During my third year in dental school , I met a friend who had been a year ahead of me in High School. Terry had attended Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario. In the course of the conversation he told me about the possibility of getting a standby flight to Europe, on an RCAF flight. The idea of going to Europe in itself was exciting; but, the prospect of getting a standby flight for $2 was exhilarating. As third year exams loomed on the horizon I made a few calls to military people and I was able to put my name in for a flight to London from Ottawa, on a standby contingency basis. Two days before the end of my exams and my anticipated trip, I ran into my old travel buddy Rick. He was home from Bishops University and he told me he was off to London the next day on an Icelandic Airways youth hostel flight. Well can it get any better? I told him that I might be over the day after. We made tentative plans to meet at Trafalgar Square on Saturday at noon….a pact we would keep.
It turned out that I was 5th on the standby list; but, there were only 4 spare seats. The Corporal at the Air Movements Unit told me that if someone didn’t show up I was on. About 30 minutes before boarding time, I got the go ahead. Apparently a Senator was “bumming” a ride to Europe, no doubt on “official business”…yeah right; but, that is another story. HE NEVER SHOWED.
So I made the cut and was in like Flynn. I was pretty revved up and I didn’t manage to sleep too much. In later years I became an old hand and could doze off for 5-6 hours…. We landed at Gatwick and although it sounds naïve in retrospect, I found every sight and sound was exciting and “new”. I was, of course, familiar with British accents as many Canadians came from the UK; but, to hear the accents in their home environment added to the overall effect, at least in my wired mind. I inquired about how to get to London and I was told to take the train from Gatwick to Victoria Station. I again was thrilled at a new adventure. A British rail train, with me on it. I know sounds naïve but, hey….that is what it was. At Victoria Station I discovered that one could leave items in a secure locker. I had exchanged Canadian money for British money back in Montreal; but, it was all in 5 pound notes. I asked a person at a snack bar, for a soft drink and when I got the change I asked her to point out which coin was a 6 d . She asked what I meant . I said “ I need to know which coin is a 6 DEEE as I had to use one to get into the locker area.” This evoked a good laugh from both of us as she told me a 6 DEE was in fact 6 pence.
I got a locker, stored my uniform and I changed into my travel kit and put my meager belongings in a back pack and off I went. Walking along the street from Victoria Station to Trafalgar Square was something out of a Dickens novel, to my innocent North American mind. Okay it was 1968 but the store fronts, British cars on the “wrong” side of the narrow streets and the hustle and bustle were catalysts for my imagination. I discovered that when I travel, I tend to react like a camera filming a scene. It sounds a bit odd; but, the internal effect was very enlightening and broadening as I expanded my horizons. I did, what I felt was the quintessential British thing, I wandered into a pub. My time at EXPO 67 and in the British pub on the EXPO site had prepared me for some of what I would experience. One was warm beer. I actually took to it, as it seemed to be a part of the wonderful atmosphere. I was aware that there were sights and sounds which to which I would soon become accustomed . As I continued on my way I saw the statue of Nelson and there at the base was my friend Rick….a fantastic adventure had begun.
Rick had been to the UK once so he was my guiding light, well sort of . He suggested we find a good bed and breakfast and put our gear away so we could wander about later that day. As ill fortune would have it all the B&B’s were full, it was a big soccer, er I mean football, weekend and visitors were in London from around the UK. We did find a room and the bed was, to put it mildly, a tad small. It might have almost been okay for one of us; but, we are both 6’3” and around the 200 pound range. So that night it was a crowded sleep, as it were.
