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Criss-crossing the UK

After a two-week stay in York last year, John Gillies and his sister Elaine Clark set out to see as many relatives as they could within the time frame of a 15-day BritRail pass. They criss-crossed England and Scotland according to whim and necessity, and emerged tired but happy . . .

Directions are important. Accidental misdirection got the Light Brigade charging at the wrong guns in the Battle of Balaclava.

Intentional misdirection had the Germans believing the Allies would land at Pas-de-Calais, not the beaches of Normandy.

Now, imagine a grain of sand compared with those Normandy beaches, and you have the scale of my trials finding a London “hop-on hop-off tour” bus stop in the overall scheme of things.

That's right, less than grit in your shoe.

Nevertheless, I thought the woman at the information counter at Paddington Station could have said more than that we could find one just outside.

And I suppose I should have asked which exit we should take to find it.

My sister Elaine and I took the nearest exit, and soon our different approaches to urban exploration became apparent.

I liked to wander, looking for signs of our whereabouts in the street names, business houses and “feel” of the location.

Elaine would ask a stranger.

She fluked some information about a bus to Oxford Street, where we walked for an hour looking for a hop-on hop-off bus stop that was operational. We went down Regent Street and ended up in Piccadilly Circus, where we found a closed kiosk. I began to see our problem.

We'd arrived on the sleeper train from Penzance, and after the shower and coffee in the first-class lounge that came with the overnight ticket, we'd left the station before 8am, oblivious to the fact that the tour buses hadn't started for the day.

We found a kiosk that was open near Green Park Station and planned our London campaign. We would see as much of the city as we could in two-thirds of a day by taking three related hop-on hop-off tours, all covered by one ticket.

Our plans came unstuck when climate-change protesters disrupted traffic in Trafalgar Square and the tour routes changed. Then we were back to walking to the next bus stop, Elaine asking where that might be, and me eavesdropping so I could carry on as if I knew where I was going.

We caught a bus to King's Cross Station — Elaine fluked another pointer from a bus driver stopped at traffic lights — and by the evening we were enjoying the company of Mum's first cousin Catherine Birch and her husband George, in Northallerton, 25 minutes by train north of York.

Their house became our base camp in Britain. Catherine, a retired radiographer, and George, a retired secondary school English teacher, are about midway between us and our parents in terms of age, so they have a foot in both generations. They were also well placed to put us in touch with all the relatives we were to meet in York, Northallerton and Brompton . . . Catherine's mum Nora, who'll be a hundred in November, Alan and Joan Hoare, Alan's brother Eric, Dorothy and John Mitchinson, Mary and Paul Stevens, and Michael Hoare.

I'd met most of these people 41 years before on my first trip back to the UK, and then again in 2009, when I took my daughter Emily. But for Elaine, they were all new meetings with close relatives — our mother Flora's first cousins and their spouses.

We were able to make this pilgrimage around our relatives because we each had a 15-day BritRail pass.

Britain was the cradle of steam-locomotive rail travel and, despite the ups and downs of the industry, trains have made a comeback.

For all its big cities, Britain has large, easily accessible areas of natural beauty . . . and railways take you to and through them. Trains allowed us to be enveloped by the countryside while we rested.

We saw the coastal stretches and sweeping slopes of south-western England, the great stations of London, the steel and stone of Newcastle bridges, the austere landscape and rough seaside beauty of north-eastern Scotland. We experienced, too, what Wanderlust Magazine readers voted the world's best train journey — the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig, with its lochs, crags, and the exquisite curve of the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

Elaine and I travelled on almost every one of the 15 days covered by our passes. Sometimes we got grumpy with each other or with our travel schedule. But we came to appreciate the fact we could change our plans in a moment if necessary.

A few instances stand out. We'd gone up to Mallaig, our father Iain's birthplace and the spiritual home of his side of the family. We were staying two nights in a bed-and-breakfast place next to Harbour Cottage, where Dad grew up. We'd visited his old friend Bunty McDougall, and the plaque to our aunt Veronica Evans (Dad's sister) next to the statue of St Joseph in the grounds of the Morar Catholic church . . . some of Veronica's ashes are buried there.

Meanwhile, the mother of a good friend of Elaine's had died in England. She'd had cancer, had visited England to see another daughter, had become seriously ill and was unable to return to Australia. Elaine's friend dropped everything and flew to England, and spent the last few days with her mother.

Elaine wanted to support her friend, who was staying with her sister in Olney, a village near Milton Keynes not far from London.

We changed our plans, got up early and took the 6.03am train from Mallaig that enabled us to get to Olney by taxi from Milton Keynes around 10pm that night.

