxford far off to the side of my course. But when one of Marjory's friends said I shouldn't want to miss it, I patched it in as my first stop.

She was right, I loved Oxford. Somehow, this rainy-day gray was a perfect complement for the yellow-tan tint of its college stonework, quarried in sufficient volume to cast the character of the entire town. I explored a few of the college quads, but with spring exams underway most of them were off-limits to visitors. It made little difference, for there was enough else to see in the crosswork of shopping streets and passageway alleys that interweave among them. For me, they radiated the charm of a Dickens lithograph, though they weren't really that quaint. But they seemed to typify a vision of `olde England' carried for years somewhere in my head.

I found the Ashmolean Museum, an archeological repository that had been a legendary name to me since pre-teen days of intellectual foray, when I romanticized over the discovery of Egyptian royal tombs, and the pioneer dinosaur-digs of explorer Roy Chapman Andrews in outer Mongolia.

I had only intended to spend one night here, but the continuing storm and the sheer pleasure of walking Oxford's rainy-day streets made me receptive when Martin's welcome was extended for another night. I spent most of that next day browsing bookstores, flirting with my most dangerous passion. I was hard put to resist their pull in London; and now, free of survival constraints, I could contain the impulse no longer.

Secondhand bookshops have been a hazard to my budget since nearly as far back as memory can take me. In a university setting, I find them almost impossible to resist. In Britain, especially, they were full of unexpected gems that seldom surface in Stateside shops. But I handled myself nicely, here, purchasing only one slight find - for Terry, as it happened - and had the shop post it back to Marjory rather than add its weight to my pack.

The weather hadn't much improved by Wednesday. But I could delay no longer - though I had to stretch for the willpower to cast myself out, suddenly on my own once more, in the frigid countryside. I wanted to head south, directly to Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge, for the week was half gone already. But there were no prospective hosts in that area and the weather had me intimidated. I decided on Swindon, half the distance and somewhat west of the course, but progress of a sort.

Though cold, it was tentatively dry that morning, and seemed a fair time to try my luck at hitch-hiking. A local bus took me to the edge of Oxford town, where I picked a likely spot and stood braced against icy winds, feeling awkward as usual. Facing left lane traffic was a unique experience, but otherwise it was the same old game. After three-quarters of an hour, with an occasional few raindrops to keep me aware that there was no shelter should it get serious, my ride came along, a young fellow in a big blue truck - or lorry, to be proper about it. He took me the full thirty miles to Swindon, clearly pleased to discover that he was giving an American his first ride in Britain. In Swindon, I reached a GN host couple in nearby Wootton Bassett, a village named for some ancient feudal lord, if I remember right. British place names quite often sound as though they were arrived at by mischievous elves playing word games.

I was immediately welcomed with hot tea and biscuits, prepared by a flaxen-haired young Scottish matron named Ann, whose husband, Jon, was off at work - which turned out to be downstairs in a basement veterinary surgery (that's a clinic, remember?). He fascinated me that evening with a discourse on the increasing use of acupuncture and homeopathy in treating animals - proof, it seemed to me, that such healing is not merely psychological. But it was Ann's thoughtful reflections on the challenge of keeping a country family in good balance that made the deeper impression on me that evening. Thanks to the absence of one of their two teen-agers, away at school, I had a room to myself . . . but chose to make my bed that night - as I would many times in the coming weeks - on the rug-cushioned floor.

Morning brought the surprise of sunshine! Ann had her own surprise - a suggestion that I might like to pedal the twelve miles down to Avebury on the family's spare bicycle and see the great stone circles there. So off I went, with a small lunch she packed for me, along a bumpy, narrow country road, glorying in the sun like any carefree school kid . . . for two and a half miles until the rear tire began to fade. So much for teen-age joys at 64. I found a phone about a mile further along, and waited there for her to come and get me in the family wagon. We went on to Avebury in a more seemly fashion.

Avebury's fame centers on an assortment of giant hewn stones patterned in impressive circles whose age and exact purpose has been lost in Celtic antiquity. They are widely regarded as evidence of the very earliest human efforts at understanding and relating to the Universe. I spent a half hour among those great brooding stones. The complex almost overwhelms the small village that has grown around them. It is a large enough arrangement, and the visitors were few enough on this sunny but chill weekday morn, that I could quietly walk among the stones, feel them, lean against them and try to conjure scenes that might have taken place here, thousands of years ago.

