Why I’m Visiting Every City In The UK

UK satellite photo

OK – let’s see what this island has to offer.

“Hi Mike. Want a grape?”

Ollie is pale and painfully drawn. No wonder – he’s lost about a third of his body weight.

I’ve been (selfishly) afraid to see him like this. It’s a month since his near-fatal crash, a week or so since he came out of critical from the head injury he suffered. I know he’s getting better. His recovery is well underway. But seeing him like this – well,  I’ve been terrified. I’m not great at this stuff.

“Seriously, have a grape, Mike. Why do people always bring grapes? Do they have some special healing property, like Wolverine has? Let me tell you, when you’re laying here like this, you really think about this stuff.”

I needn’t have worried. The twinkle in his eye is undiminished.

“Anyway, thanks for coming all this way. How’s work?”

I fill him in on a month of gossip. We’re both members of the British Civil Service. When we joined, we signed the Official Secrets Act – the most dramatic moment of the whole job. I worked on an IT service desk; Ollie was our roaming trainer and software installer. That’s why he was down here in Coventry, when that truck came out of nowhere. He’s incredibly lucky, and he knows it. In a few months, he’ll be back in York, picking up the pieces – but right now, he’s laying there, thinking Big Thoughts About Fruit.

“So how did you get here, Mike?”

“Came on the train. Walked from the station – about an hour’s walk.”

“What do you think of Coventry?”

Good question. An entire hour of walking – and I have absolutely nothing to tell him. My mind’s a blank. I walked through the inner city on autopilot, so preoccupied with worry about Ollie, and so wrapped up in my own stuff, that I tuned everything out.

“Well – it’s just like any other big city, isn’t it?”

UK satellite photo

There are 69 cities in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

If you visit enough of them, you’ll start to notice patterns – the same shops (arranged differently), the same  – and after a while, those visual clichés are all you’ll see. Everywhere looks like everywhere else after a bloody good shake.

Well, that’s what I thought back in 2005, before I started hanging out with travel writers and then became one myself.

“What [city]? It’s just like [some other city], except less interesting.”

My favourite travel writers avoid statements like this. They’re good at making places come alive by finding what’s special about them. If you learn nothing new when you write about somewhere, if you’re actually bored (my favourite word!), that’s a terrible waste of someone’s time, either yours or your reader’s. But the writers I admire find an angle that’s a bit weird – say, by apologising to visitors because they can’t even land.

They dig for the most interesting stories – and as a former Archaeology student, I rather like that metaphor.*

edi

I wrote this about Edinburgh a few years back.

I had great fun writing it -not just because I love that city, but because I had no idea about this stuff (the geology, the history, the glowing crosses and miniature coffins) until I read up on them and talked to people and hauled those stories out, through the muddying facts I knew already. It was exciting and it was humbling and it made me wonder if everywhere was that interesting – even the bad places.

Hell, even this one.

So, it’s time to put that to the test.

york

There are 69 cities in the UK, and I’m going to visit every one of them. There are also another five in the Republic of Ireland (or six, or seven – they define “city” a bit differently there) so I’m adding them to the list.

So, I’m visiting every city in the UK and Ireland – but I’m not going to make it too easy for myself. Here are my rules:

1) Nowhere is boring

If it seems boring, I’m not looking hard enough. If I’m bored, it’s a personal FAIL and I need to give myself a good kick.

2) I need three stories, connected by a theme, to write it up properly.

Stuff in threes is always fun to read (yeah science!) – especially when it’s all part of one story. So, that.

3) I need to actually go there.

Duh. But hey, I could write these stories while sat at home, copy & pasting stuff from Wikip….I mean, doing research. That would be lame, so I’m defining that as cheating. Plus, this is an excuse to explore the island I grew up on – and since I’m currently planning to leave it for a while, this is a protracted Goodbye that feels respectful and fun.

4) I will use as little money as possible.

