Hike Northbound through Britain with Daryl May
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|Days N15 - N24 English Midlands|
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English West Country
North of England
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Time of departure: 8.15 am
Time of arrival: 4.15 pm
Place departed: Telford, Telford and Wrekin
Place arrived: Market Drayton, Shropshire
Cum miles: 364.1
Percent complete: 39.3
Crofton B&B, Market Drayton ****
Cost for bed and breakfast: £25 ($50)
| Overview of both
What others say
night, as I contemplated all the Telford sights that I'd missed due to
my hiking goals, I focused on the significance of the one sight that I
had seen in some detail - the Iron Bridge. Thinking of the
dramatic changes in people's lives that flowed from the invention of
the steel foundry, and the bridges, rail transport, and coal that
powered the foundries and the emerging railways, I could
envisage the synergistic economic bonds that turned a rural, and static
economy into a machine-related, dynamically-growing one to form the
foundation of the world's future economies . . . as I pondered on this,
I asked myself: how did the Iron Bridge compare in significance with
the much better-known pyramids? For me, it was clear that the Iron
Bridge and related developments were far and away the more significant
of the two. In fact, maybe due to my ignorance, I could see very little
that the pyramids led to.
These thoughts were typical of those on my hike. I had plenty of time to reflect - with reflections often guided by the world around me, which was “in my face”, so to speak.
Of course, the industrial revolution, of which the Iron Bridge was a small part, transformed society, turning an agrarian and village population into miners and factory workers living in towns and cities. For all that, it did not change the class structure much. Though there were numerous exceptions, the lower classes migrated to the lower classes, and the gentry into their bosses. The main exception came from those with superior job skills. They slowly thrust their way towards a middle class formerly populated mainly by merchants and tradesmen. However, in time, unions emerged and the lower classes at least increased their wealth.
As I met people hiking and in cities and towns, across nearly a thousand miles which covered a large number of regions and all levels of society, I could see that British class-consciousness had now fast ebbed away, even compared with the 1960s. I can explain all this best in personal terms. My British origins are actually quite complex, in that I grew up in South Africa, a Commonwealth nation of the “old school”, and moved to England when just 16. To the British, I was a “colonial” (an affectionate term that some used, and, for want of a better term, I’ll use it now). As such I had a special status. All levels of British society could relate easily to colonials; their extended families invariably had a few amongst them. Moreover, colonials had accents that were distinct enough from British accents to put them outside the class system. Then, too, colonials were seldom stuffy, or snobbish, or boorish, and they tended to be friendly and polite, and accepted people as they found them. Moreover, colonial societies tended to be free of class-distinctions – among the whites, that is. I, too, was then easily accepted at all levels of society. Thus I was nicely positioned to witness the British class scene from close-by. I did so for some years as an aerospace apprentice, then a college student, and later in postgraduate employment.
And what a scene it was. Accents seemed to be the main determinant of class. Accents from “Queen’s English” or “BBC” down to “Cockney” placed a person in his class within a second or two of opening his mouth. Regional accents made things a little trickier but, regardless, society was attuned to define a class for nearly everyone. Class in turn translated to job prospects, social standing, political leanings, and eventually to wealth. In the job world, a Cockney would be unlikely to play a king in a Shakespeare play, or be a BBC announcer – but would be a good fit in the factory or the military ranks while his upper-class opposite might be a doctor, other professional, or military officer. Socially, a lower class sportsman likely played soccer while his upper class counterpart played rugby if it was rugby “union” but not if it was rugby “league”. As for rugby union, it is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen, while soccer is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians, this saying enduring to this day. Rugby union and rugby league players were members of different clubs, whose membership qualifications had class as the spoken or unspoken determinant.
The lower classes voted for Labour and wanted to tax the rich for social programs; the upper classes voted Conservative and wanted free enterprise and low taxation. As for money, the upper classes had better houses in nicer neighborhoods and attended better schools. All the same, the upper classes feigned disdain for money, and in so doing influenced society against the growth of lower class capitalism.
