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…