LK: Even worse than the interminable boredom of travelling along the A17 through Lincolnshire flatness, was the realisation that 13:30 on Saturday 12th September 2020 marked the first time I had been outside Norfolk this year. All the other plans, the Italian railway and 4 cities adventure in March, the gigs, the exhibitions, the theatre trip, had dissolved into the spectral version of 2020 that never existed. To be fair, there would have been much worse places to while away a scorching socially distant summer than Norfolk, but the cancellations of the past six months had made me wary of looking forward too much to this planned road trip. No matter, we were in the car, camping gear packed in the boot, great music playing through the speakers, and the sun sparkling down as we headed north towards our first tent pitch.
KK: We stopped off first at the Anish Kapoor exhibition in the grounds of Houghton Hall (near Kings Lynn). He’s the guy who, among other things, designed the twirly red thing outside West Ham’s ground and the big reflective “Bean” in Chicago, he messes with texture and perception innit? Not wildly exciting under normal circumstances but we had tickets for something that wasn’t cancelled, we handed these tickets over and found ourselves actually doing something, we were giddy with joy even before the red kites and buzzards started spiralling up the warm morning thermals. Captain Sensible and Killing Joke’s manager were on Liz Kershaw’s very punk rock orientated Radio 6 show which took our minds off the tedium of the A17, up the jolly old A1 but off early to climb Sutton Bank. You know Sutton Bank because you nervously climbed up it in a clapped out, overfilled car, full of excitable children on the way to Flamingo Land years ago. Probably. We didn’t go to Flamingo Land. We had a date with different wildlife on a campsite that, as it turned out, was probably too close to Middlesbrough.
LK: Other people, more than we’d seen in a long time, other people laughing and eating and drinking in a field. Six months of relative isolation had maybe bred too much suspicion and distrust; shouldn’t the servers in the onsite restaurant be wearing masks; that group is definitely going to set fire to their tent tonight; no, I’m not going to put my name on the whiteboard to book a shower slot. Then I remembered I was like this pre-pandemic anyway. Best to enjoy the surrounding quiet of the countryside by walking to the local pub and not bothering to go in, returning to the campsite to discover our burst mattress, and sitting down to enjoy a couple of cans until the un-forecasted, unwelcome rain began. One of our friends helpfully messaged us to list all the things he hated about camping, but despite the flat mattress and the honkathon from the local goose farm we slept soundly to get up to share the early morning with bats and barn owls, with the promise of a hotel room and unlimited showers later in the day.
KK: Newcastle had won 0-2 at West Ham, the cold, hard Yorkshire ground had miraculously ironed out all the kinks in our ageing backs and an aversion to that horrible competition of: full bladder verses squeezing out of a warm sleeping bag/damp tent meant we had gone easy on the drink. So, at first light, we were already packed up and leaving while the snorers still snored thunderously, the feral children still recharged before another day’s screaming and the geese still bellowed their disapproval at whatever it is that keeps geese so bloody agitated all night. Camping is not necessarily a peaceful pastime but there is a joy in feeling dishevelled and driving in search of decent coffee having been up early enough to see nocturnal animals. We struck out across the moors but took a steep detour down to see the remains of the beautiful Riveaulx Abbey where the National Trust had, helpfully, barricaded the car park. We had to jump out the car and gawp across a woman’s garden to get a decent picture. Poor woman, in her dressing gown, only wanted a tab and a cup of tea. Costa in Stokesley had proper cups, a luxurious lavatory and was packed with very, very serious bicyclists. This was probably where the arching narrative of “How Much is Too Much?” was hatched. In this case, the amount of gear a (nearly always male) cyclist feels they need to invest in before they take to the road. None of which is a sodding face mask.
LK: More exercise nuts were doing their own Great North Runs as we headed to the North East for family visits. Small groups seemingly taking random routes and different directions, like surreally scattered pheasants. Just a few days before the local lockdowns were decreed, it was difficult to square the peaceful, happy day we spent in Newcastle with the plague ship image we are presented with outside the area. We woke up to the absolute joy of a Monday morning not at work and braced ourselves for the next camping stop at the southern end of the Yorkshire Dales. Our campsite allowed for some spectacular social distancing, our little tent pitched in the corner of a field, with our nearest neighbours arriving an hour later at a distance of at least 200 metres. The warm sun lit up the surrounding hills, and we walked to the nearest village in search of food. The Game Cock (seriously) was fully booked and the hotel’s cheapest item at £22 was a Pea and Goat’s Curd Risotto; we looked at each other and laughed and drove to the nearest Tesco for a tent picnic instead. On our return two hours later, our neighbours still hadn’t built their living space. What are they doing, we asked out loud from the other side of the field.
KK: Two people and a dog in a brand new VW camper van: The awning folded out into a tent the size you would expect if invited to a Mongolian war council, then festooned with lights like Santa’s grotto. A little wigwam for their toilet, an expensive looking broiler, a grill, furniture… then we realised that what was definitely sadder than spending four and a half hours assembling your holiday was watching somebody else spend four and a half hours assembling their holiday. Anyway, thanks to our sound-system we had already worked out that cows are attracted to Akala and that sheep like to bleat along to Buffalo Tom, so we went to bed. The next day, against my express wishes, we drove to Hereford. The BBC like to remind Newcastle fans every year that Hereford knocked us out of the FA Cup nearly 50 years ago so I hate the place for that. Also, when travelling in Namibia one of our party was from Hereford and he was boring and annoying and carried on like he was Prince f’kin Phillip, so I vowed never to go in case everybody who lived there was like him.
LK: Who knows if they were, the only social interaction we had was in Tescos with a snotty supervisor and an uncomplicated checkout assistant who blithely ignored her instructions. We did visit the cathedral, as I’m of an age now where I find cathedrals intriguing, to do some gawping at the Mappa Mundi, a saint’s skull, and the chained library. Hereford’s charms exhausted, we headed off to our little ‘shed’ at the north east edge of the Brecon Beacons. How long could it be before we got bored of gazing across to the facing mountains from our chiminea heated patio with a cold beer in hand, spotting majestic circling red kites – no rush, get back to us when the country can competently deal with the virus. To emphasise that we weren’t in Norfolk any more, we went hill climbing. After eight months of being hampered by a stress fracture and various meniscal tears in my knees I was ecstatic to reach the 1088 foot summit and take in the spectacular views across bracken moorland to Brecon town. I miss hills.
KK: It was utter bliss, at night while the fire crackled, we star-gazed and played Connect 4. I forget who won. We were also just a short drive over the river to Hay-on Wye where the narrow streets are crammed with the most fabulous bookshops. We already have piles of unread books at home but our determination not to add to them dissolved and we drove back to our shed with armfuls of beautifully bound and fascinating books that we will definitely read. Providing there is some sort of Lockdown. Or maybe not if we learnt anything from the last one. How much is too much when it comes to books? Compared to how much is too much when it comes to infections, deaths, ministerial incompetence, corruption, wild fires, holiday restrictions, blocked takeovers and biblical storms, at least it’s something we get to choose.
LK: For the record we drove 975 miles and I won the Connect 4 competition. Me. I did.