But hey, we were young; we adapted readily, so no sweat. We made our way to Piccadilly Circus, which is of course legendary. We found a small pub and had what could best be described as a mediocre hamburger; but, the beer was good. In fact it was the first of many we were to have the next two weeks. We then set out for the Soho district, the main attractions, for we young lads ,were the strip clubs…hey culture comes in many shapes and forms. We wandered into one club that looked particularly inviting; but, as we entered a voice behind a ticket booth said “This is a private club gentlemen, members only” dejected we turned and were about to leave when he added “You can buy a membership for a Pound.” . In the UK, at that time , they got around the censors, who forbad nudity, by offering it in private clubs. Ah, we were fitting in just great. Now this is of course a family diary so I will not get too anatomical . But, the gals were in fact very cute and this was the pre-silicone era. One could say ,”What you see is what you see”. The atmosphere was livened considerably by the soccer, er.... I mean football fans who had also found their way to this home of alternative culture. So it was a visual and an auditory treat.
Later as we wandered about Soho I noticed a couple of the dancers, who looked almost like girls next door, oh didn’t I just wish…they were conservatively dressed and as I had read a few years previous, they carried their “costumes” in little suit cases. Nothing erotic; but, of interest. Being scholastic types we also spent a bit of time leafing through local media, okay I went into my first Porno shop. At that time Playboy was the only “adult” magazine available in Montréal, so the less than candid fare we read through was rather titillating. Opps, I mean er..ah well titillating.
The night sights and sounds of London were all I had expected them to be and more. My father had served in London towards the end of World War II, he was an RCAF pilot. He was also an amateur photographer and as long as I can remember I used to go through his albums. My first memories are of a small Ottawa Valley town, Van Kleek Hill. So one can imagine my awe when it was explained , “ that big house” , was in fact Buckingham Palace and home to only one family. It was all coming alive as we wandered the streets. Later in this trip I would see the Palace from the front entrance.
After another good; but, ‘crowded sleep’ Rick and I set off on our trip to Cornwall. We took a Double Decker bus to the outskirts of London. It was a cool Spring day; but, we just had to sit up top with open windows. Hey when in Rome etc . We got to the city outskirts and we began our hitch hiking journey and discovered that as in Canada we had no trouble getting rides. This is, sadly, a bygone era.
There are two main types of roads in the UK, M roads, which are highways and A roads which are smaller and more picturesque. We stuck to the A roads for our tour. . Our first ride ended in about thirty minutes, which was typical of our rides in the UK . We were let out at a “round about” ( Traffic circle) . Rick got out of the car first and as I was stepping out, a car went by and saw us. He stopped and waved us over to him. It was a hitch hikers dream come true. Not only were the rides friendly they seemed to come without our even having to go through the exhaustive, “Stick a thumb out” agony .
Our second ride was with a transplanted Scotsman who had lived south of London for 20 years. From afar ,in Canada ,we sometimes looked on the UK as one “people”; whereas in fact the ethnic differences between the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish were preserved with pride and at times some intense rivalry. We also discovered a county to county rivalry which seemed amusing to us at the time. Our new “friend” told us he loved where he lived in England ; but, he still brought “Pipes” with him. He said in some country roads he would often bring them out and play a tune or two to remind himself of his origins. Sadly he was in a bit of a rush ,as I asked him to play us a tune. So that treat was not possible. Again looking back to my early years in the Ottawa Valley the pipes were often a part of summer fairs. In fact I seem to recall a 1947 visit to the Ottawa Valley, Maxville Games which may have been the first year of this famous “Valley” Scots festival.
Our next ride took us to Salisbury. In High School Mr. Briere , a wonderful teacher and major influence, told us about the majestic European Cathedrals. The time in construction often amounted to generations. So it was with anticipation that we planned a visit to the Cathedral. Richard was a history buff , so he was again able to fill me in on the nuances of the era of the Cathedral construction. But, first things first. We went to our usual lodgings, the Youth Hostel. As circumstances would have it, they were closed every Wednesday. So we set out to find an alternative abode. I guess our Scots heritage ( No insult intended) came to the fore as we found hotels beyond our meager budget limits. We discovered a lawn tennis court at a private school. It is an irony of the UK that what we call private school they call “Public” schools. This goes back to when schools were opened by the Government of the day and were subsidized. But some of the “Public”, decided to open their own school available to all..hence public. Well all who could afford them?
