DNA of a Champion Santa and Other Creatures

I wake up with all the eagerness of a kid on Christmas Day. On my bed when I arrived at Granny Oxford’s yesterday was the DNA testing kit I had ordered from AncestryDNA. Today, before I eat or drink anything, I’m going to spit in a tube and send my saliva to Ireland for testing – how exciting is that?!

My long-awaited AncestryDNA kit!

My DNA Testing Backstory
I had been itching to have my DNA tested for ages. AncestryDNA was the logical choice since I have a family tree on Ancestry.com. However, they don’t ship kits to South Africa – surprise, surprise – so I’d parked the idea for a bit.

However, through the fabulous Facebook group, South African Genealogy, I virtually (or digitally – whatever the correct term is) bumped into a “brand new” third cousin. She’s related to me through my Dad’s paternal grandmother, Augustina Welhelmina Becker, born to Julius August Wilhelm Becker, who arrived in South Africa from Germany as a child. Brand-new-third-cousin also happens to have her family tree on Ancestry.com and her great grandmother was Augustina’s sister. You’re still tracking with me, right?!

Anyway, during some e-mail correspondence with brand-new-third-cousin, it transpired that she had her DNA tested and, quite astonishingly, it revealed her ethnicity to be almost 40% Jewish. She believed it to be from one of the German branches in her family tree and so the desire to have my DNA tested was renewed: I figured it could either confirm or eliminate the Becker line as the potential source for third cousin’s ethnicity surprise! Consequently, when my trip to the UK was confirmed and my itinerary was starting to come together, one of the first things I did was order an AncestryDNA kit online.

Now, here I was, carefully depositing just the right amount of saliva into a test tube, sealing it, shaking it to release the stabilising fluid, and popping it into the collection bag and then into the prepaid mailing box provided, all ready for the postman to pick up on his way past.

A Warm WI Welcome
After a lovely, late-ish, leisurely breakfast and a quiet morning with a few cups of coffee thrown in, we slowly begin preparing ourselves for the Sibford WI meeting, which means gathering platefuls of scrumptious eats from the larder and the freshly-finished Christmas stocking, before making our way to the Sibford Village Hall.
Granny Oxford has obviously prepared ahead: during the announcements, apologies and welcomes, I’m warmly introduced as “her adopted granddaughter from South Africa.”

The new Sibford WI banner, beautifully embroidered for the WI centenary by Mollie, one of the local members, is on display, and Mollie explains the symbolism and elements of The Sibfords she so skilfully incorporated into the work.

The new Sibford WI banner.

What Makes a Santa?
Having initiated the process to gain insight into my own DNA just this morning, I’m about to discover the DNA of a Santa. The Sibford WI speaker today is Santa Ron from Luton, who has been Santa-ing for decades – just over five of them, in fact. That’s a fairly substantial career to compress into a short talk but a champion Santa has got to have some serious time management skills, right?

Santa Ron, although not a very good photo, I’m afraid. However, it hopefully gives a feel for the jolliness of the man and a sample of his jolly wardrobe!

He takes us on a flypast of some of his red-suit-donning-work, which started when he dressed up as Santa to deliver gifts to his own son. Since then, he has brought festive cheer to countless youngsters, raised funds for charities, travelled the world and attended a myriad of conventions and functions around the globe. If you’ve ever wondered what Santas do in the summer (Northern Hemisphere summer, that is), they apparently descend on Denmark for the Annual World Santa Claus Congress held in Bakken (the oldest amusement park in the world, established in 1583)!

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of Santa Ron’s career was winning “World’s Best Santa” at the Santa Claus Winter Games in 2004 on his first attempt, and that against veteran Santas! Held in Lapland, qualifying Santas from several countries arrive to battle it out for the coveted title. Aspiring Santas, if you want to know what it takes to become a champion, listen up! You’ll be expected to eat porridge while ensuring your ample white whiskers remain spotless, forge friendships with and harness grumpy reindeer, climb chimneys, gift wrap like a pro, exhibit nerves of steel in hair-raising sledge and reindeer sleigh races, and more, all in the icy temperatures of the Arctic Circle while maintaining a jolly, personable demeanour!

In keeping with the Christmas theme, the meeting wraps up with the judging of the Christmas stocking competition. Predictably (in my humble opinion!), Granny Oxford’s entry takes top honours 🙂 After helping with the cleaning, washing and packing up, we head home to prepare for our next engagement!

