Twelve plus Twelve

It was twenty-four years ago, on 24 June 1995, that the little private primary school of Lyndhurst, in Camberley, celebrated its centenary. The school is close to the centre of the town, about 40 kilometers south-west of London. On that day, I already had two sons enrolled in the school, a third son about to start in September and a fourth son who would have to wait to join his brothers; he was only twenty days old.

Lyndhurst primary school

The school was managed by the headmaster, Robert Cunliffe, and his wife, Jenny. Until very recently, I never knew the their actual first names; I had always assumed that they were Mister and Missus!

The couple´s ambition for the school was to create a family atmosphere for the children and impart a grounding in a wide range of subjects and skills. In my opinion, they far exceeded their goal.

For the centenary celebrations, they had organized marquees, booths, demonstrations of skills by the children, competitions etc. But when the headmaster had selected the date for the celebration, he was possibly not aware that on that very afternoon was scheduled the World Rugby Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa, the latter being the host country and their first participation in the World Cup since the abolition of apartheid. For a rugby fan, such as I, it was a not-to-be missed event.

But having told my sons that I would be at their school celebrations, with heavy heart I made my way to Lyndhurst. But when I got there, I found two South African members of the staff, adamant that they were going to see the game, and setting up a little television in one of the classrooms. So for the next two hours I perched on a child’s chair and watched an incredible game, won 15-12 in extra time by South Africa, with a drop goal. And who could ever forget the scene of a jubilant Nelson Mandela in a South African shirt, presenting the trophy to Francois Pinaar and dancing for the cameras. It is a magic memory.

Nelson Mandela

Twelve years later, on 20 October 2007, the final was between South Africa and England. I was in Sweden, where rugby has little or no interest for the vast majority of Swedes. It was not covered on public television but I managed to see the Irish pool games by subscribing $9.99 per game. I failed to get access to the final which South Africa won 15-6.

At that time I did not realize that a further twelve years later I would be living in South Africa and witness the South Africans once again winning the World Cup, beating England 32-12, confounding the ‘experts’, who had England as the odds-on favourites. Having thoroughly beaten New Zealand, the tournament favorites , in the semi-final, it seemed as if the English thought that South Africa would be a ‘walk in the park’. They must have forgotten that unlike English parks, South African parks are populated with dangerous animals…

After the game, Prince Harry went to the Springboks dressing room to congratulate the team

When the final whistle ended the game, South Africa erupted and has been celebrating ever since.

A building in central Cape Town decorated with the flag

It took a few days to get the complete team and staff back to Johannesburg and then they set off on a four day tour of the major cities, arriving yesterday in Cape town. I will leave the photos to speak for themselves…

In front of the Mandela statue
Everywhere they went, there were crowds

In each city, it was not just to the well-off parts they went, but they also toured many of the poor and deprived townships, from which many of the team originated, including the captain, Siya Kolesi.

In Siya’s own words ‘ Look at how we are all different. Different races, different backgrounds, and we can prove that South Africa can be united. We came together for South Africa and made it happen.’

There is hope and Nelson Mandela would very much approve. His spirit lives on…


It was after I finished the Belfast marathon in May 1986, that I learned of the McArthur Dervock marathon, to be held two months later.  I had never heard of McArthur and I had never been to Dervock, despite having grown up within 15 km.  As my recently widowed father still lived on the family farm outside Portrush, returning in July would give me another opportunity to visit him.

Since early 1985, I was based in England, with a job involving an increasing amount of travel, and the job had to take precedence over my running.  But I still loved participating in races, and ‘collecting’ them became an absorbing hobby; Dervock would be a new addition to my ‘collection’.

Dervock is a small village in North Antrim.  In the 2011 census it had 302 households, with a population of 714.  In that census, 99% of the inhabitants were recorded as being protestants, with only 1% catholic.  In a province with a significant catholic population, the Dervock census underlines the fact that there still exists a marked divide between the two cultures.

There used to be a railway station in Dervock, on the narrow-gauge branch line connecting Ballymoney to Ballycastle, 25 km to the north-east.  The line was opened in 1880 and eventually closed in 1950.

