I had never really thought about Britain before. I knew the clichés of the country: drink tea, walk dog, talk weather, turn up, muck in and form orderly queue. But was any of it true? I had never really stopped to think, and had certainly never bothered to go and find out. All that changed though when, after 5 years living in this country, the unhappy-looking, beautiful Greek girl I had met teaching in a cold boarding school for the summer and had fallen hopelessly in love with, decided it was time for her to leave Britain. She wanted to return to her home country – and to take me with her. But before we departed these shores she told me she wanted to take a grand tour of Britain. To see all the places on this island she’d heard about but hadn’t seen. To feel like she’d really embraced Britain and Britishness before she left. To return to Greece feeling like she properly understood this country. For me, she said, it could serve as a long goodbye to my homeland before I sailed away.
After 40 years of living here I realised I hardly really knew Britain either. So I agreed. And then began to wonder just what I would see on this tour. Even in its duller moments it would surely still be of interest to me, what with the knowledge that the backcloth to this journey – the countryside and the towns and the people and the culture – having surely contributed something, in someway, to who I am. But would I find it frustrating? Never living up to my idea of what the country should be? What I hoped it would be? Would seeing many of these places in my home country for the first time, plus through the eyes of my accompanying Greek travelling partner – my Giristroula as they say in Greece for a girl who likes to wander – give me a unique view into the land of my birth? Or would it leave me just as in the dark as her? Well, we shall find out.
With no real set plan, aside from a vague idea of an orbit round the edge of the whole of Britain, we set out to see the country. This kingdom by the sea. This isle of noise. This land of Yorkshire terriers, Lancashire Hotpot, London Pride and the Glasgow kiss. The last chance to see.