60 Under 30 #6: England

On May 26th, 1959 the “Empress of England” arrived at the port of Liverpool after travelling across the Atlantic from Montreal. Aboard the ship was my twenty-three year old grandfather James Elliott and his mother Ivy Jordan, travelling to England to visit a family friend living in Folkestone on the south coast for a three and a half week holiday. It was during this trip at a small local pub called the Earl of Clarendon that he would meet his eventual wife and my grandmother, Lois.

Ship log for the Empress of England

The town my grandmother grew up in is a small part of the city of Folkestone known as Sandgate which lies on the south-eastern English coast roughly fifteen miles west of Dover. The year after my grandmother was born, World War II began, which initially resulted in Folkestone being the evacuation destination of thousands of children escaping London, and as the war progressed many of the evacuees and residents were pushed farther west to Wales in an effort to escape the German bombing runs.

My grandmother grew up during the war as a small child, and eventually when the war ended, grew up through the re-build of the town and moved to London. It would be another 20 years following the war before Folkestone would return to the resort town it once was. Examples of the 1950s and 60s era re-build can still be seen along the beach especially towards Sandgate as you walk west. It was during one of her many visits home from the city to see her mother that she would meet my grandfather.

Since I moved to England a year and a half ago, and with my grandmother’s heritage being the reason I was able to live in the UK (I was granted an Ancestry visa given that I have a grandparent born in the United Kingdom), I felt determined to explore the area she was from, where she met my grandfather and where so many important events that eventually led to my existence occurred.

Having decided to make a proper journey of it, my housemate and I set off on a hike along the white cliffs from Dover to Folkestone. After an hour train ride from King’s Cross and a coffee shop barista who looked at us like we were insane when we said what our plan was for the day, we set off.

About half an hour in, we realized that we should have asked the barista why she looked at us why were insane. It turns out that, although possible, when hiking from Dover to Folkestone there isn’t exactly what you would call a defined path. Our initial idea was to follow the coast, however given that the cliffs don’t always include a beach or flat surface at the bottom, that dream was quickly crushed amongst the waves smashing into the cliff faces below. After a brief attempt at following Plan B (also known as foolishly walking along the main road that turned into a major motorway), climbing over what turned out to be not one, but two barbed wire fences and desperately hoping the road we found ourselves on was not some sort of military rifle range, we found what resembled a hiking trail. We got to the top of the hill and was greeted with a spectacular view of the sea, Folkestone in the distance and the cliffs along the way. Screw you Plan A and B, we like Plan C better anyways.

Our final destination off in the distance

We trekked on, enjoying the view along the water, the railway below and waving to the sheep in the pasture as we passed. Ten kilometres in, we reached the outskirts of Folkestone and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Thoughts of a cold pint, maybe a nice pie and mash carried us the final bit into the city centre where we sat for a quick drink while I looked up the location of the pub.

Now I have greatly underestimated several things before in my life. I foolishly did not listen to people who said just how hard an engineering degree actually would be. I moved to a new country without knowing anyone and somehow was still surprised at the effort required to start a new life. Neither of these come close to comparing to how badly I misjudged just how far it was exactly from the Dover train station to my grandmother’s house in Sandgate. I’ll just Google Maps from Dover to Folkestone I said. It’s England, that’ll be close enough I said. Ryan you are fucking idiot, I said.

I’m pretty sure that the look of horror on my face made my housemate think someone had died. I am normally great at planning things, I know how far I need to go to get from the airport to my hostel, where the main area of the city is and any day trips I’d like to do. Apparently I lose this ability when exploring my own country. I made sure to buy another round of drinks before breaking the news that sadly, we were about halfway there as the pub was located on the far west edge of Sandgate, completely on the opposite end of the city. Ryan, you fucking idiot indeed.

We’d come this far, so there was no turning back. Nicely enough it turns out that the entire waterfront in Folkestone was developed into a lovely garden park that transitioned eventually into the stone beaches of Sandgate I mentioned previously. Ellen DeGeneres’ “just keep swimming”, “just keep swimming” echoed in our heads as we marched on, through the greenery and across the pebbles. After what seemed an eternity later, we reached the corner, then the street and finally the pub. 10 minutes after they finished serving food. Ryan, you fucking idiot.

Hunger aside, it was sobering to be in the place that decades previously so much of my family history began. I owe my entire existence as the person I am to the chance of fate that two people met in that pub all those years ago. As I stood in awe of a seemingly ordinary pub, on an ordinary English street next to an ordinary house that my grandmother lived in as a child whilst German fighter planes flew overhead, even taking shots at her on some occasions, the other pub patrons couldn’t help but ask why the place seemed like a Holy Grail to me. After a brief chat, several of them mentioned that the owner of the pub at the time my grandmother lived there had passed away in 1990, only two months after my parents had visited the pub during their trip to England. After possibly the most glorious pint of our lives, and assuring that although we were likely not the brightest individuals that day we would not be walking all the way back to Dover, we made our way home.

Twenty-two kilometres, a March sunburn and blisters, cuts and bruises all over, somehow it all seemed worth it as we walked the distance back to the Folkestone train station and headed back to London. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to explore a foreign country and find your own history along the way.

As I arrived back at my flat in Brixton in South London, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps someday a distant relative of mine could walk down my very street, to find a seemingly ordinary flat amongst hundreds knowing that part of their history was written there and that they too, owed it all to a chance of fate that two people, decades ago, met in a tiny pub in Folkestone.