Dervock is the ancestral home of the US president, William McKinley. assassinated in 1901.  His ancestry can be traced back to David McKinley, born in Dervock and who migrated to western Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century.  It was also the home of Kenneth Kane McArthur.

William McKinley (1843-1901)

Ken McArthur was born in 1881 and at the age of 20, migrated to South Africa, where he joined the Johannesburg police force.  In Dervock he had worked as the local postman and was known to often race against the train, when on his rounds.  But it was not until he was in South Africa that he started to run competitively.  He was an unlikely talent as a runner, for he was a tall man at 1.88 m and weighing over 77 k.

Ken McArthur (photo from internet)

He ran his first marathon in 1908, beating the existing Olympic silver medallist, Charles Hefferon.  In 1912 he was selected by South Africa, his adopted country, to compete in the Stockholm Olympic marathon.  The race took place in sweltering heat and McArthur won the gold medal in the time of 2 hours 36 minutes and 54 seconds.  During the race, one athlete died of heat exhaustion.


The Stockholm Olympic Marathon (photos from internet)

McArthur returned to South Africa, but never competed again, having injured a foot in an accident.  He settled in Potchefstroom, just outside Johannesburg and died there in 1960.  McArthur ran in six marathons and was never beaten.  The Potchefstroom stadium is named after him.

The Kenneth McArthur Athletics Stadium in Potchefstroom (photo from internet)

I ran the Dervock marathon twice, in 1986 and the following year, with times of 2:54:06 and 2:5142.  It was not until I was researching this article that I realized that McArthur’s best time, that of Stockholm, was 2:36:54, only 33 seconds better than my own best time of 2:37:27, run in Miami in 1981.

So, not only were our best marathon times almost equal, we were both raised on a North Antrim farms and we both migrated at an early age, in my case at 18 to Canada. And whereas McArthur often used to race a train leaving Dervock station, I often used to race a bus when I was dropped off at the stop near our farm.

And here I am today, after more than six months, still patiently waiting for my South African residency visa.

I feel quite sure that McArthur did not have to wait so long for his.







9 December 2017

It is late afternoon and already bible-black.  Earlier it was universal grey.  The sun seems to have long-deserted this forlorn northern country in winter.  It is no wonder that the old people have a look of desperation when they pass.  They know that they have several months before they may smile again.  Younger people seem to be more cheerful, but in time, many will also succumb to glum.

I pass my time waiting for my long-sought South African residence permit.  I started the process back in June.  I had all my papers and certificates available within a month, except for one; an FBI certificate from the US.  Somehow the Americans managed to take more than four months to respond.  When I thought that I would patiently pass 6-8 weeks in Europe in pleasant autumnal weather, waiting for the wheels of South African bureaucracy to slowly grind, I have found myself shivering once more in the frozen north.  Two years ago I was stuck in winter months waiting for a new passport and last year it was a wintry wait trying to prove to my bank of more than 30 years that I was not now a money-launderer.

Ya basta…

But I am never lost for things to occupy me: my investments, writing and family research, never mind my daily 2-hour walk, regardless of the weather.  And in the late evening, I have the life-long habit of reading before going to bed.  At the moment, I am once more reading James Mitchener’s Iberia, based on his four decades of travels and extensive research in Spain.  It is a book that never fails to whet my appetite for walking on the Spanish caminos.

Over the years, I have read many of Mitchener’s books – The Drifters, Sayonara, Caravans, Centennial, Chesapeake, to name but a few.  The first that I read was Hawaii.  When we set off from Toronto in February 1971, I had that book in my bag, and most evenings I slowly progressed through the epic tale, covering the history of the islands, from their creation to modern day; it is a formula that Mitchener has oft repeated in other novels.

James Mitchener (1907-1997) in 1991 (photo from internet)

For four days we crossed a frozen Canada by train, to be welcomed by Vancouver to four days of torrential rain.  We flew south to San Francisco, but the weather was not much better, with more rain and fog.  By the time we flew west to Hawaii, I had had enough of crap weather; I never wanted to be cold and wet again.  And with its tropical climate and luxurious vegetation, Hawaii did not disappoint.