The upper class was better dressed and, dare I say it, was cleaner due to better home plumbing. In the lower class household that I described in the journal for day N17, 22 of us shared four or five bedrooms and one bathroom, and most were daily laborers who arrived home sweaty and immediately smoked indoors.
Since the end of WW2, there was a general recognition that class distinctions should be a thing of the past, but only in certain spheres had the new order arrived. Initially, it had a hard time getting established at schools, where an “eleven-plus” exam segregated people at that early age into college-bound or not, and had the unintended consequence of dispatching a disproportionate number of the lower classes to vocational schools. But, it arrived soon after at higher education levels. Here, the paucity of university places in the early 1960s made it economically-feasible for the government to pay for all university education – at the same time as people recognized that class barriers would erode and wealth be redistributed if the lower classes attended college. With affordability temporarily removed from the university scene, all universities opened up to all classes. Later the “eleven-plus” exam was abolished to facilitate that transition. Thus a truer meritocracy emerged in education and some other spheres, replacing to a large degree an old-boy network for university admission and eroding the earmarking of jobs according to class.
Union power continued to strengthen the financial position of the lower classes, eventually reaching even beyond any connection with professional worth. Labour governments came to power that were not so left-leaning that they scared away the middle classes. They then threatened the sanctum and even the political power of upper-class society as life peerages were created. There even emerged an inverse class attitude: so-and-so spoke “with a plum in her mouth” or was “high-faluting”. At work, everyone was known by his first name, with “Sir” and “Mr.” rapidly disappearing.
Now, as I met people on my hike after 40-years abroad, I detected new influences. Increasing wealth and informal dress made clothes essentially classless. Better housing made a shower-a-day the norm. Cars were commonly owned at all levels of society, and all classes traveled abroad, and possibly several times a year at that. A good school education was more a matter of effort and location than of class, and higher education and university professorships certainly depended mostly on hard work and intellect rather than accents. Wealth had been significantly redistributed given capitalist policies by all parties and an entrepreneurial spirit at all levels of society. Immigration had blurred the accent-class relationship by adding in new accents that distinguished people not by class but by race. (The significance of immigration on British culture can be judged by the London borough of Camden, as with many others, offering information in twelve languages in addition to English.)
But, most of all, it was communications that were doing away with class distinctions. People traveled easily outside their neighborhoods, and in their jobs. Television viewing introduced people to a world beyond their immediate areas, and phones were available and affordable to all. Families where parents had upper class accents had children who spoke in middle class accents; while families where parents had lower class accents had children, perhaps university graduates, also with middle class accents. The melting pot had arrived, with what statisticians called gravitation towards the mean. The number of people who could be called middle class expanded to become the majority of society. My cousin, Rowan, describes everyone as now middle-class - though some are of the bourgeoisie and some are not! As George Orwell famously put it, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
As class distinctions eased with a melding of accents, so too did social contact. Some of the previous British reserve was caused by reticence to disclose one’s accent, and then to deal with a different-class reply! Informality helped, as a typical greeting evolved from “Good morning” to “Hi” or “All right?”
I shouldn’t pretend that British society is now classless; it isn’t. But the classes are defined more by social grace and money than by an accident of birth and accent, and the opportunity for social mobility has skyrocketed. Classes within Britain are now more on a par with those elsewhere in Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. You can appreciate this even more when you observe that the E.U. has reduced barriers between nations – with easy interactions, in a range of foreign accents, between the British, the Dutch, the Germans, the French and others. It can hardly be surprising that this has also occurred within Britain society also.
On my route today, I reflected on dogs as well as British society. The subjects, I should add, are not that distinctly different. There's plenty of scientific literature on the association of dog ownership with class status, the type and size of dog relating statistically to the characteristics of its owner. But my thoughts segued from class to dogs for a somewhat different class association: between those who lived in nice homes and owned dogs for home defense, and those who passed by on the street and were the dog's imagined adversaries! It was quite clear in what category the dogs placed a hiker.