With our new found fortune ,of not having to pay for a hostel, we decided to hit the town. We went to a small restaurant called the “Haunch of Venison” as I recall. It was housed in an historic building and had friendly waitresses who seemed to tolerate our obviously gawky appearance. A Google search says it dates to 1320. Even now I find that amazing and one can appreciate how impressed I was at that time . Years later my wife Mila and I revisited the restaurant in 1990. The place appeared to not have changed; but , then I guess since 1320 changes were minor .
We slept outdoors on the lawn tennis court. As I tell people I am protected by St Pesmo the Bewildered, the Patron Saint of naïve travelers. It was May in England, a usually rainy month. But even our outdoor venue did not get rained upon. We awoke at 8 Am or so the next day, with a group of young students looking down at us. Our sleeping bags were slightly damp from dew; but, we were otherwise dry. The school students were of course curious. We told them we were from Canada. One lad said “I have an awnty <sic> > in Vancouver” . Rick remarked that they sounded like young Oxford grads . We told them a bit about ourselves then set off for our next stop.
Rick and I made travel plans, such that if we did not get rides and were not able to meet at a hostel on a given day, we would both proceed to a second destination the following day. This was meant to ensure that we would be progressing in our journey, in case one of us had bad luck hitching. We also agreed to wait at the second destination until the other arrived. This of course ensured we would not part paths.
We paid a visit to Salisbury Cathedral, among the many historical attractions is that one of four copies of the Magna Carta is housed in the Cathedral. It took 32 years to build, in medieval time this was considered a rather speedy construction. By contrast Cathedrals in Barcelona and Cologne are still in minor final stages of construction. I would later see both magnificent buildings.
It was with a sense of awe that we wandered the streets realizing we were within sight of a 12th century building. When we entered the Cathedral there was a choir performing. Apparently many choirs tour England and continental Europe to share their music and to have the experience of singing in such a historic site. . It had an ethereal sound to my ever attentive mind. I marveled at the pillars which were not straight but had bends on them from centuries of weight bearing duty. We wandered about the Cathedral taking in every nook and cranny. I came across a crusader tomb with graffiti on it. Carved in the stone was “Roger 1524” . I guess nothing is new. Probably a 16th century “punk “ This was a strange connection with the present in a way, as it brought to the fore that life then was not as different in some ways, than it is today.
After our lunch we ventured to Old Sarum about two miles from town. It is recorded as being the site of the first settlements of Salisbury dating back 3000 years. It has produced evidence of Neolithic, Iron Age and Roman inhabitation. We were alone wandering about the site. This was my first time among such ruins and again it filled my imagination with a myriad of images from chariots to iron age inhabitants producing imaginative tools and weapons. We often overlook these early innovations as technology advances; but, as they say …one small step.
The next day we set off for Exeter . before we left someone told us to take the route which passed by Stone Henge. This was before Stone Henge was fenced off and had security. Had we known it was so close we would have slept the previous night there, and found a nice comfortable spot near one of the huge pillars. This is one of few regrets I have had traveling, the missed opportunity to have slept at Stone Henge. I still have fantasies of a beautiful Druid Princess visiting us at Stone Henge, I later found out that the Druids did not, in fact build Stone Henge. Archeologists now feel it is Neolithic origins build by various chiefdoms. They are also felt to have had a strong astronomical function. So much for my Druid Princess...just as well I didn’t sleep there perhaps, I might have been disappointed. :)
Stone Henge dates from 3100 BC according to some estimates and is said to predate the Pyramids. The stone circle was aligned with the midsummer sunrise, the midwinter sunset, and the most southerly rising and northerly setting of the moon. Even many years later I feel a sense of awe when I look back. My wife and I visited Stone Henge in 1990 and the fantasy remained, sadly the area was fenced off and less accessible. This may be due to "hippie" invasions that may have threatened the site.
