15.1 miles (Total 2904.6 miles) 30,200 steps (Total 6,468,201 steps)
A familiar experience on the walk was how time and difficulty would inexplicably expand when approaching a major city. I had ended the previous day seeing the M25, The Queen Elizabeth Bridge and signs for Bluewater. It felt as if I was home, but in fact there were still two days to go, but my legs and mind seemed to want to believe that it was all done and they went into standby mode. The mood wasn’t helped by the fact that upon reaching the M25 Matt, Xuelin and I had decided to have a celebratory Chinese meal of crispy duck and I drank a little more wine than was sensible in front of the kids (even when the ‘kid’ in question is a 24 year old father). That said, to be a parent is to sign up to lifelong guilt trip, add to that a Christian faith learnt from an evangelical tradition and that lifelong guilt hounds you, snapping at your heals, all the way into eternity.
Guilt has its advantages on a journey of this nature because that sense that the ‘big guy upstairs’ is waiting there was a baseball bat ready to clobber you is what causes you to keep walking in the thunder storm when offered a lift from a sympathetic passing car, or from catching a bus or train in a blizzard. To be without guilt is to be tempted into a life of guile. I feel guilt when I eat too much. I feel guilt when I drink too much. I then eat more and drink more to drown out the guilt. I fall asleep in a stupor, having forgotten the guilt and wake up in the morning to find the shadow of guilt lying in bed next to me, he dresses and follows me through the day, never speaking but always making his disapproving presence felt. I am incapable of freeing myself from this shadow and in a kind of emotional and spiritual Stockholm Syndrome I begin to have feelings of empathy for my captor. Guilt is clearly a harmful thing, but so is having no guilt. At least with guilt we arise each day seeking to assuage god’s anger by carrying out small but repetitive acts of penitence, and acts of random kindness in search of atonement like Father Gabriel, the Jesuit priest in Joffe’s film, The Mission.
Each day seems to have a theme and the theme of the day was ‘guilt’ which was kind of strange because I was coming to the end of a 3000 mile walk seeking to promote world peace and reconciliation through the Olympic truce, which may be possible even if seeking personal peace and reconciliation remained a distant dream. Talking of guilt, one of my first congratulatory emails on arriving into Greater London was from Baroness Anelay, the astute and able Government Chief Whip in the House of Lords. The ‘Chief’s’ email began by welcoming me home and then, in that ever so gently menacing tone in which one hears that the headmaster would like to have a quiet word in his office after school, mentions that there are two crucial votes on the Welfare Reform Bill that evening and if I could find my way back to Westminster by 4PM she would be extremely grateful. It was a difficult call as I was scheduled to return to Westminster the following day to be welcomed by the Lord Speaker and the thought of returning the even before seemed to puncture the poignancy of the ‘homecoming’.
I pondered the request for a few minutes as I sat in Starbuck’s in Bexleyheath on my way to Canary Wharf, but quickly concluded that I should accept the ‘invitation’ to attend and vote. At heart I am a Party man, The Conservative Party is as much a part of me as my faith in Christianity and belief in Newcastle United Football Club. Without any question my greatest guilt of heading off on the walk was not, as it should have been, regretting not being around for family and friends, but in not being around to vote and campaign in support of the Conservative Party. It seemed appropriate as having not played my part in the Party in the House of Lords for ten months that the Party should take the shine off my own homecoming party. Having made the decision I then reverted to practical mode and realised that though I had my suit rolled up in my rucksack and black shoes, I didn’t have a clean shirt and tie, but panic over, Marks & Spencer’s were on hand to supply my every need. I loaded up with a clean shirt and tie and, going the extra mile, even new socks and jocks. An unexpected bonus was that M&S had some of Matt’s favourite Coronation Chicken spread so I loaded up on my guilt offerings and laid them on the check-out altar.
There is a moment when you realise you are home and for me that was Shooter’s Hill from which the City of London took on the appeal and beauty of the Emerald City at the end of my own yellow-brick road. I stood for a few minutes and confess I had a lump in my throat at the sight before me, but I didn’t cry, those were not tears at the end of the journey it was just the cold wind making eyes water, honest! I then walked down past Woolwich Common and through Greenwich Park heading towards the foot tunnel. I had been a bit irritated that I wasn’t able to cross the Queen Elizabeth II bridge on the M25 as this would have saved me at least seven miles, but that irritation evaporated as I wandered through the grounds of Old Naval College and down towards the almost completely renovated Cutty Sark.
