Last Exit before Brexit
We set off from Brixton’s Brockwell Park in a southeasterly direction under sinking orange solstice light. Seven fixed uneasy smiles unsure of what the night will hold. I’m quietly touched by their faith. I hold stapled photocopied pages. A twenty-mile path to the Prime Meridian located on the ancient Pilgrim’s Way due south of Greenwich.
Passing through West Dulwich we rapidly fall into unfamiliar territory and climb the steep Gipsy hill to the high point of Crystal Palace. Talk of not wanting to ride our bikes up that hill. We meet a comrade who doesn't care to join us.
Pizza is eaten in the dark near the footings of the Palace. We continue down the long Anerley Road. Customized motorbikes. Fish and chips for a fiver. It’s 1989. At the bottom we bid farewell to my brother at a 24-hour Tesco loading bay before turning into Elmer's End. This is felt by all to be the wrong path to the Meridian. Elmer’s End feels like a place where the night is traced on the dry foam of a spent glass of Stella. I watch an African woman drawing a gray net curtain over a fume filled commuter artery.
We consult maps and phones and head along the Croydon Road before turning off into The Glade. A boy racer with his girlfriend taunts the silent road lined with dark bungalows still shy of the 1960's. A wobbling pair of drunk girls look back at us. Foreigners with rucksacks on a night out. What would they say if we asked for shelter?
We pause at a crossroads at Shirley for nutritional and more colourful refreshments. Someone asks if we are halfway by now and I say yes. No harm in a little optimism. Down a quiet shaded road with long high walled mansions. Fewer cars. The Norwood hills well behind us. No doubt there are security cameras opening their irises. Money cossets the landscape.
Down to what appears to be a frontier post with a multi-lane junction and tram lines. We could be in Belgium or Germany but instead we rest on the perimeter of Croydon. A group photo is taken and we appear as iridescent grinning dwarves watched over by a benign Italian giant.
The last open shop. Police on patrol hesitate, giving us a second look. I’d like to know their questions. We land at Planet Spice, apparently London's last and finest curry house but not serving now. Further on we frighten a badger foraging by the road, well spotted by keen Brazilian eyes.
Onwards down Featherbed Lane to a fortified compound heralding the headquarters of the Jehovah Witnesses. Poised on the threshold of darkness and light, this is where they train and dispense the smiling Sunday best door-knockers. We move forward in silent single file enveloped by night for the first time. The city finally behind us. Our vision improves. There is light in the shadows.
Now walking narrow roads, unsure of what direction cars are coming from. Our collective imaginations frequently playing tricks. Darting in front of headlights with much less grace than rabbits. I respond to a question about where we are by saying we still have ten pages of the map to wade through. I fail to read names of roads in the dark and wonder why I’m wearing glasses. Guesswork is vaguely reassuring.
3am. The doldrums of night. We pass a 16th century pub with a white bear sentry. It’s said that polar bears walked down to Scotland from the ice cap in the big freeze of the 16th century. I don’t know if they came this far south.
Forests vibrate silently and almost imperceptibly, lighter tones of blue and gray trickle into our vision. While emptying our bladders, we’re literally caught with our pants down when a car is heard and seen but the phantom never arrives. We can’t agree if there was a car at all. A spasmodic flash-lit euro gabba dance led by a Catalan ensues and our bellies ache from laughter.
Above the trees looking across at a needled forest of red lights. The radio towers of Crystal Palace a gateway to the gray and blue-spired city perched in its basin. There is disbelief that we have walked this far. We want to tell someone we’re from Brixton.
We slowly ascend the ridge. An interval in a hedge reveals yellow and green barley wavering down an inviting belly towards a pubic nest of trees. It’s tempting to break off from the road. We should at least stop and steady our breath to the rhythm of grass but we plod on.
Victorian farmhouses cobbled in flint surrounded by fields. This countryside is suburbia with bigger gardens and animals. We surprise a brown stallion and a white mare. They waft back and forth and settle into a standoff from a distance. The mare’s muscular backside seems to have been grafted on like a pedigree Botox Kardashian. I have Colombian guava sugar but they’re not tempted. Further on we pass a mother and foal. A small herd appears and kicks off in the paddock, galloping alongside us. The road levels off. It seems like we’re at a highpoint but the actual point or destination is illusive.