The next morning I was off to Stonehenge, spurred to an early departure by the continuing sunshine, this time via county bus at a cheap rate ($5.75) for the entire day. It didn't go direct, but down to Amesbury, a couple miles from the site, where a transfer bus comes through every two hours. I somehow managed, despite good enough timing, to miss this second bus - which proved to be the day's blessing. Rather than wait two hours for the next, I shouldered my pack and set out on the two-mile walk, which has got to be the only way to properly approach Stonehenge.

I'd been told by several people, including my recent host, Ann, that Stonehenge is not as impressive as its fame would suggest. Since becoming a major tourist attraction it has been protectively roped off from full access. The visitor is allowed only within a hundred feet or so, which deprives one of the entire experience of being within the setting. This is like barring visitors from the interior of a great cathedral. It makes a spectacle of Stonehenge instead of an experience - a prove-you've-been-here camera target for the thousands who weekly come by bus and auto.

But by the pure accident of hiking to the site, Stonehenge became for me a uniquely memorable experience. The walk begins as an easy rise, curving up from Amesbury toward the main highway which crests in a shallow dome at just about where the two roads join. At this point, still a mile distant, the henge comes into view, lonely in the rolling green meadow, not impressively large except in contrast to the ant-like figures that cluster around. It was this contrast, and the invisibility of all tourist trappings as the stones loomed slowly larger on my approach, that gave them dignity and put the human element in proper perspective. Coming to the monument at a measured pace, with earplugs in place so that the roar of traffic going by was only a gentle hum, my walk became a meditative pilgrimage.

I've often wondered if a hearing handicap might not be a blessing in today's high decibel world. I regularly use earplugs to cut the blare, just as dark glasses are used by others to moderate glare. I've discovered, in fact, a curious relationship between hearing and vision. A change in one can affect the subjective experience of the other. I found this out, one day, while walking the open roadside with a snugly set pair of earplugs. Beyond all credibility, it visually slows down the traffic by a substantial margin!

When I finally reached the site it was practically an anticlimax. The huge stones had gotten small, in the surround of those tourist-ants now grown to full size. Any sense of awe, or even respect, was impossible in their midst. I chose not to pay the $2.75 asked for a slightly closer view. I'd already had the view I wanted, and was satisfied to be on my way.

IT WAS FRIDAY, now, and I realized, as the departure bus took me back to Amesbury and on toward Salisbury, that my week's moment of truth had arrived. The patched-in trip to Oxford, with my weather-wary lingering there and at Swindon, had used up most of the time meant for Devon and Cornwall on the coast. Prudently, I decided to abandon that agenda . . . to gracefully accept its loss and head directly west toward Bristol rather than force a catch-up pace on myself for the rest of the journey. I'd get a good weekend rest, and be in place for next week's intended passage through Wales. But Salisbury gave me a taste of just how arbitrary my choices had to be. The town begged for exploration - one of the most picturesque spots I had yet come to. But I had just a half hour between buses, or else get caught by darkness midway along the next leg.

Heading west, trying to decide whether I should lay over in Bath or go directly on to Bristol, I was suddenly inspired by the day's lingering sunshine. Who needed the hassle of seeking a host in either place, when I could just as easily spend a night under the stars? The two towns were only twelve miles apart, and I targeted a point midway between them, figuring I could go either way in the morning, as fancy should suggest.

Alighting from the bus at a village called Saltford, I headed down a ravine road to get away from the highway and soon struck a hiking trail alongside a rail line. I followed it west toward Bristol, and within a half mile encountered a hideaway spot completely off the trail and out of its sight, the perfect place. There was hardly an hour left, now, before dark - just time enough to lay out my gear and get comfortable.

Sleeping in the rough, as they call it in Britain, was an adventure indulgence harking back to many trips made in earlier years. It never occurred to me that I hadn't done it in awhile, and might not have quite the same physical resiliency for it as I once did. I was pleased with the choice, however, and lay there happily nibbling on crackers and an apple until I saw what was happening to the sky. The shallow light of sunset on the west horizon had darkened to a colorless haze, of the sort that all too often in my experience has signaled the approach of stormy weather.

I was too committed, now, for any second thoughts. I quickly spread the poncho taut above my sleeping-bag, thankful for the presence of a few hardy scrub trees to which I could secure it with nylon cord and the further assist of two or three stakes. I hoped it would all be unnecessary. But it was quite necessary.

The rain began shortly after dark, and while never very heavy it did not let up before morning. My protective measures did amazingly well, allowing me a decent length of warm sleep, though not entirely a dry sleep. In fact, midway through the night I had to improvise a further bracing of the poncho/tarp to forestall a disaster that threatened from the water that was accumulating above me. But it had already encroached, giving my warm cocoon the icky feeling of nocturnal incontinence.