My dog thoughts also ran to the types of dog behavior. Up until yesterday, I had identified the static snarler (with or without a tail wag), the head-in-the-air bayer, and the no-stone-left-unturned maniac, who races along the property line and lunges at any visible hint of my presence. Today, I also experienced the rotating dog, who barks once per prancing revolution, and the skulking barker, who turns to bark even as he retreats contemptuously. I also even identified a subcategory of the static snarler. While the static snarler often barks while standing in an ungated driveway, the subcategory (cissy static snarler) will leave the ungated area and find a section of fence or hedge behind which he feels safer as he snarls. I like dogs, I truly do, but now I better understand that even friendly dogs really do see some people as adversaries, and the feeling easily becomes mutual.
I achieved a greater mileage today than yesterday - and, without a diversion to find a cobbler, and on flat roads, the miles came more easily too.
Having climbed my way to a northern suburb of Telford yesterday, I soon reached the countryside this morning. But, on the way, on School Road in Donnington, just as my pack straps were starting to bite into my shoulders, I came across an abandoned Asda supermarket cart. For a moment I was tempted to put my pack in it, and take to the road with wheels, no doubt to collect aluminum cans for recycling and items of clothing discarded on the roadside. My transition to street-person would then have been complete. Saved from this fate partly by the thought of the small wheels having to negotiate curbs and rough road surfaces, I left it where I found it.
After leaving the Telford area, my route lay on country lanes through cozy villages like Edgmond past peaceful farms and rural homes until I was forced on to the busy A41 for a couple of miles mostly without any footpath ("pavement" to the English, "sidewalk" to Americans). Aside from the big rigs, which are intimidating just due to size, there are two types of vehicle that terrify me on any road.
One is typically a Mini driven by a young person, whose gender I will not name for fear of offending all other males. This driver screams round bends at the limits of tire adhesion - and then has to swing out to give me a berth as I pray that he won't lose control and over-steer into me. The other scary driver is usually of more mature years and drives a nondescript sedan; I will again scrupulously not name her gender for fear of offending all females. This driver steers most carefully always two feet from the edge of the road. Seeing me, and even if the other side of the road is entirely empty, she tries to maintain her course though threatening to lose sight of the road as she fiddles with her directional signals. Both these drivers made road-edge walking uncomfortable at times.
But soon the A41 segment was past, and I was able to take a more minor road from Hinstock into Market Drayton, where I was fortunate to find Croft, the home of Jill Russell and her husband. Jill runs her spotless home hospitably, and makes her guests part of the family. I have stayed at other B&Bs where one felt part of a production line. Not so with Jill Russell. She even took charge of drying the clothes I washed.
Today, the sun shone out of a mostly clear sky, and it was so calm that contrails took the better part of an hour to dissipate. The aroma of the earth wasn't tinged by any scent of the ocean, confirming that I was truly in the Midlands and remote from fresh coastal breezes. It felt almost like the dog days of summer; due to my exertions, the mild air temperature felt warm. Even the animals were listless as if they felt summer also. Later the gloaming hinted of long hours of sunlight in these comparatively high latitudes, with the days expanding most rapidly now between March and June. The almost unprecedented three weeks of dry, mild weather - in March and April, no less - now were crowned with long evenings too.
As the British frequently told me with wry humor: global warming was really quite nice. The world as a whole could add: and you needn't feel guilty about it if you could blame it on others. Why, even the Americans can now blame China. And China can blame America's inaction and profligate ways, for sure. Together, all the industrialized world can blame America and China, as well as third-world coal mines and Amazon deforestation. And the third world can blame everyone else and excuse their own environmental irresponsiblility because they're entitled to catch up economically first. Meanwhile, the world's population grows by leaps and bounds and the universal dream is for each family to have two cars and a detached home in the suburbs.
Of course, the British - more than most - understand that as the developed nations pump up the world's temperature and enjoy warmer weather and longer growing seasons themselves, we are turning many developing nations into deserts, and fostering world hunger. I wonder how future generations will judge us.
As I uncomfortably reflected on all this, I suddenly saw the linkage between global warming and the Iron Bridge, and I wondered where we could have taken a different path.
|Day N21 © 2007 and 2008 Daryl May Day N23|