I Heard the Bells…
Granny Oxford is quite musical and, although she takes piano lessons, we’re making our way to something a little more unusual this evening: hand bell ringing! Yes, it’s a thing, and quite beautiful (if one knows what one’s doing, I guess!). I don’t, sadly, and don’t even read music, so can’t fill in for the absent bell ringers. Instead, after helping them set up, I simply watch, intrigued, as this group of ladies work together to coax magical, fairy-like melodies from a vast array of brass bells.

The bell ringers in action. Granny Oxford is on the front right (in the jersey with olive green patterns).

As we drive the dark lanes back to Sibford, I mull over what has been a day of eclectic and extraordinary experiences and, once again, marvel at the privilege of being a part of them, even as I look forward to my bucket list plans for tomorrow 😉

Carelessness and Consequence En Route to Granny Oxford

This morning’s schedule is filled with a strict series of carefully coordinated train trips that will carry me from the south coast of England through London Town to the edge of the Cotswolds – Banbury, to be precise. There, my “adopted grandmother” will meet me when my final train for the day pulls into the station at 12:05, but much needs to fall into place first.

I Know Where You Live[d]!
Charlotte Walker, recorded as the informant of great grandmother Kate Isabella Bolton’s birth, lived at 3 Trinity Mews in Hastings so, naturally, I’m going to swing past the place before heading off to the station to catch my first train which leaves just after 08:00.

Trinity Mews is roughly a block and a bit away but I still jog-walk there for fear of being late for the first leg of my northbound journey. The property is marked as private so I don’t go in but snap a few pics from the street.

Oh, for more time (and a peek inside Number 3)! I long to uncover who Charlotte Walker was. All I know is that she was present at Great Grandma Kate’s birth but was she the midwife? A friend of the family? Perhaps there’s a baptism record or a newspaper clipping somewhere that would make the connection for me. Perhaps title deeds to the Trinity Mews residence would answer some questions. I wonder if I’ll ever know. For now, I have to content myself with standing outside the home of one who witnessed my great grandmother’s entrance into this world.

Monday Morning Madness
I motor back to Cambridge Gardens, snapping a spooky selfie on Brassey Steps as I go.

The Speedy, Spooky Selfie Snap on Brassey Steps.

I grab my bags, check out (i.e. leave the key in the door – foreign concept to a South African!) and make my way to Hastings Station. The platform is insanely busy and, I realise, it’s school rush hour. Consequently, the arrival of the train signals a rather tense jostle for position as I join the tide of satchels, briefcases and shopping bags vying for a spot on it. I only have 5 minutes between its arrival at Brighton and my next one’s departure for London Victoria, so can’t afford to miss it. There’s no sitting room left and those of us standing are so tightly packed that it takes a few attempts before the doors manage close successfully.

Thankfully, I make my connection to London Victoria and, with the train having emptied considerably, I peel off my backpack and find a seat. Barely an hour later, I wrestle my luggage onto my back again and hightail it through London Victoria to Victoria Underground Station. The direct route, amid all the construction, involves stairs and so it’s here that I’m particularly grateful to have my luggage on my back. I catch the underground to Oxford Circus and then once more from there to Marylebone.

I walk through to London Marylebone station and collect my ticket for my final train trip of the day from the self-service machine. Phew – what a morning! The platform for the Banbury departure is not yet listed on the boards so I grab a cappuccino while I wait – a fitting reward for a hectic schedule, skilfully executed. Until now.

I look up at the boards and notice that the platform for the 11-something to Banbury has now made an appearance. Shouldering my baggage once more, I make my way through the gates and bundle myself into a quiet carriage. It’s not long before we leave London behind and are cutting our way through the English countryside.

The Consequence of Carelessness
The train makes several stops along the way and, after about forty minutes or so, I almost instinctively become aware that it’s not going to make it to Banbury by 12:00. As I process this thought, I cast my mind back to the booking I’d made. I remember seeing another train scheduled to leave London Marylebone at around the same time as the one I’d chosen but it was scheduled to take almost an hour longer. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” was the thought that had gone through my head when I booked my ticket and now here I was, inadvertently aboard the wrong 11-something to Banbury 🙁

As the realisation dawned, my heart sank. The fact that I had caught the incorrect train and was going to arrive late at my destination didn’t bother me; it was that my adopted grandmother had offered to drive to Banbury to meet me at the station and now I wasn’t going to be there – that bothered me a great deal. Mortified at the thought, I scold myself severely before considering an appropriate course of action.