I paused again at the Cutty Sark and read something of its famous history: it was a clipper, built for speed in 1869 to try and secure victory in the tea race from China. There was huge prestige and no inconsiderable fortune for the first ship which arrived in London with fresh tea from Shanghai. The fresh tea leaves were picked at the peak of their flavour in early April and then rushed to the port and onto the ships bound for Europe, principally, London. Ships would sail out from London loaded with wines and spirits and return laden with tea. It was a romantic era of sailing, but short lived as steam ships began to take a larger share of the trade as the Cutty Sark’s launch coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal which gave steamships the upper hand and Cutty Sark was switched to the wool trade to Australia which was a bit like using an Aston Martin DB9 to deliver the milk.
Time was pressing on so I headed to the foot tunnel to the Isle of Dogs—my rucksack was feeling extra heavy weighed down with eight pots of Coronation Chicken and my legs were feeling extra heavy being weighed down by Peking Crispy Duck and at least a bottle of Chilean Merlot from the night before. It was therefore ‘sod’s law’ that on this particular day the lift down to the foot tunnel would be out of order. I am an optimist so as I descended spiral staircase to the tunnel I was confident that the lift would be operational at the other end, but as so often is the case it was out of order and by the time I reached the surface so was I. I staggered up Manchester Road and eventually to Canary Wharf where I caught the Jubilee Line round to Westminster.
As I sat on the tube I began to think of which route I could take into the Lord’s which would minimise the chances of me encountering anyone before any possible divisions. I opted for the little used entrance from Westminster underground station because it was at the House of Commons end of the building and the Commons were in recess so it should be quiet. After making a clumsy entrance as I went into the secure air locked revolving doors with my rucksack and then stumbled out into the path of Gerry Foley, the ITV Lobby correspondent who was intending to cover the last part of my journey in from The Olympic Stadium to Westminster for North East News Tonight. We exchanged slightly awkward pleasantries not quite knowing what to say to each other. I glanced in the direction of my shadow and imagined the headlines on ITV News at Ten ‘Tory Peer cuts short epic journey for world peace to vote through benefit cuts for the poor!’
I took a sharp left into Speakers court and walked through the labyrinth of basement corridors. I kept my head down and hoped to avoid eye contact with anyone. Eventually I reached the comparative safety of the changing rooms beside Peer’s entrance and slipped into one of the vacant shower cubicles and locked the door. I was full of fear: it was 4:30PM and there could be a vote at any time, I couldn’t go on into the Division Lobby in my sweaty walking gear, or could I? I didn’t want to find out. I unpacked by bag and unfolded my suit and then showered as quick as I could constantly checking my Blackberry for text messages with soapy fingers to see if a division was imminent. I managed to get washed an ready but having made the safety of the Peers dressing rooms virtually undetected I decided to sit it out in the cubicle, hoping and praying that there would in fact be no divisions and I could slip out, as anonymously as I had slipped in. I am an optimist and as time went on I became more and more confident that I was going to be preserved from the experience of voting that evening then the text message came in ‘Minister on his feet. Vote expected soon. Vote Not Content.’ My heart sank, but I made a dash for it, out of a side door, across the courtyard and up a narrow staircase by the Office Supplies Department and I went straight into the empty ‘Not Content’ lobby to be first when the vote came. One of the first Peers to arrive into the lobby was Lord Henley, the Home Office Minister, a distant family member and friend whom I had kept in touch with during the walk. It was a blessing as we were able to talk and walk through together at the end to be counted by the Government Chief Whip who smiled a ‘welcome back’.
Rather than returning to my shower cubicle I decided to go to the Family Room in the House of Commons as I anticipated that it would be empty and I could watch the remaining proceedings on the television monitor. We lost the first vote by 10. I then waited for another 40 minutes which seemed like 4 hours before the division bells rang again and I repeated my dash to be first in, first out of the lobby. Mercifully Baroness Seccombe who is the glue that keeps the Conservative party in the Lords together was in her usual place to tell us that there would be no more votes and to thank us for attending. I didn’t hang around to see whether we had won or lost. I escaped out of the staircase past Office Supplies, back across the courtyard and into the changing rooms to collect my rucksack and then scurried through the maintenance basement corridors back to the Westminster Station Underground exit and back to the Jubilee Line.
It wasn’t quite the return to Westminster that I was anticipating more ignominious than inspiring. I glanced again at my shadow, guilt gushed in smothering any flicker of joy that might have been present at arriving home, and I sensed the ‘big man upstairs’ looking down and saying ‘no more than you deserve Bates and nothing to what is waiting for you when I get you up here’. I agreed with Him and longed to simply turn around and start walking back to Greece to delay that encounter for as long as possible, but instead I went back for a drink with my shadow.