The journey of a lifetime... probably...

Some things stay with you. Back in 1952, Mrs Holland, who confidently asserted then, that by now she would be pushing up the daisies, was the form teacher for class 1A at Hexthorpe Junior Mixed School. She was a good teacher who etched a host of vivid traces in my memory, one of which is the description of her journey to Canada to visit a friend in Calgary. She spoke of crossing the Atlantic Ocean and whole days in a train passing through the endless prairies. At the time it seemed the most wonderful thing imaginable. Her ability to enthrall a young mind is not the only reason we  made our journey, but I dedicate it to her.

Sixty one years later we find ourselves, in my case cushioned by the tranquillisers I have persuaded my GP to supply, in a few millimetres thick aluminium tube of death, crossing the Atlantic for the first time. My reservations concerning this mode of travel were amply justified when the pilots on this very flight were arrested before takeoff at Glasgow Airport for being drunk, a year or so later. The Transat flight on 18th September 2013 delivered us safely to Vancouver however, whatever state of inebriation the pilots had achieved.

We had set off for the airport at 03.00 took off at 09.00 and landed in Vancouver at about 14.00  local time, 23.00 back in Britain, feeling very tired. Our flat turned out to be located in the gay district of Vancouver, the evidence of which concerned us not at all, though I did enjoy the exuberant pedestrian crossings!

After an early night we found ourselves wide awake at about four in the morning and decided to explore Vancouver as the sun was rising. All the abiding memories and impressions of Vancouver were laid down during that beautiful first walk, along the coastal path around Stanley Park as the sun was rising.

A constant flow of very fit, Lycra-clad, good looking young persons passed or overtook us on their morning run, suggesting that this is a vibrant, health conscious city full of active young people.

The scenery was spectacular, a glorious combination of mature maritime forest and mountains enveloped by arms of the sea. There were reminders that the lithesome pale joggers that distracted me somewhat from the scenery, were not the first people to inhabit this land.

 And always, the buzz of seaplanes, coming and going.

Four nights was not enough to do justice to Vancouver. All we could do was follow the tourist guides and visit a few of the listed attractions, such as China Town and the oriental gardens. Mainly we just wandered about enjoying where we were.

 A bus ride and a ferry brought to us to Victoria, which we liked. It was completely different from Vancouver - more restrained, gentler, even a little bit English. Here we visited the impressive museum, dedicated to the First Nation's culture and history (references to "Indians" or "Natives" is now strictly taboo) As ever we wandered about a lot.

To get from Victoria to Prince Rupert where our trans-continental rail journey would begin, we had to cross the whole length of Vancouver Island to Port Hardy, a journey of 170 miles. There we would pick up the ferry that follows the Inner Passage northwards, one of the more spectacular parts of our journey. There are no scheduled bus services but we were able to book seats on a private coach which picked us up at our hotel. This turned out to be a large, powerful sixty seated machine, empty but for the driver and us. Another couple joined us and that was the full complement for the whole journey.

Memories from the journey include empty roads through forests and mountains, a depressed First Nation  village with spectacular murals, having lunch at a restaurant with goats grazing on the turf roof and a friendly well informed driver who kept us amused as he drove.

Owing to our fellow passengers, who were excellent company all the way to Jasper, having left a couple of thousand dollars worth of camera equipment on a ferry, we were delayed for an hour or two while they retrieved it and our driver did not deliver us to our hotel in Port Hardy until well after dark.

There was no food! Every eating place within walking distance had long since shut and we resorted in the end to buying snacks from a garage. Even worse there was no alcohol to cushion these blows. No doubt as a result of these deprivations, I also managed to leave my iPad charger plugged in the hotel room when our bus driver picked us up next morning to transport us to the ferry terminal. Port Hardy, though undeservingly so, is not high in our affections.


The Inner Passage takes about ten hours to transverse. It varies in width from tens of miles to tens of yards and no point is without interest. We saw a school of humpback whales, First Nation settlements, sawmills, forests and always a distant view of snow capped mountains. It is not a journey one would choose to make at night! I leave a selection of images to prove the point.

Prince Rupert is the largest coastal settlement north of Vancouver because it is a railhead port. It was sufficiently developed for me to replace my lost charger, but retains some of the atmosphere of a tough frontier town.

Ninety five percent of the rail traffic reaching the port consists of empty containers on their way back to China  and full ones in the opposite direction. The freight trains are enormous, up to a mile long and have priority over the occasional passenger train.

Our occasional train is called "The Skeena", which runs every two days, and is  named after the river it follows on leaving Prince Rupert.

