Newcastle, England: May 23, 1991...
ack in England again, I had little difficulty locating a Newcastle host, but walked into a rather odd situation. The person on my GN list was not actually there. It was the home of his mother . . . who wasn't even the one to invite me in. I had spoken on the phone with another woman entirely, who was conducting a residential growth workshop there, on the weekend that was about to begin. I never quite sorted all of this out - though I did finally meet the mother - but it was a pleasant lodging of two nights, with no reason to complain. Except that on the final morning I felt a bit out of place taking toast and tea among the assembled weekend workshop guests.
The part of Newcastle I saw felt like a midwestern American town. I was mostly occupied, there, by a resumption of VISA card problems, trying to find an ATM bank machine that would give me more than £10 - another strangeness that I couldn't account for. I wouldn't get very far on $17. In the course of this travail, I was accosted by a young couple of clearly uncertain means who asked if I could sponsor them to some gas money. I am ordinarily at least sympathetic to such requests, but I wasn't in a mood for it and brushed aside their entreaties, at which the woman caustically suggested that I might someday find myself without funds. With only £4.20 in my pocket, I felt like barking back at her that the day had just arrived. But I was sure she'd never believe it. My good old Westminster Bank account finally came to the rescue. But I knew I'd have to do something about that inscrutable VISA card sometime in the remaining ten days before I took the plunge into Europe.
Just out of Newcastle, I took to the highway again and knew immediately that I was back in hitch-hiking country. Three rapid-fire lifts got me to York, some 75 miles, a town famous, and justly so, for its abundance of quaint historic architecture, along with one of Britain's most impressive cathedrals. Here, though, I drew a complete blank, in the search for a host. But the cold latitudes of Scotland were behind me now, and the evening air of York seemed almost balmy.
I roamed through the parks and among ancient Roman ruins in the heart of town, spotting several fair prospects for a night's comfort. I finally settled on a secluded parking area enclosed by a small complex of school buildings. While it was essentially a parking lot, there were trees, shrubs, and a kind of long-forgotten garden, overgrown and flush with all the camouflage I would need, even though it afforded no structural screen. But the area itself was entirely separate from the outer streets. It was so remote from the summer evening throngs that I laid out my gear at once and just relaxed with an hour of good music coming in on my battery radio. A few cars drifted in just before dusk - something was going on in one of the near buildings, and I took care to stay out of sight.
At twilight, after I was snug in my sleeping bag, a fellow strolled by within fifteen feet of me singing to himself, on a path from which I was clearly visible if he had just turned his head a bit. But he didn't see me at all, for there was no break in his melody. I felt as if I had a cloak of invisibility. Another gentleman, grey-haired and rather dignified, came out of the building momentarily and relieved himself when he was quite sure there was no one around to see him. I drifted off, soon after that, and it was one of the most pleasant of all my nights out.
On Sunday morning the town of York, so busy the evening before, was as empty as if every soul had followed a pied piper - and the town's physical character matched the theme to perfection: narrow, crooked alleys lined with leaning buildings, their half-timbered upper floors jutting out almost far enough to hug each other across the gap. I walked south until the town thinned out and traffic began to thicken, and then I found a good spot to wait for a ride. Before long it arrived: a congenial fellow in a small pickup truck who said he'd help me find Sherwood Forest, if it was there. He had simply asked where I should like to be dropped, and I told him.
It had been a fanciful dream of mine to spend a night in Sherwood Forest, maybe to encounter a ghost or two clad in Lincoln green. But my map wasn't quite good enough, or the right road eluded us, or whatever is left of Sherwood is too small to be noticed. My driver did the next best thing, taking me to the outskirts of Nottingham. On the four-mile walk from there into town, over hill and dale that felt proper to the image, I came upon a woodsy detour that seemed to be right out of a fairytale, and I decided to be satisfied that I had found a Sherwood Forest remnant, after all. But it was a little too close to town to spend the night there - I wasn't looking for an encounter with the ghost of the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire.
I wanted to linger a bit in Nottingham and look for any more of that romantic imagery that might be discoverable. But the town was unexceptional except for a marvelously original statue of Robin Hood. It was chunky and bold, nothing at all like the Errol Flynn version, yet somehow quite all right. I found GN hospitality in the upscale suburb of Gotham, with a young couple, Lewis and Heather, for whom I was their very first Good Neighbors guest. For the occasion, they took me on a country drive to see some nearby stone villages, and a Pagan-vestige celebration called `Well-dressing Day.' It featured a competition in art created from entirely natural materials: seeds, flowers, bark, grasses, etc., complete with a marching band at the head of the award procession.
