Our footsteps disappear with the tide.

We’ve come here to stand at the edge of Lewis…

The impetus behind our trip to Scotland is Tim’s heritage. While I have some Scottish ancestry, it is several generations back and frankly, it is a not part of my family that I have a connection to. But Tim’s maternal grandmother was born in Scotland, on the Isle of Lewis. According to Tim’s sisters and multiple English cousins, Nanny Hodgson née Mackenzie was delightful, with a wicked sense of humour. Unfortunately, he left England when he was too young to have a memory of her.

While tracing ancestry doesn’t particularly interest either of us, we love having an excuse to travel. And I must admit there is something poetic about going to an island that has the same name as me.

Lewis is a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride across the Minch, the strait between Lewis and the mainland. It’s a journey into a different world, a world of crofts, peat, weaving and deep Presbyterian beliefs. Sheep and long-haired Hebridean cattle dot the fields. The Sabbath is observed and the “We Free,” The Free Church of Scotland, has a solid base. It’s a country within a country. The Hebrides are as different to Edinburgh as Nunavut is to Toronto.


We land in Stornoway, the capital and main town on the island where Tim’s great grandparents lived and where his grandmother was born in 1884. Although their actual house no longer exists, the streets of Stornoway look much as they would have in the nineteenth century. The signs are all in Gaelic. The people are friendly, if guarded. We get a sense of the peace of this small port town.

From Stornoway we head across Lewis, over miles of peat fields, to the other side of the island to see the standing stones of Calanais. High atop rocky hills overlooking Loch Ròg, this arrangement of stones is 5,000 years old, older than Stonehenge. Rows of stones radiate from a central burial mound (added about 500 years after the initial stones were set) and are arranged in a shape that has been likened to a Celtic Cross. Apparently, the site was used for worship and ceremony for over 1500 years. The stones’ placement seems to have astral significance –– there is a lunar phenomenon that occurs there every 18.6 years.

Standing Stones at Calanais

You can’t help but be impressed by the humanity behind this structure. The stones have a majesty to them. A permanence that speaks to a commitment to a place. People who built these standing stones did not leave these hills, let alone this island.

Tim walking along the “avenue”

Visiting in February, we get the full Hebridean experience. The rain and wind pick up as we weave in and out of these monoliths. Thankfully, there is a Visitor Centre with hot coffee and cream teas to round out the experience and give us a chance to dry off. A bit.

We head south into the rocky hills, climbing through clouds toward Harris, which is not a different island but a separate region, with a very different landscape. Remote roads become even smaller as we turn onto a single lane track that ends in a small car park beside dunes. Only slightly deterred by rain, we walk over the dunes and stop dead.

We cross the dunes to the beach at Luskentyre

Luskentyre Beach is listed as one of the largest beaches in the UK – surely it is one of the largest in the world. We have miles and miles and miles of sand to ourselves, dotted only with seaweed from the tide. Apparently in the summer, it is used as a stand-in for advertisements for the Caribbean. It’s that kind of vast, isolated, stunningly beautiful beach.

Tim and I on Luskentyre Beach

We’ve come here to stand at the edge of Lewis, to contemplate the distance to the next body of land –– North America. As settlers, our ancestors crossed this divide at some point, for better or for worse. In creating new lives for themselves, they changed the history of the world. And no matter what I think about tracing ancestry, I can’t deny this connection. Just as I can’t deny my historical role as a settler.

We perform a small family ceremony, letting the wind blow our thoughts offshore and the rain seep into our clothes. I dance my gratitude for this place, for our tenacious forebearers, and for our common humanity.

We head back to Stornoway to dry out with a wee dram.

Our footprints will vanish with the next tide.

A Desirable Residence

There’s nothing like a cold, damp, blustery day to make you long for a cozy, warm shelter.

At Sand, on the Applecross peninsula, there is a huge rock with large overhang on the lee side. On a blowy February morning, it offers protection from the winds that drive across the Inner Sound of this North Western shore.