The Skeena takes two whole days to reach Jasper but only moves during the daylight hours. No one takes this train to get from A to B but to experience the journey itself. Everyone on the train, including the crew, spend the night in a hotel in Fort George at the halfway point. Hint to fellow travelers: check which hotel the crew, who have tried them all, have chosen.

Our conductor also acted as a tour guide.

On the frequent occasion when The Skeena was shunted aside to allow a freight train to pass us, she allowed us to leave the train for half an hour or so, often in the middle of absolutely nowhere  to see some attraction she had promoted.

She was also extremely strict regarding alcohol, on one occasion confiscating my lunchtime bottle of wine, which, it would seem, is not allowed in Canada. When in Rome...besides we were completely intoxicated by the scenery.

Jasper is a much larger town than Prince Rupert but I did not like it as much.

It revolves around the needs of tourists. Prince Rupert seemed more real, letting tourists take it or leave it - which all of them do quite soon as there is little for them to do except, like us, walk around - while it got on with its proper job of being a rail head port. All Jasper's attractions lie in its magnificent mountain setting and to access this we decided to take guided tour to Maligne Lake and gorge, despite the eye watering cost. Money well spent we decided later.

Our guide, a well informed half Indian with a passion for photography and rock climbing, picked us up and four others in a minibus. The highlight of the trip, which also included a spectacular gorge and a walk through woods where he pointed out the scratch marks made by bears, was the boat ride on Lake Maligne, a long glacial lake of a deep turquoise hue.

From the boat we were afforded views of three glaciers, numerous peaks... intimate view of the world's most expensive toilet...

...and the experience of defending one's space against the Chinese!

The next day we enjoyed a more economical but equally enjoyable walk along the Athabaska River. This is a serious river, dark and roiling, powerful, almost sinister. You would not want to fall in!

That it flowed from where we stood, all the way to Hudson Bay was difficult to appreciate. We met no one on our walk and the slight hint of danger, we acquired from the river bank and swirling current, was enhanced by the sight of the same sort of scratch marks on the trees as we had seen the day before.

There was plenty of wildlife but fortunately it consisted of birds and chipmunks.

Next morning we boarded one of the world's great trains - "The Canadian" - which runs between Vancouver and Toronto taking four nights to do so. It is a beautiful train of stainless steel cars, all very "fifties" and art deco, and well over half a mile in length. We had no intention of depriving ourselves of any comforts on offer and we had booked a first class berth. This was a comfortable private compartment by day and an en suite sleeping cabin at night. In addition, breakfast, lunch and dinner were provided as part of the not inconsiderable cost, plus access to the observation car where coffee, fruit and other snacks were always on offer.

The timetable for "The Canadian" is aspirational rather than descriptive because even this flagship train must not impede the flow of freight,

so it was late arriving in Jasper. Happily the station waiting room was quite charming and a violinist booked to travel with us to entertain the passengers played to the waiting crowd.

Our eastward journey began in the late afternoon with time to enjoy the last of the Rocky Mountain scenery

before, quite abruptly, we emerged from a final tunnel to see an entirely different sort of landscape - the High Plains.

Friends of ours went on a cruise and, were seated at a table for with another couple they quickly realised they could not stand for a fortnight. This terrible fate is not allowed on "The Canadian". In the dining cars passengers are seated as they arrive, which results in different company at every meal and this proved very enjoyable and interesting, allowing me to share a vaguely amusing anecdote three times. The food was excellent and if the conversation flagged, Canada was rolling by outside, unchanging, hour after hour, because this was the Prairies.

My generation was able to attend university and emerge unencumbered by any debt, but the most rewarding thing and lasting treasure of the experience are the friends I made there. The small coterie of oddballs, around whom my undistinguished academic life revolved, have remained in touch for over fifty years and one of them, Geoff, lives in Winnipeg, our next stop.

We enjoyed a grand tour of Winnipeg over the next two days. This is the Red River, but not, I suspect, the one featured with its valley in the song.

I got the impression of a city turned in on itself. Everything happens inside or underground and from the outside it appears austere and unwelcoming. 

This is of course due to its climate. A few weeks after our visit it was experiencing temperatures of -30C. Of the many places Geoff took us to, my favourite was his enormous train set.

Late at night, forty eight hours after we had got off it we boarded another "The Canadian" to continue our journey to Toronto, which would take us a whole day and two nights. The scenery slowly changed as we traveled east becoming more hilly and forested.

From time to time we were halted to let the freight trains through which allowed the passengers time to wander about and inspect the train from the outside.

