Some people like to think of life as a journey – it isn’t; I’ve been on lots of journeys and they were nothing like life – but there is some profound connection between movement and the feeling of being alive. Many years ago I used to visit the family of a girlfriend who lived on a remote island off the west coast of Scotland, and it involved getting an overnight bus from Victoria Coach Station (I couldn’t afford a train, let alone a plane) to Glasgow; from there we took a slow train to the coast, through a succession of drizzle-bound and increasingly desolate villages; then there was a ferry (good fried breakfast on the ferry if the sea wasn’t up) and finally another bus, for an hour, around the island. By the time we arrived, twenty-four hours after setting off, we felt as though we had pitched up on the far side of an unknown continent, and the week or so we stayed was charmed as a result, a succession of whales, eagles, basking sharks, haggis, and other wonders.


I hope the same is true of our long-range students. Most, I suppose, come from Europe, and in these days of cheap and frequent flights, no European destination is all that far away; but a great many come from further afield, from the Middle or Far East, for example, many time zones removed from Cambridge.

Capping all of that, however, is the journey of one of our current students, Valdeir, from Juina in the Mato Grosso in the west of Brazil, who had to travel by road for ten hours merely to get to an airport which could bring him to Sao Paolo, before he could even embark on his ten-hour flight to London.

A morning studying English on a wet Cambridge Wednesday in April must be like an out-of-body experience in such circumstances. We can’t offer seals and basking sharks, but we do have a nodding red cow and a bewilderingly odd assortment of teachers and students; and beyond that there is the arcanum of the university, the indecisive weather, and the mythical lakes of tea. Wonders, after all, are relative.



I am on the train, to York.

A few weeks ago one of our longer-term students took himself to Edinburgh for a long weekend. Edinburgh is a beautiful city, and it was his favourite trip in the UK (he had also been to Manchester, York, Stonehenge and Salisbury, and I don’t know where else).

But what he particularly enjoyed was the train journey. The East Coast line, north of Newcastle, passes along the spectacular coastline of the Northumberland National Park, as well as inland through some pretty wild country. Get a window seat, he advised his fellow students when he returned, and just take in the view.



There is no way of travelling quite so pleasant as a train journey, assuming one or two fundamentals (nice scenery, a quiet carriage, a buffet car not too far off, a start not too early, an arrival not too late). On a train you can think, because you are in motion, and work, because you are at rest. You can read, sleep, drink, flirt, listen to a bit of music, charge your phone and wander up and down the carriages if you need to stretch your legs.

In Britain, the East Coast line is probably the most spectacular of the major trunk railway journeys, although another student who has just left the school is spending several days travelling around the Highlands of Scotland. This will be a different sort of experience. The trains will be a bit ricketier, the timetables unsuitable, and the services on board minimal. But the scenery, the sense of space and motion, will be still more invigorating, and the various arrivals, in small towns and villages, will be arrivals into a world utterly different from Cambridge and unimaginably so from his native Brazil.

Coals to Newcastle

The Scottish media are delighted by the idea that tea is now grown, albeit in limited quantities, in the Highlands; and that it has ‘generated interest’ from China.

The tea plant is pretty hardy: as the representative of the Wee Tea Co. is keen to point out, some of the best tea-growing areas in the world are high in the mountains – Darjeeling, for instance, where the plant thrives at up to 1500m in the Himalayas. Scotland, therefore, should present no problem once the plants have hardened off.


The news would have surprised Dr. Johnson, the great poet, critic, essayist and tea-drinker, who made a tour of the Highlands in 1773 with his friend, intellectual punchbag and fawning amanuensis James Boswell, and noted its economic shortcomings with his usual acerbic wit.

Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they would choose it. Johnson: “Why, Sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren.”  Boswell: “Come, come, he is flattering the English. you have now been in Scotland, Sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there.”  Johnson: “Why yes, Sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home.” Boswell, Life of Johnson

In truth, the Scottish tea revolution is in its early stages. All interviews I have seen, such as the one above, are with one or two men standing in a field of 2000 plants, their whole empire. In consequence, it is one of the most expensive teas you can buy.

I have seen Dr. Johnson’s teapot, held as an exhibit in the museum of his birthplace in Lichfield, and it could probably contain half of their annual output in a single brew – Dr. Johnson himself could down twenty-five cups at a sitting. No doubt Boswell would have had him snorting with derision at the idea of a plantation of Scottish tea. But then he might also have had something to say for the parallel Cornish tea explosion – it seems they too are doing very well in China – evidently the media litmus test of a successful tea enterprise.

You take the high road…

So, it’s goodbye Scotland. Perhaps.

Scotland and England have been formally unified since 1707, and have had a common monarch since 1601, but their histories have always been intertwined (if also antagonistic), and will no doubt largely remain so if, following the referendum scheduled for next year, the Scots move towards full independence.


The Act of Union of 1707 did not entirely homogenize the institutions of the two nations – the  legal systems, for example, remain discrete entities. And so do the league structures and national associations of football.

The English like to observe that Scottish football is mainly rubbish, and it is therefore difficult for them to admit that Scotland taught them, and the rest of the world, how to play football. The first international match took place in 1877 between England and Scotland. Scotland by that time had more or less invented the passing game – in the early years of the game, passing was considered cowardly; each player would take the ball and attempt to dribble goalward.

The Scots, however, worked out that the ball travels faster than the man, and developed a formidable, and for the English, underhand sense of teamwork on the back of it. After the drawn first game in Glasgow in 1877, and the English victory in 1878, Scotland won nine of the next 11 encounters, and it was not until the mid-1980s that England overtook Scotland in their head-to-head record.


The BBC has been trying to work out what the British flag would look like shorn of its saltire (the blue and white cross of St. Andrew). The answer seems to be, horrendous.


From what I can gather, constitutional experts are of the opinion that there would be no need to alter the flag in the event of independence, since the Queen would remain head of state of a dual monarchy, as her forebears the Charles’s and the James’s (not to mention William, Mary and Cromwell) were in the seventeenth century. This is good news not only for the soon-to-be-diminished United Kingdom, but also for the Australians, New Zealanders, Fijians, Tuvaluans and, strange to say, Hawaiians, all of whose flags carry a miniature Union Jack.