Gramps Backpacks the UK

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Gramps Backpacks the UK
I grow old, I grow old... I will wear my trousers if I remember.  The synapses misfire, the memory miscues.  Bummer.  Happily, for me the backpacking never gets old.  A sport for life, amply demonstrated by the number of fellow geezers I meet on Sierra Club outings or find chugging along during my solitary wanderings. 
 As a young man, as a middle-aged man, how swell to see some spry old duffer hefting his rucksack deep in the mountains. A good omen that says, sonny boy, keep fit like that guy, and you can hit the dusty trail pretty much right up until it’s time to go West.   

Now that sixty summers have put me in the company of the aged, I find another thing.  Not only does the sport not pall, but the backpacking pensioner, however straightened, always has the wherewithal to travel.  The astronomical price of a hotel room?  He smiles. Those pricy restaurant meals?  A shrug.  Being on the retired list usually means plenty of leisure to roam, but often not much ready to cover the tab.  An open calendar but a flat wallet.   Not the backpacker.  Always, at any age, he is Mr. Self-Sufficient, room and board on board, the personification of Song of the Open Road.  You want an example?   Okay, how about my recent two-month walking tour of the UK (with a side trip to France and Spain).  Typically, it’s the student kiddo who takes some months or even a gap year to tour Europe afoot.  Usually, for impecunious youth, this means economy backpack travel with Eurail Pass, and a bunk at the hostel.   But then the seasons turn, the former callow traveler establishes himself, makes his pile. When he revisits the Continent as affluent adult he dines on linen, mesero or garcon at elbow to scoop up the plastic.  The successful or lucky can continue this luxurious mode into dotage.  But some of us more improvident elders have unzipped the IRA or the 401(k) and said, “Oh oh.”  

 Yo.  I’m one of those retired guys pilloried on a fixed income.  During the salad time I gushed money, didn’t squirrel away the stash, and now...you get the picture.  But that’s okay.  I just backpacked Europe as a codger on the same kind of lean budget favored by  the 18-year-old tyro.  Probably less.   My rules for budget European travel are simple:  Go off-season, use the bus (instead of the train), and most importantly, no roofs or restaurants.   Obviously Europe is so damn expensive because of lodging and dining.  Staying in a hotel, snapping a napkin at a cafe, the European sojourner can figure on laying out maybe two, three hundred a day. Even a bunk in the hostel dormitory, $20.    My budget was $30 a day, transport included.  I could do it because every night I pitched my tent in one of the many camping club sites that dot the UK and the Continent.   

(An aside here.  Personally, I’d rather tent than sleep in a noisy dorm.  Youth wants to socialize; I want a night’s zzzzs.) 

So here’s what I did.  A couple of months in advance I booked a cheap round-trip flight to Heathrow departing at the beginning of low season, returning two months later.  Forget London.  Too expensive.  I hopped the National Express bus from the airport straight to the quaint cathedral town of Salisbury, pitched my tent at the Camping and Caravaning Club site a mile from the center, spent a day looking around and shaking off the lag, and then set off on foot on the Kennet-Avon canal towpath for the 70 mile walk to Bath.  September in the UK?.  Sure, it’s gonna rain. For the month and a half I stayed with the Brits it rained for at least part of every day. 

I didn’t find the sun again until I got to southern France.  Not a problem, though, because I’m a Boy Scout.  Prepared.  Before stepping off I’d shopped the Memorial Day sale at REI and got some good lightweight rain gear.  I already had the other backpack items in my 20-pound load:  a three-pound tent, a light synthetic bag, the skinny ground pad, and a change of quick-dry clothes.  No cooking gear or stove, because on European holiday I picnic out of the market. Before leaving the States, I’d checked out the Brit camp sites on the Internet, and planned an itinerary.  Often, I footed and bused from one site to another in a day.  Other times I camped at one site for awhile while I investigated the countryside on day walks.  The Brits (and Continentals, too) like to caravan, as they call it, the caravan being a slightly reduced travel trailer.   

