New Jaunts Old Haunts

Walking through the Saanich Peninsula in late April

On one of my weekly 15-mile walks through the Saanich Peninsula

My trip to Britain and Belgium is rapidly approaching and I’ve been busy researching, sorting out logistics and walking. A combination of fine weather and flexible hours has allowed me to clock a minimum of 5 miles a day and at least one 15-mile hike per week. The photo above was taken on the one wet outing in mid-April when I practically had the Lochside Trail to myself. On one stretch, normally very popular with cyclists, I counted only seven whizz by in a two-hour period. In contrast during the same period I walked by six deer and hundreds of slugs, the latter of whom took full advantage of the gentle rain to slither about on the grass that lined the footpaths.

This route never gets old

This route never gets old

On my last hike I passed a pair of walkers and we were both so shocked we had to stop and chat. This might sound strange but hikers are a very odd sight on the Lochside Trail. Dog-walkers, joggers and cyclists outnumber us by a thousand to one. In the last seven years I’ve walked this route at least 60 times and I can count on one hand the number of hikers I’ve encountered. In fact other trail users often give me a quizzical look when they spot me approach with a fully laden backpack. Still this is much preferable to the stares I get in the city from those who simply assume I’m homeless. Fortunately the kindred spirits I met that day were heading to England to explore parts of the South West Coast Path and so we had a thoroughly enjoyable chat.

Surprise, my walking plans have changed! Instead of walking Offa’s Dyke I will divide my time between Cheshire/Shropshire/Wales, Yorkshire and the north Norfolk coast. I’m going to base myself in a handful of locations and explore each area on foot. I’ll be visiting some areas for the very first time while others are old haunts I haven’t ventured into for decades.

This new approach is essentially the one I used for my UK visits prior to my LEJOG in 2010. I believe this will be my 17th visit to Britain since 1983 and I’m finding that reasonably priced single rooms are getting thin on the ground. Cheap and cheerful rooms are giving way to luxurious ensuite sanctuaries geared to weekend getaways and not tired walkers looking for one night’s accommodation. I’m not the first to comment on this but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. I’ve more or less come to the decision that if I do another LEJOG-type walk I will be carrying a tent.

This church is definitely one place I will be visiting again

Christ Church Willaston

In my last article I featured a photo of a church and promised an explanation would be forthcoming. It is of Christ Church Willaston and it will be one of the first stops on my visit. If you’ve followed my blog over the years you will know that I’ve been trying to unravel the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather’s disappearance after the First World War. My research began in earnest in 1996 and it’s been quite a journey. I’ve spent countless hours exploring the streets of north-east London, Windsor, Chester and several villages on the Wirral. I followed in his footsteps on the battlefields surrounding Ypres and hunkered down in Archives across Britain in search of clues as to his whereabouts. Last month the Reverend of Christ Church Willaston confirmed that my great-grandfather is buried in their churchyard. I can scarcely believe that within two weeks my long journey will be over and I can’t help but notice that my feelings are similar to those I experienced the day I walked into John O’Groats.

Pondering No More!

This church is definitely one place I will be visiting again

This is one must-visit destination on my upcoming trip

After years of false-starts I’m pleased to report that I will be returning to Britain in just over one month from now. Having previously planned and then abandoned visits in 2014 and 2015 I too would be sceptical was it not for the credit card bills confirming that I really am going this time.

A lot has happened since last July. The biggest news is that I quit my well-paid and secure job at the beginning of April in order to join the ranks of the self-employed. I did so for several reasons not the least of which was the toll it was taking on my health, but more than anything I felt that now was the time to devote my time and energy to creating meaningful work. I have little interest in retiring and so I see no reason to postpone developing something that will keep me engaged, put food on the table and hopefully be of benefit to others.

I’m pretty passionate about helping others research their family trees and especially their military ancestors. As such I’m devoting a lot of time to my Military and Family History blog while keeping my eyes open for other opportunities, especially those related to travel, tourism, writing and walking. I’ve worked in these areas before and so I’m looking forward to seeing what possibilities exist for me this time around.

