Searching for Roots and Finding Blossoms haarlem, 31 july 2010

The Scottish isle of Luing, as you may remember, was served by a cattle boat, Grey Dog, which doubled as a car ferry. After reversing off its deck, we headed down south past Loch Lomond with Sue as our chauffeur. We knew our peaceful island idyll was over when we found ourselves carried along in a stream of high-speed traffic on the M6. We stopped overnight in Cheshire to compare an English Travelodge with an Australian one before realising a dream of seeing Stonehenge—a dream shared, it seems, with busloads of others.

These are the crowds you don't see in most photos of Stonehenge because most cameras are pointed in the opposite direction

The world slowed down again as we approached the coast through the New Forest complete with its ponies and wild boar and found Sue’s holiday home in what we are convinced is the neatest caravan park in the world. It is in a little place called Milford-on-Sea across the Solent from the Isle of Wight.

The ponies in New Forest wander at will but they are not wild. They are all owned by locals who have the traditional right to graze them ther

The caravan stood up to the gale force winds that were thrown at it. It was not good weather for strolling along the beach or sailing to the Isle of Wight. But it was great for reading and for sheltering in the bird hide overlooking the wetlands. Yes, a new bird! The Mediterranean gull, not to be confused with the black-headed gull, posed cooperatively. It was also a good chance to go to Bournemouth where we swapped Chris’s damaged case for a new one and brought it home on the top front seat of a double-decker bus winding in and out of seaside towns.

That is Sue’s caravan with the red roof, in the second row and behind the hedge in the centre of the photo, as spotted from the bird hide

Back on the motorway, this time to London’s most popular boarding house for Australian travellers, also known as Sue’s house. At a dinner Sue hosted for a group of folk in town for an Anglican meeting we met up with old friends (including Robert, who was in the same form as Geoff at Essendon High School) and made new ones.

The main reason we were in London was to be reunited with our passports. We had entrusted them to Royal Mail five weeks earlier in Shetland along with applications for Russian and Belorusian visas. It was good to have them back as we felt quite naked without them.

That achieved, we devoted the rest of our time in London to a family history pilgrimage. Armed with a London A–Z and a list of addresses from the birth, marriage and death certificates of Chris's ancestors, we set out. First we found the church where great-great grandparents were married in the heart of London. Then we headed south and found council houses on the spot where a grandmother lived as an infant before boarding a ship for Australia with her parents. Next we stood in front of the house that a widowed great-grandmother left behind as she set out with her children for a new start in Sydney. Not far away was the church where she was married and the cemetery where her young husband was buried. This trip helped us to realise that our marriage has brought together the streets of London and the wild remoteness of Shetland. A passion for family history is taking root!

Was the door of No. 9 blue when Chris’s great-grandparents lived there?

A week ago, the long train journey from London to Hong Kong began when we boarded the Eurostar at St Pancras. Geoff promptly went to sleep as the train plunged beneath the English Channel. Now we are in the familiar surrounds of Haarlem, a 15-minute train journey from Amsterdam. We were here two years ago and are back to look after the now more elderly cat, Wolletje, while his staff, Rosmarie and Rinze Marten, take their summer holidays. Our arrival coincided with an international organ festival at St Bavo’s, the Great Church, where Rinze Marten ministers and which houses the famous Christian Müller organ, played by Handel, Mendelssohn and Mozart. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor never sounded so magnificent!

The Christian Müller organ in all its splendour in the alcove where the western window used to shine

On our travels so far, church services have been far from ordinary. In Shetland, Geoff’s family made up the whole congregation for a special ‘hamefarin’ service for the Williamsons. In Luing, we found a lively church that is clearly a vital part of community life for the population of 170. (The ferry timetable is constructed around the minister’s travel.) In Harrow, with Sue, we heard a choral evensong where young choir members were awarded their prizes. And here in Haarlem, the Sunday service incorporated the festival’s organ music and a professional choir.

So we leave you here in Haarlem where we are bicycling for our groceries and walking the canals again. The hydrangeas are in full bloom in front gardens and come in as stunning a variety of forms and colours as do the bicycles.

Just one of the many sorts of hydrangeas in Haarlem

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