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Ancient Feet: 9 - Say No To Pipits

Alan Nolan and his mate meet a party of "Oh really'' Americans
as they embark on their long walk across England.

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Released from the confines of the minibus to enjoy the sunshine on what was promising to be a glorious day, I felt exhilarated to be out in the open air as we made our way up to the headland. But, hold on a minute, weren't we supposed to be making for the east coast? We were heading in the wrong direction. This way led to the east coast of Ireland! Not to worry, the path soon turned to the north and would turn to the east after a couple of miles walking round the headland. The path followed the headland above the cliffs which towered over the sea, three hundred feet below.

After the uncomfortable minibus journey, I was enjoying the exercise, as well as the views from the headland and, confident that my exercise regime had brought me to the pinnacle of fitness, I was really looking forward to the twelve days walking across the country with good pals to keep me company. Things couldn't be better.

However, it soon became apparent that Paul and Joe were not going to make any concessions about their pace, which was a great pity as this was a time to stroll, to enjoy the sunshine, the sea breeze, the calls of the gulls wheeling above and the scenery the sea on one side and the green fields on the other. Rather than try to keep in touch with the pacesetters, I decided to wait on the headland for Tom, Don and Andy to catch up.

Thousands of sea birds nest on the cliffs of St Bees Head and there is a RSPB viewpoint from which can be seen kittiwakes, herring gulls, fulmars, puffins, guillemots, black guillemots, cormorants and razorbills. By September, many of the birds had flown from the nesting grounds but there were still enough to satisfy the birdwatchers. As I waited, I was able to see how large areas of the red sandstone cliffs have been turned white by the defecatory activities of these sea birds.

I was standing in front of the RSPB sign when two young girls, aged about twelve, stopped for a moment and I heard one of them ask the other: 'What does RSPB stand for?'

The other, apparently far more knowledgeable girl, had to think about this for a few moments before replying: 'Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds,' she said, with some authority.

The first girl accepted this quite happily and I have wondered ever since whether she is still under the delusion that there is actually a society, sponsored by Her Majesty, which is actively involved in the prevention of birds. In a few years from now, she will have children of her own and there could be a whole family brought up to believe that there is an active group of people dedicated to wiping out the entire bird population. Perhaps they will not only believe it, but establish their own splinter groups such as the SNP (Say No to Pipits) or CAMRA (Campaign Against Magpies and Rooks Association) or even the NAMBY (No Aviaries in My Backyard).

When the others caught up, we walked on together and we had not walked far before we met a group of five American women who hailed from various States, from Alaska to New Mexico and, on learning that Tom had completed the course nine times before, they were eager to hear all about the challenge that lay ahead of them. Tom enjoyed being in the spotlight and was happy to give them more information than they needed. Finally, they asked what arrangements had been put in place to enable walkers to get a drink or something to eat along the route. What did they expect a food hall every few miles complete with Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds? The Fell Top Food Hall has a nice ring to it, but I can't imagine the National Parks authorities granting planning permission, so Tom had to explain to them that on some days they would not pass any retail outlets or, indeed, any human habitation at all .

'Oh really,' one of them replied in that peculiarly American way. Have you noticed that? The 'oh' is said in a deep voice and extended to 'ohhh' and is followed by a much higher-pitched and speedy 'really' making it sound to English ears as though what they really mean is: 'What a load of shit; I don't believe a word of it but I'm going to look interested anyway' The effect is exaggerated by a raising of the eyebrows in a look of feigned surprise.

'In fact, if you're walking from Ennerdale Bridge to Borrowdale tomorrow,' I said, 'you'll find that it's a very long way and there is absolutely nowhere to stop and buy a drink or food, so you'll have to carry enough for the whole day'

'Oh, really,' one of them said again in that annoyingly questioning tone. At this point, there had been far too many 'oh reallys' for my liking and I felt I must explain that the American intonation can make 'oh really' sound quite offensive to us. Of course, I did this in my typically polite way, in order not to upset the 'special relationship', and concluded in friendly fashion: 'Most English people are fond of Americans generally and Elvis Presley in particular, so they will forgive the occasional 'oh really' but say it too often and you might get a slap.'

'Ohhh, really,' they chorused in unison.


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