Major transitions in life need to be marked in some way and so before I settle into a new routine I’m off to Europe for a month of R&R (Research and Relaxation). A lengthy LEJOG-like walk isn’t in the cards but being self-employed will provide me with both freedom and adventure and so I’m content with a shorter ramble.

At this point it looks like I will be tackling Offa’s Dyke with the possibility of an additional short diversion (or two). I will also spend a few days wandering amongst the battlefields, cemeteries and memorials of the old Ypres salient. Research visits to Chester and Huddersfield are in the works and of course there will be real ale.

I’ll provide more details in the days and weeks to come including an explanation of why I posted the photograph above. In the meantime I have weekly 15-mile walks planned in order to get my legs and back into shape!

Thames Path epilogue

I’m back in Canada and the little black cloud that followed me around Britain has somehow managed to make the 4500-mile journey as well. With the rain falling I thought this would be as good a time as any to post a follow-up on my Thames Path walk.

Although the weather and the footpath conditions were often grim I’ve tried my best not to let that colour my opinion of the walk itself. Overall I’m very glad I did it and given the time I had the Thames Path fit perfectly into my schedule. The walk can be comfortably completed in two weeks and without the need for any 20+ mile days. If you prefer flat terrain to fells then the Thames Path is an excellent choice as, with the exception of a few minor diversions, there are no climbs at all. Arranging accommodation and public transportation is relatively easy due to its close proximity to many major centres in the Thames valley. I was able to base myself in five locations (London, Windsor, Henley, Abingdon and Cricklade) and use buses or trains to commute to and from the path. In retrospect the only modification I would make is to stay one night each in Lechlade and Cricklade, although this was a moot point for me as I had no need to walk to the headwaters (they came to me).

What the Thames Path lacks is the variety of terrain and vistas that I prefer. As I mentioned in my previous post I really enjoyed the circular walk around Ross-on-Wye for that very reason. If I were to do it again I would take more time and spice it up by deviating from the river and connecting with other footpaths when possible. Having said that I can’t see myself doing the Thames Path again as there are just too many other great places to walk in Britain … although that’s not to say I wouldn’t start my next walk in Lechlade and make my way to the source before moving on.

If you are planning a Thames Path walk I would strongly recommend going in late summer or early fall when the danger of flooding is lower. I was happy with my decision to walk upstream from London and into progressively more tranquil surroundings, although I know that walking towards London seems to be more popular.

Last but not least, before returning to London I spent several days in Chester and it was here that I solved the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford! It took nearly 15 years to crack but I got there in the end. My only regret is that I ran out of time and could not determine exactly where on the Wirral peninsula he is buried. I will return there on my next trip and I might even incorporate that location into my next long walk. I will post my findings on my family history blog and will post a link to it from here as soon as I do.

Needles and Pins

Another month has passed and plans for my Spring 2012 walk are slowly taking shape. I’ve decided to leave London on foot and follow the Thames Path on a journey west. John Parsons suggested I leave the Thames Path at Reading and follow the Kennet and Avon Canal to Bath and then carry on to Bristol. It’s a great idea and likely the route I will take. I say likely because I’ve uncovered some new family history info that might prompt a change to my itinerary.

If you followed my LEJOG blog last year you will know I dedicated it to the memory of my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford. He disappeared in 1920 and I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to unravel the mystery. A few years ago I discovered that after he returned to Britain he joined the Cheshire Regiment and served until 1924. When he returned to civilan life he gave an address of Neston Road in Willaston. That is where the trail went cold and finding new clues has been like searching for a needle in a haystack … but if you look long enough you might just find that needle.

Last weekend I decided to search for my great-grandfather in the London Gazette, something I’ve done before, but this time I found a reference to a Herbert Clifford joining the Post Office in 1928. They gave the address as Heswall Hill, Liverpool. I knew that Liverpool was very close to Willaston but when I checked Google Maps I found out that Heswall Hill was only a few miles from Neston Road!

