The pickled landlord of the William Wallace pub pours out an unsteadily large whisky and hands it over to me. I raise it in a toast to the similarly lined, scrotum-faced, regulars in this old dark pub, underneath the large, murderous-looking, crossed claymore swords hanging on the wall and an advert for Tuesday night’s pub quiz. A dim burble of resentful acknowledgment come back from the old crowd sat at the bar. I turn and talk to an old man on his stool next to me: a long red wedge of a nose, white cotton-wool hair under his cap, ancient black dog cross-pawed at his feet.
“Stirling’s Old Town seems very nice” I say.
“So I guess it’s a nice place to live?”
“Oh. But you come from here?”
Slowing rising up, offended “Naw lad,” tapping at his chest “I’m from Fife!”
“Oh. And is that nice?”
The man thinks for a moment before returning back to his pint. “Naw.”
With a flight booked to take us away to a new life in Greece in just three days’ time and with us still perched 420 miles north of Heathrow, we have decided that our night here in Stirling will really have to be our very last on this long protracted final stroll round Britain. Tomorrow we will head back to Glasgow, return the van, and then take the usual quick, unseeing, route back home by plane.
We parked up on Abbey Craig hilltop, having found nowhere else to go but the deserted car park at the bottom of the William Wallace Monument, above Stirling town. There are no shops open for us to buy anything for our last supper in the camper van but, as always, we are pleased for the prodigious range of crisps that Britain has. It could really be the country’s greatest strength. The powerhouses coming out of Leicestershire: Walkers and Golden Wonder of Market Harborough, KP of Ashby de la Zouch. Greece just don’t get close to the spread and scope of the British crisp, with their aseptic over-large dull packets sat on the supermarkets shelves. Plain or Oregano or a tube of Pringles, that’s your choice. There are none of the light and airy cheese Quavers; or the plasticky, spindly, forlorn-looking French Fries; the rough and ready stout packs of Frazzles; the packets of Wotsits ready to give the eater nuclear-fallout orange fingers; the bowls of Hula Hoops crushed under foot into the carpet at a kid’s party; the cheap dusty packet of Space Invaders languishing in boxes in dark corner shops; the loud and over-bold pickled onion Monster Munch; Prawn Cocktail; Worcester Sauce; Flamin’ Hot…
Our closing night is spent munching under municipal council trees – the branches like tips of paintbrushes touching the sky an indigo blue – as we’re watched down on by the formidable glare of William Wallace. This was where Wallace stood and watched the English armies gather on Stirling Bridge before his victory over my countrymen, so it seems as appropriate a way to be sent off from Scotland as any. We’ll miss out on Edinburgh entirely – the Athens of the North, of course, with its Doric temple up Calton Hill and its Parthenon half finished before the money ran out. But Edinburgh is one of those few places in Britain that Giristroula has visited, as have I, and pretty much everyone else who’s ever come to Scotland too, so a city too well known to admit description anyway as Dr Johnson thought the same in his book on this country too.
12 of our 28 days touring Britain have been spent rounding Scotland. The scenery and the mood of the country has been something completely unique and arresting for both of us. Winston Churchill once said, so I read somewhere, that “Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.” Here in Stirling we saw for ourselves the toppling castle – the city’s great acropolis – high up on the crag right in the very centre of town. We also saw the rattling cars passing the decaying, draughty Thistle Centre shopping hall. The shopping centre full of ‘Neds’ in grey trackie bottoms. One holding up the green and yellow Scottish emblem of a bottle of Buckfast wine, shouting out at his mate as we passed “Ya scabby bassa!” He aimed a kick at him, missed and sent his trainer high in the grey sky. As often on this journey it felt a little difficult to tell exactly if we’d found ourselves amongst the Spartans or the Athenians.
Our last morning dawns with the car park – previously silent, alone, dark and deserted of anyone but us and Wallace – suddenly full of early morning coach-loads. A group of curious Chinese tourists stand outside, trying to peer through the curtains into our van, as if we’re some sort of exhibit put on by the Scottish Council of Arts.