60 Under 30 #3: Italy

Despite what the name suggests, pizza was not in fact invented in Pisa. Similarly garnished flatbread type dishes have been around since ancient times all throughout the Mediterranean, known to ancient Greeks as plakous, and the still favoured focaccia throughout many parts of ancient Italy and Greece. However, the greasy, tomato and cheese covered dish that has been adapted and recreated in nearly every corner of the globe was in fact invented five hundred kilometres to the south of Pisa, in Napoli during the late 18th century. It was common at the time for travellers visiting the city to venture into the poorer areas of the city in search of a taste of the local delicacy. 

Unfortunately for my travel companion Jonny and I, pizza was not our main concern as we got off the train from Florence to Naples. The day was beginning to wane into the evening, and despite the urge to seek out a slice of margherita that the city was famous for, we decided it best to continue on to Sorrento as quickly as possible. Not two days prior to our arrival in Naples we had listened to the warnings of some of our fellow backpackers at a hostel in Florence proudly state that they had “survived” the commuter train from Naples to Sorrento. At first this did not seem to be a feat worth boasting about until one of the revellers cared to mention that at night, the Stazione Garibaldi is one of the most dangerous places in Europe.  We didn’t exactly feel like experiencing it for ourselves.

After surviving the pick-pocket capital of Europe two weeks earlier in Barcelona, Europe had begun to lull us into a false sense of security. That is, until we stepped onto the graffiti-laden commuter train that was to take us the fifty-some-odd kilometres down the Italian coast to Sorrento. As a traveller, you begin to develop a sort of “oh shit” radar. You know the feeling, wandering into the wrong side of town, people glaring at you like they’d like to relieve you of your belongings and if you are especially unlucky; your kidneys. Let me tell you, five minutes into our little train journey, our “oh shit” radars were blaring like a fire truck on route to a house fire. After forty-five minutes of clutching our backpacks and nervously keeping our backs to the wall of the rickety train carriage, we finally arrived at the deserted Sorrento train station, belongings in hand, and happy to report that our kidneys were still comfortably internal.

Hardly has the word beautiful so utterly failed in in the description of a place as it does when talking about the Amalfi coast. A person could spin round in circles with their camera randomly taking snapshots along the way, and not one of the pictures would turn out badly. The following morning after our harrowing train ride in, we set out for the day from Sorrento along the coast to the next town. Nestled in amongst the mountainous landscape is Positano, with it’s brightly coloured buildings climbing the hillside like steps carved into a mountain path. It’s beauty is all the more appreciated after you survive the half hour long bus ride along a single lane, hairpin turn road from Sorrento. It’s charm was temporarily lost on us as we kissed the pavement, thankful to have our feet firmly planted on the ground without danger of careening over one the roadside cliffs.

Our first stop of the day in Positano was to be brief, for that day we had something else in mind. Earlier on our trip we had met a traveller who told us of a hike called the Path of the Gods, which traversed the hillside from the town of Amalfi to the East, along 15 kilometres of stunning views back towards Positano. I am always one to listen to recommendations from fellow travellers, no internet review or brochure could ever convince you to do something like the tried and true tale of another backpacker who has done it themselves. A few stops previously in Nice, an Australian traveller we met in our hostel had insisted that of all the experiences not to miss in Italy, this one was top of the list.

After yet another stomach churning bus ride along the coast up through Amalfi, we were let off at a roadside stop with a makeshift sign denoting that the start of the trail lay just up the hill. We traversed through what appeared to be the back gardens of some of the Italian farmers who called the mountainside home until we at last crested over the top of the hill. The view from the start of the trail just about knocked us back down as we finally understood what our friend from down under had meant. As I have said before, the word beautiful just does not do justice to the landscape that unfolds in front of you. Mountains dotted with colourful little houses and sprawling farms that overlook the sapphire sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. The air is as startlingly clear as the water, allowing you to see for miles out into the unending waters, dotted with sailboats and ferries full of sunbathers and fishermen alike.

I have walked fifteen kilometres or more many times in my life. Days spent wandering the spectacular old town of Edinburgh, a particularly miserable journey from Finch to Bloor street in Toronto during the worst rain storm the city has seen in several decades, and numerous other occasions spanning all over Europe and North America. It’s not exactly an impressive feat, but what was impressive to me about this particular day, was that I desperately wanted it to continue. It didn’t matter how far this scenic trail had been, we would have followed it for days if it had gone that far. Around every bend was another breathtaking sight to behold, and slowly as we approached our final destination in Positano, the rainbow coloured town grew bigger and bigger, with the sunshine illuminating it’s quaint beauty with an almost guiding light.

View of Positano from along the Path of the Gods

As we reached the end of our hike, the trail transitioned into a concrete path, winding between beautiful fenced in estates perched on the hillside. The path eventually reached into Positano where we were led down the mountainside via staircases amounting to nearly 1900 steps in total. Midway down we stumbled upon a couple selling freshly squeezed lemonade, made with lemons from the trees growing in their very own back garden. Many would agree that a fresh glass of lemonade after a day spent in the hot sun is as refreshing as it gets, and sitting on the concrete bench in the courtyard, overlooking the sparkling blue water, listening to the many happy sounds from the town below, one would have to agree that in that particular moment, there was indeed nothing better.