She doesn’t have a mobile phone (that I know of) but I wonder whether I can get hold of her before she leaves home. My mobile, which has thus far had no problems finding a network, now stubbornly refuses to connect. For the remainder of the trip, I continue trying to call, all to no avail. I fly out of the train as we eventually pull to a stop in Banbury. Swinging myself down the stairs, I frantically search the parking lot – nothing. I retrace my steps to the longer term parking – no sign of that familiar face there, either.

Catching public transport is the next option but I want to make certain she’s arrived home first and isn’t still searching for me. My phone has not yet found itself so it’s time to go old school and use the payphone. For that, I need the correct coins, which I don’t have, so I figure that’s a good enough reason to buy a Ribena in the station shop. Clutching my precious change, I make the call and discover she’s not yet there. After a ten minute wait, I try again and this time she picks up – yay! We chat briefly, I apologise profusely, and then dash out of the station building to hail a cab.

Granny Oxford
We negotiate the traffic out of Banbury and soon Oxfordshire is flying past in a blur of green. My thoughts turn to my adopted grandmother. She was a teacher at my mother’s school, George Watson’s Ladies College in Edinburgh, back when my mother was a student there. They stayed in touch through the years and I met her during a trip to the UK with my mum in the 80s, I think.

We corresponded erratically after that and, years later, in the late 90s, while I was doing Oracle Forms development on a Fleet Management System in Bracknell, she helped me maintain some semblance of sanity during what was a particularly difficult time of long working hours and relentless project deadlines. Often, if I had a weekend off and it was my turn to use the pool car, I would head north on the hour and a half-ish drive to spend a couple of days with her. It was then that she began referring to me as her adopted granddaughter. One of my colleagues at the time dubbed her “Granny Oxford” and, while she lives in Oxfordshire, not Oxford, and isn’t my biological granny, the name stuck.

“Which way?” my driver asks suddenly, pulling me out of my reverie. I look around. I don’t usually come into Sibford this way but soon get my bearings, even though it’s been eight years since my last visit. I direct him the rest of the way and, a few minutes later, I’m hugging Granny Oxford and her sister, who now lives with her.

Home Away from Home
“Dinner’s not quite ready,” I’m told as I walk through the door, so I go upstairs to put my luggage down. Nothing has changed. The familiar guest room feels like home, from the pink paint on the walls to the rose-patterned curtains, to the window overlooking the apple tree in the front garden, to the wooden floor and the white dresser. I breath it all in deeply and exhale slowly before making my way downstairs again.

My bedroom window looking onto the apple tree.

Dinner (or lunch, as I know it) is a delicious stew, and is followed by dessert and an afternoon filled with catch-up chats. One of Granny Oxford’s outstanding characteristics is her incredible industriousness and that hasn’t changed either. She’s constantly baking or making or learning something. Her larder inevitably contains an array of home-baked goods, her hands are always busy and her calendar is usually covered with a generous sprinkling of appointments. She introduced me to needlework when I first met her and, on this particular evening, she’s putting the finishing touches on a Christmas stocking she’s made for the WI (Women’s Institute) meeting we’re apparently attending tomorrow 😉

Exhausted, I eventually fall into bed and drift off into contented slumber, but not before whispering a prayer of thanks for awesome adopted family 🙂

A Sunday Stroll to Church Then into Battle!

Kate Isabella Bolton’s parents, Alfred and Clara, were married in Emmanuel Church, Hastings, in 1877, and so my plan is to head there for a Sunday service and get to sit in the building where my great, great grandparents would have committed themselves to one another, almost 140 years ago.

Portion of “England. Certified Copy of an Entry of Marriage. General Register Office; Hastings, Sussex, December Quarter 1877, Volume 2b, Page 51, No 37 for Marriage of Alfred Bolton and Clara Pinny.”

It’s a fair walk but a beautiful morning for it, cool and bright. Seagulls squawk pleadingly overhead but, other than that, it’s still quiet out.

I stop briefly on the way to get some shots of Holy Trinity before heading up Castle Hill Road again. It’s a little more forgiving when one has a bit of time to spare!