Toronto was disappointing because I wanted to go up the big tower with the glass floor but at the relevant time, the top of the tower was obscured by low cloud. There were enough alternative attractions to keep us entertained though, including a superb museum and our first glimpse of Lake Ontario.

This might be the very locomotive that pulled Mrs Holland in 1950...

We crossed into the United States at Niagara but before doing so spent a couple of days inspecting this rather tacky resort's only attraction.

Our accommodation here was a bed and breakfast establishment which can be described as just about satisfactory. In the room next to us was a sauna whirlpool bath which made the most extraordinary noise and was used mainly around midnight. We had heard enough watery noises during the day!

Our first attempt at finding somewhere to have lunch was bizarre. Nowhere seemed to be serving proper food. At random we walked into a place and were somewhat dumbfounded to find it was a Playboy styled establishment. All the waitresses were on roller skates and dressed in tight low tops and extraordinarily short skirts. They were all of a certain age, I would guess eighteen to twenty three. I suspect elderly couples are not among their target clientele, but with good humour they made us welcome and the food was... actually I have completely forgotten what the food was like.

Niagara also showed me the advantages of the toys available in our new digital age. Downtown Niagara was not the sort of place we like to eat, so I used my Ipad which located for us a superb little bistro a couple of blocks away. Away from the commercial tourist centre, Uptown Niagara was quite charming.

For all our reservations about the town, the waterfalls are stunning.

But enough of waterfalls and grinding whirlpool baths! It was time to change country and take the short train ride to Niagara USA and introduce ourselves to Amtrak across the Rainbow Bridge.


At Niagara US, the border customs service take control of Amtrak's New York bound train for three hours to process the passengers. Since all concerned were blameless and of an amiable disposition, we found ourselves with two hours and forty minutes to pass before the train could depart. A schedule is rigid and no space would be available on Amtrak's network until the allotted time so we were able to take in our first impressions of the USA, but mainly I took photos of our waiting train.

Eventually we set off on a long and interesting ride which took us east along the Mohawk valley, until we reached Albany, then south following the Hudson to New York.

There is a great scene toward the end of the film "The Untouchables" that features Grand Central Terminal where I was expecting to arrive. Sadly all trains now arrive in Manhattan through tunnels and into the depressing and confusing Pennsylvania station which is all underground. We had to visit the scene from the film on a later occasion.

We enjoyed our time in New York, but found it exhausting and a little intimidating.

For very sound economic reasons we rented an apartment Brooklyn, in a lively cosmopolitan area where many West Indians lived. Police sirens were a permanent feature and on one occasion we watched copious amounts of blood being washed off the pavement. It was not an ideal environment for those of a timid disposition.

We spent most of our time in Manhattan, on one occasion walking across the Brooklyn bridge

but mainly using the Metro - an effective system, but old and becoming worn out and confusing to use for the first time.

Our visit coincided with a period when the US government had been unable to get its budget passed. The Republican controlled Senate and House was determined to frustrate any initiatives by the Obama Presidency. As a result all publicly funded services had shut down as the personnel were not being paid. No museums or art galleries were open. So we decided to take the spectacularly crowded Staten Island Ferry for a little trip - along with virtually every other tourist in New York. This did afford some fine views, if you were able to fight your way to the deck rail.

Perhaps the favourite moments in New York, apart from having supper in the excellent pubs of course, were when we left the bustling streets and found an oasis of calm in Central Park

 After three days in New York we returned to the forbidding depths of Penn station and took a train to Washington. The US does not really do trains. The extensive network it once owned has decayed. There are few passenger trains and these cater more for tourists than people who need to travel and, like Canada, they have to fit in around the needs of freight trains. Only the lines between Washington, New York and Boston have been maintained for commuters traveling in fast modern trains.

Washington has everything that New York lacks. For a start it has an fine main station and the underground metro system is equally impressive. The space available and the clean lines of the design engender a sense of calm that contrasts favourably with our experiences in New York.

 Perhaps because the government was still paralysed by the intransigent Republican Party and less people were working, it seemed very quiet - at least compared to New York - and so we found it much more relaxing.

Although our original plans included a visit to the Smithsonian, which was closed, we found plenty to do and walked for miles.Washington gave us a strong feeling of deja vu, as though we were walking on a familiar film set or taking part in a news bulletin. And here, photographed for the millionth+ time are some of the places our feet took us.

We noticed during a stroll through Georgetown that Halloween is taken very seriously.

