Wrangle, Leake and Drainside pass by as I drive. Small settlements and thoroughfares with names that remind me England can still be remote and unusual. It’s a surprise in a shrinking networked world to discover places not so far from home that feel alien.
It’s especially surprising in the flatlands of the British fens because you believe, facing a wide sky and gaping horizon, that you can see it all and that you know what is there. Hedges, ditches and dykes, the occasional cluster of trees gathered round a farmhouse, relentless furrowed acreage. Nothing much.
But then towns and villages with brutally utilitarian names spring out of nowhere. The houses sit stubbornly at the roadsides in twos and threes looking oddly out of place even though this barely counts as a place at all. They are finished in the style of homes from sprawling urban estates: all economy of design and efficient use of space and materials. Normally houses like this are built in regiments, dominating the land they are on, but here they look isolated and one wrong turn away from being lost in emptiness forever.
This is the journey to Skegness.
It takes a toll on you that you cannot escape. You pay in time. You pay in boredom. The route I follow, approaching from the southwest, offers only one mile of dual carriageway in the final 50. The rest is single lanes dotted with crawling tractors, articulated trucks heading for factory farms and sudden right handed bends around fields. Sometimes you drive at 50, sometimes you drive at 40, sometimes you sit with your engine idling waiting for a vehicle ahead to make a right turn. One way or another there is a cost in time you cannot avoid.
You sit there waiting for the landscape to roll by. Occasionally you are tempted to overtake something despite the Red Route warning signs on the verges telling you how many dozens have died on the road that year. There are heavy penalties for mistakes on these highways: head-on smashes or drops into drainage ditches that are deep enough for trapped motorists to drown in. There is real danger here for those who do not submit to the tedium of the journey.
So what do you do in your little metal box when the featureless geography has released its slender hold on your attention? You turn on yourself. You cannibalise your own mind for stimulation. First you let your worries in because they are always at the front of the queue when you throw open the doors of your imagination. Then the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘should haves’. You entertain hunger, thirst and the need to relieve yourself. Do you smoke? Don’t run out on this journey. You change the channels on the radio again, play that CD again. You edge out to try to see past the truck ahead.
This is the journey to Skegness.
You lurch from boredom to weighing up the odds of death and then back to boredom. A bigger, faster, shinier car might roar past and just make it before the oncoming traffic. You are pleased to see that car is only one or two places ahead in the queue when a roundabout finally arrives. No-one escapes. Turn off if you want. When you are this deep in the Fens it is the same in all directions until you reach the edge of the land where the great, grey, sea is waiting.
Here at last is Skegness.
It is a holiday resort for the working man and in every sense the pleasures on offer here are earned, even if it is only by the act of making the deceptively arduous journey. It is a town where small pleasures are big business. In the main street you are never more than ten footsteps from cakes, chips, booze, sweets or tattoos. In amongst the traditional treats there are oddities: a rack of pellet guns that are replicas of modern assault rifles – so realistic you cannot imagine how someone would make it out of the shop without being taken down by police marksmen. Across the street a sweet stall offers nougat and rock in a range of novelty shapes: confectionery lollies, fruit baskets and penises lying side by side.
The leisure tides usher shoals of customers to the doors of these outlets in and out of holiday season. It’s autumn, the seafront thrill rides are closed but still the visitors arrive wandering wet streets under grey skies with a slightly bewildered look on their faces, as though they woke up here unexpectedly.
Skegness tourists make the best of it. They wear holiday clothes because they are on holiday, not because the weather or their age suits it. A daytrip here is an act of pure will. Vest tops and short skirts team up with walking sticks and umbrellas. Arms and calves swirl with tattoos. They stare at you like cats deciding whether you are a threat or prey. Do you know which you are? You will after a trip to Skegness…