The next day we had coffee with the friend, lunch with her and her sister and by early afternoon were on the bus to Milton Keynes to get a train to Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham where an evening with our first cousin Judith Gannon and her family awaited us. Judith had been busy making arrangements for her father George Appleby (Mum's eldest brother, 90) to move from York to a nursing home closer to her. George died soon after we returned to New Zealand.

The next morning, Judith dropped us off at Sutton Coldfield station for the 7.03am train to Edinburgh. We had a connection to Inverness and then one to Wick, north-east Scotland. We arrived about 11pm. We were there to see Dad's second cousin John Boyle. He and his family used to spend school holidays in Mallaig and he and Dad worked in “wee Archie” McLellan's shop as message boys. John had re-established contact when his son and a friend came to New Zealand 20 years ago.

Feast of family, friends

John's wife Pat has died and he is in a nursing home. His daughter, another Elaine, lives nearby and sees him regularly but not while we were there because she was on a Scout trip. Her husband Les Grant looked after us, and again I was struck with how hospitality is a driver of fast-made friendship.

Les works at the Dounreay nuclear power plant, 14 kilometres west of Thurso, the British mainland's northernmost town. Thurso is 33km north-west of Wick.

Development at Dounreay started in the 1950s, primarily for research, but the plant also provided power to the national grid.

All the reactors have been shut down but Les says the decommissioning work will keep him and many others busy until they retire.

We visited John the next day. He's 88 and looks a little like an elderly version of the Father Brown described in G.K. Chesterton's short stories of detective fiction . . . short and bespectacled, with a keen mind and amiable manner. Elaine produced a tablet/phone and John and Dad were able to have a catch-up by video phone connection.

By now we were in the last few days of our journey. We left Wick at lunchtime, stopped briefly at Inverness, stayed the night in Edinburgh and then took the train to Berwick-upon-Tweed and a bus to Duns, home of the Jim Clark Motorsport Museum, and Marie Nairn, the widow of Dad's first cousin Gerard Nairn.

Gerard and Marie's son Alasdair and his wife Celia picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off at Berwick for the train south. We talked with Marie, Alasdair and Celia for only a couple of hours but it felt good to connect again. I had brought to Britain copies of a piece Dad had written 23 years before on Gerard's father — and Alasdair's grandfather — Robert Hannah. But I'd left it with my heavy luggage at George and Catherine's in Northallerton, so I took the addresses of Alasdair and his siblings and spent part of my last night on this British trip putting the copies in envelopes ready for posting before we left.

That afternoon, Elaine and I stopped at Northallerton to farewell George and Catherine and pick up our luggage. Mum's cousin Michael Hoare had driven from York to spend an hour with us. The abiding memory he had of me was as a screaming child he'd helped babysit while Mum was out. Michael is 73, doesn't need to work but doesn't want to give it up because he loves it. He drives lorries full of chocolate all over the country for Nestlé.

From Northallerton, we got the Transpennine Express to Manchester, stayed at a hotel next to the airport and in the morning boarded our flight home.

I haven't even mentioned our stay in Ilkeston with our second cousin Kim Harris and her husband Paul, or our trip to Kedleston Hall near Derby with Kim's brother Chris Garner and their mother (and Dad's first cousin) Mary.

Chris has worked for Rolls Royce (on the aircraft engine side) since he joined as a teenager to do his time as an apprentice. And Kim has a job that could have an application in Gisborne. With a background in social work, but with a daily commute to Leicester and back, she applied for and won a job closer to home. She was told to spend the first week walking the streets, talking to people . . . those needing help, those who could give it and those who knew where to find it.

She helps people on the margins. She's had some successes but says not every situation can be “fixed”. Nevertheless, things can be done to make people's lives better. Her only constraint is that the help she finds must not cost money.

Mallaig in Scotland, John and Elaine's father's birthplace and the spiritual home of his side of the family. It was one of many stops in 15 days of travel by train. Harbour Cottage is the second house on the left, partly obscured by a wharf light standard. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=343809
John Boyle (front) is flanked by (from left) John Gillies, Elaine Clark, Stewart Grant and his father Les Grant.
A carvery dinner in Ilkeston, with, back (from left) Elaine Clark and Paul and Kim Harris, and, in front, Mary Garner and John Gillies. Mary is a first cousin of Elaine and John's father Iain.
Jane Gooding (front left) is a first cousin of John and Elaine and travelled from the Cotswolds to meet them when they arrived in Northallerton to stay with George (back right) and Catherine Birch.
Elaine Clark outside Bunty McDougall's house in Mallaig, with a view across the water to the islands of Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck. Elaine's grandparents, Rogie and May Gillies, had lived in the house for several years after the family returned from a two-year stay (1949-50) in Devonport, Auckland, where they had hoped to settle. However, they could not get a house and returned to Scotland. They eventually came back to New Zealand in the 1960s and lived out their lives in Gisborne.