Blessings
I reach the church with about half an hour to spare and wander the streets that surround it, appropriately named Vicarage, Priory and Emmanuel. As I do so, strains of 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) filter out of the building as musicians prepare for the service. It’s one of my favs and seems somehow appropriate. Gratitude gets my insides doing a little happy dance!

Just before 10:30, I make my way indoors just as two elderly ladies do the same. They notice I’m not a regular, introduce themselves and bustle me through the doors, introducing me to a number of other congregants along the way.

I file into a pew, trying to look inconspicuous, but a couple sitting behind me are eager to hear my story. We chat easily as I share where I’m from, why I’m here and where I’m heading, and they tell me something of themselves. It transpires that their daughter and her family had recently been holidaying in Orkney and so more threads of this amazing tapestry of connectedness reveal themselves, as the chords of 10,000 Reasons reach my ears for the second time today 🙂

Emmanuel Church, Hastings, Order of Service.

Afterwards, I’m graciously invited to stay to tea but have a train to catch and so say my goodbyes. The lady sitting behind me with her husband says, “We won’t forget this day,” and I swallow the lump in my throat – I walked into this building a total stranger and leave, barely an hour and a half later, blown away by the kindness and warmth of this beautiful community.

Pensive but filled with joy, I head back down the hill, admiring the splashes of colour, mostly pastels, that mark many Hastings houses.

Into Battle!
At the station, I buy a return ticket to Battle (I’m optimistic, you see!) and hop on the train. Battle, as you may have guessed, is a place rather than an event, although it is named after the Battle of Hastings which took place on this site in 1066. It’s also where William the Conqueror had an abbey built in gratitude for his victory over the Saxons and in penance for the blood that was shed. It’s a good 15-minute walk to the battlefield from Battle station and I find that I’ve arrived on a weekend commemorating the battle which took place here on 14 October, 949 years ago.

Consequently, Battle isn’t devoid of danger after all, for the place is teeming with people and almost every child is armed with a sword or axe of wood or plastic which they’re flailing around madly, at a height rather hazardous to adults! I take refuge in what remains of the chapter house and dormitory range.

I then head down to the battlefield, wandering among the Saxon tents, where battle preparations are underway. In keeping with the theme, I decide on a wild boar burger with applesauce for lunch – delish!

Then, sun glistening on their helmets and standards fluttering proudly, the Saxons, led by Harold, draw up battle lines to form their trusty shield wall. It has served them well in recent victories and, as long as it holds, they will stand. Soon, the Normans are deployed onto the battlefield, William the Conqueror leading them.

The battle rages and a skirmish sees William falling. In the confusion which follows, his men drop back, now unsure, faltering. William is alive but needs to prove it to his warriors. He remounts and removes his helmet, so they can see his face, as he rides along their lines.

A flank of the Norman army begins retreating. They’re pursued down the hill by a group of Saxons. William sees his next tactic demonstrated. He orders his army to repeat the retreat and, sure enough, some Saxon soldiers are drawn away, following the Normans apparently retreating down the hill, only to be surrounded and annihilated by them. The shield wall is thinning.

Then, another flurry of Norman arrows trace a graceful arc into Saxon lines. Shields are lifted to deflect them but a cry of horror rises to the skies, too – an arrow has pierced Harold’s eye and he drops to the ground – dead. A band of faithful men surround him, loyal to the last, but they lose their lives and Harold’s standard falls.

The Saxons rally bravely but they are leaderless and the shield wall is disintegrating. The Normans pick it to pieces and William emerges victorious to lay claim to the English throne. This historic field I’m standing in lies soaked in the blood of battle and marks a turning point in the British narrative.

I walk back through the grounds, below the Guesthouse Range and the Abbey, past the dairy and icehouse, to explore the Duchess of Cleveland’s walled garden.

As I head back toward the gatehouse, I pass a tapestry strung up between some trees. It’s not the famous Bayeux tapestry, as one might expect, although there is one panel dedicated to the technique used for that piece. Rather, this one tells the story of a lesser known battle, the Battle of Maldon. The artist informs me that it took him three years and that it’s for sale… for £6 000, if you’re interested and happen to have that lying around!

A badly stitched composite of four photos of the tapestry of the Battle of Maldon. It took forty photos to capture the entire tapestry!
Another badly stitched composite of four photos of the tapestry of the Battle of Maldon. These four frames show the end of the tapestry.

