I had this idea that one of my “things” for the current year, would be to go away once a month. Away is open to interpretation so my parameters were: it doesn’t include my regular stays up on the coast and it must involve at least one night away from home. I didn’t (still don't) have list of places to go.
As I headed out on my first one, I couldn’t even remember what my original motivation was. Why am I doing this?
I pushed the thought away and settled into just enjoying it. Easy enough when buses and trains do exactly what you need them to do, when waiting for the first bus in the bright cold, you are entertained by student gossip that takes you back to your own shared bedsit days and you realise how little things have really changed. There’s a comfort in that. The cyclical nature of it.
Also, when you get to the station super-early but remember you have flexible ticket and can get on the train that is ready to leave, rather than the one you intended to be on, another quiet satisfaction.
Then…oh,can I just shout out a word of delight for the new Elizabeth Line across London?! I love it.
Not only does it make getting from Liverpool Street to Paddington a simple transfer rather than nightmare of hauling luggage between lines, but it is beautiful. There is something futuristic and alien and achingly beautiful about the sinuous concrete curves of the corridors and escalator drops, and the way the very long trains actually snake their way through the tunnels.
Where all the other lines have aimed for shiney and modern (from the 1800s onwards) this one has gone for restful and subtle. Its less-bright lighting seems to acknowledge that we’re underground, deep underground, rather than seeking to deny it.
Leaving early doesn’t mean getting there any sooner. Sometimes it can mean waiting at one of the en route stations for longer. In this case, Paddington.
But I am learning to wait. My lessons in patience are beginning to pay off. I find myself much more happily standing still, watching the departure board change, listening to the conversations going on around me, admiring the fashion show that is travellers in transit.
I remember the lockdown years. Not so long ago, but fading already. I remember saying that among the things I missed were “railway stations”. I don’t want to forget that: how much I missed the people-watching opportunity, the space-appreciation opportunity, the time to just be, the noise, the
activity, the life of a busy railway station. I am glad to be back – back on the road, back on the rails.
Plan: none whatsoever.
I had a destination and a place to stay and that was as far as I’d thought this through. Various ideas wandered through my head as the GWR carried me south- and westwards, as to how I would tie these twelve trips together. None of them fully settled.
The truth is, I don’t know if I’m looking for focus or soft fascination. I don’t know if I’m looking for pilgrimage or process or randomness. Am I trying to accomplish something here, or is it part of the running away from that too-deeply-embedded need to achieve?
I don’t think I’m looking for anything in particular. I think it is just about refilling the well. A series of “Artist’s Dates” as Cameron would call them, or “sharpening the saw” in Covey-speak.
For those who don’t know me, I should come clean: my life is easy. I don’t have such a super-stressful existence that I need to “get away from it all”.
Besides, I know that we can’t. I know that whatever “it” is, we take it with us wherever we go.
However, I also know how easy it is to settle into a pattern of days: to stop living and regress into simply existing. I know that to avoid that, we need to move, shift gears, change the energy. There are many ways to do this, but for me the easiest is to simply go somewhere else, to tune into another place. I’m not sure that the “where” matters at all. I think what matters for me is the sequence of planning, acting and relinquishing control.
That sequence applies to all journeys. We make a plan: decide where and when. We act: set out on the road. We relinquish control: accept whatever happens along the way.
I don’t mean to suggest that the last stage is easy, but fight it as we might, we have no option but to relinquish control and accept what happens along the way. Travel delays, accommodation upsets, annoying people, unpleasant weather, health hiccups, all of these are beyond our control.
How come we rarely notice the opposite? Smooth connections, beautiful accommodation hosted by lovely people, our favourite kind of weather, and a body that behaves itself (more or less).
We don’t notice the smoothness of the ride because it does not make for an interesting story. I’ll come back to this…but first I wonder about why I’m doing this at all.
Perhaps this need to travel, to move, to see difference (different landscapes, buildings, people, history, plants, food, shops, art, clothing) to hear difference (languages, accents, songs, stories), to smell difference (unfamiliar flowers and kitchen aromas, the way a place smells in the heat of the day, or after rain), to taste unaccustomed combinations of food (even if I’ve thrown it together myself from whatever I’ve found in the market or the corner convenience store), to touch difference (walls of foreign stones, or the feel of strange seas against my skin) – perhaps all of this is inbred, learned quite literally at my father’s knee.
