There is something about a journey which responds to the human instinct for tidiness. They are bits of life you can plan for, I thought as I shuffled through my wardrobe trying to decide what was the minimum I would need for three weeks on the road. I would have to appear presentable for everyone from a Japanese industrialist in the former coalmining areas of the Welsh valleys to the occupants of a hostel for the homeless in Edinburgh. In between there would be the prosperous business folk of Ulster, an extended Hindu family celebrating a Vedic coming of age near Leicester, the country folk attending the Westmorland wrestling at Cockermouth Agricultural Show and a variety of bed-and-breakfast landladies. The bag also had to be light enough to carry while walking.
Packing in such circumstances is more than an act of economy. It is an existential moment of self-definition: to this your life must be reduced - a linen jacket, a thin waterproof, two pairs of lightweight trousers, half-a-dozen shirts, underwear, socks and a tiny bag of toiletries. Take risks, I told myself, and decided against a pullover or second pair of shoes. In the hope of sun I took out a straw hat, said a pre-emptive farewell to it on the grounds that I was certain to lose it somewhere en route and jammed it on my head. Journeys, since they begin and end at home, always start and finish with the familiar. Even so, it was odd to arrive at Waterloo station, through whose vast concourse I pass every day amidst tens of thousands of other scurrying commuters, and view it in a different mood. When I emerged from the humid atmosphere of the Underground station, where the tepid, soupy air tasted as if it had been circulating for more than half a century, it was pub-closing time.
By the entrance to the platforms was the usual array of weary-eyed late office workers. Some rushed by in a hurry, mobile phones to their ears. Others stuffed their mouths with the kind of hasty greed which the solitary consumption of fast food seems particularly to induce. Others, visibly bearing the signs of drink, stood looking blankly up at the clicking destination board as if awaiting some sign of hope. For all of them it was a mere place of passage; for me it was a point of departure. As they headed for the commuter-belt trains I moved away towards the sleeper to Penzance. Singularity of purpose is what marks out the act of travelling. A sense of having left behind the quotidian is what characterises the accounts of those who have set out on a tour of the island before. Some, like one of the first who left a record, the pilgrim monk William of Worcestre in the 1470s, become obsessed with the cost of the exercise or with the trivia of topography. But all in some way, in the words of William of Malmesbury who preceded his namesake in the 12th century, "hold a glass up to the nation".
With some it is necessary to read between the lines: in 1534 John Leland, the King's Antiquary, was touring to catalogue for Henry VIII the lootable manuscripts of the monasteries, and Daniel Defoe's journeys were undertaken as a secret agent to spy on the views of local worthies for his master, the Tory politician Lord Harley. With others, like George Orwell on the road to Wigan Pier, J B Priestley on his English Journey or a host of modern travel-writers, the overt intention has been to take the pulse of the nation.
I resolved to do the same. In Blair's Britain the social pendulum is to swing, we are told, from rights and individualism to responsibilities and community. Was this some hankering after a golden age or might such things still be possible in this pre-millennial age? And if so would this New Jerusalem be found in the town or the country, at work or at play, amid prosperity or adversity? My thoughts took a more vulgar turn as I approached the train. Would I get a farter or a snorer, I wondered, as I climbed aboard and sought my berth. Past experience on sleepers had invariably offered a companion with some anti-social traits in the bunk above or below, for on British Rail sleepers the solo traveller must share a compartment with a stranger. And even on those occasions when no one climbs into the other bunk the possibility of their later arrival preserves an odd public quality to the tiny space with its two sets of dangling leather-padded clothes hangers and its foldaway sink in which you and an unknown individual must perform a cramped postage-stamp minuet. Perhaps this time, it suddenly occurred to me, guiltily recalling the massive clearance of houmous, raw peas and beetroot, the nocturnal nuisance might be me.
But this time there was no upper berth. The top bunk was packed still inside the wall of the little cabin. With its single bed the space took on the air of a monastic cell. Something in it prompted me to unpack my sparse belongings and set them neatly on the bed as if for a kit inspection.
With the same precision I unpacked the Great Western complementary overnight toilet bag and arranged its contents in a line: paper floor mat, flannel, aromatherapy go-to-sleep face wipe and refreshing wake-up spray together with an angular green plastic shoe horn, comb and toothbrush. What kind of person would come on a journey like this so ill-prepared as to need all this, I wondered to myself, and then unpacked my own toilet bags to discover the answer was ... someone like me. I had forgotten both brush and toothpaste. I climbed into the starchy sheets, having set the thermostat to cool in anticipation of over-generous heating, and tried to sleep. Outside the unnaturally bright tones of the recorded departure announcements told me that the last train to my home in the Surrey suburbs was about to leave.
The sleeper was late in leaving. I pulled another blanket around me and drifted off. At 12.57am, an hour behind schedule, I half woke at the gentle jolt as the train left London and headed West.