Another morning Full English breakfast is served up. This being my ‘Last Chance To See’ I have eaten Full Englishes and Fish ‘n’ Chips most days on this tour, treating them with some sort of reverence. Looking on the plate as if visiting a great cultural relic, eating them like I was taking holy communion. But as I say to Giristroula through a mouthful of egg, who really eats these things regularly in everyday normal life? But this tour has concentrated so many of these ideas of British experiences for me: Sunday church bells floating from afar over the summer air, or tinkling ‘Greensleeves’ music from an ice cream van – both of which I would usually ignore or would perhaps make me feel mildly content at best – now bring me to gushing tears. And so we sit and eat our fatty English icon and – as the breakfast really starts to set in – we listen as the farm/hotel owner talks endlessly to a family sat behind us in the breakfast room.
Pictures hang on the walls around us, with long-departed sheepdogs staring lugubriously from the frames. The farmer’s anorak-ed wife grinning with pride in the washed-out colour photos. Rosetted in front of a beer marque, a canvas Gents. Tickling the blank-faced victorious dog at some Show Saturday festival. The family of obvious regular-takers of their holidays here are moaned to about how finances on the farm have turned tough, what a struggle the business is now, not sure how they’ll cope. Times are tough, belts have been tightened. The owner fills the breakfast room with his troubles, bleating away, as they family clang spoons on their bowls, eating on in silence.
“What happened to the famous British stiff lips?” says Giristroula quietly, regarding the man through narrowed eyes. Not quite right, and without much care at the man’s plight either. It’s not just in Greece that people are struggling I say. We turn instead to the garden spread underneath the breakfast room window, which is an explosion of plants and flowers.
“How many flowers bloom and grow in an English country gar-den?” I sing, patting a cutlery rattling pom-pom-pom on the table edge, watched darkly by Giristroula. “I’ll tell you now of some that I know and those that I miss you’ll surely par-don…” My mind then goes totally blank. I can’t think of a single English flower. “Roses?” I weakly offer. Song over.
We set off with the harassed owner who’s conducting the, not–so-usual task in a British B&B, of taking his flocks to market. A woodpecker sends us off with a clacking farewell high above us somewhere. It’s all like something I’d expect from an H.E Bates novel. We say goodbye to the owner, salute some of his other luckless black-faced Cheviot sheep standing, unredeemed, waiting their turn, in the fields, and head out southwards through country roads towards Newcastle. Coming down high above Hexham, the town looks incredibly picturesque: the fields, the abbey, the bridge, the river brown and muscled with currents. But there is a curse on Hexham. In the early 70s two boys dug up some carved stone primitive heads in a garden here and since then terrifying visitations have appeared in the town. Fearful paranormal apparitions: half animal, half man. Or so they say. As we drive down further an impossibly ugly factory rises up, emerging up from the trees like a ghoul. I wonder, perhaps this is the true curse of Hexham – the smoking metal chimney smouldering away.
Clouds above us build and disperse as we continue onwards. The weather starts to turn bleak as we skirt Newcastle, through roadworks, looking to find the Angel of the North as the rain comes down and the roads around us are dug up. I crane for a sight of the statue… and spot it, like a dark spectre, on top of its hill on the grimy horizon. As we get closer, the gigantic figure – Gormley again – is doing well to hold his flasher’s mac opened in the wind and squalling rain. We park up and battle out of the car to stand at the Angel’s feet and try to fully appreciate the art. The 20 meter high figure, with roots dug 22 meters down deep into the bedrock below, built on the hill of an old disused colliery. The largest sculpture in Britain. It is a great sight: the aircraft-like 54 meter arms open to embrace the travellers approaching Newcastle, up the A1. But we are being splattered with rain. A few picture for us under the Angel – quick snaps to remember these moments forever – and then we dive back into the car. I look out of the smeared window as a father marches his hooded family determinedly up the slope we’ve just come down. The mother is carrying some sort of picnic hamper. One of the girls, glasses steamed-up with rain poking out of her pink hood, looks utterly miserable. But their day out certainly isn’t going to be cancelled because of any slating, slating rain. The father ploughs on with their picnic in the storm. True British pluck, true British pigheadedness.
We have a room to stay in the Benwell area of Newcastle and stop to ask for directions. The face that’s pulled gives us a good indication that we’re not going to be staying somewhere particularly salubrious. As we park outside the house in the driving rain, passing loafing oafs leer into the car window, and as we climb the stairs to the second floor flat I hear our Geordie neighbour for the night below us bellow out instructions to his girlfriend. “Get doon the offie and get us 6 cans’a strong lager. And don’t fanny fart aboot, like…” With the rain lashing the windows, we decide to have a Greek siesta. Waking up later to find the rain stopped and an orange light filtering thorough just a delicate mare’s tail of thin drizzle. So we decide to drive in to see the city centre. But there’s a problem. The back wheel of the car has been nicked. We have to spend the next hour or so piling up tea cups, talking to incompetent rental car services and inattentive police on the phone, getting frazzled, the guy downstairs shouting something incomprehensible at the top of his voice… and in the end there’s nothing left to do but walk, solemnly, unhappily into town.
