The West Midlands were not particularly kind to me.
As a result, of course, I learned a hell of a lot.
The weather was the least of it. Leaving Bridgnorth and finishing the last of my leftovers I found myself riding in the rain once again, with no food and no prospect of finding any. I was getting used to being utterly soaked, fingers wrinkly and cold, feet tingling and throbbing as they dried out after having been soaked for hours each day.
I followed railway-cutting green routes which in nicer conditions would have been lovely, but which today were just a traffic-free method of getting very, very wet. In Ironbridge I found frustrated tourists hurrying across the road to glance at Darby’s world-famous feat of engineering before dashing for the nearest safe haven of dryness; havens from which I, as a penniless tramp, was excluded. Polite enquiries at a couple of quiet-looking cafés yielded nothing but looks of pity and explanations that the staff rota was drawn up in advance, so there was nothing I could help out with today – and besides, it took time to learn the ropes. All of which was perfectly true.
Further on I spotted a signpost for a vineyard. Yes, a vineyard in the English West Midlands!
Weaving between industrial units I came upon the most unlikely sight: neat rows of bent trunks, branches wrestled and woven along horizontal trusses, the familiar-looking leaves with which I’d wrapped so many delicious little parcels of rice and meat and herbs while living in Armenia. It was an incongruous sight, yet it turns out there are hundreds of wine-producing vineyards in Britain, from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides. This may be old news to many, but to me it was a revelation and a mood-lifter.
I walked in to the visitors’ centre. In an adjoining café, a noisy collection of OAPs were enjoying a day of wine-tasting, clearly several hours into the programme.
“I’m a writer conducting an experiment to see if I can travel the entire length of the country without any money,” I explained to the most authoritative-looking figure in the kitchen, “and I wondered if you could use any help this afternoon in exchange for a square meal?”
(This was just the latest in a growing list of variants of my spiel.)
“I’ll be completely honest with you,” she replied after listening patiently, “we don’t need any help at the moment.”
Of course. It’s May. Hardly grape-picking season. Duh.
“But you’re very welcome to a slice of pie.”
Straight up. No fuss.
“Er… yep, that works too… thank you!”
“You’re welcome. Lindsay, get this gentleman a slice of pie, would you.”
The meat pie was deposited in front of me, a leftover from the pensioners’ lunch next door. I ate it with gratitude, said my thanks and continued on my way, perplexed. Spontaneous work-for-food exchanges were not really working very well, and I set to thinking about why this could be. But before long I found myself sidetracked once again by hunger.
Whitchurch on a Saturday evening was just about the least likely place to score a free meal, and it was here that I almost broke, emptiness tangibly clanging about in my stomach and reducing my thoughts to naught but endless elaborate food fantasies. I spotted a sticker in the window of a kebab shop, put two and two together and realised that if I could remember my debit card details and find a free wifi hotspot I could use my smartphone to order and pay for a takeaway online. Yes! And it would be the best damn takeaway I had ever eaten too – plus, I could fulfil a long-standing life ambition to have a pizza handed to me through a gap in a hedge by the world’s most confused delivery boy.
But I clearly was not quite hungry enough – either that, or I considered the integrity of my mission too important – for willpower prevailed, and in any case I could not remember my card details. But before heading off down a canal towpath to find a field to camp in, I did make a mental note of the location of the town’s most likely-looking supermarkets, as I planned to be back the following morning to try yet another increasingly appealing method of feeding myself.
The wild-camp was a lovely one, made all the better by the blessing of a local narrowboat resident and a tip-off about a roadside cafe whose back entrance was at the far end of a nearby dirt road. It had a toilet block which was left unlocked overnight; the ladies’ even had a hot shower! Together with unlimited fresh water from a tap intended for passing boaters, this earned my pitch the title of Most Luxurious Wild-Camp Ever (Probably) – even if I had eaten nothing but a slice of pie since breakfast.
Early the following morning, two old ladies strolling past the car park behind Iceland in Whitchurch were alarmed by the sight of a pair of human legs hanging over the edge of a skip. As they watched, the distant figure struggled before dropping to the ground, triumphantly clutching a large bag of carrots, still in their packaging.
The figure mounted a rickety-looking bicycle, deposited the carrots in the bike’s front basket with an audible whoop, and set forth from Whitchurch, destination Burnley, where – unbeknown to the pensioners – he would find himself sanding seats in Turf Moor’s away stand in exchange for two days’ food and a bed for the night.
And they shook their heads and tutted.
My carrots kept me on the road for two days. They were a mere sample of the collateral from an astonishingly wasteful globalized grocery supply chain. It’s not just supermarkets sending edible food to landfill: the consumer is equally wasteful, an appreciation of the human effort required to grow food having been eradicated, reduced to a number on a sticker. In such a way it transpires that we now take a full quarter of the food we buy and throw it in the bin before it reaches our plates.
In rural Devon – I forget where exactly – I experienced this madness first-hand when I happened across a recycling bin outside somebody’s house, full to the brim with unopened cans of food bought absent-mindedly from a supermarket, shoved to the back of a cupboard and forgotten for several years. Best-before date lapsed and misinterpreted as meaning the contents were no longer edible (untrue and the subject of ongoing changes in legislation), cans of still-edible food had simply been chucked.
Unable to glean much in the way of energy from the wild garlic by the roadside, I’d selected a can of Tesco Value Broken Mandarin Segments in Light Syrup for a balance of vitamins and sugar, then hacked the can open with the novel combination of Allen key and rock. Then I’d devoured the contents with a tyre lever, citric acid stinging my mouth, the sugar propelling me the final 20 miles to where I was staying the night.
At that moment, the contents of a discarded can of mandarin segments (in light syrup) was the only thing in the universe that one human being had needed to further his existence, the focus of his sole desire, the very means by which he would prolong his life. And someone had simply flung it carelessly in the bin and dumped it on the roadside to be buried out of sight for a million years. That this is considered normal is, to me, and indication that something is wrong.
People of a like mind are attempting to tackle it. There are organisations like The Pig Idea, working with the catering industry to turn leftovers into bacon; Fare Share, who collect and redistribute sell-by produce from supermarkets to people who can’t afford to buy it when it’s on the shelves; and Love Food Hate Waste, who campaign for awareness of the issue.
And there are people like Tristam Stuart, part of a movement now known as freeganism; people who – despite usually not being short of a penny – make a point of dieting on so-called rubbish, as I did for one memorable day on the road in Cheshire. Tristam’s message is so poignant that he received the ultimate accolade of being invited to give a TED talk on the subject.
I don’t like to draw conclusions too quickly from experiences like this. But I learned a lot of new things about our society from the act of ditching money and going hungry, coming across both reassurances and repugnancies. This is just a tiny portion. (Excuse the pun.)