Full Circle
Back in Hastings, it’s already dark as I take another walk along the beachfront, to Queen’s Apartments.

Queen’s Hotel, now Queen’s Apartments, where my great, great grandfather, Alfred Bolton, lived at the time of his marriage to Clara Pinny.

This used to be the Queen’s Hotel and it’s where my great, great grandfather, Alfred Bolton, lived at the time of his marriage to Clara Pinny in Emmanuel Church, where my day started.

I’ve come full circle. I’ve returned to places that were part of the lives of my ancestors, part of me. I’ve had a history lesson. I’ve touched the past. And I have an early start in the morning!

On the Streets Where You Lived (Part 2)

I pre-planned this now-late lunch for Café des Arts, having stumbled across them on the Internet. Perhaps it was their tagline that got me: “Satisfy Your Coffee, Art and Food Passions”. Perhaps it was their social concern. According to the intro in their menu, the “café was opened by Autism Sussex in 2009 as a social enterprise to provide training and work experience for people with Autistic Spectrum Condition. The aim is for trainees to learn transferable skills which will enhance their chances of future employment in the wider community.”

Hastings Orientation
I order a cappuccino and look around. Large, comfy-looking armchairs encircle low tables in the front windows. Stained glass windows and wooden panelling line the back of the café area. Shelves display works by autistic artists. They’re all for sale, another way Café des Arts seeks to support and empower those on the autistic spectrum.

The café is also directly across the road from Holy Trinity, which appears to be the church of the parish in which my great grandmother’s birth was registered. “Where was she baptised?” I wonder idly. Was it in the beautiful though unusually-shaped church I was now looking at? I make a mental note to find out…

Portion from “Benjamin Tree (Registrar), Certified Copy of an Entry of Birth Given at the General Register Office, Registration District Hastings, 1878 Birth in the Sub-district of Saint Mary in the Castle in the County of Sussex, No 343, Kate Isabella Bolton, Application Number 5995428-1, BXCG 312312 (England, General Register Office, 09 Oct 2014).”

Holy Trinity Church, Hastings, was built on a triangular piece of land formed by the intersection of Robertson and Trinity Streets in the 1850s (about the same time Hastings Station came into being). To my uneducated eye, it seems the site may have been ideally suited to the eccentricity of the church’s Victorian architect, one Samuel Sanders Teulon, a great character, by all accounts. Hastings itself had, of course, been around a lot longer, with its first documented mention in 790. Historically a Saxon settlement, market and fishing town, and port, it later became a popular seaside resort, and remains a tourist destination today.

A Brisk March up Castle Hill
By the time I’ve devoured a delicious goat’s cheese, pesto and salad sandwich, it’s just after half past three. If I’m to make it to Hastings Castle at all, it needs to be today and I’ll need to hurry – last admission is at 16:00. I pay my dues and turn right out onto Robertson Street, marching hurriedly in the general direction of the castle. I appear to be on track by the time I reach Castle Hill Road but it shows me no mercy. It’s a steep climb and, within minutes, I’m gasping for breath and it feels as though molten iron is searing through my calf muscles. Just when I think I’ll never make it on time, I round a bend and see a sign for the castle.

I reach the entrance, barely able to speak, at 15:57 – just in time to buy a ticket and stumble into the last audiovisual presentation of the day. Afterwards, I wander round what remains of the castle, though much of it has long since collapsed into the sea or fallen prey to ruin, decay and disrepair. With its majestic vantage point high above the town and overlooking the sea, it’s easy to see why William (the Conqueror) ordered the building of a fortress here, a few days after the Battle of Hastings.

As with any castle worthy of the title, Hastings Castle has a few ghost stories to tell. One belongs to the structure itself: it is said that 18th century sailors out at sea were occasionally able to look back and see the castle whole, in all its former glory. Ghosts said to wander the ruins include that of a nun, a lady in white, and a woman carrying a baby (who is thought to have ended her own life and that of her child following desertion by her lover). The phantom of murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is also thought to hang out here. Fortunately for my constitution, I saw none of these, although this creature could be seen wandering around:

Yours Truly in the Chapel of the Holy Cross

Middle Street Today
I have no number for the Middle Street location where Great Grandmother Kate was born and, even if I did have, I doubt the building would still be there. Nevertheless, I make my way back down Castle Hill Road and into the “New Town” again. Middle Street is easy to find. It feeds into the shopping district and, today, The Body Shop occupies one corner and a pub the other, at that end. Behind these, the backs of shops are housed in newish-looking buildings. Further up, there’s a university parking lot and then a couple of ramshackle, rundown houses on either side. At the top of the street, graffiti covers a garage door.

