Some of these more casual encounters will be pleasant, others less so. I didn't experience anything bad when out and about on my last holiday, but there were occasions when it seemed that I was an alien creature in a foreign land, in my own perception at least. At times I thought there was an unbridgeable gulf between myself and the person in front of me, even though we were both British and spoke English and were at the very least least motivated to be in the same spot at the same time.
Let's look at some of these encounters. A wide variety here! I'll show you only the ones where the setting for the meeting got recorded in a shot or two. Because the setting often explains why we came together, and what kind of exchange - if any - could be expected.
First up, Foxton Locks. I was on my way north, and was pitched for two nights at Fineshade near Stamford. I had a whole day to explore that part of the East Midlands, which was mainly in Northamptonshire, although this is an area where Leicestershire, Rutland, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire all meet, and a short circular drive will take you in and out of all of them.
My next door neighbours Jackie and Kevin are not only caravanners like me, they own a narrow boat and tour the country's canal system. They had mentioned the Foxton Locks.
Narrow boating is very popular. Some people actually live on their boats full-time, and it must have its attractions, although for me the drawbacks would several, such as be the need to keep moving on (permanent moorings being an expensive luxury unless a canal-side deal can be struck with, say, a pub); the transient nature of one's company because of that need to shift moorings; the physical strength needed to operate lock gates and the like; the problem of waste disposal; the confined nature of the boat's interior (despite very clever use of space); the problems of postal delivery, shopping and regular health care; and the general dampness of a watery environment, which surely must increase the chances of aches and pains in later life. I'm also pretty clumsy, and a drenching in the canal after tripping up would be inevitable.
Not least, I'd want some luxury. Very likely most narrow-boaters eat well, but I'd want more than just great food. I would not be happy, constantly dressed in cheap, drab clothes, with nowhere smart to go. It does seem to me that many narrow boat residents slop around in practical, weatherproof, but boring clothing most of the time. I'm sure they like doing so, and will also point out that down-to-earth canalside pubs have far more character than the town-based restaurants and National Trust cafés that pepper my own existence. And they may be right. They can certainly enjoy all the bohemian freedoms of canal life, where the only 'rules' are the ones imposed by the boat, the season, and the waterway authorities. Presumably younger full-time narrow-boaters have occupations (writing, painting, computer-based professions perhaps) that are not at all hindered by a floating, moving home. And I dare say such a way of living, whether you work or not, frees up the creative mind, or at least allows the serene contemplation of nature: how else to see so much of water voles and otters and kingfishers and dragonflies? But even though living close up to the natural world, and the wonders of weather, must provide endless photo opportunities, it still wouldn't suit me. I'd feel cut off from normal life, hidden away. Above all, I'd miss driving, covering big distances at speed, and being free to explore well beyond my immediate vicinity. I am not a slow-lane person. Nor could I be content with the quiet sort life to be found along the canal.
A canal holiday might however be an experience I should try. I saw (and spoke to) several obvious holiday folk at Foxton Locks. Apart from the effort of turning handles and pushing big lumps of wood, they seemed to be loving the life, or claimed to be. Certainly cheerfulness was the order of the day. And there were keen official volunteers around in hi-vis jackets to help people who needed assistance get through the succession of locks here. I should perhaps say that Foxton is where the tremendously busy Grand Union Canal meets the branch from Market Harborough, and the 'Locks' are a daunting staircase of ten locks, one after another without a break, so that boats can climb (or descend) a hill. To negotiate that needs a clear head, a steady tiller, a deft touch on the throttle, and a boatload of patience. Pubs and cafés, with places to (temporarily) moor up, are all to hand. It's a spot for landlubbers too, even coach parties.
I turned up in Fiona, not knowing quite what I'd see. The best plan seemed to be to walk down to the canal junction, and just take a few photos. I saw this boat coming along, heading towards a footbridge. Surely it must crash into it?
But a chappie had jumped off and was making for the bridge. I asked the obvious thing. 'Are you going to open the bridge?' I said. 'That's right,' he said, smiling, 'You watch.' 'You don't mind if I take a shot or two?' 'Not a bit.'
As you can see, it was a footbridge that swung open sideways by pushing hard on a stout wooden arm, and my goodness it needed a jolly good push! Evidence that narrow-boating is not for weaklings. He got it open just in time for the boat, still coasting forward under its own gentle momentum, to glide through.