So there are hundreds of sites, meaning that at least one will be reasonably handy to anyplace the hiker of rural England might want to look it.  On the first night at the Salisbury camp site I joined the nation-wide Camping and Caravaning Club, one of the better known clubs which has sites near most cities on the tourist circuit.  Membership conferred a backpacker’s rate of three or four pounds a night (prices fluctuated slightly according to amenities).  I didn’t really need the membership, it turned out, because non-members are welcome, and the rates for those over 60 are just as good.   Anyway.  Six to eight bucks a night for a patch of lawn (Brits call it a pitch) and the use of the showers and laundry.  Good showers, too, plenty of hot water. And the dryer in the laundry for fluffing up a damp sleeping bag.  Were lots of other backpackers or tent campers at the sites in dank September?  Ah, no.  So there’s always room.   September and October I hiked the Cotswalds, the Lake District, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumbria, and while the weather blustered and wept, I never got cold until I hit Scotland.  Then I had to buy an extra wool sweater at a thrift store.   

For temperate autumnal England, with temps in the 50s, I got by on two pairs of very lightweight quick-dry pants, Capilene longjohns and Capilene long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve cotton shirt, rain pants and parka, a thin wool sweater, some underwear and socks.  Total weight a couple of pounds.  I’d wash clothes every few days at one of the camp sites. Another reason I got by on $30 a day is that I traveled between hiking venues by bus.  The intercity bus company, National Express, has one heck of a deal for seniors.  Over sixty, half price.  Apparently you just need to look old, because no agent ever asked me to show ID.  I mostly skipped the train, which is expensive even with Eurail.  The bus takes longer, but it’s comfortable enough, and in any case I wasn’t covering vast distances.  The longest ride took me from Dover to Montpelier in southern France, ten hours, for $50 round-trip.

I ate out of the market.  I looked for produce, breads and cheeses.  Every grocery store and news vendor sells prepared sandwiches.   The cheapest was the egg and celery on wheat for the equivalent of a buck and a half, with a steep discount if you bought it on the expiration date.   For lunch then a sandwich, apple, banana, and a handful of peanuts. Breakfast, milk or yogurt, a bun, and peanuts. It helps that I don’t drink coffee.  At night in the tent, cheese, crackers, an avocado or tomato, and sometimes a bottle of Spanish or French table red, very reasonable.  The English also make a wine, called a perry, in Bristol, of all places.  Fizzy, but not as bad as you’d think.

Of course, part of the fun of England is the pub.  I had to practice discipline, because a pint, even in a rural neighborhood joint, is going to be five or six bucks.   Once, after a ten-mile hike with a hiking club from Haltwhistle in Northumbria, I tagged along afterwards to the Bear and Bait (or whatever), to listen to fervent, arcane talk about fox hunting.  But we all put down four expensive pints each.  Sometimes a pub will feature a pensioner’s pint (that is, a local brew) for around $3.  But, in my opinion, the stuff tastes like mucilage.  What helped me with pub discipline was coming from California, where smoking isn’t allowed in bars.    The Brit pub is layered with blue.  And what with the shocking cost of tailor-mades, a lot of students and pensioners are rolling their own rank weed these days.  For the effete non-smoking Californian, there’s little long-term allure to the smoke-filled parlor.

I didn’t knock myself out on the trail.  Ten, twelve miles a day, tops.  And much of the English topography, provided the weather isn’t too brisk, makes for relatively easy walking (if the Pacific Crest Trail is your comparison).  Lots of easy pleasant days, ambling along a foot path in the mist, through some laird’s  gracious green sheep folds (it’s legal), the fluffy stoic ungulates drifting all about,  followed at day’s end by a hot shower and sure, maybe the pensioner’s pint.  Even so, a lot of friends said to me:  “Phil, this sounds awful.   It rained constantly and you were eating cold food inside a minuscule tent in a downpour.  No three hots.  No cot.  You lived like a tramp. What fun is this?  So stay home. 

My choice was and is, travel the world cheap or don’t go.  Why shouldn’t I go?  I’m still in good fettle, thanks to my medical plan’s parts A and B, my right foot and left foot.  It’s not going to get any better.  And I have fun on the frugal road.  Let me show you something.   Here I am, strolling along the Kennet-Avon Canal towpath.  It’s “soft,” meaning a little hazy, a little drippy, but mid-50s, not cold.    I’m headed for the caravan site at Sells Green, but stopping now and then to admire the locks, a marvel of 18th Century engineering, and still in top shape, since every day thousands of narrow boats and other skinny barges float up and down, literally, inside these boxes.  On one stretch 29 locks within one mile, one about every 100 feet.  Most of the motor-powered narrow boats are hired by tourists, who get the experience of pushing on huge handles to open the heavy lock doors for a fill or flush. 

