Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Best Time to Travel

cover of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole of the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser online

Due to the fortnight’s lead-time for publication, I filed my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser from the wilds of Glencoe while on holiday in Scotland last month. (Only last month? Seems a lot longer now!)


If, like me, you are restricted to taking family holidays outside of term time, here’s a handy tip: you can gain a psychological advantage by spending August in Scotland.  The academic year is different north of the border, with the autumn term starting around the Glorious Twelfth. Local children returning to school add a frisson of guilty pleasure to our Scottish summer holiday. It feels as if we are bunking off.

This year, as ever, when we arrive in Scotland in early August, we make a pit-stop at a supermarket to provision our camper van. Here we find ourselves rubbing elbows in the aisles with brisk Scots mothers and stony-faced children bracing themselves for the imminent start of their new school year.

Gleefully my daughter calculates that even though we’re staying in Scotland for a fortnight, when she gets home, she will still have nearly three weeks of holiday left before the start of her new term. By then, these poor Scottish children will have been stuck into their studies for a month.

Suddenly our holiday feels much longer, as if we’ve stepped through a time-slip, albeit one from which we can return at will.

Travelling in Time

I can’t help wishing that real time travel was available as a holiday option.

My favourite tourist destinations are those that offer a sense of connection with the past. Some of these places are ancient, older than mankind itself, such as the Munro mountains that I can see from my window as I type this column. Others are much more recent. A highlight of this trip so far has been an afternoon at a traditional weaver’s cottage that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. The cottage has been so sympathetically conserved to suggest that the occupant has just stepped away from his loom for a moment and will be back at any minute. By chance, one of his descendants was visiting that afternoon from Canada, adding to the feeling that this was indeed living history.

I’m sure I’m not the only tourist who hankers after time travel. A few days ago, my brother texted me from his family holiday in Rhodes to tell me about the tourist in front of him at the tourist information office. “Please can you give me directions to the Colossos?” the man asked. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Colossos –  the same size as the Statue of Liberty and a similar symbol of freedom that once graced Rhodes harbour – was destroyed by earthquake over two thousand years ago. But if the tourist information officer had been able to provide effective directions – “Just step through this portal, sir, and stop when you get to 226BC” – I suspect my brother would have gone along for the ride.

Cover of Young by Name
The cover of this essay collection features one of my father’s watercolours
  • Read the whole of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser here (and you’ll also see the fab picture of the Colossus that the wonderful editor, Richard Smith, used to illustrate it)
  • Read some of my previous columns from the Tetbury Advertiser in paperback or ebook here
Posted in Travel

All Aboard for A Trip Back In Time

H G Wells' Time Machine“Can we travel back in time, Mummy?” asks my daughter Laura (9) as we set off for the next tourist attraction on our agenda.

We’re part way through a two-week visit from the 16 year old daughter of my old schoolfriend, an American who I met at school in Germany (yes, it’s complicated) . It’s her first trip to England and we’re trying to give her an accurate snapshot of British life and culture.

So far this has included:

– a very large quantity of rain

– seeing a live recording of “With Great Pleasure”, a BBC Radio 4 programme with the wonderful but anarchic performance poet John Hegley (what other Radio 4 programme would conclude with inviting the audience up on stage to dance to Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England”? Spot on for my agenda, Mr Hegley, so thanks for that!)

– the usual suspects for this neck of the woods: Stonehenge, Castle Combe, Tintern Abbey, the Roman Baths, etc etc

Launch of the SS Great Britain, the revolution...

Today’s destination is the SS Great Britain, lovingly and expensively restored to replicate mint condition. Brunel’s groundbreaking ship is now in dry dock in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, the very dock from which it was launched in 1843. It was rescued from the Falklands in 1970, where it was languishing after a long and varied career and refusing to sink, and returned to base. Movingly, its homeward journey included passing for the first time ever beneath one of Brunel’s many other masterpieces, the Clifton Suspension Bridge – something it had never done before, as the bridge was not complete when the SS Great Britain first (and last) sailed out of Bristol.

English: Clifton Suspension Bridge. Looking so...

As we enter the museum shed – the overture to boarding the ship itself – I spot a sign that echoes Laura’s request. “Travel Back In Time!” it invites us. Cleverly, the museum is arranged in reverse chronological order, so that we first see evidence of the ship’s return to Bristol, then pass back through its previous incarnations during the Second World War, on the Australian Gold Rush run, and on trips around Cape Horn to the Pacific coast of America.

Laura in Victorian dressBy the time we’ve passed down to the far end of the museum, we’re thinking like Victorians. We willingly don the dressing-up clothes provided to complete our transformation before we board. We pose before a backdrop that suggests we’ve just alighted in Australia. I almost believe that we’re about to visit my  Auntie Mary who lives there. Finally, we board the ship, to listen to an audio guide that uses as its script diaries and letters from real-life passengers.    We truly have travelled back in time and now see the ship and the prospect of ocean-going voyages through accurate contemporary records.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Can we travel back in time, Laura? Yes, I think we can and we just did.  I take my (stovepipe) hat off not only to the engineering genius that was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but also to the very clever historians and archivists who made time travel possible for us.

Now, where did I put my crinoline?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like another one that pays tribute to a Victorian Scottish engineer: Signally Challenged in Scotland