Most Saturdays, after a long walk through Green Point park and along the promenade, we stop off at the Radisson Hotel (https://www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-capetown) for a thirst-quenching beer. We have become so well-known by the staff that we rarely have to order: they well know our preferences. And even when busy, the regular staff drop by our table to quickly say hello. We always feel most welcome there.
Unless all the tables are occupied, we normally sit close by the pool. It is comical to watch the seagulls washing and drinking, when there are no bathers. If somebody passes by, they reluctantly scatter, only to return seconds later.
Today, watching the ever-present seagulls, I had a flash-back, to about 1973, in Australia. With some friends, I had gone to a little cinema down George Street or nearby, not so far from Circular Quay, in Sydney. Neil Diamond was all the rage at the time and a new film had been released, a relatively short film, with incredible scenery, a beautiful sound track, and the voice of Neil Diamond. I remember sitting, thoroughly entranced with the story of a seagull, constantly challenging it’s boundaries and it’s capabilities.
For a short time after, I was that seagull. I wanted to be proficient in Spanish, I craved the opportunity to explore and live in South and Central America, I wanted to spread my wings and reach heights that I had never before envisaged reaching.
That feeling never left me, and over the next few years, I progressed with my modest ambitions. It’s a work still in progress.
If foreigners were to be shown an aerial view of Portrush with calm ocean and relatively blue sky, peaceful harbour, small western and extensive eastern beaches, they would reasonably conclude that it was an idyllic location. And on a rare perfect summer day, they would be partially correct. But the water in the North Atlantic is never less than quite cold, there is a steep shelving beach and strong rip tides. On a rare warm day, swimming in the harbour can be pleasant, albeit bracing.
I never learned to swim when I lived there. My parents could not swim, few of their generation could, and of my age group only a handful, mostly those who had relatively prosperous parents, who took them away to more temperate climates on holidays.
When I was growing up, there was only one small indoor swimming pool in the area, that of the Northern Counties Hotel in Portrush. I recall that a small group from my school used to go there for lessons on a Friday evening, mainly those who were from the rowing club; to participate in rowing, the oarsmen had to be capable of swimming a length of the pool, a not very challenging task. The group was led by Dan Cunningham, our physics teacher, who, when a younger man, was reputed to once having swum from Portrush to the Skerries, a chain of islands off the coast.
When I first migrated to Canada, I stayed for a few days with my grandparents in Brampton, outside Toronto. The first weekend, they arranged for some older university students, grandchildren of their friends, to take me out for the day. Unfortunately, nobody told me that their idea of a day out meant a beach and swimming. We went to a nearby lake, where they immediately plunged into the water, leaving me ‘on the beach’. The students were quite incredulous that I could not swim and that I was not going to attend a university.
My day brightened up momentarily, when they offered me what I understood to be a beer. It turned out to be a can of something called Root Beer, a disgusting soft drink. When they told me that I had to be 21 before I could legally have a beer – I was 18 at the time, I felt quite discouraged.
It was when we were in Hawaii, on our way to Australia, that I decided that I had to learn to swim, at least well enough to survive. I swore that I would not leave Hawaii until I could swim out to a raft anchored a short distance offshore from Waikiki Beach.
But for day after day, I struggled. I had no problem with being under water, but I could not take my feet off the bottom. Sandra, who swam like a fish, tried her very best to encourage me, but to no avail. Both the problem and the solution were in my head.
Finally, I set off for the raft, swimming backstroke, and with no problem, I made it. And once there, I discovered that I could dive. It was a new element for me. Later, in Tahiti, I had the incredible experience of diving in the lagoon, and swimming among the multi-coloured fish. An unforgettable experience.
In Australia, I frequently went to the beaches – Bondi, Coogee, Manly etc. I even spent one Christmas Day on a beach. And when the waves were relatively friendly, I often managed to bodysurf. On one occasion I found myself caught in a riptide, and although I had no problem getting back to shore, it was a sobering experience.
When we lived in Kirribilli, across from the Opera House, we used to go to the nearby Olympic pool, just by the harbour. In those days, there was a 10-metre high diving board, and from it I used to throw a coin in the water, dive in and retrieve in from the more than five-metre-deep pool. I found that much more exhilarating than swimming length after boring length.
We only once owned a house with a pool, in Miami. After the initial surge of enthusiasm, the pool sat empty for month after month. Sometimes I would jump in after a run or while working in the garden on a hot day; there is not much else an adult can do with a small pool. I was left with the weekly chore of cleaning it and replenishing the copious expensive chemicals required to keep it relatively pristine.