These gaily-painted craft are very slow; it’s one long no wake zone; and I’m making better time on foot.  But what’s the hurry?   There are many beckoning pubs along the path, ready to draw a pint for the voyager.  And at every lock the sedate, decorous  black-headed swans, their long interrogative necks wondering if perhaps the passerby can spare a bit of crumpet.  And the surrounding landscape.  Stone farm houses with chimney pots, pastures tittled with fleecy balls.  Along the canal bank very serious fishermen.  British Waterways rents sections of the canal to fishing clubs. The unaffiliated angler isn’t wanted.  Only members may pursue the loach and coarse (I have no idea). 

As I walked around England I worked it out so that camping sites would put me in striking distance of famous sights. Maybe you know Bath, but I’d never been.  The Circus, the Pump Room, the Roman dip.  Because of my constraints, I never went to any museum or other attraction that required an admission fee.  Besides, this was a walking tour.  I’d made past visits to London (in the dead of winter to take advantage of bargain air fare) and spent the two weeks doing nothing but museums. Now I beheld from the outside.  And this kept me busy.  In Bath, Oxford, Canterbury, York, I took guided tours conducted for free by the local historical societies.

Check this out.  I’m in cute Kendel in the Lake District, a former wool town built of gray stone.  A couple of pubs actually named, “Ye Olde...,” the best being “Ye Olde Fleece Inn.”  The stately homes all have brass plaques naming the “House.”  Bleak House, Bleaker House, Bleakest House.   I took a walk along river Kent to the ruins of yet another old castle up there on top of the hill.  Many of these piles are just there, without fence or fee, open for casual gratis inspection.  This one had been built in 1400 or thereabouts more as a gated community than as a military fortress.  Not meant to withstand a siege, but to deter the unwanted posse.  I found out from a sign that the noble master and mistress usually had bed chambers in one of the tubular turrets.  Wooden sheds in the keep housed the oxen and the help.  You don’t have to pay to see a castle.   I checked out maybe a dozen of ‘em for free while wandering around.   

My only splurge in England was the tea shop.  A spot of tea for 80 pence.  Read the papers.   Some big news of the time concerned a gaggle of fanatic fox hunters who had invaded Parliament to protest a proposed ban on tearing small brush-tailed mammals to shreds with dogs.  Many tsk, tsking editorials in the press, about the poor security.  Could have been Osama.  As for the issue, I sympathize with Reynard, but personally I don’t think the Labour MPs ought to muck around too much with immemorial custom.  Much of my tour followed public footpaths that crossed private property, often right under the window of the laird’s manor.  Public right-of-way.   No American rancher would tolerate this kind of trespass for one little minute, and would be out to see you pronto with his rifle.  But these little arrowed signs are everywhere:  “Public footpath,” pointing straight into some guy’s field.  Being able to legally trespass means that most of the rural countryside is open to the pedestrian.

Take note.  I’ve just stepped off the bus at Haltwhistle, the geographic center of  Britain, and the gateway to the best preserved example of Hadrian’s major pubic works project.   It turned out the Wall was not really built to hold back the brigand McGregors and Campbells.  Rather a physical statement of the Emperor’s political decision to halt Roman expansion and consolidate.  So far, no more.  Plus, it gave restive Legionaries a focus for eight years.  Despite Conrad, England wasn’t considered a hardship post for the Roman soldier.  Apparently a milder climate then.  Grapes flourished, or at least grew, ameliorating barracks life.   Most of the inhabitants of Northumbria, then as now, were peaceful farmers.  Civilian towns with all the amenities sprang up around the milepost forts.  

Romans built the wall, but for three hundred years afterward the garrison troops were mostly auxiliaries sharked up from the skirts of the empire.  Even a battalion of Syrian archers.  For walking, Northumbria was my fav.  I admit, the Cotswalds, very picturesque.  Lake District,  postcard smart, but touristy.  And the actual lakes not much of a show without the literary allusions.  But Northumbria Think of Theodore Roosevelt National Park with castles and a latticework of stone fences.  Sweeping desolation and not many folks.  The first day at the Wall I hiked from the camp site the five miles to Chester’s House, an old fort. Roman aches peeped up from the bottom of borrow pits in the sheep pasture.  Soon a raw and biting wind arrived, punctuated with gusts of rain. I followed the Wall another five miles over a dozen stiles to the Roman military museum at the imaginatively named Walltown.   On the way I met half a dozen or so other walkers in foulies making the best of it, eating soggy sandwiches in the lee of a rock fence, and tipping the Thermos or flask. 

