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Authors: Paul Theroux

The Kingdom by the Sea

BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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The Kingdom by the Sea
A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain
Paul Theroux


First Mariner Books edition 2006

Copyright © 1983 by Cape Cod Scriveners Company

For information about permission to reproduce selections
from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Theroux, Paul.
The kingdom by the sea.
1. Great Britain—Description and travel.
2. Railroad travel—Great Britain. 3. Theroux, Paul.
1. Title.
46 1983 914.1'04858 83-10838

-13: 978-0-618-65895-4 (pbk.)
-10: 0-618-65895-5 (pbk.)

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

I dedicate this Book to those friends of mine in Britain who, giving me a welcome I must ever gratefully and proudly remember, left my judgment free; and who, loving their country, can bear the truth, when it is told good-humoredly and in a kind spirit.

(Adapted from
dedication to
American Notes,
1842) takes passionate pilgrims, vague aliens, and other disinherited persons to appreciate the "points" of this admirable country.

English Hours

This is one of the lessons of travel—that some of the strangest races dwell next door to you at home.

Across the Plains


1. The 11:33 to Margate 1

2. An Evening Train to Deal 16

3. The Branch Line to Hastings 34

4. The 18:11 to Bognor Regis 53

5. A Morning Train to the Isle of Wight 65

6. The Inter-City 125 to Plymouth 87

7. The Cornish Explorer 101

8. The Branch Line to Barnstaple 121

9. The West Somerset Railway 131

10. The 16:28 to Tenby 142

11. The 10:32 to Criccieth 159

12. The 20:20 to Llandudno Junction 175

13. The 16:01 to Southport 188

14. The West Cumbria Line 201

15. The Boat Train to Ulster 212

16. The 10:23 to Londonderry 227

17. The 15:53 to Belfast 243

18. The 16:30 to Mallaig 254

19. The Flyer to Cape Wrath 269

20. The 14:40 to Aberdeen 283

21. The 9:51 to Leuchars Junction 291

22. The Last Train to Whitby 304

23. Disused Railway Line 317

24. The North Norfolk Railway 328

25. Striking Southend 340

1. The 11:33 to Margate

seemed to be going to China that year, or else writing rude things about the Arabs, or being frank about Africa. I had other things on my mind. After eleven years in London I still had not been much in Britain. I had not set foot in Wales or even East Anglia. People joked about Bognor Regis. I had never been to Bognor Regis. But I joked about it too! And where was Porlock? And was Northern Ireland a nightmare and Scotland breathtaking? And what exactly were the Lincolnshire Wolds? What I knew of Britain I had got from books. Britain was the most written-about country in the world. That was the problem, really. You read one book about China and you think you've got a good idea of the place; you read twenty books about Britain, even
English Traits
Rural Rides,
and you know you haven't got the slightest.

I lived in London for half the year, and the rest of the time went away. I had come to dislike the city. "A man who is tired of London is tired of life"—no, I was tired of hunting for parking places, tired of the crowds and the scribbled-on walls, the dirty old buildings and the ugly new ones. I was sick of London traffic and London presumptions and London smugness. And the gray underwear on London clotheslines hanging limply under baggy clouds made me sad. London did not regard itself as a city but rather as an independent republic. Sometimes it seemed as big as Belgium; it could take a whole day to cross it by car. I was also bored with London books, which had titles like
Britain: What Went Wrong?
Is Britain Dying?
London people said that what was wrong with Britain was wrong with the western hemisphere. Like many other London people I did not really live in Britain. This floating kingdom was a foreign country.

Britain was nearby, but "nearby" was misleading. Distances in Britain were meaningless—so many places were so hard to get to, or else hated outsiders, or were names of villages that no longer existed: so much of Britain lay buried. I knew a little bit about some parts, because in Britain there was an oral tradition that took the place of travel, like the Bognor jokes and Scotland was breathtaking and Cornwall was creepy and South Wales was awful and Rye was ever so lovely. Everyone appeared to know everything. It was word of mouth. Scotland had the Highlands, Cambridgeshire the Fens, and Norfolk the Broads—the words called up peaks and thickets and puddles. Northerners sounded to me as though they had learned English in language labs. In London, I had once mistaken a Welshman for a Dutchman—something in his inquiring voice. As for the Irish, I had never personally known anyone in London who took an Irishman seriously unless the Irishman was armed. "Bogtrotters," people usually said. "Micks are friendly!" I had never met a soul in London who had been to Northern Ireland.

I did not know anything, and I was beginning to think that I was as bad and lazy as everyone else.

Once, from behind a closed door, I heard an Englishwoman exclaim with real pleasure, "They are
the Yanks!" And I crept away and laughed to think that an English person was saying such a thing. And I thought: They wallpaper their ceilings! They put little knitted bobble-hats on their soft-boiled eggs to keep them warm! They don't give you bags in supermarkets! They say sorry when you step on their toes! Their government makes them get a hundred-dollar license every year for watching television! They issue drivers' licenses that are valid for thirty or forty years—mine expires in the year 2011! They charge you for matches when you buy cigarettes! They smoke on buses! They drive on the left! They spy for the Russians! They say "nigger" and "Jewboy" without flinching! They call their houses Holmleigh and Sparrow View! They sunbathe in their underwear! They don't say "You're welcome"! They still have milk bottles and milkmen, and junk-dealers with horse-drawn wagons! They love candy and Lucozade and leftovers called bubble-and-squeak! They live in Barking and Dorking and Shellow Bowells! They have amazing names, like Mr. Eatwell and Lady Inkpen and Major Twaddle and Miss Tosh! And they think

The longer I lived in London, the more I came to see how much of Englishness was bluff and what wet blankets they could be. You told an Englishman you were planning a trip around Britain and he said, "It sounds about as much fun as chasing a mouse around a pisspot." They could be deeply dismissive and self-critical. "We're awful," they said. "This country is hopeless. We're never prepared for anything. Nothing works properly." But being self-critical in this way was also a tactic for remaining ineffectual. It was surrender.