After a visit to the Mysterious Stone Henge we set out for Exeter. Rick and I again split up and set a destination of Exeter and the youth hostel. I had never stayed at a Youth Hostel but I had purchased a membership in Canada. I had visions of kids running all over the place ; but, I was surprised that many people in their 40's and 50's were touring and staying at Hostels. When we checked in we found two free beds in the dorm. I got a bottom bunk and Rick got a top bunk across the room . The fellow on the bunk bed ,below Rick ,was quite worried as Rick loved to pile on the blankets and had about 3 or 4 doubled over and he is a large lad. The English fellow complained to me that Rick might come crashing down on him during the night. I tried to reassure him. I suggested he might want to sleep on the top bunk, which he refused...so no solution was found :)
St Peter’s Cathedral in Exeter dates to the early 1100’s and was completed in 1375. The area around the Cathedral, called the Cathedral Close, is home to several styles of architecture, Victorian, Tudor, Stewart. Also within the Cathedral Close are Mol's Coffee House, once frequented by Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, The Royal Clarence Hotel which was the first Inn in England to be called a 'Hotel', and the Bishop of Crediton's house. Other fine period buildings in this area sell crafts, gifts, books, paintings and antiques. There are also some good pubs and Rick and I took advantage of their fine fare and hospitality. As in what became a usual event , we met “locals” who brought us up to date on town events and steered us towards some sights of interest. In fact one of our new “friends” told us about the varied styles and different periods of architecture within this small area. It was a lesson learned for me, I now like to share such hospitality when I meet visitors to Canada.
Exeter had a nice quiet aura which was reflected by the architecture. On one small street we came across some houses with thatched roofs. In my inexperienced travel mind this made an impression of it being a Shakespearean scene. There was something very English and Shakespearean about a thatched roof. And to cap it off a chicken was running along the connected roof tops. The term , “It is raining cats and dogs”, has been attributed to the fact that in some times of heavy rains a thatched roof near a hill, as a backing to a property, might in fact have cats and dogs on the roof. A heavy rain would weaken the roof and the cats and dogs would “rain” down.
We set off from Exeter with a hostel in Bigbury on Sea as our destination, a secondary destination was Land’s End in case one of us was not able to reach the first hostel. We split up and set off separately. The countryside was particularly picturesque. My route carried me through farm land. I was quite taken in by the sheep that were in small herds throughout the ride. Many of the old roads were below the levels of the surrounding farms. They had been worn into the soil after a millennium or more of use . On one run, a truck driver told me that straight roads were on roads built by the Romans and were designed for quick access between destinations. The winding roads went back to small local passages between farms and fields and were more set up by chance than design. He also told me about a small town we passed by which was unique in England. There were no pubs in this town; but, ironically there were about five pubs just outside the town limits. I found that quite amusing. I later ran into a similar situation in Broken Hill Australia where pubs did not open till noon on Sundays, except those "outside" town limits :)
Now before you call the men with the rubber truck to take me away, you have to realize that it was a loose and easy trip . Often when passing a herd of sheep in a field I would ask them “Hey have you seen Rick, a tall red head fellow?” Of course the sheep would stare at me incredulously, or at least that is the feed back I attributed to their stares. I guess you had to be there. Later I shared this silly event with Rick and he told me he was doing a similar thing,. Once he was almost charged by a bull in an open field. Apparently the bull took exception in having his privacy interrupted .
