A Grand idea for a grand tour

A chance encounter, as will happen, led in part to the ‘grand idea’.

Edinburgh, the weekend of the Scotland–Ireland rugby international, offers an even more than usually exuberant, noisy and colourful scene. In the Grassmarket, long a cosmopolitan haunt of visitors and locals alike, the atmosphere was boisterous. Groups of emerald green and navy blue clad supporters raucously jostled into, simultaneously popped out of, and packed within the too crowded bars, pubs and clubs. Deciding against forcing our way through the scrum, our small group of 20 and 30 somethings, then in the city to study, voted for a quieter night.

Heading back up steep narrow alleyways of the Old Town, beneath towering brooding sandstone tenements, a cold wind hit hard. Close by, in the National Museum, Viking chessmen, Norse kings, queens, bishops, knight, and beserkers, carved long ago from walrus tusk, later to be discovered on the Isle of Lewis, slumbered the night away, indifferent to the long winter evening we mere mortals were suffering outside.

Warmth and noise engulfed all, as our refugee revellers finally clambered through the swinging door of another city institution, the Pear Tree. Glasses steaming up instantly, part blind, and rummaging for a hankie to wipe the mist from near frozen lenses, I sensed the amused looks of fellow drinkers, and half grinned back. With its leather sofas, expansive bar, and sheltered summer vine clad courtyard, the pub was the sort of haunt that you imagined English gals would have come to, in years past, after archaeology lectures, to drink, smoke Gauloise, describe love and life, and look so beautiful.

Here too it was busy. Another party of Irish rugby fans soon started to take a too keen interest in our group, making repeated sideways glances our way. My turn to buy the drinks, I squeezed a way through to the bar, and whilst waiting for the order, watched as Ireland’s table parted, to push a somewhat hesitant lad my way. Was it ‘Finn McCool’ who was beating a slow path towards me? I scratched self consciously at what had now become an irritating attempt at a beard, grown in a vain attempt to impress a too pretty post grad. My Irishman arrived. For a brief moment I wondered whether the bar was about to kick off in style. Eyes met; he hesitated:

“Well?” my unexpected new friend finally said, then, all in a rush, enquired “are yer really Bill Bryson then?” finding myself smiling, I placed an arm on his shoulder, and replied …

The ‘grand idea’ hit home slowly. Well – why not! – why not at least consider an adventure, mull the idea over, formulate a plan, challenge myself to go for it. The expedition in mind, for life, a spiritual ‘British Journey’, following in the footsteps of Defoe, Priestly, Morton, Theroux, even Bill Bryson no less. To discover, travel slowly through, absorb, better understand, and record a personal view of rural Britain today, ‘North by South West’, from the Shetlands to the Scillies. Could I describe, photograph, and explain the effect of the land on man, of man on the landscape and nature, and how society and economies have adapted to changes in place over time? Linked emotionally, now I know genetically too, to ‘my’ Viking chessmen, could I not too part travel their long journey, from fjord to island to mainland to capitals, by slow higgledy piggledy lane, and experience the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of near on a thousand years of history and change within our Isles? Why not even slowly web-a-blog reflections on the ongoing ‘journey’.

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