From Nottingham, still hitch-hiking south, I stopped at Northampton, where VISA is handled in Britain, to see if anything could be learned or done about my fitful and fickle card. I was directed to Barclaycard headquarters, the British agent for VISA - a black fortress of a building so protectively paranoid with security measures that I had to use a telephone in the lobby to get nothing more redeeming than the advice of a toll-free California number to call. I postponed it for London and took a bus on to Cambridge.
As loose and easy as I had tried to keep my travels, the arrival in Cambridge was timed to coincide with one of their periodic antiquarian bookmarkets that was set for the following day. Its importance hinged on the mere fact that I hadn't yet been to one of these affairs in Britain. I wanted to see Cambridge, itself, of course, and had made my one advance reservation with a GN host, there, for the final weekend of the journey. But that was yet several days away, and I had hoped to bridge the gap with one or two other hosts in the area. But I found myself disappointed with Cambridge, right from the start.
Its streets felt less hospitable than Oxford's, and the colleges somehow colder, less inviting - which surprised me after a lifelong mindset that favored Cambridge, of the two. It felt doubly unfriendly when I tried to locate a host. Not one, among a fair-sized list, was available to me. I was used to this, by now, and recognized that I had no justification for being critical of it since the rules of the game were to make advance arrangements. But my way of travel could not easily handle that. As a last resort, I called my upcoming Sunday host to ask if he could possibly take me in earlier. But no, he insisted on the arrangement we had made many weeks before. The youth hostel was too expensive for me, and I was down to the last recourse: another night out in the rough.
I found my spot within some shrubbery, in a well-used park right next to Christ's College, at the very heart of town. It was fairly well hidden from every side, though close enough to several park benches that I was almost inside conversations. I heard fragments of an exuberant exchange, with even snatches of song, among several old and younger footloose types, making light of the very sort of outcast life I was engaged in. They might easily have been rehearsing for a parkside showing of Oliver! It all settled down with the approach of evening and I got a good night's sleep there.
Daybreak's problem was being wide awake, up and about, with absolutely nothing to do - not for a couple hours, until a coffee shop opened, and then a couple more before the booksale got underway. It was expectably out of my price range, but I found a pair of items on a £2 `throwaway shelf,' one of them by Dorothy L. Sayers who, despite her greater renown as a mystery writer, did her most enduring work on metaphysical and social themes. This small volume, The Mind of the Maker, may have been overpriced, even at $3.50, but her serious work had always eluded me in the States.
There was little use remaining in Cambridge after that, and I decided to head for East Anglia, almost sorry, now, that my weekend arrangement compelled a return. I'd have much preferred going straight to London, to relax and prepare for the channel crossing, than linger further on this all but completed circuit of Britain. It pointed up the pitfalls of a predetermined itinerary. Sure, I could simply have abandoned it and sent my regrets, but the other half of the problem was the schedule with Marjory for my return on the following Monday. The only thing to do was bear with it and see what the journey's extension offered.
THE FIRST THING it offered was a hair-raising ride across the East Anglia countryside in a hot red Porsche, the speedometer trembling up at 130 mph - and that's miles, not kilometers. I was riding with a would-be jet pilot in the guise of a regional Kirby distributor, who seemed to be trying to crack my cool. But I've been driven by crazier fools . . . though never at that speed. Needless to say, it didn't take long for the sixty-mile drive to Norwich.
I had no trouble discovering my next hosts, there: Pam and Pete, a young couple trying to make a go of a green-oriented sales agency for personal and home products. They lived in a lower duplex unit, small rooms crowded with shelving that held plastic containers of every sort and further disarrayed by all that goes with the nurture of a small child. Pam, it developed, was a doctrinaire Liberal, and I tripped over my own feet once again - which strangely seemed to happen to me more often with Labourites than Conservatives. I merely said something about finding it a stimulating challenge, to make this sort of journey on poverty resources.
"Stimulating?" She looked at me rather dubiously.
"Well, sort of proving it can be done, you know."
"Just because it can be done doesn't mean it ought to be that way."
I should have realized that she was focused on poverty as a handicap of inequality, while I was hailing its adventurous aspects. "I mean, it's so threatening to most people. But traveling poor is a real discovery process, just seeing what comes of it. Crazy as it seems, things always seem to happen for the best."
