Things did not go exactly as planned. Fellow travelers will know of course that this can cause both unexpected joys and unexpected trouble–both of which, of course, lend to the continuing narrative of the story said traveler plans to repeat over and over again upon having grandchildren and acquiring Alzheimers. If they’re going to be hearing this thing twice a day until you die, it might as well be good.
So. Enough filler. After finishing my last post I fully intended to walk around town until around dark and then head back to my hostel for a decent night’s rest and an early start. My plan went perfectly until, as the sun began to set and the light was fading, I sat down near the center of Inverness to write my journal entry for the day. As I was finishing, with the very phrase “heading back to the hostel to read write, and/or draw,” I struck up a conversation with a rather winded looking character who sat down beside me. His name was Moz, and it seemed he had his finger in a bit of everything–he’d done some website design, and the winded look was because he’d just gotten out of a Korean martial arts class, in which he is an instructor. A few other locals joined us and they decided to head to some of the local pubs, and asked if I’d like to come along. Needless to say, I didn’t need much convincing.
We went to a few of the normal (quite nice) local pubs in the center of Inverness, where I tried some local Scottish ale, and then headed to a smaller, somehow warmer, upstairs pub downtown. We joined up with a couple of local guys and fell to talking about everything from politics to religion to travel to television shows–with some rather serious discussion about how the great timelord Dr. Who is going to be resurrected after his thirteenth self. If you haven’t seen the show, don’t worry, neither have I, but apparently I’m going to have to.
After this we headed to a house a good twenty minutes drive outside of Inverness, where a good number of other young people from around the area were playing music and just generally having a good time. We talked for quite a while about Scotland, and what it’s like to live there–apparently Scotland has a significantly smaller population than does England (which includes Wales), but drinks more alcohol. Total, not per capita. Interesting.
At any rate, I got back shall we say rather late and dedicated the next day to lounging about Inverness, reading my new book (The Double, Jose Saramago–quite good) and buying my tickets to London. I’d had it on good authority that Hadrian’s Wall was worth seeing, so instead of buying a direct ticket I bout two overnight tickets, one to Newcastle, and one the next night to London. Maybe I was tired–it was only then that I realized I’d shaved an entire day off of my planned London stay. Unfortunately, the bus company didn’t allow reservation changes, so I decided to make the best of it.
I slept the best I could on the bus but still got in groggy very early in the morning of the 24th. Newcastle, it seems, is quite a party down, and the drunken dregs of the previous night’s club scene were still wandering the streets, a scene that might be similar to a Night of the Living Dead film where all the zombies wore trendy jeans or cocktail dresses.
But I was there to watch the city wake up and, like any hard partier, wash itself off and shake itself into motion. This being England and Sunday, nothing was open, and it was cold, so I bought a day rover pass on the local subway and bus system to do some exploring on my own. The sun came out in a gloriously clear day–my first since landing in Dublin–and I had an excellent lunch in a green park on the outskirts of town. Then back in to check the local tourism board for advice. They gave me the train and bus connections I needed to get out to the best-preserved parts of the wall, more or less centered between England’s east and west coasts (one end was actually there in Newcastle, which is on the east coast, in a district known appropriately enough as Wallsend).
Through some miracle of luck I was able to make connections with minutes to spare right from walking from the tourist center to the central rail station and taking that out to Hexham, where I was picked up by the AD 122 bus (get it? If not, you will in a few paragraphs) that runs the length of the wall. I rode that out to the ruins of Housesteads Fort, the remains of an old Roman fortress that now serves as a photo op and playground for tourist children. How, indeed, the mighty have fallen.
Back in the Roman Day, Housesteads Fort was known by the much more imposing moniker of Vercovicum. It was built in AD 124, just two years after construction was begun on the wall (in AD 122–now do you get it?), as a main defensive point against the Picts, the friendly devils who were ancestors of our modern Scots. Even the name is just what they were known as by the Romans, as we don’t know what they called themselves–the word “pict” is from the Latin word meaning “to paint,” and probably referred to a use of woad, or blue war paint, by the Picts in battle, in the custom of the Gauls Julius Caesar fought a few centuries earlier in the Gallic Wars. Whoever they were, they were apparently terrifying enough to cause the mighty Roman Empire to build a wall across the entire island of Britain just to keep them where they were.
I walked the wall from Housesteads east for six or seven miles across the rolling English countryside, nearly all sheep and cattle country except for a stand of woods here and there or a small village along the nearby road. Every mile are the ruins of what are appropriately called milecastles, some larger than others, which housed the soldiers that patrolled the wall, watching, presumably, for a flash of blue paint in the forest.
Having had my walking and historical needs met I headed back into Newcastle where I sat for a few (too long, according to my sleep-starved mind) hours and waited for the bus into London. It came, and I fell asleep instantly on boarding. I remember absolutely nothing of the trip until the point when I awoke as we were driving past Hyde Park–the trick to sleeping on busses, as it seems, is to simply be really tired.
The family of one of my roommates back in the States lives here in London, and graciously allowed me to stay the night. So, following a few written directions based on a Google map check, I ventured into the London Underground and found, with surprisingly little difficulty, the station nearest their house. Another American family was staying with them, and I tagged along with several of them this afternoon down along the Thames waterfront where, because today is a bank holiday, there were massive crowds and street performers everywhere, and the air smelled like a carnival. I photographed Big Ben because, let’s face it, a first-time visit to London isn’t really complete without doing so, but what I found far more interesting were the people. Even I, in my paltry one and a half weeks so far on the road, have already seen my fair share of giant stone buildings. They lack what Whittaker Chambers called “the stench of life”–they may be pretty, poetry in stone even, but it’s the life that passes through and around them that gives them any meaning at all.
This exposition, I hope, will explain why we headed to Camden Market where I spent the next couple of hours photographing people. Said subjects were many and varied, from goths in black leather and chains to sweaty joggers in shorts and tank tops. By now I’d split from the rest and rode the metro back to where I was staying.
Which is where I am now. While usually anything but a proponent of soft beds and easy living, I must say I’m enjoying them at the present. Oxford tomorrow, and then tomorrow evening I leave the land of the native English speaking populations behind with the Eurostar high speed train to Paris.