A Chandelier in the Sun

Five years ago I bought a scanner capable of scanning 35mm negatives, and started working through my oldest rolls of film. It takes a while, and once I paused I didn’t come back to them for years, as we had started travelling again and my digital photos were mounting up. Recently I went back to them, though, and kept working my way through the 1980s, beginning with my first trip to Europe with my family in the winter of 1985–86, after our time in Japan.

This was our Grand Tour, starting in Britain and carrying on to Spain, France, Italy and the Alps. After a week in London Mum and Dad bought a second-hand car, a magnolia Nissan Sunny, and we drove up the east coast of Britain and down the west before catching a ferry to Spain, spending a month in the UK altogether. (It would have been a few days short of a month, except the car insurance company messed us around and didn’t send out the necessary papers for travelling on the Continent in time and forced us to wait around for an extra five days—the things we put up with in the days before online commerce.)

My parents had family in Britain (my Mum had an aunt in East Anglia, and cousins there and in London) and old friends (in Bristol) from the time they lived in England briefly in the 1960s, and we visited them all along the way. But during the middle of this leg of the trip it was just the four of us: two teenage boys squabbling in the back and Mum and Dad in the front as we drove from scenic location to scenic location, bypassing all of the major urban areas such as Newcastle, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham to seek out quirky small towns and sights. We spent Christmas in York, New Year’s in the Lake District, and my eighteenth birthday in England and Wales.

My daily spending money was modest, and I spent most of it buying and developing film, although after a flurry of photos in London I had to ration myself to a few frames a day here and there. Consequently I missed out whole parts of the trip, taking no photos of Cambridge, Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincoln, Bristol, Bath, Oxford, Dartmoor, and other places which still linger in my memory. This gallery of photographs is excerpted from only a hundred or so frames. If I were doing the same trip today, I’d take thousands.

I was keeping a diary, though, and wrote every day about my impressions of places that were simultaneously familiar and exotic, with their majestic cathedrals, imposing castles, and neolithic and Roman ruins. I’ve gone through it and pulled out some extracts, lightly edited to remove some of the quirks of my teenage writing style (like too many exclamation marks!), but keeping some of my Australianisms, along with the sense of how novel it all seemed to a kid from the other side of the world.

The photos and diary entries show how much has changed, and how much hasn’t, in thirty-four years. Britain’s historic landmarks look much as they always did, although they’re cleaner today, and some now have new buildings in the background (which would have annoyed my 17-year-old self). But the details in the photos—the cars, people’s dress, the signs advertising companies long gone, the Concorde flying overhead—turn them into time travel.

The Grand Tour: Britain 1986-86

Took the Tube (subway) to Knightsbridge. It really was a “tube”, too, underground, with escalators at a very steep angle. Nobody speaks on the train—it stopped once, and silence reigned.

Saw the Thames and St Paul’s and Cleopatra’s Needle, and [the] Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and Victoria Park and the Burghers of Calais, and it was great. I was so happy; what a terrific place. All the buildings are being (or have been) cleaned of soot. The uncleaned ones look disgusting.

I could happily live in a city like this. All the historic buildings all around, and they haven’t cluttered them up by putting tower blocks in between (unlike Sydney, every big city in the world, and Hobart even).

Heard many bird noises, didn’t know what to make of them, didn’t think they were real, until I looked up and saw millions of birds all over the buildings and trees.

Goodbye money—I see it now, flapping away on little wings. I spent nearly £10 today, the bulk of it on film. Dropped in my latest, and bought a newie. But only took two frames today; I’m rationing.

We navigated our way out of London (just) and onto the A10 to Cambridge. Drove through the countryside, which we reached surprisingly quickly. It reminded me very much of Tasmania, except [there were] no gum trees, and we passed through a town or village much more often.

[In Cambridge:] The atmosphere was so great. We saw several Santa Claus-dressed people playing jazz in a square for charity. You could walk into the colleges, the residential ones, and it was so quiet. ... Someday I’ll come here to study and live.

Some time after lunch I went for a walk along to Frinton Beach. The sand was reddish, didn’t squeak, and had huts all along it. Wooden dividers all along it too. The sea merged with the sky at the horizon, all grey.

We stopped in the village of Lavenham ... filled with Tudor houses—half wood, half white-washed concrete stuff. ... Unlike the imitations I’ve seen, these went all over the place—the boards often weren’t straight, the walls would lean out over the pavement or backwards, so the houses all looked as if they would fall over.

We bought some bread etc. for lunches, and then drove out of Lincoln. Drove along, but could see nothing in the fog. It was lunchtime, so we stopped at a “scenic viewpoint”. View of v. scenic fog.

Went to see the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy. Parked the car in the designated spot. Got out and were instantly frozen by –183°C winds. Walked for miles and miles down a track to a creek. From there on, the tracks were all super muddy and slippery. The ruins were in a valley behind a big bare hill. On the hill were many plaques and markers showing where the village once stood. It weren’t there now but! Just diggings. What a let-down.