For the first few days we stayed near Hilo, before moving on to the island of Oahu and Honolulu.  We found a lovely small hotel on the beach.  It was bliss to lie at night with the screen doors wide open, a warm breeze, and the sound of waves crashing on the shore.  What luxury that was!

On one of the days there, I set off alone to walk into the nearby hills.  I walked all day, following a quiet country road, seeing nothing more than occasional plantation buildings.  At one point I came across a small museum, set back from the road.  I paid the modest entry to an old regal-looking Hawaiian lady and for a time browsed among the exhibits.

As I was about to leave, I noticed that I could buy ice-cold drinks there, so I rested in a comfortable chair, while I sipped on a beer and chatted to the lady.  It turned out that she was something of an expert in Hawaiian history and culture and the contents of the museum were items that she had collected over very many years, for she appeared to be quite ancient.

When I mentioned that I was currently reading Hawaii and asked if she had ever come across it, she clapped her hands and with enthusiasm told me that not only had she read it, but that James Mitchener was a great friend, and that she had assisted him in the research for his book.

I have never forgotten that day.  My life has been full of coincidence.  It is almost as if there is an unseen plan for me and every now and then I come across an encouraging sign that I am on the right path.

And here I am, once more in the frozen north, waiting to go back to the warm south.

As Yogi Berra once said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again‘.








The Cathedral


Saturday, 29 September, 2007

On the afternoon of this very day twelve years ago, Lotta and her aunt were about to start cooking and arranging and decorating the hospitality facility in the apartment complex where we lived.  It was in preparation for her father’s 75th birthday party, to be celebrated with family and a host of his friends.  As I had never before been to a birthday party and given that my cooking abilities could have been summarized on the back of a small postage stamp, I decided to disappear for a few hours in the general direction of the old city.

But the weather was awful, with strong blustery winds, a universal grey sky, intermittent icy showers and trees thrashing around, ridding themselves of dead and dying leaves.  In hindsight, it was a typical uninviting Swedish late-September day.  When it once more started to rain, I retreated into the relative calm of the cathedral.

But I was not the only one sheltering in the cathedral.  There were several young children running up and down the aisles, screeching and clambering over the pews, as if they were in an activity playground, their parents seemingly incapable of disciplining them.  A large group of Asian tourists, with enough camera power to film ‘War and Peace’, were taking their turn to be photographed in front of the altar.  And a young student, with a large backpack, marched up the aisle, dragging a noisy wheeled case.  He stopped for a second, then heading down the other aisle and out into the fading light; at least he could say that he had seen the cathedral!

Uppsala cathedral, as seen from the riverside

Of the current countries that comprise modern-day Europe, Sweden was quite late in becoming Christian.  In 1070, Adam of Bremen described the pagan temple of Uppsala and it was not until the 12th century that Sweden was converted.  In 1273, the religious seat was moved from the original pagan site at Gamla (‘Old’) Uppsala, some five kilometers to the north, to that of the current cathedral by the river .

In 1527, King Gustav Vasa proclaimed Sweden to be a Protestant nation and any catholic who refused to be converted, was subject to the death penalty.   From 1686, the Church was required to maintain all official records of births, marriages and burials.  In addition, all citizens were annually examined in their competence in Luther’s catechism.  Not only were their movements between parishes recorded, but even within parishes.  Swedes were a very controlled people.

Of the original pagan city of the Vikings at Gamla Uppsala, little is left, apart from some large burial mounds.  There were once many of these mounds, but most of the smaller ones gave way to the encroachment of agriculture.  The Vikings used to cremate their dead and the excavation of one of the Royal Mounds in 1874 revealed little, apart from bones and some metal objects.

Some of the royal mounds


Gamla Uppsala c1934 (photo by Oscar Bladh)


Excavation of one of the royal mounds in 1874 (photo from internet)

Today there are approximately six million members of the Lutheran church out of a total Swedish population of nine million.  In addition there about 0.5 million that follow Islam.  Yet less than 8% of the population today ever attend any religious services. According to the Global Index of Religiosity & Atheism (2012), Sweden is one of the least religious countries in the world.  Church and state have been separate since 2000.