I was up with the grey dawn, miserably damp and stiff but in reasonably good spirits, all things considered - quite possibly because the ordeal was over, or at least the passive part of it. In seeming contrition, the rain paused for just the time it took to get into some dry clothing (relatively speaking), collect my gear and move on out toward Bristol, following the tracks. It was mushy walking, skirting puddles, hassled by wind-driven moisture that collected on my brow and dribbled down into my eyes. According to my map, a rail station should be nearby. It somehow never struck me, that no train had gone by since I first came upon the tracks, the evening before.

About two miles out from my rain-soaked night's bivouac the station materialized out of the foggy murk, just up ahead . . . but something was extraordinarily wrong about the place. It was totally deserted and silent. Yet, trains stood ready to depart. Trains that . . . were not of this time! Powerful old steam engines with great black drive-wheels as tall as me, and coaches of a similar ancient vintage. I was momentarily sure I had been thrust back into the last century, in this eerie gray mist - until a clatter broke the spell, and I swung around to see a trashman by the corner of the station, dumping a garbage cannister.

He seemed as surprised as I, at the sight of my own surprise. "Ye'll find no one there, Mate. Museum's still shut down fer winter."


"Sur-r-e." He had a bit of brogue. "Were y'maybe lookin' fer the Dooblin Limited?"

I told him I only wanted to get to Bristol, and he came back with a hearty laugh, informing me that these were old, abandoned tracks. But he proved to be an angel, for he was driving off toward the real station, a mile to the north, and said he'd take me along.

In the due course of a short train ride I reached Bristol Station, still wet and cold, and found a heating vent to sit by while I surveyed the possibilities for a weekend host, over hot tea and a crumpet. It was mid-morning, and my fourth phone call connected with a young mother named Debbie. She had three uproarious kids, all under eight, and just the barest space to put me in: a spare cot in their dining room; but by this time any shelter at all looked extremely good. It wasn't just "any at all," though, for I found Debbie to be a serene and spiritual woman strongly motivated by an inner call to the Anglican priesthood, and I liked her right from the start.

I had no particular reason to want to see Bristol. I went there for its proximity to both Wales and Bath. Everyone had said Bath was the one place in Britain I should not miss. But I found Bristol much more to my liking. It might simply have been that I have no great feeling for Georgian architecture, which is entirely what Bath is. Or maybe because I'd hoped there might be some hot baths there. No one seemed to think it odd that there are no longer any hot baths in Bath - which is what the place historically was all about.

I took that side-trip on Sunday. On the Saturday of my wet arrival at Debbie's I set right out in search of a laundromat where I could dry my sleeping bag, and was at once drawn along Bristol's interesting alleyways and avenues. Debbie lived among the hills and hangouts of a college district - the gallery and bookshop sort that are such fun to explore. But this was also an old-time and long lived-in district which, in its hillside way, had a strong San Francisco flavor that felt instantly congenial. All day long I roamed: browsing shops, walking to the high overlook above the Avon River where it flows into the Severn, marvelling at the grand old suspension bridge that crosses the gorge, here. It was designed 150 years ago by a young man of thirty named Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and he died twenty-six years later - before it was completed! My walk then took me to the city's free museum where I found a unique collection of ship models illustrating the entire history of sea-going vessels - from the primitive multi-oared Phoenician sort to the grand luxury liners of just awhile ago - all built to the same scale, so that endless interesting comparisons could be made.

Bristol's secondhand bookshops, some of the cheapest I would find in England, yielded five small items, all for about $13, including a hard-to-find volume of personal philosophy by John Cowper Powys, whose writing had begun to interest me, and a small, nicely bound edition of W. H. Hudson's earliest work, The Purple Land. One proprietor would mail the lot to London for me, for another few pounds (seven dollars!). It was an extravagant indulgence, the whole business, but I had to be good to myself after a night out in the rain. That evening, Debbie served a meal of cooked duck for the occasion of my visit, and the kids were on their best behavior - albeit with unrestrained curiosity about their grey-bearded guest.

My first week's travel expenses, even with Saturday's book binge, came in quite handily at $89.39. $25.53 of that had gone on books and their postage, a category amount exceeded only by the $28.46 that went for transportation.


"...a meditative pilgrimage" Rupert Sheldrake expresses much the same sort of thing in his book, The Rebirth of Nature:
"The journey itself is as much a part of the pilgrimage as arriving... The final approach is best made on foot - to experience a sense of the place and adjust to the ancient rhythm of walking...
"Going to a sacred place as a tourist impoverishes the experience...but going as a pilgrim enriches it."



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