In the free part of the museum I learned that the Legionnaire carried two pila, one light, one heavy.  He threw the lighter first.  With its barbed tip it snagged and fouled the opponent’s shield.  The head of the heavier spear was meant to break on impact, so the spear couldn’t be picked up and returned with interest. One could spend some time on the Wall.  In Haltwhistle I’d spied a notice for a group walk out to Housested, the best preserved of the Roman forts.   We know that hobby walkers are notoriously democratic, seldom class conscious or snobby.  They’d gladly welcome a stranger. 

The appointed day came with sprinkles and a piping breeze.  Even so, a  dozen hard-core from the local hiking club turned out in the parking lot at Quality Faire (perhaps not the happiest name for a grocery), with two of the men ostentatiously dressed in shorts, determined to wring the last drop from the rind of the English so-called summer.   The hike leader is known by the map encased in a sheer plastic folder slung round his neck.  Five miles out to a Roman fort that was in pretty darn good shape, considering the intervening 2,000 years.  The Romans quarried, squared, and dressed all the facing stone in the wall and fortifications.  As opposed to the lackadaisical natives (were they still painting themselves blue?) who just piled up what they found for their fences and hovels.  

After the Romans decamped, later builders pinched freely from the wall, and in local Norman castles the visitor can see square Roman stones mixed in with the melange. The walkers were kind enough to tutor an outlander.  I learned about old kilns that burned lime and coal to make a soil additive, about wind sills, about a lone sycamore on an otherwise treeless hill where parts of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood were filmed.  From Housestead we walked along the top of the wall, and then through pastures and ruined farmsteads, nine miles back to Gherkin-on-the-Water (Haltwhistle).  As mentioned, the post-pedestrian stop at the sign of the Black Bear could not be refused

As I wandered along the byways, I noted that most English castles, particularly those open to the pubic for an admission fee, have ghosts and ghost stories.  Bellister Castle in Northumbria no exception.  The story:  A wandering minstrel visited the feudal laird of Bellister, oh, a thousand  years ago, and got a friendly welcome, and a free meal for his lyre and lays.  But on to midnight, after supping much wine, the baron conceived the delusion that the harmless minstrel actually was an enemy spy in the household of one of the other border chiefs.   When the minstrel retired to his straw in the courtyard, the baron loosed the dogs, which tore the innocent strummer to pieces.  Now the ghost of the Gray Minstrel haunts the surrounding forest.

One night, returning to camp from town, I took the path through the woods adjoining the castle, just to see if...  Well, I’m not a believer, of course; too skeptical.  But the perfect time for a sighting.  Gloomy dusk, swaths of fog weaving through the trees, spectral branches dripping, skeletal ferns thrashing in the wind.   I even sat on a mossy stone bench to eat my egg salad sandwich while I listened for tinkling bells or the whistle of a flute.  I looked over my shoulder for a glimpse of motley tights or the toss of a tasseled cap.   Is it me?  Nothing.  The pearly jongleur didn’t appear.  I gave it up, but I could have tried my luck right up the road at Featherstone Castle.  The story there, the daughter of the castle lord had plighted her troth with a handsome knight.  Alas, for fiduciary reasons her dad married her off instead to another landed gent.   

Made incautious by passion, the knight hired some local varlets to abduct his love on her wedding day.  These pickup hirelings were overzealous, and in the ensuing brawl the varlets slaughtered the entire wedding party, including the bride.  The knight killed himself.  The entire cast of ghosts supposedly comes haunting back, but the hitch is, only on one night, the anniversary of the wedding.  Featherstone Castle isn’t open to the public.  If it were, the ghosts might come back more often.

Blah, blah.  Anyhow, I managed to keep amused during my UK walkabout despite my superannuated status and the lint in my wallet.    Returning from Europe to the States I then drifted south for a month of beachcombing around the little resort ville of San Felipe in Baja; next excursion is to Big Bend National Park, Texas.  Point here, it’s pretty easy for the penurious codger backpacker to keep things interesting.  As long as he can still walk, he can mosey the world, light out for new territory.  Maybe you ought to try it yourself, old timer.   .