Kenneth Wilson was playing The Swan by Saint-Saëns and followed it with Gavotte by Popper. He’d planned to add a dance tune “which may, or may not, have been written by Henry VIII”, but we were driven away by midges. Because Kenneth was playing on the top of a Lake District mountain on a still and sunny morning.
Loughrigg is only a small mountain, just over 1,000ft, but it is nevertheless a substantial climb from Ambleside, but Kenneth is used to taking his cello on strange and wonderful journeys. Last year he cycled from Hadrian’s Wall to Rome with the cello on the back of his bike, and now he’s written a book about the adventure. Which is how we came to be chatting on the top of the fell.
It seemed as good a location as any, for there have been celebrations locally now that the trig column on the top of Loughrigg has been rebuilt, having been vandalised in the winter. And I’ve become used to talking to Kenneth in unusual places. Our first conversation was by phone when he was playing his cello on a punt on a river in Cambridge; there was a second phone call when he was playing outside Winchester Cathedral, and was shortly afterwards invited inside by the bishop to play at the evening service.
That was at the start of his cycling odyssey, but when he came back, I interviewed him at his home in a treehouse in rural Cumbria. You should write a book, I said, and now he has. Highway Cello is the story of the adventures of this poet, musician, ex-vicar, failed property developer and reformed vegetarian who once ran an India travel company. It’s the saga of a preposterously ambitious journey on a 50 year old Dawes Galaxy bicycle, with the cello – named Libre — strapped to the back of it.
<photo: Kenneth playing inside his tree hous
Busker with a cello
He’s a busker who found that he’d outgrown all the natural musical places to play in Penrith near his home and started to dream of playing somewhere warmer. “I wanted to do more busking, I like busking, and I’d outgrown the centre of Penrith. The idea grew, that I could cycle to Rome and busk along the way.”
So – to cut a very long story short – he loaded his bike with small panniers on the front, with the very minimum of clothes, below a lopsided bag with some poetry books and CDs. The cello, in its pink chequered case plastered with reflective yellow strips, was on the rack stretching out behind and making the bike twice as long as it would be otherwise.
Squashed between the cello and the saddle was a smaller bag, sideways on the rack, with some tools, waterproofs, high-energy food, and a few other quick-access essentials. Under the cello was another pannier with cello accessories – an expanding stool, a lightweight music stand – “and a padlock thingy long enough to chain the bike to a tree”. And then he set off, pedalling over the hills into the Yorkshire Dales, aiming for Rome.
Why he did it
Why, you may well ask. “It just seemed like a good idea. One of those ideas that won’t go away, and the more you talk about it with other people, the more it seemed to make sense.”
The word pilgrimage is circumnavigated: “Though I used to be a vicar, I’m not religious any more, but I’m very conscious of the sacredness of places. I’m always reflecting on what I’m doing, so I did learn something from the journey each day.”
Not least that it takes a long time to recover from 40 consecutive days of strenuous exercise. Some days, he says, were quite stressful, too hot, too windy. “A couple of days, the temperature was over 40 degrees. Cycling in that was no fun. And I was conscious that I was completely on my own, carrying my own luggage, with no backup. It did get lonely.”
The tiredness at the end of each day meant that Kenneth’s original plan, to arrive in a town or a village, play some music in the centre, with a note pinned nearby asking for accommodation, fell apart.
Often, he arrived too late to play and ended up booking into a hotel. “The further south I went, the less structured things were. I often had friends to stay with in England, I had a few friends to stay with in France, I knew no-one in Italy.” But he knew that flexibility was the key.
“If you have a very strict plan and you decide exactly how things are going to happen, that’s a recipe for disaster. Whatever happens on a journey like this, you deal with it. And that includes what music to play. I’d look at the audience and decide what to play, and in what order. Often if there was an informal concert, there would be more people than the organisers had expected.”
The journey to Rome ended when he played his cello in front of St Peter’s Basilica with the written permission of the Vatican City police. “I had to ask, nicely. If I’d just started playing I would have ended up in an Italian jail before you could say arrivederci.”
His book recounts many tales of cellos and music making, of cycling and bicycles and navigational skills, and navigational errors. The kindness and hospitality of strangers. Meals and wine and coffee consumed along the way. And the sort of philosophising that happens when thoughtful people spend time on their own.
He’s aware that some think it a crazy notion, but you can’t help envy the simplicity of his journey, the escape from excessive consumerism, the freedom to explore, the freedom to live. He struggled, of course: “I struggled with hills, and heat, and exhaustion, and loneliness, and language, and navigation. And in idle moments – if you can call them that – usually going slowly up a hill, I sometimes struggled with the definition question: What on earth am I doing?”
He stayed in Rome for a few days before taking a train journey back home, surrounded by “pizzas and ice cream and fountains and the Tiber, and history, and Empire. And tourists who seemed sometimes to want a break from all that just to listen to a cello playing in the shade. I was sitting in a heap, reflecting that I’d ridden 40 days, and 1800 miles, and climbed the height of approximately 3.3 Everests to get here. And feeling that odd mixture of finality, and mortality, and emptiness, and accomplishment, that goes with the reaching of a goal.”
Now he’s happy to climb a mountain to play music but does very little cycling. “The journey took such a toll on my hands. And if my hands are damaged, I can’t play the cello. That’s more important to me than cycling.”