Or maybe…now…2023…it is newly born out of fear: the fear of my world shrinking the way I had watched it do for others. I saw my Mam’s world shrivel til all it contained was twice-weekly trips to the Town Centre to shop for things she did not need and to drink a pot of tea with strangers. I watched my Dad retreat into his books and trying to see if he could still plot a course by dead reckoning, when his real world was circumscribed by shopping and Sudoku and Saturday lunchtimes in the corner of The Big Club bar that the betting men had started to call “the
Departure Lounge” as they watched their numbers diminish month on month. I witnessed Clive’s world diminish to hold only me and Sainsbury’s and Eve On Line, just has his mother’s had retracted into one corner of the living room that it took all her courage to step away from.
I am afraid of losing the big wide world out there.
Post-pandemic, I am still not ready to brave Customs & Immigration lines that might ask for health certifications that I cannot (will not) provide. I’m not as fit as I was. I don’t know when I’ll next leave the country. And that is narrowing enough.
And yet, it still leaves a wide open pathway of places to explore. I have seen more of this country than most people I know, but I also know there are zillions of places that still wait my footprints and my way of looking at them.
Most of the things I want can be found without my having to travel to the other side of the planet. I want wide horizons and sea and sky and hills. I want old buildings with their history written on and in their walls. I want rivers and lakes. I want cottages. I want train stations. I want to see the world through different windows, to sleep under different eaves, wake to different stars or clouds or
clear blue skies.
I want to hear birdsong in different cadences. Did you know that songbirds have regional accents? But then again, why wouldn’t they? I wonder if the same is true of seals, or whales, or badgers, or squirrels.
I used to think I wanted to be a travel writer. Travelling was the only thing I wanted to do as a child that has remained the consistent thread of my life. I love to read about other people’s adventures and thought I wanted to emulate them: in having the adventures and in being able to recount them in a way worth the reading. Now, though, my personal definition of “adventure" – personal in the sense of ‘how it applies to me’ – has softened.
The notion of simplifying my life seeps into my understanding of adventuring, and as with other areas of day-to-day living I find myself welcoming it and resisting it and trying to understand it and wondering why I feel the need to justify it all at the same time.
I am still learning how to ‘just be’ in a place, especially in a new or strange place. It seems that there is still a sliver of me wondering what other people will expect of me upon my return. "I look forward to hearing all about it," they say, on the assumption that there will be something worth telling. Must there be so?
Why can’t I go away for a few days and not leave the rented cottage? It is as much a new space to me, a shift of energy, as anything outside its walls. Why can’t I curl up with a book in front of a different fire? Or sit and write in this high-ceilinged room with the light showering down from tall windows that reveal nothing but tree and sky? Why must I go home with a report of activities or ceremonies or people met along the way? Why should I feel the need to end every other sentence with yeah, really interesting, or amazing!
Who or what, I wonder, am I trying to live up to?
The problem is this: I haven’t found a way of expressing this gentle form of travelling, this mode of wandering off somewhere, quietly and alone, but not into the wilderness, not to be harassed by bears or fall off cliffs or get caught in avalanches, just to go somewhere that is new-to-me, where I can spend days in idle curiosity, pottering about.
There is so much pleasure to be gained from reading the ghost signs on the buildings, rummaging in pokey little shops, buying things on a whim in the market place, walking out along the river on a morning swamped in frost and fog, without a map, or a destination, just knowing that I’ll walk along the river until I decide to turn back.
There is a calmness in cooking a simple makeshift dinner for myself, and settling to eat it, with a book or a movie for company and not expecting nor wanting any other.
There is a satisfying strangeness in waking to unexpected light, with no need to plan the day.
I only wish I could imbue it all with something that would make it as much worth the telling as it is worth the living. Or better yet, I wish that I didn’t feel the need to do that at all – that I could
come back and simply say: I loved it, but you probably wouldn’t understand why.