If I had more time here, I’d be hitting the museum and archives, finding out more about this street in the late 1870s. For now, I simply get to walk where my ancestors walked, about 137 years ago. I savour the experience and then, as the sun begins to set, I head for the beach and the Old Town.

Walking the Town Flat and Reaping a Reward
It’s a gorgeous evening but the beach is quiet. I meet a seagull who’s very friendly until I try to photograph him. I wander along the pebbles.

Hastings pier and beach (yes, it’s a pebble beach, because that’s mostly how England rolls!)

I pass the miniature golf course and railway, the amusement park, and then the net shops. The information boards tell me, “These Tall Black Wooden Sheds are unique to Hastings.” They were used by fishermen to store their fishing tackle and keep it dry and prevent rot.

I’m now striding down Rock-a-Nore Road in search of Rock A Nore Kitchen, a tiny restaurant earning quite a name for itself, judging from the commentary on the Interwebs. With only about five tables and a reputation which is both glowing and growing, I suspect they may be fully booked this evening. They are.

Not to be easily outdone, I have another evening meal option up my sleeve. I am in England, after all, and on the coast. Fish and chips is pretty much mandatory, and I’ve done a bit of homework: Life Boat Restaurant is the place to go. It’s back a little, in the hustle and bustle of the Old Town, which I’m already wishing I had more time to explore.

While waiting for my order, I notice confirmation of popular Internet opinion taped to the counter in the form of an article from the Hastings Independent Press. It shows Life Boat Restaurant voted the top fish and chip restaurant in Hastings, by the locals, in February this year.

Who’s the Best?

It’s almost 20:00 now and I’ve put in a pretty decent power-walking effort today. I feel I’ve earned my meal but nothing could have prepared me for the size of it.

I’m not sure that there’s any truth to the tagline on the packaging, but I’d like to think so!

They offer a medium and a large cod. I chose the medium and shudder to think what the large would have looked like. The pics do not do it any justice at all but I feel it would have fed at least two and a half people!

Medium cod and chips (allegedly!)

Exhausted, but sated and grateful, I eventually fall asleep in the town where my great grandmother would have done the same, as a baby, over a hundred years ago.

On the Streets Where You Lived (Part 1)

Of course, sleep never seems to last long on a plane before one gets hyper-uncomfortable. There’s a whole lot of squirming and a little bit of shut-eye playing on repeat until breakfast is served some two hours before landing.

It’s a continental breakfast, quite fitting since we’re now flying over France. I’m tracking our progress on the moving map, you know – just to make sure the pilot’s on course and holding altitude and all that! I start lifting the shutter and sneaking peaks out of my window, matching the lights below with our current location. It’s not long before I identify the lights of Paris, beautiful even in the darkness from 40 000 feet. We begin our descent.

Clearing Immigration and Making Connections
I’m a little concerned I may not have left enough time to catch my bus from Heathrow into London so, on disembarkation, I power-walk through Terminal 2 (the Queen’s Terminal, I’ll have you know!). It’s a long walk but welcome after 11 hours airborne, strapped to a seat.

I’m astonished to find that, for UK and EU passport holders, there’s barely an immigration official in sight but, instead, a row of self-service booths. Trying to look inconspicuous, I shuffle slowly towards a free booth, buying time to carefully take in all the instructions: step onto the yellow footprints on the floor, remove your glasses, put down your bags, place the photo page of your passport on the scanner, look at the camera, remove your passport…

The gates swing open! I make a mental note to thank my amazing mother for her wisdom and presence of mind in obtaining British citizenship for me all those years ago. Not only does it make entry into the UK a breeze, without any queues, but it also made leaving South Africa smoother – no questions about visas and how long I’d be staying and where I’d be staying and what other places I’d be visiting – what a pleasure!