I then found more records that showed he worked for the Post Office for at least 10 years and that by 1938 he had moved to Windsor. I can’t be sure if this Herbert Clifford is my great-grandfather but my intuition tells me it is, and so a visit to The British Postal Museum &  Archive in London has now been added to my itinerary. Feeling I was on a bit of a roll I decided to concentrate my search in Merseyside and northern Wales and in doing so I found a death record for a Herbert Clifford in Denbighshire in 1942.  It’s possible Herbert returned here when war broke out.  I’ve ordered the death certificate and by this time next week I’ll be watching my mailbox closely.

Something else that I’ve been spending a lot of time on lately is a fantastic new website called Historypin. If you love history, and especially if you love old photographs, you must check it out.  It was developed by a UK non-profit company called WeAreWhatWeDo in conjunction with Google.  The idea is to provide a home where people from different generations and backgrounds can share photos and build stories about their communities.  The site launched in July and already has over 60,000 photographs with hundreds being added every day by archives, community groups and local history geeks like me. But historians beware! Historypin is the antiquarian’s equivalent of crack cocaine.

Photographs are pinned to a map in the location they were taken and can be filtered by year, from 1840 to present day.  If the photo was taken at street level then it can be superimposed over the current Google Streetview image and faded in and out using a slide tool.  I have yet to demo this to anyone who hasn’t thought it was very cool.  But Historypin isn’t just a cool way to view old photos, it has much loftier aims. Here’s an excerpt from an excellent Q&A with CEO Nick Stanhope on Smithsonian.com (but I suggest you read the whole article):

We talk a lot about there being a difference between “bonding” social capital and “bridging” social capital—bonding being between similar social, economic or cultural groups and bridging being across different groups. Something like Facebook is great for the social capital between people that know each other and have a connection, but it doesn’t make links beyond that. We have a very long way to go, but the aim of Historypin is to start conversations about something that is shared between people who didn’t necessarily think that they had something in common.

I’ve been pinning a lot of photos, mostly of Victoria BC, and you’ll find a gallery of them on my Historypin Profile page.  I’ve also created a few collections, including one  dedicated to an RCAF Flight Sergeant who died in Vancouver in 1944.  This time last week I had never heard of Richard Lyford.  Now I have the photo album that tells the story of the last 6 years of his life … a story that will be shared and not buried in an attic somewhere.  I encourage you to get on board too. Autumn’s shorter days and longer nights are a perfect time to dig out those old photos and postcards, fire up that scanner and start pinning!

Last but not least a hearty congratulations to Ken Klug who completed his 89 day LEJOG and to James Aukett for his 6 day bus journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats!

Lest We Forget

It’s been a couple of months since my last update and although I’m sad to say I haven’t been planning any new walks I have been busy. A few days ago I launched a website dedicated to Canadian and British soldiers of the First World War. It’s called On Active Service and it began as a tribute to my relatives who served but has grown to include other soldiers as well. I’m fortunate enough to own some of their photos and letters and I feel one of the most poignant ways to remember their sacrifice is through their own words. Long walks were no stranger to these men and sore backs and feet were the least of their problems.

I’ve fulfilled at least part of my promise to share the story of my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford. My new site includes a section dedicated to his contribution to the war effort.

I’m looking forward to reading next year’s crop of blogs, in the meantime I’ve been reminiscing by watching slide shows of my LEJOG. The 1200-mile walk takes just under 45 minutes and can be enjoyed from the comfort of my recliner. 🙂 It seems like years ago since I set off from Land’s End and I look forward to the day I can begin planning another long ramble. In the meantime, happy walking!

Epilogue part 1

I’m back home now and slowly easing my way back into “normal” life with a steady diet of baseball and cricket. While there are some benefits to being home quite frankly I’d rather be wandering the footpaths and scrutinizing my OS maps. Unfortunately there’s no adventures on the horizon … at least for now.

After my reluctant departure from Orkney I returned to Inverness on the “Orkney Bus” where I spent a couple of days continuing my genealogy research. I didn’t glean much new information this time around but I did enjoy my visit to the battlefield at Culloden. The new visitors center is excellent and well worth the admission price. As I mentioned in a previous blog entry my 5xgreat-grandfather, Alexander Grant, fought for the Jacobite cause and was badly wounded. Bonnie Prince Charlie made some pretty monumental blunders that day.

