Countless others have circumnavigated these islands some for adventure, or to prove their valour or competence, some like the Spanish Armada, driven by storms onto eastern mudbanks or western rocks, some to emulate a hero like a young girl whom I met a few years ago in the Yacht club at Lowestoft who thought herself not much good for anything except to follow Ellen Macarthur and make the trip alone in a small boat; some dreamily for the fifteen minutes of fame that Warhol promised his contemporaries; more than a handful to find themselves, or their soul or meaning in a place distant from where they had failed to find them thus far, or maybe from the act of travel itself and the confrontation with the unknown.
Do our motives lie among these? Adventure for its own sake seems to me a poor motive for doing anything, a simple indulgence offering, on completion, a satisfaction not so different from that of winning a game of pool, or pulling a jackpot from a Las Vegas slot machine. Perhaps that is why few of those who complete such voyages have anything of interest to say about the experience beyond comments on the weather, or the tricky entrance to an unfamiliar harbour. We know the style well:enough “After bidding farewell to the handful of friends who had gathered on the pontoon to watch our departure, we set off in good spirits just as the tide began to ebb. Though there was hardly a breath of breeze, the skies were leaden and heavy with rain, and we knew from the forecast that by the time we reached the estuary, we were in for a soaking. We radioed London VTS for permission to pass through the Thames Barrier - and suddenly the months of preparation were behind us....” Accounts of such banality seem scarcely worth the trouble of writing them down. Yet they constitute most of the dreary diet on offer to the armchair adventurer both on screen and in print.
With rare – wonderful – exceptions, travel writing amounts to little more than an exercise in vanity with the writer as protagonist braving extremes of heat and cold , the strangeness of unfamiliar cultures, the privations of wilderness, inclemencies of weather, threats from men and beasts, and whatever might invoke the reader's admiration, or maybe a mild twinge of envy. His gaze looks inward, at the self, against which the landscapes through which he passes and the people she encounters form backcloths, stage-settings embroidered in colours dulled by lack of observation and curiosity. And how could it be otherwise when the achievement is what we are called upon to witness: an ocean crossing or a mountain climb, usually one where others have gone before? For that matter, is there anywhere left on earth – beyond the uninhabitable ocean depths – that humans have not already visited?. The trail to Everest – unscaled before the 1950s – is now littered with the plastic trash of countless climbers; and Peru limits the number of visitors to Machu Picchu, the “lost” Andean city of the Incas - in an effort to preserve something of its pristine remoteness. As we spread over what remains of the earth's wilderness, journeys worth recounting for their own sake become harder to find. Perhaps that is a redeeming feature of our progress into the 21st century - that we can no longer boast about having crossed yet another unknown wasteland or blasted heath because destinations accessible to rough humanity – ones that don't require billions of dollars and teams of scientists and engineers – have become routine. Maybe, those of us who set out will, for lack of alternative, turn our attention away from the finishing line and concentrate instead on the road travelled. In life that's precisely what we have to do – with our unavoidable end, an event we do our best to delay. The symbolism of all journeys needs no emphasis.
In any case, there is nothing intrinsically original or exciting about making a trip round these islands. We must find our meanings and our pleasure in the act itself, in the people we meet, the land and sea scapes through which we pass, in what it teaches us about them and about ourselves and perhaps, if we look well and reflect on what we see, about the world.
I should confess, by the way, to a suspicion that I ought to be doing something more useful with my time on earth. A sense of unease readily occupies a niche in my mind at the thought of anything that smacks of vacation, perhaps because, as the years go by I become increasingly aware of the poverty of my achievements.Conscious that the time remaining to me to fulfil the ambitions of youth is dwindling, I feel pressed not to give up on them. And I get to wondering if this journey might not be an elaborate evasion of some larger responsibility. Puritanical fear no doubt, but real enough for me to know that if the date of departure had not been fixed well in advance, had I not given my word to Ian that we would go together, had we not both announced the trip publicly, then I might well have found some more "pressing" or "important" engagement.to detain me.
In my twenties and thirties I would not have recognized those sentiments as my own. When we are young, there is time to climb Everest, relieve poverty in Africa, achieve success in our chosen field, earn a fortune, travel the world, meet the partner of our dreams, and conquer the world in whatever way takes our fancy. But as age overtakes us so does a perception that the garden laid out in our dreams has gone largely untended. When that happens, I guess we have two choices: either we give up and let the weeds have their way, or we cling to the hope that we still have time to clear the soil, plant those seeds and watch them grow. Despite the lengthening odds, I haven't yet given up on the second option.
Enough of philosophical misgivings. Provided we sail with our eyes and ears open to the sights and sounds that greet us on our way, they will disappear soon enough.