Having collected my luggage (which, thankfully, arrived – something I never take for granted), I make my way to the Central Bus Station. I happen to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror of a lift. With almost 22kgs on my back and a day pack of 7½kgs clipped onto my front, a thought occurs, “I hope my Eiger-climbing uncle doesn’t disown me when he sees this lot!” I’m quite sure he’s perfected the art of travelling light. I console myself with the fact that I carry gifts as well as electronic equipment, including a mobile scanner and a netbook, none of which a climber would require!

I make it to the bus station with enough time to grab a much-needed cappuccino and a strawberries and cream muffin before boarding the National Express bus bound for London.

Connections of Another Kind
It’s a fine, crisp day here and bright enough for sunglasses. Out on the M4, trees cloaked in gold, studded with jewel-like flecks of red, are a reminder that it is indeed autumn here, though.

We stop at a traffic light and, out of the window on my right, I see a gorgeous old entrance covered in window boxes and baskets brimming with flowers. It’s a beautiful, postcard-British pub. I reach for my camera and then notice the building’s name: The Bolton. I scramble to get my camera out of its pouch as my neighbour, sitting next to the window, sees the scene and tries to snap it with his cell phone. We both miss it.

“Are you a Bolton, then?” he asks. “No, but some of my Dad’s family were,” I respond, “What about you?” “No, but the friend I’m meeting up with in a bit is.” We start chatting after that and I discover he’s from Swindon, coming into London for a surprise birthday get-together at The Shard and then ICEBAR LONDON with some of his college mates, whom he hasn’t seen in years. I also discover he spent his honeymoon in South Africa. He, in turn, discovers a bit of my journey and the reason for it and, when I mention Orkney, shows me his wedding band made there. It certainly looks Orcadian: silver, with Norse-like runes engraved around it. “It’s supposed to read, ‘Hope, Love and Happiness’,” he says, and then, after a brief pause, “Aren’t these random connections just great? They make the world seem smaller, don’t they?” We talk about family and family history and he resolves to dig into his father’s family tree. “I’ve often thought I should look into it,” he muses and, with that, the bus pulls into London Victoria Coach Station and we go our separate ways.

Hastings-Bound
While it is perhaps better known as the site of that (in)famous battle way back in 1066, Hastings is also the birthplace of one of my paternal great grandmothers, Kate Isabella Bolton.

Great Grandmother Kate Isabella Bolton

Her parents were married there, too, and it’s where I’m headed first. A brisk march has me collecting my ticket in London Victoria Station and on the platform within a few minutes. I tuck into my magical strawberries and cream muffin while waiting for the train to depart and soon we’re out of the suburbs and cutting our way through quintessentially English countryside: pastures dotted with sheep and lined with post and rail fences or neat hedges or stone walls, steeplechase courses, and crops spread out like intricately stitched quilts.

Around lunchtime, I find myself at Hastings Station. Another short walk delivers me to Apollo Guest House. After a shower and a little reorganisation of my day pack for strolling the streets, I’m out the door again, meandering down the road in search of Robertson Street…

And So It Begins…

…the journey my heart has longed for. Yes, yes, my heart does indeed long for many, but this one involves precious family I haven’t seen in years and family I’ve never met. It was, I think, born from a single photograph I ordered from The War Graves Photographic Project website a couple of years ago, a headstone in a tiny cemetery on Skye, erected to the memory of my great grandfather who died of wounds sustained in Palestine in the First World War, his brother who was lost in France during that same conflict, another of their siblings and their parents, John and Marion Macdonald.

Looking at that photograph, my heart was hooked (not that it needed much encouragement). “I want to go back again. I want to be there. I want to walk where they walked. I want to live and cherish their memory.” The journey then grew through connection with my uncle (my mother’s brother) and their cousin (in law), both of whom hold family documents and photographs they want organised somehow. This dovetailed perfectly with my genealogy, um, addiction, which then yielded more and more crumbs along the family history trail. These I added to a bucket list which formed the basis of my itinerary for this trip. It’s amazing, though, how quickly four weeks can fill up, especially when one’s trying to get from the coast in the south of England to the west coast of Scotland to islands in the north and then Edinburgh on the east coast! Some items have had to stay on the bucket list for now but that simply means there’s scope and reason for another trip 😉

Pride Goes Before a Fall
I managed to get home from work almost on schedule. I successfully disconnected my car’s battery and then managed, after a couple of attempts, to manually lock the driver’s door. I checked it again before squeezing the last few items into my now rather bulky travel pack. I e-mailed off details required for my car hire in Skye. I showered and got ready. I washed the dishes lying in the sink. I unplugged all appliances and switched off the geyser. I locked and checked the doors and windows. I was sorted. Yay me! The buzzer rang – my lift had arrived.

