Postcard from Barnstaple: wherein I eat a tuna sandwich and need a poo

I went to Barnstaple to have a tuna sandwich. I don’t like tuna sandwiches and I don’t particularly like Barnstaple. (I once suggested that cancer was better than tuna, and that the only good thing about Barnstaple is that it’s hard to get to.) But Bill Bryson had a tuna sandwich in Barnstaple so I would as well.

As the train rattled north from Exeter, my anxiety regarding the sandwich was compounded by a sense of utter pointlessness about the whole excursion. You see, Bryson went to Barnstaple with a view  to finding a connecting bus to Minehead, which proved impossible (and still is), and so was left with little option but to return, just an hour later, to Exeter, and start all over again.

So I really was taking a three-hour round-trip just to have a tuna sandwich. And yet my mood on the train, in spite of the futile and potentially disgusting hours that lay before me, was jolly. (There’s pleasure to be had, perhaps, in doing daft inexplicable things, like kicking autumn leaves, or visiting grandparents, or watching anything with Kiera Knightley in it.)

My jolly mood didn’t last, and as I walked from the station into town, past a fleet of commiserating retail units (Lidl, Tesco, Halfords, Pizza Hut, a Petworld drive-through), my bad knee started playing up, my backpack seemed to gain a few kilos, and I all of a sudden needed a shit. ( I should mention briefly here that my digestive system is such that, on average, only three or four minutes can pass before the first signs of needing to go are fully realised, which often led, during adolescence, to awkward moments slow-dancing at discos, or during French oral-exams.)

Thus it was that I found myself moving around the narrow streets of central Barnstaple, searching for a public toilet, in a sort of hunched and panicky waddle, stopping periodically to sit on a bench or at a bus stop, lest things got a little ahead of themselves. At one point I sat down next to an old couple eating chips, only for a third to come along, looking to rest her legs. Ordinarily I would have conceded my seat (there was only room for three), but that just wasn’t on the cards, and so I had to suffer the poor woman’s pleading stare, and her heavy sigh as she trudged off, and then the whispered disapproval of the couple next to me.

I found a public toilet in the covered market but it wanted a twenty pence piece and I didn’t have one. I thought about hurdling the turnstile but worried that such a move might hasten my bowel movement, and so I went to the theatre opposite and asked an elderly volunteer called Joe whether, if it were at all possible, and wouldn’t be considered rude etc., I could bring things to a head in the toilet.

Joe sighed in a way that suggested he’d been expecting this all along, before explaining (at some length) that he’d have to take me through as there was a performance of Sleeping Beauty in progress and he didn’t want me sneaking in. I assured him that I had no intention of sneaking in and that he really needn’t come through with me but he insisted, alluding to section seven of some little known piece of theatre policy, which states that no person shall be allowed to shit independently during a Disney adaptation.

Joe led me to the cubicle and then, as I made preparations, chose, inexplicably, to linger outside the door, where he began whistling the Great Escape theme-tune. I suggested to Joe, in no uncertain terms, that it really wasn’t necessary – at fucking all – for him to remain within earshot, but again he refused to budge, again on account of section seven, which he no doubt had a hand in writing. I did what I needed to do as quietly as I could and have never felt more embarrassed. And yet – and how very British this is – as we parted company, I to have a tuna sandwich, he to return to his sentry post, we thanked each other.

I found the hotel where Bill had his sandwich, which was full of more people like Joe, discussing fuel allowances and how little they would bequeath to their children. I ordered a tuna sandwich with so little enthusiasm that the waitress actually asked me if I was sure. When it came, the sandwich was cut into triangles, no doubt in an effort to make it seem less hostile. I managed two or three bites before attempting to hide the remainder beneath a charmless side-salad, lest some overbearing pal of Joe’s tell me to eat it all up.

