Journey to the heart of England

Hunter Davies lives in London and Loweswater - one day he decided to explore the bits in-between
It's not unusual to travel around England, and then get a book out of it. Agricola did the journey 2,000 years ago, smashing a few heads and subduing a few tribes along the way. His son-in-law, Tacitus, did the book, and quite interesting it was. I memorised huge chunks of it for O-Level Latin. Then immediately forgot every word.

The book was political PR, rather than what we would call a travel book. Travel books didn't really come in until about 300 years ago when people started travelling for the sake of it, for the fun and for the experience of getting there. Robert Louis Stevenson got two aphorisms out of that notion: "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." That was from Travels with a Donkey, in 1879. Two years later in an essay, still working up the thought, he wrote a rather slicker, better known version: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."

RLS didn't do an English journey, although he did bits; Cornwall and Cumberland for example. Perhaps the first traveller to cover the length of England was Celia Fiennes, in 1697, riding side-saddle from London to the north. Ms Fiennes was a well-bred, wealthy woman, travelling for her own pleasure and writing up her experiences in a journal intended not for publication but for her family - "especially my own sex". Was she the first feminist traveller? Her idea seemed to be that her travels would encourage her female descendants to get out and explore on their own. Her journals were finally published, in 1888 - and they are still in print and still a joy to read.

Daniel Defoe was good on opinions and massive generalisations, writing about his travels in the 1720s. He moved around for various reasons, some of them mysterious since he was a part-time spy as well as a merchant. He knocked experiences into a book later on. JB Priestley's object with English Journey, in 1933, was purely to write a book. Nothing wrong with that: Priestley was my model, in a way, when I set off on my journey, wandering up from London to the north, roughly as he did, taking in a few diversions. Priestley liked to think he was writing social history, reporting on the economic depressions of the time, but he was mainly giving us his own prejudices and opinions. He did talk to people, at the bars in hotels, but he did no interviewing, no reporting on other people and their lives.

I like to think I've been "taking the pulse of the nation at the end of the millennium". That is about as likely as a war correspondent coming back with an inside story after chatting with the taxi driver on the way to the airport, but I did look out for "things of our times", starting - where else? - at a cocktail party at 10 Downing Street. I then went north, up the M1, making my first stop randomly. I knew I would be going to places from my past, but I thought I would just land in places I'd never been to before.

At Tring, in Hertfordshire, I first dropped in at a charity shop. It was a bit like every other charity shop in the UK these days. There was a Mrs Bossy, calling everyone My Dear very loudly and hissing with bad temper at Mrs Sleepy, her assistant, who had no idea of prices. Out of the shop, I followed signs to a zoological museum. It was the old-fashioned sort with thousands of stuffed animals, collected by a Rothschild, laid out as most museums used to be with rows of glass cases. No audiovisual nonsense here. My next stop was in a town of the future, the sort of future we all might be inhabitants of in the next century - Milton Keynes. I interviewed my niece there because she was working in a call centre. Now that's modernity for you. I also toured the Open University and talked to John Daniel, the vice-chancellor. I can't think of a finer success story of the second half of the 20th century than the OU.

One image I took away from Milton Keynes was that of two buskers in the massive shopping mall, who stopped playing to take calls on their mobile phones. I immediately started a national survey of mobile phonery. My observation is that they are commonplace all over the south and Midlands, but much less frequently sighted north of Rochdale. Next, I did a walk along a converted railway line in Leicestershire and talked to a man whom the 21st century will surely see as one of its heroes. John Grimshaw has a low profile, but a large influence on us all. He is the genius behind the group Sustrans, which is transforming Britain by creating 2,500 miles of public paths and cycleways across the country. Sustrans has been awarded pounds 42m of National Lottery money to complete the project by next year - by then, they will have opened tracks running over 4,000 miles. Hurrah for him. Why isn't he a sir or lord? Answer: he isn't a TV presenter or property developer.

I didn't do a lot of walking, unless I was following a Sustrans route or a canal. I split my journey into chunks over a year, visiting one place for a few days, wandering round and interviewing, then writing it up. Priestley, when he first set out from London, went by bus, boasting that this was the way to travel, meeting the populace. But very soon, in his book, he lets slip that he's in his Daimler - with his chauffeur. "Not because I think myself too important to change gear," he comments, "simply because I am a very bad driver." Good one, Jack.

I used my Jaguar. I admit it. But I did drive myself and it is a very old one, circa 1993, and it cost me pounds 10,000 third-hand. Jolly handy, anyway, for visiting the stately homes; one does like to look the part. My first big house was Althorp, in Northants, visited while the commemorations to Princess Diana were being created. Then it was Chatsworth, where the Duchess of Devonshire was very amusing - though she seemed not so amused by my chapter on her. On my arrival she had said: "You are a sport. Coming all this way." She made me feel as if I had come from the North Pole or Mars rather than Chesterfield railway station. In Derbyshire, I talked to someone else of our times, Igor Stimac, a foreign footballer playing for Derby County, a Croatian who has lived and played football in a war zone, with no food, no pay, and bombs falling, before moving on to play with the millionaires of the Premier League. How's that for culture shock?

Priestley took in a football match, but a fairly boring one, Notts Forest v Notts County. The rules are the same, still 11-a-side, but I doubt he would recognise the game today. One of the biggest transformations of present times will be the completion of all the multi-million pound lottery projects. They are altering the landscape and changing our leisure habits. I made a point of visiting one of the biggest and bravest, the pounds 64m Lowry Centre in Salford.

All travel books are essentially about the traveller, so in Manchester I went to look at the place where I first worked, going down my own memory lane to Withy Grove, where the Manchester Evening Chronicle used to be published. It was the biggest printing house in Europe when I was there, so huge, so exciting, so amazing. I couldn't find it. It was hidden by scaffolding, and about to become a leisure complex.

Having talked to the Prime Minister at the beginning of my trip, l wanted to meet one of "Blair's babes" on my journey. I caught up with one in Rochdale, the local MP, Lorna Fitzsimmons - and I nearly got my nose punched. It was the use of that phrase, I think, which upset her.

I crossed Morecambe Bay to the Lake District, led by the remarkable Cedric Robinson, Queen's Guide to the Sands, and finally reached Loweswater, the little hamlet where we live half of each year. I was in time for the Loweswater show, and I saw, besides a lot of prize sheep, pigs and cows, some blokes wrestling each other.

Not so very different from Number 10, really.

London to Loweswater by Hunter Davies is published this week by Mainstream Publishing, pounds 15.99.