But it is hard to imagine this place as your “des rez,” as real estate people call it –– your desirable residence.

Yet habitation on the site has been dated to over 7500 years ago, when a collection of about 50 people lived here. The nomads would have had fish and shellfish in abundance, as well as birds and bird eggs, wild boar and deer. Archaeologists have found a dump of shells (a midden), tools made from antlers, and “pot boilers” –– large stones that were heated in a fired and dropped into a pot to cook food.

I’m relieved to know they had something warm to eat on days like today.

I walk down to the water’s edge. At low tide, rivulets of salt water stream back to the sea across a huge expanse of red sand. At the sea’s edge I can just make out something in the water. I watch and shapes form. There are heads bobbing off shore! More and more pop just above the waves and I realize it is a “bob” of seals, about 50 of them. Clearly they have found their own version of a “des rez,” filled with an ample supply of fish.

For my part, I’m relived to know that for us twenty-first century Homo Sapiens there is a cozy warm shelter further up the road. We tuck into the Applecross Inn for a local pint and some of the best Scottish Salmon I’ve ever had.

We’ve come a long way in 7500 years.

This moment

The Southbank is my heart’s connection to London

You might be heading to Royal Festival Hall, The National Theatre, The British Film Institute, Foyles Bookstore, the booksellers under the bridge, the Oxo Craft artisan studios, The Globe Theatre or the Tate Modern. Or perhaps all of them. You stroll with families, tourists, lovers, skateboarders, school children, people selling The Big Issue, savvy City workers, and people for whom the arts are essential. Below you ferries, barges and various boats navigate the tides.

The last time we were on the Southbank was December 2019. We walked in the frosty, winter night, picking up goodies in the Christmas Market, sipping hot mulled wine. It was festive, all twinkle and lights.

Little did we know how the world would change three months later.

I hadn’t realized how deeply I had missed this world and how a small part of me, the part that locked itself up for months and only navigated the world through a Zoom screen, thought it was gone forever. The world had shrunk to a tiny safe place, the island of our house, and my imagination had shrunk with it.

Now, in 2023, as we left Waterloo Station I started to cry. There were people. Everywhere. All of the same cast of characters I left here over three years ago. It is all still here. The world had stopped but started again.

I was overwhelmed with the joy of being there. Sitting over a bowl of spicy Ramen soup at Wagamamas seemed magical, impossible. Walking across Waterloo Bridge, twilight lights reflecting in the incoming tide, was like walking into one of humanity’s great stories. This is what humans are capable of. For all of the good and bad. This is inspiring.

Crossing Waterloo Bridge

We wound our way through Covent Garden and Soho toward the Garrick Theatre, built in 1899. This, too, seemed extraordinary. It’s something that used to be normal, commonplace even, yet now feels like a privilege and delight.

At the Garrick Theatre

At the Garrick, we saw the remarkable Orlando, a moving and important adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel. A play about London over four centuries, about gender, about society, about desire, hope, despair, and love.

At the end of the play, Orlando is asked what she loves. It is a hard question for her to answer, but she finally answers:

“This! … I love this place –– this … city… This beautiful, glittering moment, which falls out of the sky like a steel-blue feather! Oh, watch it as it falls –– watch it turning and twisting like a slow-falling arrow –– an arrow that cleaves the air –– so beautifully!”

from Orlando, adapted by Neil Bartlett

This. I love this moment.

Codebreaking and a sense of awe.

It’s said that the codebreakers of Bletchley shortened the war by two years.

Bletchley Park. It is the stuff of legends. The codebreaking headquarters that changed the course of the Second World War. A place so secret that husbands and wives didn’t know of each other’s involvement. A place of mystery and of tremendous excitement. A place where imagination and scientific minds met to solve life and death problems.

The Mansion

The British Government bought the Bletchley Park estate in Buckinghamshire in 1939 to house the Government Code and Cypher School (Actually, Admiral Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service, seems to have bought it privately to get the whole thing running –– or perhaps because he saw a good real estate deal. But that’s another story…) Initially, a small group of people, chosen for their skills with languages and numbers, were hired to work there. They were told to sign the Official Secrets Act before they were given any information. They had no idea what they were hired to do.