I paid the £6.75 (mumbling under my breath what a load of bollocks this all was), tipped the waitress a quid, sent my best to her family, commended the chef, and then made my way back to the station, feeling really quite depressed. As I crossed the fine wide bridge that connects (regrettably, perhaps) Barnstaple with its station, I considered throwing myself off it, certain that the cold brown quickly-flowing water would be preferable to the solid world of streets and toilets and sandwiches. Then I remembered that I had a room booked for that night in a two-star hotel in Weston-Super-Mare, which cheered me up no end.

Notes from Exeter

The following notes are taken, unedited, from my journal, so be forgiving:

The X53, which I took from West Bay to Exeter, threatened to go backwards while trying to go forwards up a hill outside Bridport. The flanking hills are like a confused assembly of snooker tables, meeting to discuss the depth of their pockets. In Charmouth, paint only comes in tins of blue and lemon and pink. Descending into Lyme Regis, the bus has to slalom (sp.?) skilfully to avoid disrupting hanging baskets. The shops in Lyme – Rummage, Ruby Rockcake, The Ginger, Serendip – sound like ice-cream flavours.

Seaton’s centre is colonised by a Tesco/Costa complex. I ask a passenger about it: Tesco convinced the local council that the store would revive the area; it has done the opposite. The bus stops outside the Vault Bar, which looks like it needs a cuddle and a cup of tea, and wherein a fed-up couple tackle the low-season with another pint of lager. Across the bay up on the cliff a campsite huddles against the wind, a mere sneeze away from toppling into the unassuming sea.

In Beer, the buildings are made from old stone, and suggest wisdom and serenity and kindliness, just as old people do. There are animals along this route: a field dense with sheep (perhaps a thousand cardigans nipping at the grass); lazy cows; ponies; horses; pigs with snouts in mud or lounging in corrugated-iron sheds. At the head of Sidmouth a big Waitrose gapes (doing only harm?), while red phone-boxes house plants in front gardens.

In Exeter, the university campus on Barrack Road is opposite the police station – a prudent proximity. I wonder what Exeter would have been had it not been bombed so. The buildings that survived are some of the prettiest I’ve seen, while everything else, as Bryson rightly claims, is regrettable concrete, flanked on all sides by panicky relief roads, which seem to relieve nothing. Jack Wills (ltd) has a nice home (a pale neo-classic pile), as does the Wetherspoon pub on South Street, where I am currently, writing this, postponing the Chinese meal Bill has bequeathed to me. The pub was built as a Unitarian Church in 1760; now it’s a resort for lost lonely drinkers. Folk like me.

Where North and South Streets meet there is an evening market. I hunt for tea-towels and pegs and cheap socks but find only fresh fish, bread, beetroot, game and Devonshire cheese. (Have the artisans been forced onto the street; a travelling circus of once-a-week mongers and grocers whose High Street homes are now squatted by salons and nail-bars and pound-stores?) My market shopping is soundtracked by a violinist who looks how I imagine a young Bill Bryson might have done, which is to say the sort of chap you’d throw coins at so they could smarten up a little and have a good meal.

Inside St Pancras Church, small handwritten messages to God (tweets almost) are pinned to a cork-board: a boy wishes for a 17-inch flat-screen TV; a man for a holiday in Cyprus; a girl for her mother to be cured of Lupus. In the window of what used to be the Exeter Corn Exchange, ‘Buffet City’ is advertised hopefully – my mind fills with images of all-you-can-eat lampposts and traffic offences. On Fore Street the Old Curiosity Shop goes unnoticed, and old grand buildings are put to pedestrian uses: Fried Chicken, Hairdressing, Stationery.

The EQ4 bar, commended by the night porter at the Royal Clarence, gears itself up to receive packs of undergraduates desperate to extend, at any aesthetic cost, their Wednesday binge. Up a tight side-street is a Norman monastery, formerly the home of monks, latterly of merchants, which strikes me as an instructive change of hands. Salisbury’s ancient buildings are everywhere and become ordinary; Exeter’s pop-out from amid post-war Elizabethan mistakes and are all the more impressive for it. (For it is change that enlivens us, not continuity, no matter how pleasant the constant thing.) And now I’ve half a cider before me, sat at the bar of the Bike Shed Theatre, where the barmaids are openly discussing their love-lives. (They’re not happy, you know.)