The Youth Hostel in Bigbury On Sea was a short walk off the main road. About a 10 minute walk with, of course, many sheep to talk with. It was on a slight rise overlooking the sea. As it turned out Rick never made it; but, as was common in Hostel life, there was a group of people I got to meet. They were a group of six student teachers from Bath . We sat around a common area and I asked where they were from. One of the girls told me that that were from Bath, which I visited many years later with my wife. I asked how long the drive was. “Well it is about 100 or more miles and took a few hours. It is pretty far away.” I didn’t say anything but one of the lads in the group kind of read my mind “I guess that isn’t far for you is it?” I told him how I used to hitch from Canadian Forces base Borden, north of Toronto to Montreal many weekends during my summer military training. I told them I often hitched 800 miles on some weekends. “Oh and I thought England was vast” was her cute reply. One fellow had relatives in British Columbia, so he had an idea of distances. But I did point out that one can travel for hours and not see a town or a city, in Canada. But, in the UK I could see several beautiful and different architecturally designed villages in an hour. That evening we set out for nearby Burgh Island
Burgh Island is a Tidal Island about 250 meters from the town of Bigbury on Sea. During low tide it is a comfortable short walk along the sea bed of sand. When the tide is in, there is what is called “The Sea Tractor“. An elevated small taxi type transport which brings passengers over the low water. We were able to walk across. We were told about a nice little pub in The Pilchard Inn which dates to the 14th century. We ventured in. Again as a wide eyed Canadian, I was in awe that I was sitting enjoying fine ale in such an old building. It had stories of smugglers, pirates and even some more recent visitors such as The Beatles, Noel Coward and Agatha Christie. The evening conversation seemed to center on studies and all our future plans. In all it was a lively evening with a great exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Back at the hostel I settled in for a great sleep; but ,then I can sleep anywhere. I noticed that someone had written their name on a wall near the headboard. It was an Australian traveler and the date was Christmas day 1967. I still wonder what sort of day he had. I somehow suspect it was a good one...travel in the 60’s and 70’s was positive.
The next morning I bid my new “friends” from Bath a fond adieu and set out on a mile or so walk to the main road. The second car that came by stopped and in the back seat was my lost travel mate, Rick. It turns out that the day before ,what we now would call a “Cougar”, took a shine to him; but, his social inexperience lead to him missing the opportunity. We had a good laugh about it later ;but ,I sense he wasn’t laughing as loud and as heartily as I was .
Our route took us through, or perhaps more accurately, around the naval town of Plymouth. Again we were the victims of so much to see, so little time. In retrospect, and with access to Internet search engines and web sites, there was much we missed. But, that just makes something to see the next time I am there. As we walked through the outskirts of Plymouth we hit the road and set our sites for Red Ruth and Mousehole. The old jokes about, “Separated by a common language”, really came to play here. Mouse Hole was pronounced Moozal as one driver pointed out. . We seemed to be making good headway and decided to go to Red Ruth first so we were determined to “fit in” and as the fist car stopped we pronounced it Red Ruuth” ( rhymes with Woff) or something close. He said it was Red Ruth so our new found Cornwall knowledge about pronunciation was not universal as far as place names we pronounced . We passed through Red Ruth ( That‘s Red Ruuuth to us ) . We did stop at a pub and had a St Austell’s beer which was memorable. Many years later when I was in Cyprus, on UN duty playing rugby with a British team, one of my team mates mentioned this beer. It was nice to remember my experience with this fine brew. The pub owners took us for Australian, which was a first... I told him I was from “South Sydney”, but Rick intervened and set his straight, much to all our amusement.
The first car that stopped asked us where we were going and we gave the correct pronunciation.. Mousehole has been described as one of the prettier villages in Cornwall. In the churchyard at nearby Paul is the grave of Dolly Pentreath, a native of Mousehole and reputedly the last living person to speak Cornish as her native language. We did not visit the grave but someone in the town shared this historic fact with us. As foreign visitors Rick and I enjoyed the rivalry between the counties. To our untrained eyes they all seemed alike except for some architectural differences due to time periods. But when we left Devon some people told us that we might not like Cornwall, different dialect, and locals often break into the Cornwall language in the pubs. This of course never happened and we were welcome all over the UK and in Ireland. But, it gave us an insight into something we had not expected. Of course in Cornwall they told us Wales would be unfriendly and in Wales some warned us of Ireland. In Mousehole, did I mention it is pronounced Mowzal? We stopped by a grocery store to pick up some food for the road. To the sophisticated three star travelers this may seem trite, but I found that wandering about local stores, shops and everyday places really was enlightening. Nothing earth shaking, just a feeling of being closer to “The people” as it were. Many of the items were “foreign” to us..Hey travel does that.
