If you head west on the train out of London, you find that the atmosphere becomes much more laid-back after Exeter. The guard stops reminding passengers to take all their luggage with them, and gives up speculating about arrival times. Instead, he just announces the station names - Tiverton Parkway, Totnes or whatever - in a happy, approving tone that gradually becomes more Devonian or Cornish. He knows that, aside from the few tourists on board, he is addressing his own kinsfolk: amazingly healthy-looking people drinking tea from flasks while spurning any copies of the Evening Standard that may still be lying around.
West Country people leave London behind with the relish that northerners now only pretend to feel. In fact, it occurred to me, while staying at a holiday cottage in Devon last week, that the West Country is the new north. The thought was inspired - I use the word loosely - by the busted weather vane on the roof of the cottage which spun crazily during the watery gales that traditionally accompany my holidays out west.
Northerners pride themselves on the wide open spaces on their doorsteps, but in south Devon, I walked for four hours - from Prawle Point to Gara Rock and back - without seeing one other person. Yes, a particularly violent gale was blowing, but this was a personal best for me in anti-sociability.
And there's more gloom in Devon than even in Yorkshire. Buy a novelty tea towel - as I did to dry my hair after one of the rainstorms - and what does it lovingly commemorate? Local shipwrecks, with numbers of lives lost lugubriously noted. And when it comes to rebellious traditions, the north may have Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, but they seem very remote figures in 2002, whereas I sense a direct connection between all the feted pirates and smugglers of the west and the Devonian farmers of today, who inch along single-track roads pulling three-storey hayricks. I imagine these agricultural anarchists trading boasts in the pub at night: "Oi 'ad 'em tailin' back from East Portlemouth to Kingsbridge. Oi swear I couldn'a been averagin' more 'n four miles per hour the entire way."
Halfway through my holiday, I had to go back to London on a bit of business, as I explained to a local whom I had bumped into in East Prawle. "So you're going up country?" he asked. "Just for a meeting?" I nodded shamefully, and, as he gazed sorrowfully at me, I fished in my shirt pocket for my mobile phone. Naturally, it had been raining heavily, and when I pressed the "on" button nothing happened. "It's waterlogged," I said.
The sorrowful gaze of the local continued, but it was now modified, ever so slightly, by something in a lighter vein.