Everything was grey; the sky, the city, and the water trickling from the former to the latter. Rhodri and I sighed and splashed out into it. There’s almost nothing interesting to say about the hour and a half we spent worming our way out of Liverpool, through industrial outskirts increasingly built for cars over pedestrians. The sprawl blended seamlessly into the dock town of Bootle, which reminded me of the Bootle-Bumtrinket, the naturalist Gerald Durrell’s boat, as chronicled in My Family and Other Animals, his account of his idyllic and hilarious childhood roaming the island of Corfu. If you haven’t encountered it, you should stop reading this immediately and get a copy instead. It contains more charm than I could ever hope to capture, and far, far more charm than a wet day in Bootle.
At last we rounded the end of the docks and reached the beach, and the slate sea stretching away to Ireland. My eye was caught by a dark figure in the surf, stoically letting the breakers crash over him, then further along, another. More appeared as I looked more carefully, some on the beach, some almost entirely submerged. They were the iron figures of Antony Gormley’s Another Place installation, of which there are a hundred dotted along Crosby Beach. Each of them gazes out to the horizon. They seemed wistful. I identified with them hard. I was also wet, stiff, and aspiring to something far away. Rhodri and I took a break. I remember discussing why there weren’t more underwater vampire films.
This was the start of the Sefton Coastal Path, which we could follow north for the best part of a day, before cutting inland to aim for a way over the River Ribble. I was glad to be walking by the sea. I’m familiar with its call and hope to answer it one day. I’ve learned from the past few years of politics that I can’t reliably speak for the British as a people, and that our values are more divided than I had imagined, but I do think that the sea forms part of our national psyche, always there at the outside, in our heads as it is in our maps. You’re never more than seventy miles from it in Great Britain. It’s the edge of home and the start of the wide, wide world.
The path scattered through dunes before braiding together again at Hightown. There then came a section that followed a cycle route between a train track and a high hedge. It ran almost straight for a couple of kilometres, but curved just enough that we couldn’t see the end of it. It had a strange effect on us, closing us into a nightmarish endlessness. It felt like we were walking on it for ages. We hated it. We came to a bench halfway along and sat down. It was dedicated to a local rambler. We blessed him for providing this respite; clearly he understood the needs of walkers. This was another hard-surface-heavy day, and Rhodri said his feet were already hurting. Mine were too, obviously, though I was starting to accept that as a fact of life. Rhodri is a hell of a walker, by the way, with his skinny legs carrying him tirelessly for days. When we escaped the nightmare-path and reached the edge of Formby, the rain began bucketing down, so we made for the nearest pub, peeled off our outer layers, and ordered a great deal of food. We decided that we’d made good time and could afford to wait until things brightened up, so we ended up staying there for at least a couple of hours. I’m not sure that Rhodri didn’t fall asleep for a bit.
Out of Formby, and back onto the path, through a nature reserve, and the sun came out. Two more friends, Ashley and Duncan, were driving up to join us for the next day’s walking, so we sorted out a campsite where we could meet that night. It was time to shear off inland, which involved some dull town trudging through Ainsdale and Birkdale. As the sun began to sink, we came out into the wide, flat fields of South Lancashire.
Flat land always feels a bit odd to me. I was by no means born to the mountains, but I grew up in Sussex, where tracks and country roads twist up and down little hills and through woods, and you can’t see what’s round the next bend, but you can sometimes see the ridge of the South Downs on the horizon. To me, a flat land held no mystery; it’s all there, its emptiness plain to see. Perhaps that feeling was a bit unfair, though, because some charms soon became apparent. Distant honking resolved into great skeins of geese flying in from the north, and you could really see the sky. Golden sun lit up scurrying masses of cloud propelled by a cool, strong breeze. Leaving the road, we nipped over a drainage ditch and cut through the fields to reach our campsite on a farm.
The lady there was delightful. When I told her what I was doing, she insisted that we didn’t have to pay. I insisted that we should pay something, so we settled on half price. When we gave her the money, she popped it straight into my donation pot, completely outplaying me with her generosity. Rhodri and I set up our tents and crashed, though not before I spotted a barn owl flap silently over the campsite. Some time later, Ashley and Duncan arrived, in the dark, with the wind up and the rain lashing down. Rhodri and I poked our heads narrowly out of our tents to say hi, but felt that they had their tent-putting-up under control. “By the way, Al,” Rhodri said, “I may have to leave you tomorrow because I may have got a booty call.” Life is full of wonder.
The night was restless. The wind roared through the trees that bent and shook violently over my tent, and the rain came down heavy over Lancashire.