We picked up some small items and bought a beer or two to enjoy on the road. As I mentioned my experience with the 6d coin at Victoria station. I was still getting used to the UK money. In the store in Mousehole I stood at the counter for a lingering time (30 seconds or so as I recall) I wasn’t checking the accuracy of the change I received but I was trying to figure out which coin was which. The British monetary system was not a decimal system. It had pennies, halfpennies, pronounced ha'penny , half crowns, and shillings as well as pound notes. And of course I still am not sure what a “Bob” is, it might be a pound and a shilling . Rick got a kick out of my coin interest .
Again, my experience learning how to look smooth and sophisticated as I paid for things , was a part of what I still recall as a multi-dimensional learning and growing experience. In a few days I would toss out a half crown like the best of them. For the record The half crown was a denomination of British money worth two shillings and sixpence, being one-eighth of a pound and half of a crown. Tipping was also a challenge ..what with what to give that made sense. But, Rick was experienced in the UK having spent a summer there a few years previous. So choose your travel partners well.
As we bid fare well to Mousehole, which we could now pronounce properly,, we hit the road. Our next stop, Land’s End youth hostel. We again decided to split up and set Land’s End Hostel as our destination. A flip of the coin ( A 6d no doubt ;) ) gave me first dibs on a ride. It was an amazing stroke of luck. A fellow, my age, picked me up , he was a pilot in the Royal Navy. He was particularly enthusiastic about showing me a lot of the area. One sight was Mount St Michael’s, which is the English counterpart of Mont St Michel in Normandy. In fact I was not aware of this landmark until we drove by. A beautiful apparition so to speak, off shore. We also took a detour through Penzance of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Penzance or "Holy Headland" in the Cornish language, is a reference to the location of the chapel of St Anthony , that stood over a thousand years ago on the headland to the west of what became Penzance Harbour. We drove along the sea front and I was again taken aback by the architecture of buildings that went back centuries. I was at once becoming accustomed to seeing such sites; deep down I was wide eyed marveling at these treasures.
We then made our way to the Land’s End youth hostel. It was obvious that my new friend had gone out of his way to show me a lot of an area he was proud of. I told him so and expressed my appreciation. He told me he had hitched across Canada and people went out of their way to show him around. He told me several had him home for dinner. I asked if hitching was as easy as the U.K. and he said it was ; ”But there was one hell hole where I spent a whole day without a ride, Fort McLeod Alberta...” We both got a laugh, when I told him that this was my birth place. He told me that there was no way he could ever repay the many people who had been kind to him so he told me he repays the favour with travelers he meets in England. We now call this paying forward and it was a valuable lesson that still stirs me when I think of it. Thank you friend .
If I had one regret about my trip to the UK it was that I came so close to Goonhilly, from where Marconi sent his first transatlantic signal. The Atlantic was shrunk to the size of the letter S, three dots. A few years later I did visit Signal Hill in St John’s Newfoundland where the signal was received and heard. As a ham radio operator this was a seminal moment in communications and both places are shrines. Goonhilly later became a major UK satellite center. The first transatlantic TV commercial broadcast was on Telstar which I had the thrill and pleasure of seeing. Today such communications are not even noticed ;but, Goonhilly was history for mankind. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong in 1969, “the 1901 letter S was one small letter for man but a large leap for mankind.”
The hostel was managed by a lovely couple who seemed to take pride in the fact that they were helping visitors see their country. Rick and I wandered about the grounds and just looked at waves in the sea. The name , ‘Land’s End’ , had a somewhat final touch to it , in my mind at least. I was imagining people long ago coming there, seeing the sea and envisioning the edge of the world not too far away... Another regret I have is that I left my reading glasses at the hostel. The manager sent them to me in Canada. I had intended to forward the cost of postage to thank her and I lost her address. Unlike today one could not Google that easily.J It is interesting how such small things often stand out.