We trudge along Limpsfield road. The occasional Sunday morning car racing by. Appearing as morning ramblers, the drivers unaware of our nocturnal escape and creeping exhaustion.
Flowers and nettles line our path. Pink, blue, yellow, white – waving arms of daisies. Dandelions the size of tennis balls. Tentacles everywhere. We pause, unsure of journey’s end. It’s over there but over there looks like nothing worth visiting. A concrete tower with red lights. I say that the last part is always the hardest and feel surprised at how reassuring this sounds. We pass an old pub surrounded by a large car park. Not inviting even if it were open. We are now on the ridge. The road is quiet. The details of trees and grass and shadows finely lit like a daguerreotype. The sun now up and twitching an orange blast above the shield of cloud. We’re in awe of the glare.
Now saying it’s over. We’re here. This is it. Pausing at a sentry house outside a country estate. The pile has been modernized. Perhaps Russians live here. There’s nowhere to sit and we’re tired. We descend a path from the ridge down Chalkpit Lane, hoping for respite in a clearing, a quiet patch of soft grass welcomed by birdsong and sunlight. Instead we pause at a junction with two gates, barbed wire, a National Trust sign and cars washing past on the M25 beneath us. This is an edge of sorts. We haven’t been lured into any bucolic clearing. The crust of the city is a circular racetrack that never sleeps. We breakfast on sandwiches, hot chocolate, cheese and nuts. Rum and whiskey chasers. Laughter overflowing.
We choose under rather than over the motorway and walk past a house surrounded by dusty cars as if the owner was a hoarder in wait of a showroom. Then a street so crowded with cars in driveways it seems that the houses are only there to offer space for parking. Perhaps you only dream of cars when the M25 river lulls you to sleep. The houses clad with insulated plastic windows like flat screen castles pretending not to recognize one another.
There is a tunnel under the motorway. An empty cathedral haunted by softly cooing pigeons. The rush of rubber and wind silenced by the expanse of reinforced concrete. The light dazzles behind. A close encounter with the Meridian. Exiting the tunnel we find a zigzag path up to the hard shoulder constructed like tubular Meccano from a plumber’s excess piping. Art galleries are less interesting.
A fringe of houses set back from the road fronted by painted perfumed gardens. If the neighbours are competing then it’s a worthy fight. Shapes and colours are sculpted into psychedelic Disneylands. For a moment we are the insects.
The train from Oxted leaves at ten past eight. We collapse in an ancient cemetery talking of the Reformation. Wondering who has witnessed what through the stain glassed windows of the church since 1086. The sun warm and steady, folding eyelids forming flickering orange membranes. I resist sleep and walk barefoot into the church. The priest anticipating arrival of anyone but me.
I don’t want to leave but there’s talk of being stranded and chaos on Sunday transport. We’re seven hours walk from home. The trains aren’t running from here and a bus has replaced the service. We head back into swathes of consumer warehouses where suburban dreams become real. The bus driver stops to ask directions. Other passengers are talking of being dropped off at a tube station. This is more like a taxi ride sans knowledge or sat-nav.
VOTE LEAVE signs pock our vision. We’re trying to return. We see a sign for Brixton and feel that home is within reach but the lost driver delivers us back to a train station at Purley. The convenience of mechanized transport proving to be less reliable than footfall. Sunday papers alternately ordering ‘leave’ or ‘remain’. What happens if you amalgamate both over one short night?
I arrive home sensing my brother has just departed. The mist on the bathroom mirror still settling. He was last seen at Elmer’s End, the butt of a city leading to regiments of edgelands. We headed south and traversed the Prime Meridian dividing the earth west and east. Looking back on thousands of footsteps driven by desire for imaginary frontiers. Reaching an edge of sorts in the form of a ring road flinging metal back and forth. Passing beneath the internecine traffic we discovered a silent tunnel. An intermediate passage designed for entering and leaving. Pigeons were roosting here. What if we were to remain with the birds - like so many ostriches - our heads buried in a cathedral under a motorway?