I remember the anxiety I caused my parents when I demonstrated my budding interests in walking, personal finance and travel at the age of 6.
My sister Joyce celebrated her 12th birthday while we were living in Devon, England. She and her friends waited excitedly for me to come home from primary school on the bus so they could start their party, but where was I?
The railway police spotted me at the end of the mainline platform watching the named steam locomotives whistle past, with my unused bus fare safely tucked away in my coat pocket.
Promenading in Essex
South Devon gave me a love of the hills and the sea that were only partially satisfied following our return to our village in Essex, near the Thames estuary, after World War II. Nevertheless, I stretched my legs every Saturday morning after the children’s film club in town.
I walked down Southend High Street, turned right at the “longest pier in the world” (the mudflats were exposed to the very end at low tide), and followed the promenade along the tops of the “cliffs” overlooking the parkland stretching down to the sea. All very tame after the dramatic red cliffs of South Devon.
The footpath led through modern Leigh-on-Sea and over an impressive road bridge leading to nowhere but the tiny fishing village of Old Leigh, beloved for its boats, seafood and history.
Some of the Pilgrim Fathers, including their treasurer, boarded the Mayflower there in 1620, on their way to Plymouth, in north Devon. She may also have been built there. I’d fill a sack from my shoulder-bag with cockle shells from the heaps behind the fishermen’s wooden sheds to make grit for our chickens’ crops. Then I climbed upstairs to the top of the next double-decker bus going near our bungalow in Eastwood, so tired that I dozed on my way home.
Walking through history
Every Christmas morning, my father and I walked to our family grave at Eastwood Parish Church, dedicated to St. Laurence. The narrow lane wound past “Cockethurst,” a farmhouse once owned by Samuel Vassal, a London merchant who became one of the largest landowners in Massachusetts Bay (he and a brother bought a tenth of the colony in 1628).
Local legend attributed the timbers of one of its barns to a refit a ship called The Mayflower had undergone, but it was probably not the one the Pilgrim Fathers had travelled on.
Once, my father stopped to chat with a German prisoner-of-war working on a local farm. When his companion called out for him to stop talking to that “pig-dog of an Englishman,” he told him to hush up as my dad spoke German.
Beyond the church lay Rochford Hall, bought from Queen Anne Boleyn’s family by Lord Rich, later created Earl of Warwick, a puritan who helped finance the “Great Migration” of English emigrants to New England in the 1630s. I recently learnt that a cousin’s ancestor eloped with one of his daughters.
Early English settlement of North America and the West Indies was partly inspired by Hakluyt’s “Voyages,” bestselling stories of English exploration and discovery continued into multiple editions by the Rector of St. Laurence’s after the author’s death.
Commuting and hitchhiking
After leaving school I commuted to London as a trainee chartered accountant. I enjoyed travelling around England on audit, but never saw the fields at home except at weekends and in the summer.
However, I first experienced the joys and frustrations of hitchhiking when travelling down to Bristol in southwest England at weekends to work with the International Voluntary Service on building a community hall in a deprived area.
Later, I went to Devon by coach, changing buses in Bristol at midday. I had just enough time to walk to a pretty park to eat my sandwiches, close to the grave of Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles.
After commuting to London for three years I decided that spending about a month a year on the train was not for me and volunteered for two years with the Friends Ambulance Unit International Service, formed by the Society of Friends but not restricted to Quakers.
The FAU’s main focus at that time was to provide a team of skilled and unskilled manual workers to a refugee camp in Linz, Upper Austria, supported financially by other members working in British hospitals, largely on wards as male orderlies.
I worked in a large London hospital for several months and was then transferred to a small tuberculosis sanatorium nestled at the foot of the Malvern Hills in central England. Having been told of the splendid views from the nearest peak, I struggled up the path to it.
However, I met a BBC outside broadcast van near the top, which had come up a road on the other side. Despite this slight letdown, I enjoyed many walks along the ridge of the Malvern Hills before being transferred to Linz.
Workers from the FAU and other relief agencies lived in long wooden barracks built for the German air force during the Nazi era, alongside other huts occupied by refugees from Eastern Europe.
The most recent arrivals had fled an uprising in Hungary that had been crushed by Soviet tanks. However, most had been resettled in other countries, leaving behind the elderly and infirm.
I was assigned to help ethnic German families who had been evicted by the post-war communist regimes from lands they had owned for centuries. They dreamt of recreating similar homes on the outskirts of Linz or neighbouring villages.
Typically, a family stayed in the camp until they could move to a small house the men had built on a plot provided by the Austrian authorities. If they ran out of cement, they undertook casual work until they had earned enough for some more bags.
After we had helped them build a much larger house in their yard, the men converted the old one into huts for poultry or other livestock.
I worked through great seasonal changes, from breaking a pick handle while trying to separate a frozen mound of gravel, through enjoying a couple of weeks of spring flowers, to digging barebacked in hot sun that brought out my melanin so much that local people dubbed me the “Black Man.”