We left the hostel after the normal morning clean up. Part of hostel life is that guests help in the morning clean up. After which they return your membership card. We stopped in St Ives. A beautiful small sea town. It had once been a fishing center but the catches declined and it has become a popular holiday destination. It was built on what I would call a high cliff, and roads and alleys lead sharply to the harbor and the sea. Again I was taken aback by the architecture. In some ways similar to what I had seen but I knew that centuries might separate villages or even buildings in a given site. The thought that each structure was built by tradesmen of many eras was part of the fascination
We again hit the road and set our sites on a small North Cornwall port of Boscastle. Someone had told us it was a small but pretty place near the sea. We were not disappointed. The hostel was a short 5 minute walk to the sea side . We went sight seeing up on a sort of cliff overlooking an inlet that narrowed with the result that waves built up steam and crashed on the rugged and jagged cliffs. Again we sat and took in the scenery with a sense of awe. We both imagined the faraway lands , such as Canada which shared the same waters.
As was our wont, we found a local pub and settled in for a small meal and a few local brew. Rick and I had discovered a tactic that served us well. We would borrow the pub darts and start a game. Many small town British pubs were social gathering places and being a “regular” was a almost status symbol, not in a hoity toity way; but, in a familiar and friendly way. Before long a ‘local’ came by to ostensibly watch our darts match. I would ask Rick what he wanted to drink , then I would turn to the ‘local’ and ask if I could get him something. As often as not he would not ask for anything; but, the tactic opened doors. This particular night we were invited to join two or three people from the area and we got to learn a lot about the history and local flavour. This was priceless in memories and knowledge. On this particular night one of the fellows was a farmer named Mike Kenyan. He excused himself and returned 10 minutes later with a clay stone, which was flat and a bit wider than a book. He had uncovered it in a field on his farm and the writing was in Latin. I can still feel the shivers run through my spine as he handed it to me. I had studied Latin for 4 years in High school so a few words were familiar. It seemed to be some sort of legal piece but don’t quote me. Had it said “Veni, vidi, vici. ” that would have shaken me. The evening was enlightening in so many ways, the Roman stone tablet, the warmth with which we were received and the genuine interest our “Newest best friends” had in making us welcome was very moving and an evening I still remember , with a smile.
The Road to Wales
We had been advised that May can be a bit of a gray rainy month in the UK. But, as I have mentioned, my patron Saint of the Naive Traveler, St Pesmo the Bewildered, was overseeing our journey. When we left the hostel at Boscastle, it seemed we might be hit by rain. It was a slight drizzle; but, it was not something that made us too wet and it seemed to add to the English atmosphere. We walked a few miles to the main road and, as was typical, we got a ride in one of the first cars that came along. Our new friend was a fellow named Ray Bowen of Glamorgan in Wales. He was, by great chance, an amateur historian who started with tales of the tin mines of Cornwall and worked up to the present. This was one of the most educational five hours car rides I have ever had. Rick is more the history buff while I was the science lad. But, Ray made history come alive. It was of course a help that we passed through towns which told stories. So instead of a book we could look at buildings, plains and shorelines where events took place.
As a typical Canadian I tended to look on the UK as one country but regional pride and distinction was something I came to enjoy and appreciate. The rich culture and history of Wales was something I was not familiar with. Welsh (Cymae )is a member of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages spoken natively in Wales, In later years I was to become good friend with a Welshman who is an MD now in Canada . He came from a small town called “Seven Sisters” don’t ask me to spell the Welsh version; he told me he did not speak English till he was about 7 or 8. When I met him I could of course at least converse a bit intelligently about Wales thanks to Ray Bowen . As I have said, travel is educational in ways one often does not anticipate.