On John Street there is a Fat Pig, where it is warm and there are books and a broad demographic and ales and ciders brewed upstairs which have won medals. It is convivial here but my mood is such that if I were asked a polite question I would only be able, in response, to stare back warmly. I am not in a bad mood, mark, merely a quiet one – though to many they amount to the same thing. I found and read a book on sociology (voting patterns in Rochdale) and then bought drinks for a musician-baker called Jimmy and his pal Tom, who lives on a barge and is researching reverse engineered silk, be that what it may. Jimmy and Tom took me, by car, to The Hour Glass, where we drank gin, neat, which tasted of lemon and juniper and the novels of George Orwell. The pub was excellent but I don’t know why. (Why is anything excellent? Why is anything this or that?)

I took a pee (had a pee?) behind a tree near the quayside, whose harmless shops and eateries (typical of such regenerations) were brightly-lit but empty, then walked along the old city wall (Roman?) to the cathedral, which was brilliant in the wet dark: I felt pleased it wasn’t hit like so much of Exeter. The Royal Clarence, where I am staying, disapproved as I ignored its warmth and walked further into the night. And now I’m back at the Bike Shed Theatre, because there is a barmaid here that I want to discuss sociology with. So it goes.

Photos from the Road: Dover to Dorset


Bill Bryson slept here in 1973. I opted for lodgings less wooden in Dover: a hostelry where the morning bacon is given twenty minutes in a sun bed. I found a modern Socrates walking her dog. Sensing I was an outsider, she issued a sequence of penetrating questions: Who are you, Where are you going, Do you know about salad packing, Does your mother know you’re doing this. She later bought me lasagne and a cup of tea.

outside hazlitts

Bryson stayed in a swanky hotel in Soho; so did I.  Sat outside a cafe I watched the passing profiles: an orthodox Jew with red headphones, a heavily made-up Italian, a beautiful Arab man, a punk, a pensioner, an African marching back and forth like a restless peacock. Across the street a girl spends her cigarette break scrolling empty pages of social media. I walk to the girl and ask what time her bar shuts. You should go now. It is happy hour. £3.80 a pint. What the fuck’s happy about that, I thought.


The manager of the Castle Hotel in Windsor reads what Bryson wrote about his hotel. He asks if I’ve been to Windsor before. I tell him that the last time I was here, when I was an undergraduate,  I spent a large portion of the evening in a shopping trolley.

mobile covers

In 1993 Bryson explored Windsor’s high street, spending  happy hours in a department store, testing the beds, fiddling with toys. I visit a shop called Glorious Britain and consider the array of mobile phone covers available, a testament to our shared quest for individuality. Eton is nearby but I refuse to visit, on account of my occasional communist principles.


I walked to Virginia Water through Windsor Great Park, stopping at Guards Polo Club to enquire about membership. The chairwoman asked if I owned a horse or knew any royals. I answered yes to both questions and left. In Virginia Water, where Bryson used to live, there is a retirement home called Sunrise. When I start falling to bits I don’t expect to be told, in a vain effort to lift my morale, that life is just beginning.

two boxes in salisbury

Dying with a partner in Salisbury. The red phone-box is a symbol of Britishness; these two are beautifully cut-off. Are we so well connected that we can let these boxes wilt?

stonehenge i-pad


In ’93 Bryson lasted eleven minutes at Stonehenge. This Chinese lad did a lap with his i-pad in seven. In an effort to avoid the £3.20 bus fare, I walked to Stonehenge along the A303, nearly losing my head to the wing-mirror of an Eddie Stobart lorry. Life on the road, huh?


On Studland Beach, just west of Bournemouth, I was pleased to find two nudists enjoying the gale-force winds. I closed my eyes and zig-zagged towards them. When I could sense they were nearby, I asked bashfully whether they came here often. I was told to open my eyes and take a pickled onion.