[Hadrian’s] Wall went along the top of a cliff. It wasn’t very high, but then people have been nicking the bricks for ages. We got out, and were snap-frozen. Every puddle was frozen, even the mud, [which] looked slimy but was rock-hard. We walked up the hill and saw the wall close-up. But what intrigued me were some old vehicle tracks that ran downhill. Creeks (streamlets) flowed down them, and they’d been frozen in their tracks. Flowing water, frozen. It looked as though it was still flowing. We drove on then to ... Vindolanda. A Roman fort and village had been here, and they had excavated the foundations. But again, it must have rained heavily recently, as many parts were filled in with water, such as one grassy depression. They’d all frozen over solid. Beautiful patterns formed in the ice, which in some spots was 2cm thick. ... We were thinking how horrid it would have been for them in their togas and sandals. [At a museum at Housesteads] we saw that Brit-stationed Romans wore cloaks, trousers and ugg boots—a bit better.

Drove all the way to Edinburgh. Had fun and games [finding] the hotel, but eventually did. It’s not bad, guest house thing. Would be great, except they have a coin slot on the TV! 50p.

Walked up the Royal Mile, which took basically all day ... a cobbled road going up the hill to Edinburgh Castle, with many shops, pubs and historical things on it. We eventually got to the castle itself. Paid lots to go in, but it was terrific. I love castles. Great view of Edinburgh from the top. Even saw the Firth of Forth, but not the Thecond of Third.

Each bank issues its own notes here. So far I’ve seen three different kinds of Scottish £1 notes. I couldn’t bear the confusion if I lived here.

On one road winding through hills [in the Cairngorms] we saw ... a high mossy bank with a stream flowing along the bottom. Down the bank was a small cascade, with tree branches across into it. The water had caught the branches and formed into icicles of all sizes, and coated the branches in solid ice. Looked like a chandelier in the sun.

Ordered kippers, which I have thought all my life were a kind of fish, i.e. Pisces kipperus, only to find they were smoked fish, so swapped with Dad.

Went out to the car to move on, and it was snowing. ... Our bottle of lemonade in the back was frozen solid.

Around midday, halfway to Carlisle or more, we started seeing cars off the road, then slowed to a halt, traffic inching forward in two lanes, sliding on the ice which had had time to form on the road. After fifteen minutes or so of this we finally drove past the cause—a huge truck jackknifed right across the road. After that the traffic sped up somewhat, but not much—the delay had allowed the road to ice over, and we had to take it very slowly. We inched along at a slow rate for what seemed a very long time, which made Dad agitated and weary, and the constant fear of disaster was not good for any of us. The snow flew down out of the sky towards us. In the end the windscreen wipers froze and couldn’t wipe properly.

[In the Lakes:] We stopped to see a stream by the road. Over it was a path up the hill. On investigation I saw [that] water must have filtered down through the gravel in the tracks and frozen; now it had thawed slightly, and left all the gravel up on stilts, on a honeycomb of ice.

[On my 18th birthday:] We stopped in the town of Hay-on-Wye, just across the Welsh border. A dream town: entirely devoted to books! Bookshops everywhere, at every corner and street. Sigh. We explored the one which started it all, the Hay Cinema bookshop, once a cinema, now a huge repository of second-hand books. Could have spent days in there. Bought one book, “The Stainless Steel Rat” (H. Harrison).

[In Bath:] What an incredible city! Every single building was Georgian. Every one. Mile upon mile of tan stone buildings, like the sandstone ones in Hobart. Hobart is the second most thoroughly Georgian city in world after Bath, but Bath is so far ahead it’s incredible.

Came to Stonehenge and took a foot tunnel under the road to get to it, with a whole bus or two of tourists. Also very impressive, although not nearly as big as I’d thought it was. It’s now fenced off to stop you going in amongst it, but we could walk all the way around.

Drove into the Vale of the White Horse (of Uffington). Wound around a bit before, through the mist/fog/cloud and rapidly diminishing light, we could see the white horse on the hill. This was much more famous than [the one we saw] near Thirsk, and only an outline. We could only see its legs, even when we drove up closer to it, as it was on the very top of the hill.

Looked around Oxford, and the college sector of the town is actually quite nice, old and like Cambridge. But on the whole I prefer Cambridge.

There’s something about being in England, a sense of being at home. Physically Australia’s home, I love it, but culturally this is. It’s where my ancestors lived, where my culture was formed. ... You can understand the “Mother England” mentality of old colonials. Not that I’m knocking Australia—it’s my home and I think in the long run it always will be ... [but] it’s as Lloyd Rees (the Australian painter) said once on TV: when he was young he painted and drew castles and oaks, not kangaroos and gums. Europe was his “dreamtime” as Australia is to Aboriginals.

15 November 2019 · Memory