"Don't forget, you're white and American, but what about . . ." and she was off into a litany of the dispossessed poor . . . here, there, and all over.
I tried to explain that I had said nothing in favor of poverty, and went on with the point I was really trying to make: that our personal reality is determined at least as much by our attitude toward circumstance as by circumstance itself. But it was like throwing gasoline on a small fire.
"There are too many people in this world," she went on, hardly pausing to think about what I'd said, "whose `attitude' is determined by a poverty reality much more severe than your hundred dollars a week for traveling around, and you don't help their struggle by suggesting that they've got an attitude problem."
It was a discussion turning swiftly into a disaster, and I had to back off entirely with some humble contrition, allowing her point. But the damage to our relations had been done, and most of my further conversation was with Pete.
When it came time to move on I decided to visit Ipswich, forty miles to the south, and both of them told me it was hardly a place worth seeing. It turned out that Pam, whose scorn for Ipswich was as great as Pete's, had never once been there in all her 35-odd years! I realized, then, that the poor woman had not an adventurous bone in her body.
The two towns were actually not much different, Norwich having perhaps an edge in historic interest, but Ipswich was close to the sea, which reasonably made up for it. I was quite journey-weary, by this time, and found the large, immaculate home of my Ipswich hosts, Jill and Patrick, a very welcome change of venue. They, too, were political liberals, but of a less fractious sort: reserved, intellectual - more likely, I suspect, to fund their causes than march for them. They took me out on a wonderful dusk-of-day nature walk in a nearby reserve, hoping to provide me a hearing of the nightingale. It never showed up for us, though.
I returned to Cambridge on a direct Sunday morning bus, facilitated by the sudden appearance of another angel - a stranger who popped up from nowhere to advise me that the bus I wanted was leaving, in a very few minutes, from another gate than the one I was waiting at. I have no idea, to this day, how he ever knew where I was going. He butted into a conversation I was having with someone else, over whether the exact fare was required on these buses, and Cambridge had never been mentioned.
But I was little better off making it early than late. The weather on both ends was dreary, and I already knew my evening's hosts were out for the day. I passed the afternoon of this forgettable Sunday in a Cambridge free museum of the uninspired kind, feeling like a sad-faced basset hound tied-up and waiting for someone's return. Finally, I walked out to their home, getting there in time to hide under the eaves from rainfall just begun - for they were not yet there. Our arrangement, made back in March, had been for seven p.m., and at precisely that time their car pulled into the driveway. Dinner was soon underway, pre-planned with as much precision; and I learned as we dined that Alan and Toni were both mathematicians teaching at Cambridge. If it didn't actually explain their precisional lives, it left me feeling as though it had.
The motorway was within sight of my upstairs bedroom window. I expected the short fifty-mile hop from Cambridge to London would be a snap, and there was never any question but that I'd do it on the road, weather permitting. The weather on that Monday morning was as clear, and quite as cold, as a pitcher of ice water. But that was not going to stop me. I was out there in the frigid sunlight as early as I could be. There was just one thing wrong with it all. I was at a north-of-town motorway juncture trying to hitch south - probably the dumbest mistake a hitch-hiker can make. No, there's a dumber mistake: I was stubborn about it.
None of the options seemed very attractive, once I realized my error. I didn't feel like hiking all the way back through this sizable town again, and it seemed a foolhardy risk to tempt the constabulary by walking down the motorway (three miles) to the south-end access. I couldn't bring myself to try the radical alternative that was probably the best: hitching north, to reach a more likely spot from which to hitch south. Instead, I stood there and nearly froze, for a full five quarters of an hour - the longest wait of my entire British journey - until a big truck and trailer rig finally stopped for me, a rare lift in any situation. Happily, he was going all the way in to Heathrow airport.
It took over two hours to get there, in London's traffic maze, and seemed more like a half-day, for I was in a half-world of rumbling comfort and drowsy exhaustion . . . luxuriating in the double-dosed euphoria of respite from the morning's biting cold and the last-leg completion of my five-week adventure/ordeal. I was in a blissful nowhere-land that kept fading in and out of reality, and I've no doubt the driver was absolutely sure I was stoned.
He dropped me at a point close to the Underground, and I was soon knocking on Marjory's great old hardwood door in Southfields, quite ready to call it a journey.
"...Sherwood Forest remnant." I later learned that Sherwood Forest stretched north from Nottinham, within a few miles of the present town. My chosen spot may actually have been at its perimeter!
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