A final glower from Braveheart up on his plinth and that’s it. The end of Scotland. The end of Britain.
We’ll have to return of course.
We still have the whole of the east side of England to explore. Before we even board the Aegean Airlines plane, we’re making plans to come back, to pick up the trail again somewhere in the North East, and to journey down the east of England. The impetus to really embrace the new life in Greece remanded until we fully complete this old one in England.
But what did we learn anyway on this trip my Greek travelling companion was so adamant we took before we left, and that I’ve written down here like some Doomsday Book of memories? Did I discover things I never knew about my home country? Can Giristroula attest when she goes home that Britain really is full of those garden-tending, door-bolting, tea-drinking, law-abiding, please-and-thank-youing, suspicion-riddled, smiling and not saying what you mean, stiff and constipated people? The “cold bummers” as she tells me the British are known in Greece? Well, this tour only allowed glimpses really. But then, I guess glimpses are all you really get in life. I know that Scotland certainly had its shadows; the meadows and lanes were there in Devon; we saw the carved choirs in the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool; Swansea has its impressive Guildhall, and also its split-level shopping and concrete and tyres. Looking back, I see every stop seemed to centre round a pub. I’m not sure why. I guess pubs and the people inside pubs can still be some sort of a bellwether for how the country is, a microcosm of how we live as a nation? Or perhaps we were just thirsty.
While I struggled to find specific reference points to my own personal identity around Britain – identity, like the Electric Brae, perhaps just a perspective trick anyway – I did feel strangely proud of the country at points all along the journey. I felt depressed at times too. Sometimes a little embarrassed at some of my fellow countrymen, dismayed at some of the dirty corners of the cities – but rarely of the countryside. But I felt a satisfaction at seeing, and showing off, where I come from. But why? Is maybe that the British trait I was looking for? Is it only the British who would do this? Do the Greeks when travelling round their country feel a pride and a sense of connection to something that really has nothing to do with them? A sort of legislated nostalgia that the British seem to do so well, and which I could see easily getting them into trouble. That lump in the throat at the national anthem, and the pretence that the country hasn’t cracked in deep hollowed hosepipe-banned grooves in its 30 year political drought since the early 80s. Well, I guess I shall find out.
Giristroula tells me that the British know what they’ve got, that nothing in the country is left unexploited.
“It isn’t always a bad thing,” she says. “You don’t let your country go to waste at least, unlike Greece. But, God, sometimes though… sometimes with your tickets and your charges and your sightseeing queues and your old people gathered round staring confused at ticket machines in car parks and all the ‘our on-board staff who’ll sell you an upgrade’… you really vgazete apo tin myga xigi as we say – you can make meat out of a fly. Imagine if we did all this tickets and charges for every ancient stone we have back home…”
At the airport we watch an old man struggling to raise himself up from his seat, heaving himself up onto his stick with a groan. He wafts away help from a camp airport staff member in his purple uniform who prances over with his lanyard dancing round his neck, stopping frozen in mid-mince as the old man tells him he doesn’t need him. “Mustn’t grumble,” we hear the old man say.
Giristroula laughs out loud. “God, when I think of the men in the cafes back home,” she says. “You see them kicking over their chair, bashing at their breastbone, shouting to the heavens how ‘No one understands this pain I’m in! No one!’ But here it’s all ‘Oh well, could be worse…'” She smiles. She says she’s very sad to be leaving Britain. Far more than she would have believed before we started this long tour.
“And it’s a very beautiful country,” she says as we sit on the plane back to London, gazing out at the top of grey-streaked clouds. She sniffs as she turns back from the window. “When it’s sunny of course…”
I personally wouldn’t have regretted this journey if it had afforded me nothing more than just that one final glimpse of Britain before we left. But to know that there’s a country here for me – assuming the little of what I now think I know of the culture and the memory and the language and the people remained fixed and as still as the towns on the map – has me happy as our Greece-bound plane pulls away into the sky. Let it always be there.