There were 185 people working at Bletchley in 1939. By 1945, there were almost 9,000. Three quarters of those people were women. Yet the existence of Bletchley remained a secret until 1974. Even to this day, people who worked there won’t tell you what they did.

Now, it’s a heritage national museum. Exhibits lead you through the daily processes from message reception to codebreaking and translation. Messages weren’t intercepted here – it was far too dangerous to have a radio station at Bletchley. But a team of thousands of couriers arrived day and night at the gates, bringing morse code radio messages that had been intercepted by operators throughout the country. In fact, our tour guide’s father had been one of those bicycle couriers, delivering coded messages to Bletchley.

Tim at the main gate where couriers arrived.

After the Bletchley codebreakers and translators received the message and decoded it, they needed to re-package it to make it seem as though it came from British spies. This way, the Germans wouldn’t find out about Bletchley. In fact, few people in the British government knew. It was this level of secrecy that made it a success. Something almost impossible to imagine in the age of Twitter.


We were shown how the German Enigma machines worked to encode their messages, and how the people at Bletchley went about decoding them. By May 1945, they’d broken 21,971 Enigma messages! That was only possible because Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman designed the Bombe machine to speed things up. It ticks and whirs in Hut 11A. The Colossus, the world’s first large-scale electronic digital computer, was also invented and built at Bletchley.

The Bombe Machine

Tim and I have done our fair share of research into WW2, but our visit to Bletchley brought our reading into reality. It’s hard not to be moved and impressed by the scale and vision of this operation. It is a place filled with personal stories and with triumphs of dedication. People knew that they were saving lives, and they threw themselves into it, working night and day for five long years. It’s a story of human ingenuity that led us to a feeling of awe.

“The work here at Bletchley Park … was utterly fundamental to the survival of Britain. I’m not actually sure that I can think of very many other places where I could say something as unequivocal as that. This is sacred ground.”

Richard Holmes, Military Historian

Rambling Along

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

We’re in Stony Stratford for a couple of days to visit family and ramble about. It’s a village outside of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire that used to be an important stopping off point for coaches travelling between London and northern England. Stony Stratford was, we’re told, primarily a high street of inns. It has some fabulous history to it, perhaps most excitingly as the place from which Richard III abducted one of the two young princes, the uncrowned Edward V, at the Rose and Crown Inn in 1483. Although the Rose and Crown is no longer an inn, several others remain ­–– The Cock, The Bull (from which we apparently get the phrase Cock and Bull) and The Old George.

Tim in front of the former Rose & Crown

Behind the high street lies the River Ouse, with lovely, twisting Riverwalks. It’s easy to imagine Ratty’s “bijou riverside residence” tucked here.

The pasture lands beyond the river led us on a path to the nearby hamlet of Passenham, which consists of a Rectory, Manor, former Mill and St. Guthlac’s Church, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of 921 AD. We’ve been assured by our B & B host Jim that the church is still haunted. “No, really, it IS!” Jim runs the best B & B we’ve ever stayed at. Fabulously comfortable, with lovely big full English breakfasts, Telford House on its own is worth the visit to Stony Stratford. Jim’s been running the B & B for over 40 years, and his enthusiasm is infections. “I love my job!” At 82, he’s an inspiration.

St. Guthlac’s Church and churchyard in Passenham

Time doesn’t exactly stand still here –– we ate a marvellous Indian meal in a converted 17th century chapel, with exquisite, tiled floors (the fabulous Calcutta Basserie.) But time doesn’t move quickly. Our three-hour ramble beside the slow-moving Ouse and across the pasture fields needed to be followed by a pub lunch and a pint of local ale (Razorback) at the 400-year-old Old George.

The dining area has sunk below ground. We sat in the front window and watched people’s ankles.

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

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