From Inverness I took the train to Edinburgh where I enjoyed a 3-day visit to the city, my first since 1983. I spent one day in the Scotland’s People Center madly collecting family research data in an “all-you-can-eat for £10” feeding frenzy. I arrived at 9:15am and didn’t budge from my seat until they closed up shop at 4:30pm. I definitely got my money’s worth! I spent the rest of my time wandering all over the city, mixing touristy sights with visits to the homes and graves of my Edinburgh kin.

At the beginning of the week I returned to London where I met up with Janice (my girlfriend) who flew in the following day. We took the Eurostar (a first for me) to Brussels and caught a train to Bruges where we spent three days. I had a brief visit to Bruges many years ago but this beautiful little city deserved a much longer visit. If you’ve not been then you’ll get an idea of what I mean by checking out the photos in my Photo Gallery. The city itself is a highlight but it would be irresponsible of me not to mention the visit to the pub which offered 400 (yes, 400) different beers.

One of the objectives of this blog was to weave the story of my great-grandfather Herbert into the account of my walk. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do a proper job of it so it will have to wait for another day. However I did manage to follow in his footsteps through Flanders fields with the help of a Battlefield Guide I hired prior to leaving Canada. Janice and I met Jacques from Flanders Battlefield Tour in Kortrijk and spent the day exploring the battlefields, memorials and cemeteries in and around Ypres. We followed the road from St. Jan to Wieltje that Herbert marched up with others from the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment) on the afternoon of April 22, 1915 in an effort to plug the opening caused by the first gas attacks on the Western front. All around us were the carefully manicured cemeteries, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers, most half my age, that fell in the Ypres Salient. A visit to Flanders is an emotional experience but one I think every Canadian should try to make.

From Bruges we made our way to Amsterdam where we spent a week chilling out in the ‘chill out’ capital of the world. Now Amsterdam can be a wild place on any day but we arrived the day before the World Cup Final and the streets were awash in a sea of orange. They partied hard before and after the match … god only knows what would have happened had they won! What I love about Amsterdam is that despite all the craziness it’s relatively easy to find a quiet spot, even in the heart of the city. We had a fantastic little studio apartment overlooking a bridge and canal, just a five minute walk from heart of the old district. My favourite part of the day was just chilling out with a beer and taking in our leafy surroundings. We were treated to a spectacular lightening storm the day we arrived and throughout the week the hot and humid days would give way to a short and monsoon-like downpour that I haven’t experienced since southeast Asia. We spent most of our time walking and enjoying the cafes (no, not the brown ones) all over Amsterdam but there was one day trip we had to make. That was a visit to the Canadian cemetery at Groesbeek so that Janice could visit the grave of her grandfather who fell liberating Holland in the final weeks of WWII.

After a great stay in Amsterdam we headed to Paris for the final week our trip. Again we rented an apartment and although this one didn’t have the view we had in Amsterdam it did have a fantastic location, just a 5-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. I know the Eiffel Tower is the ultimate purpose built tourist attraction but I never tired of seeing it, especially at night when it is truly spectacular. For me the best thing about Paris is the Eiffel Tower and the delicious baguettes … I can do without paying $7 for a tiny glass of beer and spending my day negotiating busy intersections on foot. Despite the crowds we logged a lot of miles under very hot and sunny skies. We made one day trip and that was to Vimy Ridge. The recently renovated memorial is, quite simply, stunning. The sun’s reflection off of the white limestone was blinding and several of my photos had to be taken with my eyes closed. In addition to visiting the memorial we had an excellent guided tour of the trenches and tunnels by a Canadian university student – highly recommended should you visit (and you should). Last but not least I visited the grave of my cousin (twice removed) who died on the morning of the battle, April 9, 1917. He was a 23 year-old Lieutenant in the 75th Battalion, one of the 3,598 Canadians who died in the five day battle to take the ridge (an additional 6,000 were injured).

In Part 2 I’ll summarize my thoughts regarding my long walk and offer up my opinions for those planning their own LEJOG.