When I was in college in Liverpool I was fortunate to befriend one of those people that are all too rare in the world. Everybody loved Peter Morgan. His infectious likeability became the social lynch pin of our entire year group. His pranks were both ingenious and hilarious, no matter which side of them you ended up.
One Friday he cornered three of us after a morning lecture. “I have a brilliant plan for the weekend” he beamed. “We’re all going to John O’Groats”!
John O’Groats is the most northerly point of Scotland, the very tip of the British mainland. He had discovered that we could rent a car, at a very cheap rate, as long as we had it back by Monday morning. Just enough time to get to John O’Groats and back!
Sure, we all thought, another of Pete’s famous jokes. But before we could work out what the angle was this time, we were all charging up towards Scotland in a new car. He had worked his magic over us again.
The journey was eventful in itself. We had an overnight stop in Glasgow and then needed a replacement car from the rental company after we hit a bridge north of Inverness. We eventually reached John O’Groats late on Saturday night.
There was little to suggest that this was a place of settlement. John O’Groats was merely a single pub with a few houses nearby scattered across a headland. We ordered four whiskys in the pub that would both insulate and tranquilize us for the cold nights camping that lay ahead.
The next morning we made the short walk to the very tip of Scotland, John O’Groats. By now, having slept as close to him as anybody ever had, we felt we knew him well enough to just call him “John”. This place was bleak and barren, but beautiful. One of those locations where you feel whoever made the world, is very near.
The four of us just stood there, both collectively and individually, on top of the windswept cliffs as the North Sea pounded the rocks below. We had “John” all to ourselves. Nature had taken over our senses as if it was the only thing in the world that mattered. It WAS the world and we had the best seats in the house.
But John O’Groats is only half a journey. You can’t have Adam without Eve, or Tom without Jerry, or Laurel without Hardy.
You can’t go to John O’Groats without going to Land’s End. A few years later the opportunity eventually presented itself for us to complete the mission. The circumstances had changed by then. We were all working and two of us were married. It was never going to be the cheap student hike our Scottish trip had been. Instead of freezing in a tent we stayed in luxury accommodation. Instead of rambling around in the rain because it was free, we went jet skiing in St. Ives. Instead of fish and chips, we dined in the best restaurants.
It was as if Land’s End was also aware of our upgrade in circumstances. Instead of rugged and bleak it was commercial and glossy. Instead of windy and wet it was sunny and calm. Instead of free we had to pay to use the car park.
And yet, for all its glamour and amenity, the magic was missing.
These two journeys were to leave a considerable mark on the rest of my life. Land’s End seemed to represent most of the things I had strived for from a young age – prosperity, impression, conformity, security. But on arrival it was bland, artificial and shallow. All of the best memories will always be firmly rooted in John O’Groats.
For all our advancements sometimes less is more. The little things will be big and the big things small. The last will be first and the first will be last.
I’m older now and see these journeys more clearly. Give me a windswept Scottish headland any day before a sanitised tourist resort. Give me the memory of four young men peering out at the sunrise from a wet tent rather than another indistinguishable hotel room.
Give me back that all too short period of your life, when have the freedom, the spirit and the nerve, to do just about anything.