Perhaps the most powerful image is the Vietnam War Memorial. It consists of a wall of black polished stone inscribed with the names of all the fallen. So simple yet so moving. Even thirty years after the awful, unnecessary tragedy that it commemorates, there are still many people that come to touch the name of their missing loved one. We felt we were being intrusive and in a somewhat sombre mood, moved on.

We spent our four nights in Washington in a comfortable flat, eating out during the day and in at night. Shopping for food introduced us to a new phenomena. In Washington super markets aisle after aisle is devoted to cooked prepared food - salads, sauces, pasta dishes, hot and cold meat prepared in umpteen different ways, rice, curries, Mexican...Is the skill of cooking raw ingredients to create a meal at home dying out in America?

We now retraced our steps with a nine hour train ride through New York to Boston. Here we were to crown our wonderful journey by sharing the last two weeks with part of our family who we were to meet at Boston airport.

Just off the Red Eye service from London and somewhat jet lagged, we picked up a car and drove to Chatham where we stayed in this house for five nights.

Chatham is lovely, with beautiful beaches and excellent fish restaurants.

We used it as a base to explore the Cape Cod area and historical settlements such as New Plymouth and Province Town on Cape Cod.

Much of the fishing community here is of Portuguese descent.

We have often wondered what happened to Aunt Beulah!

All too soon it was time to leave this most genteel and civilised part of America, but not before it afforded us one last treat - a farewell stroll along the beach as the sun was setting and the ebb tide flowing powerfully.

The plan for the second half of our New England tour was to drive north toward Mount Washington, visiting various attractions on the way, the first of which was Deerfield. The vehicle we were using can be described as a big beast. It easily accommodated six, with copious amounts of extra space for luggage. It had a 3,000cc engine and probably did about eight miles to the gallon, but it made our driver happy...most of the time...

Deerfield dates back to the seventeenth century, the earliest days of the American colonies, when the settlers were still intermittently fighting with the indigenous people. Two interesting museums tell the stories of this violent past as well illustrating aspects of social history.

My main memory of Deerfield though is how beautiful it looked in the autumn sunshine.

The furthest point we reached on our tour of New England was Killington, a ski resort that was barely functioning at this time of year. But it was an attractive drive through mountainous scenery.

From Killington we took a slow meandering drive towards Portsmouth, a substantial port, stopping off here and there. Part of the original idea was to experience the colours of the New England Fall. I suspect we were a week or two late for the best of it, but every now and then...

Our stay in Portsmouth, where this lifting bridge is located, was enlivened when my family decided, for some reason, that I might enjoy our evening meal in a pub, locally famous for its range of real ales. It turned out that they were right.

The final leg of our New England experience was Boston where we stayed for three nights. On the way we visited Salem and witnessed a performance of a recreation of the witch trials.

Our lodgings in Boston were booked through Airbnb. It turned out fine, our accommodation was very comfortable, but I had not realised until then that Airbnb meant that we were sharing part of someone's home.

Boston is much like any other major American city with busy streets and tall buildings, but there is a lot of history here and while elsewhere, old buildings tend to get torn down and redeveloped, here there has been more of an effort to preserve things, sometimes leading to odd juxtapositions

This church featured in the events leading up to the War of Independence. the rebels met and made their plans inside.

Paul Revere supported the Boston Red Sox...apparently...

This is the memorial to the Battle of Bunker Hill, an early skirmish in the War of Independence, when the rebels attempted to challenge the English occupation of Boston. Although they were eventually driven off they inflicted serious casualties on the English forces.

Parts of Boston reminded us of Georgian town centres back home.

All good things come to an end. Our lovely family had a plane to catch, and for us it was time to return to New York on a fast train

and then head home also... but more slowly...and much more expensively...

At this point in my life, I had never entertained the idea of "a cruise", (an affectation long since discarded) But this was not a cruise -  it was a passage, New York to Southampton and with style!

Our ship was moored in Brooklyn and required a private limousine journey over the Brooklyn Bridge to check in. We had been due to sail in the afternoon, but a large group of passengers had gone adrift and it was dark before we began our voyage to Southampton.

From our cabin veranda we had splendid views across the harbour to Manhattan and beyond. We spent a magic hour or two here, pinching ourselves from time to time to confirm the reality of the situation, watching the sun go down.

The Queen Mary is a finely tuned machine designed exclusively to separate passengers from their money. The system does this very effectively but the experience is so pleasurable that somehow we did not care. The next seven days were the most indulgent of my life. Life settled into into a pampered routine which involved more food than we could eat, regular walks around the deck, bridge every afternoon, some exciting rough seas and, after such a long time away, an increasing appetite to be home again.