After the divorce, the nineties began.
My father, guilt ridden, took it on himself to make amends and began taking my younger brother and I on a series of trips around the British Isles. To places of natural beauty, to try and instil in us some of his love of bird watching (not twitching), ancient history, mainly Celtic and Roman, and a general appreciation of the British Landscape.
We weren’t part of the British Landscape Tradition. We didn’t know what it was and we didn’t walk through Peter Ackroyd’s Albion. Our trips were full of counter cultural feelings toward the land that came out of the seventies and eighties, the Stonehenge festival, the Traveller movement, the nascent rave scene. I can still recall hearing ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’ for the first time on one of these trips. It all seeped in as static background noise as I slept in tents erected in fields all across the country, where I would bore my father reading through that month’s latest White Dwarf and regaling him with tales of orcs, minotaurs, elves and rat people. My brother was more fascinated with West Ham.
This would be in the period after the free festival movement had been smashed, with the Criminal Justice Act looming but not yet passed. Anarcho punks were morphing into ravers.
My father owned, for a good few years throughout this period, a green and white 1969 Volkswagen camper van, the bay window type. It seemed cavernous at the time, and we would stop in lay-bys en route to say, Ynys Mon or the Farne Islands to make beans on toast, a bacon sandwich, a cup of tea. I would sit perched on one of the van’s steps as it sat motionless, crunching through a bag of Frazzles watching the traffic speed down the black tar rivers that at that time seemed to be as much a part of the landscape as the woods, the lakes, the mountains. Only realised much later the problems the roads themselves caused, how people would come to fight them in this decade, even as they gave us, in our camper, the freedom to reach wild spaces. The inherent contradiction in a travelling life.
I would eat my crisps and drink Orangina. My father would chain smoke Marlboro Reds and look at the battered AA Map. I find it tempting to indulge in a pre SatNav nostalgia.
This would be in the period when the Dongas Tribe occupied Twyford Down, near Winchester, attempting to stop the M3’s attempts to wipe out the Chalkhill Butterfly. I don’t know if we ever visited that area.
The Volkswagen took us all over the place. Some of the sights visited have melted away or merged with other memories with a casual disregard for geography and time. I have, by all accounts, been in the presence of Gormley’s Angel of the North though I simply cannot recall ever seeing it. The same with Robin Hood’s bay. Years later, we thought we’d go there, but went to Whitby instead.
I remember wildlife more, the birds, bridled guillemots and razorbills, the oily fulmars, keening kittiwakes. Dive-bombing terns protecting their nests. That kind of thing.
The sites in Kent are more firmly lodged, geographically closer. Pegwell Bay, made famous by William Dyce, where the replica of the Viking longboat still sits, remembering or celebrating the first Viking landings in England. The remains of the hoverport lay nearby, somehow far more distant than the Norse remains. Later, I would say it was Ballardian.
Other places I do remember vividly. The Scilly Isles out in the Atlantic where migratory birds, aliens in the British Isles, were blown ashore seeking temporary sanctuary. Hotels would serve Cornish clotted cream as green anoraked twitchers roamed St Mary’s (population: 1,666), telescopes slung over their shoulders like hunters back from a successful trip. We didn’t camp when we were out there. The helicopter ride from Penzance to reach that tiny archipelago is unforgettable.
The trip to the Scilly’s would have been in ’92 and I was approaching my tenth birthday. That year was notable for the pinnacle of the free festival/traveller/rave scene crossover, at Castlemorton in Hereford and Worcester, that had followed on from the success of the Beltane fest that May. It was the largest gathering of its kind since the last Stonehenge Free Festival in ’84. The roads had been clogged with camper vans, refurbished traveller homes, crusties, ravers, hippies, a world that I ended up, years later, becoming a part of.
In 2009, we camped on Blackheath, buffeted by the wind and pissing rain, as part of that year’s Climate Camp. Poets and punk bands reminded us that this was the spot where Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt had begun, in 1381. In the tent, we spent a freezing night despite it being summer. We camped and could not escape our history.
I cannot separate the memories, the things I’ve read in books, the grand sweep of social history across Britain and images of me and my brother, impossibly young, sitting in a green and white camper van.
We sat in that camper van and we grew older. Times changed. Came of age in tents as the earth was cut and butchered around us.
A photo, my brother and I, standing near the top of Snowdon with bowlcuts and red faces. So long ago, in the nineties, when we camped in muddy fields and made tea in my father’s camper van, after the divorce.