This scene had only just played itself out when a brightly-painted boat, waiting nearby, chugged into life with a cheerful man at the helm. I wasn't in position to catch the best moments, but we exchanged grins, and I did get these shots:
I then made my way over a brick bridge, and up the series of ten locks to the top. At every stage there were people to chat to, some doing their bit of the lock-gate routine, some of them visitors like myself, there simply to watch. I had a nice chat with a couple from Nottingham. I had to admire the skill and fine judgement involved. I doubted whether I could do it myself, without getting flummoxed in some way, or ramming the lock gates, or broadsiding another boat.
The scene now changes to the Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough. This must be Yorkshire's premier holiday destination. It was full of holidaymakers. It's a hilly place, with great views, a harbour, a long promenade behind a wide sandy beach, nice gardens, and the full range of traditional entertainments, amusements and eateries. There's a certain 'carefully preserved' atmosphere that clearly appeals to a lot of the people who come here. I don't mean it's a town of great culture and historic significance, although it does have its ancient buildings, such as a fine church and famous castle, and plenty of buildings of Victorian and Edwardian vintage. It's 'culture' is good-quality but populist. And why not? Personally, I like Scarborough. It seems an honest kind of place, that offers exactly what its faithful clientele wants, with no attempt at cutting-edge modernity, and only the moderate pretensions of a different age. It isn't another Bournemouth or Eastbourne, though: there's a definite Northern edge, an unmistakably Northern feel, and the accents are flat and occasionally very, very un-Southern. I kept my own mouth shut.
A friend whose views I respect remarked in a text that Scarborough didn't cut it in her view and was a dustbin case. I leapt to the town's defence. I replied with a text in these words (only very slightly tidied up for this post):
Oh, that's a bit harsh, although I admit I saw a pantheon of Typical Northern Types, some of whom actually spoke in a Typical Yorkshire Way. I intend to do a post about Scarborough once home, zeroing in on its virtues. And I did have a diet-busting but succulent Traditional Fish, Chips and Mushy Peas lunch, complete with bread and butter and a pot of tea, all for £6.50 at a backstreet place called Rennards.
'By 'eck,' I said to the waitress, 'That's good value!'
'Aye,' said she, 'Tha'll not get better this side o' Pontefract.'
And a man in a flat cap at a nearby table joined in, saying, 'T'batter on fish, waitress, were best Ah've ever tasted,' and added for emphasis, 'T'were champion - why, I'd treat my whippet to it were I so minded.'
'By,' I exclaimed, 'You must be a Wakefield man to know so much about batter.'
'Aye,' said he, 'Just like my father before me, and his father before him annall. Tha've got strange way o' talkin', young lady. Happen you're a Shipley lass?'
'Nay,' said I, 'Ah'm just visitor, but Ah do like Scarborough very much. No place to compare wi' it.'
And on that cliffhanger I'll leave this tripe and onions and get on with my day!
Well, I regurgitate this text with a certain amount of hesitancy, in case some think that I was lampooning the ways and accents of Scarborough and (more generally) Yorkshire. Let me justify myself just a bit. The text to my friend back in Sussex wasn't all fictionalised. Here for instance is the actual backstreet Scarborough fish and chip restaurant I mentioned. It caught my eye as a likely place to get a yummy plate of traditional fish and chips with all the fixings, and I was right:
There was a jolly waitress within, although she didn't hail from Pontefract. We had a pleasant chat. She could see that I wasn't a Northerner. She could also see that I was a discerning observer of life. She volunteered the opinion that Scarborough lacked much that appealed to young children nowadays, and was much too orientated towards the tastes of the Older Generation, and needed to buck its ideas up to survive as a top-flight resort. I couldn't say anything about that, of course.
It was perfectly true that I looked at the menu and was steered towards their special, and that it was Good Value. This was the menu:
And this was the special when it came:
I assure you, it melted in the mouth. It was all absolutely what I'd hoped for. It would lure me back again. And there really was a man at a nearby table who told the waitress that the batter was the best he'd ever tasted. He didn't have a broad Wakefield accent, just a normal Yorkshire one, nor was he wearing a flat cap; but he helped the Wallace and Gromit atmosphere along wonderfully. This was an Experience to relish in several senses. I was glad that I'd chosen here to eat, and I looked forward to finding out what else Scarborough would show me.