I wrangled my travel pack onto my back, grabbed my hand luggage, took a last look around, locked up and made my way downstairs. Paranoia made me check my car doors. Front door… locked. Back door… swung open! I was horrified. I tried a few options. None worked. Now dripping with sweat, I concluded I would have to reconnect the battery and try figure out how to get the back doors locked. I worried about how long it would take to figure out, particularly with my fear of fiddling with car batteries (which comes from reading the manual – it’s a bit like reading the package insert for medication). I knew I would get dirty again and didn’t have time to clean up. I was holding my lift up. I worried about being late for check in. I decided to leave it. It was inside my complex. And if someone wants to get in, they’re going to get in whether the doors are locked or not, right?

A Little African Adventure for the Road
I’ve always had slight concerns around the safety of tuk tuks in the aggression and speed of Jozi traffic and the questionable roadworthiness of many of the vehicles on our roads but, I figured, what better time to try it than at the start of my holiday? My very courteous driver hopped out of his seat to help load my luggage and very graciously took a photo of me in the tuk tuk:

In the tuk tuk and ready to roll

At the Gautrain station, he once again leapt out to carry my luggage across the road (closed to traffic for EcoMobility month) and help get it on my back. So there you have it: no mess, no fuss, super-fun and I lived to tell the tale 🙂

Sandton from the tuk tuk passenger seat

A fellow passenger on the Gautrain, perhaps prompted by the Springbok shirt I was wearing, asked whether I knew what the Rugby World Cup result was of the South Africa-USA game. “Oh my,” he said when I told him of the whitewash. Turns out he’s a Columbian, studying at Wits, and also on his way to the airport, flying out to a friend’s wedding in Georgia (the country). I love these serendipitous little encounters, learning about others and their life journeys.

The Departure Lounge
Safely checked-in, and through security and passport control, I ordered a serious cappuccino to calm my nerves while I poured out my car door woes to my mother over the phone. Without missing a beat, she said she and my father would drive down and sort it out, “so you don’t have to worry about it.” It’s no trivial matter, either, since it’s at least a two-hour drive for them, one way. Well, that was me finished! How come I have such awesome parents? I said a teary goodbye with a prayer of gratitude for the great grace and blessing that are mine in my father and mother.

Just sitting in the departure lounge reminded me how much I love this, the immense privilege of travel. People rushed to and fro while others seemed bored, waiting for their flight to depart. Out of Africa had their Christmas displays up, a riot of colour and beadwork, while the strains of a live marimba band filled the walkways with lively African beats.

Out of Africa’s Christmas Display

Destinations echoed out over the PA system, fuelling the wanderlust that rages within. “This is a first boarding call for Turkish Airlines flight XYZ to Istanbul.” Istanbul! A myriad of magical memories flooded back. “We have unfinished business,” I thought. “One day, I want to walk your streets again…” Two girls, possibly in their twenties, sat down next to me, glued to their phones. A second boarding call for that Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul wafted over to us a few minutes later. One of the girls, without removing her eyes or fingers from her phone, said to the other, “Wanna go to Istanbul?” “Nah,” said the second, and both carried on their interactions in their virtual worlds, as if nothing had happened, as if they hadn’t just closed the door on an incredible city. I tried to recover from the shock by meandering over to the boarding gate for my flight!

So long, South Africa; Hello, Holiday and History!
It wasn’t long before we boarded and were airborne. The exhilaration of take-off is one of those sensations I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. It’s obviously physically powerful but it also holds a sense of expectation, of something new or different, of change. The glitter of city lights spilled out below us on the velvety-black canvas of night, as I contemplated what the next four weeks may hold for me…

Dinner was a peppery, though quite yummy, dish of grilled chicken strips, accompanied by bowtie pasta, roasted butternut sticks and creamy mushroom sauce. It was served with a salad, a pretzel-like roll, crackers and salmon cream cheese, passionfruit orange cake and a chocolate.

Full, satisfied and finally able to relax after a number of late nights of preparation, I was asleep within minutes, as Africa floated by below us.