I did once swim in the harbour at Portrush, during one of my fleeting visits. I tried to go into the water at the Western Strand, but the water was so cold that my feet pained me within a short time, before it was up to my knees. I went to the harbour and the water seemed to be more inviting, at least to tips of my fingers. In those days there was still a diving board near the harbour mouth and from it I dived in. I will never forget the shock of the cold water. I got out as soon as I could, and I have never been back.
I have been researching my family history and those of others, for more than thirty years. If individuals were still alive in 1837, when UK registration of births, marriages and deaths became mandatory, I was almost always able to find them. For those who died before 1837 and had moved away from their parish of birth, prior to the expansion of the internet and database access, it would have been a matter of luck to locate them.
I had four cousins from Hethel, in Norfolk (see here), that seemed to have disappeared. They were present in the 1851 census, but not in that of 1861. Over the years, I repeatedly searched, but in vain, until I stumbled on some Australian sites. It turned out that all four Blackwoods had emigrated to Australia in the late 1850s.
Three of my missing cousins were siblings – Susanna, James and Isaac. Their grandfather, John Blackwood (1764-1848) and Mary Harvey, were my third great grandparents.
Susanna was the first of my cousins to migrate. She married Robert Lane in 1845 and in 1855 they set sail for Australia, with their three children. By that time three of her four sisters and her father were dead, and her mother had remarried.
On 6 October 1855 they set sail for Australia from Liverpool on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated ship, the ‘Schomberg’, with 430 passengers on board. It made landfall off Cape Bridgewater on Christmas Eve but next day it ran aground on a sand bank a mile east of Curdi’s Inlet, near present-day Peterborough. No lives were lost and the next day the passengers were transferred to a passing steamer, the Queen, on her way from Warrnambool to Melbourne. Due to dangerous seas, the wreck was eventually abandoned and subsequently broke up. The captain was later committed for trial for neglect of duty, but was acquitted, due to lack of evidence. (see here)
The coast of Victoria, where the Schomberg ran aground near Peterborough
The family survived the wreck, but lost all their furniture. From Melbourne they were eventually taken on to Tasmania, and settled at Longford, where they had five more children.
In 1852 James Blackwood married Hannah Mickleborough and they had two children
in Norfolk. On 14 May 1857 they sailed to Australia from Plymouth on the ‘British Empire’, arriving at Portland, Victoria, on 2 September. They were accompanied by William Blackwood, a cousin of James, together with William’s wife and daughter. James and Hannah settled in Hotspur, in Victoria, where they had a further 10 children.
Map of southern Victoria, showing the location of Hotspur
Hotspur developed as a small settlement on the banks of the Crawford (aka Smokey)
River in south-western Victoria in the 1840s. As with many of these early townships,
it developed near a creek or river crossing, which provided a major obstacle for early
travellers, with their heavy bullock-drawn drays and wagons, and consequently they
camped on the banks. Soon one or more inns were constructed to cater for the
constant stream of travellers from Portland Bay to the early pastoral runs of the
interior, and a settlement was established close to this difficult river crossing point. (Ballarat & District Genealogical Society)
James Blackwood and his family became established in Hotspur, as evidenced by Blackwood’s Road, running some 4 km from the town to a junction with the Condah-Hotspur lower road.
John James and William Thomas were two of the grandsons of James and Hannah
Blackwood (their parents were Robert & Agnes Blackwood), and they both served with the Australian Infantry (1st AIF 6th Battalion) in the First World War. William, a private, was killed on 4 October 1917. He is buried at the Oosttaverne Wood Cemetery at plot IV C 11. The cemetery is located on the N336, just over halfway from Leper to Warneton.
(Note: The three family photographs are from the website of a distant relative, Gary Ayton at his web site)
Like many rural settlements in Australia, the local Hotspur community commemorated the involvement of 40 of their young men, who participated in World War 1, by planting an Avenue of Honour. The Hotspur Avenue of Honour is a little unusual in that the trees were native Australian Kurrajong trees, whereas many similar avenues were planted with imported trees such as elms or plane trees. In addition, was erected a Roll of Honour for the 35 who were ex-students of Hotspur State School. The Roll of Honour is now housed in the Community Hall.