I'm sure that the above praise still won't mollify some outraged Yorkshire loyalists. OK. I will say to them: lampoon Sussex then! Myself in particular, if you wish! As mercilessly as you like! Let it be perhaps on these lines:
INCIDENT IN AN EASTBOURNE RESTAURANT
Lucy arched an eyebrow, and whispered to the waitress, 'What an absolutely fabulous menu. It is such good value.'
'We do pride ourselves, madam, on offering the finest marine cuisine at the keenest price,' she haughtily replied. 'Frankly, I doubt if you can possibly dine better this side of Tunbridge Wells.'
A red-faced master of hounds in hunting pink at a nearby table looked up from his plate, quaffed his Bollinger, screwed in his monocle, and made the following observation. 'In my opinion, waitress, the batter on this lobster is the best that I have ever had the pleasure to consume. It is so good, I would feed it to my hounds.'
'Sir,' Lucy exclaimed, 'I feel you must be an East Grinstead man, to know so much about batter.'
'Madam,' he replied, 'It runs in the family. As for yourself, I cannot place your accent. It may be Sussex; but if so, which village? Are you from High Hurstwood, Heathfield, Hurstpierpoint or Herstmonceux?'
'Why sir, none of them,' said Lucy, 'I am simply a Woman of the World, and a visitor to Eastbourne. But I like coming here very much. There is no place quite like it, do you not concur?'
Theatre-minded sleuths might detect a subtlety here. The Norman Conquests trilogy of plays by Alan Ayckbourn (the Scarborough playwright) is set in East Grinstead. Otherwise the above piece is unremarkable, completely true to life, and in no way a parody. Everybody in Sussex speaks like that. Of course we do.
The next encounter I will mention was in the churchyard in Scarborough where Ann Brontë is buried. Now bear in mind that I was looking like this on arrival in the town:
It got cloudier and cooler, and after lunch I looked like this:
I still can't see what is unusual about my appearance, windswept though it might be (along with everyone else, of course). But, as I inspected Anne Brontë's grave, I felt that the seated woman in the top centre of this shot was taking an undue interest in me:
Let's see her in close-up:
What was up with her? I knew my face wasn't covered in mushy peas; I wasn't topless; nor had I accidentally streaked lipstick luridly across my nose and cheeks. Surely there was nothing strange about photographing an author's grave? It was unfathomable.
I proceeded down to the harbourside, where this time a man thought he was entitled to squint at me. He's on the far left of this shot:
And in close-up:
What was his problem, then? I didn't get it, and still can't. Come to think of it, the girl to the right of him is gawping too. There must have been something about me to make them stare. And it must have been something major. But what? Remember, I hadn't opened my mouth. I wasn't wearing anything odd. I had my smartphone in my hand and was taking pictures, but so were dozens of other people. And these people nearby weren't taking any notice of me:
And these people didn't pay me any attention either:
All these folk on the beach remained indifferent to me:
This lady in the foreground is looking at me, but not intently:
In general, it was perfectly possible to wander about and shoot away without anybody giving a tinker's. I secured some nice shots of people standing around, watching the world go by, or some scene slowly develop - such as securing this lifeboat to its launching cradle after a demonstration 'rescue':
I can only think that I must have a rather generic face that resembles a lot of people, so that sometimes I get mistaken for someone else. It would prompt a startled stare, if this woman here (or that man there) saw me and momentarily believed I was someone they knew, who ought to be three hundred miles away. Or in Australia. Or dead.
Let's switch to Cumbria now.
At Aspatria railway station I encountered this lady, who had got off the train there by mistake.
I was visiting the place out of curiosity. We couldn't fail to speak. She had really wanted to get off at Wigton, one stop further on, but had misunderstood what the guard had said. She was on the phone, trying to reach her sister in Wigton, and ask her to fetch her. It was only ten minutes' drive away. But her sister didn't seem to have her phone switched on. So, for the present, she was stuck.