I can’t spend much money on this. I’m putting my spare income into paying off debts and building my storytelling business. Therefore, part of the challenge is to do this with as little money as I can, and hack myself the rest of the way there. That’s part of the fun – especially if it’s a bit horrible – and it’s probably more useful to you, if you’re wanting get around the UK on the cheap.

(I’ve touched on this topic before, looking at rail tickets and the Megabus network, but there’s plenty I don’t know . This feels like a fun way to learn.)

5) I will get the help of locals.

Are you a local in one of these cities? Then, can I buy you a coffee, in exchange for a good story about the city you live in? I’d be immensely grateful. I’ll also pick the brains of local experts on specific topics (the wierder the better), and I’ll ask people annoying questions on the street, like a balder, infinitely less funny version of John Oliver.

I’m still nailing down a deadline. I’m still working out how it’s going to fit in with everything else I’ve got going on. But it feels like an adventure, it’s going to be tricky to accomplish, and it’s going to make me a better writer. That’s three excellent reasons to do this.

Let’s do this.

*I nearly said “I dig it”. But I didn’t. I hope you’re proud of me.


Want to follow along, every exciting / agonizing step of the way?

Sign up for e-mail updates (top-right)!

Images: Christian Schnettelker, NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, Mike Sowden.

  • Cathryn Kay

    Good luck with Chichester. Tons of history, some nice architecture, but I’ve never been able to take to it. I don’t believe it has a heart. Prove me wrong. :)

  • Excellent idea Mike. As an British expat living in Germany, the British Isles is still as romantic as ever especially funnily enough, the North. Where I grew up! Oh, and Scotland. If I ever go back to Britain (which I won’t), but if I did, I’d live in Scotland! Bath is lovely so is Brighton, Bristol, Canterbury, Cardiff, the usual Oxford & Cambridge, Chester, Manchester, York, Durham (one of my universities..!), Edinburgh. Ooooh, I just can’t wait to read all about it.
    Very nice indeed!

  • Pam Mandel

    Go, Mike, GO.

    • Was that general cheering me on, or telling me to stop writing and actually do something? A bit of both, I’m guessing…

    • What, now? But it’s cold out there, and I just made a cup of tea. WHAT THE HELL, Pam?

  • Good stuff, give me a shout when you get to Ely, England’s smallest city, or the 2nd, I forget. Anyway, a coffee will be great, we could even put you up for the night and show you our fine pubs : )

    • I will do exactly that. :) Cheers, Martin.

    • Added to the list! (See my reply to Laura-Jane’s comment.) Cheers.

  • RichP

    Drop me a line when you do Peterborough, I’ll give you some tips!

  • Laura-Jane Clements

    If you are ever in Glasgow, I’d love to give you a tour! I’ve just found your blog and have spent the last half hour being utterly entertained (while supposed to be working, oh well!)

  • Christopher Johansen

    Best of luck, I am also on a mission to visit every city in this country would love to compare stories

    • Superb. I’d love to know more. Could you ping me an e-mail at hunter.sowden AT gmail.com?

  • Katey W

    That sounds totally ambitious. Well, apart from saving on rail tickets & using Megabus, you could also look at cheap rental apartments on sites like Roomorama, Homeaway, or even Couchsurfing. That way, you have more opportunities to interact with locals, and maybe learn to live like one. Good luck to you! Hoping that in the future I can try something like that too :-)

    • Cheers, Katey! Yep, I’m using it as a chance to explore all sorts of accommodation options – including, so far, sleeping under hedges and by the side of canals. (True story.)

    • Agreed – public transport and non-private accommodation are going to give me more opportunities to cross paths with folk.

      And – I challenge you to do something similar in 2016. *throws down gauntlet* Do you accept? ;)

  • Your island is full of interesting cities (compared to my island at least) and I look forward to following this project. Whenever I visit a place – no matter how boring it appears – I always make a point to look for one redeeming quality. I struggled to find a redeeming quality in Shenzhen, but apart from that this maxim has served me well.