The Avenue of Honour began in front of the ‘Rising Sun Hotel’, and each tree
displayed the name of the soldier, the unit in which he served, and the name of the person who planted the tree. Fifteen of the soldiers were killed in service. John Blackwood’s tree was number 7, planted by Miss P. Blackwood and number 27 was that of William Blackwood, planted by Mrs R. Blackwood. The planting ceremony took place on June 2, 1918. In June 2001, The World War 1 Avenue of Honour was restored, with a ceremony to commemorate the 40 soldiers from the district and the unveiling of a new brass plaque with their names, mounted on a large rock.
(Note: The information about Hotspur comes from here)
William and Sarah Blackwood, together with their young daughter, Caroline, accompanied James and his family from Hethel. They eventually settled in Creswick, Victoria, about 18km north of Ballarat. Creswick was a gold mining town, founded only six years earlier at the start of the Victorian gold rush.
Caroline married John William Russell from Boorowa and had the first of their eight
children in 1876, at 12 Gardiner Street, Creswick, opposite St. Andrew’s church. Caroline’s last two children, Leila and Richard, both died in their early teens in 1899 and 1903 and this was cited by Bill Russell, one of Caroline’s great grandsons, as the cause of her sudden death ‘of a broken heart’ in 1904. Caroline was outlived by her mother, Sarah Anne, who died in 1916, aged about 86. The house on Gardiner Street has since been demolished.
Much of the information about Caroline and her family came from Bill Russell. He
twice visited Hethel and on one of the occasions found an old Blackwood tombstone
propped up against the wall of the church. He took a photograph of it, but was not able to
remember what he did with it. He also mentioned a portrait of Caroline that used to hang on the wall of her house in Creswick and an obituary of Caroline that appeared in the Crestwick Adviser on 28 June 1904, both of which have also been misplaced.
I do not know when the third sibling, Isaac Blackwood, migrated to Australia and nothing is known of his life until c1873, when he married Susan Simkin, a local girl, in Digby, Victoria. They had four children, three in Digby, and the forth in Ballarat. Isaac died in Portland in 1919.
I lived in Australia for five years, from 1971 to 1976. I left to see something of South and Central America on an extended trip, intending to eventually return. When I do finally get back, one of these days, I want to visit the graveyard in Hotspur and walk along Blackwood’s Road.
I am certain that I will not feel like a stranger there.
For me, Sydney in the years 1971 to 1976 was idyllic. I had left behind the cold damp climate of Ireland to find myself facing the long freezing winters of Toronto. After five years of purgatory, I decided that enough was enough and the lure of the South Pacific won me over. I escaped and I have never regretted that move.
For one sight of the piercing blue sky, the profusion of bougainville, the immense drowned-valley harbour, with its ferrys scuttling from point to point, and the string of beaches and headlands up and down the coast was enough; I fell head and heels in love with the country.
And I was living in Kirribilli the night of October 20, 1973, when the Opera House was officially opened, and the sky exploded with a magnificent display of pyrotechnics. Life felt really felt good.
For my first two years in Sydney, I was employed as a computer programmer with Nestlé, at their offices on Foveaux Street, close to Central Station. They were good employers and I was relieved to have a steady income; when I received my first salary, my account was empty. And it was there that I met Philip Cockell, with whom I am still in contact.
Soon after I joined Nestlé, I was recruited into the football team, that participated in a local works league. Our home ground was a pitch beside the Nestlé factory, and when we were downwind, the smell of chocolate was quite overpowering. We got quite accustomed to that smell, but visiting teams usually visibly suffered: having a home game was definitely an advantage.
But I was ambitious in those days – I guess that I still am – and a plodding existence in Nestlé was not for me. In 1973, I was offered a similar position in a local computer services company – IDAPS Computer Sciences, and I made the move. And after a few months I was promoted to manage their small group of programmers.
It was in the early days of service bureaus and few companies could afford their own computers. Our clients would deliver their data on paper at the end of the business day and our key-punch operators would convert it to card or paper tape. The data would then be loaded on our mainframes, processed, print reports produced and delivered to the clients, in time for the start of the next business day.
During normal hours the programmers worked on new developments or enhancements to existing systems, and at night we provided on-call support, in case of production failure. As I lived close to the office I handled most of the on-call support, and there were few weeks when I did not get called in at least once to sort out a program bug or operator error. It was after one such late night that I stumbled upon The Basement jazz club.
The Basement was located in the basement (where else?) of a nondescript building close to Circular Quay, not far from my office. In those days meals were served from early evening and live jazz from nine o’clock to the wee hours of the morning. The food was good and the house wine inexpensive and I soon found myself going there regularly, usually alone during a weeknight, sometimes with friends at weekends.