Surprisingly, at least to me,  Sweden respects several ‘religious’ public holidays – Twelfth Night, Ascension, Pentecost, All Saints and of course, Easter and Christmas.  I wonder what would be the percentage of Swedes who could explain the significance of each of their religious holidays.

All members of each religion are required to contribute a percentage of their income to their church – about 1%, depending on where they live, unless they go through the procedure of removing their names from the rolls.  The deduction goes through the payroll and I suspect that most Swedes view it as not worth opting out of;  in a country of high taxation, an extra 1% is nothing to get excited about.

When the organ started playing, I was aroused from my train of thought, from my stroll through my limited knowledge of Swedish religious history.  I had a clear view of the organist, a dusty little man, badly needing a haircut.  He sped up and down the scales for several minutes and then started to play the most beautiful melody.  No longer could I hear the brats in their playground and I was oblivious to the presence of tourists and their cameras.  The music permeated every part of the cathedral, at times soaring, at times whispering.  For some time I was entranced.  My paternal grandfather was an accomplished organist.  He would have been thrilled to have had the opportunity to play that organ.

It was already almost dark when I headed home, to find the the cooking completed, the tables laid and all was awaiting the arrival of the first guests.


And when I saw the hospitality room, I was reminded of that wonderful scene from the Disney cartoon, Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.



10 September, 2017

I was making my way up through the wood, wary of the multitude of tree roots, not wishing to have yet another ankle sprain, when I saw the girl.  She was standing on a rock overlooking the path and had a map in her hand.  She was young, dressed in a skirt and sweater in autumnal colours, and with her auburn hair, she almost blended with the surroundings.

‘ Are you also looking for the Hittaut’, I asked.

‘Yes, and I can’t find it.  I have been everywhere here, but with no luck.  I hope that you can find it for me’.

I spent some time searching where I thought it would be, but with no success.

‘It should be in a line from these buildings’, I said, showing her my map, ‘but the problem is that from here one cannot see the buildings for the trees.  If you stay here, I will go down the edge of the woods and work my way back up’.

I very much regretted not having brought my compass with me.

I set off through the undergrowth until I could have a clear view of the buildings, realigned and returned up the hill, trying to maintain a straight line, until I ended up not far from where the girl was patiently waiting.  We thoroughly checked the area, but there was no sign of the marker.  She decided that she had had enough and headed off to her next target.  Left alone in the wood, I thought that it would be a good opportunity for a pit-stop.  While standing there behind a tree, thinking great thoughts, I spotted the marker, not far from where we were looking.  Twice I shouted to the girl, but she had gone too far to hear me.


Hittaut is a form of orienteering. Hittaut = hitta ut, which roughly means ‘find outdoors’ in Swedish.  It involves some 130 numbered and coded stakes, spread over the circumference of Uppsala and the surrounded forests.  They are colour coded – green = simple, blue = relatively simple, red = not so easy, and black = difficult.  The web site is easy to use and at the end of the day, one can record the stakes that one has found.  There are nearly 1900 people participating in Uppsala and there are 20 communes across Sweden involved in the activity.   I have participated, to some degree, every year now since it started.  It is a great way to get to know the city, particularly those parts where one would never normally go.

Most people that participate, do so on bicycles, for the distance from north to south and east to west, make walking something of a challenge.  The girl that I met today, told me that she normally cycled, but preferred to do the parts in the woods and forests on foot.

Too bad she was not able to record Hittaut 32P.

As I walked out

Monday, 17 April, 2017

I have just got back from a long walk.  When I set out, the sun was shining, albeit with a strong cold north wind and some dark clouds on the horizon.  It was not long before the storm started, and by the time I returned, I looked like a snowman.

There was no mention of snow in the weather forecast.  Of course, I should not have been surprised; meteorologists change their forecasts more often than Donald Trump changes his policies or his underwear; both meteorologists and Donald Trump can usually make fortune tellers look professional.