And when an English person said "we," he did not mean himself—he meant the classes above and below him, the people he thought should be taking decisions, and the people who should be following. "We" meant everyone else.

"Mustn't grumble" was the most English of expressions. English patience was mingled inertia and despair. What was the use? But Americans did nothing but grumble! Americans also boasted. "I do some pretty incredible things" was not an English expression. "I'm fairly keen" was not American. Americans were showoffs—it was part of our innocence—we often fell on our faces; the English seldom showed off, so they seldom looked like fools. The English liked especially to mock the qualities in other people they admitted they didn't have themselves. And sometimes they found us truly maddening. In America you were admired for getting ahead, elbowing forward, rising, pushing in. In England this behavior was hated—it was the way wops acted, it was "Chinese fire drill," it was disorder. But making a quick buck was also a form of queue-jumping, and getting ahead was a form of rudeness: a "bounder" was a person who had moved out of his class. It was not a question of forgiving such things; it was, simply, that they were never forgotten. The English had long merciless memories.


There were no blank spaces on the map of Great Britain, the best-known, most fastidiously mapped, and most widely trampled piece of geography on earth. No country was easier to travel in—the British invented public transport. And yet I had seen practically nothing of it. I felt ashamed and ignorant, but when I began to think about traveling around Britain, I became excited—because I knew so little. I wanted to write about it.

Writing about a country in its own language was a great advantage, because in other places one was always interpreting and simplifying. Translation created a muffled obliqueness—one was always seeing the country sideways. But language grew out of the landscape—English out of England—and it seemed logical that the country could be accurately portrayed only in its own language. So what was I waiting for?

The problem was one of perspective: How and where to go to get the best view of the place? It was also a problem in tone; after all, I was an alien.

The British had invented their own solution to travel-writing. They went to places like Gabon and Paraguay and joked about the discomforts, the natives, the weather, the food, the entertainments. It was necessary to be an outsider, which was why they had never written about Britain in this way. But it was a mystery to me why no one had ever come to Britain and written about its discomforts and natives and entertainments and unintelligible dialects. The British, who had devised a kind of envious mockery of other cultures, and who had virtually invented the concept of funny foreigners, had never regarded themselves as fair game for the travel-writer. They did not encourage aliens to observe them closely. They were like a tribe that plundered abroad and were secretive and inhospitable at home. The British did not make me think of Shakespeare but rather of head-hunters—their travel-writing a literary version of head-shrinking that had never been used on them. I was eager to try.

But it was also a problem of itinerary. In a place that was crisscrossed with ant trails, a kingdom of bottlenecks and private property and high fences, my route was a problem, because there were too many routes. To take all the trains would be no more than a mediocre stunt. The buses did not go to enough places. A bicycle was out—too dangerous, too difficult; another stunt. A car was too simple, and anyway I had lived in London long enough to know that driving on English roads was no fun. My route was crucial. It was the most important aspect of travel. In choosing a route, one was choosing a subject. But every mile of Britain had a road through it; there was a track across every field, a footpath in every acre of woods. Perhaps this was why I had never traveled in Britain: I had been unable to decide on the route.

And then I had my way: narrowly, around the entire coast.

It answered every need. There was only one coast, it was one undeviating route, and this way I would see the whole of Britain. In many respects, Britain
its coast—nowhere in Britain was more than sixty-five miles from the sea. Nearly the whole of the coast was unknown to me. And so as soon as I decided on this coastal route for my itinerary, I had my justification for the trip—the journey had the right shape; it had logic; it had a beginning and an end; and what better way was there to see an island than circumambulating its coast?

The greatest advantage in this tour was that a country tended to seep to its coast: it was concentrated there, deposited against its beaches like the tidewrack from the sea. People naturally gravitated to the coast, and they wore fewer clothes there—it was normal on the coast to be seminaked, exposed.

The best trains—the slow, sweet branch lines—plied the coast. Many of these branch lines were doomed. Some people said that none would be left in ten years, and most people agreed that the impending railway strike, planned for the early summer, would kill the branch lines. There were also the green buses—I had sometimes seen them filling a country lane, but I had never ridden on one. And there were footpaths.

I had an impression that there was a continuous footpath that went around the whole coastline of Great Britain. Every part of the coast I had seen so far had had such a footpath. Usually it was a muddy twelve-inch path, with a brisk figure approaching in plus fours and thick-soled shoes and a crackling plastic mackintosh, and carrying a bag of sandwiches and an Ordnance Survey Map. I imagined this person to be just another feature of the British coast, like the old gun emplacements and the iron piers and the wooden groynes and the continuous and circling footpath. But if there was not a footpath around the kingdom, there was certainly a beach, and I could walk along the beach—from Fishguard to Aberystwyth, for example, where there was no connecting train. I would try to walk as much as possible; I would take trains if they were interesting lines or if the weather was bad; and if I had to, I would take buses. It was so easy to speed through this country, I would have to make strict rules in order to slow myself down.

"England resembles a ship in its shape," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in
English Traits.
He was wrong: books by pious aliens were full of kindnesses of this sort. England, of course, resembles a pig with something on its back. Look at it. It is a hurrying pig; its snout is the southwest in Wales, and its reaching trotters are Cornwall, and its rump is East Anglia. The whole of Britain looks like a witch riding on a pig, and these contours—rump and snout and bonnet, and the scowling face of western Scotland—were my route.

BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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