We passed numerous small colorful towns. Ray seemed to have a story about each, most of which came fast and furious, so I can’t recall details. He did tell us that we were quite close to Bath, a town that dates to Roman times. I was aware of a bit of the history of Bath and years later my wife and I visited the old city. We came to Bristol and took the road over the Severn Bridge to Wales. Bristol struck a chord in my imagination, due to the fact that one of my great teachers, Mr. Terry Tagney, hailed from there. He was our room teacher in grade nine. He was a man who helped guide and shape me and my friends at St Stephens’ school in Dorval Quebec. He taught us to think, to question and to learn and to take the initiative to do and integrate all three. In fact I would credit him highly, among other influences, in my quest to travel.
As we entered Wales I couldn’t help but notice the road signs. Names that popped up such as Cwmbran, Caerfilly and later Kidwelly had a mystical attraction. Okay it was just me; but, I could almost expect to have seen a Celtic warrior pop up at any time . Ray was a railway buff and he made a point of showing us the train yard near Cardiff where old steam engines were kept in a museum like state in great splendor befitting their service to their country. Later that summer Ray visited a relative in Montreal and he was able to take part in an annual Montreal to Ottawa steam train ride. Ray brought us to Cardiff and left us off at the youth hostel. We shared a nice cool ale with him before he was on his way to Glamorgan. Ray thanks for the memories, you taught us so much. On a recent Google search I have found that Ray has passed away. In the testimonials he was remembered as a great historian.
The following day we set out for the port that would take us to The Irish Republic. On one stop along the way , we were walking through Swansea and two young Welsh lads seemed intrigued by what must have seen like giants with back packs ( I am 6’3”, Rick is 6’4”) . As they starred at us I couldn’t help myself, I went over and asked “Excuse me, we are from Canada, is this Ireland?” In the enjoyable Welsh dialect they responded, “Oh no this is Wales” . It wasn’t meant as a mean gesture, just something that came to mind. We got a kick out of it and I imagine they must have gone home and told their mothers about the two Canadians who seemed lost. Welsh for mother is Mam ( Mahm) No doubt Mam must have seemed puzzled by that one .
There were two ports to Ireland, Fishguard or Holly Head. We decided that Fishguard would be our port of choice as it was closer. We arrived at around 6 or seven PM. The boat was leaving around 10 PM..hey time for a few quick ales. You know to settle the stomach down a bit . At the ticket office we met a Dutch fellow Jim Walraven. He was to join us in our time in Ireland. He became a good friend and one we shared some interesting times with in Ireland and later in Holland.
At the pub in Fishguard we discovered that there seems to be two parts to the pub, the cheaper side where beer was apparently cheaper, then the main bar where the girls were. There are many references to pub etiquette on the internet now. But, in 1968 we just kind of played it by ear. And we seemed to do well. We would buy a cheap beer and trundle over to the posh side to take in the scenery, as it were . The “regulars” at this pub were very friendly, or maybe a few good brew made us think they were friendly . Conversation was excellent and we learned a lot about the local happenings. As the night went on we also got to meet some of the cute gals at the pub. Now as a young single lad I was of course attracted to the lasses. And someone with an accent and what I perceived as a “Typical” local face was an attraction. As time approached for us to depart I found a Canadian dime in my pocket and I proceeded to tell some girls about the racing schooner / cum fishing boat on the back of the ten cent piece. The Bluenose was a Canadian schooner from Nova Scotia, a celebrated racing ship (and hard-working fishing vessel) and a symbol of the province. The name "Bluenose" originated as a nick-name for Nova Scotians from as early as the late eighteenth century. Later on the way to the ferry to Cork Ireland, Rick told me I had them mesmerized and in the palm of my hands. Chalk one up for Canadian charm..or maybe the effects of some great Welsh ale .
As we made our way to our third class cabins thoughts of the Titanic came to mind. We were some 12 or so to the room, and the beds were built into the walls. But they were comfortable and we got some good sleep on the ride to Ireland. We brought along some nice memories of our short stay in Wales. From the history told us by Ray Bowen to the lovely gals I apparently charmed in the pub. It was an active time full of memories and charm.