April in Uppsala

So here I am, sitting in my study in Uppsala, north of Stockholm, thawing out and watching the snowflakes flash by, and finding it hard to believe that a few days ago, I was walking in Portugal and Galicia, in shorts and shirt with glorious sunshine and blue skies.  With weather like that of Sweden and the long winter nights, one can understand why Swedes with money go south to the sun, for as long as they can afford.  Swedes with lesser resources tell one of how they love the winter.  My Swedish barber’s father once told me that he actually liked the dark.  Now how sad can that be?

With my recently completed walk still fresh in my mind, I find myself itching to plan another.  Should I try Geneva to Spain, or the more challenging Oviedo to Santiago across the Cantabrian mountains?  What about Canterbury to Rome?  Or perhaps just repeat one of the wonderful walks that I have already completed?  There are so many options.

As passionate as I now am about walking from village to village, I was not always aware of the possibilities.  It was in 1998, when I read Paolo Coelho’s novel – Le Pelerin de Compostelle, that the seed was firmly planted.  At that time, I was based in Neuchâtel, in Switzerland (hence the book was in French), but my work was demanding of my continuous involvement, and the possibility of my taking extended holidays was just not feasible at that time; the realisation would have to wait until I ceased to be a wage slave.

Paolo Coelho

Of course, I never envisaged that I would one day have a serious stroke – a brain haemorrhage, and after it happened in late 2005, all my focus was on surviving and recovering to the best of my ability.  The idea of long distance walking was forgotten.

Then in 2010, I read Laurie Lee’s book about walking in Spain, as a young man in the late 1930s – As I walked out one summer morning.  Reading it, I felt rejuvenated and longed to experience it myself, whatever the health risks might have been.  I tried a couple of short 4-5 day walks in Switzerland, and of course the rest is history.  To date I have survived to plan another camino.

Laurie Lee as a young man

laurie lee 2
And much older, in front of the house in Gloustershire, England, in which he grew up

So here I sit, about to start planning my next long walk, and very much reminded of a Paolo Coelho quotation:


One Tooth

Several years ago I first saw Jöte from my study window.  He used to pass before seven-thirty in the morning and return a couple of hours later.  His routine has been the same every day, even in the depths of the Swedish winter and he always wore a jacket.  I have often wondered where he went at that time of the morning.  Perhaps there is a communal breakfast for single retirees or he goes to the home of a relative or lover.  I noticed that he dragged his right leg and his arm seemed to hang.  I wondered if he had had a stroke, similar to mine.

Jöte has only one tooth.  Now that is quite rare in Sweden.  Swedes seem to have excellent teeth and if not, they have had cosmetic dental work done.  It is strange to see somebody, who is not a drunk or a recent immigrant, have only one tooth.

Jöte has a plot at the nearby communal gardens.  He only grows potatoes and occasionally red beans.  When one has only one tooth, they are easy to chew.

Jöte is a retired fireman.  I guess that he is well into his eighties.  He loves fires.  Every year at the springtime clean-up at the plots, he is responsible for burning the mountain of waste that has accumulated from the previous year.  But despite his fire department permit, he can encounter unforeseen problems.  One year a local woman was very angry with him and gave him a lot of abuse because she could smell the smoke in her apartment.  Another year he was attacked by a vicious hedgehog, prematurely woken up from its winter sleep.  And this year a passing dog startled a hare, which cowered behind Jöte, until the owner took the dog away.

Jöte is a gentleman.  If one of the older ladies has a problem with her plot, Jöte is at her service.  He digs, he cuts, he carries, he gives advice.  On a warm day he can often be seen sitting at the big table in the shade, being served a coffee with a slice of cake by a grateful lady.  With only one tooth, the ladies know that Jöte prefers crumbly cake to a hard biscuit.

I saw Jöte again early this morning.  It was just after seven.  He now has a little walking frame that he pushes along.  It is like a Zimmer frame on wheels, with a seat. He walks more slowly now and his limp is much more pronounced. He still wears the same jacket and usually returns by nine-thirty.