The sky is purple behind the Tyne Bridge. We walk up some climbing paths and find a high vantage point and look down on the city. A jewellery box of a million street lights. We gaze down on the concentrated area of construction on the riverside: the conversion of the breadmaker Hovis’ old Baltic flour mill into an art gallery; the glass and steel of the Sage concert hall – with its long contours rolling like the high arches of the bridges that surround it, and looking like some shiny-scaled snake that has just swallowed a pig. The Millennium titling bridge rolls over to let boat traffic under its span and appears like a giant eye, winking at us as it conducts its cute manoeuvres.
We walk down through the arches and turrets of the main university buildings and then through dull pedestrianised shopping roads to look for Grey Street. I had read, some years ago, that Grey Street had been voted Britain’s best road. It’s easy to see why: classical architecture from the 1820s and 30s, Grade I-listed Theatre Royal, a monument to a man who reformed Parliament and gave the country Earl Grey tea. It is also of grim significance to us as we have travelled here – in a long crescent moon-shape – all the way round England from our home just off the Streatham High Road: the road that was voted the worst. For all its physical beauty Grey Street still has to accommodate a fairly charmless crowd though, within its wide descending subtle curve. The weekend revellers are out. No one dressed for the chill evening of course. The same inflatable penis from Swansea seems to make an appearance. I spot one man walking along in a pair of fancy-dress trousers that make it look as if he is being given a piggyback by a frog. None of his other friends appear to be in fancy-dress. I wonder if he’d just popped out for a quick drink and was crestfallen to find these were his only clean pair of trousers in the drawer. The whole scene makes the Greek stop and wonder.
“The difference between going out in Britain and Greece,” Giristroula says contemplatively, as she stops and stares “Is that every night seems to be carnival night here.”
Greeks always seem to have a sort of mixture of horror and fascination about the British drinking. The Greeks I’ve met all seem to shake their head in a disappointed headmasterly way when talking about how “You, the British, your drinking… your fighting, your shouting… and then you all puke in the street…Why you always do this? What’s wrong with you people?” But, of course, they have no understanding of the cold needed to be kept out, the social lubrication needed to be put on. People having worked all week in zero-hour, minimum-wage contract jobs, coping with puffed-up fat-gutted Team Managers in cramped office desks divided by perspex walls. Name tags. Two hour long commutes. Shit rental accommodation. The release. Greeks spread out their relaxation over the whole week. Often too much so, so the austerity-mad drivers coming from Germany and Brussels would have it. But the British just have their Saturday nights.
A group of lads, wet-look hair, three-quarter length shorts, big bottles of Stella walk past us.
“John!” shouts one guy further down the road.
“John!!” he shouts again, louder.
John isn’t interested. Doesn’t respond, carries on with the group walking ahead.
“John!!!” the man, hands still in his pockets, leans back and roars to the sky. He seems desperate.
“What?” shouts John, turning round, at last.
The first guy stops for a moment. Thinks to himself. Lowers his pink face.
“Oh…nothing…” and jogs on to catch-up with his mates.
The Greeks, of course, have no need whatsoever to be drunk to be this deafeningly loud. Happily shouting and hollering to one another in the cafes, stone-cold sober. It somehow feels very different though.
As we get out of the smooth, clean, Newcastle Metro system at Central Station – odd, but brilliant, for a city of this size to have a whole metro system – Giristroula points out one of the new public art instillations: a representation of a Newcastle man striding by in causal garb. “Even the statues are wearing short sleeves,” she notes quietly to herself. We stop at the Centurion bar in the station – originally the first class waiting lounge in the 19th Century.
In the 1960s British Rail used it as their cell for ticket dodgers and perpetrators of other miscreant deeds committed under the great curving station roof here. They happily slapped red paint all over millions of pounds worth of historic tiles, murals and columns – but this has now all been restored, and we sit sipping a Newcastle Brown Ale in overly-grand surroundings, as old men watch the silent tv sports reports and the more nervous and retiring hen dos chat mousily in the corner. Later, as we make our enforced walk home – the rental car up on bricks two miles away – Giristroula points at the dominating sight of St James Park stadium. Oblivious to all the “football is a religion” views in this part of the world as she looks Newcastle United’s stadium stands she says to me “Look at that place. That’s what we needed. We would have been alright if we’d parked in one of those sort of big car park type places.”
I say nothing. We trudge on in silence.