About eight years ago, a Cheltenham local made a pilgrimage to Livingston skatepark. I was sixteen, he was a postman and used to unorthodox hours. He drove the 350 miles, slept overnight in the car, rode out the AM, and then returned—a loop stretched flat as an elastic band round a single envelope. His trip was interpreted as an Alan Partridge-esque, barefoot, Tobelerone-gobbling, private breakdown. People talked about it more than they asked him about it. I recalled it while en route to Livingston myself, in the company of six other Cheltonians (no, really, Cheltonians).
Neither journey was setting a road trip precedent, which is unsurprising given how claustrophobic a little place the UK can be. Column inches of population increases; square miles ceded gradually to the sea. A nation of Top Gear watchers: the mentality that everyone else is out to interfere with your right to do whatever-the-fuck-you-want, viz. spin your car in smokey circles in peace, patronise the life out of any other nationality, or most of all, comatise yourself to a flickering, televisual depiction of televisual characters indulging said rights. A kind of paranoia that perhaps, unchecked, leads to a brief period of feral existence punctuated by the gunning-down of those who you feel are interfering with your right to do whatever-the fuck-you-want. Which well described our trip (with BMX in place of killing anyway—the only shotgunning was of the front seat).
The plan was to be away five days, i.e. four nights spent camping in the wild. The first day was mostly driving, aiming to get somewhere into Scotland. Turning off the motorway into Moffat, we stumbled across a mini ramp, whose unworn paint gave its metal surface the affordances of wood. The unvarnished awe of the gathering teenagers made it obvious that it had never been used in earnest, least of all by them. We left them—sharing their single of bottle of beer—down a road on which they described there being “fuck all till Edinburgh”. By the last light we made a right down another road, narrower, unmarked; its verges bristling at the wheelarches. As the first light crested the horizon somewhere way, way easterly and we crested the road’s final hill, a brutalist concrete structure emerged into view. Seconds later, a vast reservoir expanded out behind it. The final hill turned out to be the embankment of a dam. We explored the shoreline’s eerie silence until we were satisfied it manifested absence and not lurking menace, and along it made camp.
Livingston was day two’s first stop, which met every expectation a 700 mile solo round trip afforded it in the eyes of a sixteen year-old boy. After that was Edinburgh’s new concrete park (Saughton). According to a local it’s not too busy before nine AM, or after eleven PM (though the lights go out at ten, and it’s probably not the kind of place you’d want to be after dark, potential for endless runs or otherwise).
As a consequence of the crowded skatepark we left with plenty of time to get west to Glasgow, then north along Loch Lomond where the road, railway and not much else squeezed into the space between hill and shore. Jutting out from this corridor and into the loch was a small peninsula, out along which we carried ourselves, our tents and Morrissons carrier bags, laden with what seemed like the last vestiges of fluorescent-lit civilisation. Above our campsite rose a hillock verdant with ferns. We gathered branches from the trees which had failed to cling to its steep sides. We gathered driftwood from the beach that looked out onto the rest of the loch. We arranged our tents in a circle, around a circle of stones, and made a fire at its center. The swoop of full-beams confined to the distance. It could not have been more idyllic.
It wasn’t until the third day that our family camping holiday went awry.
The morning started alright, a dip in the loch at least partially washing off the smell of fire. By the time we got to bundling ourselves back into the cars the fine mist rolling down the hillside had coalesced into something more like rain. We made for Unit 23, Dumbarton’s indoor skatepark, whose prime attraction is a voluminous wooden bowl. It’s rare to ride something which has totally alien aspects, whose contours you can’t map onto some previous experience and adjust to accordingly. As indoor skateparks go, it was pretty exciting. After leaving there (and making another trip to the supermarket, because that’s just the kind of primal hunter-gatherers we are) it was getting late to be finding a camp. As it became less and less likely that we were going to settle on a spot the decision got made: leave for home now and be in bed by 2:30AM. And so began our own pilgrimage back down the M6, in the finest tradition, themed by the overconsumption of energy drink—as Partridge with Toblerone—dispatching the spent cans out of the car window like shotgun cartridges. We didn’t reach Cheltenham until 4:30AM.
It was our giving in to the mania of the UK road trip. Accepting it. Allowing it within. Acknowledging that it’s less the fear that people are out to interfere with your desire to do whatever-the-fuck-you-want, but that whatever-the-fuck-you-want won’t be enough. That it won’t be close enough whilst still under the same pebbledash clouds, eating service-station BLTs. Save for these three days in Scotland when we made it enough: held out for as long as that understanding required.
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