I looked at the timetable displayed on a wall for her. It wasn't all that easy to decipher it, but there was apparently a train in half an hour or so. If it arrived on time, the timetable seemed to be saying that she'd have to signal to the driver to make it stop. We chatted for a bit. I felt bound to stay and give her moral support, but that soon felt rather contrived. We ran out of ready conversation. She was a grown woman who wouldn't be coming to any harm, and there was really no need to stick around. I was under no obligation to stay and make sure she was all right. But I said to her, would she like a lift in my car to Wigton? It would be no trouble, and it would save her waiting and uncertainty. She appreciated the offer but declined. Oh well. Let's be on my way then. I said goodbye and drove off. But I still felt I could, and should, have hung around and seen her safely on that train. I wondered if she regretted her caution, or independence, or whatever it was. Who knows.
Not far away was Silloth, a small seaside resort for Carlisle folk in Edwardian times, but in slow decline ever since. It looked OK in the sunshine, somewhat bleak when it clouded over. It was lunchtime. I fancied a small portion of chips to go with the fruit I'd brought along. At the central crossroads was a fish and chip shop with a queue out onto the pavement. A queue... Was it worth it? Let's see what happens. I joined the end of the queue. We steadily shuffled inside. I saw then that in fact the queue doubled back on itself inside the shop, so that half the queue looked directly at the other half. Not a place for the self-conscious!
I didn't feel exposed or self-conscious, but nor did I feel entirely comfortable. Nobody was paying me any attention, but I did feel physically different from most people there, because most of them were super-sized. The women were large and very overweight. The men were enormous. Not just wide, but tall too. They were giants. It was intimidating. I thought: this is what a bad diet does for you. You get grossly large.
Next thought: I'd like a photo of all this. It was freaky, but also interesting and worth recording. But even with a smartphone, getting a shot was difficult. I didn't want to be caught doing a sneaky spot of photo-journalism. It might not be understood. The best I could do was to get a shot - just the one - of this typical example of Silloth Man. He was a young guy in his late teens or early twenties. He was built like an oak tree. The older man standing behind him in the queue was impressive enough, but a mere six footer. This young man was a head taller than him, and his girth immense. Not as immense as a sumo wrestler, but he definitely had a presence - though not in a good way. I'd give him ten years, tops, before having serious health issues.
Meanwhile I wanted a shot. So I pretended to be consulting my phone, and just nonchalantly tapped the shutter button. The camera could only get his lower half. Silloth Man's tree-trunk legs. Bred on fish and chips, Cumbrian style. Better than nothing, though.
By the time I finally got to be served, I'd become aghast at the huge size of the portions. It was certainly value for money, but... Well, I asked for a small portion, and came away with a cone. This is it. Overflowing with supersized chips:
It's time to end. Let's go out with a bang - I really mean a wobble - with a picture from Maryport, further south along the Cumbrian coast. Maryport has been trying hard to put on a new face in recent years. But it's still an old post-industrial port with a rather forlorn air. It could do with another injection of funding, and needs to become trendy. That might boost its appeal. Meanwhile it's a tight-knit community with traditional ways, despite some superficial tarting-up. I had seen something of it a while back on BBC2's Coast programme, and wanted to visit it in person.
I was disappointed. I was expecting to see rejuvenation on quite a scale. Some smart boutiques and eating-places. Smart people. Signs of money. Yes, the harbour area had seen a makeover, but some time back. It was looking tired again. The town centre was just bog-standard local shopping, not at all exciting. I didn't really look beyond the high street and immediate side-roads, but I saw plenty of empty, unlet premises. Calling it Peeling-Paint City would be very unkind, as there was plenty of fresh paint to be seen, but it would make a valid point. There was little to fire the shutter for.
And then, coming towards me from the direction of the harbour were three ladies. They were clearly bound for this destination, the Labour Club:
Well, they were dressed up for the evening, and I hadn't seen anywhere else they might have wanted to go to. I couldn't shoot them in the face. They would think that I thought them odd, although really there was nothing wrong with their appearance. I waited until they had passed, and then shot them in the back, as you must if you wish to spare your subjects the chagrin of knowing they made a 'good picture'.
Speaking from a photographer's point of view, as well as an observant traveller's point of view, I like this picture very much. It sums up, for me, what life in a northern coastal town is like in 2017. I may seem voyeuristic in my approach, but I don't mean to be, and I'm very conscious that my own sense of style is questionable. In short, I am no better or worse than these women.
I do hope these ladies enjoyed their evening. They probably spent a minute or two discussing who that odd lady in the frumpy woollen cardigan could have been.