Carl has arrived. We’ve arranged to meet here as it’s on the way to the quarries, the place where he used to camp out before he was offered a space at The Edge.
We set off down a narrow lane leading to some woods. “What would you like to listen to?” he asks, pulling out his MP3 player.
“Oh, you wouldn’t have anything I like on there, I’m sure. My kids tease me about liking Simon and Garfunkel.”
“I’ve got some Paul Simon,” he says, and we head into the woods to the muffled sound of Mrs. Robinson.
We’re on the well-trodden South West Coast Path, a 630-mile jaunt between Minehead in Somerset and Poole Harbour in Dorset. Some walkers will plan their day trips taking in the attractions along the route, others will be trying to complete the whole path in the target of 30 days, having their luggage transferred from one overnight stop to another.
“So when did you first come down here?”
“When we were kids my dad used to bring me and my younger brother here camping.”
“Where from? Where did you live?”
“Slough.” It’s almost 200 miles away.
“We’d come down for a week, a couple of weeks, a month or two. Then it turned into half a year. This went on until I was 16 or 17, my brother a couple of years younger. We were mostly living here.”
We’re walking over pebbles now, across Churston Cove and, if we were going that far, another four and a half miles away from Paignton. I’m intrigued about what Carl is telling me and suddenly there are lots of things I want to ask but am conscious also about taking this conversation slowly.
“Do you mind me asking,” I begin, Carl ahead of me on the path, a lapel microphone attached to his hoodie. “What about you mum? What about school?”
“My dad split with my mum when I was three. He was given custody. He used to make excuses to school for taking us away, lots of excuses. He’d tell them a relative had just died and we had to go away for a while. I had lots of nans who died during my school years. We had to ‘go away to Ireland in mourning’ every time!”
On the path leading out of the cove Carl takes me on a diversion. We’re not following the tourist route any longer, but heading to the quarries that have been Carl’s home, on and off, since he was a kid.
“I reckon,” Carl is saying, “if you live somewhere for two months at a stretch you can call it home. So I was working it out the other day and I think I’ve had 30 ‘homes’ in my 33 years.” He hesitates. “30 or 40 anyway.”
The seven small quarries run one after the other along the shoreline, their stone excavated and brought to the town by boat no doubt. The coastal path follows through woodland behind them and because they are not easily accessible by foot the quarries make ideal locations for illicit parties.
“They’d bring generators and heavy duty sound systems in by boat,” explains Carl. “All night raves to relieve the teenage boredom.
“This next bit is tricky, you okay? Do you want me to take your rucksack?” We are scrambling down a near vertical rock face into the first quarry. There are plenty of footholds and small ledges but still this is no stroll in the park. The degree of difficulty has just gone from easy to challenging.
“So how did you and your dad and brother actually live?” I ask when we are back on level ground.
“When we were small we just had one tent between us but as we got older, and stayed longer, we had more tents. If we were here for a few months my dad would just walk down any road, pick an address and use that to draw his benefit. We didn’t often go hungry. There was one time when we only had two slices of bread between us and we saw a fisherman pulling mackerel out four at a time… and throwing them back. We said to him, we’ll have them, and we went away with a bag of 15 which did us until ‘pay day’.
“I was well into all the survival thing. I had a book on how to feed yourself, what leaves you could eat and all that. But it never got that bad.”
Carl’s story continues in Daddy Bear…