The Basement opened in 1973 with a relatively unknown modern jazz group called Galapagos Duck. And later on, most nights they would be joined by other jazz musicians and a jam session would get going. I used to love to sit there at a secluded table, sipping on a bottle of wine and letting my mind wander.
Galapagos Duck performed continuously at The Basement for 16 years and to this day still appear there from time to time. They made their first album – Ebony Quill – in 1974, and I still have a copy.
Sometimes when on my own and in a nostalgic mood, I turn the lights down and the volume up, and with my glass of wine at hand, ‘Ebony Quill’ takes me back in time to a late night in Sydney.
Bumping along dirt roads, the rear mirror filled with dust
Crossing dehydrated stream beds, impassable in the wet
Gate after gate, opened and carefully closed
Until only the lonely cluster of welcome awaits
Embracing, kissing, laughing, relaxing
Nothing had changed, at least not that we wanted to see
Cold cans cracked, news exchanged, it felt good to be together again
Country Roads had brought us home once more
Wood fire crackling, the smell of roasting lamb
Smoke in our hair, the taste of cheap red wine
The air throbbing with the sound of Hot August Night
And we were as one, and it felt so very, very good
It was not quite dark, when alone I walked up the hill
Intoxicated with the beauty of the southern sky
The smell of the night breeze in my face
I didn’t ever want the night to end
Sitting on a rock, still warm from the summer sun
Listening to the rustle and occasional squeak in the bush
Recalling so many nights of carefree abandon
Loving one and loving all.
I wrote that piece a few years ago, as part of an assignment for an Open University course in Creative Writing. The particular task was to recall a beautiful personal memory and to include all the five senses. I called it ‘Brian’s Farm’ and it was loosely based on my memories of a period in my life in Australia, during the years 1971-6.
When I knew Brian, he was in his mid to late twenties. When he was eighteen he bought a track of undeveloped bush near Guyra, about 70 km north of Armidale in northern New South Wales. I seem to remember that he had about 3000 acres, but I could not swear to that. His land was partly undulating, before backing up into the hills, and it included mineral rights to a river that flowed down from the hills, and contained evidence of gold and sapphires.
Now, when I tell you that Brian spent the first two years on his land living alone in a tent, while he slowly cleared a small area of bush to create some paddocks for sheep and horses, you can start to realize that he was an exceptional individual, of true pioneer spirit. He was of medium height and not heavily built, but he oozed strength.
I once met his father, a stocky balding little Englishman of florid complexion. I think that he was an English teacher in Armidale. I don’t remember his mother ever being mentioned. I suspect that his father helped him with the funds to buy the land. In those days, undeveloped bush land cost only a few dollars an acre.
Brian’s first building that he erected was a large wool shed, with a kitchen attached and containing a wood fired oven. At the back, he added a second small building, containing a shower unit and toilet. With the door open, the view from the toilet across the valley was stunning.
The shower unit was a marvel of engineering. The water from the roof of the woolshed was captured in a huge tank and from there it was pumped up the hill to another similar tank. From there it flowed with some force to a boiler above a wood fireplace. A cold shower was available at any time, but before having a hot shower, the water had to be heated. The shower room was large and had a ceiling shower head of enough diameter to allow six people to comfortably shower together. Brian encouraged communal showers, ostensibly to economize on water!
When Brian completed the woolshed, he started work on a small bungalow for himself, and that was where he was living when I first knew him. At that time, he was offering the opportunity to spend a week in his woolshed for a quite modest cost. And of course, it not just gave Brian some additional income, but brought some social opportunity into his otherwise hermitic existence.
Visitors had the opportunity to ride his horses, to go rock climbing, and to prospect for precious stones and gold. For those who doubted the existence of treasure in the river, Brian would show his jars of topaz and gold nuggets. And there was of course the wildlife, with lots of red kangaroos, kookaburras, and plenty of snakes.
The nearest ‘civilisation’ was The Red Lion Tavern in the tiny village of Glencoe, about 25 km north. Any visit to Brian’s farm was not complete without an evening in The Red Lion, with its roast lamb, washed down with copious glasses of Aussie red. How I would love to be able to turn the clock back to those days.
But life moves on, and there have now been nearly 500 full moons since I left Australia on my South American travels. I am yet to return.
I lost touch with Brian; keeping in contact was not as easy in those days of writing paper, envelopes, stamps and snail mail. I did hear that he married and then was once more on his own. It would have been a lonely life for a woman, especially if she was a city girl.
Occasionally I wonder what he is up to these days. Could he still scale Chimney Rock or do a forward roll over two wool bales, like we used to